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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
'People' Magazine Accused of Promising Favorable Coverage, Money to Jolie; Interview With Dana Perino
Aired November 30, 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): Celebrity swoon? "People" is accused of promising favorable coverage to Angelina Jolie, along with $14 million for photos of her newborn twins. The magazine denies the charge.
Are the big stars increasingly dictating their media narrative? We have the first interview with People's top editor.
Shifting spotlight. The networks go live when the incoming president speaks and barely cover the outgoing president. Have the media written off Bush while jacking up expectations for Obama? A conversation with White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.
Also, terror in India, chronicling death on deadlines.
Plus, hoax artists. Meet the filmmakers who fabricated this Washington pundit and scammed the media in the process.
KURTZ: Angelina Jolie is one of the world's most photographed and written about women, but she is also a star who very much wants to control her image. That was certainly the case this summer, when she and Brad Pitt were negotiating with magazines over an exclusive interview and photos of their newborn twins.
"The New York Times" reported last week that the winning magazine was required to offer coverage that would not reflect negatively on Jolie or her family. The competition was won by "People" magazine, owned by CNN's parent company, Time Warner, for a reported $14 million.
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the ethical boundaries for celebrity journalism, in New York, A.J. Hammer, host of SHOWBIZ TONIGHT on CNN's Headline News. In Los Angeles, Carlos Diaz, correspondent for "Extra." And here in Washington, Amy Argetsinger, co-author of The Washington Post's "Reliable Source" column.
Carlos Diaz, this sounds very much like "People" -- we're going to get "People's" response in just a moment -- that the magazine forked over some of its editorial control along with that $14 million. CARLOS DIAZ, "EXTRA": Yes. I mean, you're looking at $14 million spent, and so what's a little journalistic integrity for you as well? This is -- you run into a tough thing. I'm sure everyone on this panel can back me up on this.
We run into this every day with celebrities where they want to control their image so much, and a lot of times when we're doing junkets, if we go out of line with our questioning, we don't get the tapes that we're shooting at that moment, so we're kind of -- our hands are tied at times every day in the entertainment industry.
KURTZ: A.J. Hammer, I am looking at this "People" spread from this summer on the twins, and there are such penetrating questions as, let's see here, "Angelina, do you have any cravings during pregnancy? Are you getting any sleep? How did you feel watching the C-section, Brad?"
How often do you think this goes on with kind of a wink and a nod with big stars?
A.J. HAMMER, CNN HN HOST: Well, I think, Howard, it comes down to this sort of balance of power, and particularly when you look at a couple like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They really hold the cards.
And it's very important for, whether it be the entertainment magazines, the entertainment news magazine television programs, to make sure that those stars are happy with their coverage of them because, really, the stars are many times much more important to the magazines or to those television programs as the other way around. So I think it's in everybody's interest for, in those cases, for everybody to stay happy with the situation. So it probably goes on a lot more often than people realize, but it all also comes down to what news organization or what magazine you're talking about.
Amy Argetsinger, that "New York Times" story was based on two people with knowledge of the bidding but this idea that we should worry whether the stars are happy with their coverage, is that how you see our mission?
AMY ARGETSINGER, "WASHINGTON POST": No. And in fact, if this is the deal that actually went down with "People" magazine, I think it's really a shame. It's such a loosey-goosey world of celebrity journalism these days, and "People" magazine, in a lot of ways, has maintained a reputation of having the gold standard. You feel like if they're reporting something, it's probably correct, it's probably accurate.
What I found interesting, though, is that, you know, there was so much debate during the John Edwards story, the "National Enquirer" paying its sources and people saying, hey, maybe that's not so bad. I think this is an example of the slippery slope that paying sources leads you into. It becomes a transaction, not a story, and it allows the other person to set these terms and conditions. KURTZ: All right.
Let me go to New York and I'll bring in Larry Hackett. He's the managing editor for "People" magazine.
And Larry, your position is that the "New York Times" story is just wrong. Explain.
LARRY HACKETT, MANAGING EDITOR, "PEOPLE": It's absolutely wrong. Well, there were no discussions with Angelina Jolie's people about any payments -- rather, about any approval of story, about an editorial plan. We never do that, and the whole thing is completely false.
I mean, the conversation you just had was amusing, but the fact of the matter is there was no agreement. No one ever asked us for an agreement. We never signed one. We never did anything like this. And I find the whole thing...
KURTZ: Nobody representing Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt tried to get any kind of assurance that this would basically be a positive piece?
HACKETT: The essence of the story is that we signed a contract, that we codified somewhere that we would give a positive story, we signed a contract, that we codified somewhere that we would give a positive story, we would give a positive story in the future, and that we would show them our editorial plan. That is utterly false.
Let me say this, every single media organization has a conversation with story subjects about what they're going to cover. This was a story about the birth of twins.
Now, you might find it amusing that we asked about C-sections or cravings, but the fact of the matter is, that's what the story was about. If someone were to call the president of the United States or the head of a company, you don't call up and say, hey, let's have a conversation. You have a discussion, all journalists do, about what you're going to talk about.
KURTZ: And look, you say in an internal memo to your staff, and we can put it up on the screen, "In our coverage of both celebrities and everyday people, 'People' certainly often celebrities their accomplishments and milestones. To say that our coverage of Angelina Jolie has not been admiring would be disingenuous."
So it sounds like you didn't need to promise them anything because they knew what they'd be getting.
HACKETT: Well, they knew what they'd be getting. "People" magazine has a reputation, and this was a story about the birth of twins.
I mean, do they think they're going to get a positive story about the birth of twins? Do our readers think they are going to find out something interesting about this family? Yes.
So, I mean, to that I plead guilty, I suppose. But the idea...
KURTZ: All right.
HACKETT: Let me finish, Howard.
But the idea that this is codified and this is somehow established and written down is appalling. I have ignored these stories in media gossip columns before. But the venue is different. For "The New York Times" to do this, and for you to now have a panel that believes this is true, is what's damaging about this.
KURTZ: Well, we're here to debate whether it's true and what their general practice is. So let me go to Carlos Diaz.
Maybe it doesn't need to be codified. Maybe these things are often done in code. There is an expectation on the part of the star and the media outlet.
DIAZ: I don't think we need to talk about code. I mean, the point is made by "People" magazine here that this is a story about a women giving birth to twins, and so you're not going to ask what your stance is on the Middle East, you're going to say, what was it like watching the C-section? You're going to ask questions pertaining to that. So how far you want to go with your questioning when basically all people want to see is the pictures of these two beautiful twins?
So we run into this every day in our business. You know, do you stay on point, or do you ask questions that get a little bit off subject? And sometimes you have to do that, but for the most part, people want to know about that movie, or they want to know about what's going on in that person's life at that moment.
KURTZ: A.J. Hammer, do you run into this dilemma every day as well?
HAMMER: We do, Howard. It's interesting always how the various celebrities we encounter will play along, because the really accomplished ones are the ones who know how to work the system, are going to give you something. They've already made up in their mind what they're willing to reveal and not reveal. We will have people -- ahead of an interview, the publicist will categorically say no personal questions, you can't ask this or that.
Well, we, at least at "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT" and working with CNN, we're not going to do that. We're not going to abide by any preconditions to an interview. But a lot of celebrities really have the awareness that we're going to sit down in an interview to talk about your film, that's not going to be the whole interview because, quite honestly, that's not what people tune into our show to see...
HAMMER: ... is us talking simply what inspired this character. There is other stuff that we have to talk about in order for us to make it worth our while to at least mention your film and so and so is opening up this weekend. KURTZ: OK.
Amy Argetsinger, Angelina Jolie seems particularly adept at trying to control and shape her news coverage. I want to play a little bit of an interview that was done early this year on CNN with Arwa Damon in which the subject was refugees in Iraq, and Jolie's general humanitarian efforts. But then, toward the end of the interview, Damon brought up the question -- she tried to bring up, I should say, the rumors that Angelina was pregnant.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There are reports out of Hollywood that you're pregnant.
ANGELINA JOLIE, ACTRESS: Oh, don't. Stop it.
DAMON: Is it true? I have to ask.
JOLIE: Stay true to your tradition. You're CNN.
DAMON: I know. That's why I have to ask.
JOLIE: Don't do it. Don't do it. But I don't have to answer.
DAMON: No, you don't.
DAMON: I completely -- totally -- you're right and I will not press the matter.
JOLIE: Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Angelina wants to talk about what she wants to talk about.
ARGETSINGER: Yes, but Angelina is also extraordinarily aware of the fact that people are interested in her personal life, and she's very good about leveraging that interest in her personal life to talk about whatever the heck she wants to talk about.
I mean, it was very well noted that while she was doing interviews for her latest movie, "The Changeling," she was doling out little bits and pieces about when she and Brad fell in love and how she first fell in love with him while he was still married. And this got picked up everywhere. It's not giving away that much but it's giving away a little bit. And it got everyone a little bit more interested in the topic of Angelina, and therefore in the topic of the movie she was trying to sell.
KURTZ: Larry Hackett, you've done business with Angelina Jolie before. In fact, "People" magazine published the photos of her first baby which were bought for a reported $4 million. And then there was, I guess, in 2006, there was a story called "Angelina Jolie: Mission to Cambodia." And her aide had put out a memo saying that they expected anybody who bought those photos to also direct attention to the needs of the Cambodian people.
So this is not your first time dealing with these sorts of questions.
HACKETT: Angelina Jolie is an expert at wanting to get attention for the things that she is promoting. She leverages her personal life to do that.
The memo in fact said that they hoped this coverage would go on. The pictures were taken in Cambodia, so it defies me what else the story was about than about what she was doing in Cambodia. I mean, these conversations go on all the time with story subjects all over the place. I see nothing wrong with it.
These stories were interesting. And as I said in the memo to my staff last week, we have walked away from issues regarding Angelina Jolie when her needs and ours don't jibe and don't reconcile.
So again, these conversations go on constantly. I see nothing wrong with them. It's the idea of some kind of codification or quid pro quo that I find incredibly damaging and insidious and absolutely false, and I reject it. If you ask me whether or not she uses it as leverage, she uses it all the time, absolutely.
Carlos Diaz, here's another example. Last year she was promoting the book -- excuse me, the movie "A Mighty Heart" and her aide asked reporters to sign a statement, to sign a statement that said, "The interview may only be used to promote the picture. The interview will not be used in a manner that is disparaging, demeaning or derogatory toward Ms. Jolie."
What do you make of that?
DIAZ: This happens a lot, and I brought this up in my initial comments. Every day we go to junkets as reporters and we sit in a room and ask questions of stars. The tape that is being rolled is being rolled in a separate room, and if we get out of line and start asking questions about their personal life and we start delving into topics that they don't want to talk about, we don't get the tapes. And that is a level of control that is kind of scary in Hollywood, and it happens every weekend at junkets all over L.A.
KURTZ: And if you don't get the tapes you can't do the television.
DIAZ: There you go.
KURTZ: A.J., has Angelina Jolie succeeded in changing her image to these kinds of efforts to that of kind of a wild and slutty wife of Billy Bob Thornton to someone who is seen as an international philanthropist?
HAMMER: Well, yes, Howard. I mean, I think a lot of the change, sure, it has to do with the way that she sort of has orchestrated her public perception, but she really has changed. It's not as if it's all been made up in some big giant publicity stunt, which I think is something that gets lost here.
Going back to what happened with "A Mighty Heart" for a moment, if I may, that is one instance where it backfired on her. Now, Angelina notoriously does not have a publicist and an entire team of people always working with her to ensure that everything is done exactly as she wants it done.
In the case of "A Mighty Heart," she asked for "People" to sign these preconditions. That ended up getting leaked out and ended up getting bypassed by the press.
KURTZ: Right. It ended up getting...
HAMMER: But what was...
KURTZ: We're short on time.
HAMMER: Go ahead.
KURTZ: Let me just say, I don't want to take away from the good work that she has done. Clearly, she has been tireless in that regard.
Amy Argetsinger, a final thought from you?
ARGETSINGER: A final thought is that she has kind of raised the game for all celebrities in terms of leveraging their personal life to get what they want. I mean ...
KURTZ: And now they all want to play this game to varying degrees?
ARGETSINGER: I think the smarter ones are. I mean, there are a whole crop of celebrities whose personal lives move more product than their entertainment product do. They don't really open a movie that well, they don't sell that many albums.
I mean, Nicole Kidman, Jessica Simpson, these are all people who can be on the cover of "People" or "US" any given week. They're not necessarily big audience draws. Angelina has kind of set the gold standard for this new kind of celebrity.
KURTZ: And we will have to leave it there.
Amy Argetsinger, Carlos Diaz, A.J. Hammer and Larry Hackett from "People," thanks very much for joining us.
KURTZ: Up next, jumping the gun. Still weeks away from the inauguration, are the media treating Barack Obama like he's already occupying the Oval Office?
And later, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino on running a kinder, gentler briefing room.
KURTZ: He is not yet president of the United States, but the media are treating him almost as the incumbent.
When Barack Obama held the first of three news conferences in three days this week, all the networks took it live, and his pronouncements about the financial crisis led the newscasts and the front pages. Some liberal columnists aren't content to let George Bush wrap up his final weeks in the White House, they're ready for the Obama administration.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: I don't think I've ever seen a president-elect getting so involved in policy so early. It does seem like we've got, at the moment, two presidents.
RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC: I think we definitely have effectively two presidents right now.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN, "NEW YORK TIMES": I think we should seriously consider moving up the inauguration date, because I don't know that we have two months to have a political vacuum at this moment in this economic crisis.
LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS: This is just stupid. President Bush is already consulting with Obama on the economy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the increasingly intensive coverage of the president-elect, in San Francisco, Joan Walsh, editor- in-chief of salon.com. And in Philadelphia, Jim Geraghty, contributing editor at "National Review."
Joan Walsh, what do you make of some of these liberal columnists saying Bush should step aside, literally or figuratively, and just let Obama run things?
JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SALON.COM: Well, it's silly. I understand the impulse.
Obama, you know, won a commanding victory, and people have a lot of optimism about what he can do, and they're also fearful about the current situation. There have been a lot of comparisons to 1932, which some people say that the long -- back then it was quite long -- a break between the two presidencies is what made the Depression worse. So, you know, I don't think anybody means this seriously. You know, we're not going to change the rules. But I'm personally impressed with Obama. I think, you know, every time he speaks he says we only have one president.
KURTZ: All right. Before we get to that, let me get Jim Geraghty in.
Is the liberal press sort of pushing for its guy here, or are there actual, you know, heartfelt concerns about the sinking economy during this transition?
JIM GERAGHTY, "THE NATIONAL REVIEW": I can understand, considering that we do have a fairly pressing matter of the economy to deal with, the desire to see what the new guy is going to do and what his plan is as quickly as possible. I do kind of find it ironic that as soon -- that, you know, after accusations that Bush was shredding the Constitution for eight years, they nominate a Democrat, and the first thing we ought to do is throw out the Constitution and the previous establishment we had for when the guy takes office.
WALSH: Nobody really wants that.
GERAGHTY: Thankfully. But Joan, I wish you'd argue with your folks on the other side. I think you're right that it's a silly idea. January 20th will be just fine.
KURTZ: Jim -- and that's when all the parties are planned for.
WALSH: That's right.
KURTZ: Jim, what do you make of -- what does it tell us about the way the media are treating the president-elect when he holds the first news conference on Monday and Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams are there anchoring it? I don't think I've ever seen anything like this.
GERAGHTY: Actually, I have very little gripe with it, because as I said, this is a massive enough problem that is going to obviously dominate the first two year of his presidency, most likely. And it's one of those things where, you know, if he wants to hit the ground running, I think there are things that can be done.
Congress takes office before the president does, so actually, when he takes office on January 20th, theoretically he could have legislation on his desk January 21st. Now, this idea that we've got to get it passed immediately, look, you're not going to get a massive stimulus bill done in a matter of two days.
KURTZ: All right. Let me come back to the media with Joan.
I mean, aren't -- isn't there a bit of a free ride to Obama right now since he gets to seize the spotlight and talk about his appointees, to talk about his policies, but he can't really be blamed for any of the problems right now?
WALSH: Oh, I don't know if he's getting a free ride from the right or the left. You know, Howie, I'm watching the liberal blogs go nuts about Robert Gates and somewhat about and Hillary Clinton, and both sides really being concerned about the number of Clinton veterans on his team. So I think he is getting plenty of scrutiny and plenty of criticism, but I think Jim and I, in a strange convergence, agree on this.
I mean, this is a big story. He is brand new. We have our first new administration in eight years, and also a person who is -- you know, let's just be honest, has been the subject of enormous fascination, everything he has done all along the way. Now, I think, is the time to begin paying attention to the way he is making his appointments and the involvement that he's having.
WALSH: I don't think there's anything -- I don't think there's bias showing in this particular situation.
KURTZ: On this question of whether we're seeing, among other things, a recycled Clinton administration, let me play for you, Jim, the president-elect's third news conference of the week, in Chicago, CNN's Ed Henry asking a question, or I should say, a series of questions.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: First of all, do you support the Bush administration's latest $800 billion bailout? Are you worried about the continuation of printing money? Specifically, what federal programs would you cut?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT-ELECT: How many compound questions is this going to be?
HENRY: It's three, to be honest with you.
You've got Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates.
OBAMA: Hold on, hold on. Wait. Wait.
You hear that. So first of all, that's not the topic. We're not talking about my cabinet because I haven't made those appointments yet.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So Jim, is that a taste, an indication of a more aggressive stance by the press toward the new president?
GERAGHTY: I think that's justified. Now, I can understand Obama wanting to handle one question at a time. That's, you know, not an unreasonable request. And I guess if he feels there are three completely -- I guess, you know, Ed Henry is a great reporter, but maybe if you're going to ask three questions, they ought to be all on the same topic. But really, you know, this is not unreasonable questioning of him. He is now going to stepping into one of the toughest jobs in the country, and with that some scrutiny. And I think the questions were fair and I think Obama -- you know, in the campaign he was able to get away with the occasional, oh, come on guys, I've already answered eight questions on this. He's going to have to deal with a lot more than eight questions.
KURTZ: And by the way, Joan, Obama showed that he is not necessarily going to follow the usual protocol of calling on all the network stars at some of these news conferences. He didn't call anybody from the broadcast networks.
He also did an interview, an hour-long interview, half of it with his wife Michelle, with ABC's Barbara Walters this week. She asked him a question that is going to set up my question to you. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS: You had said that Americans don't expect miracles from you, but many of them indeed do. You're expected to cure the economy and to save the planet, and to do it quickly.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, Obama answered that he's going to put in place a competent and honest government.
But that question about expectations, Joan Walsh, I mean, if expectations are as sky high, doesn't the media coverage of Barack Obama have a bit to do with that?
WALSH: Yes. The media coverage does. Certainly. I mean, we've talked about it before.
I think he did get pretty amazing and sometimes adulatory media coverage. But you know, there is something special about him. You know, I can criticize him, I have criticized him, but I think people watching him see September financial crisis, I think, developed a lot of confidence in his problem-solving ability, and in that calm, deliberative approach he takes, which I think people on the right and on the left are curious about at least and optimistic about at the highest.
And you know, it is going to be hard for him to manage expectations. I think that's an enormous part of his job, is managing expectations and being honest with the American people about the sacrifices and difficulties we're going to face, and getting down to the job of solving problems.
KURTZ: Jim, weigh in here on this question of the media and expectations and whether they're unrealistically high.
GERAGHTY: Well, first of all, I'm just really glad that Barbara Walters didn't ask him if he was a tree, what kind of tree he would be.
KURTZ: She asked him some pretty good questions, actually.
WALSH: She did.
GERAGHTY: But I have to say, she is right. And you saw the number of times he was depicted with photos of a strange halo around him and all the different ways that people were attributing amazing powers to him, people fainting at his speeches. At some times it seemed like he was campaigning not really as a political figure, but as some kind of quasi-religious figure.
KURTZ: OK. But on your side of the aisle, the conservative side, so to speak, has there been some grudging respect for some of Obama's appointments and the way he has handled this transition?
GERAGHTY: Yes. Yes, very much so. And I'd say that with the exception of Eric Holder, I don't have an enormous amount to complain about.
KURTZ: Does that surprise you, Joan Walsh? I've got 10 seconds.
WALSH: It surprises me some, yes. But I think it is a fairly centrist and very experienced, smart set of cabinet picks so far.
KURTZ: As you pointed out earlier, not everybody necessarily likes centrists, so this is an argument that will continue.
KURTZ: Joan Walsh, Jim Geraghty, thanks very much for joining us.
WALSH: Thank you.
GERAGHTY: Any time.
KURTZ: Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Dana Perino on life behind the firing line at the Bush White House, coping with those amazingly low presidential approval ratings and on the media frenzy surrounding Obama.
And later, scamming the press, how a made-up pundit got some very real ink and airtime.
KURTZ: The White House briefing room has seen plenty of combat over plenty of administrations. But in the year and a half since Dana Perino became the press secretary, the tensions in the briefing room have eased a bit as the media spotlight has shifted away from this president and toward the campaign to succeed him, which isn't to say she hasn't had her share of tough questions.
KURTZ: Dana Perino, welcome.
DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
KURTZ: On Monday, right after the government bailout of Citigroup, Barack Obama held a news conference, and all the broadcast networks and all the cable networks took it live. In terms of media coverage, it almost seems like he's president already.
PERINO: Well, I think it's great that Americans are so excited that there is going to be a new president, that they're going to have a chance to see what the next president will bring to the table when it comes to the economic crisis. The president was out this -- that day, too, talking about what we were doing on our end, but the other thing that President Bush did is he let everybody know that he had called the president-elect, that he would be communicating with him.
One thing that we have promised is a very smooth transition. And we're well on our way, and we're demonstrating that both through private conversation and also sometimes publicly, letting people know that we are talking to the president-elect's team.
KURTZ: What do you make of the glowing coverage that Barack Obama has been receiving, particularly since the election? I mean, the great debate seems to be whether he should be depicted as FDR, as on "TIME" magazine's cover, or as Lincoln on Newsweek's cover.
PERINO: Well, I think that for anybody, when you have a new situation coming in, it's exciting, it's new. And this presidential election was so historic for a lot of different reasons -- for women, for African-Americans, for turnout, for young voters, even though they didn't hit all the numbers that they thought that they would. People were very engaged and excited about this election.
KURTZ: But part of you must be saying, boy, George W. Bush never got that kind of coverage.
PERINO: Well, I think that that's not true. I think if you look back over eight years -- remember the recount, first of all. There was a lot of coverage.
KURTZ: Of course.
PERINO: And there was 9/11. And the biggest -- under this president we've have the biggest natural disaster in 100 years in our nation's history, probably, that we know of, the biggest financial crisis and the biggest terrorist attack. In all those cases, I think that we've gotten a lot of media coverage. But when it comes to the next president, people love change and they want to think about something new, and the economic crisis deserves the kind of coverage that it's getting.
KURTZ: But the constant refrain in the media, whenever anybody talks about President Bush, is most unpopular president in generations, he's at 24 percent approval in the latest CNN poll. Particularly in the second term, do you think the media have been have been unfair to President Bush?
PERINO: I don't think they mean to be unfair, but I think that you can look at a situation and come down on the other side of it. And we try to point that out.
I have a pretty high bar for complaints to the media, although I guess some people in the media would probably think that's not true. But I do have a high bar for it. And we try to point out hypocrisy where we can. When you're a popular president you can get a lot done, and the president has shown that. But you can also get a lot done when you're unpopular, and the whole point is...
KURTZ: Hold on. You say the media don't mean to be unfair, but you're saying...
KURTZ: .. that subconsciously, unconsciously, they have been unfair?
PERINO: For example, you mentioned the approval ratings. In my experience, for the past couple of years, when we've experienced low approval ratings, the media has attributed everything to approval ratings. So if we are successful like we were this past summer in passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendment, then it was despite our low approval ratings.
When we actual lose on something, like when it was on immigration reform, where we didn't get that passed, it was because of our low approval ratings. Then it just became this mantra. And I don't think you could pick up any article about the president and not read about low approval ratings.
What the president says is that he can't be governed by approval ratings. He has to make decisions whether or not public opinion is going to be supportive of those decisions or not. What he wants, though, is for people to understand that he makes those decisions based on principles from which he doesn't waver.
KURTZ: Let's take a look at some footage of you in the briefing room. And the question from CBS's Jim Axelrod, as you'll see, is about the financial crisis which had just erupted in September.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HELEN THOMAS, HEARST NEWSPAPERS: ... the Iraqis are bombing their homes. What do you mean?
PERINO: Helen, we are going after terrorists and al Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shia militia who are killing not only innocent Iraqis, but our soldiers as well. And we are doing so in conjunction -- we are working very closely with the government of Iraq. JIM AXELROD, CBS NEWS: It really seems as though there's an accusation that the White House is to blame in some way, the Bush administration policy is to blame in some way. Your response?
PERINO: Unfortunately, I don't think that the reaction of finger pointing from Democrats to the White House is anything new.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So you talked about finger pointing by Democrats, but even the administration has acknowledged that some of the regulatory agencies didn't do their job, or some of the rules weren't tough enough. In other words, it's not just Democrats.
PERINO: I think that the seeds of this financial crisis were planted decades ago, and it took a long time for us to get to this point. One of the things President Bush did immediately upon arriving is to try to work with Congress to get them to change Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two housing giants that have helped lead us to this crisis.
KURTZ: But you're not saying the administration has no responsibility in this manner.
PERINO: Absolutely not. I think there's a lot of people that have responsibility. What's important now is what we do about it. We have announced some pretty strong measures that were unprecedented, but that is because the president has determined that we are not going to let the system fail.
KURTZ: How about when you're standing up at that podium and Helen Thomas or Jim Axelrod or somebody else is hammering you and questioning your veracity, perhaps? You don't seem to push back hard in the way that some of your predecessors did -- Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan, Tony Snow. That's not your style.
PERINO: It's not really my style. I think that there was a period of time in the briefing room where things got so heated, and the back and forth was to me very uncomfortable, because I didn't think that it contributed to a civil discourse that would help solve problems. And I think that my job is to represent the president. The president is not a confrontational person, and I've tried to calmly explain where we stand.
Now, if that means that sometimes I don't necessarily make it on the cable news shows, then so be it, because I really think that the media in many ways is addicted to conflict. And that helps the shows and it keeps the ratings up...
KURTZ: Is that particularly true of cable news, do you think?
PERINO: I do think that is true, and especially with the more columnist-oriented shows that are not necessarily supposed to be straight news. That there's a lot of yelling that goes on back and forth, and I just don't think that it helps advance anybody's goals. KURTZ: But you are not shy about making clear when you think the coverage has been unfair. And in fact, "New York Times" has not had an interview with the president for at least two or three years. And correspondent Sheryl Stolberg said in an online chat on the "Times" Web site that, "White House officials are quite open about the fact that we have not gotten an interview because they don't like our coverage."
PERINO: Well, I think that I'll refrain from speaking about her individually, but we have had some difficulties with the "New York Times," and other candidates have had difficulties with that paper or other papers. And you make decisions based on what you think will be the best possible way to get your message out.
KURTZ: So, another way of putting that is The Times is being punished. You don't like the coverage, they don't have access to the president.
PERINO: I would disagree that they don't get the coverage that they deserve. It doesn't mean -- just because -- there is a never a time when I don't respond to "The New York Times" or a request.
KURTZ: No. Nobody's saying that you're not answering their questions. I'm talking about having a sit-down interview with the president of the United States.
PERINO: They get their questions asked -- the president always calls on "The New York Times" at a news conference. But just because he doesn't want to spend an hour alone with Sheryl or her colleagues in the Oval Office, I think doesn't mean that they're not getting the coverage that they deserve.
KURTZ: Could Bush have done more in terms of meeting with reporters, holding more news conferences as a way of getting his message out?
PERINO: We tried to do more, and I think that we did a lot of that for a while. But this campaign season, if you're just looking in the last year, year and a half, has been a little bit different. And President Bush made a decision that he would work really hard to stay out of the 2008 news cycle and -- at least the campaign cycle. And we accommodated that to the greatest extent possible, for better or worse.
KURTZ: And what did he tell you? Because you're up there at the podium every day, and reporters are asking, well, Barack Obama charged the administration screwed this up, and John McCain says the last eight years haven't worked very well. In other words, you had the Republican candidate very consciously distancing himself from Bush, and most of the time you kind of let that slide.
PERINO: He advised me not to rise to the bait. And one time I did and it was to a great detriment. And I realized what he meant, that he realized what would happen if I tried to defend him in the middle of that cycle, I would just fuel more news because they were in the middle of a primary fight and then into the general election. So I accepted his advice even though sometimes it was really hard not to defend him. It was the right thing to do. And we think that history over time will prove him right.
KURTZ: But didn't that turn him into a bit of a political punching bag? And you?
PERINO: What he told me is nobody likes to stand up there and be a pinata, but we were for a while but now we're passed that. We've buried it and we're moving on. We have a really good, cooperative spirit that we're experiencing with the president-elect's team, and I think that this will be one of the smoothest handoffs that you've ever seen.
KURTZ: The speed of the news cycle these days, you don't only have to respond to TV reporters and to newspaper reporters, but the blogs are out there, and mainstream newspaper reporters and magazine reporters are blogging.
How much more difficult does that make your job?
PERINO: It makes it really difficult, I think, in some ways. In other ways it makes it a little bit more efficient, because you can just get to everybody all at once, because what's happened is many reporters all act like a wire service now. They all want to get the news first, they want to be reporting it first. And so we've tried a couple of different things to deal with that -- distribution lists where we can get information out all at once.
KURTZ: Everybody wants comment right away on everything. And in less than two months it will be Robert Gibbs, your successor under President-elect Obama, who will be having to field those questions.
Dana Perino, thanks very much for joining us.
PERINO: Thank you.
KURTZ: When we come back, man of mystery. Two filmmakers create a fictional McCain adviser who gets an all-too-real journalist to take the bait. The life of times of Martin Eisenstadt, that's next.
KURTZ: His name is Martin Eisenstadt, a Washington think tank guy, McCain policy adviser, and all around pundit. He has his own Web site, and his videos pop up on YouTube.
Here. See if you find anything suspicious.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's exciting to be back in my home city of D.C. There's people who say I don't exist. Well, here I am. I have a CNN interview later. I'm going over to the RNC to speak to Steve Schmidt right now.
And that's why I think it's important that we stand up for the little guy. And John McCain, in choosing Sarah Palin, was basically rejecting the establishment, rejecting all those tuxedo-wearing, cocktail-party-attending, white-haired illuminati types.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But Martin Eisenstadt is a fake, a fraud, a scam artist. And when he recently outed himself as the McCain source who was anonymously dumping on Sarah Palin, a number of news organizations took the bait, including MSNBC, the "L.A. Times," and "The New Republic."
Now we have a chance to meet the two men behind the hoax and ask, what was up with that?
KURTZ: And joining us now are the two filmmakers. In Los Angeles, Dan Mirvish, and in New York, Eitan Gorlin.
Eitan Gorlin, so, is this how you guys get your kicks, playing a prank that fools such reputable news organizations as MSNBC, the "L.A. Times" and "The New Republic?"
EITAN GORLIN, FILMMAKER: The short answer is probably yes. But it was -- I think if you look at it, it was a much more elaborate ruse. And it began with our fake Giuliani ads, morphed into the Marty Eisenstadt blog, and then him being interviewed on Iraqi television, which was picked up by many prominent left-wing blogs. And it sort of continued up until after the campaign, after the election.
KURTZ: Dan Mirvish, let me play for you and remind our viewers what MSNBC anchor David Shuster reported after, shall we say, falling for this latest spoof on your part.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC: Who did tell Fox News that Palin could not identify the countries involved in NAFTA and that she thought Africa was a country instead of a continent? It turns out it was Martin Eisenstadt, a McCain policy adviser who has come forward today to identify himself as the source of the leaks.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: That is the nonexistent Martin Eisenstadt.
So Dan, after something like that aired, were you guys giving each other high-fives?
DAN MIRVISH, FILMMAKER: I laughed out loud. I mean, the funny part was we hadn't even actively sent it to MSNBC. We had just posted this on our blog, and they just found it on their own. Someone e- mailed it to a producer over there and they put it up, which is funny, because there were times over the course of our various other pranks that we had actively tried to get things onto air and into print, but this wasn't one of them. They just did it all on their own.
KURTZ: And Eitan Gorlin, let's talk about the character. You became Martin Eisenstadt of the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy. What was the key to making this fellow sound like a typical D.C. think tank guy?
GORLIN: Well, I channeled my own narcissistic personality disorder, so I think specifically the last Republican where Marty was followed around by a BBC journalist, who then of course made a fool out of him and then he had to issue rebuttals defending his honor...
KURTZ: Is this how you see Washington pundits? Is this an exaggerated version of the people that you see on the screen?
GORLIN: Well, I think to a large extent -- Dan and I spoke about this -- that it's people who probably, in their own sense of self, they assumed they would be ambassadors, they assumed they would be congressmen, but in the end they have to play these roles on TV.
KURTZ: Dan, what kind of TV show are you pitching based on this Eisenstadt character? I mean, HBO did a series called "K Street" in which I appeared for about 40 seconds which lasted eight episodes. I mean, could this find a mass audience?
MIRVISH: Well, I think if we get you in there for a few more episodes, that should help.
KURTZ: Call my agent.
MIRVISH: Yes. No, the interesting thing is that year's TV season showed that -- "Saturday Night Live" got amazing ratings by doing -- by bringing back political satire, and we might be a little bit responsible for that because we started to spread the rumor that Barack Obama was going to appear on their last episode.
But I think that showed that America has an appetite for political satire. It's not just "The Daily Show" and Colbert, but America wants to laugh at their politicians, and more importantly, laugh at their pundits.
KURTZ: But Eitan, when we watch "SNL" or Colbert or Stewart, we know what we're getting. In this case, you guys put together a fake Web site and phony YouTube videos. You know, journalists don't expect people to be engaging in that kind of fabrication. So is it really fair?
GORLIN: Well, you could ask that same question about anonymous leaks and anonymous sourcing in general. And I think there's a lot of things -- and that's something that Dan and I picked up on, the extent to which the news is being report almost like celebrity gossip. So I think there is a lot of information out there that people should be skeptical of.
KURTZ: Well, anonymous sources, I've criticized many times their use. But, you know, at least most of the time they are real people who just don't want their names attached.
So let me go back to Dan.
Is the lesson here, the way that you guys have been able to pull this off, that the media are awfully gullible?
MIRVISH: Well, that's part of it. They're gullible. I mean, they'll believe anyone.
I mean, if anyone had looked at our videos even for a minute or looked on our Web site, people would have known that we were a hoax or a spoof or a satire for months. Just a little bit of research would have proven that out. But the other thing is that the 24-hour news cycle goes so fast and they really -- they don't always check. And then the pundits they do have on, they are identified as "Republican strategist" or "Democratic strategist," and their only strategy seems to be picking out the red M&Ms at the green room on "HARDBALL."
You know, are these people any more qualified than the fake pundit that we developed?
KURTZ: So you developed a character who you think can do it just the same way as the people we see on TV, only he has a phony name and he doesn't really exist?
MIRVISH: Well, there is that, yes. But Nonexistence shouldn't be a...
KURTZ: All right. Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish, thanks very much for joining us.
GORLIN: Thank you.
MIRVISH: Thank you.
KURTZ: Still to come, a much more serious story, a Thanksgiving challenge for the media in India.
KURTZ: We have been through the scenario before -- all too often, in fact -- terrorists opening fire, sudden panic, dozens dead in a distant land, and a frustrating shortage of facts for journalists trying to cover the carnage.
KURTZ (voice-over): The attacks in Mumbai quickly filled a Thanksgiving week news vacuum, with cable networks going wall to wall and even devising special logos. Like 9/11 in America and 7/7 in Britain, large-scale terror had come to India.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: There's some developing news out of Mumbai, India, right now. This just coming to us. Apparently, gunmen had targeted some luxury hotels, also a popular tourist attraction and a crowded train station, in at least seven attacks, we're told there, in India's financial capital.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: And on this Thanksgiving eve, our attention is diverted overseas, where there has been a horrible terrorist attack. Actually, a string of them. It happened in India.
KURTZ: Journalists had to put aside personal feelings to cover the unfolding death and destruction, and there were personal risks, as well. We were reminded watching CNN's Sara Sidner.
SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: ... might need to keep themselves able to sustain long hours and dealing with -- OK. All right. Another loud bang you heard there.
KURTZ: Even as the death toll mounted, reporters had to work their sources, had to dig deeper. Was this highly coordinated series of attacks linked to outside forces? Most likely India's archenemy of Pakistan?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The question now turns to who did this? Tonight, U.S. officials believe the terrorists could be militants fighting over the disputed region of Kashmir.
KURTZ: In any mass attack, one or two people often come to symbolize the victims. That was the case with Brooklyn Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka, as reported by CBS's Kimberly Dozier, herself badly injured in the Iraq war.
KIMBERLY DOZIER, CBS NEWS (voice-over): Other Americans under fire across Mumbai include Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg. He and his wife Rivka were at the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Chabad House when it was attacked. They're still believed to be inside. Their condition unknown.
KURTZ: The couple died in the Jewish center they operated.
For "The Washington Post," the front page story was Virginia art professor Alan Scherr also killed in the terrorist attacks.
KURTZ: Plenty of reporters canceled holiday plans to cover the attacks. This was a story that needed no hype, no overheated speculation. Just gathering the facts as best they could during a crisis. For that is part of journalism's mission, helping us make sense of a sometimes senseless world.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us next Sunday, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.