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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
State of the Union: Reliable Sources
Aired March 8, 2009 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN KING, HOST: And time now, as always, to hand off to my partner, Howie Kurtz, and his "Reliable Sources." And, Howie, as I do, the president telling people to not only to invest in the stock market, but he's trying to help the struggling newspaper industry. In an interview with the New York Times, he says, sure, people go online. He's a technical guy, but he likes the feel of the newspaper, so maybe that'll help the industry rebound.
HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: Mr. President, I like the feel of a newspaper, too. He did take a swipe at the blogs, though. Barack Obama told me during the campaign that he had stopped reading blogs because it was too weird to read about himself. He didn't -- he kind of dissed them. And I think there are some good blogs there, as well as some not-so- smart blogs and some very partisan blogs. But thanks, John. We'll talk to you in a bit.
KING: You got it.
KURTZ: Ahead, we'll look at the eight-year media saga surrounding the Chandra Levy tragedy with Connie Chung, who faced off with Gary Condit at the height of the frenzy, and the two Washington Post reporters who cracked the case.
But first, watching the stock market sink day after day as we all follow those numbers at the bottom of the screen has become a painful exercise, but is it fair to blame the Dow's dive on a president who's been in office less than six weeks and inherited a huge economic mess? Well, that's been the media drumbeat this past week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DOBBS: The stock market is also demonstrating a lack of confidence in the president's big government agenda. The Dow Jones Industrials this year have lost more than 2,000 points.
MATTHEWS: You knew this was coming. Conservatives are now blaming President Obama for the stock market's collapse.
O'REILLY: Every day it seems the financial markets are sending a message to Barack Obama: We don't trust you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But perhaps the loudest voice came from CNBC, where "Mad Money" man Jim Cramer -- a liberal Democrat, no less -- turned on Obama. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JIM CRAMER, CNBC: We have an agenda in this country now that I would regard as being a radical agenda.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And move over Rick Santelli. That's a response from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who pointed out that some of Cramer's pronouncements on stocks have been -- what's the word? Wrong.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Without understand the basis for what Mr. Cramer said, I'm not entirely sure what he's pointing to, to make some of the statements that he's made. And I think you can go back and look at any number of statements that he's made in the past about the economy and wonder where some of the backup for those are, too.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So as the White House and CNBC square off again, are journalists covering the market meltdown as a financial story or a political spitting match?
Joining us now in New York, David Brancaccio, host of the news magazine show "NOW" on PBS. In San Francisco, Joan Walsh, editor-in- chief of salon.com. And here in Washington, Amanda Carpenter, reporter and blogger now for "The Washington Times."
David Brancaccio, so the market drops 300 points one day, and some pundits blame Obama. Couldn't it also be that GM is on the brink of bankruptcy or AIG wants another $30 billion in bailout money or unemployment has topped eight percent, or 20 other factors?
DAVID BRANCACCIO, HOST, "NOW": And did you mention Citigroup?
KURTZ: I forgot to.
BRANCACCIO: You know, one of the largest institutions on the planet struggling for life. Yes, it could be.
I've always been quite critical of using, for instance, the Dow Jones Industrial Average as some sort of barometer of our national health. In fact, one time I was sitting about two feet from a U.S. secretary of the Treasury, a very rich man, a man who knows his way around markets, shall we say. And I asked him something about the Dow that day.
He looked at me, like, you know, why am I asking this? And he said, look, he doesn't follow the Dow Jones Industrial Average every day, and neither should I, and neither should we, the media.
KURTZ: Right. BRANCACCIO: The fact is, you know, it goes up, it goes down. What the media need to be paying attention to are, you know, longer- term trends, getting out there and talking to real Americans about what they're facing as these pink slips...
KURTZ: Let me go to Amanda Carpenter.
Look, there's no dispute the economy is in terrible shape, Dow or no Dow, but the conservative media drumbeat to blame the president for the sinking stock market can sound a little partisan.
AMANDA CARPENTER, REPORTER & BLOGGER, "THE WASHINGTON TIMES": I don't think it's so much that, but the Obama administration's response to this is to say again and again we've inherited a bad economy and we're working to fix it. And there's an expiration on that talking point, and I think it's up to the media to decide when that talking point loses effectiveness. And the conservatives are trying to say that talking point is over now. Obama is president, you have to take responsibility for the economy.
KURTZ: Do you have a date on the calendar when you think it should expire? No.
Joan Walsh, I mean, look, the market does render over time a collective judgment on the president's policies. So isn't it fair for the media to point that out? * JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SALON.COM: It's fair if they point it out, I don't know, at the end of this year, but it's ridiculous in the beginning of March, not even 60 days into his time in office. I think is profoundly irresponsible. You know, and I think a lot of the conservative drumbeat is to blame Obama for scaring Americans.
I would turn that right back on them and say they are helping -- if we're really going to look at the stock market, that they're depicting this man as somehow incompetent and harming the economy. And a Bolshevik, to use Jim Cramer's insane word, is quite irresponsible and may well have, you know, a real effect on the market if we're all going to go there. But I don't think we should go there.
I'm really disappointed in the media overall, and particularly the conservative media -- I don't know why I would have higher expectations -- because I do think this is a dangerous time. I do think -- you know, we elected somebody who is a cautious person, who takes the long view. He has enormous political capital.
KURTZ: All right. Let me get a response...
WALSH: Why are we trashing him?
KURTZ: Let me get a response from Amanda Carpenter.
CARPENTER: I think you have to talk about the market when the Obama administration is pushing such sweeping economic proposals. I mean, his chief proposal right now to fix the economy is to create or save three million jobs. If you look at the jobless number, 600,000 a month, that gives him about five months. So if you want an expiration date about when...
KURTZ: Well, what about Joan Walsh's point that the president should get a year before we blame him for this?
CARPENTER: He is pushing huge proposals forth. He says he has to do it because of the fierce urgency of action and all this. He wants to move fast, and so I think we should expect results quick.
KURTZ: David Brancaccio, does it help CNBC to, in effect, be declaring open season on the White House? First you have Rick Santelli at the Chicago Board of Trade doing that rant about Obama's mortgage aid -- "Mr. President, are you listening?" And now Jim Cramer accusing him of wealth destruction.
BRANCACCIO: Well, you know, we had the term "broadcasting" that suggests that we're trying to reach lots of people. CNBC really is narrow casting, and they have a strong sense of just who it is that tunes in for moment-by-moment coverage of the stock market. And a lot of them are not big fans of the Obama administration.
But there is one valid criticism in here of the Obama administration. Right now, in the midst of -- shall we quote Shakespeare? -- the "winter of our discontent" -- only this time, at the moment, not made glorious, at a very bad time for the economy -- look at what's happening at the top of Obama's Treasury Department.
This poor, old Tim Geithner, the treasury secretary, kind of working alone with no deputies, because they've been losing appointees. Word this morning, you saw in the news, that there have been three new names tapped to help Geithner at Treasury, but see, that does lend some uncertainty to the situation which does not help the stock market.
BRANCACCIO: So, at some point, you can start weighing in on, is the Obama administration helping or hurting?
But you remember Reagan. Last time unemployment was more than 10 million, I think that was September of 1982. He was in office 20 months when he was receiving criticism for the state of the economy. I think by 20 months, then you can point your finger at the administration. KURTZ: All right.
Joan Walsh, has this become a way for CNBC to get attention kind of the way that some on MSNBC used to attack George Bush every hour or so?
WALSH: I think they've decided that. I think it really looks that way. You know, we already have Fox News, so I don't know why they'd want to compete with Fox News. But, you know, I think it's profoundly irresponsible. I think that, you know, Jon Stewart took them down in eight minutes the other day, showing...
KURTZ: And we're going to play that in a minute, so let me -- don't jump ahead.
WALSH: Oh, OK. I want get out ahead of us.
WALSH: But I do want to agree with David on that one point. I have been disappointed in the Treasury Department's response.
I personally, perhaps unrealistically, would have hoped for more, you know, late January, early February. I think they've been a little bit slow to decide what to do with the toxic assets and all that. And I think it's not good that they don't have a full team in place. So it's not that you can't criticize.
KURTZ: All right.
CARPENTER: In terms of the White House and CNBC and all this, I think there's a broader story that the media is missing, and that is the willingness of the administration -- the administration's willingness to name people who are opposing them by name in the media. You have Rush Limbaugh, you have Sean Hannity, Rick Santelli, Jim Cramer. I think...
KURTZ: Robert Gibbs has gone after them by name from the podium.
CARPENTER: Right. And I think that's stunning that he would do it by name. And it frankly should concern...
KURTZ: Why shouldn't he be able to respond if commentators are criticizing Obama?
CARPENTER: I think he should, but that's more of a campaign mode sort of aspect, rather than being in the White House press corps, taking them by name.
KURTZ: All right.
Now, Joan Walsh mentioned "The Daily Show," which Rick Santelli was supposed to be on "The Daily Show." CNBC canceled, and that probably was not a wise move because it led to this...
KURTZ: Let's take a look at what Jon Stewart did, a long taped package showing what some on CNBC have said over the past months and years.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CRAMER: Bear Sterns is fine. Do not take your money -- this is rare. If there's one takeaway other than plus-400...
Bear Stearns is not in trouble.
(UNKNOWN): Charlie, we talked about this yesterday. Lehman Brothers is no Bear Stearns.
(UNKNOWN): I would concur with Charlie, that you can't compare Bear management and Lehman management. Lehman management is incredibly engaged and responsive.
(UNKNOWN): Will Merrill need to raise capital? No. That continues to be the refrain from management, from Mr. Thain.
You saw they raised $12.8 billion in capital, remember -- $4.2 billion of that was excess capital. No need to raise additional capital, says Merrill Lynch.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: David Brancaccio, let's stipulate that that was edited very selectively, but it does demonstrate that some CNBC journalists dismissed out of hand some of the corporate bankruptcies that did, in fact, come to pass.
BRANCACCIO: Let me tell you something about the media. We're here to talk about the media, right? And one of the things is, you bring on experts who make prognostications. And when they're right, the expert who made the correct prognostication runs around, puts it in his bulletin and his blogs, sends out e-mails to his friends -- look, I was right.
BRANCACCIO: But when the experts are wrong on the air, no one says a word. We as reporters don't call them back for accountability. You know, it's a wonderful service that Jon Stewart was providing, because we need to regularly point out the times, minute by minute, that these folks just get it wrong.
KURTZ: Joan, do you want to jump in?
WALSH: Yes. I mean, I think that they got it wrong, and now they're trying to make hay out of it, which is embarrassing. I mean, you know, they're like a less responsible ESPN for money, but ESPN actually breaks news and tries to do a critical job of reporting. And I think, you know, to get back to the point about Robert Gibbs, you know, I think President Obama did make a mistake ever mentioning Rush Limbaugh's name. You don't fight down, and Limbaugh is as down as you get. But for Robert Gibbs to fight back...
KURTZ: We're going to talk about Rush in the next segment. Let me just come to Amanda, because we're short on time.
KURTZ: And I think there are a lot of good journalists at CNBC. I don't want to tar anybody with the same brush. But why does it take "The Daily Show" to nail the financial pundits who got it wrong? CARPENTER: Well, I mean, it's good parody. People like comedy. And against the economic background right now, it makes for a great show.
But I will say, I think there are bigger issues that people aren't scoring with CNBC. It's owned by GE, who's gotten TARP money.
CARPENTER: And there are certain topics that Jim Cramer won't talk about. I think that's better fodder for criticizing the network rather than taking edited clips, because there's bigger stories. You know, Jeffrey Immelt is on the board of Obama's economic advisers. I mean, that affects their coverage.
KURTZ: Well, there's a tendency in much of the media to pump up anyone who is making money, CEOs who are seen as successful. Allen Stanford, this is a guy who has now been charged, accused of a $9 billion fraud.
He was interviewed by Carl Quintanilla on CNBC last year. Let's take a quick look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ALLEN STANFORD, ACCUSED OF FRAUD: Good morning. How are you doing?
CARL QUINTANILLA, CNBC: Is it fun being a billionaire?
STANFORD: Well, yes. Yes, I have to say, it is fun being a billionaire, but it's hard work.
QUINTANILLA: I think a one-word answer...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Not a lot of tough questions in that interview.
All right. When we come back, rallying around Rush. The pundits can't stop chattering about Rush Limbaugh. And he's firing back, both at the Obama White House and the drive-by media.
And later, Connie Chung on the long-awaited arrest in the Chandra Levy murder case.
And TMZ's Harvey Levin on covering the stomach-churning allegations against singer Chris Brown over what he did to his girlfriend.
KURTZ: Even with the sinking economy, one story has seemed to dominate the news day after day, hour after hour.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Rush Limbaugh. CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN: Rush Limbaugh.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Rush Limbaugh.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Rush Limbaugh.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: The man with the golden mike.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: Mr. Limbaugh.
LOU DOBBS, CNN: A fellow by the name of Rush Limbaugh.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: A powerful guy, Rush Limbaugh.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: The conservative talk show host...
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Boss Limbaugh.
DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC: Rush Limbaugh...
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Rush is -- I know him. I'm friends with him.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Is Rush Limbaugh the Wizard of Oz? Who's really running the Republican Party?
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Has the Democrats' strategy of making Rush the face of the Republican Party succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, or nightmares, or whatever?
GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: I'm watching all the news coverage of everything that's going on. They're going after Rush Limbaugh like crazy right now.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: After the White House anointed Limbaugh as the "leader of the Republican Party," Rush fired back at the Obama administration and the press.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: What we have here, mainstream media continuing to smear and mischaracterize the Republican position by trying to convince Americans that the Republican Party and me want Obama to fail. I want free markets and capitalism to succeed. We want socialism to fail. Let's face it, I'm the sworn enemy of the drive-by media.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joan Walsh, as a representative of the drive-by media, you have to admit that those of us in the business have gleefully flogged this story for about a week now. We want to talk about Rush because we don't want to spend our time debating Mitch McConnell.
WALSH: That's for sure.
You know, even I feel a little bit sleazy about it. You know, Rush really -- this is working really well for Rush. This is what he wants. But I also think, you know, there's this really silly narrative that also took hold in the talk shows, the cable shows this week, Howie, about how the Democrats have done this.
And James Carville took a poll and found Rush was unpopular -- duh -- among young people, duh. But that's not really what happened.
What happened is, Rush Limbaugh, despite that clip you played, came out and said, "I want Obama to fail, I hope he fails." He followed up by saying to his friend Sean Hannity, "Oh, I'm supposed to bend over and grab my ankles because we have a black president."
He said two kinds of offensive things. Democrats went wild. And then when Republicans began to criticize him, they all had to back off after they did it.
That is the story. Not Democrats elevating him.
KURTZ: Yes. I don't think there's any doubt that the White House and Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs helped boost this story and keep it in the news. But now, the new cover of "Newsweek" just out. Rush Limbaugh on the cover. "Enough!: A Conservative's Take on Rush Limbaugh."
David Frum writing the story, and he compares Rush to the Jesse Jackson of the '80s. So it's even some people on the conservative side who are not happy with Limbaugh.
CARPENTER: But I think one of the reasons this story is fascinating for reporters to cover is because it shows infighting within the Republican Party. I mean, there's no better story than that.
Rachel Maddow even went on Jay Leno and said, I would love to ask Republicans this because there's no answer -- who's the de facto leader of the Republican Party? And if you think about, why is this such a hard question to answer, what would the Democrats say if Barack Obama wasn't president? I mean, who would be the de facto leader then? So it is a very difficult question, whether Rush Limbaugh is in the equation or not.
KURTZ: All right.
Now, one of the reasons I think that this story has had legs, as we say in the business, is that it has morphed into a Michael Steele story. The chairman of the Republican National Committee originally criticized Rush on CNN, on D.L. Hughley's program, and then took a little different tact.
Let's play some of that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL STEELE, RNC CHAIRMAN: Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertaining. Yes, it's incendiary.
D.L. HUGHLEY, CNN: He influences the Republican Party. Right.
STEELE: Yes, it's ugly.
Look, we're past this -- it was clearly a misunderstanding. My intent was never to go after my friend. I like Rush. I think he is an appropriate and very important conservative voice for this party.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: David Brancaccio, Michael Steele, fair game for the media after doing that 180 as we just saw?
BRANCACCIO: Look, it's a delicious story, you know, the party and the movement, the conservative movement that's out in the wilderness. And one journalistic value that we all learn in journalism school is this notion of balance, and we're doing a lot of coverage of the party in power, as they try to confront this giant crisis. So we have to devote some attention to the other guys as they seem to, you know, eat each other up.
It's a fascinating thing. And also, you've got Rush, right, who starts his show with "Talent on Loan From God." And then you think, well, gee, a Hollywood actor became president of the United States, a wrestler became the governor of Minnesota. Maybe a guy like this some day could become leader of the free world.
We ought to know all we can about him.
KURTZ: All right.
Amanda, are the media now piling on Michael Steele, in your view?
CARPENTER: I know. Here's the thing where I think it's particularly problematic for Republicans. Michael Steele was elected to that position because he could be a message guy, and he lost control of the message when he did those interviews and called Rush Limbaugh ugly.
I think what he had on his mind is one of the reasons that -- it was a major issue in the race for RNC chair, and that was Rush Limbaugh's interpretation of Barack the magic you know what. And so when he said "ugly," that was ugly. That was a very ugly part of the discussion that was in the run-up to his election.
And so he got off message, but I don't think it came from a bad place.
KURTZ: One other thing I want to mention is, in that interview with D.L. Hughley, who, coincidentally, his show has now been dropped this week by CNN, Hughley said -- and this totally got missed by the media -- that the Republican convention literally looks like Nazi Germany. And I don't understand how he could get away with saying that. I think that is an outrage.
I want to get to the issue that Joan raised at the top about Paul Begala and James Carville.
KURTZ: You mentioned the poll that Carville was involved in showing Rush has high negatives. They are friendly with Rahm Emanuel. They talk to Rahm all the time. They're friends from the Clinton year. But they won't answer the question about whether they're cooperating with this White House strategy.
It came up a couple of times on CNN. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Is this is all a conspiracy, James, you, Paul Begala, Rahm Emanuel, to create this Rush Limbaugh situation?
JAMES CARVILLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think that, honestly, I don't want to take credit away from the great Rush Limbaugh.
COOPER: But you didn't answer the question. Are you working with James Carville, perhaps Rahm Emanuel, others in the White House as part of a concerted effort to do this?
PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I don't know what you mean by concerted effort. I guess the short answer is, no, I do what I do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: David, are Begala and Carville just too involved with White House strategy to function as CNN commentators?
BRANCACCIO: Well, if we think we are, there's one way to deal with it, which is, you know, the cable networks can stop putting them on the air.
There has long been close associations between the administrations in power and their friends out in the news media. You know, whether or not exactly they're journalists or commentators, with that blurred line, is an open question. But we the media are also complicit in this by, if we have concerns about connections to the administration, you know, we're still giving them air time.
KURTZ: I've got 15 seconds, Joan Walsh.
Karl Rove at Fox News, obviously, has lots of connections to the Bush side.
WALSH: Well, right. And Ed Rollins has connections to the Republican side. I mean, you know, these are commentators, Howie. We put them on the air to talk strategy because of their insight into politics both on the Republican side and the Democratic side. I don't think there's anything wrong with what they're doing as long as they're transparent.
KURTZ: All right. Got to go. Thanks to everybody this morning for stopping by.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, final chapter. We'll talk with Connie Chung about the long-awaited break in what had been a media frenzy over Chandra Levy, how she handled that famously tense sit-down with Gary Condit.
And then TMZ's Harvey Levin on this week's disturbing new details in the Chris Brown case and whether his Web site shelled out cash for that photo showing a badly battered Rihanna.
Plus, beat sweeteners. Are journalists going a bit far in cozying up to the new White House power brokers?
And then at noon, John King's interview with one of those power brokers, Peter Orszag, Obama's head of the Office of Management and Budget.
KURTZ: Barack Obama's hair was in the news this week, strangely enough, with both "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" breaking a stunning story on the same day based on actual photograph evidence.
Now, John, some might say a 47-year-old man sprouting some gray hair is not exactly stop the press's stuff.
KING: Not exactly, Howie. You know, I talked to the president when he was the president-elect about this just before the inauguration in our interview. He was making fun of my graying hair. And I said, "Watch it, sir. You know, I got most of this when I was covering the White House for eight and a half years, and you're going to actually be living in the White House."
And so he was saying he was already gray around the temples and, yes, it's getting worse. It comes with the territory.
KURTZ: You warned him. We'll talk to you at the top of the hour, John.
Ordinarily, an arrest warrant for an imprisoned Salvadorian immigrant in a nearly eight-year-old murder case would hardly qualify as big news, but the victim was a one-time Washington intern named Chandra Levy, whose death sparked an intense media frenzy for one reason only.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) GIBSON: Chandra Levy is one of thousands of young women missing in America. Her case might have been overlooked but for the fact that from the time she is she disappeared, her name was linked with that of a United States congressman, Gary Condit.
KURTZ (voice-over): Every hint of a development was treated as big news back in 2001. BOB FRANKEN, CNN: D.C. police have told CNN that they are, in fact, going to follow up on a tip that they got on a California Web site yesterday.
JOHN GIBSON, FOX NEWS: There may be the body of a female buried near a parking lot in suburban, Virginia in a place called Fort Lee, Virginia.
KURTZ: We talked about it many times on this program.
(UNKNOWN): You have somebody missing, you have somebody in power not behaving properly. You have sex, lies, you have video.
KURTZ (on camera): You say it's news?
(UNKNOWN): It's news.
(UNKNOWN): Sensationalist, salaciousness, and not real news. I mean, I can't -- the question, is the press going nuts? Obviously, yes.
BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: I think it's a legitimate story. I mean, you have almost a man bites dog story here.
KURTZ (voice-over): And the media melodrama hit a peak when Condit agreed to sit down with Connie Chung of ABC News.
CONNIE CHUNG, ABC NEWS: Do you have any idea if there was anyone who wanted to harm her?
GARY CONDIT, FMR. CONGRESSMAN: No.
CHUNG: Did you cause anyone to harm her?
CHUNG: Did you kill Chandra Levy?
CONDIT: I did not.
KURTZ: On that point, we now know, Condit was telling the truth. A "Washington Post" series last summer pointed to Ingmar Guandique as Chandra's likely killer, and he is the man police said this week they plan to charge. I spoke earlier with three of the key journalistic players in this long saga.
KURTZ: In New York, Connie Chung, former anchor at CBS and ABC, and here at CNN, who conducted that interview with Gary Condit. And here in the studio, Scott Higham and Sari Horowitz, the "Washington Post" reporters who co-authored the investigative series last year. Connie Chung, in this superheated environment that surrounded the Chandra Levy story in 2001, how much pressure did you feel sitting down with Gary Condit?
CHUNG: A great deal of pressure, because this was the first time he had ever spoken publicly about the case. And it was supposed to be his chance to clear the air. But obviously he didn't do that. I think it was pretty clear that he wasn't going to reveal a great deal of information.
KURTZ: When he said -- when he said that he had nothing to do with her murder, did you believe him?
CHUNG: Well, in many ways, you know, a reporter is just a reporter, and you believe anything someone says. I think the problem that Gary Condit had was that he simply was stonewalling.
KURTZ: Let's actually play it for the viewers, and then we can talk about your reaction to his answer.
Let's roll that tape.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHUNG: May I ask you, was it a sexual relationship?
CONDIT: Well, Connie, I've been married for 34 years, and I've not been a perfect man, and I've made my share of mistakes. But out of respect for my family, and out of a specific request from the Levy family, I think it's best that I not get into those details about Chandra Levy.
CHUNG: Can you tell us, did you have a romantic relationship with Chandra Levy?
CONDIT: Well, once again, I've been married 34 years, I have not been a perfect man.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now everyone knew that he had had an affair with Chandra Levy, the law enforcement sources had leaked that. Were you surprised, despite your repeated attempts, that he didn't admit it?
CHUNG: Yes, I really was, because stonewalling is what gets politicians in trouble, when they stonewall or they try to cover up. I think that the general public and the news media wanted to know -- wanted him to be honest, and if he could be honest about that part of the story, then he could be -- then he would be believed when he was answering other questions as to whether or not he had anything to do with her disappearance.
CHUNG: That's the problem with politicians. It goes way back. And this was fresh off Monica Lewinsky as well.
Sari Horowitz, did Condit's lack of candor at the time about the relationship help drive the story, the media narrative?
SARI HOROWITZ, WASHINGTON POST CORRESPONDENT: The misnomer about this case is that Gary Condit, behind the scenes, with the police and with the FBI, was being very honest. From his very first interview with them he told them about his relationship with Chandra Levy. He kept saying he didn't know what happened to her, but was very open and honest with the police. I think he felt as a politician and as someone trying to protect his family that he didn't have an obligation to talk to the public about something that he felt was private.
KURTZ: He was, of course, a member of Congress.
Scott, as an observer of this at the time, did the media go totally overboard on this case?
SCOTT HIGHAM, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think the press did. And I think the police did too. There were -- it was a symbiotic relationship between the two.
KURTZ: Because the police were leaking and thereby...
HIGHAM: The police were leaking and they were...
KURTZ: ... keeping this story fresh and...
HIGHAM: They were completely...
KURTZ: ... keeping it in the headlines.
HIGHAM: ... feeding the frenzy. They were keeping it in the headlines.
And like Sari said, behind the scenes, Condit -- and the public didn't know this at the time -- had consented to giving a DNA sample, had consented to having his apartment searched without a warrant, and consented to have his staff members' cars searched without a warrant, had given four interviews to the police and the FBI, had answered all of their questions, but publicly he didn't feel like he needed to do a mea culpa, and he paid a very heavy price for that.
KURTZ: Connie Chung, I remember those home videos of Chandra that just played over and over on television. They were like wallpaper.
Did you have a sense that the media coverage here was just out of control in 2001?
CHUNG: Well, of course it was. But the problem was, was the news media had changed. This was the gradual evolution of what the news media was doing. There was flavor of the week, the story du jour. After O.J. Simpson and a number of these types of stories, everyone would glom onto one story and sensationalize it. So that's what happened with this story. It was a slow summer. Everyone was talking about it.
Now, when it came to the networks, the television networks do the quick and easy thing, and that is to get the interview. The local news should try and help solve the problem just as an investigative story does, which is what "The Washington Post" did many years later.
KURTZ: Exactly. And you've set me up for my next question.
Sari Horowitz, when you two did that 13-part series that was published last year, there was a lot of criticism. Wasn't this sensationalizing the case? Why was this on the front page day after day?
HOROWITZ: Scott and I went back and we thought this was a great opportunity. Our editors gave us a year to look at this case. And we looked -- we overturned every rock in this case. We interviewed Gary Condit. We -- our colleague interviewed Ingmar Guandique. We talked to all of the investigators.
KURTZ: He is the Salvadoran illegal immigrant in jail now who is now -- there is an arrest warrant for him in the case.
HOROWITZ: Exactly. The suspect who was hiding in plain sight during the summer of 2001. And we went back and we felt like it was very important to get to the truth of, as Connie said, this huge, sensational story. And we were able to find things out seven, eight years later because people were more willing to talk to us.
KURTZ: The former D.C. police chief, Charles Ramsey, said there were a couple of things in this series that he was surprised. He said, oh, man.
Was it difficult to piece together? How could you find out what the cops didn't?
HIGHAM: We had the benefit of hindsight, Howie. And we weren't in the midst of the feeding frenzy. So we were able to go back after everything had calmed down, and put together the investigation from the ground up.
And we talked to people who the police had never interviewed, who were connected to the Chandra Levy case, including two women who were attacked in Rock Creek Park at the time of Chandra's disappearance. The police and detectives assigned to the Chandra Levy case had never interviewed them until we interviewed them last year.
KURTZ: I still have a hard time...
KURTZ: Yes, Connie?
CHUNG: Howard, I just think that -- what they did was just excellent, good investigative reporting. And I don't mean just, it was superb. But I do believe that detectives and other news media could have delved into this story and been more responsible and gotten some of these details. But it wasn't going to happen in that climate. That summer it was not going to happen.
Also you had...
CHUNG: Oh, if I may?
CHUNG: One other thing is that with politicians, it's so typical for them to be able to -- it's so typical for them to have a hard time answering a personal question. I mean, if you -- if he's accused of embezzling money or whatever, they come out with false bravado and say, I never took that money, I didn't do that. But when it comes to a personal question regarding an affair or an Elizabeth Ray or a Wilbur Mills or Gary Hart, they suddenly shrink and they cannot come up with an answer and they stand behind a spokesperson.
KURTZ: Right. I did -- I have noticed that once or twice, Connie.
Now, you two are writing a book on the subject. And, Sari, having lived with this case for a long time, how do you feel? Finally, there is an arrest warrant against a suspect, against this imprisoned immigrant. How do just feel personally at this point?
HOROWITZ: Well, I think both of us are happy that action was taken by the D.C. police after our series. You know, I kind of compare this investigation to the sniper case, another big case in Washington.
HOROWITZ: And Gary Condit was kind of like the white truck of the sniper investigation, where the police had tunnel vision and couldn't see what was around them. And the press, I mean, everything was focused on Gary Condit, just as it was on the white truck.
KURTZ: Connie, last question to you. After the frenzy surrounding this in summer 2001, 9/11 happened. A lot of people look back and say, boy, the media were really being frivolous here, and that's not going to happen again.
But it really did seem to set the template, as you were alluding to earlier, for a whole drumbeat of missing white women stories: Laci Peterson, Stacy Peterson, Natalee Holloway, people who, unlike O.J., had not been famous, but the media, particularly television, made them famous. CHUNG: Well, the pendulum swung a long time ago, and the attention has shifted. I think what you're saying is that this has become the type of news that we cover and that we glom onto, correct?
CHUNG: Well, the pendulum has swung and it won't swing back. This is the way we are these days, unfortunately. I mean, there are certain stories that shouldn't be at the front of the -- of our radar, but they are. And it's the nature of our news these days. I mean, I wish we could swing the pendulum back, but I don't think it can be.
HOROWITZ: Well, and, sadly, I don't think this case would have gotten any of the coverage it did if it weren't for the Gary Condit connection.
KURTZ: Absolutely. I mean, unfortunately, there are crimes like this all of the time, and you have the sex angle and the Condit angle, and that's what boosted into the stratosphere.
We've got to go.
Connie Chung, Sari Horowitz, Scott Higham, thanks very much for joining us.
HIGHAM: Thanks, Howie.
HOROWITZ: Thank you, Howie.
KURTZ: Up next, an arrest warrant paints a chilling picture in the Chris Brown/Rihanna abuse case. But why are some in the mainstream media all but ignoring it?
TMZ's Harvey Levin joins us in a moment.
KURTZ: Just about everyone has seen that horrifying photo of Rihanna. And this week, her boyfriend faced the music.
When singer Chris Brown wound up in court for allegedly assaulting her, it was pretty big news on television and in the tabloids, especially considering that neither one is a superstar.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(UNKNOWN): Singer Chris Brown has been formally charged with allegedly beating his girlfriend Rihanna, but it's the graphic details of the assault that have people talking.
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: We have for you right here the affidavit which details a vicious, bloody, non-stop assault on 21- year-old music star Rihanna.
RICK SANCHEZ, CNN: Because he's a public figure, because he's an entertainer, this now plays out in the court of public opinion.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: TMZ, the entertainment Web site owned by CNN's parent company, Time Warner, has been leading the charge, for better or worse, on this story.
I spoke earlier to its founder, Harvey Levin, from New York.
KURTZ: Harvey Levin, welcome.
HARVEY LEVIN, MANAGING EDITOR, TMZ.COM: Hi, Howie. How are you?
KURTZ: I'm doing well.
This is not just another celebrity scuffle. The police affidavit, "The assault caused Rihanna's mouth to fill with blood and blood to splatter all over her clothing. There was punching, biting, choking by Chris Brown. He said, 'I'm going to beat the (blank) out of you when we get home.'"
Is this being covered with the seriousness it deserves? LEVIN: Oh, I think it is. I think this is really looked at as a brutal, brutal attack -- or an alleged attack, certainly. And it's really shining a light on a lot of domestic violence issues.
And the fact that she has gone back with him so quickly, it's just raising issues that people kind of hear about with faceless alleged victims, but in this case, it's anything but faceless. And I think people are having meaningful talks about it.
Now, this has been covered extensively on television, the morning shows. I have the New York tabloids here -- "The New York Post", "Daily News" giving it front-cover treatment. But on Friday, after the court hearing, I see that "The New York Times" gave it one paragraph in the "Arts, Briefly" column, one paragraph in a "Washington Post" column, "The Chicago Tribune" did an item.
Are these august news organizations above this sort of thing?
LEVIN: Well, I think that's the problem with a lot of august news organizations, is that they don't want to give people what they want. People are interested in this case. It's really that simple. And it's a little bit arrogant, a little bit -- maybe a little more than arrogant to say, it just feels beneath us so we're not going to give it to them.
It's not as if "The New York Times" will suffer by not giving this maybe due weight. People are interested. Life is like a magazine, it's not the front page of that newspaper.
And it just reminds me, Howie, of the whole Britney case when everybody was covering it, but Associated Press refused to. And then this memo went around Associated Press saying, Britney Spears is considered an important story from here on out. And the reason they wrote that is they were getting their butts kicked because they finally realized their business was suffering because they just felt too good to cover something that people were interested in.
KURTZ: Somebody had to write a memo. All right.
Now, TMZ did its part to sort of kick this story into the stratosphere when your Web site obtained the photo of Rihanna and her badly beaten and bruised face. At the time some said this was an L.A. Police Department photo. That is not the case?
LEVIN: Well, look, we -- at the time we got it, we didn't think it was an LAPD photo. The way the LAPD is talking, it well may be. I will tell you, by the way, just as an aside, but an important one, there are other photos apparently taken later that are just ghastly, that are so much more graphic than the one you saw, because apparently the swelling just blossomed. And it is probably the reason Chris Brown is going to want to cut a deal so it never surfaces in a trial.
KURTZ: Well, to talk about the journalism here, and you know this question is coming, did you pay for that photo? There have been reporters of $60,000 or so.
LEVIN: Yes. Look, I mean, I certainly wouldn't believe what you're reading. But I will tell you, we're not going to talk about how we obtained things.
We obtained them legally. And, you know, I'll talk to you generally about the concept of all of it. But for obvious reasons, I mean, we deal with various people, as does CNN, and we're not going to start talking about who we get things from or how we're getting them other than to say...
KURTZ: All right. Well...
LEVIN: Other than to say that it's legal.
KURTZ: ... I didn't ask you the source. And obviously if you say we're not going to talk about it, people are going to conclude that you probably did pay for it.
But now, the mainstream media, the MSM, everybody then takes that TMZ photo, runs it, broadcasts it for hours and hours, days and days, and then there is -- you know, some of the people in the business look down their noses at TMZ.
Are the mainstream media as guilty of exploiting this picture, if, indeed, you view it as exploitation, as your Web site is?
LEVIN: Well, it's total hypocrisy. I mean, it is -- it's almost laughable that -- you know, that people can -- I remember seeing a report in New York where one of the stations said -- they're showing the picture for like 40 seconds, and then they say that the network has decided not to run the picture. The anchor is saying this as they're showing the picture. And it was just absolutely ridiculous. I mean, you've got to realize here, too, that this was not a traditional case where you have an anonymous alleged victim. Everybody was saying two days into this that it was Rihanna. So in terms of...
LEVIN: ... her identity, that was out on the table.
KURTZ: Well, her identity, but I still question whether it had been my daughter involved in that assault, whether I would have wanted her picture up.
Before I let you go, Brad Pitt was in D.C. the other day. He met with President Obama. He met with Nancy Pelosi. He is pushing low- income housing in New Orleans. And the AP story, the headline was, "Capitol Hill Goes Gaga Over Brad Pitt."
Has the press gone gaga over Brad Pitt as well in a situation like this?
LEVIN: Oh, I think so. I mean, look, I think the game is to get the broadest audience possible in politics. That when there are celebrity -- when there is an intersection with celebrities and politics, it just makes for a better story, people are more interested in it. You take the same issue without Brad Pitt, and you're not going to get the same level of interest. So...
KURTZ: Right. You considered opening a Washington office at one point.
Are you, TMZ, going to be doing more with politics inside the Beltway?
LEVIN: Well, we are. I mean, if you look -- we were the ones that did the story about Northern Trust, you know, that really got some pretty quick action by Congress and the banks.
LEVIN: So we're in it, Howie.
KURTZ: All right. Well, I guess the rest of us have more competition then.
Harvey Levin, thanks very much for joining us.
LEVIN: Good seeing you.
KURTZ: And if you missed any point of RELIABLE SOURCES, our podcast is back. Just go to CNN.com/podcast or you can find it on iTunes. After the break, meet and greet. Journalists aren't exactly playing hardball with some of the new faces in this administration. Are they just making nice with their sources?
KURTZ: During the transition, you may recall, the media couldn't seem to decide whether Barack Obama was more like Lincoln, as "Newsweek" had it, or FDR, as "TIME" magazine cast it. But who knew he had all these political giants working for him as well?
KURTZ (voice-over): When word leaked last fall that Tim Geithner would be named treasury secretary, the initial reviews were pretty glowing. "The Washington Post," "Treasury Contender Schooled in Crisis." "... Geithner's Leadership Style Intense and Collaborative."
The "L.A. Times," "... has been key in response to financial crisis. The decision cheers Wall Street."
Well, Wall Street isn't cheering now. Geithner is widely seen as having bungled the unveiling of the bank bailout, and critics say he's not forceful enough to take charge of this financial crisis.
(on camera): Do reporters puff up their Washington sources in an attempt to gain high level access, or are some of these profiles nothing more than beat sweet news?
(voice-over): That's the theory of Politico's Michael Calderone. And there is no shortage of examples.
"The New York Times" had this to say about Valerie Jarrett, Obama's old Chicago pal -- "A petite, soft-spoken woman who shares Mr. Obama's calm, deliberative style, and is wildly described as one of the few people who can speak for the president-elect with accuracy and authority."
"The Washington Post" said White House aide Jim Messina "has already become known as a key fixer in the operation, thanks to his connections and his relentless focus of purpose."
Politico itself reported that another White House aide, Phil Shalero (ph), is described as "tireless...calm...steady...possessing a Buddha-like Zen."
Television can also be awfully nice to incoming officials, as in this CNN profile of White House Budget Director Peter Orszag.
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): In a meeting can with congressional leadership, the president teased Peter Orszag for this photo which ran in "The New York Times."
PETER ORSZAG, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: And I said, "Yes, I'm super nerd." And the whole room cracked up. But I try to -- I don't think I was self-described. YELLIN (on camera): As a nerd.
YELLIN (voice-over): Neither would "People" magazine. Its Web site called him one of the Obama team's hunks.
KURTZ: Now, this morning, "Chicago Tribune," if you can see it here, "Obama's Storyteller," a rather puffy profile of presidential speechwriter John Favreau.
Now, some of these pieces include some criticism, but are journalists sucking up with these highly-positive portraits? Well, maybe a bit, but when someone is just starting a new job, there's no track record to go after. Much of the information comes from friends and colleagues. Once they screw up, though, the press can turn hostile pretty quickly.
Just ask Tim Geithner.
KURTZ: We're going to try to include some of your feedback through Twitter and Facebook. So I tried this week.
On my Twitter page, I asked, "What's your biggest gripe with the media these days?" Here are some of your responses.
E.J. Canburn (ph) says, "The media focuses too much on stories about the media. See Rush versus the Republicans."
Stuart Gordon (ph) gets annoyed when the media allow the opposition party to dictate the news cycle. "Not every outlandish position or charge deserves coverage."
Cy Don (ph) tweets, "All celebrities, all the time, ad nauseum. The world is filled with good and worthy stories that get crowded out by glitter crap."
From John Holmes (ph), "Newspapers slashing news staffs, thereby reducing news coverage, then whining that they're losing readers."
Tell me about it.
Theresa Copack (ph) wrote, "Focus on stories like Octomom, Caylee Anthony, et al, instead of real stories on the economy, not Cramer rants."
And from Jeff Dominguez (ph), "Vague teasers -- 'Scary emergency. We'll tell you where at 6:00.' Why not, 'Plane crash in your town. Details at 6:00"?
Well, we're not going to do a scary teaser here as we bring back John King. And John, when are you going to get on Twitter?
KING: I'm not on Twitter, Howie. I'm thinking about it. I love watching you all tweet your way away and watching all the politicians tweet away.
But you know what? Those are great comments. We need the constructive criticism, the kicking of the tires, from people out there watching and reading. And I like that. That's pretty good.
KURTZ: The best thing about Twitter is it's not just a chance for anchors and correspondents to blather on, although there's some of that. But it's a chance to hear from people who you ordinarily wouldn't have contact with. And as you saw -- and those were just some of the many comments I got on Twitter -- People have a pretty sharp analysis of what's going on in the media these days.
KING: And Howie, you're dead right. And as I say thank you for this Sunday and goodbye, that is our job, to listen. Isn't it?