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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Gay Marriage, White House Pooch; Obama Coverage; Palin Family Coverage
Aired April 12, 2009 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Time now, as we do every Sunday at this hour, to the turn the thing over to my colleague, Howard Kurtz, and his RELIABLE SOURCES.
Good morning, Howie.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Good morning, John.
KING: You see the pirates in the news, Howie, the front page of The New York Post, here. Look at the pirate flag to the left. "Sea monsters," they call them. That, of course, focusing on the Somali pirates there. And one more quick one for you, Newsday of Long Island: "The crew's plea: free our hero." The captain, Mr. Phillips, of course, still held hostage even as that ship has made it safely to port in Kenya. A big drama on the front page and a big drama for the president.
KURTZ: An important story, as well, John, but I'm kind of pleased that the media have shown some restraint here, have not turned this into a 24-hour melodrama as happened during the Carter years with the Iranian hostage crisis.
I suspect though that part of the reason for television may be that there are no pictures, there is no video, and that has maybe dampened the voracious appetite for a story like this.
KING: I suspect you are right in the less pictures, fewer pictures environment. But still a big story. And we'll keep on it.
KURTZ: All right. Good. Thanks very much, John.
Ahead, Deborah Norville joins us to examine those awkward TV interviews with Bristol Palin's ex-boyfriend that have so ticked off the Alaska governor, and whether the media are really exploiting the problems of two 18-year-olds.
But first, I never thought I'd be leading off this program with a dog story. All right. It's not just any dog. It's the new Obama family dog. But it's also about White House media manipulation.
When a "Washington Post" reporter discovered some weeks back that Michelle Obama was planting a vegetable garden, presidential aides said that exclusive had been promised to "The New York Times," so they offered to throw The Post a bone, so to speak. Hold off on the garden story, and we'll give you a scoop on the new pooch. Well, it was ridiculous to think that wouldn't leak out, and now it has. While The Post was told it could publish the doggie tale Tuesday -- it was even given a picture of the first pet, which you see there -- a mysterious new Web site called First Dog Charlie got hold of the story yesterday with a different picture of what seems to be the very same Portuguese Water Hound.
Joining us now to sink our teeth into the handling of this story, in New York, Chrystia Freeland, U.S. managing editor of "The Financial Times." And here in Washington, David Corn, Washington bureau chief of "Mother Jones" magazine, and Tara Wall, deputy editorial page editor of "The Washington Times."
Chrystia, we see "The Washington Post" front-page treatment here. The dog has been named Bo. There we go. I've got to ask you whether the White House is being a little too clever in trying to control the timing and placement of this story, or does this sort of bargaining with journalists go on all the time?
CHRYSTIA FREELAND, U.S. MANAGING EDITOR, "THE FINANCIAL TIMES": Well, of course, it does, and in it sort of "But for the grave of God, there go I," I think all of us have to feel a little bit sorry for "The Washington Post." Having said, that my dominant feeling was really cheering on that Web site, because you're quite right, Howard, that I think media, right now, in general, and this White House in particular, actually, has been very adept at media management. And it's nice to see that sometimes that doesn't work, and it's nice to see that the Internet actually can push against those boundaries and push against those deals, even on a trivial story like the dog.
KURTZ: Well, you say trivial story, and I would tend to agree, except that in the green room, all the CNN people around here were saying, "Oh, look at the dog. It's so cute."
So, Tara Wall, should presidential aides be manipulating these feature stories? OK, the garden story over here, and you can have the dog story.
TARA WALL, DEPUTY EDITOR, "WASHINGTON TIMES": Oh, the horror. Oh, my God, the horror and the scandal in a dog story. What have we come to?
I mean, I think it does border on the absurd. And I am a dog person, by the way, for all intents and purposes. I have a dog, and certainly those pictures are adorably cute, but front page, really, I mean, I think that this is just -- I mean, it's something so trivial, that the White House probably really doesn't even need to manipulate. There are other things that they are very good at manipulating, I think the least of which should be a dog story.
KURTZ: So just to be clear, if "The Washington Times" was offered the exclusive on the dog and the first pictures of Bo, it would have put the story on page A-9?
WALL: I doubt that you'd see it. I'm not speaking for the entire paper, but I doubt that you'd see something like that leading the front page, above-the-fold story, if you will. KURTZ: I bet you that gets the most hits online.
David Corn, is this unusual? Do you get offered these deals about, we'll give you an exclusive if you hold off on this story?
DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES": No, but I'm not "The New York Times" and "Washington Post." I mean, it takes two to tango and it takes two in an act of manipulation.
I mean, the story here is not just that the White House is trying to manipulate by feeding the media stories. Here is "The Washington Post" writing about this on the front page and saying we made a deal. We made a deal we wouldn't get too upset about the garden story because they threw us that bone. And so -- and they even...
KURTZ: You're saying this is not exactly Watergate.
CORN: Well, yes. This is not exactly -- but in the story itself, they call themselves the paper that broke Watergate, got thrown a bone, the puppy story. So some readers might wonder if this is the best use of The Washington Post's time and resources these days.
KURTZ: Chrystia, you wanted to get in here?
FREELAND: I was just going to say, I thought actually the way that "The Washington Post" handled the story today was really admirable and really quite elegant. I liked the way that they made fun of themselves, that they made clear, I think, with that sort of tongue- in-cheek Watergate reference they were saying, look, guys, we understand this wasn't Watergate, but we were had a little bit. And by the way, we think a lot of you are going to want to see the dog today, so here he is.
KURTZ: And here's the dog. And I'm sure when I check the numbers on "The Washington Post" Web site, that dog story is going to get far more hits than all the serious investigative pieces, national and local, you name it.
All right. Let's turn to a non-canine subject now, and that is the president visiting Iraq this week, wrapping up his international trip.
And I want to come back to you, Chrystia, on this, because some critics were saying that this meeting with those whooping and hollering troops was kind of a glorified photo-op made for TV. Is that fair?
FREELAND: No, I don't think it is. I mean, I think that wherever presidents travel, there is the photo-op side of things, and particularly when presidents travel to Iraq right now. So I think that that's not right.
I think it was really quite significant and important for President Obama to go to Iraq, important for U.S. troops, and also important in terms of the statement that he makes to America and to the world that he gets that this is now his war. And that's particularly significant given how much of his political career was based on the fact that he said he was opposed to this war.
KURTZ: Well, we almost didn't get to see the photo part of the photo- op because the Pentagon took hours to deliver the tape from CBS, which was the pool network, so that everyone could have these pictures.
Let me play some sound for the two of you about what some of the commentators are saying not just about the trip, but some remarks that the president made. What Obama said was, "We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We are a nation bound by a set of ideals and values."
Let's roll that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know that technically he's right, but I think that this country has its roots so deep in Christianity and in its traditions and its laws, I think that should be an affront to the American people. I was really disappointed in the bow to the Saudi king.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: All right. So, we're an arrogant country and we're not a Christian nation and we bow before the Saudi king.
JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think it was very important what the president did. And I think this right-wing claptrap of saying he was apologizing for United States or denying our heritage or something...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Tara, why are some pundits on your side of the spectrum saying that perhaps Obama doesn't believe in a Christian nation, when he was clearly just saying that America is a pluralistic society?
WALL: Well, you know, his idea to forge ahead and this idea of religious neutrality, he essentially threw Christianity under the bus the same way he did Reverend Wright. I mean...
KURTZ: Threw Christianity under the bus? Where is that...
WALL: Well, listen, the point is the history -- let's revisit our history here. This one dollar bill, all of our dollar bills say "In God We Trust." We are a country -- wait. We are...
KURTZ: It doesn't say in Christianity we trust.
WALL: We are a country based on Judeo-Christian values. Our laws are inscribed based on Judeo-Christian values -- our Constitution.
CORN: You can go back and look at Thomas Jefferson.
WALL: And the point is, at the same time -- listen, because we are a Christian nation, we welcome all religions. We are a free country; we welcome individuality.
KURTZ: Let's let David in here.
WALL: These are things that he can certainly communicate in communicating his message of religious neutrality without essentially saying we are not a Christian nation. That's completely false.
CORN: I know this is a media show, not a religious show, but this debate comes up again and again, whether we are or are not a Christian nation. It's not in the Constitution. You can go back and look at some of our founders, including Thomas Jefferson...
WALL: I have.
CORN: ... and he doesn't call us a Christian nation. In fact, his relationship to God is kind of on the iffy side, let alone his relationship, if he had one, with Jesus Christ. And so, you know, here you have these people on the right, Lars Larson, Sean Hannity, again and again focusing, oddly enough, on the Christian end of the remark. You know, they cut off his quote when he said we are not a Christian nation.
WALL: Because he says we are not a Christian nation. And that's false.
CORN: He says we're not a Jewish nation and we're not a Muslim nation.
WALL: But we are a nation...
CORN: We have no official religion in this nation.
WALL: We are a nation based on Judeo-Christian values, and there is nothing wrong with asserting that notion while, at the same time, embracing all religions as we do. And why people come here to flee religious persecution, because we are based on...
KURTZ: I've got to get Chrystia in here.
FREELAND: I was just going to say, Howard, that what -- I mean, if we move to the media side of the debate, as opposed to the religious content of the debate, what I think is interesting, actually, is that those remarks were not that controversial and were not picked up that much in the mainstream media in the U.S. Yes, they were picked up by some of the more shrill right-wing critics of the president, but what I thought was really interesting about those remarks, about his entire performance in Turkey, was how smoothly that went over in the U.S.
And what I thought was really the risky move by the president was talking about how he has Muslims in his family. And if you think back to the campaign, when there were these efforts to smear the president as being Muslim himself, I thought that was quite a risky move, and it was interesting that it didn't boomerang against him.
KURTZ: Chrystia, what about the -- hold on now. What about the business about, did Obama appeared to bow to the Saudi king, and was that a terrible thing, that it also seemed to be -- factor into some of this criticism?
FREELAND: Yes. No, definitely. And I think, again there, as it happened, one of the things that I, not being American, find most attractive about the United States is that this is a country based on opposition to the monarchical principle. So I think American leaders in general should not be bowing to monarchs.
But having said that, again, what I thought was interesting was that was very much a right-wing fringe criticism. And I think one of the things that we're seeing right now in terms of the polarization...
KURTZ: I've got to move on.
FREELAND: ... of the American debate is the right -- really grasping at these straws that are not overall being picked up by the American people.
KURTZ: I want to give you a crack at...
WALL: Not true. Absolutely not true.
KURTZ: I want to give you a crack at one other subject, but I should note that the president held a seder, a Passover seder, in the White House this week. And yet, he's also gotten some criticism for not going to church enough. He is heading to church this Easter morning.
All right. Now, the new refrain from some George Bush aides in the media -- Karl Rove writing in "The Washington Journal," "No president in 40 years has done more to polarize America." Michael Gerson, former Bush speechwriter, now "Washington Post" columnist, "Who is the most polarizing president in recent times? It's not Nixon, Reagan, Bush. It is Barack Obama."
That is based on a Pew poll -- if we can briefly put it up there -- which shows that President Obama getting support from 88 percent of Democrats, just 27 percent of Republicans.
Fair criticism, reasonable observation?
WALL: Well, yes. I mean, it's not surprising when I think that, you know, in the beginning, Republicans and Independents -- certainly, there are many Republicans that actually voted for Obama, but they voted for him, they wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, they supported him. And I think you're seeing that start to fall by the wayside with the expansion of government, these spending policies that are out of control, and the tone and the rancor within the Democratic Congress, and the lack of bipartisanship on the part of the president. That's why you're starting to see this wedge.
KURTZ: David. CORN: Karl Rove calling anybody polarizing and archly partisan is absurd. I mean, he tried to politicize the war on terror. We have his notes proving that.
I mean, you wrote a very good piece in The Post about this. You know, the Pew people, who did the poll themselves, say this doesn't lead to the conclusion that Karl Rove or Michael Gerson are pushing because Democrats usually give Republicans more of the benefit of the doubt at the beginning.
KURTZ: Not just that, but about the same level of Republican support for Obama as there was for Bill Clinton, but Obama is much more popular among Democrats. That's why we see that gap.
CORN: That's why there's a wider gap.
KURTZ: Got to go. Got to go.
David Corn, Tara Wall, Chrystia Freeland in New York, thank you so much for joining us this morning.
When we come back, same-sex shift. Iowa and Vermont green-light gay marriage, but the once divisive issue doesn't generate much coverage or even debate. Are the media simply moving on?
And don't forget to check out our RELIABLE SOURCES fan page on Facebook. You can get an early look at guests and topics we'll be talking about. Check it out.
KURTZ: Gay marriage was a big issue in the 2004 campaign with President Bush and Vice President Cheney vowing to push a constitutional amendment to ban the practice. But in the last two weeks, it almost seems to have become old news.
First, the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in that heartland state, and days ago, Vermont lawmakers brushed off a veto by the Republican governor in becoming the first state to adopt gay marriage through legislation. But here's the real interesting part. This has not caused an explosion of press coverage. A handful of primetime cable news shows debated the issue, for one day, at least, none of them on Fox News.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: The country waited 232 years for the first two U.S. states to recognize gay marriage. Now we've got two more states in the space of a week.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: A lot of people on -- who are against gay marriage, when it happened in California, were saying, well, it's those liberal activist judges in California. Can't really say that about this court in Iowa, though, can you?
DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC: At least in terms of generational issues, most people of my generation and Harold's generation see nothing wrong with gay marriage.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Why has the media reaction been so muted? I spoke earlier with two media commentators, one gay, one straight, on opposite sides of the gay marriage question.
KURTZ: Joining us now here in Washington, John Aravosis, found of AmericaBlog.com. And in Los Angeles, Dennis Prager, nationally syndicated radio talk show host, columnist and author most recently of "Happiness is a Serious Problem."
John Aravosis, the news of this has certainly been covered, but most of the primetime shows have stayed away. No debates on Fox, no parade of right-wingers coming in to denounce this.
Why is that?
JOHN ARAVOSIS, FOUNDER, AMERICABLOG.COM: I think America is bored of the topic a little bit in the sense that this is, what, the fourth or fifth state where we've now had gay marriage legalized, if you count California. There is only so many news stories you can do showing guys in tuxes, and what does it really mean, and will the world fall apart, are the locusts going to come and swarm us?
If there were locusts, there would be news, but honestly, it's funny, I predict about a year ago on your show that, if California got repealed, gay marriage in California, the media would go crazy on that story. And they did.
ARAVOSIS: But the point is, that's news.
KURTZ: But let me bring you back to this week. We had Vermont, the first state to actually do this to elected representatives, "CBS Evening News", ABC's "World News", nothing at all. Three sentences on "NBC Nightly News."
Is John right that the legalization in previous states, such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, have somehow convinced the media that this is not a current, pressing news issue?
DENNIS PRAGER, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: You asking me?
KURTZ: I'm asking you, Dennis.
PRAGER: Yes. Look, this is a real good question you're posing. I don't think that the press covers always what's most important because, honestly, whatever side you're on, I can't think, frankly, of a more important issue, even including the economy, then the definition of marriage. So this is really, to me, somewhat of an indictment of the news media and their priorities. This is big. You don't get bigger than the redefining of the most important civilian or civil and social institution that we have. And so your question is a legit one, and I think it reflects poorly on the media.
KURTZ: Do you think, Dennis Prager, that the coverage has been so unmuted also because journalists are supportive of gay marriage? They don't come out and say so, it's our job to be objective, but they don't view this as a threat or as a bad thing the way you do and the way some Americans do.
PRAGER: Yes. Well, that's right. I think that's a very fair analysis. It's almost as if one were to declare that rain is wet. Why cover it? It's so obviously the correct thing to do, and so that is a factor as well.
ARAVOSIS: See, but that's not really true either. I'm sorry, but if the media were pro-gay or so crazily pro-gay, then they would be reporting the story as, oh my God, look at these great civil rights victories again. Let's do a whole week show on how wonderful the gays are.
But one other point, though. I appreciate Dennis saying that to him, this is the most important issue. I think to most Americans, whether or not we go into another Great Depression and whether or not I keep my job this year and can afford my mortgage, I'm sorry. First I pay my mortgage and I eat, then I worry about the neighbors down the street.
PRAGER: All right. But the interesting thing, John -- that's a very -- that's a fair point, but let me tell you, I've been covering this, I testified for DOMA at Congress. So I've been in this for many years.
ARAVOSIS: I have too.
PRAGER: I've been told from the beginning, John and Howard, from the beginning, this is no big deal. Americans are considering other things.
ARAVOSIS: They are.
PRAGER: When the economy was stupendous I was told that this was of secondary importance.
ARAVOSIS: Well, but maybe it is.
PRAGER: So I don't buy this notion that it's the economy now that is dwarfing this.
KURTZ: Let me bring you back to the media coverage, John, and I will go back to Dennis, and ask you this question. My theory is that when we had the legalization briefly in California, more permanently, as I said, in Massachusetts and Connecticut, you had a lot of images on TV of pictures of happy couples, including older women, and I think maybe that changed the media perception because they didn't seem particularly threatening to anyone.
ARAVOSIS: It wasn't just the media perception. It's a matter of the public perception.
How many times could you show the same photo over and over again on the TV show or an AP story? It's not news any more, Howie. I can't show you the same -- I'm a photographer. Once I show you the same photo 10 times, you're going to say, John, show me your photo.
PRAGER: What you're saying, John, really doesn't contradict what I'm saying in that if there isn't drama to be shown, television news doesn't cover it. I agree with you.
ARAVOSIS: But that's always the point, of course.
PRAGER: If it leads and nothing is bleeding -- but it is the most important story.
ARAVOSIS: But it's not. The G-20 was the most important story last week, Howie.
PRAGER: No, no, no. It was the most covered. I'm sorry. I think -- listen, this is a matter of opinion.
ARAVOSIS: Yes, of course.
PRAGER: I of course think the economy is central. But even when the economy was doing well, people did not understand the gravity of the issue of redefining marriage.
ARAVOSIS: And I just disagree with you. I think the majority of Americans think the economy is more important.
KURTZ: Let's move on.
PRAGER: I agree, they do.
KURTZ: John Aravosis, in recent polls...
PRAGER: I agree.
KURTZ: ... CBS poll, 33 percent support gay marriage. CNN poll had it at 44 percent.
A lot of Democrats oppose gay marriage. President Obama is not in favor of gay marriage. I think the news stories have dutifully quoted opponents, but it doesn't seem to me like they reflect the controversy that's still out there with ordinary Americans, maybe beside the pundits.
ARAVOSIS: You did not cite me a controversy. You told me that when asked, are Americans in favor or opposed to gay marriage? What you didn't get into was how strongly do they feel about this? I think there is a segment of the population, a segment of conservatives on the far right, that are incensed about gay marriage just like abortion. It is their number one issue.
I think for most Americans, they may have an opinion on it, but it's not really strong. And so that if you really push below the surface, they go, you know what? I don't care. I don't like it. I don't care.
PRAGER: There we disagree, John. I think that most Americans who do want marriage defined as it always has been have simply given up on their ability to influence courts, which have taken it out of their hands, or legislatures which have taken it out of their hands. That's the problem, and I understand that given that there is nothing we can do even though -- look at California, we voted in California...
KURTZ: Let me jump in because we're down to our last minute.
Dennis Prager, is there a hint, in your view, a whiff, perhaps, in the coverage, that if you oppose gay marriage you're kind of bigoted?
PRAGER: Whiff? You have to spend most of your time saying you're not homophobic, you're not like a racist. Right now, opposition to redefining marriage is considered the moral equivalent of opposition to racial integration.
KURTZ: All right. Let me get John in here.
ARAVOSIS: Of course, it is. But the point is...
PRAGER: OK. There you go.
ARAVOSIS: ... that the top story in America right now is the G-20 summit and Obama, and not going into a depression. And anybody who thinks the top story in America is gay marriage is off their rocker. And I'll let your audience decide, but I know 80 percent of them are going, that guy's right. The economy is the issue.
PRAGER: I think we are more likely to survive economically than we are the redefinition of marriage.
ARAVOSIS: I know you are. That's why I love you, Dennis.
KURTZ: Got to wrap it up.
All right. Dennis Prager, John Aravosis, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
PRAGER: It's great to be loved.
KURTZ: Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Levi laments. The father of Bristol Palin's baby speaks out on the television circuit, but do we really need to feast on the uncomfortable details of a teenage breakup?
Deborah Norville joins our discussion. Plus, returning serve. Democratic strategist Joe Trippi on the John Edwards affair and why he thinks Republicans are wrong in saying the mainstream media are soft on President Obama.
Also, going overboard. Is it OK for the gang at Fox News to join those April 15th tea party protests?
And later, John King one-on-one with the U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.
KING: I'm John King, and this is STATE OF THE UNION.
Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning.
The country's top general in Iraq says the Iraqis will have the final say on pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq's major cities by a June 30th deadline. I spoke to General Ray Odierno on STATE OF THE UNION earlier today. General Odierno says he's confident all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the 2011 deadline.
A U.S. official tells CNN authorities have been in touch with the U.S. ship captain held hostage now for four days by Somali pirates. Those authorities report Captain Richard Phillips is doing well. His ship and screw are now safely in Kenya, briefing FBI agents about that attack. Negotiations to win the captain's release are ongoing.
Christians around the world are celebrating Easter today, and at the Vatican, Pope Benedict delivered an Easter mass to thousands gathered at St. Peter's Basilica. He delivered Easter blessings in 63 languages.
That and more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.
We'll turn it back over now to my friend and partner, Howie Kurtz of RELIABLE SOURCES.
And Howard, as we do so, I hold up this here. This is the ombudsman in "The New York Times" today saying maybe they didn't do something quite right.
KURTZ: Which, of course, is the ombudsman's job. Here's the scoop, John.
The Times published an op-ed piece a couple of weeks ago by a woman named Daphne Merkin that was sympathetic to convicted scam artist Bernie Madoff. Merkin briefly mentioned that she has "a sibling who did business with him." It turns out her brother, Ezra Merkin, was the chairman of GMAC and has now been charge by the New York attorney general with deceiving his clients and just turning their money over to Madoff.
"The New York Times" says Daphne Merkin's disclosure was adequate. I don't even think it was close. And many readers says ombudsman Clark Hoyt felt the disclosure was so limited as to be disingenuous. Thanks, John. We'll talk to you at the top of the hour.
But first, the breakup of two 18-year-olds in Alaska. Even the unmarried parents of a new baby would not ordinarily qualify as big news. But when the young mother in question is Sarah Palin's daughter, it's hardly surprising the media would take notice. And when the governor of Alaska puts out a statement ripping ex-boyfriend Levi Johnston as a liar, well, that puts the ugly situation front and center.
Levi hit the television circuit this past week, first on Tyra Banks' chat-fest, and then on CBS's "Early Show."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TYRA BANKS, TALK SHOW HOST: You haven't spoke on the press. Why are you breaking your silence now?
LEVI JOHNSTON, FATHER OF BRISTOL PALIN'S CHILD: Because I've seen a lot of stuff and read a lot of things in the newspapers and the news, and it's time that we get our story out there. I've seen a lot of stuff saying I've done steroids and drugs and cheated on Bristol, that kind of thing, and it's not true.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sarah Palin, through a spokesperson, has denied a lot of the things that you're saying. So either you're lying or Sarah Palin is lying. Which is it?
JOHNSTON: They said I didn't live there, I stayed there. I was, like, OK, well, whatever you want to call it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So, are these shows unfairly feasting on a private family tragedy? I put that question to two women with experience on these kinds of stories.
KURTZ: Joining me now in New York, Deborah Norville, host of the nationally-syndicated show, "Inside Edition"; and here in Washington, Amy Argetsinger, who co-writes "The Reliable Source" gossip column for "The Washington Post."
Deborah Norville, you saw those interviews. Isn't it basically raw exploitation at this point to have this kid on?
DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST, "INSIDE EDITION": I think, you know, he's a young man, he's confused. We don't know, you know, how many options he has in his life. And I think it's very intoxicating when the big producer from New York calls you up and says, we'd be happy to fly you and your mom and your sister to New York, we'll put you up in a nice hotel, we'll have fancy cars for you, maybe we can even get you tickets to go see the Statue of Liberty.
That's a real hard thing for the average person to say no to. So yes.
KURTZ: Have you ever made that offer?
NORVILLE: No. No, I haven't.
NORVILLE: In fact, I'll tell you, during the O.J. Simpson trial, I was trying to get an interview with the Brown family. And I said, "My producer and I'd be happy to take you out for dinner," and the person said, well, that's very kind, but somebody at XYZ network has offered to fly the family to a foreign country.
I'm like, I can't compete.
KURTZ: Ah, hard to compete with that.
Amy Argetsinger, let me play one more clip from Levi Johnston's appearance with CBS's Maggie Rodriguez.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ, CBS ANCHOR: Do you think it's heartbreaking, the way that it all turned out? Did you get your heart broken?
LEVI JOHNSTON, FATHER OF BRISTOL PALIN'S CHILD: Yes, I did. But I got an amazing little boy out of it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: "Did you get your heart broken?" I mean, basically, Levi Johnston was giving monosyllabic answers, and she's trying to get him to show some emotion, right?
AMY ARGETSINGER, CO-WRITER, "THE RELIABLE SOURCE": Yes, she's trying very hard here. The whole thing is crazy-making. And I feel a little bit hypocritical here.
On the one hand, would I like to have an interview with Levi Johnston? Heck, yes. I would. I'd be delighted to talk with him.
On the other hand, I was watching these interviews thinking, oh, shut up. He's not doing himself any favors.
You know, the interesting thing is that when there was scrutiny on him back in November, you know, during the convention in September, and then even more recently after the breakup, he was the subject of a couple of sort of ambush interviews where he sort of, you know, acquitted himself pretty well. He gave very dignified, short answers where he said sort of the right things, and then nothing more.
KURTZ: He certainly didn't ask to be a public figure, except nobody forced him to go on in this situation.
ARGETSINGER: And that changes -- I mean, giving these interviews, it's -- yes, it's a bad idea.
KURTZ: All right.
Deborah Norville, we decided -- I decided on this program last Sunday to talk about this because Sarah Palin had put out this blistering statement, ripping Levi Johnston as a liar and distorting the facts and all of that.
Did the governor, you know, boost the ratings of these programs by blowing it up into this big public family feud?
NORVILLE: I think there's no question, because when an elected official who was campaigning for the second-highest office in the land issues a statement, we're obligated in the news media to pay attention. This could have been a story that you could have ignored and everyone else could have ignored if they had simply stayed on "The Tyra Banks Show." Then CBS News goes and sends one of their prime morning anchors to do an interview with this fellow.
The thing that bothered me about all of this is if you're going to do the interview, do a good interview. Please ask follow-up questions.
In the interview with the woman from CBS, he said, yes, I stayed there. How many nights did you stay there? Did you stay there for weeks at a time? Did you stay one night on occasion? Did the governor know when you were staying there?
There were so many follow-up questions. For heaven's sakes, if you're going to be a reporter, act like one.
KURTZ: Were they just kind of treading lightly because they didn't know what they could out of a guy who obviously wasn't used to sitting in front of cameras with the lights on and all of that?
ARGETSINGER: I think they spent enough time with him to realize that there wasn't much more. I mean, Tyra had him on for 45 minutes, and there is just not a whole lot to get.
I think they probably backed off because, who knows what? It's...
KURTZ: And do you agree that Governor Palin, by going so public with her denunciation of this kid who dated her daughter and is the father of her daughter's baby, made it more of a story for all of us?
ARGETSINGER: I don't think anyone was particularly interested in talking to Levi Johnston after the Tyra show. But she called him a liar, which opened the door to going back and getting his response. She created the day two, day three story, really.
NORVILLE: You know, Howard, there's the other thing too. It was either Plato or Socrates. One of those dead Greeks said, you will never regret your silences. And I can't help but think that perhaps Governor Palin regrets that she did engage on this, because what it does is it puts the spotlight on her own family, which has had its own brush with the law. The governor's sister-in-law was arrested several days ago and charged with burglary. So, look, we've all got skeletons in our closet, but when you invite people to come and take a look at your house, they might just find them.
KURTZ: First of all, thank you. It's the first time anyone has ever quoted Plato on this program.
KURTZ: Secondly, look, I mean, this kid, when he was dating Bristol Palin, was trotted out at the Republican Convention to make an image of an all-star family with an unusual situation, and now it's hard to pull that curtain back.
Amy Argetsinger, is there some sort of journalistic code that says we can't just say, OK, this is a private mess between two 18-year-olds, and we're going to leave them alone? Are we just incapable of doing that?
ARGETSINGER: We may be. I mean, there is really not much to this story. When you get right down to it, it is a very ordinary teenage breakup. Sarah Palin's reaction, unwise as it may have been, was a pretty ordinary mom reaction.
KURTZ: Except she happens to be the governor of Alaska who ran for vice president.
ARGETSINGER: Exactly. Yes.
KURTZ: All right.
Want to turn now to Eliot Spitzer, who went on "The Today Show" this week. He, of course, the former governor of New York, resigned just over a year ago for getting ensnared in a prostitution scandal.
Let's take a look at what Matt Lauer asked him. And I'll give you a hint, he didn't begin with the former governor's position on AIG.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELIOT SPITZER, FORMER GOVERNOR OF NEW YORK: This is something that has caused excruciating pain to Silda, to my daughters, something that I carry with me every day because of the pain to them.
MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, "THE TODAY SHOW": People look at you and they say, here was the highest elected official in the state of New York. But there is more.
Here is a guy who had almost an Eliot Ness-type reputation. He went after abuses of power. He went after the high and mighty.
How could he have allowed himself to be involved in a prostitution scandal? SPITZER: I, Matt, like most of us, I suppose, I won't speak for everybody else, have flaws, and have tried to think about it, deeply, address it. As I say, there are no excuses.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Deborah Norville, you once worked at "The Today Show," of course. You know how morning television works. Matt Lauer didn't really want Eliot Spitzer on to get his views on the financial crisis, did he?
NORVILLE: No, he didn't. And that obviously was the invitation. And certainly, he did work very publicly in dealing with some of the problems on Wall Street when he was attorney general and talked about it as governor.
But, again, ask the follow-up question. One of the frustrations about morning television is you do have that clock ticking, and just as in your cameras here at CNN, we've got the clock that has got the digital numbers. You see that when you're doing morning TV.
But again, Governor Spitzer was incredibly noncommittal in any of his answers. He didn't talk about how many times. When Matt asked him, how often did you frequent these kinds of people? He didn't say, even though prosecutors say as much as $80,000 was spent.
You can't say it was just a few times. But Spitzer managed to do the interview and not really say anything.
KURTZ: And on that point, Amy Argetsinger, Eliot Spitzer had tried in recent weeks to write pieces about the fiscal crisis for "Slate" magazine, for "The Washington Post," but basically he had been avoiding the prostitution scandal that brought him down.
Was talking about it on national television kind of the price of admission for him to get into the punditry club?
ARGETSINGER: It was like some kind of media ritual he was undergoing here. If you watched it with an eye on the clock, it was exactly -- the first half of the seven-minute interview was devoted to the scandal that toppled him from power.
And it was very interesting to watch him, because his affect changed very little, whether he was talking about his personal life or talking about AIG. It was as if he knew he had to go through this.
He had to hit his marks. He had to tell his story. He had to show the pictures of his daughters. This was part of the routine and the ritual.
KURTZ: I was reminded of Hugh Grant going on the Leno show some years ago to talk about his dalliance with one of the ladies of the night.
Deborah, this is a former prosecutor who broke the law, humiliated his family, and had to resign as governor. Why should journalists care at this point what he has to say about financial matters? NORVILLE: I don't really know that they should, to be honest with you. I think we use that sometimes, the, "Gee, he has expertise in this area," to really get to the salient stuff. I think the news agenda is filled with so many complicated issues.
I mean, in the history of my career and yours, we've never had a more challenging set of problems facing this country, and yet what are we talking about? The knocked-up younger daughter of the governor of Alaska, and a politician who fell from grace doing something that certainly happened more than once in Washington.
I think it's a bit of an evasive tactic, because we don't really know how to solve these issues.
NORVILLE: And the pundits don't really have any answers to offer up either.
KURTZ: Teenage pregnancy and hookers often sells, no matter what is going on in the world.
All right. Deborah Norville, Amy Argetsinger, thanks very much for joining us.
NORVILLE: Thank you.
ARGETSINGER: Thank you.
KURTZ: Up next, former Republican chairman Ed Gillespie said on this program two weeks ago that the media are much rougher on his party. Now Democratic strategist Joe Trippi gets his turn and takes on the John Edwards sex scandal as well.
KURTZ: Republicans, as you may have noticed, have been complaining roughly forever that the mainstream media tilt to the left, but Democrats aren't always happy with people in my business either. On RELIABLE SOURCES two weeks ago, former Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie laid out his indictment of why he thinks journalists are unfair to his party.
Joe Trippi, the Democratic strategist who worked for John Edwards in the last year of his presidential campaign, and Howard Dean, four years before that, sees things a little differently.
I spoke to him earlier, here in the studio.
KURTZ: Joe Trippi, welcome.
JOE TRIPPI, DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL STRATEGIST: Great to be here. KURTZ: President Obama has gotten pretty mixed coverage in recent weeks -- he is doing too much at once, he screwed up the AIG bonuses, he's talking over General Motors, he hasn't solved the pirate problem. But a majority of Americans still seem to like the guy.
So is there a gap between the punditry and public opinion?
TRIPPI: Big time, yes. I mean, people like this guy. They want to root for him. They want him to succeed.
And I don't think that the pundits have caught up with the people in this one. People are giving him the benefit of the doubt. They want to make things work.
KURTZ: Are you surprised at all that liberal columnists like Paul Krugman, who was on the cover of "Newsweek" the other week, are criticizing Obama from the left?
TRIPPI: No. I've criticized him. I don't think he's doing a great job on everything.
We don't know how this is all going to turn out. It's a big mess. They're working on it. I don't agree with everything they've -- particularly on the banking crisis.
And I kind of line up on the Krugman side of things. But we'll see, you know.
KURTZ: All right.
TRIPPI: Krugman, I'm sorry.
KURTZ: What about coverage of the Republicans? I mean, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner have barely produced an alternative budget. Do the media care, or would we rather be sitting around talking about Rush Limbaugh?
TRIPPI: Well, they should care, because right now, I mean, it's kind of -- from my perspective, it's kind of amazing how the media covered all of this, because there really isn't a Republican Party right now. And so they've been covering Rush Limbaugh and other things.
KURTZ: All of those people who have GOP on their name, who have been elected to House and Senate, they're not Republicans?
TRIPPI: It's amazing the extent there is no Republican Party. There is really no opposition, I don't think, organized opposition.
KURTZ: Well, wait a second, there is opposition when the president can't even get a single Republican vote for a stimulus package and from many other things.
TRIPPI: When basically Rush Limbaugh is the key spokesman, or the person that is covered the most of the -- that tells you something along...
KURTZ: Maybe that says more about the media. Well, actually, he did get three Republican votes for the stimulus package.
We had, a couple of weeks ago, former Bush White House aide Ed Gillespie on, on this program. And he talked about how he thinks -- he likes reporters, but he thinks media coverage has really tilted to the left.
Let's listen to some of what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ED GILLESPIE, REPUBLICAN POLITICAL STRATEGIST: In my experience in campaigns and politics over the years, when a Republican, you know, says something or gets in a fix, the media stay on him pretty good, or her, for a while. On the Democratic side, they only -- the media will only do that if the Republican opponent kind of forces the issue and presses it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Is there a double standard?
TRIPPI: Not at all. I mean, that's a sort of loss of memory on what happened when George Bush was first president of the United States and the press literally cheer-led him into the war in Iraq. I mean, the embedded journalists.
I mean, we've had -- once a new administration comes in, I do think there is some tendency for the press to sort of go along for the ride. They do start criticizing after a while.
That will happen with Obama, and it is starting to happen. But I don't think there is a bias at all.
KURTZ: But Gillespie is saying that journalists are quicker to jump on scandal or some kind of mishap involving a Republican. And when a Democrat is involved, they do it only if the GOP is firing live ammunition at the Democratic target.
TRIPPI: I don't think that's true at all.
KURTZ: You've been through a lot of campaigns.
TRIPPI: I've been through a lot of them. And they jump on scandal regardless of who got it, who stepped in it.
KURTZ: When you worked for John Edwards in the Democratic primaries, how frustrating was it for you that Obama and Hillary seemed to get 99 percent of the coverage?
TRIPPI: Oh, it was awful. I mean, I remember one day John Edwards looked at me and said, "What do I have to do, set myself on fire?" And I told him that if I thought it would work, I'd do it. But...
KURTZ: You didn't rule it out.
TRIPPI: Didn't rule it out.
KURTZ: Was it fair for the press to pile on Edwards after "The National Enquirer" story, after he had to acknowledge that he had lied about having an affair with a former campaign aide, or basically had he asked for it by not being truthful about this affair?
TRIPPI: No, I think he asked for it. I think he would say he asked for it. And no, I thought that coverage was fair. I think there's a lot of healing now that has got to go on, on a personal level, but he asked for it.
KURTZ: Well, this happened while you were working for that campaign.
TRIPPI: Yes -- no, I was angry. I mean, I was upset. There were a lot of people upset. If I had known what I had known -- well, I mean, if I had known now what I didn't know then, I'm not sure I would have done it, you know, put that year of my life into it. But...
KURTZ: Isn't this all going to get dredged up again when Elizabeth Edwards' book comes out in a couple of months? She's obviously going to have to address it.
TRIPPI: Well, she's -- I'm sure she'll address it. But, look, I think they are two really, I think, people who love each other. I have no idea how this happened, but I think Elizabeth Edwards is a great person and I think it's going to be an interesting book. I can't wait for it to come out.
KURTZ: All right.
Now you were famously Howard Dean's Internet guru in the 2004 campaign. Obama took the whole online thing to another level, fundraising machine and all of that.
And yet, a lot of people say, well, he'll just run a YouTube presidency. He'll go around the mainstream press. And yet, he is granted a slew of interviews to newspaper reporters, to bloggers, to network anchors, "60 Minutes," you name it.
Why is he spending so much time dealing with the old dinosaur media?
TRIPPI: Because I think they understand you've got to do both. I think they did both really well in the campaign. A lot of the campaigns were doing the old media and not doing the new -- not doing any of the new stuff.
They mastered it. And I think they're doing a great job right now. I mean, they know how to use YouTube, they know how to use CNN. And they're doing a pretty job of it.
KURTZ: Almost every night, I flip around the channels, I see opinionated hosts on Fox News beating up on President Obama. I see people on MSNBC beating up on the Republicans, defending Obama.
Do you get a little tired of this fragmentation in the media where some folks seem to take sides?
TRIPPI: Yes, I'm pretty sick of it. I think a lot of Americans are too. But it seems to be the way the media is fragmenting right now, where you tune in to Fox to get the hits on the Democrats, the liberals, and the same thing on MSNBC going the other way.
KURTZ: Is that playing to your base, as a political term?
TRIPPI: Yes. But that's how journalism was in the very beginning, in the old days. I mean, maybe that's where we're going.
KURTZ: Joe Trippi, thanks very much for joining us.
TRIPPI: Good to be with you.
KURTZ: And RELIABLE SOURCES is now portable. You can download our video podcast at CNN.com/podcast, or look for us on iTunes.
And coming up after the break, tea time. Fox News gets on board in a big way with this week's tea party protests. Has that crossed some kind of line?
We report, you decide. That's next.
KURTZ: The folks at Fox News have found something to be fore in this age of Obama. They are firmly in favor of tea parties.
KURTZ (voice-over): On Wednesday -- that would be April 15th -- there will be tax protests around the country on the theme of the original Boston Tea Party. TaxDayTeaParty.com says it was inspired by that rant against President Obama's mortgage aid plan by CNBC's Rick Santelli.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Obama, are you listening?
NARRATOR: From sea to shining sea, in every city, we, the people, take our nation back.
KURTZ: Among those backing what's being billed as a grassroots movement, a conservative blogger, Michelle Malkin, a Fox contributor. Newt Gingrich, the former House-speaker-turned-Fox-analyst, will also will be attending one of the parties. Fox News, whose new online slogan is "Just Say No to Biased Media," began publicizing the protests, and soon some hosts were signing on.
GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: We're getting ready for next week's Tax Day tea parties. All across the country, people coming together to let the politicians know, OK, enough spending.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: And, of course, April 15th, our big show coming out of Atlanta. It's Tax Day, our Tax Day tea party show. Don't forget, we're going to have "Joe the Plumber."
KURTZ: Now, the hosts at Rupert murdoch's network all make up their own minds, right? But soon the tax protest became a full-fledged Fox fight.
BECK: Fox News with "Your World With Neil Cavuto" is going to be live in Sacramento, California at 4:00 p.m.. That's 4:00 p.m. Eastern, 1:00 p.m. Pacific. Our show is going to be at the Alamo at our regular time. Then "Hannity" will be in Atlanta, Georgia, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, 6:00 p.m. Pacific. And then Greta is live in Washington, D.C., 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time.
KURTZ: These hosts said little or nothing about the huge deficits run up by President Bush, but Barack Obama's budget and tax plans have driven them to tea.
On the other hand, CNN and MSNBC may have dropped the ball by all but ignoring the protests.
KURTZ: Glenn and company joining the somewhat over-caffeinated tea parties. They are commentators who are paid for their point of view, and these aren't Republican Party events. At least not officially. Obviously, they're playing to their conservative base.
The test for me is whether these Fox hosts occasionally find something nice to say about President Obama. In the interest of being fair and balanced, of course.
Still to come, front-page flap. NBC advertises in the "L.A. Times," and, well, it sure looks like a real news story.
KURTZ: Many major newspapers have started selling ads on their front pages. A little tacky in my view, but hey, times are tough. But what the "Los Angeles Times" did this week is just plain bogus.
KURTZ (voice-over): What appears to be a news story, "Southland's Rookie Hero," was actually an ad by NBC for a new cop show called "Southland." Yes, there's a small line saying "advertisement," but it's even written like a news story -- "It's not every assignment that puts you in the back of a squad car."
Look, don't take my word for it. A petition circulating in The Times' newsroom calls it an embarrassing and demoralizing ad that makes a mockery of our integrity and our journalistic standards.
And John King, that line between news and advertising seems to be getting more blurry all the time.
KING: It is. And on the one hand, you have a bit sympathy. If putting the ad on the front page means more revenue, it means they fire fewer reporters, you might say you're for it. But I understand the reporters in the newsroom who are working hard every day to put together what is one of the country's finest newspapers cringing at the idea of an ad on the front page. It's tough times for the newspaper business.
KURTZ: I'm old-fashioned, but I think an ad should look like an ad.
I should mention, by the way, that my wardrobe this week is brought to you by -- well, actually, I shop for my own clothes.
John King, returning the reins back over to you.