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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Aired July 12, 2009 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BLITZER: Howie, you have got a full hour of hot news.
KURTZ: Good morning, Wolf. And you mentioned fireworks coming up with Matalin and Carville, you're anchoring the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings beginning tomorrow. Will it be a challenge for you to anchor days of coverage if there are no fireworks at those hearings?
BLITZER: I don't know if there will be fireworks, but there will be interesting discussion on Tuesday, especially 19 senators, each one, Howie, will have 30 minutes uninterrupted to grill the Supreme Court nominee.
BLITZER: Can you imagine 19 30-minute interviews that she's going to have to go through in one or two days? Some of it will, I'm sure, be fascinating.
KURTZ: You'll need as much endurance as the nominees.
Thanks, Wolf. We'll talk to you later.
The tsunami of coverage over bidding farewell to Michael Jackson this week -- not that the media are prepared to kiss this story goodbye anytime soon -- overwhelmed everything in its path, even a presidential trip to Russia, Africa and the Vatican. But there was also a journalistic earthquake that was heard above the din of the endless Jackson tributes.
Just as Michael Jackson became a controversial cultural icon who transcended the world of music, Sarah Palin is a polarizing presence whose caribou-hunting charisma has taken her beyond politics, hailed by some, detested by others, and prime fodder for the likes by the likes of David Letterman and "Saturday Night Live."
KURTZ (voice-over): The aftershocks of Palin's surprise resignation as Alaska governor are still reverberating, in part because it's been hard to decipher just why she's quitting. Palin's response? She skewered the media on Twitter and Facebook for questioning her explanation, then put on her waders and went fishing for coverage with several correspondents from the very same media establishment.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why not just stick with it? I mean...
GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), ALASKA: Because that's politics as usual.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... a lot of governors face hardship.
PALIN: They do.
Well, I knew I wasn't going to run again, so I'm going to be honest with Alaskans and say one term was enough.
ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC: You wouldn't have finished the job, some would say.
PALIN: You're not listening to me as to why I wouldn't be able to finish...
KURTZ: The pundits are having a grand time psychoanalyzing Palin for doing something that most regard as ditzy or at least suspicious.
BOB BECKEL, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Did you read her statement on Friday? It was one of the more incoherent -- it made Sanford sound like Shakespeare.
TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Why do we assume that she wants to run for president? Why would you run for president? Maybe she wants to go into the media.
JOHN RIDLEY, JOURNALIST: At what point do you just say I'm going to raise my metaphorical middle finger to everybody, let me go out on my book tour, let me go out and maybe get a deal hosting a show, but at some point become the king maker for 2012?
MARK MCKINNON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: She may be crazy like a fox, she may be crazier than an acre of snakes, but she's going to be crazy busy on the political radar screen for a long time to come.
TINA BROWN, DAILYBEAST.COM: She sort of reminds me in a way of Princess Diana when she was unraveling. She is both obsessed with the media and keeps saying she is victimized by it.
KURTZ: So, are the media fairly analyzing the soon-to-be former governor's latest move, or piling on Palin once again?
Joining us now in New York, Keli Goff -- actually, we see Michael Medved in Seattle, host of "The Michael Medved Radio Show." Now Keli Goff, in New York, analyst, blogger and author. And here in Washington, I know he's here because I can see him, Matt Frei, anchor of "BBC World News America" on BBC America.
Matt Frei, why would Palin gripe about the media coverage yet again of her surprise announcement and then turn around and go fishing with Andrea Mitchell and the gang?
FREI: Because one of her great strengths is that she can gripe about the mainstream media. She represents the vote of resentment. It's about emotion, it's not about policy. She represents the part of America that feels outdone (ph) by.
KURTZ: Does she have a legitimate gripe about the way she's been treated by journalists?
FREI: Not really. I think if you court the media, and then you complain about the media, you have a legitimate gripe, but it doesn't really matter, quite frankly, because there are a lot of people out there listening to her, people who are still in love with her politically think that she has a legitimate point. And the more she makes that point, especially in waders while trying to catch a few salmon in Alaska, the better it sounds.
KURTZ: All right.
Michael Medved, Palin on the cover of "TIME" magazine this week, if we could put it up there. The headline, I believe, is "The Renegade."
And my question to you is, doesn't Palin thrive on the media coverage that, let's face it, made her a superstar, even as she denounces that very coverage as being terribly unfair?
MEDVED: She does. I mean, to some extent, her decision is to embrace the role of celebrity and to sort of reject it, or leave the side of administrator, which she never seemed to really relish or enjoy anyway.
The one area where I think Sarah Palin has an absolutely legitimate gripe has been the media coverage and focus on her children. I cannot think, Howie, and I'll bet you can't either, of any other politician, not a president, not a vice president, not a candidate, whose children have been so readily focused on and trashed and ridiculed by mainstream media.
People left Amy Carter alone. They certainly left Chelsea Clinton alone. They even went relatively easy on the Bush girls. But Sarah Palin's children, with the coverage for the Levi Johnston statements, I mean, it's been extraordinary. And I think it's unprecedented, and I know she deeply resents it, and so do millions of Americans.
KURTZ: Right, although some say she put her children front and center in the campaign.
But let me move on to Keli Goff, because she's also -- Governor Palin also on the cover of "The Weekly Standard," if I can hold it up here, if we can get the camera back on me. Here we go.
We have a graphic, "Out of Alaska, and in an interview with the magazine, which did a lot -- the conservative magazine did a lot to boost her candidacy for VP, she says of the coverage of her explanation for stepping down, "I'm like, 'Holy jeez, I spoke for 20 minutes.' Like, why don't the media understand?"
And so, does she have a point about journalists seeming to be puzzled about just why she is quitting? GOFF: You know, Howard, I think she has about as much gripe about the media as Dan Quayle might. I mean, you misspell "potato," the media is going to cover the fact that you misspelled "potato."
And her speech was sort of lacking and incoherent. I think a lot of us are still a bit unclear. And I've read the thing multiple times. I re-watched the speech a few times. And I don't think she can necessarily lay all the blame on us that we're not clear on what she was saying when she didn't seem completely clear on what she was saying.
You know, the other thing I would say is, I mentioned before on this program that I'm from Texas. And there's actually a blog called "Texas for Palin." And they actually have a headline on their home page right now that reads "'TIME' Magazine Gives Sarah Palin a Fair Shake." And it was interesting because it goes on to say how surprisingly balanced they described the "TIME" magazine cover story that you just showed.
My point is that I think it's sort of interesting that it's sort of playing against the narrative that she's trying to create, which is that the media is completely out to get her. That's not completely resonating with even the people who like her and support her.
KURTZ: Well, Matt Frei, in "The Weekly Standard" interview, Palin also says that there are rumors that pornographic pictures of her are about to hit the Internet. I never heard these rumors. She seems to really focus in on what the critics are saying, and some people have advised her not to do that.
My question to you is, most politicians resign, and unless they're headed to the slammer, it's a two-day story.
What explains this continued journalistic obsession with the woman from Wasilla?
FREI: I think a couple of things. I mean, she has undoubted political talent, and not just talent, but (ph) self-promotion. You know, she is --, look wed' all now like to forget that moment in the Republican convention when she appeared on stage and she electrified the rank and file of the party, and electrified quite a few pundits who had been dissing her since. So she has undoubted political talent.
She has a sort of spectacular ordinariness about her. You know, she is a working mom, she's got these extraordinary kids who have strayed like other children. I think for her to say pornographic pictures, look at the coverage of my children, is slightly disingenuous, but she is courting that kind of abrasive coverage because that's part of her appeal.
KURTZ: Let me go back to Michael Medved.
I would agree with you to some extent that some of the coverage, particularly during the campaign, particularly about her as a mom, was unfair, perhaps even sexist. And all of this coverage courting unnamed McCain aides calling her a "whack job" and worse I also think is questionable. But doesn't a politician at some point need to make peace with the media, whereas Palin seems to keep sort of nursing the grievance?
MEDVED: Well, I think the grievance is working for her.
You ask why the coverage continues. It continues because she and Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are now, according to polls, virtually tied, at the top of preference for -- and this is after her resignation statement.
What I found also truly extraordinary, and where she has no legitimate gripe, was the resignation statement itself. She very, very clearly wrote it herself.
What a lot of people don't realize is that she wasn't adlibbing. She had actually written it in advance, released it to the press, and was reading it from a teleprompter.
GOFF: Which is scary.
MEDVED: And it's extraordinary for a major statement by a major politician to be so casually prepared. This is unprecedented. Now, a lot of people love it because it's so different, but it's shocking.
KURTZ: Right. I thought she was just riffing.
Keli Goff, it took some liberal bloggers to poke some holes in some things that Sarah Palin said. For example, she had said that most of the ethics complaints against her in the state of Alaska were filed by Democrats. That's not true. She said millions of dollars were spent on legal fees defending her, and she felt badly about that. But actually, the figure was less, and these were mostly staff salaries paid to state lawyers who would have been paid anyway.
GOFF: Right. Been working anyway.
KURTZ: So, where was the mainstream media in fact-checking these things?
GOFF: Well, first of all, ironically, remember, some of them couldn't even make it to the press conference. I'm just being a little bit glib there, but just because of how sort of last minute some of her major announcements have been, which I found rather amusing.
But no, you're totally correct. Yet again, this goes into the argument of the so-called citizen journalists and bloggers doing some of the work that the mainstream media used to, even though the mainstream media complains that there is not really a place for some of us at the table.
But one thing I'm going to say to respectfully disagree with the gentlemen on this panel is that I actually have not found the majority of Sarah Palin's coverage sexist as a woman. And I'm someone who actually does not dislike her like a lot of my more liberal friends do. I find her endlessly fascinating, in fact. I think that you can't have it both ways when it comes to coverage.
A lot of the coverage that Sarah Palin has received, we have to talk about the fact -- "Vanity Fair" mentioned it -- it's because she's very attractive. I mean, she's an attractive looking woman, and that has certainly helped in some of her coverage. I don't think you can then turn around and sort of play both sides of the fence and then say, why are you focusing on so much shallow coverage of me?
KURTZ: Right. All right. Let me jump in here, because I've got one more -- something I want to move on to, and that is another story that's been kind of overshadowed this week, Nevada Senator John Ensign and his sex scandal. His former aide, Doug Hampton, whose wife had an affair with the Senator, gave an interview with Jon Ralston of KLAS TV, which he talked about, among other things, how Ensign's family -- Ensign's parents, actually, had paid $96,000 to Cindy Hampton, essentially to make her go away.
Let's roll some of that interview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JON RALSTON, KLAS: Do you believe that you need to be made financially whole because John Ensign destroyed your ability to make a living? Don't you believe that?
DOUG HAMPTON, WIFE HAD AFFAIR WITH SEN. ENSIGN: Yes, there's no question about that. His personal pursuit of Cindy spilled over into, "Hey, I'm really sorry that you guys have to leave the organization. This isn't working."
He was still in pursuit of Cindy. This was -- he needed me out of the organization.
KURTZ: Matt Frei, I'm running a little short on time, but here's my question. Extraordinary. A Senator's family pays $96,000 in what some regard as hush money to the former mistress, and it doesn't make the front page of the major papers, it wasn't on the "CBS evening News," it wasn't on the "NBC Nightly News."
What does it take for a story like that to break through?
FREI: Michael Jackson dying and Sarah Palin speaking in Alaska. That's the point.
I mean, we have all this time top spend on news coverage -- you know, around-the-clock cable news -- and we seem to be spending more time on fewer stories across the board. That's what it seems.
But the other point is this, that you've got -- I mean, it is an extraordinary story because you have Mark Sanford, you have John Ensign. I mean, it's like a swarm of locusts defeating one presidential hopeful after another in the Republican Party. And what should be happening in the same week that we talk about this? Obama sees the pope. And you wonder, is the pope going to kiss Obama's ring or is it the other way around?
KURTZ: I'm going to come back to that.
But Michael Medved, there was even a handwritten letter from Senator Ensign to Cindy Hampton saying, "I used you for my own pleasure, not letting thoughts of you, your husband, your kids come into my mind." And yet, it just seems like maybe this was overshadowed, as Matt says.
MEDVED: Well, it was overshadowed to a great extent by Mark Sanford. He set a very, very high bar for weirdness and for self- revelatory embarrassment and self-immolation. And the fact that Senator Ensign at least had the good sense not to do a tearful press conference, where he confessed to everything, I think that largely saved him.
KURTZ: Just briefly, Keli, in a week when Roland Burris announced that he was not going to run after he got involved in the Blago scandal, the senator from Illinois, we're just suffering from scandal fatigue in the media.
GOFF: I think sex scandal fatigue, tax scandal fatigue, I think unless Chris Hansen from "Dateline NBC" catches a senator on camera in an underage sting operation at this point, the bar has just been moved and no one is going to follow...
KURTZ: All right. One other thing I want to slip in here, and that was a photo ran in "The New York Post," was trumpeted by Drudge, President Obama in Africa, appearing to ogle a 16-year-old Brazilian girl. Everybody chattered and gossiped about this, but let's roll the video and see what actually happened.
There you see the president looking down and not particularly looking at this particular young lady. At is amazing to me, because I think -- we're going to see it again. Let's play it five more times.
All right. Amazing to me that the photo was misleading and actually, he's not really looking at her at all.
GOFF: Not for Sarkozy, though.
KURTZ: Sarkozy, another story. President Sarkozy definitely checking her out.
When we come back, wall to wall. The Michael Jackson coverage dominated this week with the big memorial service in L.A.. Did the media really need to give such an overwhelmingly positive farewell to this troubled entertainer?
And later, a special interview with David Frost on his role at Al Jazeera English and seeing his famous showdown with Richard Nixon on the silver screen.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: I made clear last week that I found the television coverage of Michael Jackson's death to be totally out of control and driven by an unabashed lust for ratings. So it may surprise you to learn that I thought Tuesday's memorial service in L.A. was a major cultural event, with lots of big-name stars and poignant moments, and worthy of media attention. But not eight or 10 hours of wall-to-wall cable coverage, as if there was nothing else going on anywhere in the world.
And it was a little jarring, to say the least, to see the big three anchors narrating the event at the Staples Center. Every network, it seems, needed to bid a proper farewell to the controversial entertainer, and the tone overwhelmingly positive.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: The Michael Jackson memorial service to be held at the Staples Center out in Los Angeles. This has been -- and it's a funny thing to say about a memorial service -- a hot ticket.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: I don't know if images will soften those who hold a negative image, those who find all this abhorrent.
CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN: Michael Jackson was an international superstar, perhaps unrivaled in terms of the interest in his life.
KURTZ (voice-over): But even when someone of Jackson's international fame, how much is too much? And did news organization simply lose sight of the darker side of a man who repeatedly had to deny allegations of child molestation?
COURTNEY HAZLETT, MSNBC: Right now it's appropriate to give him his due, which is he's a pop culture icon, the likes of which I don't think any of us will see again in our lifetime.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: "Talking Points" is just about fed up with all the adulation. It is basically grandstanding and pathetic in the extreme. A cowardly media will exploit any event for ratings. Remember, the same people extolling Jackson today were the ones giving his child molestation trial gavel-to-gavel attention.
KURTZ: Michael Medved, O'Reilly was a rare dissenting voice there.
What did you make of the tone of the day of tributes on Tuesday?
MEDVED: It totally -- I couldn't agree with you more. I think it was way over the top. It just vaulted over the top.
And one of the things that was very striking to me is you kept hearing Michael Jackson described as the greatest entertainer of all time. Now, my question would be, a month ago, before he died, when he was very tenuous and people weren't sure would this comeback come across, would anyone -- if you asked the quest, who is the world's greatest entertainer, who's the greatest entertainer of all time, how many people would have said Michael Jackson a month ago? I suspect very few.
And there are so many unanswered questions that people in the media never asked. His memorial service was, in many ways, a celebration of African-American identity with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton involved, and the children of Dr. King. No one asked the question about the fact that this guy went through 13 plastic surgeries to make himself look more white, he had two white wives, his only wives were white, and three white children. And it's a much more tormented, complex, serious issue than simply, couldn't he dance wonderfully?
KURTZ: Keli Goff, I mean, to be fair, I mean, there were touching speeches by Jackson's friends and family that kind of made him here real, I think, to me, at least, after 10 days of media gushing. But, you know, Michael raises some important points here.
Should the media go along with kind of painting the guy as a saint? GOFF: Well, I just find this really amusing, though. Michael and Bill O'Reilly. It's interesting to me how white people seem to be the ones most outraged about black people celebrating Michael Jackson is an African-American. I just find that kind of ironic.
KURTZ: But, I'm not talking about the celebration, to be clear. I'm talking about the media coverage. I mean, the people who loved Michael Jackson should see glowing things, but shouldn't we retain some skepticism?
GOFF: Sure. I mean, I'm skeptical by nature.
But look, the Pew Research Center just did a study about perceptions of the media coverage of the Jackson story. And what they found is there's quite frankly a difference in perspective based on race.
I mean, one of the things that they found is that while two out of three Americans thought the coverage was overboard, more than half of African-American did not. While 22 percent of white Americans said that they followed it closely, almost 80 percent of African-Americans did.
I think it's more than just talking about celebrating him as an artist. I think for a lot of African-Americans, myself included, you know, now that we have a black president, I think it's easier for some people who aren't black to forget that not that long ago, as a matter of policy, networks like MTV did not play black artists. It's hard to remember that not too long ago, when I was a kid, major cosmetic houses still did not give contracts to black models.
GOFF: Will Smith becoming the biggest box office star in the world by first being a hip-hop artist aired on MTV, Queen Latifah and Rihanna having cosmetic contracts, would not have happened were it not for "Thriller," which makes him perhaps not the best entertainer, but the most culturally significant, probably, in our history.
KURTZ: With all of that, Matt Frei, this was an all-day affair on CNN, the other cable networks. Katie was there. Brian was there. Charlie was there.
Did Michael Jackson, for whatever he's accomplished in his career, warrant the equivalent of a state funeral?
FREI: Probably not. But I think what's going on here, Howard, is several things.
One is, yes, he was a great entertainer. But two, what you saw here, not just in this country, not just in Britain, but, you know, in the Middle East, in Asia, was a kind of nostalgia for that kind of celebrity.
This is the era of DIY celebrity. We can all post of our children's clips on YouTube. We can become instantly famous for two seconds.
So here is a guy who was genuinely famous, a bit like Lady Di, when she died, which I think the funeral was watched by 400 million people or something across the planet, if not more. So, this was celebrity for its own sake, and that's one of those rare moments when we all come together.
And let me tell you, I was in Pakistan when he died. And I got back to my hotel at 6:00 in the morning. It was the call to prayer Friday morning. Every single channel on my hotel television, including Oruzgan television and Baluchi (ph) television, had Michael Jackson's death on it.
You know, this is a part of the world that you don't normally associate with Jackson mania. So he is, in that sense, a global figure. It's about us as much as it is about him.
Well, let me also ask you very briefly about ABC paying $200,000 for a reality show pilot from last year involving Joe Jackson, the father, and then happening to get an interview with Joe Jackson, the father. ABC says it doesn't pay for interviews, but what do you make of the confluence of events?
FREI: Well, I mean, it seems like an extraordinary confluence of events.
KURTZ: All right.
By the way, I mentioned last week that TMZ -- I originally said TMZ had broken the story of Jackson's death. "The Enterprise Report" Web site came after TMZ. I had the order backwards last week.
But let me play for you another guy who was in the news this week. His name is Barack Obama. He gave a bunch of network interviews after his trip to Russia and to Africa and to the Vatican. And look what he got asked about.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Shifting gears, I asked the president if he's surprised by the outpouring of emotion back in the U.S. over Michael Jackson.
BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we saw it when Elvis died.
ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I asked him what he believes the entertainer's legacy will be.
OBAMA: I don't think there's any doubt he was one of the greatest entertainers of our generation, but perhaps any generation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: I've got less than a minute.
Michael Medved, so, has this what it has come to -- enough about you, Mr. President, what did you think of Michael Jackson?
MEDVED: Well, I do think the president was trying to put it into a reasonable context. But it's truly bizarre.
You see, again, when you use the term "state funeral," that is exactly the problem here. Michael Jackson was as much a tabloid figure as an artistic figure, and we lost sight of that fact during the coverage.
KURTZ: Keli Goff, a brief comment on the president being asked about M.J.
GOFF: Well, look, Howard, if you Google "Too much Michael Jackson coverage," you get 12 million hits. So that means there are 12 million stories about people thinking there are too many Michael Jackson stories. I think that says a mouthful.
KURTZ: On that note, we will call it quits.
Keli Goff, Michael Medved, Matt Frei, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, dining for dollars. The publisher of "The Washington Post," my newspaper, has apologized for plans to host off-the-record dinners sponsored by corporate interests, but other news organizations have gotten into this game. Are pay-to-play events kosher under any circumstances?
And later, David Frost on the dramatic license needed to turn his famous Nixon interviews into an Oscar contender.
Plus, the newspaper headline about Marion Barry that we can't repeat on the air.
BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer, in for John King, and this is STATE OF THE UNION. Here are the stories breaking this Sunday morning.
Four U.S. Marines have been killed in Afghanistan's dangerous Helmand Province. Military officials say the Marines died yesterday in two separate bombings. A fifth U.S. service member died in the United States for wounds suffered in an attack last month.
The health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, says all options are on the table for funding a massive health care reform bill before Congress, and that could include a tax increase for the wealthiest Americans. She appeared on STATE OF THE UNION earlier this morning. The Obama administration wants a health care bill this year.
And a source confirms to CNN the CIA withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress on direct orders from then Vice President Dick Cheney. The source says CIA Director Leon Panetta has informed lawmakers about Cheney's role and has stopped the program. Efforts to contact Cheney for reaction so far unsuccessful
That and more coming up on STATE OF THE UNION.
But first, let's go back to Howard Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES -- Howie.
KURTZ: Thanks, Wolf.
The publisher of "The Washington Post" apologized this week for planning a series of off-the-record dinners at her home. The gatherings would have included administration officials, members of Congress, and The Post's own journalists underwritten by corporate interests for at least $25,000 a pop.
Here's what Katharine Weymouth told her readers after deep-sixing the idea.
"Our mistake was to suggest that we would hold and participate in an off-the-record dinner with journalists and power brokers paid for by a sponsor. We will not organize such events. As publisher, it is my job to ensure that we adhere to standards that are consistent with our integrity as a news organization. Last week, I let you, and the organization, down."
KURTZ (voice-over): But it turns out other major news organizations are also in the business of holding corporate-sponsored gatherings and conferences. The Atlantic's owner, David Bradley, holds off-the-record dinners that, according to an ad, are designed "to introduce CEOs of hosting organizations to target influencers." Corporate sponsors have included Microsoft, Citigroup, AstraZeneca and Allstate.
KURTZ: So, are such gatherings unethical?
Joining us now here in the studio, Steve Roberts, former "New York Times" reporter, now professor of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. And in Los Angeles, Kara Swisher, co- executor of the Web site "All Things Digital," part of the Dow Jones Company.
Steve Roberts, The Post ombudsman, Andy Alexander, out with a tough column this morning saying that this incident was an ethical lapse of monumental proportions, and not only did the top editor and publisher know about it, but the two managing editors and the deputy managing editor knew at least about some details.
How badly is The Washington Post's reputation damaged by this?
STEVE ROBERTS, PROFESSOR, MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS, THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Badly, because, look, if you read this initial flyer, it talked all about, be one of the precious few to be in on altering the legislation. I mean, they were so explicitly selling access and influence.
ROBERTS: You know, Katharine Weymouth's grandmother, Kay Graham, when she was publisher of The Post, used to hold gatherings like this all the time. They were very useful to everybody. But now what Katharine Weymouth was doing was selling seats at her grandmother's table, and that is way over the line.
KURTZ: The ombudsman did say it seemed like it was selling access.
By the way, The Post editor, Marcus Brauchli, and The Atlantic's editor, James Bennet, declined to appear on this program. And by the way, the president of The Post Company, Steve Hills, according to the ombudsman, refused to be interviewed about this, which I find amazing.
Kara Swisher, did Katharine Weymouth's apology and swift cancellation of these dinners help repair some of the damage here?
KARA SWISHER, CO-EXECUTOR, "ALL THINGS DIGITAL": Well, she had to apologize, essentially. I mean, I think it was a marketing flyer that went out before they finally approved it. But, you know, they've gone a little far with having it at the House, having it off the record, making it small, not allowing it to be covered as if it was a news event. They did a lot of things along the way, and I don't think they should ever have contemplated such a small event.
SWISHER: These things have to be -- you know, this these things have to be public, they have to be posted, they have to be available to the public. And, you know, everything is corporate-sponsored. The ads in "The Washington Post are corporate-sponsored.
SWISHER: It's just a question of how much access you give people, the general public, I think.
KURTZ: And interestingly, Steve Roberts, "The Atlantic," which has been holding these off-the-record dinners for years with corporate sponsorship, David Bradley who owns the magazine and company, put out a letter this week defending it, even though he brings -- it seems very similar. He brings together administration officials, members of Congress, his own journalists, but he says that "Having opposing views and some outside reporters have worked well to keep conversations at the level of debate, not advancing any one party's interests."
But is that what it's about?
ROBERTS: Well, to some extent. Look, there are some differences here.
First of all, "The Atlantic" is not "The Washington Post." "The Washington Post' is central to the whole relationship of the media and government here in Washington.
KURTZ: And loves to blow the whistle on...
ROBERTS: Exactly. And they should. That's their job. We depend on them to do that.
Secondly, you have got to ask, what are these corporations buying? Clearly, The Post was offering them influence and access. "The Atlantic" is offering something different. It's more visibility, it's prestige. It's a bit closer to buying an ad on a Sunday TV show and being...
KURTZ: But how is it more visibility if the sessions are off the record? I always questions what journalistic aim is being accomplished if it's just a bunch of people in a room.
ROBERTS: Look, we all know that off the record can be very useful. I've spent many years as a correspondent, and I've had off- the-record conversations all the time which informed my coverage and my analysis.
If you're allowed to do that, there -- on the record, you do get a lot of canned speeches and a lot of talking points. But the question is, do your readers and viewers benefit from the relationship? That has got to be the bottom line.
KURTZ: Right. Well, I can tell you since I work there that this whole affair has really roiled The Post newsroom.
SWISHER: I imagine.
KURTZ: Kara Swisher, you have conferences at "All Things Digital" with corporate sponsors.
KURTZ: Tell me about the guidelines you follow. And do these sponsors have any influence over the events that are put on?
SWISHER: No. No, in fact, at all.
I mean, what we do is we have an event that has corporate sponsors. They don't get to have anything to do with anything editorially. This is an editorial conference, just as if we were putting together interviews in "The Wall Street Journal" or elsewhere. It's all open to the press. We can't let as many press as we want to get in, but it's available to lots of press. It's on the record.
We put everything on our Web site. The whole thing right now is up, the entire conference, for anyone in the world to see.
It's all -- we put it up and stream it so you can watch it yourself. We are thinking of doing it real time next year.
So we do everything we can to possibly keep it as open as possible, despite the fact that it's an elite conference that people pay for to go to. And the second thing that is really important, that's critically important, is the sponsors get no control over anything that's on the stage.
KURTZ: But don't they also get some access to pretty important people? I mean, you have golf events, you have wine tastings.
SWISHER: Yes. Well, sure.
KURTZ: And there must be a reason that corporations are willing to pony up money to be part of this.
SWISHER: Of course. It's like a conference that everybody -- lots of people have conferences. It's a question if they have any control over the editorial portion of it. Now, these are gatherings, obviously, that people meet each other and stuff like that, but we're not promising access. We're not saying you get to meet Bill Gates if you come here.
We don't promise that. That's ridiculous. We don't do that.
ROBERTS: The context here, of course, is the enormous problems every news organization is facing in terms of money. The search for new revenue streams to support CNN, to support "The "Washington Post," to support "The Wall Street Journal" is the biggest single question facing the mainstream media. And so it's understandable that people are looking for new revenue streams.
I hope they are, because, otherwise, they're going to collapse. But as Kara says, the key is transparency. The key is, do your readers and your viewers benefit? The key is, do you do it all openly?
The one thing I would say in compliment to Katharine Weymouth, she admitted her mistake. I teach ethics at GW. One of the things I tell my students, you're always going to make a mistake. You have got to admit it as quickly and as openly as possible.
KURTZ: You know, another part of the Dow Jones Company, "The Wall Street Journal" did some similar gatherings. And at one point the participants went to the White House for an off-the-record briefing with Larry Summers, the economic adviser, so that I have more of a problem with. But let me close by asking you, Kara Swisher, when you're inviting the likes of the chief executive of NBC or Yahoo! to your conference, obviously you want them to show up. Is there any unspoken pressure that you feel to be nicer to them as a result?
SWISHER: No. Not at all. Not in any way. Not at all.
They don't get to ask what questions they are. They don't get to have any control over any part of it.
It's just like doing an interview as if you were doing it with "The Wall Street Journal." We don't have rules or they can't ask for things.
They try to. They certainly try to.
KURTZ: They try to.
SWISHER: Of course they do. "What are you going to ask? What are you going to ask?" And, you know, the most general thing is I'm going to ask about digital issues and television to Jeff Zucker. I mean, that kind of thing. But -- and he should know that anyway.
KURTZ: All right. I've got to wrap it up.
SWISHER: And no, they have no control. And in fact, we had to sponsor Carly Fiorina, that was a very ugly interview, and they had been a sponsor. And it was not a good interview for her.
KURTZ: So I gather. All right.
Kara Swisher and Steve Roberts, thanks for kicking it around with us this morning.
Up next, an Arab network finally getting some exposure here in the nation's capital. We'll talk with it's biggest name, British journalist David Frost, about why he's putting his prestige on the line for Al Jazeera English.
KURTZ: You probably can't name a single anchor or correspondent for Al Jazeera English, but there's one household name at the English language spin-off of the Arab network, and that's David Frost. There's a reason you may not have thought of Frost. The colorful British journalist was one of the first hires four years ago at Al Jazeera English which is seen in more than 100 countries around the world, but not in the states.
At the beginning of this month, several large cable systems here in Washington picked up the channel, and it's slated for air in about 20 American cities in the coming months. What better time then to sit down with the man who became famous by landing those interviews with Richard Nixon some 32 years ago?
I spoke to him earlier here in Washington.
KURTZ: David Frost, welcome.
DAVID FROST: Great to be with you, Howard.
KURTZ: Thank you so much for coming.
Why has it taken Al Jazeera English so long to gain a foothold in the American market?
FROST: Well, I think it was to do partially with politics. The people were a bit concerned. I mean, there was a period of amazing wild rumors about Al Jazeera Arabic and they were misplaced about beheadings and things like that. But there was a whole sort of rumor mill going, and that...
KURTZ: Well, you say rumor mill, but can you understand why some U.S. executives might be wary of a channel whose parent company used to air those Osama bin Laden videos and put on other materials supplied by terrorists?
FROST: Well, they -- everybody -- every company, the BBC and everybody took -- delighted at those Osama bin Laden tapes.
KURTZ: Right. But Al Jazeera seemed to have a special pipeline
FROST: Well, you see, they dropped them through the letter box. They seem to be dropping them through our letter boxes now. But, I mean, once they decided to use them -- and there are lots they didn't use. But, I mean, once they decided to use them, so did the BBC, so did ITV, so did CBS, NBC, ABC.
Everyone wanted them. And they just happened to be the lucky recipients, as it were.
But the thing was there was -- there were rumors about Al Jazeera Arabic, although there was a lot of -- it was the first place that a lot of Arabs saw Israelis speak and things like that. So it was -- it was an impressive channel, but it's different than -- I don't know what it's saying, because I don't speak Arabic. But then...
(CROSSTALK) FROST: ... Al Jazeera English came along and it -- immediately people see it. They realize that it's independent, that it's international, that it's for the south as well as the north. And you can see it's not about Osama bin Laden any more than any other network is. You know, so instantly reassuring.
KURTZ: And you gave Al Jazeera English instant credibility by signing up.
Was that a difficult decision? Some people are saying you sold out.
FROST: No, it wasn't a difficult decision, although it wasn't an immediate decision in the sense I checked with friends in Whitehall and friends in Washington who said -- it almost seems absurd now to even mention this, because it's -- no one suggests it anymore. But at that time, one had to check that they had no links with al Qaeda and things like that. And they got a clean bill of health in Washington and a clean bill of health in Whitehall.
That's official Washington, maybe not Rumsfeld's Washington. But...
KURTZ: Well, since you mentioned Donald Rumsfeld, do you think the shift from the Bush administration to the Obama administration has changed the climate here to the point where at least some cable and satellite executives feel comfortable putting on a channel like Al Jazeera English?
FROST: I mean, I'm sure it's helped. I'm sure it's helped.
At the same time, I mean, as I say, when people watch the channel, what it's really attractive for is showing parts of the world that we don't show enough of. I mean, Britain and America are very much the same. We don't do enough about South America. We don't do enough about South Asia. We don't do enough, certainly, about Africa and so on and so on.
And those are the things that people find refreshing, in addition to the news that you must have from the mass news sources.
Do you get any input on your program from the management at Al Jazeera?
FROST: No. No. We are -- I mean I knew that -- they assured me from the beginning that they -- that there was total editorial freedom, and there has been complete, total, no interference, whatever. If we want to do anything from Israel, we do it from Israel. Absolutely across the board, a most delightful creative experience.
KURTZ: All right.
Now, you usually interview world leaders on your program, but not long ago you sat down with Yoko Ono.
FROST: Oh, yes.
KURTZ: And I want to play a clip. And you started by playing some footage -- I guess it's 40 years ago...
FROST: Forty years ago. That's what...
(CROSSTALK) KURTZ: ... John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Let's take a look.
FROST: All right.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
YOKO ONO, JOHN LENNON'S WIFE: OK.
FROST: "To David, a box of smiles."
JOHN LENNON, MUSICIAN: We give him a lot of gear. He throws it away actually.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FROST: The press gave you a hard time at various times -- not now, but the -- but back -- I mean back in 1970, they said -- some fans said and so on, that you were responsible for breaking up the Beatles.
But that's not true, is it?
ONO: Well, I don't think so.
FROST: No. It wasn't.
YOKO ONO: No, not at all.
YOKO ONO: But I was a good scapegoat, I suppose.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So how did that interview come about?
FROST: Well, the first part of it -- actually, it was a fantastic memory. He -- John Lennon (INAUDIBLE) said it was a box, and said on it, "To David, a box of smile, with love from John and Yoko.
And you opened the box and there was simply in it was a mirror. So you smiled at the idea and you had your box of smiles, you know?
KURTZ: In a more recent interview, is Yoko a friend or acquaintance of yours now?
FROST: Yes. I haven't seen her for two or three years. But she was awarded two things last week. And one major award was (INAUDIBLE) in Venice, whichever way one pronounces it. And one in London and so on. And so it was very interesting to come back.
And in addition to being -- as you can see there, they are very -- really forthcoming in a way that she -- and, of course, at the same time, she is -- she looks remarkably good. I mean, she's now over 70 and she doesn't look over 70.
KURTZ: Well, you look remarkably good, too.
KURTZ: You famously conducted that series of interviews with Richard Nixon in 1977.
KURTZ: In fact, the last time we talked, it was in front of the Watergate. Now, there's a "Frost/Nixon" movie...
KURTZ: ... produced by Ron Howard. And I want to play a clip from that.
Frank Langella, of course, in the Nixon role, and Michael Sheen play a young David Frost.
FROST: That's right.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "FROST/NIXON")
FRANK LANGELLA, ACTOR: Look, when you're in office, you've got to do a lot of things sometimes that are not always in the strictest sense of the law legal. But you do them because they're in the greater interest of the nation.
MICHAEL SHEEN, ACTOR: Wait. Just so I understand correctly, are you really saying that in certain situations, the president can decide whether it's in the best interest of the nation and then do something illegal?
LANGELLA: I'm saying that when the president does it, that means it's not illegal.
(END VIDEO CLIP, "FROST/NIXON")
KURTZ: Was that film an accurate depiction of what happened?
FROST: Yes. Yes. I mean, the overall film had 20 minutes of fiction dotted about. None of it particularly important, but I mean...
KURTZ: There were scenes that were invented?
KURTZ: For cinematic reasons? FROST: Yes. For cinematic -- for instance, there's a memorable phone call from Richard Nixon to me the night before Watergate. And that never happened. But it's a fabulous study of Nixon's persona, and terrific.
KURTZ: You -- a lot of people wanted to interview Nixon. You got the interview. You paid the former president $600,000 for the interview.
FROST: That's right.
KURTZ: That would be more than $2 million today. I think if you did that today, if the circumstances were today, you'd be criticized far more intensively than you were at the time.
FROST: I don't think so, because there's a curious point I'll come to in a minute. But in terms of the Nixon interviews, the -- I mean, NBC News was offering $400,000, or whatever. And questions about checkbook journalism happened during the 18 months between when we signed and when we did it. And I would answer to it that was all and they were quite happy.
But they really sort of came to an end when the first interview when out and everybody said this is history...
KURTZ: That you were not rolling over for Nixon.
FROST: Yes, exactly. And this is history and this is valuable and -- and so that controversy sort of faded away.
The other thing that interests me about this, which has nothing to do with me, but it is -- what I was thinking when -- I was not in any way involved in this, but Monica Lewinsky -- and I think it was ABC News, but it could be any network -- put her on. And they said that she could not be paid for this interview.
FROST: But they, the network, were allowed to triple their advertising fees.
That's illogical, isn't it?
KURTZ: Well, but the question is, is it a matter of journalistic integrity not to directly pay the source, the subject of a news interview? And that's why...
(CROSSTALK) KURTZ: That shows that the standards have changed. ABC could not have gotten away even if it wanted to with paying Monica Lewinsky. The British station, I believe, paid her.
FROST: Yes. But it was a deal. I just don't see why -- this has nothing to do with Nixon here.
FROST: But it is just -- I don't see why the...
FROST: ... if the network can cash in, why can't the source of the material?
KURTZ: Right. I've got 15 seconds.
KURTZ: Those Nixon interviews...
KURTZ: OK. You've had this illustrious career, but will that remain the most famous thing you've ever done?
FROST: I think it's probably must be one of the real landmarks, yes. It must be partially because of its scale, as well as its -- thank God -- success as well. But, you know, 28.75 hours. I don't know who else in the world there is to talk to for 28.75 hours except, perhaps, my wife.
KURTZ: All right.
Sir David, thanks very much for stopping by and talking with us.
FROST: A pleasure.
KURTZ: After the break, echoes of Vietnam, how Robert McNamara's death reminds us that it took journalists several years to challenge that ill-fated war.
KURTZ: It took nearly three decades for Robert McNamara to admit he was wrong about the Vietnam War. It took the press several bloody years to turn against that conflict.
McNamara's death this week was a painful reminder that both fell short.
KURTZ (voice-over): McNamara was one of JFK's whiz kids celebrated by journalists for their cerebral approach to government. And when LBJ, after the '64 election, sent huge numbers of American troops to shore up South Vietnam against the North, it was McNamara's Pentagon that managed the conflict, even as both men initially denied there would be a major escalation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We wish to emphasize we seek no wider war. Our response will depend upon the action of the aggressors. In this case, the North Vietnamese.
KURTZ: The press was differential toward government leaders in those Cold War days, especially when they were taking on the communists. But as more American journalists went to Saigon, they saw that McNamara's war was going badly despite the upbeat talk from military briefers on what became known as the "Five O'clock Follies."
By 1968, newspaper reporters had grown openly skeptical. Television reports were bringing the jungle war into our living rooms. And finally, Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam and declared that the effort was likely to end in a stalemate.
WALTER CRONKITE, JOURNALIST: To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence the optimists who have been wrong in the past.
KURTZ: Only much later did we learn that McNamara privately doubted, almost from the start, that more troops and more bombings could turn the tide. It took seven years after McNamara stepped down and two more presidents for the U.S. to pull the plug on a war that claimed more than 58,000 American lives and produced a victory for Ho Chi Minh's side.
The best and the brightest, as David Halberstam called them, ultimately failed, and the skeptical journalists so resented by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were right.
KURTZ: McNamara lived to see the media fall short again when most journalists failed to aggressively challenge George W. Bush over his false rationale for invading Iraq. History will judge that failure as harshly as it judged the chief architect of the Vietnam War.
Robert McNamara was 93.
Still to come, raunchy journalism. Did a Washington weekly obliterate any semblance of good taste in the latest Marion Barry sex scandal?
KURTZ: It's not easy to go too far in chronicling the rather tabloid career of Marion Barry. But the "Washington CityPaper" may have pulled it off.
KURTZ (voice-over): The former mayor, you may recall, was busted for using cocaine back in 1990, lured by a woman not his wife who was immortalized on an FBI videotape when Barry barked, "Bitch set me up."
Now Barry is a D.C. councilman who was arrested last week for stalking an ex-girlfriend who he happened to hire under a $60,000 city contract. The charges were dropped, but the "CityPaper" got hold of a voicemail that Donna Watts-Brighthaupt had left Barry, complaining that he booted her from his hotel room at the Democratic convention last summer because she wouldn't give him oral sex.
KURTZ: I can't read the raunchy phrase on the air -- you see wee put some tape over it here, if we can get a close-up -- but the headline said -- quoting the ex-girlfriend -- "You put me out in Denver because I wouldn't (blank) your (blank)."
Well, the alternative weekly was flooded with angry calls. Its Web server crashed. And some Barry supporters said it was a racist cover that never would have been published about a white politician. "CityPaper" editor Erik Wemple told me that's nonsense, that the headline captured the truth about Barry, and sometimes the truth is vulgar.
That doesn't mean newspapers have to be, but it's a surefire way of getting attention.
Now back to more STATE OF THE UNION with Wolf Blitzer.