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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Remembering Don Hewitt; 'Hartford Courant' Controversy

Aired August 23, 2009 - 10:00   ET

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


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: In television, the anchors and correspondents are the stars. They deliver the news, play to the cameras, fly around the world, conduct the big interviews, bask in the glow of celebrity. But there was one producer who was so innovative, whose career was so entwined with history, that he became nearly as famous as his stable of stars.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DON HEWITT, "60 MINUTES" CREATOR: The best story you could ever do, when you're doing television, is to do what I call the "I didn't know that" story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Don Hewitt, who died this week at 86, had his flaws, but it's not too much to say he helped create modern television.

It was Hewitt who worked behind the scenes with Edward R. Murrow.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EDWARD R. MURROW, JOURNALIST: We are rather, as newcomers to this medium, rather impressed by the whole thing, impressed, for example, that I can turn to Don Hewitt here and say, Don, will you push a button and bring in the Atlantic coast?

KURTZ: Hewitt, who directed the first televised presidential debate between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.

NIXON: And we move over here, right?

HEWITT: Right.

NIXON: Good.

KURTZ (voice-over): Hewitt, who presided over the first 30- minute network newscast with Walter Cronkite. And Hewitt, who invented one of the most widely copied formats in broadcast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is "60 Minutes." It's a kind of a magazine for television.

KURTZ: That was 41 years ago, and "60 Minutes" keeps on ticking.

His CBS colleagues remember him as a force of nature. MORLEY SAFER, CORRESPONDENT, "60 MINUTES": Don Hewitt really was the inventor of television news as we know it.

KURTZ: And this strong-willed man sometimes clashed with the likes of Mike Wallace.

HEWITT: This is the story that I see every night in the news. I want to...

MIKE WALLACE, CORRESPONDENT, "60 MINUTES": I know that, Don, but those are the facts. You've got to establish the context in which we are telling the rest of the story.

HEWITT: Mike, Mike, Mike...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: To discuss (ph) the impact, positive and negative, that Hewitt had on television news, I spoke earlier to two of his "60 Minutes" colleagues from New York.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Joining us now, veteran "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft; and Jeff Fager, the executive producer of the program.

I guess everybody's a veteran when it comes to "60 Minutes."

Steve Kroft, what was it like to be in the screening room with Don Hewitt when he was taking apart one of your pieces?

KROFT: Well, I guess it depended on whether you thought he was right or not. Most of the time he was, sometimes you had to convince yourself that he was. But it could be somewhat infuriating if he was being really tough. And at those points, you always tried to look around the room to the other senior staff and see if there was another ally, like Phil Scheffler, that you could enlist to stop the bleeding. But it was always exciting, and you knew that regardless of what happened at the time, you were going to walk out of the screening room and everything would be fine.

KURTZ: Jeff Fager, Hewitt was, to say the least, a strong-willed guy.

FAGER: He was and, you know, a lot about that screening room depended on whether he liked it or not. I mean, if he liked it, it could be a great experience. If he didn't like it, it could be so painful because you work so hard and you're -- everybody's a little nervous when they walk into that room.

KURTZ: Intimidation factor.

FAGER: Yes, especially when you're new there.

KURTZ: Well, Steve, was it a democracy or a dictatorship? I mean, could you talk him into doing a story that he wasn't crazy about?

KROFT: Oh, you could always talk him into doing stories he wasn't crazy about. And, in fact, he rarely told you not to do a story. He gave you incredibly wide berth to do things. But you also vested a lot of your credibility with him every time you made one of those decisions to do something he was sort of lukewarm on, because you knew if it didn't turn out, then it was all your fault.

KURTZ: Of course.

KROFT: But he gave you a lot of rope. And you could -- as I said earlier, you could -- it was -- you could change his mind.

I had much less success with him than Phil Scheffler did. And as exuberant and crazy as Don was, Phil Scheffler was, in many times in the screenings, along with Esther Kartiganer, the voice of reason. And if they felt that Don was wrong, they would back you up and help. So, you could win arguments.

KURTZ: I wish I had some videotape of some of those arguments.

FAGER: You know, Howie, he loved to argue. He wanted people to disagree with him. He didn't want anyone working for him who just said, "Oh, that's fine. I accept that" if you didn't...

KURTZ: Well, that's the mark of a good boss and a confident boss who encourages dissent.

You know, Don Hewitt accomplished so much in his early career, Jeff, working with Murrow, with Cronkite, JFK-Nixon debate. But he was still running "60 Minutes" when he was 80 years old.

Was it delicate at all when CBS kind of wanted him to step aside and make you the executive producer and he was not wild about that?

FAGER: Yes, it was really a tough time. I mean, he didn't want to go. He said it at one point, "I want to die at my desk," which was tough for everybody. It took him about a year to really get used to it, and probably two years to realize it was probably a good time and a good moment for him to step down. But it was difficult, and you could understand why.

I mean, this was something he poured himself into all of his life. He loved it, it was so much a part of him, it was his baby...

KURTZ: Sure.

FAGER: ... so hard to give up. So, we were all very sympathetic, and it was tough. There was no doubt about it. And it was really so fulfilling after a couple of years when he'd gotten used to it and he had made peace with it, because he was hugely helpful and great to have around.

KURTZ: I'm sure that's true.

Let me play a couple of clips. Steve, this is your famous interview with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Super Bowl Sunday 1992, in the wake of the Gennifer Flowers story, the allegations that she was sleeping or had been sleeping with the former -- with the then-governor of Arkansas.

Let's roll that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KROFT: You've been saying all week that you've got to put this issue behind you. Are you prepared tonight to say that you'd never had an extramarital affair?

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not prepared tonight to say that any married couple should ever discuss that with anyone but themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Steve, what did Don Hewitt say to Bill Clinton before the cameras started rolling? Some people said he was kind of giving him advice on how to handle the situation.

KROFT: Well, I don't remember. I saw something I think in one of the papers today talking about that he gave Don -- Don did have a conversation with Clinton during the interview. My recollection was that it was after we'd done about half the interview.

And Don told him -- he said, look, you know, I think you should come clean. You should be honest. You should not try and dance around this thing. You should be honest, and then it will be off your chest, and you won't have to talk about it anymore.

And my recollection was that it was not at the beginning, but that it was after we'd burned through one tape.

KURTZ: And, of course, it would have been better television and more newsworthy for "60 Minutes" if he did come clean, which he did not fully do.

One of the darkest chapters in "60 Minutes" history was the tobacco industry expose with spike. Here's a little bit of what happened some months later when the story finally did run.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: CBS management wouldn't let us broadcast our original story and our interview with Jeffrey Wigand because they were worried about the possibility of a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against us for "tortious interference." That is interfering with Wigand's confidentiality agreement with Brown & Williamson.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And Jeff, that had to be tough for Don Hewitt, not to be able to get what was a very good story on the air because of the lawyers.

FAGER: It was a very important story, too, one of the most important stories that had ever come to us and had been reported. It was one of the toughest times, I think, in Don's entire career, and it lived to haunt him a bit. He regretted some things, but he was also in a really tough position.

I mean, he -- you know, Larry Tisch was running CBS at the time, and he was not an easy boss. He kept on Don intensely sometimes when he didn't agree with the reporting, and this was that kind of situation. It was hard to figure out, what would they do at the time? Would Don go with armed guard to the transmitter and take it over and put a tape in?

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZ: Now that would have been a hell of a story.

All right. One more. This is Steve Kroft back in 1990 on a used car lot.

Let's take a look at that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KROFT (voice-over): With our cameras hidden, we asked the salesman about the van.

(on camera): Fifty-tow thousand miles. And you're sure of the mileage? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just figured out who this man looks like. You look like that guy that does "60 Minutes" thing on TV. You do. You look like that guy.

KROFT: Steve Kroft.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

KROFT: How you doing?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: You got busted there. But all those hidden-camera investigations and ambush interviews that were in vogue at that time, I kind of felt uncomfortable with some of that. I felt like that was the kind of thing you'd see on local news, not on "60 Minutes."

KROFT: Well, it started out on "60 Minutes" and then it went to local...

KURTZ: Ah.

KROFT: ... news, and then Don got sick of it, looking at it on local news, and said, "Let's get away from this." That's literally what happened. He thought that it had become a cliche.

Now you don't see it much on local news, and we have discussions from time to time, Jeff, myself, the other correspondents, when we find somebody we really want to hear from about going out and door- stopping them. And we still do it occasionally, and maybe it's time, since it's sort of disappeared from the scene in local news...

KURTZ: Right.

KROFT: ... to go back and try it again.

KURTZ: Jeff Fager, news magazines were so much the rage at one point. "Dateline" was on every night, and you had "West 57th" and "Eye to Eye" in primetime, and "60 Minutes II."

Why did only a handful survive?

FAGER: Well, it definitely got carried away. I mean, it was too much.

I think, you know, it became a -- as a business, it's quite expensive to do what we do. And I think if it's not as successful as we are and have been, and knock on wood continue to be, it's hard to sustain on primetime.

So, I actually -- we're very proud of what we're doing, and I think that -- I'm happy that we're thriving right now, and I think fewer of them is probably fine. It got a little -- companies I think got a little carried away.

KURTZ: Right. And before we go, Jeff, another of your "60 Minutes" alumni, Dan Rather, has been in the news. He, of course, suing CBS. In part, alleging that you didn't give him enough work when he was on the broadcast. This is after he stepped down amid all that controversy as CBS anchor.

What do you make of him still pursuing this lawsuit?

FAGER: Well, it's difficult, I think, for all of us because Dan was such an important part of our organization for so many years. So, I just hope that it sorts itself out in a good way. And it's been unfortunate. It was a difficult situation when he was involved in the National Guard story.

But as a news organization, we're past it. And I hope he can, too.

KURTZ: All right.

Jeff Fager and Steve Kroft, thanks very much for helping us remember Don Hewitt. We appreciate it.

FAGER: You bet. Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: Thanks for joining us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: And "60 Minutes" will air a tribute to Don Hewitt tonight at 7:00 Eastern.

When we come back, group therapy. Jeff Jarvis is using his blog to describe his battle against a serious disease. Is there such a thing as revealing too much online?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Jeff Jarvis writes about plenty of subjects -- journalism, blogging, teaching, Google. But he also writes candidly about himself.

Thirteen days ago, Jarvis told his readers on "BuzzMachine" that he's been diagnosed with prostate cancer. And he didn't hold back the details.

He talked about his MRI and his treatment options, and the after- effects of surgery. But aren't there risks in being so excruciatingly open?

Joining me now from New York is the director of Interactive Journalism at the City University of New York and the author of "What Would Google Do?"

Jeff Jarvis, welcome.

JEFF JARVIS, AUTHOR, "WHAT WOULD GOOGLE DO?": Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: This used to be the most private of subjects. Why be so public about your cancer?

JARVIS: Well, Howie, in my blogging and teaching, I advise companies and media and government these days that we have to be more transparent, and that there are opportunities in being more transparent in public. So, in a sense, how could I not?

My life is an open blog, I live in public, something profound is happening to me, and I reveal it. And good things came to me immediately.

I got showers of well wishes, lots of good advice, lots of very candid advice from people who have gone through this same procedure. And I also caused some other guys to blog about their experiences. If just one person gets the PSA test that reveals this in me, that's a good thing.

But there's also something more on the Internet, I think, which is that we can gather our knowledge together in new ways, our data. And those of us who have ailments, the more we share about that, the more wisdom that can come out of that, and I think we're going to go to a day soon when not to reveal things like this is seen as kind of antisocial.

KURTZ: Interesting.

So, obviously, there's a public education aspect to this, but did you also find it therapeutic? Obviously, this is a very hard thing to go through.

JARVIS: Yes. I mean, I'm aware, Howie, how lucky I am, because when I got the diagnosis, the doctor said, "If you're going to get one, this is the one to get." I felt like I got an upgrade on cancer error (ph). And it was caught very, very early, so I'm quite aware how lucky I am compared to others.

KURTZ: And the reason you talked about this on "Howard Stern" is?

JARVIS: They called me. I'm a Howard Stern fan, and so Steve Langford on "Howard 100 News" called me, and I guess nowhere else could I talk about the excruciating details of where they poke and prod and shoot harpoon guns into me than on "Howard Stern."

KURTZ: And since you mentioned that, you write -- you wrote on the blog, "We men don't like talking about our penises," and then you did.

Any embarrassment factor there?

JARVIS: Yes, I guess so. But that's kind of the ultimate of the public life. I guess I've put it all out there now. And one's plumbing does not work as it should for at least a while, and that's how it is.

But, you know, I also found that friends of mine who had this came back to me and were very frank, and I needed that. It was very helpful to me. So far, I don't think it's been therapeutic, so much as it's just been educational.

KURTZ: One person said on Twitter, where obviously anybody can comment about anything, that you were using this to promote your book on Google.

JARVIS: Well, that was the one troll who said something nasty, and my Twitter friends all beat him up for me, which I think is a good thing.

KURTZ: I assume you mean, beat him up, virtually speaking?

JARVIS: Yes. Yes. Yes, because, you know, at least give a guy a break. But no, I think that was the only bit of nastiness I saw in all of this.

There is a risk of this being medical and emotional exhibitionism. You know, here I am on TV talking about it. Why did I say yes to this?

KURTZ: Right. Why did you?

JARVIS: You said, why not use every medium? So, fine. And again, if one more person sees this and something good comes out of it, OK.

It's an example about the benefits of transparency. The discussion about the Internet has so much been about privacy and the dangers to privacy of the Internet. What we don't talk about is the benefits that come from transparency and openness, whether that's as individuals or in media or in companies or in government. And I think that that's really important to learn how, when you open up, good things can happen and accrue, and if you don't, you can't get those benefits.

KURTZ: So, are you going to blog about your treatment and recovery?

JARVIS: Yes. We'll see how detailed I get. You know, I think the one limit on me is I don't want to bring others into my glass house. I have a family, and it's not up to me to open up their transparency, but I think within that limit, sure, why not? I've already said the word "penis" in my blog, so why not?

KURTZ: If you've done that, you've broken a barrier. And it is interesting to follow this. And obviously, we wish you all the best with the treatment.

Jeff Jarvis, thanks so much for joining us.

JARVIS: Thanks a lot, Howie.

KURTZ: Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, blaming the press. As President Obama's health plan seems to be floundering, the White House keeps carping about the coverage.

And who's right about the way Fox News portrays the protesters, Bill O'Reilly or Jon Stewart?

Plus, my two cents on another loss of another journalistic institution, the controversial conservative Robert Novak.

And going to the mattresses. A consumer columnist takes on Connecticut's largest paper saying he was fired after going after a bedding company that just happens to be a major advertiser.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: I'm John King, and this is STATE OF THE UNION. Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning.

The nation's top military officer says he's appalled that Scotland released the Libyan convicted of killing 270 people in the 1988 Pan Am bombing. Speaking on STATE OF THE UNION this morning, Admiral Mike Mullen acknowledged the release was a political decision. The Libyan was freed on compassionate grounds. He's terminally ill with prostate cancer.

The president's about to leave for his first vacation since taking office. The first family heads to Martha's Vineyard in just a few hours. They'll be staying at a secluded estate on the Massachusetts island for the next week. The trip was originally planned for this morning, but was delayed until Hurricane Bill moved up the along the New England coast. Now, Bill is now a Category 1 hurricane with 85-mile-an-hour winds. It's headed toward Newfoundland, Canada, and expected to make landfall tomorrow. Tropical storm warnings have been canceled along the Massachusetts coast, but forecasters predict large sea swells will continue and could cause dangerous rip currents and surf.

That and more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.

KURTZ: President Obama isn't real happy with the media these days. In fact, he seems to be talking nearly as much about the coverage of his troubled health care plan as about the plan itself. People are preoccupied with the pundits and the cable chatter, he says. This from a man who began the here being likened to FDR and Lincoln on news magazine covers.

The message, meanwhile, is muddled.

Last Sunday, Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said here on STATE OF THE UNION that a public option -- that is, a government-run health plan to compete with private insurers -- wasn't "essential." And Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had this to say on "Face the Nation"...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has, thus far, sided with the notion that that can best be done through a public option.

HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: OK. Thus far sided with. Is that a hedge?

GIBBS: No, no, no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Not surprisingly, news organizations reported that the administration seemed to be backing away from the public option, which was already under fire from moderate Democrats, which prompted Gibson to clear that there was no story, that they never said what the press seemed to think that they said, or that it wasn't new, or something.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL PLANTE, CBS NEWS: When (ph) do you expect to have this package within the party about the public option?

GIBBS: Again, contrived almost entirely by you guys.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Contrived? It's the media's fault?

Joining us now to examine the coverage of health care, Anne Kornblut, national political reporter for "The Washington Post"; David Frum, former speechwriter for President Bush and now serves as editor of NewMajority.com; And Clarence Page, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune."

Anne Kornblut, what do you make of Gibbs saying -- we saw it just there -- that thing we said about the public option, that's not news, that's something just contrived by the likes of you?

KORNBLUT: Well, look, they did have a point that the day before, on Saturday, Obama had said in a public speech that this was only a sliver of his health plan. And if you went back and you combed through all of his public statements and their public statements in recent months, there had been other points in time when they had hinted that this might be the case.

But, on a Sunday morning, when you have major administration officials out on the news shows, and we are all trained to read the tea leaves, and that is the most important thing that is said, it's kind of a no-brainer that that's going to be in the next day's news. And so it sort of amounted to a loss of message control, that they didn't realize that this was going to be out there.

KURTZ: Clarence Page, when the White House is complaining about media coverage of health care almost every day, and Obama keeps say TV loves a ruckus, which is true, but that's not a good sign, is it?

PAGE: Well, what's striking here, Howard, is the contrast between this August and last August. In the campaign, a lot of us were saying, has Obama lost his mojo? He seemed to be losing momentum at that odd time of the year when John Kerry was hit with the Swift Boaters four years earlier. But what's striking now is that they seem to have lost track of the notion -- well, of a simple fact that a lot of Americans out there don't know what the public option is, don't no what those words mean.

KURTZ: Despite all the reporting done by all the newspapers and magazines and television stations?

PAGE: Well, I fault us, Howard, at kind of presuming people know more than they really know. We know what a public option is, but nobody knows in detail what it's going to be because it hasn't really been spelled out in legislation yet.

And terms like "co-op" -- and that's even fuzzier. So the White House, I think, is trying to hide their own message control problems behind fuzzy language.

KURTZ: There's a lot of jargon here.

Just before I came out here, David Frum, I read a column that you wrote for "The Week Magazine" about people who bring guns to these town meetings or Obama events. And you really took on some on the right side, on your side, so to speak -- Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity. You talked about hysterical talk about violence. You said that, "We have to tone down the militant and accusatory rhetoric."

FRUM: We do. We do. Because...

KURTZ: Is it fair to blame the broadcasters for this atmosphere?

FRUM: Yes. The broadcasters have -- coping with a downward trend in advertising revenues for talk radio, the broadcasters have ramped up what they are saying. I mean, you have broadcaster saying the president is "literally at war with the American people." Literally at war is a very serious thing. Al Qaeda is literally at war with the American people.

KURTZ: And has a deep-seated hatred toward white people.

FRUM: And has a deep-seated hatred. So, it's inflammatory.

And the thing that is so enraging about all of this is, obviously, people are getting more excited about that than they do about the details of health columns (ph). Yet, this is a moment where, because the president has advanced these ideas at a time of fiscal crisis, the Republicans have an opportunity to reshape the president's plan in a way that is consistent with conservative values, to get control of costs, to improve competition, to defeat the public option...

KURTZ: And instead?

FRUM: And instead, the Republicans are making some tactical gains at the price of making themselves look less like a future government. KURTZ: You know, it is certainly possible, Anne Kornblut -- you talked about reading the tea leaves -- that we over- interpret each twist and turn, and this is a long legislative battle, and obviously Congress does things slowly, if at all. But if you just look at what's happened in recent weeks, it seems to me journalists have accurately reported that there's a lot of public unease about this health care plan, that it's been sliding in the polls, that it's stalled on Capitol Hill, that the Democratic Party is split.

Is this administration just not accustomed to critical reporting?

KORNBLUT: Well, they -- look, they are, actually, accustomed to the August phenomenon that Clarence referred to. It wasn't just last August, but the August before it, too.

KURTZ: Yes, but he wasn't president then. Now he's in the White House with all the trappings.

KORNBLUT: And look, privately, they would say, look, we know you aren't fabricating the poll numbers, you aren't fabricating the town hall meetings. We wish you'd go look at the town hall meetings where there's a civil discourse, but we get the nature of news.

I think a little bit of this is something we saw in the previous administration, which was, it's easier to just blame the media, even if they don't necessarily mean it all times. That's an easier kind of decoy, and that they'll get back to a more serious discussion when September is here and everybody's back and...

KURTZ: But privately, do some White House officials tell you that they are frustrated with the way that we -- not necessarily you, but we, collectively, have covered this?

KORNBLUT: Oh, well, yes. There is no question about it. I think it's limited to certain news organizations and certain reporters at certain times. I don't think it's quite as blanket as they say publicly.

KURTZ: Do they have a list?

KORNBLUT: I'm not saying they have a list.

KURTZ: All right.

Now, a fascinating poll a few days ago from NBC News asking this question -- the number or percentage who believe reform proposals would allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care for the elderly. Overall, 45 percent believe that's true. But if you segregate out Fox News viewers, the number rises to 75 percent. If you look at MSNBC and CNN viewers, 30 percent.

So, Clarence Page, the public doesn't -- I mean, this is the whole death panel discussion. The public doesn't seem to be buying it. Journalists have reported again and again and again that there are no death panels in any version of this legislation, and Fox viewers are the most skeptical.

PAGE: And Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. You know.

I mean, this is the message problem, Howard. I was interviewing Obama over a year ago, saying, why don't we just advocate a Medicare for everybody? You know, those three words, "Medicare for everybody," at least you know what that means, because everybody knows what Medicare is, and whether they like it or not -- and most people like it. But when you say "public option," who knows what that is? And that's what you're seeing in these polls.

KURTZ: OK. But maybe it's a message problem, but isn't it also something that shows, if not a failure of journalism, the limitations of journalism? I mean, how many times have we collectively reported that there is nothing -- this is not an argument about, well, will the costs really go down? There's plenty of room for disagreement.

There is nothing about government panels who are going to decide who lives and dies.

KURTZ: And yet, 45 percent don't believe us.

PAGE: Because it's hidden in this language that -- well, for one thing, it's interesting that the Fox News viewers, 75 percent, believe this, because almost every night Sean Hannity or others have been pushing this message, that in the language there is that potential. And when you say that, you're raising suspicions on the part of a public that doesn't read a thousand-page bill.

KURTZ: Well, is it that, David Frum, or is it that more conservatives watch Fox News and more conservatives are negative towards this plan, or don't have any confidence in Obama or in the mainstream media?

FRUM: Look, a lot of political science has indicated that, over the past generation, there's been a tendency for people first to decide what they believe and then to decide what they want to watch. And so, whereas, back in the 1970s, the best predictor of what you thought about the economy was how you were personally doing by the late 1990s, the best predictor of how you felt about the economy is whether you supported the party in power or not.

The thing that is so wacky about this debate, of course, is that it is already true that everybody, or virtually everybody over 65, is enrolled in a public plan. The government could kill them all now if it wanted to. They have, theoretically.

So, what is going on different? That is the real mystery in all of this.

KURTZ: That's one of thing that bothers me about the coverage, is that we've almost completely gotten away from talking about the flaws in the current system, which obviously has a lot of problems. We talk about all these hypotheticals, which is understandable when you're talking about a sweeping and ambitious proposal like that, that the president is pushing.

Speaking of Fox News, there's a bit of a smack-down on the airwaves that we're going to play for you that goes to the question of how Fox is treating the protesters.

First, Jon Stewart, on "The Daily Show," played some clips to that effect. And then Bill O'Reilly came back the next night with a rebuttal. Let's show that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: When we cover the town hall meetings, we don't describe the protesters as loons.

JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": Of course you don't describe the protesters as loons. What kind of monster would describe honest Americans voicing their political opinions that way?

O'REILLY: The surveys show many protesters are simply loons.

STEWART: All right. To be fair -- to be fair, those were protesters he agrees with.

O'REILLY: To be fair? Ha! Once again, Jon Stewart took the "loon" clip out of context. Here's what I really said...

There are the anti-Bush protesters here in New York City. While most of these people have been peaceful, more than 1,000 have been arrested, and surveys show many protesters are simply loons, calling for the destruction of the American system, calling for retreat in the face of terrorism.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And O'Reilly went on to say that he understands that Stewart is a satirist, but that he had been unfair in the way he had framed it.

So, Anne Kornblut, I'm sure "The Daily Show" does selective editing for comedic purposes, but isn't there a serious point here about who you describe protesters, depending on what the cause is?

KORNBLUT: Well, I guess so. I'm glad he has a new target besides Olbermann. There's a new fight going on.

Sure. I mean, look, we have to be -- I think all of us here are careful about how we describe the protesters and giving them credence. They operate in a different universe. And certainly, I think, Jon Stewart's goal in all of this is to be funny first and probably accurate first-ish.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZ: Clarence, hasn't Fox, in fact, flipped -- some Fox hosts, I should say -- from slamming liberal protesters to defending these anti-Obama protesters, some of which -- some of whom are very articulate and some of whom seem a little confused about some of the facts?

PAGE: To be fair, Howard...

KURTZ: Yes, let's try that.

PAGE: ... to be fair that we are talking about the line being blurred between news and entertainment more than any of us could have imagined, except maybe in the world of Paddy Chayefsky's "Network" back in 1975. If you look at that now, you're seeing that kind of a circus unfold on cable TV now.

The real point underlying all this is that it's OK to slant your anchor coverage, if you will, to slant your shows on cable TV now...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: But aren't these opinion shows? They're not anchors. They're not anchors, they're commentators.

PAGE: But, you know, again, how much of our audience out there understands the distinction? I mean, we're in this business, you know, and we make that distinction. But folk outs there -- I go to my video store and the guy says, "Oh, I get all my news from Bill O'Reilly." I like Bill, but getting all your news from any one place...

KURTZ: And MSNBC, some hosts, seem to be more inclined to go after these town hall protesters than they were to go after the anti- Bush demonstrators.

FRUM: You know, one thing I've never understood about cable -- and this is a prediction I got completely wrong when it became such a big deal more than a decade ago -- was, with the acres of time on cable, I thought what we would get is much wider and more extensive coverage of events. PAGE: Thank you.

FRUM: And that what would happen is you would see not a sentence from a town hall, but, like, almost all of it. And that you would have a chance to say, you know what? Look, we're a cable show, we're the middle of the day, not a lot of people are watching anyway. Why not use this time really to explain what's going on, dare to go into a little bit more in depth than the old network news did? It seems to -- despite the abundance of time, we seem to go in the opposite direction.

KURTZ: All right. Let me turn to what other issue, and that is a forthcoming book by Tom Ridge.

The former homeland security secretary says that he received political pressures from others in the Bush administration, notably John Ashcroft and -- who else was it -- the attorney general, John Ashcroft, and Don Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary -- thank you -- to raise the color-coded terror alerts in a way that might boost President Bush's fortune.

Here's Ridge declaring one such alert back in the summer of 2004.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Today the United States government is raising the threat level to code orange for the financial services sector in New York City, northern New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Ridge says he resisted pressure from those two cabinet members to do the same thing on the weekend before the 2004 election.

A lot of journalists were skeptical of those terror alerts, and now it looks like their skepticism was justified.

KORNBLUT: Sure. Well, and of course we've heard from some former administration officials that, yes, it was tied to the election, but only insofar as bin Laden and al Qaeda targeting us around election time.

It does raise the question, though, of why he didn't speak out sooner. Many years have now passed. It seems like he could have said something a lot earlier than this instead of waiting...

KURTZ: Perhaps, Clarence Page, because he has a book to sell.

PAGE: Perhaps. Do you think that's possible?

I mean, it's a cynical world out there, but we all thought the color coding was kind of a half joke from the beginning. And now, you know, this all comes out. It does spin into a narrative that certainly does help sell books. KURTZ: But journalists who questioned whether there was a political motivation at the time -- and this was serious stuff, three years after 9/11 -- were often lambasted as being unpatriotic and the like.

FRUM: Look, this is a baffling story. First, Tom Ridge doesn't make an accusation, he doesn't make an allegation. He surmises, he speculates, he asks himself and he doesn't answer.

But, second, can we remember that it was -- how many weeks ago was it that every journalist in American was hailing John Ashcroft as a paragon of independence for defying the Bush administration from his hospital bed? So, that is the same John Ashcroft. So, if he was independent than, maybe the reason he disagreed was, he disagreed.

KURTZ: All right. Got to wrap it up.

David Frum, Clarence Page, and Anne Kornblut, who asked Robert Gibbs what the president of the United States meant when he said that Washington was all wee-weed up -- is that one of your best questions?

KORNBLUT: Well, I think I asked him if it really meant it was bedwetting, and he said yesterday. It's the question of the day.

KURTZ: He confirmed that. It had to be yes.

All right.

After the break, the crusading columnist. George Gombossy says "The Hartford Courant" spiked his story and sent him packing to protect a major advertiser. But do his allegations hold up? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: George Gombossy worked for "The Hartford Courant" for 40 years. That is, until Connecticut's largest paper eliminated his job earlier this month and refused to run his story about an investigation of a major advertiser.

The consumer columnist said the state attorney general was looking into complaints that the bedding firm Sleepy's was selling used mattresses as new, in one case allegedly infested with bedbugs. Gombossy says he was dismissed after a series of clashes with the paper's new publisher, Richard Graziano, over his reporting on companies that buy ads. The Courant, which eventually ran a truncated version of the Sleepy's story, said Gombossy's job was eliminated and he never applied for a new position as consumer reporter for the paper and its television station, WTIC.

And joining me now from Hartford is George Gombossy.

What makes you so convinced that "The Hartford Courant" here was protecting advertisers?

GEORGE GOMBOSSY, SPENT 40 YEARS WITH "THE HARTFORD COURANT": Well, because during my 40-year career at "The Hartford Courant," I have handled some of the most sensitive stories, both as part of senior management and as an investigative reporter, and never, ever was there any conversation about whether a story should run or not run because it involved an advertiser.

(CROSSTALK)

GOMBOSSY: Let me just finish.

KURTZ: Go ahead, please.

GOMBOSSY: And up until the first time an advertiser complaint, these people loved me. They had my billboards all over Hartford, scaring little children, they had my picture on every single bus in Hartford. They were running ads on this TV station, the one that I'm coming in right now, which is our sister station, and on the radio, so often that people were turning it off because they were sick and tired of listening to the...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: All right, you're a high-profile guy. I've got to jump in.

Now, The Courant is part of The Tribune company chain, which is bankrupt and has cut about half its staff, nearly half its staff in recent years.

Richard Graziano comes in as the new publisher. In May, you did a critical piece, an earlier piece, about a plumbing contractor and you had some words with him. What happened?

GOMBOSSY: I didn't have any words with him about that. I did several pieces on the plumbing contractor, which is also under investigation by state officials.

The plumbing contractor sent a letter to management, and as a result of that letter, I was called in to Jeff Levine, the editor of both this station and The Courant, and I was ordered by him to "go to the plumbing contractor's office and be nice." That's a quote. Be nice to them, because there's a $500,000 advertising contract on the line.

KURTZ: And who said to you, "Do you want it on your head if we lose $200,000 and I have to lay off some reporters?"

GOMBOSSY: Jeff Levine did.

KURTZ: Senior vice president.

GOMBOSSY: In front of a witness, not just me.

KURTZ: All right. Let me tell our viewers that we invited "The Hartford Courant" to have somebody appear with you on this program. The paper declined, but did give us this statement: "In recent days, George Gombossy has made numerous public statements that mischaracterize the circumstances surrounding his departure from 'The Hartford Courant.' He has launched an all-out media campaign against the paper and his former colleagues. The Courant stands by the business decisions that led to Mr. Gombossy's separation from the company. The Courant and Fox 62 remain committed to and expanding consumer reporting in the future."

What about this business that the job was eliminated and you were supposed to reapply and you didn't reapply?

GOMBOSSY: I mean, that has nothing to do with nothing. The reality is, like I said, they spent $500,000 marketing me and the watchdog column. The last thing they wanted, this new management team, was an investigation of their advertisers. So, I mean, that's bunk.

And Levine and Graziano and Nadine Hazel (ph) have refused to come on every single radio program. And if their lawyers are so sure that I'm mischaracterizing something, don't you think they'd be here defending themselves?

This is a huge issue. This is not about George Gombossy or the Fox 61 reporter who's out making similar allegations, even stronger... (CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: OK. Let's stick with your case.

Did you refuse -- they did run -- the paper did run a truncated version of the Sleepy' story. Did you refuse to rewrite that?

GOMBOSSY: No, they didn't ask me to rewrite it.

KURTZ: No one asked you to rewrite it.

GOMBOSSY: My column was approved by my editor, and after they didn't run it, the next day I was fired.

KURTZ: You know, going back to this statement from the paper -- and I've looked at your Web site, and you were getting into some very personal criticism of Graziano and some of the other executives. And some of even your colleagues are saying, is this guy on some kind of jihad? Aren't you helping to tear down the very journalistic institution that you devoted 40 years of your life to building up?

GOMBOSSY: I'm glad you asked that question. First, I don't know a single colleague of mine that's asking that.

The reason I'm doing this and the reason that I'm not accepting a huge settlement, severance which would put a gag order on me and which would prevent me from litigation, is because I want The Courant to return and Fox 61 to return to the high ethical standards that it used to have up until about six months ago.

And let me tell you, this is not just happening in Hartford, where "The Hartford Courant" and Fox 61, as a joint news operation, has a virtual monopoly. I'm not a rocket scientist, I'm not the best journalist in the world, but one of my principles has always been, and it's very successful, if there's one issue one place, then there's tons of cockroaches all over the place. And if these guys...

KURTZ: All right. We're just about out of time. I've got 15 seconds.

Are you planning to sue "The Hartford Courant" over your dismissal?

GOMBOSSY: Absolutely. And it's not me. The people of Connecticut are going to be the prime plaintiffs.

KURTZ: All right.

George Gombossy, we appreciate your coming on this morning. Thanks very much.

GOMBOSSY: My pleasure. Thank you.

KURTZ: Up next, a plugged-in pundit. Many admired him, others detested him, but Bob Novak was a force to be reckoned with.

A look back at the former CNN commentator's legacy in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: To his detractors, Robert Novak was the "Prince of Darkness," a conservative apologist, the man who outed Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. But even his critics would concede that this was a pundit who knocked on doors, hit the phones, worked his sources.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): Novak, who lost his battle with brain cancer this week, was an old wire service reporter who started a newspaper column with his pal Rowland Evans during the Kennedy administration. Not that they always got along.

ROWLAND EVANS, JOURNALIST: Just shut up, will you?

ROBERT NOVAK, JOURNALIST: You shut up.

KURTZ: When CNN launched during the Carter administration, Novak and his partner were already established as the scoop artists of the right. Not grand thinkers, but plugged-in pundits who explored the Republican strategies and power struggles of the Reagan years.

Novak came to personify television's new shout shows with his two-fisted, grim-faced style of combat on "CROSSFIRE."

NOVAK: I say your judgment is bad and I think you're performing a disservice to your country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A service for the Soviets.

NOVAK: A disservice to your country.

Why did you laugh over the death of an American serviceman... UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, don't be a demagogue. I did not laugh.

NOVAK: Tell me why you did! It's on tape.

KURTZ: Novak was also a conservative mainstay on the high- decibel "McLaughlin Group." But by the time George Bush, the elder, won the presidency, he had left to launch another CNN program, "The Capital Gang."

NOVAK: Al said something -- he mentioned me. He said I didn't make any sense.

I'll tell you whether he makes any sense. It's very interesting. Every time Al says something, it's always the Democratic Party line.

KURTZ: Off the air, though, Novak was pals with such liberal sparring partners as Jack Germond, Margaret Carlson, and Al Hunt.

Novak loved to beat up on the likes of Bill Clinton, but there were times when he broke with the Republicans as well. As George W. Bush prepared to take the country to war in Iraq, Novak loudly objected.

NOVAK: I think it's a huge mistake. I think going into war against a country where you don't have the proof of the weapons of mass destruction, whether or not aggressing anybody, this is preemption. And the preemption is a very dangerous doctrine, indeed.

KURTZ: But it was the battle over the war and his friendship with such sources as Karl Rove that would prove his undoing. Rove was one of two White House sources who told Novak that Valerie Plame, the wife of Bush critic Joe Wilson, was secretly employed by the CIA. And Novak's disclosure of that fact six years ago ignited a firestorm. He was called a traitor and worse.

Novak had little to say publicly about the leak investigation, even as he revealed his confidential sources to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

NOVAK: I don't think I did anything wrong, but as a practical matter, it wasn't a big scoop, you know. It was just a throwaway line, and the whole column was not abusive toward Joe Wilson in any way.

KURTZ: He began to seem a relic of an earlier era. CNN dropped "CROSSFIRE" and "CAPITAL GANG," and at one of his increasingly rare appearances, Novak lost his temper while arguing with James Carville.

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: ... is watching you. Show them you're tough.

NOVAK: Well, I think that's bullshit. And I hate that. Just let me go.

ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: About this Senate race, James, that... KURTZ: He left the network soon afterwards, joining Fox News, and published his memoir titled, fittingly enough, "The Prince of Darkness."

Thirteen months ago, the man who never seemed to stop arguing was sidelined by cancer.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Novak was a polarizing figure, no question about it. And at times, he seemed too close to his favorite sources. But for decades in the city, if you wanted to know what was happening on the Republican side, you had to read him.

Bob Novak was 78.

Still to come, second chance. Jayson Blair, the biggest fraud in the history of "The New York Times," has found a very different career.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: His name may be synonymous with journalistic fraud, but Jayson Blair has found a new career.

It was six years ago when I discovered that "The New York Times" was fabricating and plagiarizing stories, stories in cities he had never been to, stories about people he had never met. He appeared on this program after he was forced to leave The Times and wrote a book about his experience.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Is it fair for people to say -- and you've heard this, I'm sure, in many interviews -- here's a guy who lied and cheated and hurt people, and lied to his family and lied to his friends and lied to his girlfriend, and then he gets $150,000 book contract? People think that you are cashing in on your deceptions.

JAYSON BLAIR, FMR. "NEW YORK TIMES" REPORTER: Well, I think that, you know, as I've said before, the real profit for me has been catharsis and therapy, and hopefully moving the debate on issues of race, mental illness, and journalism and some of its flaws and problems.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: We learned this week that Blair is working as a certified life coach in Ashburn, Virginia. The former coke user and binge drinker is helping people with such problems as development disorders, mood disorders, and substance abuse.

Blair told The AP that he empathizes with his clients. "They know that I've been in their shoes," he says. "I think it can feel a little more authentic." Well, I know some people find this funny, a life coach. But good for him. It goes without saying that Jayson Blair should never be allowed to work as a journalist again, but he deserves a chance to rebuild his life, especially if he can help others in the process.

And John King, as I turn things back over to you this Sunday morning, you led with Afghanistan this morning, your interview with Admiral Mike Mullen. Obviously, Afghanistan getting a little more media attention this week because of the elections, but if you look at the past year, it has largely dropped off the media radar screen to a disturbing degree, I would say.

Why do you think that is?

KING: Well, because we have focused so much on the domestic agenda, and because of the punishing recession here at home, issues that deserve attention -- health care, the economy, and jobs. But as we focus needed attention on those issues, we should never forget big international stories, especially when the lives of so many young Americans are at risk there -- Howie.

KURTZ: As you demonstrated when you talked to the families of those who are serving in either Iraq or Afghanistan. And I thought that was an important dimension to bring to our viewers.

All right. Turning things back over to you.

KING: Take it away, Howie. Have a great Sunday.

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