Return to Transcripts main page
STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Aired October 4, 2009 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John King and this is STATE OF THE UNION.
KING (voice-over): A CBS News employee's alleged extortion attempt forces David Letterman to make a shocking public admission of sexual indiscretions. Three analysts assess the damage to the network and the late-night comic's career.
Plus, President Obama's personal pitch to bring the 2016 Olympics to his Chicago hometown falls short. How did his failure play out in the press?
In this hour of STATE OF THE UNION, Howard Kurtz, as always, breaks it down with his "RELIABLE SOURCES."
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: David Letterman has made endless jokes about Bill Clinton and John Edwards and Mark Sanford and other philandering politicians, but it was no joke this week when he had to admit to having sex with women who worked for him at CBS.
Yes, he was the target of a $2 million extortion attempt. And yes, he did the right thing by going to the cops. And yes, he came clean with his audience. But for a guy who just got married to his longtime partner and has a young son, it has to be humiliating to become the punch line and the latest national figure at the center of a sex scandal.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DIANE SAWYER, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": It was an unfolding drama last night on David Letterman's show as he revealed this extortion scheme. His audience was so stunned, they kept laughing, thinking it must be one of his signature comedy riffs.
MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ, CBS NEWS: All of us here at CBS just shocked to hear that our own Dave Letterman was reportedly being blackmailed by a CBS employee who said that he had proof that Dave was having affairs with employees at "The Late Show."
DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW": This morning I did something I've never done in my life, and it was a combination of just unusual and scary. This whole thing has been quite scary.
I had to go downtown to testify before the grand jury. And I had to tell them how I was disturbed by this, I was worried for myself, I was worried for my family. I felt menaced by this, and I had to tell them all of the creepy things that I have done that were going to be -- so, now why is that funny?
That's -- I mean...
The creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show. Now, my response to that is, yes, I have.
LETTERMAN: I have had sex with women who work on this show. And would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would. Perhaps it would, especially for the women.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: In another bizarre twist, the suspect is a journalist. Prosecutors charged Joe Halderman, a 20-year veteran of CBS News and producer for the crime show "48 Hours," saying it was he who allegedly demanded the money with the threat of exposing Dave's affair in a book and a screenplay.
So, what does all this do to the late-night comic and his relationship with his audience? How bad is the damage to Letterman's career?
Joining us now in Los Angeles, Lisa Bloom, legal analyst for CNN; Ben Mankiewicz, weekend host for "Turner Classic Movies." And here in Washington, Amy Argetsinger, co-author of "The Reliable Source" gossip column for "The Washington Post."
Lisa Bloom, the media spin has been all about, did Letterman handle it well? Was he funny? Did he get out in front of the story? Here's a "Boston Herald" headline -- "Crisis Gurus Applaud David Letterman Move."
Why isn't the focus on the boss having sex with subordinates?
LISA BLOOM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Thank you. Thank you, Howie. I'm glad somebody is talking about that angle.
David Letterman is going to be fine. He's a multi, multimillionaire at the top of his game. His audience, I think, has already forgiven him.
But what we've lost sight of in our coverage of this story is that this was a workplace relationship, and there were at least three of them. His long-term girlfriend, now his wife, was formerly a staffer. And he's admitted to multiple other affairs. So, that's at least three, by my count. We don't know what the top end might be.
And what about the people in his workplace who were not sexually involved with him? I mean, I've talked to people who said, look, he had several different assistants. There's a lot of PAs and other people on the show. Stephanie Birkitt, one of the women he's rumored to have been involved with, was repeatedly on the show, on air. Everybody wants to be on air not just because it's fun, but because you get additional payments from that. So, those who were not on air are suspicious, are uncomfortable. That's why it's unprofessional, frankly, for the boss to be engaged in multiple sexual relationships with staffers.
KURTZ: I'll come back to Stephanie Burkitt. And that's why I think we need more coverage of that.
But look, Amy Argetsinger, is the press cutting Dave some slack here because, well, journalists kind of like him?
AMY ARGETSINGER, CO-AUTHOR, "THE RELIABLE SOURCE," THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, the press is cutting Dave some slack because journalists kind of like him. I mean, he is the water cooler show for the media class, more so than Jay Leno is.
There's a predilection to really like him, to favor him. And yes, I mean, he handled this masterfully. And, in fact, he sort of made his handling of it the story by doing it in the way he did it.
I mean, I have to say, though, he handled it so beautifully, that I felt like he handled it too beautifully. I don't want to be one of those people who wants all the celebrities to go on their ritualistic contrition march and hold their head in a certain way, but, you know, the way he told the story, he didn't even bring up the "I slept with women on my staff" thing until the seven-minute mark of this.
KURTZ: Well, he was building up to the dramatic finish.
ARGETSINGER: I know. And he told it as a great comic monologue. The audience was in the palm of his hand from the start and inclined to sympathize with him.
KURTZ: Right. But, of course, those are the people sitting in the studio. There's a national audience that he has to worry about.
And Ben Mankiewicz, TMZ.com quoting a woman by name who was an intern at "The Late Show" and saying she had a relationship with Dave Letterman. "I was madly in love with him. I would have married him. He was hilarious."
Now, Letterman called his conduct "creepy." That was his word. But the media standard seems to be, well, he's a comedian, so it's not like Bill Clinton having sex with an intern.
BEN MANKIEWICZ, WEEKEND HOST, "TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES": Well, it's not like Bill Clinton having sex with an intern. It is the story of a guy who was single for 25 years, a sort of pronounced bachelor, having affairs with women who worked on his staff. That may be a problem for CBS. I really don't think it's a problem for anyone else in the country.
KURTZ: For anyone else in the country, should not be concerned that one of the iconic figures in comedy was having sex with an intern? Lisa, your turn.
MANKIEWICZ: Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. That's precisely right.
BLOOM: Yes. They are workplace issues. I mean, I was a sexual harassment attorney for over 10 years. I had many people who came in my office and said, "My boss is having a sexual relationship with a coworker. The coworker is getting advantages in the workplace that I'm not getting because I'm not sleeping with my boss." So, this does create problems.
This is why most of us hold back and don't get involved with people in the workplace, especially with an employer/subordinate relationship. It's very different when it was coworkers, but this was the big boss of the whole company, Worldwide Pants. He had the power to hire, fire, give advantages in the workplace, decide who's going to be on air and get those additional payments.
Isn't that a problem?
MANKIEWICZ: It's a problem for CBS, as I said. And it's a problem if one of those employees comes forward.
BLOOM: Worldwide Pants, actually.
MANKIEWICZ: Well, it's a problem for Worldwide Pants, it's a problem -- well, I mean, it also would be a problem for CBS. I suspect if somebody wanted to file suit, they could probably include CBS in that, too.
But the fact of the matter is, it's still their problem. These are consensual affairs between adults. And I just don't think it's that big a deal. I mean, he handled it perfectly.
BLOOM: But the problem of consent is different. Consent has a different meaning when the boss is a multimillionaire, who is also the executive producer, the host and the owner of the company, makes a pass at you. And when you're a 20, 25, 30-year-old employee who is making a five-figure income and who is reliant on that job, consent has a different meaning.
I agree with you. Look, nobody has complained. I hope this was all consensual adults.
I hope the employees who were not sleeping with Dave are perfectly fine with it. But that's not what I've been hearing, and that's why -- and that's why most of us think this is unprofessional.
MANKIEWICZ: Why don't we just wait then until somebody complains before we decide that there are going to be complaints? Maybe there will be complaints and maybe there will be lawsuits. Right now there aren't.
KURTZ: Ben, that would be a new standard for the media, when something like this comes out, let's just wait until we find out all the facts.
Amy Argetsinger, "The Early Show" on CBS led with this story on Friday morning. "CBS Evening News" covered it prominently. It's got to be tough to cover your own company, but I think CBS News is covering this like it would any other story.
ARGETSINGER: Oh, yes. I even have a sense that they're actually breaking little bits of it here and there, which you hope they would because they do have the inside track on some of these personalities.
KURTZ: It has got to sting, Amy, for the network to be faced with this, at the very least, embarrassing situation. I don't think it's all that embarrassing that I do, and Dave seemed to. And the accused extortionist is a "48 Hours" producer, Joe Halderman, who has been indicted.
He's pleaded not guilty. He had some debts. He's been divorced. In other words, now you're covering a guy who was part of award-winning teams for your own news division.
ARGETSINGER: Awkward. Again, though, it's sort of an opportunity for CBS to be ahead of the story.
You know, at the end of day, I think that this is CBS' internal problem. The question remains whether viewers will revolt, whether this is a problem for viewers.
I suspect it probably won't. Unlike other personalities, Dave Letterman has done a pretty good job of not giving away a whole lot about his personal life. He hasn't made his personal life so much of an issue so that he -- you know, I have a sense that viewers are not going to run away the way they might if this were a different character.
KURTZ: Lisa, you're a CBS News contributor. Has this sent shock waves through the network?
BLOOM: Yes. And let me stick up for my network. I am a CBS News legal analyst, as well as CNN.
I've been on "The Early Show" the last two days talking about the same issues that I'm talking about right now. CBS has been very straightforward about covering this story.
David Letterman works for Worldwide Pants, as I understand it. Everybody in his show works for his company, Worldwide Pants, or as many are calling it now, Worldwide Drop Your Pants." I think the employees, if they had any problem, that would be the entity they would sue. Obviously, the network airs his show, and Halderman worked for CBS.
But, anyway, sticking up for my network, we've been covering it very straightforwardly.
KURTZ: All right. Well, they've had you on, and obviously it's been straightforward. Let me play some of the jokes that Letterman has made over the years. We've picked out a couple that give you the idea that certainly sex has been a prime topic for "The Late Show" monologue.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LETTERMAN: Sarah Palin went to the Yankees game yesterday. There was one awkward moment during the seventh inning stretch. Her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.
Bill Clinton spoke at the convention, and what a great speech. What a tremendous speech. He got four standing ovations and five phone numbers. It was just -- it was just that good.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Ben Mankiewicz, you're the film critic. You know, if Letterman continues to tell jokes like that -- I mean, this is a guy who comes into your bedroom at night -- isn't that going to feel a little funny to a lot of viewers?
MANKIEWICZ: I just don't think so. I do not think there's a real scandal here. I do not think there's hypocrisy here.
KURTZ: You don't think anybody cares?
MANKIEWICZ: No, it's not that -- no, don't get me wrong. I think it's an interesting story, and I think people care. I don't think it's a scandal and I don't think there's any hypocrisy there.
KURTZ: Lisa, you mentioned Stephanie Birkitt earlier. She is Letterman's assistant. She has worked for that show for a long time. She is also an ex-girlfriend. Somebody from Worldwide Pants confirmed that to "The New York Times."
And she gets a lot of air time. Let's take a look at a brief clip of Stephanie Birkitt on "The Late Show."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LETTERMAN: I love it!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And apparently he does love it.
So, she later moves in with Joe Halderman. And who knows how that felt and how that played into Halderman allegedly, ,according to prosecutors, leaving this note in Letterman's limo threatening to expose this?
But seeing her on the air, does it make you think about the issue of possible favoritism, Lisa?
BLOOM: Absolutely, because I know that he has about six assistants. The other ones are not on the air. And as I said, there's about a hundred people who work on his show, most of whom would love to go on the air because you get a nice chunk of change under the union rules when you go on the air.
And the problem when the boss is sleeping with an employee is, maybe she was the best one for that role. Maybe she would have gotten it anyway. She's talented, she's lovely, she's charming. But it makes everyone else very uncomfortable.
And having said all that, I want to emphasize, I think David Letterman was the victim of a terrible crime, allegedly. He was scared. Extortion is far worse than anything that he's admitted to doing. But I think the underreported part of this case is what you are talking about, Howie, and that's the issue of these employees who probably don't have the power to speak up.
KURTZ: I want to make clear, too, you have to have sympathy for a guy who suddenly is confronted with this blackmail attempt.
KURTZ: You know, cough up $2 million or we expose your personal life. Who would want to go through that?
But, Amy Argetsinger, the conventional wisdom seems to be this is all going to blow over in a few days. But couldn't that change if more details come out?
ARGETSINGER: Yes, depending on the details. You know, he was the one who kept saying that it's not I slept with another woman on my staff, I slept with some women on my staff, creepy things. You know, that could be self-deprecating, trying to make it sound worse than it is, but, yes, depending on the details.
I mean, I think it's one thing when you're talking about Stephanie Birkitt, who is late 20s, early 30s when this was going on, when you hear allegations. And we don't know if it's true about the summer interns. That does sit differently with people.
KURTZ: Well, there is the one intern who told TMZ that after a year, Letterman broke up with her because he cited their age difference was too great.
Just 20 seconds, Ben Mankiewicz.
You don't think there are some people in the United States of America who might have a more -- who might be more troubled by this than you are?
MANKIEWICZ: There are definitely people more troubled by it than I am. There are people who are more troubled by everything than I am.
I just think it's unfortunate that we sort of look at these things presuming there will be a lawsuit, presuming that that's going to be what inevitably happens. It may will happen, and then it will be a bigger story, and I will come back and say now it's a slightly bigger story. Right now, I just don't see the scandal, and I certainly don't see the hypocrisy.
KURTZ: All right. The special sex scandal edition of RELIABLE SOURCES continues in a moment.
When we come back, Roman Polanski's arrest sparks a heated media debate. We're arguing whether we should forget that the filmmaker raped a 13-year-old girl?
And later, extreme statements about President Obama. Are journalists paying too much attention to this fringe rhetoric?
KURTZ: If you had told me a week ago that police would arrest a man charged with drugging, raping and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl, that he had fled the country before sentencing, and that the media would come embroiled in a raging debate over whether he was the victim and should be set free, I would have said that you were certifiably crazy. Even if you said it was a famous filmmaker, I would have been unable to imagine a serious argument about what he had done. But as everyone now knows, that's what happened this week when Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Roman Polanski is in custody after Swiss police arrested him over the weekend on a 32-year-old charge.
KURTZ (voice-over): Television unearthed the old clips of the victim, Samantha Geimer, and of Polanski talking to "60 Minutes."
SAMANTHA GEIMER, POLANSKI VICTIM: So, I was kind of crying a little bit because I was upset and I was sure I was becoming more -- you know, I was intoxicated. So, he asked that, you know, "You shouldn't tell your mom. We should just keep it a secret."
ROMAN POLANSKI, DIRECTOR: I ran away because I think that I was very unfortunate to have a judge who misused justice.
KURTZ: Lisa Bloom, why are we having this absurd debate over what movie mogul Harvey Weinstein calls this so-called crime? Some Hollywood types say it happened so long ago and we should all just move on. And that's when we're supposed to do?
BLOOM: Think what we've seen this week is Hollywood celebrities as a bloc moving firmly away from the rest of mainstream America. Most of us think that drugging, raping and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl means that you have to come back and do your sentence. And yet, 100 celebrities have signed a petion in favor of Roman Polanski.
It's absolutely appalling. And Howie, I've read the entire court file of this case from 1977 to '78. We have changed so little since then.
At that time, the head of Paramount Pictures said, and I quote, "What happened to Roman Polanski could have happened (AUDIO GAP). It was just an accident that he would sodomize a 13-year-old girl."
That's what was said back then. So little changed as to what's happening now, what celebrities are saying now.
KURTZ: And then the case, of course, was fresh and recent.
Ben Mankiewicz, have journalists provided the right context for this case in reviewing what happened in this case and the sentencing that was never completed back in 1977?
MANKIEWICZ: No, I don't think so. And, I mean, I think Lisa is certainly right in one regard. And going over the old case files and exactly what happened on that day in 1977 is incredibly relevant.
What's also relevant and what makes the story more complicated is understanding Judge Rittenband's behavior and what he did, and what seems to be unquestioned judicial misconduct at the time. It's not disputed by either the prosecutor or the defense attorney, and that's why Roman Polanski fled.
I am not ever going to be the guy who lets Roman Polanski off the hook. And even if you've been done wrong by a judge, the right thing to do is take your medicine and have your attorneys pursue it, and he didn't do that. But that said, there's unquestioned judicial misconduct in this case.
KURTZ: Right. Well, let's a legitimate summary for the debate, but let's not forget -- and I think too many of these accounts have glossed over the fact -- that he is a fugitive and has been a fugitive for three decades.
Amy Argetsinger, I want to play for you a couple comments about this case from Whoopi Goldberg and Melissa Gilbert.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WHOOPI GOLDBERG, "THE VIEW": What I'm saying is he did not rape her because she was aware and the family apparently was aware. He was not charged -- I know it wasn't "rape" rape.
MELISSA GILBERT, ACTRESS: I think he has tried to atone. I think the punishment at this point may be excessive.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: It wasn't "rape" rape. Whoopi has taken a lot of heat for those comments.
ARGETSINGER: Well, she should take a lot of heat. She seems to be the only person around who hasn't even read a summary of the grand jury testimony. Probably back 30 years ago, there were some people who -- you know, the Hollywood mentality was that, yes, there are groupies around and maybe you don't always check their drivers' licenses, but we now know that that was not the case here, that this was a 13-year-old girl, that this was not consensual in the least, and she seems to have missed that part of the story.
KURTZ: And in addition to everything else, Lisa Bloom, it seems to me from everything I've read and heard that we have a lack of remorse on Polanski's part. I mean, here's a quote that he give to the British magazine "Tatler" back in 1980, and I have to clean it up for the audience.
"If I had killed somebody, it wouldn't have had so much appeal to the press, you see. But young girls, judges want to (blank) young girls, juries want to (blank) young girls. Everyone wants to (blank) young girls."
I mean, he just doesn't even seem to even acknowledge that people might consider this a pretty hideous crime.
BLOOM: Yes, he is called prudish for considering it a crime for a 43- year-old man to have sex with a 13-year-old girl. He has not ever shown any remorse as far as I can tell, and I have scoured the record from 1977 to the present. I have found absolutely nothing.
Even last year, in the HBO documentary, he smirks at the comment that he likes young women. I mean, he really has shown absolutely no remorse.
And, Whoopi, it is "rape" rape when a girl says no, when she says stop, when she makes up a lie that she has asthma, begging him to take her home. A 13-year-old cannot consent to sex with a 43-year-old man. And you know what we call sex without consent? We call it rape.
KURTZ: Ben Mankiewicz, you know, we need someone to interview on this story, and Polanski is not talking at the moment. So a lot of people look to the victim, Samantha Geimer. And they say, well, she's grown up now. She's forgiven him. She says she doesn't want him jailed.
Should that be part of the standard about whether the case is pursued or not by the L.A. County district attorney?
MANKIEWICZ: Well, I think unquestionably. And I think that if you're going to be a prosecutor who advocates using victims' rights to get tougher sentences when the victim here says she wants the case disposed of, of course that's relevant. And remember, the crime he pled guilty to -- and believe me, again, I'm not going to be the guy who sits here defending Roman Polanski in any way. I'm not Woody Allen.
KURTZ: Woody Allen is defending him. And a lot of other filmmakers.
MANKIEWICZ: I know. It's like Jon Gosselin saying lay off Kanye West. I don't think anybody wants that help. But the fact of the matter is, he pled guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old. The case was disposed of. Prosecution didn't think it should be jail time. She didn't think it should be jail time, the victim. And obviously neither did Polanski and his attorney. The only person who backed out on the deal was the judge. It's just a relevant part of the story that needs to be told, that's all.
ARGETSINGER: My bias is not just as a...
KURTZ: One second, Lisa.
ARGETSINGER: My bias is not just as a former 13-year-old girl, but as the daughter of a judge. Yes, I mean, people are going to get wrapped in the whole legal -- oh, well, this judge was going to railroad him. You still have to answer to the judge.
And look, he may come back here and they may decide, look, OK, it's done, no more jail time. But you have to wrap it up. You have to come back. You have to let the judge decide.
And you know what? If the judge is crazy or unfair, there's an appeals process. And people are making the argument that he should somehow be immune from all of that?
KURTZ: Lisa, we're talking here...
MANKIEWICZ: By the way...
KURTZ: Go ahead.
MANKIEWICZ: I agree completely. He has to unquestionably has to come back and answer to it whether the judge is out of line and participating in judicial misconduct or not. You've got to come back and you've got to take your medicine. Agree completely.
KURTZ: Let me cut to the chase here with Lisa.
BLOOM: Can I clean up a couple of legal issues real quickly?
KURTZ: Real quickly.
BLOOM: The judge was potentially going to engage in misconduct. It never happened because Polanski fed.
And D.A. Steve Cooley here in L.A. has confirmed that the rape, sodomy and drugging charges are still open charges. Why? Because Polanski fled.
They are not disposed of. They are still open charges.
Yes, he took a plea on the record, a plea at which time, by the way, he said, I knew she was 13, I engaged in sex with her. But because he never came back and served his sentence, all those charges are still open.
KURTZ: All right.
I'm going to ask myself the last question.
This is, of course, the award-winning director of "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown," "The Pianist." Would anybody in the media be defending this guy if he was just some guy named Roman? And the answer, of course, is no.
There is a sort of underlying sense here that he's so talented and he's such an artiste, and he's such a director, that somehow a different standard should apply. And that's what really bothers me about this case.
Ben Mankiewicz, Lisa Bloom, Lisa Argetsinger, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
And coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, President Obama's Olympic size defeat. Conservative commentators seem happy, happy that Chicago lost.
Plus, CBS' Byron Pitts on how he once struggled just to be able to read a sentence.
And Dan Rather loses another legal round against CBS. Is his crusade over?
KURTZ: President Obama spent all of five hours in Copenhagen Friday. And you would have thought he just lost a war.
Sure, he asked for the worldwide media attention by making the trip. And sure, he went for the gold in terms of Chicago's Olympics bid and didn't even come home with the bronze.
If this came as a stunner to the news business, maybe that's because some of the prediction-happy pundits were so sure, so certain that they knew the outcome in advance.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: I don't believe for a second that the president of the United States is going to risk his credibility, fly over to Copenhagen, and not have this preordained.
CLARENCE PAGE, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": I find it hard to imagine that President Obama would be making this trip without being pretty sure, he's gotten some inside word that hey, you know, the IOC, the Olympic Committee, is just right on the fence here, and if you show up in person, you can seal the deal. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think there's something wrong with Rio. They know it, they're going to exploit it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Well, I guess they were -- what's the phrase? -- completely and totally wrong.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chicago is out?
GIBSON: This is a real, sort of, I guess, kind of kick in the pants for the president. He went over there believing that his appearance would sort of seal the deal for Chicago.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the Olympics coverage and, in a moment, the surge of extreme-sounding statements on the left and right -- let's see, we'll start here in Washington. Amanda Carpenter, who writes the "Hot Button" column for "The Washington Times," and Byron Pitts, CBS' chief national correspondent for CBS' "60 Minutes" and the author of the new book "Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped me Conquer Life's Challenges." Also joining us from San Francisco is Joan Walsh, the editor of Salon.com.
I wanted to make sure we had her shot up.
Byron Pitts, the press has cast this as Obama's big failure, huge failure. But as I mentioned at the top, by personalizing it, he kind of asked for it, didn't he?
BYRON PITTS, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "60 MINUTES": Oh, sure. Absolutely. I mean, it was high stakes for the president to go.
And certainly, at the very least, it's embarrassing for the White House. I mean, this was something that everyone thought they'd get the president involved, it's a no-brainer. And the fact that it didn't go well speaks that the perception, at least, that while President Obama is popular, he may not be that powerful around the world.
KURTZ: I've been trying to figure out how all these people can go on TV and say the fix is in, and I don't know what they're talking about. And then I sort of remembered, there's no penalty for being wrong on television.
Joan Walsh, conservative commentators said that Obama was wasting fuel, wasting time, should have been solving the war in Afghanistan. And, oh, yes, this was a payoff to his Chicago political cronies.
What did you make of that media barrage? JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SALON.COM: I though it was ridiculous, Howie. I mean, you know, was it the best thing he ever did? No. It is a shame that he lost? Yes. Does it look a little bit bad for him to have gone and lost? It looks a little bit bad.
But, you know, the real story here, to me, is the conservative commentators suddenly rooting against this country and cheering that he lost. It's really kind of unthinkable to me.
It's not that big a deal, we'll all get over it. Good for Rio. But it just speaks to this kind of meanness and hyperpersonalization of the Obama presidency that -- you know, reportedly, people at "The Weekly Standard" were cheering, and we certainly heard Rush and Glenn Beck kvelling over it. And I just think that that's wrong.
KURTZ: And Amanda Carpenter, Limbaugh did say that this was the worst day of the Obama presidency and that he had demeaned the office by going on this sales pitch.
Was there anything about the right's reaction that you disagreed with or that troubled you?
AMANDA CARPENTER, "THE WASHINGTON TIMES": Well, I don't like the gloating, but I can understand why people were happy that he didn't get it, because this became a story about President Obama's priorities. The day before he announced that he was going to go on there, General Stanley McChrystal gave an interview to CBS News and revealed that he had only spoken to President Obama once on a video teleconference. And so, that jumped in the news the same day Obama said I'm going to lobby for the Olympics in my hometown.
So, that became a story about where Obama's placing his priority. And when he got knocked down, people were happy that maybe he would...
KURTZ: But in terms of the punditocracy, even if the priorities were misplaced, wouldn't it have been a good thing for the United States of America if Chicago had won? How do you cheer that? I just don't get it.
CARPENTER: Well, some people -- I mean, Glenn Beck raised questions about the financing of the Olympics and how people go into debt, but people really questioned it on the conservative side because it wreaked of cronyism. And I don't take that word lightly. I'm not sure it was cronyism, but it was still insular.
It was his hometown. There were implications of Mayor Daley -- Chuck Todd on MSNBC said that he felt that Mayor Daley had pushed President Obama into doing this. He said that Tuesday morning. So, people who cover the White House had suspicions.
WALSH: How much time did George Bush spend in Crawford, Texas? How much did he bring to the tiny economy?
I mean, I think it's ridiculous. When the prior president spent one- third of his presidency either in Crawford, at his ranch, or at Camp David, the idea that this president goes to Copenhagen for half a day, he does meet General McChrystal...
WALSH: And that's the biggest scandal that we have to talk about? It just seems wrong.
KURTZ: All right. Well, let's talk about something broader, because I want to devote a fair amount of time to some of the extreme statements I see becoming almost par for the course now in our political discourse.
A Facebook poll that some idiot puts up this week, "Should Obama be killed?" And a bunch of people participate in that.
And then we have, let's see, "Newsmax," which is a conservative magazine, and a columnist there named John Perry who writes the following, if we can put that up. "There is a remote although gaining, possibility America's military will intervene as a last resort to resolve the Obama problem. Don't dismiss it as unrealistic. Military intervention is Obama's exponentially accelerating agenda for a fundamental change toward a Marxist state is inviting upon America."
And then we have a congressman from Arizona, Republican Congressman Trent Franks, saying the following about what he describes as the administration using taxpayer money to fund abortions overseas.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. TRENT FRANKS (R), ARIZONA: A president that has lost his way that badly, that has no ability to see the image of God in these little fellow human beings, if he can't do that right, then he has no place in any station of government and we need to realize that he is an enemy of humanity.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Enemy of humanity.
Does this climate bother you, Byron Pitts?
PITTS: It does. I would think for most reasonable people, you would say this kind of language, this kind of heated rhetoric is dangerous for our country, dangerous for the president. If people suggest that it would be OK to assassinate the president of the United States, that's a problem.
KURTZ: Or a military coup?
PITTS: Oh, yes. That's a problem.
And for many people, it also hints of racism. That, certainly, different sides can make their views known about the administration. Certainly, unkind things were said about President Bush.
KURTZ: And every president going back to Washington.
PITTS: Exactly right. Exactly right. But for many people, there is a suggestion that race is a factor in this that I don't think we can ignore in the media in covering this story.
KURTZ: Joan, is it important for journalists to spotlight this ugly stuff, or are we fanning the flames by doing that?
WALSH: You know, I think about that a lot. There are big issues in this country. Every president has faced a certain amount of vitriol. But I do think we need to stay on it, Howie.
I do think -- you know, it's matched by an exponential rise, according to the Secret Service, in death threats against the president. So, I don't think it's something we can just say it's the lunatic fringe. I mean, it is a lunatic fringe, I don't think it's a large segment of our society, but I'm really waiting for more conservative voices to smack these people down and say this is not how we talk about our president, and to, you know, validate the fact that this could, could conceivably lead to some really unhinged person taking that next step. There is violence in the rhetoric, and that's wrong.
KURTZ: And Amanda Carpenter, let me tee up for you some sort of inflammatory comments by Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida and some of the reaction to that. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: The Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly. That's right, the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick. I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven't voted sooner to end this Holocaust in America.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GRAYSON: These are foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HANNITY: The Republicans may want to go after him and reprimand him. I would say, just let him keep on talking, because, I think, look, the poll numbers now show that it is at the lowest level of support that its ever had.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: We're getting some pretty heated stuff on both sides.
CARPENTER: Yes, sure. And the media covered this very much in the same way that they covered Joe Wilson, I think, highlighting the remarks. But Mr. Grayson made it worse on himself when he gave the so-called fake apology and invoked the Holocaust in terms of the Republicans.
KURTZ: And he belatedly apologized to the Anti-Defamation League for invoking the Holocaust.
CARPENTER: Yes. Right.
KURTZ: But go ahead.
CARPENTER: And this is going to hurt him. I think it's been covered well. People have looked at the politics of this.
He's from a Republican-leaning district. And it's bad for him because I will say he has raised good questions about the Federal Reserve and transparency, but when a congressman does something like this, it undermines that whole story and anything good you may be doing in Congress.
KURTZ: But Amanda, isn't there a media double standard here? Because the press went nuts over Joe Wilson and shouting "You lie!" during the president's speech, but Congressman Grayson, he was welcomed on Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews praised him -- he's also going to be on CNN -- while Fox criticized him.
So, is there -- do you see different standards in the way the media treat these guys?
CARPENTER: Yes, sure. But he kept the story going. He agreed to go on those shows and keep talking about it.
KURTZ: Because they help these guys raise money. They become famous. Who ever heard of him before?
CARPENTER: Yes. And he's raising $100,000, he's doing well. But some responsible outlets like "The Washington Post" have mentioned the politics of this and how it can hurt him, and I think that's a very important factor and that's legitimate.
KURTZ: Byron -- go ahead, Joan.
WALSH: You know, we wrote about it. Look, I'm in trouble with some of my readers for not lionizing Alan Grayson as a person who has said, "I would like to bring facts back to this debate" and who has criticized the death panel rhetoric.
I wasn't a big fan of what Grayson did; however, it's not the same. I just want to say, it is not the same as what Joe Wilson did.
First of all, every day, virtually -- that's an exaggeration -- often, often, House Republicans get up and talk about the Democrats' health care plan in the most extreme way, talking about it's going to tell seniors drop dead, saying it's going to force people to die, doctors will choose to let people die. These are lies, and that happens almost every day.
KURTZ: But does that validate, does that justify, Joan...
WALSH: So, Grayson is comparable to that. Anybody who gets up in the middle of a very sober, somber joint session of Congress and shouts at the president, "You lie!" that is a different order of magnitude of crazy. I'm sorry. It's more disrespectful.
KURTZ: Let me close by asking Byron Pitts, did you feel that some on the left are going too far as well since there's been so much focus on what some right-wingers are saying?
PITTS: Oh, sure. I mean, I think people at the extremes are doing a disservice to people who believe in them. I mean, look, there are serious issues to be discussed in our country, and people who take leadership roles are using what reasonable people would say, unnecessary, ridiculous language, and that doesn't further the debate in our country.
KURTZ: And they're getting a huge megaphone from us in the media, which sometimes I think is justified and sometimes I wonder whether we're giving just a little bit too much attention to some of these fringe comments and fiery rhetoric.
Joe Walsh, Amanda Carpenter, thank you very much for joining us.
Byron, stick around.
Up next, Byron Pitts gets personal. We'll talk about his new book on how he struggled with reading, stuttering and an absentee father.
KURTZ: We're back with Byron Pitts, who spoke to me two years ago about the problems he had growing up in Baltimore. I thought it was a remarkable story then, and now he's turned it into a book, "Step Out on Nothing: How Family and Faith Helped Me Conquer Life's Challenges."
So, I still have a hard time grasping this. How could you get to the sixth grade and not be able to read?
PITTS: Well, I mean, it happens for lots of people in our country. I mean, it's estimated there are 30 million adults in our country who are functionally illiterate, so I'm not alone. It happens for many people.
I was a picture reader, so I could fake it. I have a good memory. And I kind of got by until math became more complicated. I was tested for math and come to find out I couldn't read the directions, that my issue was reading.
KURTZ: You couldn't speak very well either.
PITTS: No. I stuttered until I was about 20 years old, my junior year in college. Both were a formula for failure, but fortunately, I had a mother who was resilient, wouldn't give up on me, kept pushing, kept pushing others to make sure I got the help I needed. KURTZ: And for the moms out there, tell me precisely what your mother did to make sure that you stopped sitting around watching TV and became a decent student.
PITTS: Well, my mother -- for instance, I played football growing up. So, she said, either you get a certain grade or you can't play. And she was always in my face.
She loved me, but she also disciplined me when she had to. And she stayed on those people.
I mean, there was one therapist who suggested I might be mentally retarded. My mother says, no, I don't think that's right. Another therapist said, well, wait until he's 15 and bring him back. She said, no, that's not right, because if we wait that long, he'll be dead or in prison.
So, I think one of the messages in "Step Out of Nothing" is to parents, to fight for your children. Never accept no, keep pushing. And I'm a witness to what happens when a parent intervenes and refuses to give up on their child.
KURTZ: When you were 9 or 10 or 11 and you were getting promoted to fourth and fifth and sixth grade, you knew you were faking it, you knew you couldn't read. But it didn't bother you? You didn't complain to anybody and say, hey, I don't have the basic skills here to show up at school every day?
PITTS: Well, remember, we're talking about a child who is 9 or 10 years old. And if I was told it was OK to move ahead, I did.
KURTZ: But the failure of the school system.
PITTS: Sure. Sure. And not just for me, but for many people.
I mean, I tell the story in the book about, in many ways, reading didn't matter that much to me as a child because I was getting by just fine. It became real for me when a therapist told my mother that I was functionally illiterate.
I didn't know what the word meant, but it made my mom cry. And I knew at that point, I wanted to do whatever I had to do to make sure my mother wouldn't cry.
KURTZ: You have this incredible scene in the book about your mother dragging you to chase down your father who was at of a girlfriend's house. And she made him come out of that apartment. He later left the family. You didn't see him or have any contact with him for years.
How did that affect you? And what happened when you finally hooked up with him again years later?
PITTS: Sure. Well, divorce is a major issue in our country. Many kids grow up in a single parent household.
KURTZ: Right, but this wasn't just divorce. I mean, he walked out of your life.
PITTS: Well, actually, my mother physically moved out. She left him on Christmas Eve, 1972. I remember the day well.
But in me, it made me angry. Fortunately, I, because of my mother, stayed motivated, and directly because of my -- a lot of times in the stories that we cover, certainly in urban America, when you see young people do things that they shouldn't do, I often think, there but for the grace of God go I, because I was also angry, and I felt abandoned by my father. We've reconciled to some degree in recent years as we speak now as men.
KURTZ: But now you're a successful network star. And now, when he met you, at least for the first time in a long time, he wanted something from you, didn't he?
KURTZ: What did he want?
PITTS: Oh, he wanted money.
KURTZ: And what did you say to him?
PITTS: I said no. In fact, I used some choice words that I won't use on television, but it was my way to sort of pay him back for I thought ignoring me all these years.
But one of the things I learned -- learning in my own life and a point I make in the book, is that there's real power in forgiveness. That, as long as I was angry with my father, it actually did me more disservice, because he went on with his life. But when I told him I forgave him, that not only -- some may say it let him off the hook, but it freed me.
KURTZ: But in order to tell him you forgave him, you also had to tell him about the anger that you felt in being abandoned.
PITTS: Oh, yes.
KURTZ: When you got to college, Ohio Wesleyan University, within months you were about to withdraw. Why?
PITTS: Yes. Well, I learned to read by age 12. I was still reading below grade level by the time I got to high school.
So, when I got to college, I wasn't as prepared for college as a student should be. So, a professor in my freshman year -- I was on academic probation -- says, look -- I remember his quote. He says, "You are not Ohio Wesleyan University material." My college. "You're wasting my time and the government's money. You shouldn't be here."
And so I planned on -- I was raised to respect authority. I went outside and filled out papers to leave school.
KURTZ: Our time is running short, but obviously you were talked out of that and you did graduate from college.
KURTZ: And in the few seconds that we have remaining, you now make a point of talking to kids around the country and trying to get them to improve their lives.
PITTS: Oh, yes. To believe that if you work hard enough, if you're focused, if you have dreams, those dreams can come true if you believe in them and you surround yourself with the right people.
KURTZ: Byron Pitts, thanks very much for stopping by this morning.
PITTS: Thank you.
KURTZ: We appreciate it.
After the break, Dan Rather vows to keep fighting CBS. An editor dares to question his magazine's layoffs. And a last word about a man who loved words, William Safire.
KURTZ: It was an extraordinary lawsuit by perhaps the most controversial anchor of the modern era against his former network.
KURTZ (voice-over): A New York Appeals Court unanimously threw out Dan Rather's $70 million claim against CBS this week. Rather's attorney, Martin Gold, said his side was unhappy, dismayed and surprised, but that they would appeal. A CBS spokesman declared that the case is over, but Rather isn't giving up.
DAN RATHER, JOURNALIST: Not bitter. Not sad. I am determined.
We have very large corporate interests working with powerful, political interests to manipulate the news and the people who report the news. Whatever their political persuasion, I don't think the American people want that.
KURTZ: The suit is a breach of contract claim involving Rather's departure from "60 Minutes," but the ex-anchor was using it to try to vindicate his handling of the botched story about George W. Bush and the National Guard, the story that CBS later retracted.
KURTZ: Layoffs are all too common in the news business these days, as you know. And "Congressional Quarterly" and "Roll Call" are the latest to shrink their staffs. Their parent company cutting 44 employees this week.
One veteran editor at CQ, Brian Nutting, sent his boss a memo titled "We Need Answers." Nutting wrote, "The newsroom needs to hear in person from those whoa re responsible for today's announcement. Someone in authority should appear before us to attempt to justify the actions announced."
Well, Nutting soon got his answer. His memo leaked and he was fired for insubordination.
Think about that. This is a media company. A journalist raises questions about what his company does. That's what journalists do, we raise questions. And he's immediately sapped?
I remember being shocked when "The New York Times" hired a Nixon White House speechwriter during Watergate, no less.
KURTZ (voice-over): But William Safire, who died this week, turned out to be a smart and provocative columnist. He broke news, which is how he won a Pulitzer Prize during the Carter administration. I often disagreed with him, he was sometimes wrong. But you had to admire Safire's love of language, which we talked about when he was on this program last year.
(on camera): All right. Chattering classes, and do they matter?
WILLIAM SAFIRE, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": That's a Britishism, and we imported that from London. And it's the elitist. It's the people who -- the talking heads, as you see on your own program. And people listen to them and lay back and don't have to think for themselves.
KURTZ: You mentioned elitism. What's that political phrase mean?
SAFIRE: That's the establishment, but with a cultural overtone of arugula and white wine and Chablis and Brie.
KURTZ: You gave up your "New York Times" op-ed column after three decades. With such pressure as real estate (ph), do you miss having the opportunity to tell the world what you think about everything?
SAFIRE: Oh, every now and then I get up and say -- and I write a column in my head, but then I lie down and cool off, and I watch programs like this, and I'm OK.
KURTZ: Wish you were still watching, Bill.
William Safire was 79.
Still to come, Twitter trouble. My editors may be getting nervous, but I vow to keep on tweeting.
KURTZ: I tend to be pretty freewheeling on Twitter, or as much as you can be in 140 character messages. Now my paper, "The Washington Post," has become the latest news organization to put out guidelines for how its staffers should conduct themselves in the social media marketplace.
Fine, I said. I'll just tweet about the weather and dessert recipes. That was a joke.
Here's what the guidelines say.
"Post journalists refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything -- including photographs or video -- that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility."
Let's throw in some denunciations online, but I think it's pretty reasonable. It means don't appear bias, don't embarrass yourself, don't write everything that you can't defend in print or on the air. And I don't, except for the embarrassing part now and then.
What's great about Twitter is the instant feedback you get and I got plenty when I asked my followers whether "The Washington Post" guidelines are reasonable.
Drewntips, "They're idiotic. Everyone in every institution has biases. Be honest about them so others can make informed judgments."
PathwayPR, "Sounds like wanting to play it safe and protect the corporate brand."
GeneG, "Twitter is public. The elements suggesting bias are huge hot buttons. When they come into view, they undermine credibility."
Newsjunkie365, "The Washington Post twitter rules are ridiculous. The public isn't stupid. We know journos have opinions."
Rebeccayork43, "You're on your own time. Unless 'The Washington Post' is paying you to Twitter, tell them to bug off."
I don't think I'll be doing that. OK. Lots of people think these guidelines will crush our creativity and zap our souls, and I say to them, read my tweets. You won't be bored, and if you are, I'm sure a few thousand of you will let me know.
John King, as we turn things back over to you this Sunday morning, you're on Twitter, but I don't see a whole lot of writing yet.
KING: I know, I'm waiting for everyone else to get out, then I'll get in. That's how it works.
KURTZ: All right, take it away, John.
KING: Take care, Howie, have a great day.