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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Aired January 17, 2010 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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KURTZ: In ordinary times, Haiti is but a speck on the American media radar, an impoverished island nation that draws precious little attention. But this week, it became the epicenter of a journalistic invasion, the world watching the heartrending scenes of death and devastation caused by a monster earthquake.
The challenge for the correspondents, to make sense of such a large-scale disaster and convey the human impact. The networks all sent their top anchors and initially, at least, communication was difficult.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: Katie is heading up our coverage in Haiti. Communications between here and there are understandably dicey, at best.
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Harry, when we left the international airport, there were no signs of the devastation. But about five minutes into the ride, as we went into downtown Port-au-Prince, there were signs everywhere, shattered buildings, concrete all blown to pieces. And buildings were simply eerie shells of their former selves.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: The scene is said to be just hundreds of people. I'm joining you on the one working satellite phone we have. We had to all bring power, water, food, all equipment just to tell the world about this story from here.
DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: And on "World News Tonight," we are in Haiti where, once again, it is a blue sky above and hell on the ground.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But even as bodies were still being pulled from the rubble, some commentators launched a war of words that threatened to turn the tragedy into a political football.
Joining us now to talk about the Haiti coverage, Jill Dougherty, foreign affairs correspondent for CNN; Clarence Page, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune"; and Jim Geraghty, contributing editor at "National Review." Clarence Page, you've been there. Why don't the American media care about Haiti except when tens of thousands of people are dying?
PAGE: Well, sadly enough, it is the kind of place that doesn't have any clout. You know?
They don't have oil, they're not in the middle of a cold war. They are a transit point for drug traffickers, and Haiti is constantly the tragic story. You never hear about the positive stories. And ironically,. they were starting to get themselves together down there, civil society and government, when this latest tragedy hit.
KURTZ: Jim Geraghty, should the coverage be wall to wall as it's pretty much been on CNN? Fox News has certainly covered the tragedy, the disaster during the day, but has drawn criticism for devoting scant few minutes on the opinion shows -- O'Reilly, Beck, Handy.
GERAGHTY: I don't know if there's much you can say in terms of an opinion show other than, boy, this is terrible. It's not like you can get a pro-earthquake pundit to offer the opposing point of view. I think after a while you can only say it's terrible so many times. And it doesn't necessarily fit the style or the genre of those shows.
KURTZ: So, coverage gets repetitive, in your view, despite the scale of the destruction? I mean, it is an inevitable challenge in covering these things.
GERAGHTY: It is. And it's one of the things where, you know, people -- it will be interesting to see if a week from now people are still paying the same level of attention to it.
KURTZ: That will be very interesting.
Jill Dougherty, I want to play some tape of how several broadcast and cable networks have covered what's going on in Haiti with a particular focus on children.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: She has a pretty significant laceration here. And what I need to make sure is that doesn't have a skull fracture underneath. The good news is I don't think she does.
ROBIN ROBERTS, ABC NEWS: The Poulters (ph) had just adopted little Maya Esther, still at the orphanage in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck. Now all her new parents could do was actually wait in Iowa for word on whether their little girl was safe.
ANN CURRY, NBC NEWS: Hey, mister. Your mommy and daddy love you very much.
(voice-over): Five-year-old Sam bravely waiting for a broken left leg to be set, and he's saying it hurts.
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Is there a temptation to make the coverage more emotional to focus on children, to try to put a face on the tragedy?
DOUGHERTY: I think that that's the reality of it, though. And if you -- the image of Haiti, as Clarence was saying, was so unremittingly bad for so many years, that if you just go along with that and say, oh, the country is suffering, people will turn off because it will be considered just kind of a basket case. When you show an 11-year-old girl who dies, people begin to care. I have friends who are in various fields who have told me that they were very deeply affected by that.
KURTZ: So, you have to, in effect, hook the viewers by grabbing them and saying we're talking about 11-year-old girls here, not some undifferentiated mass of human suffering.
DOUGHERTY: Yes. I mean, President Obama and others have said that you see yourself in the eyes of those people and in the lives of those people. And that's the only way that it can get across.
And I do think -- Jim, with all respect, I don't think that you can go too far on this, because, yes, you can say it's terrible, it's terrible. But then you have to ask the question, why? Why are so many people dying there? Why is the political situation so bad for so many years? Why is the economic situation so bad in a hemisphere that's doing pretty well?
KURTZ: And why do we have these just heart-wrenching scenes of all the aid, the water, the food, piled up at the airport, and for days no apparent way to get that out to the people who are suffering?
As I mentioned, certainly commentators have also weighed in here. We had Pat Robertson saying this was somehow tied to a long-ago pact with the devil. I mean, just spare me. All right?
And Rush Limbaugh made some comments that have gotten a lot of play on the airwaves in recent days. Let's take a look.
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RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: This will play right into Obama's hands -- humanitarian, compassionate. They'll use this to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It's made to order for him. That's why he couldn't wait to get out there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Is that politicizing a tragedy?
PAGE: Well, speaking for the dark-skinned black community, you know, this is what happens when you've got to fill, what, three hours a day of commentary, just jabbering into a microphone? You've got to say something. You'll remember when President Bush responded too slowly to Katrina, we had lots to say about him responding too slowly. Obama responds quickly. What do you say? Well, of course, this is going to burnish his image, all that humanitarian mumbo jumbo, blah, blah, blah.
GERAGHTY: It's very likely to boost Obama's approval rating amongst African-Americans from 96 percent to 98 percent. PAGE: Right.
GERAGHTY: That was the weak spot Obama needed to address at this particular moment.
KURTZ: Now, others have dragged in issues. You had Keith Olbermann on MSNBC the other night saying that if this kind of tragedy happened in this country -- and maybe it's inappropriate to ask this, he said -- how could we cope with the health care system we have right now? You had actor Danny Glover tying what happened in the tragedy in Haiti to global warming and the failure of the Copenhagen summit.
And I'm just wondering, like, shouldn't these people just wait a few days? I mean, people are still dying there.
GERAGHTY: Why wait a few days? How about they just be quiet for a long time? (INAUDIBLE) was angry over the Copenhagen summit so she decided to take it out on the Haitians? You know, why not hit Copenhagen?
KURTZ: But as Clarence Page points out with President Bush and Katrina, you can't completely take the politics out of it. White House aides are out there talking to reporters about how President Obama is leading a strong response. To me, it's a question of the timing and the sensitivity, not that a president -- every president is judged by how he responds to a disaster of this scale.
DOUGHERTY: Absolutely. And the setting, you know, of course, is Katrina. The word "Katrina" is, I think, hovering over this. How was Katrina handled and would this be Obama's Katrina?
He's obviously set to make sure that it's not his Katrina. This is a big operation.
KURTZ: Speaking of President Obama, he has written the cover story for "Newsweek" this week, if we could put that on up on the screen, talking about how America needs to step up to the plate here.
Does that further the perception that the magazine is somehow in bed with the White House, or is it different because we're dealing here with an almost unimaginable tragedy?
GERAGHTY: Howard, for years, every time I picked up "Newsweek," it seemed like the articles were written by Obama himself to begin with. So I'm just glad they're eliminating the middle man.
KURTZ: Well, "Newsweek" editor John Meacham told Politico that "Newsweek" published Bush 41, making the case for his Gulf policy. Is that the work of a bunch of lefties?
PAGE: Right. This is what happens when you give the president the honor of -- honor or the president gives you the honor of writing for your publication. You know, we're such a politicized era.
I think -- you know, I can remember the Eisenhower era and JFK and LBJ. I don't think it would have been quite as politicized as today because we're just so polarized now. If you see Obama's name you're supposed to react in some kind of a reflexive way.
KURTZ: And, of course, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have a co-byline piece in "The New York Times" today, and they have been given interviews -- you just saw one with John King last hour -- about their efforts to fundraise for this tragedy.
What about the role of the social media, Facebook, Twitter? Are we seeing almost a grassroots movement using these tools that simply weren't as in fashion five years ago?
DOUGHERTY: Yes. I just think it's amazing to watch this, because I think it's a culmination of what's been coming for a few years.
You have Facebook, Twitter, Internet in this entirely organic situation right now where, people on the ground, average people, get out their message through the media, through the social media, then rescue crews come because of that. Then there's Twitter raising money. Then we have the iReporters reporting from the ground.
It is an amazingly organic -- and "viral" is the word, of course -- operation that has just reached its culmination. And I think that it blurs all of those boundaries between all of these discrete media that used to be discrete and are combined now.
KURTZ: Journalists also taking advantage of it. ABC's Chris Cuomo, who just went to Haiti, tweeted, "This is not over. There is a lot of dying being done. You hear it, you see it, you smell it."
It's just another way to communicate when you don't have a live shot up, satellite technology ready.
GERAGHTY: I was going to say, I was going to answer that question, Howard, but I'm going to be texting "Haiti" to the right number instead of breaking out the checkbook, instead of putting in the envelope and hoping it goes. This is something you can do by pressing a whole bunch of keystrokes on your BlackBerry. And I think it probably feels very empowering to be able to do something in a matter of 12 or 13 key strokes instead of, you know, when you see something far away and it doesn't seem like there's something that you personally can do about it.
KURTZ: Let's come back to the -- go ahead.
PAGE: I was going to say, by the way, I've been pretty cynical about Twitter. But the two occasions that I found it to be very useful are during a coups and during a disaster. We were just talking about how I'm getting tweets from the Hotel Oliphant (ph) down in Haiti where I stayed. And the Hotel Grand Marien made famous. I was wondering how it was doing. And it's still standing. People sleeping outside.
But, you know, things are the kind of things you can do now when everything else breaks down.
KURTZ: What about this question of the intensity of the coverage? I mean, I watch for a couple of hours and I have to turn it off for a while. I mean, it is hard to take because of all of the suffering.
PAGE: Oh, yes. Absolutely.
I mean, there's a certain fatigue point that sets in. I don't think we've gotten there yet, though, because this country -- Americans are compassionate people. And Haiti is so close, and there's such misery there. And we can do something about it. So I think it's going to last for a few days.
KURTZ: And yet, there is a journalistic responsibility to go there, to bear witness, to report on this very, very sad story, even if, obviously, people are limited in their ability to take all of it in.
DOUGHERTY: Yes. But I think, you know, obviously, it's going to stop. It's going to diminish as time goes on.
But think this tragedy, which looks as if it's one of the biggest catastrophes in history so far, and the number of deaths, if somebody doesn't take that to the next step and ask, number one, what happens to Haiti? Is this a failed state? Is this a country that can survive. And then also, why is it happening?
KURTZ: I'll have more to say on that later in the program.
Jill Dougherty, Clarence Page, Jim Geraghty, thanks very much for joining us.
When we come back, Palin's punditry. The former VP candidate is embraced by her new pals at Fox News. How did she do? And is this the new way to run for public office?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Do you think this is going to be a pretty big year?
SARAH PALIN (R), FMR. ALASKA GOVERNOR: The nice thing about this energy that you can feel...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: Do you know that moment?
PALIN: I know that moment...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) .
KURTZ: She's been a governor, a vice presidential candidate, a target for "Saturday Night Live," a best-selling author and something of a cultural phenomenon. Now Sarah Palin has a new role -- Fox News commentator.
In her debut this week, Bill O'Reilly didn't exactly grill the woman who had been John McCain's running mate and who continues to face criticism about her grasp of the issues. No. He smothered her with sympathy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
O'REILLY: You're the former governor of Alaska, the former governor of Alaska, former vice presidential candidate. You a politician. You're a mom. You're an American.
What's the threat?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: O'Reilly asked about criticism from journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in a new book, and from former McCain strategist Steve Schmidt that aired last weekend on "60 minutes" that Palin struggled with the facts and said things that were not true.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
O'REILLY: Is this guy lying? He says you don't know the difference between North and South Korea.
PALIN: Yes, that surprised me. I hadn't seen the "60 Minutes" thing. I had been warned, you know, don't watch, it's a bunch of BS from Schmidt, from some of those guys.
O'REILLY: Is that a lie though?
PALIN: Yes, that is a lie. See, these reporters were not there. And I think that these are the political establishment reporters who love to gin up controversy and spin up gossip. The rest of America doesn't care about that kind of crap.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Glenn Beck, meanwhile, offered a heartfelt endorsement.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BECK: Tomorrow I meet Sarah Palin and family for the first time. I'm actually a little nervous as she is one of the only people that I can see that can possibly lead us out of where we are. (END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So, what do we make of Palin the pundit?
Joining us now in Seattle, Michael Medved, host of "The Michael Medved Show" on the Salem Satellite Radio Network. And Ana Marie Cox, national correspondent for Air America Radio and a contributor to "Playboy" magazine.
Ana Marie, Sarah Palin has had a lot to say about the media since she became a national figure. How does she come off as a media commentator?
COX: Well, she definitely comments on the media. But one of the things that was really striking about all of her interviews on Fox -- I think she also did Hannity in the past few days -- is how leading the questions were, how little work she had to do to say things.
I mean, there was like -- you know, the host would lay out an entire idea and he would be like, "Right?" And she said, "Yes, right."
And, of course, to Glenn Beck's question, which is sort of an easy one, "Who your favorite founding father?" All of them.
KURTZ: Right, to pick up on your word.
KURTZ: Michael Medved, you know, did she -- does she have any need to come off as knowledgeable about the issues, or is this a very different genre in which she's there to sort of be entertaining and play ball with the Fox News gang?
MEDVED: Well, she does need to come across as knowledgeable of the issues, of course. And I believe that she is.
In fairness, what Ana Marie said, when she said "All of them," she went on to say because they were so diverse and they were so different, and yet they were able to work together so well. So, she sort of redeemed herself.
KURTZ: Wait a minute. They were a bunch of white male landowners. They weren't all that diverse.
MEDVED: Right. But they were diverse regionally and in terms of their attitudes, for instance, towards slavery. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton was resolutely anti-slavery.
In any event, the point about Palin is I think she is going to find that this is great for Fox, but I'm not sure it's great for her, because it blurs the distinction between a newsmaker and a news reporter. It's going to be very weird when she's out campaigning for Republicans in 2010 -- and I think she will be -- to then have her reporting on her own campaign appearances. I think this is new territory, even for Fox News. KURTZ: All right.
Now, since you made a point, Ana Marie, of talking about the way Fox News hosts handled Sarah Palin, I want to play my favorite moment from the Bill O'Reilly interview which came at the very end.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
O'REILLY: All right. I've got one more for the governor, and I can't let her go without this.
So how was the first interview on Fox News as a contributor?
PALIN: I couldn't ask for anything better. I was with the big man on campus.
O'REILLY: And who is that?
PALIN: Bill O'Reilly.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COX: Wow. Actually, I thought the Beck interview was creepier, starting with him reading to her from his diary and then talking about all they had in common. It seemed more like, at the end of it, she would need a restraining order and not a contract with Fox.
COX: And, also, "Ooh," "ah," "Yes, Glenn. Yes, Glenn." It was very strange. There was an undercurrent of ickiness to it.
KURTZ: So, Michael, what...
MEDVED: If I can -- the thing that was stretch about the Beck interview was he flat-out attacked John McCain. And I know, because I've spoken to both Sarah Palin and John McCain, they genuinely like each other. They say only good things about each other.
And Beck attacked McCain in a totally dishonest way so that Beck was a supporter of the health care takeover, of big health care. And Palin didn't say anything to defend her old pal and her old running mate as if she were intimidated by Glenn Beck. She's going to have to develop a more aggressive personality on the air.
KURTZ: Well, Bill O'Reilly said to Glenn Beck that the interview might have been a little soft. But I'm not personally convinced she's running for anything. We love to chatter about she's going to be a 2012 candidate.
KURTZ: But Michael makes the point that she's going to be a political actor, she's going to speak at conventions, she's going to give speeches, and she will have this dual role of media -- is this the new way for politicians to sort of make some money, stay in the public eye, stay in front of that camera, and at the same time stay politically active?
COX: Well, I do not believe that she's going to run in 2012, or that she's a credible candidate for us to even be talking about running in 2012. But what she's doing is not that unusual.
Sean Hannity actually is another person who does a lot. He's spoken at Republican fundraisers. He's very outspoken, obviously, about his own views.
KURTZ: But he's never held public office.
COX: He never held public office, but neither has Sarah Palin -- well, Sarah Palin was a governor.
KURTZ: She was the governor.
COX: I'm actually worried -- I wonder if Fox worried that she's going to quit halfway through her contract with them. She does haven't a very good track record.
MEDVED: The one thing that you can't forget is that, literally, a third of Americans absolutely love Sarah Palin. The response on her book was unprecedented. It was phenomenal.
And I do think that even what we're doing now, which is sort of criticizing her in this regard, in one sense it's going to be tough for her, because every time she gets up and she mangles her words and she messes up and she says something wrong, people are going to jump all over her. But, on the other hand, whenever people do that, the American people seem to love her more. And I don't think that anyone looking at this media phenomenon can forget or downplay or underestimate that very, very deep and real affection.
KURTZ: Let me get to the broader question, because I should just briefly say that, you know, it's not just the liberal media that like to beat up on Sarah Palin. The people like Steve Schmidt, who was on "60 Minutes," the former McCain strategist, now being increasingly vocal in their criticism. But is this a new sort of straddle for people who are interested in both politics and media? Look at Lou Dobbs, abruptly quitting CNN. He says he may run for office. Harold Ford, the MSNBC commentator, actively saying he may run for the Senate in New York. Ed Schultz of MSNBC was asked to run for the suddenly vacant Senate seat in North Dakota.
What do you think, Michael?
MEDVED: Yes, I think it's problematic, because, look, on the one hand, it's interesting, the sort of configuration of cable news networks. Your network, CNN, is trying to play it up the middle. But MSNBC, very clearly going to the left, and Fox going very clearly to the right and in a partisan direction.
And I do think that one thing that is going to be tougher now with Sarah Palin playing such an active role is the slogan "Fair and balanced." What does that mean, when the two leading Republican candidates, according to polls, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, are both on your network regularly?
KURTZ: Along with Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich.
COX: Right. I just wonder if we could change the party names to, like, Fox and MSNBC. I wonder what's going to happen with...
MEDVED: Fox wins.
COX: Yes, in ratings.
KURTZ: In ratings, yes, definitely.
COX: Good thing CNN isn't a party.
I do wonder what's going to happen when it comes time to actually be involved in campaigning and how the Federal Election Commission is going to sort this out.
COX: I also very quickly want to address something Michael said about when we attack Sarah Palin, people kind of rally to her. I think that's something we have to be very careful about when we talk about her. And it's very important to talk about her specific words and actions and to find specific things she's said or not said to criticize, because I do think during the campaign she was sort of written off, and she's not to be written off. And I think if nothing else, she's a very canny, savvy woman.
MEDVED: But she's likable.
KURTZ: I want to see what Harold Ford (D), MSNBC does in terms of that Senate seat.
All right. I've got a minute left.
NBC announced this week that Bianna Golodryga will stay on her beat as financial reporter. The reason that was a question was because she's engaged to the White House budget director, Peter Orszag, who got a little bit of publicity for having that love child, as the tabloids called it. ABC saying it's hyperaware there could be a perception of a conflict of interest.
Do you see a problem with this, Michael Medved?
MEDVED: Well, look, sure it's a problem. But generally, it's a problem when the budget director becomes a celebrity, but not based upon getting the budget under control, but based on his love life being out of control.
KURTZ: And Ana, you're covering business.
COX: He was a celebrity to me long before he had a love life in the tabloids. KURTZ: But government, these days, with bank bailouts and auto bailouts, very involved in business. And, of course, that's Bianna Golodryga's beat.
COX: I think that at least this is out in the open. At least we know to be careful, and we also know what camp she's in. And people can watch for that bias.
I'm not that concerned about it in terms of, like, I trust ABC will be on top on it. But let's all keep an eye out, sure.
KURTZ: All right.
Ana Marie Cox, Michael Medved, thank you very much for stopping by this morning.
And coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, late-night warfare. Jay is in. Conan is out. The jokes are getting bitter and the accusations nastier.
Is NBC compounding the damage by playing hardball with its hosts?
Plus, the boys' club. Is the press just plain condescending to female candidates?
KURTZ: We have been talking about the challenges for journalists in covering the death, destruction and devastation in Haiti. And now we're going to get a live, first-hand report.
Joining me from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince is CNN National Correspondent Jason Carroll.
You got there early in the week right after this tragedy struck. How do you get there on the ground -- you're at the airport -- and try to make sense of the chaos?
JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Howard, it's an excellent question. And there's no other way to say it, just to say that it's extremely, extremely difficult, because, as you know, as reporters we're used to dealing with simple things -- a BlackBerry. Well, they don't work.
I've got text messaging only with my producer, didn't have anything for a while. Neither did my photographer. So you can't just pick up the phone and call and try to find out what's going on because the phones don't work.
In terms of getting to the location where you need to go, well, the roads are blocked. In terms of finding an address, well, the building is gone. In terms of trying to find a person, well, that person is dead, so you can't do that. So, it's been extremely difficult in terms of just trying to get some of the basic facts to cover this type of story. KURTZ: And even beyond all those logistical challenges -- and they are severe, as you've just explained -- you're surrounded almost everywhere you turn by death, by suffering. How do you deal with the emotional overload?
CARROLL: You know, for me, personally, I can just say it's guilt. You drive down these streets in the beginning -- and it's gotten a little better with the deceased, who were, when we got here, nearly everywhere you looked. And now it's to the point where it's a story of aid and getting people water and getting people food.
And we get out there and we cover these stories. And you feel guilty, because I know that when I come back to the CNN place where we are, they're going to have water for me. They're going to have food for me. I'm going to have a roof over my head.
I know that eventually I'm going to leave and go back to New York. These people are still going to be here, and probably still dealing with some of the very same issues another week from now, another month from now, who knows, for these people in terms of shelter.
CARROLL: Even a year or longer from now. So, for me, it's guilt, and dealing with the guilt is something that you oftentimes have to deal with when covering major disasters in places like Port- au-Prince.
KURTZ: Right. And I know journalists are supposed to be objective and not let their emotions get the better of them. I've seen several anchors choke up on the air, and I think that's a perfectly appropriate response given the magnitude of the suffering here.
I have read that there is some resentment toward western journalists, people saying, "Turn off your cameras and help us." Have you encountered any of that?
CARROLL: Well, we have, actually, but we just do it instinctively. You just offer someone water. You offer them the protein bars, whatever you can, whatever you can give. And you do it without them even asking just because it's the right thing to do.
The story is out there. The story is always going to get out there. But someone in need of water, that's a first priority, at least in my book. Someone who needs a protein bar, or some food, that's always a first priority.
The story is here. Everyone knows about it. We will get the story. But if someone needs our help, we're going to offer it.
KURTZ: And I'm sure you wish that you had more water and protein bars to share with people who so desperately need it.
Thank you, Jason Carroll, for giving us some insight into the difficult situation in Haiti, both journalistically and in terms of the human suffering there. We appreciate it. We'll be right back to talk about a different subject, the mess at NBC.
KURTZ: From the moment that word leaked that NBC was moving Jay Leno back to 11:30 -- that is, returning him to the prime real estate from which he was unceremoniously evicted, I knew that Conan was out of there. Conan had waited five years to take over "The Tonight Show," only to be handed a big, fat demotion, pushed back to midnight by the guy he had replaced. Conan had tanked in the ratings, but he tried to grab the high ground by refusing to move, proclaiming how hard he had worked since moving to L.A., and how delaying "The Tonight Show' would damage the venerable franchise. So, now everyone involved in this debacle is unhappy, although it has provided some comic fodder for Conan, Jay and the guy who thinks he was robbed of "The Tonight Show" 17 years ago, Dave Letterman.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CONAN O'BRIEN, "LATE NIGHT": Hosting "The Tonight Show" has been the fulfillment of the lifelong dream for me. And I want just to say to the kids out there watching, you can do anything you want in life. Yes, unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.
JAY LENO, "THE JAY LENO SHOW": I'll tell you one thing, I take pride in one thing. I leave NBC prime time the same way I found it, a complete disaster.
DAVID LETTERMAN, "THE LATE SHOW": But now here's the deal. Any time there's a big stink like this -- and believe me, there hasn't been a big stink like this in years -- it's money. Don't kid yourselves. It's all about money.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: As the late-night soap opera continues, how badly damaged are Leno, Conan and NBC? What do these failures tell us about audience loyalty? And what happened to that revolution that Jay's primetime show was supposed to represent?
Joining us now in New York, Stephanie Miller, host of the nationally syndicated "Stephanie Miller Radio Show" -- except we're looking at James Poniewozik -- Marisa Guthrie, senior reporter for "Broadcasting and Cable" magazine -- there she is -- and James Poniewozik, you've already met him, television critic for "TIME" magazine.
Stephanie Miller, if we can get you on camera -- there you are -- Jay was a flop at 10:00, Conan tanked at 11:30. I mean, I don't get it. How hard can it be to host a funny show on TV?
GUTHRIE: Well, I don't think -- it can be hard, as Conan has proven. So, you know, obviously there are -- you know, it takes time to settle in. I'm not sure that, you know, the -- that Jay Leno is -- one thing we do know, OK, these guys have never, ever been funnier.
KURTZ: Sure. Now. Now it's easier, sniping at each other. It's hysterical.
GUTHRIE: That's right.
KURTZ: But I was trying to get Stephanie Miller on this.
Stephanie, is your mike working?
MILLER: I am, Howard. Can you hear me?
MILLER: You know, I think the big shock is these NBC executives, Howard. Seeing this sort of incompetence outside of the Bush administration for me has been an enormous shock.
KURTZ: You're dragging politics into it.
MILLER: I think -- you know, but it is interesting. I think Conan makes a point. Let me make a cogent and kind of self-serving point
I, as a survivor of my own late-night disaster, the syndicated "Stephanie Miller Show" in 1995, I started at the same time as Conan. And we had the same ratings. But I got 13 weeks because I was in syndication. Conan, you remember, started slow, but has gone on to become, obviously, a huge star. So I do think they didn't give him enough time.
And I think that's a good point. You remember when Leno took over, Letterman was beating him in the beginning.
KURTZ: Right, but Leno was still doing a respectable number.
Let me turn to James Poniewozik, because a lot of people get 13 weeks. And yet, Conan did get seven months. And sure, he had a lousy lead-in.
But is he trying to play the victim here by putting out this statement to people of earth and talking about how he doesn't want to damage "The Tonight Show" franchise?
PONIEWOZIK: Well, certainly he wants sympathy. But, I mean, look, he has a case. Conan got hosed here.
Conan may have been the wrong guy for the job. The fact is, we will never really know because, in essence, NBC never really gave him "The Tonight Show." They awarded him "The Tonight Show" five years in advance, and then before it ever went on the air, announced, hey, we're going to have another "Tonight Show" on an hour and a half before "The Tonight Show."
So, not only did they sabotage his lead-in, one, but they made his show basically redundant, two. And then, three, they were not able to give him the same time that they both gave Conan way back when, but that they gave Jay Leno when Jay Leno was tanking because NBC just doesn't have the luxury of time now.
If NBC had not destroyed its prime time with Jay Leno, it would be giving Conan a greater chance now. But right now it's just in a position where it has to try to fix everything as best as it can right now.
KURTZ: He had a lot of things working against him.
Marisa Guthrie, what did you make of this extraordinary article in "The New York Times" on Friday in which Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, said that Conan O'Brien had been an astonishing failure, that he had been stubborn about changes that others had suggested to broaden the show's appeal, and accused him of being gutless in criticizing Jay Leno? What was NBC trying to accomplish with that?
GUTHRIE: Well, they're obviously trying to push back at all the bad press that they're getting. I mean, they are taking zingers from the guys in late night, the media is piling on.
Jeff Zucker has been conspicuously absent from the whole debate until the article today in "The New York Times" in which he took responsibility for the 10:00 p.m. debacle, but pointedly distanced himself from the decision to push "The Tonight Show' back to 12:05.
So, it can't feel good for the crowd to be begging for your blood. You know, feed him to the lions.
So they're trying to get some control of this message here. But honestly, I think that those -- having these executives come out and defend Zucker and bash Conan, it just -- it really isn't going to work. It is calculated and it appears so.
KURTZ: And it doesn't work on one level. It gives people like us a lot of material to work with.
KURTZ: And speaking of that, Stephanie Miller, Letterman also getting in on this. Let's play a joke of one of his monologues the other night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LENO: Even Dave Letterman taking shots at me, which is -- well, he's usually just taking shots at interns. I couldn't believe it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Obviously, that was Leno talking about Letterman and his little problem of last fall.
MILLER: Now we're literally below the belt, Howard.
MILLER: You know, it is interesting. I'm not sure where this comic circle ends, Howard, because as you'll remember, you know, Jay Leno -- I mean, we look back at Johnny Carson, I mean, he got pushed out when he was number one for the younger guy. Jay Leno got pushed out when he was number one for the younger guy.
I think the only answer is to put, I don't know, Wilford Brimley in late night to -- I mean, I'm just not sure what happens. If you keep getting bumped later and later, do you eventually host "The Today Show" if you're on -- should Matt Lauer be nervous at this point?
KURTZ: Yes. I still don't understand how this all started with taking the guy who was number one off of that timeslot. I know they wanted to keep Conan.
And James Poniewozik, you had a cover story back in September in "TIME" magazine. You said Leno at 10:00 might revolutionize the broadcast business. Now you write in this week's column that this was "... a radical experiment with TV's most old-fashioned, middle-of-the- road star."
Did you perhaps underestimate how difficult this was going to be? PONIEWOZIK: Well, I think it was always -- as said on the cover, "The Jay Leno Show" was sort of a paradox. It was NBC trying to remake television for an era of diminished expectations when cable had made a lot of inroads against the broadcast model. But they did it by trying to place somebody in prime time who was sort of a holdover from the big tent, big TV era of broadcasting.
KURTZ: Is that era now over, the era when you pay somebody $10 million or $20 million and they're expecting to put people in the seats?
PONIEWOZIK: Well, I think the era is over when broadcast television can expect to command that kind of undivided attention of the viewing public. You know, whether or not "The Jay Leno Show" was the right answer to this problem -- and it definitely wasn't -- we're still in an era when the broadcast networks have to figure out ways of doing their business cheaper, because there simply isn't the money and the audience in it for them that there used to be.
KURTZ: And the Leno show certainly wasn't (ph) an example of cheaper programming. The problem is it looked cheap.
Marisa Guthrie, was this revolt caused by NBC's local affiliates? And why do they have so much power?
GUTHRIE: Oh, yes, absolutely. Well, you know, they rammed this 10:00 p.m. experiment down the affiliates' throat. And they thought they could just gut it out.
But once the affiliates saw 30 percent of their viewers for their local news just disappearing, they had some leverage. I mean, if they're going to en masse preempt the 10:00 p.m. program on NBC, they definitely have that leverage. And also, the Comcast merger gives them leverage in Washington. NBC, GE, Comcast, they all want to get this deal through the regulatory hurdles in Washington. And the affiliates have some voice in that debate.
KURTZ: I see. Right. And as you said, they could pull the plug in major parts of the country on the Leno show.
KURTZ: Stephanie Miller, you have a doctorate in comedy. Explain to me why Conan, who was pretty successful at 12:30, did so badly at 11:30. I mean, leaving aside the lead-ins and all that, those are factors. But why could he not reach the mass appeal that previous "Tonight Show" hosts had?
MILLER: Well, ironically, Howard, I don't know if you read the latest ratings, but he's actually doing great this week in beating Letterman.
KURTZ: I'm watching every night. But that's different.
MILLER: Yes. Well, I don't know.
I do think, like I say, that given the economics like we've all been talking about in television, people don't get long enough. I mean, interestingly, people don't remember now -- Jon Stewart had a syndicated late-night show -- in fact, right before Conan and I -- that was a complete failure. People don't even remember. Thank God he got another chance, because I think he's the brightest star we have in late night.
KURTZ: In other words, you were able to overcome that absolute disaster on television. No one even remembers it now except that I'm bringing it up.
MILLER: Well, listen, I'm just old and bitter and happy that Howard Kurtz still gives me a call now and again.
KURTZ: James Poniewozik, what does Conan O'Brien do now? Will he be able to go to another network such as Fox? Will he get a lot of money out of NBC? The lawyers are certainly working overtime on this separation agreement. It's like this high-profile divorce.
PONIEWOZIK: Yes, exactly. You know, because NBC I think has incentive now to try to make this thing go away simply because, I mean, I think that whole Dick Ebersol comment you were talking about goes partly to NBC being very concerned that Jay Leno's brand is becoming damaged now.
So, I think Conan looks to get some kind of big payout now, it's looking like. Fox seems interested in him, and it could be that Fox is a better place for him to begin with because, you know, what part of this may be is that Conan is sort of a talk show host for an era in which there really aren't big mass audiences anymore. He's more of a counter-programmer than a programmer. And Fox, as a network, has always been about that identity of the sort of scrappy, underdog kind of countercultural kind of figure.
KURTZ: Right. So Conan certainly winning the online wars. The Twitter crowd loves him and believes, as I think you do, that he got hosed here.
We will have to pick this up next week, I'm sure, maybe for a few more weeks.
MILLER: I'm just happy you said "hosed."
KURTZ: James Poniewozik and the inimitable Stephanie Miller.
Up next, the glass ceiling was shattered in the 2008 campaign in both parties, but what about all the media mockery? Anne Kornblut on what might be called the Hillary factor.
KURTZ: Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin could hardly be more different, but they share one thing in common -- both got kicked around, mocked and belittled during the last campaign. Does the press -- not to put too fine a point on it -- have a different standard, a much lower standard when it comes to covering women in politics?
Anne Kornblut of "The Washington Post" asked that question in her new book, "Notes From the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What it Will Take for a Woman to Win."
Ann, the conventional wisdom was repeatedly endlessly. Hillary Clinton took her lumps in that campaign. We made fun of the cackle, the cleavage, all of that.
KURTZ: You report that she didn't particularly court reporters, and her mostly male press team declared war on some reporters, including women. So, was some of her problem self-inflicted?
KORNBLUT: I think there's no question that some, if not most, of her problems were self-inflicted. And she did not lose the primary because she was a woman.
But when I looked and looked at all the coverage, I was struck by a theme, the themes of how she was caricatured, how she was stereotyped, how she was belittled in ways that I didn't think she would have been and I certainly didn't notice in real time.
But you added them all up, some of the examples you cited, a lot of it cable chatter, all of them in isolation not seeming like a big deal. But taken together, it was a lot.
KURTZ: And you had the comment which David Shuster apologized for about her daughter Chelsea being pimped out for the campaign. And Hillary Clinton cried over that.
KORNBLUT: She got really upset, that's right.
KURTZ: But that's not a side of her that we ever saw, or very rarely.
KORNBLUT: And the one time we did see it, when she choked up in New Hampshire, it worked in political terms.
Now, at that moment in time, she was told about that comment later in a conference call. We didn't know that she had choked up. I found that out later in reporting the book. And she was really defensive of her daughter. One of the reasons she didn't want her daughter out campaigning for her in the first place.
KURTZ: Now, everyone knows about the treatment of Sarah Palin during the presidential campaign. You focused on when she resigned as governor unexpectedly last summer. You say that she was met with extraordinary and gender-related hostility.
Why was it gender-related?
KORNBLUT: Because there had been other politicians in public life who had left their office. We started seeing articles related to that point in time about her having perhaps had postpartum syndrome when she running for vice president, something that seems fairly unlikely for somebody who's running around the country. And when she stepped down, that maybe she was mentally ill. So, things that were sort of extreme comments about her decision to step down.
KURTZ: In fact, you report -- and, you know, a lot of people felt she didn't adequately explain why she was stepping down with a year and a half left in her term. But you report that "Vanity Fair" questioned whether she had narcissistic personality disorder. I know a lot of anchor people who have that, by the way. Rick Sanchez, on CNN, said could she be pregnant?
So, do you think that the potshots were of a different nature or tone than would have been had it been a male governor of Alaska stepping down?
KORNBLUT: All men in politics get potshots every day of the week.
KURTZ: Sure. That's part of the business.
KORNBLUT: And as a reporter, I'm not expecting them to stop anytime soon. They're just gender-specific and I think often catch the figures off guard. It certainly caught the McCain/Palin campaign off guard, every question about her children, her family, her looks. They had no idea what they were dealing with.
KURTZ: Although you also had a lot of conservative commentators who liked Sarah Palin's looks and weren't shy about talking about it. So, in another words, can this cut both ways?
KORNBLUT: It cuts both ways, there's no question. I think that's true for all women who run for office. KURTZ: Janet Napolitano, former Arizona governor, now secretary, of course, of Homeland Security, single, told you that she, early in her career, had to overcome rumors that she's a lesbian.
KORNBLUT: It was shocking to me that she volunteered that information at the start of an interview. But yes, she said -- I asked her, "What's it like running for office as a woman?" And she said, "Well, when you're single, you sometimes get questions about this. I'm not a lesbian," she volunteered.
She seemed to sort of raise the question in order to answer it and set it aside, which I thought actually was pretty impressive.
KURTZ: What compelled you to write this book? Do you, as a woman, sympathize with the problem of female candidates than perhaps I would because I'm a guy?
KORNBLUT: Well, you know, of course in journalism three is a trend. But I decided after watching 2008, that two could be a trend, after watching Clinton and Palin.
I think it was that I was surprised when it was all over that they had anything in common because they're so different. But, in fact, the extreme responses that both of them invoked seem to have something in common. And I really wanted to go and look and see, will there be any lessons learned the next time a woman runs, assuming that's sometime soon? So that's why I wrote the book.
KURTZ: As you went through this mountain of examples -- and, you know, they tend to fly by in campaign season, but you were sort of excavating it -- I mean, did it make you angry that this could happen in 2008 or even 2010?
KORNBLUT: I think it surprised me more than angered me. And it made me wonder if I had maybe fallen down on my duty a little bit as a reporter covering it all, if I shouldn't have been complaining , raising a red flag in a way, although I wasn't really aware...
KURTZ: Were you concerned that if you did that, they would say, well, this is just a woman who is being emotional about this?
KORNBLUT: I think it's a very tricky line to walk. I think that we did sometimes on race, call foul when things that were said that were inappropriate. And I'm not sure I ever knew when the line was appropriate on gender.
KURTZ: Why isn't there more of a backlash against some of this treatment? Half the population are women. Whether they supported Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin, they must not be all that thrilled about some of this mockery.
KORNBLUT: It's a great question, but the most outrage I heard was really from the campaigns themselves. Sometimes from the voters. I think as the Democratic primary wore on, a lot of female voters, older female voters in particular, felt a real sense of outrage that helped Hillary Clinton. But that was not the overarching sentiment of the campaign. That's for sure.
KURTZ: All right. Anne Kornblut, thanks very much for sharing that with us this morning. We appreciate it.
And I'll have some final thoughts on the coverage of Haiti when we come back.
KURTZ: I went to New Orleans eight months after Katrina and I was stunned by the magnitude of the destruction, by whole neighborhoods still covered with rubble where families once lived. There had been saturation coverage of the hurricane, bold and aggressive reporting. But now the anchors and correspondents had packed up and left. The story was largely over, but not the devastation.
At the moment, the American media are doing a valiant job of reporting on the human misery in Haiti, but the journalists will eventually leave that sad island. Other stories -- scandal, politics, late-night wars, real wars will fill the vacuum. The people of Haiti will be out of the spotlight, but the suffering will continue.
That is inevitable, of course, in a business that thrives on the new and the novel. We could all stuffer from disaster fatigue. But I hope the fervor driving today's earthquake coverage will not entirely dissipate, that news organizations will go back in a few weeks, in a few months, to remind us of a struggle to rebuild a country that is all too often forgotten.
And John King, as I turn things back over to you this Sunday morning, it was fascinating to see you with :President Clinton, President Bush at the White House, two men who were at the center of the political universe for eight years each.
What was that like for you, and particularly with President Bush, who had kind of been laying low since he left office?
KING: Hadn't seen him since he left office. It was great to see both of them as politicians and presidents that I spent a great deal of time covering over the past 20 years of my career. It was good to see them. They both made a point that they enjoy the post-presidency, but they wanted to serve.
And to your point, Howie, you were just making, they said that's their biggest challenge, months from now, when we in our business have moved on to other stories, they need to keep the world's focus on raising the money and doing the rebuilding.
KING: So two very interesting politicians, incredibly different, and they're brought together in a unique and some would say, maybe, an odd partnership right now, but it's a very good cause.
KURTZ: Right. And as politics intrudes on this story, just seeing them together, as they pointed out...
KING: That's exactly right.
KURTZ: ... shows you the country coming together.
All right, John. Thanks very much.
KING: All right, Howie. You take care.