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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Times Square Bombing Attempt; Gulf Oil Disaster; 'Newsweek' Up for Sale
Aired May 9, 2010 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Carping in a crisis: The Times Square bomber, the Gulf oil disaster. As the country tries to cope, the media offer the same old knee-jerk, partisan finger-pointing. Are the pundits addicted to polarization?
End of an era: "Newsweek" up for sale. Does anyone want to buy a used weekly in the digital age?
Plus, amateur hour. Who needs professional film critics when every fan can blog about the latest movie? We'll ask the distinguished co-host of "At the Movies," whose show, unfortunately, just got cancelled.
KURTZ: You might think, you might hope that there would be certain events so troubling, so sobering, that the media would help bring the country together, that even the most passionate pundits on the right and the left would, however briefly, put aside their usual bickering and point-scoring, if, for example, a Pakistani-born terrorist tried to detonate that bomb that could have killed untold numbers of people in Times Square or, for example, if there were a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that threatened major damage on the American coastline. But that's not what happened this week, beginning with the New York bombing arrest.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: This administration, and perhaps others, seems to have an impulse to downplay these things at the beginning.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: One thing you can be sure of, the right- wingers, the Rush Limbaughs, ditto head Tea Party crowd won't praise the government for catching Faisal Shahzad.
STEVE HAYES, FOX NEWS: I'm not so quick to say that these guys have gotten it right and give them a pat on the back for this.
ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: The Obama haters can't handle the fact that President Obama is getting the job done when it comes to fighting terrorism.
KURTZ: And there was more partisan sparring over whether the feds should have read Shahzad his Miranda rights, which they did after an initial period of interrogation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: We don't have the luxury of Mirandizing somebody that we know is involved in a terrorist attack, do we?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, we do not.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: What exactly makes reading someone their Miranda rights such a mistake?
GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: Anyone says that we should torture this dirt bag who tried to detonate a bomb in Times Square, they're wrong. The man's a citizen. The law actually matters.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Glenn Beck perhaps surprising a few people with that stance.
So, is all this just healthy debate, or fanning the flames of polarization?
Joining us now here in Washington, David Frum, the editor of FrumForum.com; Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media and former managing editor of "USA Today Live"; and John Aravosis, the founder of AmericaBlog.com.
John Aravosis, is there no letup in the partisan pundit sniping, even in the immediate aftermath of an attempted terrorist attack?
JOHN ARAVOSIS, FOUNDER, AMERICABLOG.COM: There is no letup in the partisan sniping, no. I mean, I think we are --
KURTZ: Does that bother you?
ARAVOSIS: It bothers me. I mean, I think one concern I have about this whole discussion is, we often get into a he said/she said with the media in the sense that, because Rush Limbaugh criticizes something, you then show Rachel Maddow defending it. And I think at some point on the left or the right, you have to defend yourself if the other guy attacks.
So, you can't just blame both sides. I honestly feel that the conservatives have been -- the Republicans have been a little bit in too much attack mode lately and on any issue they are trying to score partisan points, because they want to be back in power.
KURTZ: David Frum, there's plenty of room for criticism of how the administration handles these things. But do conservative risk looking a little churlish if they complain about a bomb that didn't go off? DAVID FRUM, FRUMFORUM.COM: Well, I think that is part of an inherent bias in the media toward catastrophism and short-term views. I mean, if you take a long-term view, like the past decade on this, what you see is, under President Bush and under President Obama, we have had steadily accumulating success against terrorism.
KURTZ: But good news isn't news?
FRUM: Good news isn't news. And because you have to take a little bit of a view back and say, you know, if you look at the period from 1990 to 2001, each terrorist plot, even the ones that are defeated, is more sophisticated, more elaborate, more people, more moving parts than the one before. Since 9/11, each plot less sophisticated, fewer moving parts, until finally you're in a situation where people make bad bombs because they can't communicate. This is what success in the war on terror looks like, and that is a message I think the American people most need to hear.
KURTZ: And they're certainly not hearing it from the media.
My sense, Lauren Ashburn, is that the media, especially TV and blogs, they encourage this back and forth. They stir it up because they thrive on argument.
LAUREN ASHBURN, PRESIDENT, ASHBURN MEDIA: Of course they do. They thrive on ratings. And if you're not going to be contentious and you're not going to be acting in this blame game, then those ratings go away.
I mean, everybody is trying to use this situation to one-up the other person. It's like being in a bad marriage, where you're constantly trying to, you know, one-up the other person. And on TV, that's good.
KURTZ: But you say the ratings go away. So maybe the audience is partially to blame. They like the food fight?
ASHBURN: Of course they do. Look at the numbers for Fox News. I mean, people want to hear how badly the other party is doing, and vice versa.
KURTZ: We can argue about Miranda rights, and we can argue about, how did Shahzad end up on the no-fly list and yet he was able to get on a plane? And that's all legitimate.
But do you think some pundits on the right you were starting to criticize before are rooting for Obama to fail on terrorism?
ARAVOSIS: Well, sure. I don't think there's any question there.
KURTZ: But that would suggest that they want a successful terrorist attack.
ARAVOSIS: That is the problem in the logic, of course. But I think, look, in politics, you are always kind of rooting for the other guy to fail to some degree. After September 11th, we had a very unique period in this country, at least in my lifetime, where people actually did come together. It was very strange and it lasted for a while. Otherwise, no.
I think what happens is, it is fair to criticize the other guy if there's some underlying fact to it. In other words, if you want to go after Bush on the war in Iraq, and there actually is a problem, then you should criticize him.
KURTZ: It has to be reality-based, in your view?
ARAVOSIS: Well, it does have to be reality-based, but I think you also still have to take into account what the impact is. And more generally -- and I'll stop on this point -- I think the media has a responsibility to not necessarily report the controversy.
If you write a blog, you are writing a polemical medium. That's what you do. You're opinion-writing. That's what I do for a living. But what you're supposed to do, ,as the mainstream media, is decide, OK, are we going to get into the opinion or are we going to stick with the facts right now?
KURTZ: David, do you see liberal commentators as defending the president no matter what?
FRUM: There is a lot of defense mode, as John said. And especially in this case. However, they're not defending him as effectively as they could have, because on terrorism, to defend Obama, you have to defend Bush before, because the ready is so continuous. The real --
KURTZ: But the tactics are somewhat different.
FRUM: Marginally, but the legal theories are the same. The institutions are the same. The methods are the same.
We've got a continuum here, where things actually, in 2010, are working very like the way they worked in 2005, with steady progress along the way. Now, that's a story about government. It's not a story about politics, and it's not a story that Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow can easily tell, although they really should have to, because it is a story that requires you to get everybody their due.
ASHBURN: But isn't President Obama making it more difficult for that to happen? I mean, he is playing down the success or the look of a bombing here, right? I mean, he is not -- people are attacking, but he's not giving anything for people to attack against.
FRUM: Well, you know, you have to be nervous, right? Beca7use you don't want to crow too much about your successes, because that -- if anything bad ever does happen, you're hostage to the next convenient.
But I think it would have been better -- I mean, I don't know why Dick Cheney, when he was attacking Vice President -- President Obama didn't make this point, that real news here is continuity, and that's a talking point that works under different circumstances both for Republicans and Democrats.
For Bush/Cheney people, it means you kind of owe us an apology for some of the things you have been saying over the past five years, the previous five years. And for Obama people, it means you've got a little bit of an immunization. What do you mean we're doing it wrong? We're doing just what you did.
KURTZ: That's an interesting point, Lauren, because the president has a very different rhetorical style than George W. Bush. And he talked about this Times Square bombing once, that I've been able to determine, on Tuesday. And since then, he could have ratcheted up the rhetoric -- we're at war, and we're going to take it to the terrorists and try to extract some political benefit. He didn't.
But let me just give you my two cents on the media behavior.
When I watched the first, I don't know, 48 hours after this guy was arrested, I mean, I just wanted to tell these people to shut up. I just wanted to turn the set off.
It's like, as you said, John Aravosis, we came together after 9/11. And here, there's this dead serious stuff, people's lives are at stake. And I see a lot of point-scoring, not necessarily on both sides, but I do see it on both sides. They treat it like a game, and I don't think it's helping the country.
Let me turn now to the subject of leaks, because in that crucial period from the bombing, which was on Saturday night, to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, to the Monday night arrest, there were stories, Fox News, the local NBC station in New York and elsewhere, about the suspect was of Pakistani descent, lived Shelton, Connecticut. Reporters actually showed up at Shahzad's home, even though as we now know, he was on a plane.
Should that information, Lauren Ashburn, have been held back by reporters?
ASHBURN: One of the first lessons I learned in local news when I was covering a serial killer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, my very first live shot, was restraint. If you don't -- if the police are saying, can you give me a beep (ph) here, give me some time, if you don't know all of the information, if you're looking at some tiny piece of it and don't know the larger picture, shut up. And I think that in this case, it would have been very helpful to this investigation if reporters had done that.
KURTZ: It's almost like reporting troop movements in war time. But at the same time, we have to recognize, where do these leaks come from? Most likely in this case, it was law enforcement sources telling reporters, trying to show that they are on the case, that they're on the job, about a guy who had not yet been apprehended.
FRUM: I think one of the things we're also hampered by is -- John has mentioned before a distinction in blogs and mainstream media. I think that distinction is dead and that there is -- there is only one media of various forms, various degrees of success. And everybody in the so-called or the former mainstream media knows if we don't cover things, there is some blogger who will. And that there is a game played where blogs criticize the mainstream, but then you also have the -- there's the feeling that, well, you shouldn't touch this story so that we can have it, because a blogger will do it if the mainstream, so-called mainstream, ex-mainstream media don't.
ASHBURN: Because somebody does it doesn't mean -- it's like, you know, Johnny did it, so I'm going to do it.
FRUM: The point is that the restraint has to be universalized.
KURTZ: But you have blogged about holding back information that you knew because you didn't want to hurt the gay rights cause, for example.
ARAVOSIS: Yes. Except, in my case -- and I wrote about this recently -- I'm writing as an activist journalist in the sense that I have a cause that I'm pushing. I have a number of causes on the left that I push. Therefore, I do not want to report on something that I know is going on, for example, in the administration that I support, because if I write about it I'm going to kill the initiative.
But that's -- I'm in a unique position. I am not ABC News, CNN, where you should not be reporting on things, or not reporting because it's going to change a story. But what you should worry about is national security. And that's where this question comes into play.
KURTZ: Or in domestic security. Congressman Peter King, by the way, has asked for an investigation of these leaks, saying that people in the Justice Department and in the New York Police Department did the leaking.
ARAVOSIS: He says a lot of things, doesn't he?
KURTZ: National Public Radio had an interesting report on this. It held back on information it knew about Shahzad before he was arrested, but it had law enforcement officials who were not named being upset about this, but no one would be on the record. So that was a leak, too.
KURTZ: But you're in the camp that if police are actively looking for somebody, hasn't been arrested yesterday, then reporters should -- what was the phrase you used? "Shut up"?
ASHBURN: Oh, gosh -- yes, shut up. But, I mean, how about restraint? Can I retract that?
ARAVOSIS: But what about staking out his house? What was interesting to me with the story was it wasn't just a matter of reporting on who the guy might be, but the reporters went to stake out his house to hopefully cover the arrest. Now, had it all worked, and had they covered the arrest and not tipped the guy off, they would have gotten a prize -- oh, my God, best coverage on TV, the terrorist getting arrested.
KURTZ: But what if the guy comes out shooting because he know there's a manhunt?
ARAVOSIS: No, but that's the problem. But I think that's the problem with the media in General, or the medium in general, is that had it worked, these reporters would have been lauded as the best reporters on the planet. If it didn't work, they helped the terrorist get away.
KURTZ: One more brief note before we go to break.
I really was struck as we had these two mega-stories these week, the Times Square attempted bombing and, of course, the Gulf oil spill, which we're about to talk about, that an American city was under water. The flooding in Nashville was horrible, at least 27 people were killed. And that did not become a national story.
And I wonder not just whether it was overshadowed, but whether because there was no sort of political storyline, that we didn't have anything to argue about, so it didn't become cable and network news fodder.
All right. Let me get a break.
When we come back, we're seeing the same kind of partisan flame- throwing over the Gulf oil disaster. Did the anchors do a heck of a job on Brownie and his wild accusations?
And later, "Newsweek" editor Jon Meacham on his last-ditch effort to save his magazine.
KURTZ: On live television, you never know what a guest will say. It might be something outrageous or outlandish or unsubstantiated. That's the challenge that cable anchors faced this week in talking to Michael Brown -- yes, the former FEMA chief during Katrina -- making the rounds to charge that President Obama deliberately dragged his feet after the gargantuan Gulf oil spill.
First up, Fox's Neil Cavuto.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL BROWN, FMR. FEMA CHIEF: And I think the delay was this -- it's pure politics. This president has never supported big oil, he's never supported offshore drilling, and now he has an excuse to shut it back down. This is exactly what they want, because now he can pander to the environmentalists and say I'm going to shut it down because it's too dangerous.
NEIL CAVUTO, FOX NEWS: But leaving aside what our future exploration plans are, he said early on he relied on reports coming out of BP.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Brownie got rougher treatment at CNN and especially MSNBC
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Don't you know that what you're saying to a third party, not somebody like myself, or somebody like yourself listening to you, thinks that you're sounding insane?
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: Do you honestly believe the president of the United States wants this oil spill to spread, cause billions of dollars in damage, ruin people's livelihoods? What evidence do you have that they want this?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So, Lauren Ashburn, what do you do when a former federal official goes on television and claims that Barack Obama deliberately allowed the oil spill to spread after the accident so he could pull the plug on offshore oil drilling?
ASHBURN: Do you respond? Is that the question if you're the Obama administration?
KURTZ: No. How do you handle it as journalist when somebody who's not just some guy off the street -- this guy ran FEMA -- comes on and says that?
ASHBURN: Well, you have to go to the other side. I mean, there is no choice but you have to promulgate the argument that this person wants you to do. You can't just leave that out there on the table.
KURTZ: But of the three snippets of the news that we just saw, who did a heck of a job? Is it OK to say insane?
ASHBURN: Yes. I mean, sure. But that's, again, back to my point about ratings.
He's saying this is insane, this is crazy. People are going to watch that. He's going to be inflammatory about this. That's his job.
ASHBURN: Chris Matthews.
KURTZ: But was he being inflammatory or was he responding to something that was being said that was inflammatory?
ASHBURN: Both. It gives -- I mean, he's responding to something --
KURTZ: Everybody benefits, you say?
ASHBURN: Of course.
KURTZ: Should anchors rip guests who say this sort of thing? Not that the administration wasn't slow on the oil spill. It was slow on the oil spill. But that it was doing so for nefarious purposes?
FRUM: Anderson Cooper asked the right question, which is, would you please show me what evidence you have?
FRUM: But I have to say, watching that, also, for those of us who have been critical of the administration, that what Brown did was he sucked the air out of the story, because by taking that next step to the crazy accusation, you change the conversation from the real accusation, which is, unlike the Times Square bombing, where the system worked, here the system massively failed. And the president was slow.
This has not been a success. We will know later exactly what the particular failures were, but that feet ought to have been held to the fire faster, harder, sooner to say, what is going wrong? How can this huge environmental disaster proceed and the president be so absent?
KURTZ: But is there a tendency on TV, John Aravosis, to say thank you very much for being here, now we'll go to our next guest who will say that President Obama did not deliberately have a plot to ruin America's coastlines from a massive oil spill?
ARAVOSIS: Yes. And this comes become to the he said/she said argument I was mentioning earlier, which is, to some degree, I worry, that the media will get, you said something outrageous, I called you a pedophile. Let's get somebody who says Howie isn't a pedophile. Rather than, as you said, the anchor just turning and saying --
KURTZ: I would prefer a different example.
ARAVOSIS: Sorry about that. But that is the most ridiculous thing you ever said. Or, as David said, too, you could say it a little bit more nicely, but sort of just to nail the guy and show that he's kind of an idiot. But we don't do that.
KURTZ: Well, "What evidence do you have?" is the question that is probably not asked enough on television.
ARAVOSIS: But maybe it should be more than that. Maybe the reporters really should turn on the guests and say, no, OK, that's ridiculous what you just said. Aren't you here just to cause polemics?
And if you're a representative of the Democratic Party saying that, doesn't it suggest that the Democratic Party is perhaps getting a little too crazy? I mean, one could turn it on them and not just treat it as fact/counter-fact.
ASHBURN: But I think a reporter is going to have a very hard time doing that, because all of a sudden -- . ARAVOSIS: Crossing the line?
ASHBURN: Of course. They would feel like they crossed the line, and then they're going to have people at their news organization, or the viewers who are watching, saying, oh, that's a liberal reporter, that's a conservative reporter. And you have to be very careful about how far you go.
FRUM: But look at what has happened here. It's a conversation that ought to be about how the president has not done a good enough job, has turned into how a disgraced former federal official may or may not be insane. That Brown -- Michael Brown has made himself the story at exactly the moment when the spotlight, if you're critical of the administration, ought to be on the administration and its failure. So all you can say, again, is that epic phrase, "Heck of a job, Brownie."
KURTZ: I think the better reporting has been about the regulators and how BP was allowed to get away with a lot of violations, and how a lot of rules are not enforced. They don't have the clout.
But the White House picked up on this whole Brownie thing. Robert Gibbs, in an exchange with Fox's Wendell Goler, had nothing to do with the interview.
Let's take a quick look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I've got to tell you, Wendell, I'm not entirely sure that a factual answer that I might give to any one of your questions is going to change the notion that your network put out the former FEMA director to make an accusation that the well had been purposefully set off in order to change an offshore drilling decision.
WENDELL GOLER, FOX NEWS: Nor would that affect the reporting I do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, Gibbs actually misstated it slightly there. It wasn't Michael Brown who said that the accident was sabotaged. That was somebody on another Fox show.
But is the White House picking on Fox again and trying to use this to defend the administration?
ASHBURN: No, I don't think they're -- I mean, well, they could be picking on Fox, but I think that they're also trying to set record straight here.
You know, why isn't the -- if we're going to play the blame game, why aren't we playing blame game against BP/ Why are we blaming the Obama administration for not coming fast enough to the table? Why -- ARAVOSIS: Well, actually, there was a CNN broadcast that, the person on it -- I forget the guy's name -- was doing an analysis showing that, actually, the administration was playing politics, too, because the interior secretary criticized BP, and that was -- I Googled it on your guys' site this morning, and I was sitting here going, you know, you almost can't win to some degree.
KURTZ: OK. I've got 15 seconds to David Frum.
FRUM: Well, the regulators work for the president. The president chooses them, at least most of them. So it is relevant, and I think Robert Gibbs was happy there that he got to pick out the most lunatic of the accusations against the administration and ignore all the non-lunatics.
KURTZ: But as the press has been reporting, many of these regulatory failures go back several administrations and is really one of the undercovered stories in Washington.
John Aravosis, David Frum, Lauren Ashburn -- Happy Mother's Day.
ASHBURN: Thank you.
KURTZ: Thanks for joining us.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, on the auction block. With "Newsweek" up for sale, we'll ask editor Jon Meacham what went wrong and whether the magazine can survive.
Plus, thumbs down. The host of "At the Movies" on the treacherous landscape for film critics and the demise of their show.
And later, Conan speaks, Letterman snipes, and Leno flops. Why are these guys still sniping at each other?
KURTZ: It is one of the great brand names in American journalism, and now it's in danger of disappearing. "Newsweek" magazine was put up for sale this week after "The Washington Post" company concluded there was no way the 77-year-old weekly could make money. The magazine of John Meacham, Howard Fineman, Jonathan Alter, Mike Isikoff, Evan Thomas, Fareed Zakaria and many others now reduced to hoping for a deep-pocketed buyer.
"Newsweek" has battled for decades against the larger "TIME" magazine, owned by CNN's parent, Time Warner, and that era now seems to be fading.
I spoke earlier to Newsweek's editor in New York.
KURTZ: Jon Meacham, welcome.
JON MEACHAM, EDITOR, "NEWSWEEK": Thanks, Howie. KURTZ: On a purely personal level, you've devoted 15 years of your life to this magazine. This must come as a kick in the stomach.
MEACHAM: It's certainly a kick. And it's been a really tough week. And it's been a really tough couple of years economically. The central goal going forward has to be preserving as many of our folks' jobs as possible, and finding a really viable economic and journalistic future for a magazine that I continue to believe is relevant to the national conversation.
KURTZ: And toward that end, you have been talking to investors about possibly buying the magazine, other companies could make a bid. But the conventional wisdom -- and that's a phrase that "Newsweek" made famous -- the CW is that if The Washington Post Company, where I also work, couldn't make it work, then "Newsweek" doesn't have much of a future.
MEACHAM: Well, obviously I disagree. And I think that you could actually, in fact, argue that perhaps a different company could do a better job with it.
I love The Washington Post Company. As you say, I've worked there since I was 24 years old. The Graham family has been enormously kind and important to me in my life, in my family's life. But we were a one-magazine company.
The Washington Post's newspaper, as you well know, the other divisions of the company, don't have anything to do with magazine publishing. So --
KURTZ: Unlike Time Warner, obviously, which publishes a lot of magazines, including your rival.
But now, it was one year ago, Jon Meacham, that you made a deliberate decision to cut the number of subscribers roughly in half, to about a 1.5 million. You did a redesign. You decided to focus more on opinion and analysis. People compared it to "The Economist" or "The New Republic."
Was that, in retrospect, a failure?
MEACHAM: I don't believe so. I think it may not have been a terrific bet, but I think it was the best bet. And I would love to hear from people who think we could go back and say, well, I would have zigged while you zagged. I've not heard a compelling case against what we did.
KURTZ: You were boxed in because nobody these days, in this digital era, wants an old Henry Luce-style digest of the week's news.
MEACHAM: No. You don't want a digest, so what do you do? You -- instead of worrying about what's happened, you try to explain what's happening.
And I continue to believe that this was the right thing to do. I don't believe the experiment failed. I don't think we know the end of the experiment, to be blunt.
You've mentioned our business plan. The plan was -- and I know this is counterintuitive, but the magazine business is kind of itself counterintuitive sometimes -- we wanted to cut the circulation, so we cut our manufacturing and distribution costs and focus on an audience that would pay twice.
We doubled our subscription price in the last year and a half from $20 to just about $40. We wanted people who were even more engaged, more invested in the magazine, that we could then package for advertisers, because this is fundamentally -- and you know this extremely well -- yes, there's a long-term readership problem which we all face, but magazines in particular, and particularly general interest magazines, and particularly news magazines, face an advertising crisis. I'm not pointing fingers, I'm not whining, this is the life we've chosen.
MEACHAM: I believe in this magazine. And I'm going to do everything I possibly can, and so is everybody at "Newsweek," to find a future.
KURTZ: But as you move more toward opinion, I believe that "Newsweek" came to be seen as more liberal -- you started running more liberal columnists. I lost track of the number of Barack Obama covers, Michelle Obama covers.
Could that have limited your appeal in the marketplace?
MEACHAM: I don't think so because, again, it's not readership issue. And no advertiser, to my knowledge, ever pitched up and said, you know, I'm not going to advertise because you put the first African-American president in history on the cover, or that we were too liberal.
One of the last times you and I spoke, I was being kicked around for hiring Karl Rove. So, you know, we're --
KURTZ: As an occasional commentator.
But now the critics have been harsh. I mean, don't take it from me.
David Carr -- I'm sure you saw this in "The New York Times" -- says "'Newsweek' is your father's magazine. No amount of reinvention could fix that." And he says, "The brand has little value beyond helping Meacham get on TV and sell some books."
MEACHAM: Right. Well, I believe in "Newsweek." I believe that what I do in terms of books and other commenting ultimately helps the magazine. My bosses clearly thought that.
You know, there seems to be an impression, I just want to say briefly, that I stole Don Graham's car from his driveway and have been driving it around for a couple of years. You know, I report to people, and so --
KURTZ: So, is the perception that -- look, I mean, you won a Pulitzer last year for your biography of Andrew Jackson, you've become the co-host of a new PBS show which debuted this weekend. People say you perhaps were a little distracted or stretched a little thin.
Is that an unfair perception?
MEACHAM: I believe it is, because the other critique of me is that I'm too authoritarian, and that the magazine reflects my -- the other criticisms you can dig up is that the magazine is too much like me. David Carr actually wrote last year, I think, that they might as well have gone ahead and called the thing "Meacham."
So I don't see how you can have it both ways. Am I not, you know, doing my job? Or -- and therefore, the magazine is all my sensibility? And also, I just don't buy that.
KURTZ: All right.
MEACHAM: But I wouldn't.
KURTZ: Yes, OK. I've got half a minute.
If "Newsweek" survives, if you find a buyer, if you get some rich guys to help you out, does it have to change yet again? Is its role as a mass market news weekly basically over?
MEACHAM: I don't know. And that's the conversation we have to explore. What is an existential crisis has to hopefully become a transformational one. And stay tuned.
KURTZ: All right.
Jon Meacham, grappling with that existential crisis and still trying to put out a magazine.
Thanks very much for joining us.
MEACHAM: Thanks. Thanks, Howie.
KURTZ: And some news on the television front.
CNN and CBS, which have flirted over the years, are again talking about a possible editorial alliance. That, according to "New York Magazine" and "The New York Times."
That would provide a cable outlet for the broadcast network's high-price talent and perhaps give a boost to CNN, which has faced declining ratings, especially in prime time. Time Warner chairman Jeff Bewkes not denying the reports, telling investors that a partnership with a broadcast news outlet, which could also mean ABC, is "entirely possible in the next few months."
If you see Katie Couric filling in for me, you'll know something is up.
Coming up next, fade to black. With so many movie bloggers blanketing the Net, is there still room for old-fashioned professional film critics? The hosts of "At the Movies" join us in a moment.
KURTZ: The show is called "At the Movies," and Siskel and Ebert made it famous. The premise is pretty basic: two movie critics offering thumbs up or thumbs down on the latest films.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
A.O. SCOTT, FILM CRITIC, "NEW YORK TIMES": I've been at "The New York Times" 10 years.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": I've been writing about entertainment for 25 years now.
ANNOUNCER: The show.
SCOTT: The show has always stood for critical intelligence brought to television in a way that's clear and lively.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But now the owners at Disney have cancelled the program, which is in its final months. And that raises some intriguing questions. In an age where anyone can go online and offer opinions, where bloggers sound off on movies and plays and books and restaurants and just about everything else, who needs professional critics?
I spoke earlier with two such critics, the co-hosts of "At the Movies."
KURTZ: Joining us now in New York, A.O. Scott, film critic for "The New York Times." And in Chicago, Michael Phillips, who writes for "The Chicago Tribune."
Tony Scott, let's start with your program.
Why do you think it got the old thumbs down?
SCOTT: Well, our program, "At the Movies" was -- yes, was canceled recently, will go to the middle of August. I guess -- I think it's just because, you know, as a weekly broadcast syndicated show, that it was just very hard for a show like that to find and keep its footing in this exploding media environment. So I --
KURTZ: Which we'll get to in a second.
KURTZ: Michael Phillips, was there anything you guys could have done differently to save it?
PHILLIPS: You know, I suppose we do wonder that from time to time. But we have had nothing but remarkably same support from Disney on the way in. And, you know, they don't hire -- nobody hires guys like us, Howard, to do any red carpet stuff or to be the people we cannot be.
They hired who they hired. And, you know, frankly, with the kind of early notice of the cancellation that will be continuing through mid-August, we've had this kind of remarkable groundswell of good will, saying, you know, thanks for keeping the show on the rails and getting it back to its roots and giving it, you know, hopefully something -- giving people something to chew on.
So, could we have done something differently? We'll see. I don't know.
KURTZ: I think you would look very attractive on the red carpet.
Let me pick up with the larger issue. And, Tony, you raised this in a "New York Times" piece recently.
You said "... to turn the picture on its head, a remnant of over- entitled old media gray beards are fighting a rear-guard action -- some would say -- against the democratic forces of the Internet, clinging to threadbare cultural authority in the face of their own obsolescence. Everyone's a critic. Or maybe no one is."
So, do you feel that in this age of Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes and Amazon, where anybody can blog their opinion about anything, that the critic's role is shrinking, is less relevant?
SCOTT: Well, I was referring specifically to Michael Phillips' beard. But I was being a little bit --
PHILLIPS: Thank you, Tony.
SCOTT: -- self-parodic there. I mean, I think that very often, you know, there's this idea that on the one side, you know, there's the traditional media, or the mainstream media, or whatever you want to call it, print and broadcast and radio. And on the other side there's, you know, a bunch of bloggers, the sort of great unwashed on the Internet.
And I think it's actually much more complicated than that. I think that, you know, criticism is not a certain kind of job. It's not dependent on a certain media platform. It's really an activity. It's a way of thinking about arts and culture and, in our case, movies, and trying to get a conversation started about those things.
And I think that, you know, the conversation is moving, maybe, away from some of the more traditional media outlets, but it's still a very lively and vital conversation. And I think there are a lot of very interesting voices out there, you know, including Michael Phillips', who, you know, sometimes I don't know what he's talking about or agree with him. But I'm always happy to hear and read his opinions in whatever medium.
KURTZ: But as a critic for a newspaper, Michael, which happens to be bankrupt, like a lot of papers these days, do you feel like something of an anachronism?
PHILLIPS: Yes. You know what? No, frankly, Howard.
And I think one of the crazier generalizations I've heard lately is this whole idea that, you know, there are this sort of protected, privileged group of print critics who, you know, tend to do a lot of this and write once or twice a week and, you know, don't do anything else. I don't even know people like that. That's decades old.
I mean, all of us, Tony and myself, all kinds of people, are writing, you know, online first and then in print. We're doing, you know, related media for our companies. We're -- you know, Tony and I have been privileged enough to do this show for a season.
It's all become a very different kind of media, multi-media stew. And I just -- I don't get this idea that it's a black and white situation of like, you know, the online renegades versus the old guard print.
KURTZ: It's not black and white at all.
PHILLIPS: I don't even know what that means.
KURTZ: But is it healthy that more voices can be heard, with opinions on movies and theater, everything else, and that you don't have to be credentialed by some big media organization?
PHILLIPS: Absolutely. But I never looked at -- you never had to be credentialed.
Everybody I know -- if you name, Howard, the five most interesting critics you read consistently in a given field, every one of those resumes reads completely differently, i.e. there was no one way to become an interesting, vivid, worthwhile critic. And, you know, that has not changed.
KURTZ: Except, Tony Scott, if you wanted to have your voice heard 20 years ago, I mean, you needed an employer. You needed a newspaper or a television station or a magazine to serve as a platform. And these days, you don't. And so you all have -- we all have more competition.
SCOTT: But I think that's very good. We have more competition, because, in the end, where do you get your credentials from, ultimately? You get your credentials from your readers.
You know, not for the label of the institution that you carry around with you. Ultimately, you know what makes a critic worthwhile and gives a critic some influence or authority or impact is readers, or, in our case, viewers. And I think that, you know, it was very hard. It was a lot harder in the past to get your voice heard. You know, you had to go sort of up the ladder of freelancing and kind of -- there were a lot of doors you had to pass through.
Now, I mean, if you're a young person, you can go -- you can start a blog. You can go, you know, into sort of the social media and Internet world and you can develop your voice. You can serve a kind of apprenticeship there. You know, educate yourself in public. And maybe, if your stuff is good and interesting and well written and makes some points that people want to hear, you can find an audience or -- and a readership.
One thing that's hard to find now out of that, which I think is one thing that the blogosphere grew up to develop, is a job. I mean, there are these --
KURTZ: Oh, a job, right.
KURTZ: Where somebody actually pays you to do it.
SCOTT: A job is nice.
KURTZ: And let me toss to Michael.
You know, do you need -- in order to get such a job, where there is a paycheck, do you need any kind of special training in the area of cinema, for example? Or is this a situation where anybody can do it if they can prove themselves to be an astute and also an able writer?
PHILLIPS: Well, you need both. I don't think there's a -- you know, I've always said, with cinema, there's a century in change to learn in terms of direct knowledge, and that is, you spend your entire life eking -- kind of pecking away at learning more and more, and getting a little smarter and hopefully a little better on your subject.
And if you don't take that seriously, you are not worth reading or listening to or anything. So that has not changed.
But I agree, Tony, with your point. That was an unusually sensitive and sensible opinion for you, Tony.
I thought just the idea that yes, it's all these new voices. And they are coming from all over the place.
And to my point, there is no one place to start. It's all kind of how you, you know, work through it and become worth reading. And there is no roadmap for that, there's no blueprint.
PHILLIPS: Simply your own passion and knowledge.
KURTZ: All right.
Our time has elapsed, but I think there's no question, unfortunately, in my view, there will probably be fewer paid professional critics 10 years from now. On the other hand, I hope you guys will come back and talk to us about this very interesting field.
Tony Scott, Michael Phillips, thanks very much for joining us.
SCOTT: Thank you. Nice to be with you.
PHILLIPS: Thank you, Howard.
KURTZ: After the break, a rare appearance on "Sound of Sunday" by Barack Obama, who's giving a commencement address this morning at Virginia's Hampton University.
Candy Crowley will be here in a moment.
KURTZ: The president making a little news this morning. And here to talk about it is Candy Crowley.
CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": The president off to a historically black college, Hampton University in Virginia. Basically, I thought, a pretty standard speech that you give to students, except for it came from the president, so that gives it a little more power. And interesting that he went after one of his most favorite targets in this speech.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter. With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs and on cable and on talk radio, it can be difficult at times to sift through it all, to know what to believe, to figure out who's telling the truth and who's not.
Let's face it, even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I've had some experience in that regard.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: You know, Candy, it's become so routine for Obama to take this swipe at the 24/7 blabbermouths.
I'm wondering, do you think he's working the refs by complaining about the media's behavior, or is he just sort of venting his frustration?
CROWLEY: No. I think he totally is. I think it's been a part of their media strategy from the very beginning, was to try to tune out what they consider to be the extremists that find most of their voice, they think, over the 24-hour cable. From the get-go, from the campaign which I covered, it has always been a sort of, you know, pushing back of the media and, as you say, sort of playing the refs, trying to form the news before it becomes the news.
KURTZ: But he has, on a number of occasions, talked about Rush Limbaugh by name, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity.
So, is he pushing back against conservative opinions or all opinions, I sometimes wonder?
CROWLEY: Well, this -- yes. I mean, mostly it's been, you're right, very targeted towards those who were criticizing him. This was more blanket, simply, from the statement, but it fits in with the broader, I think, push that they have had. And that has been aimed at conservative radio and conservative 24/7 news.
KURTZ: How about others in the Obama administration? What message were they carrying to the Sunday programs today?
CROWLEY: Well, sort of a frightening one. They put out the president's adviser on homeland security, as well as the attorney general.
KURTZ: You talked to John Brennan.
CROWLEY: John Brennan and Eric Holder, both of whom said the Times Square bomber was connected to the Taliban in Pakistan.
CROWLEY: I mean, this is not al Qaeda. This is the Taliban in Pakistan.
So now, you know, what we have here is what everyone has always called that asymmetric war. This is like the power of one guy backed by -- and we're not sure, is it money, was it training, what was it? But it's a very frightening, I think, sort of expansion of what they're looking at. But what they wanted to put out there was, we handled this well, things are under control, and we are looking -- you know, investigatively and protectively, we're doing everything we can.
KURTZ: And just briefly, Eric Holder, on ABC's "This Week," said that the administration may look to expand what's called the public safety exemption to the Miranda warnings because he was read his rights after a time. And that makes me think that the Miranda criticism has stung a little bit.
CROWLEY: Yes. Yes. And it may just be law enforcement has said, you know what? We need more time to expand this.
And that's the exemption where if you think there is an immediate threat, that you don't have to Miranize someone. You can say what do you know, are there other people out there? That kind of thing. So I think they'll probably expand the topics and I think they're finding it will be a useful tool. KURTZ: I bet Congress will be sympathetic to that.
Candy Crowley, thanks for stopping by.
Still to come, frustrated funnymen. Dave, Jay, Conan, still not getting along. But right now we really need some comic relief.
KURTZ: The news has turned deadly serious this past week, from the Times Square car bomb to the devastating Gulf oil spill, to the massive flooding in Nashville. And in times like these, I seek refuge in the late-night comics. Not their shows so much, but what they're saying about each other.
KURTZ (voice-over): Let's give you a scorecard. In his first interview since losing "The Tonight Show," Conan O'Brien was restrained in his criticism of the man who reclaimed the host's chair, jay Leno. So retrained, in fact, that Steve Kroft had to prod him on "60 Minutes."
CONAN O'BRIEN, FMR. HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": The biggest thing people come up to say to me in gas stations and restaurants -- I have so many people say this to me -- "Hey, partner, you got screwed." And I always tell them, no, I didn't. I didn't get screwed.
I'm fine. It just -- it didn't work out.
STEVE KROFT, "60 MINUTES": Well, you did get screwed.
O'BRIEN: You think I got screwed. If I had surrendered "The Tonight Show" and handed it over to somebody publicly and wished them well, and then I would not have come back six months later.
KURTZ: Conan does get points for being diplomatic. Hey, he walked away with $33 million.
But that wasn't good enough for David Letterman, who's been on a tear against Jay.
DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW": But Conan declined to say anything or criticize Jay Leno. And here's how I look at this. I always say, if you can't say anything nice about Jay, well, let's hear it.
I love Jay summing the whole thing up. Yes, well, we both got screwed. And I said, now wait a minute. Wait a minute, Jay. You both got screwed, yet you're the only one that ended up with a show.
How did you get screwed exactly?
KURTZ: David Letterman loses points for anger.
Come on, Dave, it's over. Let it go. As for Leno, his high-profile moment came at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, where he absolutely, positively, unequivocally tanked.
JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": Some of you on the news have mentioned the president has been getting a little gray since taking office, but he's had his share of stress -- tough economy, two wars, health care fight, Iran, North Korea, his mother-in-law moving in with him. I think that would break most men.
KURTZ: And it was downhill from there. Leno is the week's loser.
President Obama was much funnier. And Politico discovered that Jay was recycling jokes he had already told on television. They didn't age well.
But as a much-needed distraction from terror and disaster, let's give them all a hand.
That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.