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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Supreme Scrutiny; Limited Appetite; Fear of Facebook
Aired May 16, 2010 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Supreme scrutiny. Are the media giving Elena Kagan a pass on her lack of judicial experience? Is she being boosted by her pals in the press? And should journalists be digging into her personal life?
Limited appetite. Why are the media hungry for every last morsel about Michelle Obama except when she puts out a detailed White House report on childhood obesity?
Plus, fear of Facebook. Is the Internet's biggest social hangout obliterating your privacy?
KURTZ: The media cast her as the front-runner from the start, and while the White House was miffed that NBC's Pete Williams broke the news about Elena Kagan the night before the big announcement, that only added rocket fuel to the launch. The press strategy in these Supreme Court battles is, define the storyline at the outset.
President Obama's team tried to cast Kagan as a smart and sensible trailblazer, not some wild-eyed left-winger. And from the newspapers to the networks, the initial news coverage, strongly positive.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: She was the first woman to serve as dean of Harvard Law School and the first woman solicitor general, the government's lawyer at the Supreme Court.
TERRY MORAN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Diane, Elena Kagan would bring to the court, by all accounts, a brilliant legal mind, but not a confrontational one.
JAN CRAWFORD, CBS NEWS (voice-over): If confirmed, she will be the only sitting justice who had not severed first as a judge. But some of the court's greats, William Rehnquist, Earl Warren and Louis Brandeis, also lacked judicial experience.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: As the pundits manned their battle stations, the conservatives were quick to oppose the solicitor general, while some liberals were unenthusiastic about a nominee who barely has a paper trail on the issues they care about.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Now, if confirmed, Kagan will be the youngest Supreme Court justice and the first member of the court without any -- any -- judicial experience in four decades.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: The Supreme Court nominees must have tons of judicial experience thing is a whole new idea they've only decided to apply to her. Don't believe it.
BAY BUCHANAN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: The difference between her and Harriet Miers is Ivy League. That's it. And so you have to wonder, is she truly qualified? Where are the writings.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: She did oppose military recruiting at Harvard Law because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and she, herself says she is a committed liberal. That's the way she's built.
ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: A lot of progressives think that she's not liberal enough, that she doesn't go anywhere near as far as Justice Stevens.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And it didn't take long for the media chatter to take a surprisingly personal turn, raising questions about, just what is fair game when it comes to a Supreme Court nominee?
Joining us now to examine the coverage, here in Washington, Joan Biskupic, Supreme Court reporter for "USA Today" and the author of "Biographies of Justice Scalia and Former Justice O'Connor"; Bill Press, the syndicated radio talk show host. Across town, Jan Crawford, chief legal correspondent for CBS News. And in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for "The San Francisco Chronicle."
Jan Crawford, I've been watching the coverage and, you know, CNN's Jeff Toobin, longtime friend of Elena Kagan, "Washington Post" columnist E.J. Dionne, says he gives her a hug when he sees her. And you talked about taking a law school class with her at the University of Chicago.
How much did these media connections help Elena Kagan?
CRAWFORD: Well, I can talk about my experience. I had her for labor law and a First Amendment seminar, and it was incredibly helpful, because I very early on had a sense of her style.
She's an engaging professor, very challenging. You know, law school is a lot of hypothetical questions to the students. You respond, she pushes back. And so, I expected to see some of that same style when she became solicitor general arguing before the court.
And sure enough, very similar in style. And I think that, again, that's revealing, because we'll see her, if she's confirmed on the other side of the bench, pushing lawyers in exactly the same way about the kind I experienced as a student of hers. So it can be relevant. It can be relevant.
KURTZ: But is it helpful -- oh, sure. But is it helpful to her that she's not an unknown quantity to so many people like you?
CRAWFORD: Well, listen, this is a small legal world here in Washington, and Joan, for example, and I, and all the other people who cover the Supreme Court for a very long time, knew John Roberts very well. I mean, he was a lawyer. He was only on that federal appeals court two years before he was nominated to the Supreme Court.
So, I think it does enrich your reporting and your analysis. It helps you understand the dynamics of a personality, because, you know, you have to realize that the Supreme Court is a group of nine. And as some people say, you know, historically, nine scorpions in a bottle. And so their interpersonal skills and how they are as people can help you understand how effective they might be as justices.
Joan Biskupic, you wrote in "USA Today" this week that "Skeptics question her legal experience."
Shouldn't the press be questioning it as well?
JOAN BISKUPIC, SUPREME COURT REPORTER, "USA TODAY": Well, and I think people have. Here's the important thing to know. That even though she would be the first justice in four decades to come from a position that wasn't a lower court, historically, in the 20th century, many of the justices were former governors, they were former attorneys general. They came from a variety of experience.
So, it's good to both say that people are skeptically questioning, but also to lay out the facts. And I think the point about reporters who have known her, most of us who have law degrees didn't take a class from Elena Kagan. Jan was fortunate that she did. But Jan, like most of us, have covered her as solicitor General, and that's how we mostly know her.
You mentioned a couple of pundits, but for the rank-and-file reporters actually covering Elena Kagan, we're not personal friends of her. We've actually been covering her as a subject.
KURTZ: Right. But, of course, with the media echo chamber, you get a lot of people talking about and reporting on beyond just those who, like you, are at the court every day.
Debra Saunders, does it seem to you that the media elite have enthusiastically embraced Elena Kagan, even with the controversy, for example, over her restricting military recruiting when she was the dean at Harvard Law?
DEBRA SAUNDERS, COLUMNIST, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Yes. I mean, I feel like I'm out of the club because I never run into her at the airport and hug her, and I didn't go to law school with her, and I never met Elena Kagan.
KURTZ: So you admit it. You've never met Elena Kagan?
SAUNDERS: I'm out of the loop. So, I think it also makes it a little easier to look at some of her policies a different way. I mean, if you know her, you know how she thinks, and that's a strength. But I look at that military recruiting policy at Harvard and I think it's a real problem for her, and I think she's going to have some trouble explaining it when she talks to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
KURTZ: Bill Press, the only real ambivalence I see -- obviously, a lot of conservatives prefer that she not be on the court -- is from some commentators on your side who say they're not sure that Elena Kagan is liberal enough.
BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: First of all, in terms of full disclosure, I'm in the loop and I've never met Elena Kagan. So I know what that makes me. Totally out of it.
But, yes, you're right. Liberals like me are -- I wouldn't say we're opposed. We're just uneasy about her because don't know.
We wanted a flaming liberal on the court to replace flaming liberal John Paul Stevens. We did not get one. OK?
But I think the question about the media lead is a little superficial in that, I think what's really going on -- I have a radical theory about why she's getting such positive press. Because she's a good appointment. I'm not talking about her policies, but she's a centrist --
KURTZ: It's a good appointment, but not flaming enough for you?
PRESS: Right. But she has no paper trail. She's got a gonzo resume, and people kind of like her. So I think that's what's going on here, is it's hard for others, opponents, to get their teeth in her.
KURTZ: And speaking of that, Jan Crawford, given her rather sparse paper trail, to use that cliche, you know, she's written some articles, but obviously we don't have a lot of decisions to pick over as we've had with the recent nominees. People like you --
CRAWFORD: Wait. Wait. No, no, no. But see, this is where I think it's easy to forget.
It wasn't that long ago that John Roberts was nominated to the Supreme Court. And a lot of this con conversation is very similar to -- I mean, almost exactly like what we were saying about John Roberts. You know, he didn't really have a paper trail, he had been only been a judge barely two years, he didn't have any big, long opinions that we could look at and pick through. You know, it was only when we got the papers, if you remember, from the Reagan Library. And now, of course, we're going to be getting her papers from the Clinton Library. So, it's not -- I mean, yes, we talk about judicial experience, but some of these justices didn't have a whole lot of judicial experience and a lot of opinions, and John Roberts was one of them.
KURTZ: So, what do you do as a journalist to try to piece together a portrait of the nominee and how she might behave on the high court?
CRAWFORD: Well, I think you do exactly what -- just picking up from Bill's point, and that is, you know, look at some her writings, as many as you can. You talk to people who know her. You try to get a sense of what her views are.
We're going to be getting all these documents from the Clinton Library, when she worked in the Clinton White House, including e- mails, which, by the way, e-mails in 1995, no one was really all that cautious at that point. But this White House has been through all that stuff, and I don't expect us to get any smoking guns there like we got from Sam Alito, if you remember. Those memos turned up a lot about Sam Alito and his pride, and arguing that Roe v. Wade should be overturned.
So, you know, I think, though, a lot of this discussion is very similar, what we're hearing about Kagan, to what we heard about John Roberts. The right was a little leery of Roberts as first. He had all those liberal friends, he's not going on the record, he said he wasn't a member of the Federalist Society. You know, the left liked him, he was a nice guy. It's just the flip side now.
KURTZ: Joan Biskupic, when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated last year, she immediately got involved in this controversy about the "wise Latina" remark. Here, we don't have that. And so Dan Abram, who's NBC's legal correspondent, and the founder of Mediaite.com, writes that Kagan is "way too boring for scandal-starved media," and that "We, in the press, have a bias toward controversy, and it's not being fulfilled here."
Does he have a point?
BISKUPIC: Oh, he does have a point. You know, tension is what makes news. But here, in this case, we do have a lot of things to report (ph).
We have a lot of people who she's crossed paths with. And it's the hard stuff. It actually takes a lot of effort to read through some law review essays that she's done and to go back and look at her transcript from the solicitor general hearings, to go back and look at these memos.
So, this is only week one. We don't know what's all out there. And I don't expect there to be any real bombshell about Elena Kagan. She's obviously a very cautious individual. I don't think that she probably ever did anything that could be a deal-breaker here, but there's plenty to look through to get a handle on her for the American public.
KURTZ: Because of that, I think she's off the front pages already. At least Sunday usually has a big wrap-up of the week's news.
Let me turn to Debra Saunders.
Do you think journalists are making enough of Elena Kagan famously saying 15 years ago that Supreme Court confirmations have become -- they had an era of acuity, and they've become a farce, and now, conveniently, she's changed her mind about how much she wants to answer?
SAUNDERS: Duh. I mean, of course now she's going to have a different viewpoint.
You know, I think you said something 15 years ago, now you have to feel the same thought, it just doesn't work that well. But I think that there are things to look at about this pick and what it says about the president.
Do we want to have nine justices from Harvard and Yale? You know, how about having somebody from a California law school? How about having somebody out of the loop some way?
I personally would like to see something different. And I think we can at least take this opportunity to have a discussion.
After all, I mean, the fact that he's picking somebody who hasn't been a judge, that gives him freedom to pick somebody who might be creative. Are we going to get that kind of creativity from the same machine that's produced the other eight justices?
KURTZ: Bill Press, I've been saving this question for you, because you're in the White House briefing room many times each week.
There is one interview that Elena Kagan has granted since becoming a nominee for the Supreme Court. Let's take a look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELENA KAGAN, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: And then public service has been an opportunity to take my legal skills and to take my legal training and work on some of the really important public policy issues of our time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: That, of course, is a White House video. She was "interviewed "by a White House staffer.
What do you make of that technique, when, of course, they're not going to let her near any real working journalist?
PRESS: I think it's absolute total control of her media appearances, and it does not satisfy the need for a real in-depth interview on the part of Joan or Jan or Debra or any of the rest of us. But I don't recall any other Supreme Court nominees for any other president during that period between the time they were nominated and the time they were confirmed giving one-on-one interviews to the media.
KURTZ: You don't recall it because it hadn't happened.
PRESS: It hasn't happened, exactly. But this goes beyond we're really kind of controlling it.
I just have to say one quick thing about this idea of the boring part of it. I think what -- that she is boring. I think Dan Abrams is right. And as a result of that, people go to extremes, like thinking that because she played softball, she is automatically a lesbian.
KURTZ: We'll come back to that right after this break. But I did want to mention on this point about control, "The New York Times" got permission from Hunter College High School, which is also Elena Kagan's alma mater, to interview her brother and watch him teach a course there, and then the White House vetoed it. And that had to be called off. So White House very carefully controlling information here.
When we come back, to your point, Bill Press, probing the personal. Why are some journalists digging into Elena Kagan's private life?
And later, mad for Michelle. But why didn't the first lady's childhood obesity report get much coverage?
KURTZ: The rumors about whether Elena Kagan is gay, which she says are not true, which the White House says are not true, has gotten much more coverage than I expected. It's been in "The Washington Post," it's been all over the blogosphere. There's a column in "The Boston Globe" today, this morning, about it, saying we have no right to know whether she is or not. And it came up the other night on "The O'Reilly Factor."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SALLY QUINN, "WASHINGTON POST" I think what they should have said is, we're appointing her because of her judicial ability, intelligence, her expertise, and not based on what her sexual orientation is.
O'REILLY: But then in a press conference, a reporter can raise their hand and say, "Mr. President, the likelihood is the Supreme Court will have to decide gay marriage on a federal level here, so it is absolutely important here. Please tell us whether your nominee is gay or not."
It's a legitimate question.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Jan Crawford, is it a legitimate question, given that, as Andrew Sullivan, the blogger, and others point out, she may well rule on gay rights case and other cases of that kind?
CRAWFORD: No. I mean, I think this is completely irrelevant.
And I have to say, I agree with "The New York Times" approach to this, which has been that this part of personal life is not relevant. The White House has said she's not gay, and until she comes out and says something different, or the White House says something different -- you know, Joan and I, we've covered the court a long time, and I don't think we really spend a lot of time digging around on those years of speculation about whether David Souter was gay. And no one was really pressing him on, you know, how would he rule on gay rights, and that was always kind of an ambiguous question.
KURTZ: Do you think there's a double standard for unmarried women then?
CRAWFORD: Well, it certainly seems strange to me that this is becoming a huge topic. And again, I think what's really fascinating is that you're seeing it -- it sort of reminds me of some of the stuff you saw during the Sarah Palin vice presidential nomination, when the blogs started kind of this whisper campaign about, was that really her baby? Was Trig really her baby?
We're seeing this now on the blogs, raising all these questions, and that's what I think presents a real problem for the traditional forms of media.
On the other hand, Joan Biskupic, I got drawn into this even before Kagan was nominated, when the White House put in play a story. A conservative blogger had written that she was gay, just stated it as fact. CBS put it on its Web site, the White House went bonkers over this, and officials told me on background, no, she's not gay. They could have said, we're not even going to dignify this with a comment.
So, at that point, how do you not write about it?
BISKUPIC: Well, OK. So you wrote about it then because that countered what the blogger had said. But now the White House has come back even firmer, much more on the record, saying we asked her about this when she was up for the solicitor general job -- that's what they said to Karen Tumulty from "The Washington Post" -- and then they've also said that they've tried to put it to rest, saying she's not. So that should be the end of that.
I do think though, because some of these legal issues are perking up -- Proposition 8 from California, the constitutionality of that in terms of same-sex marriage -- those are issues that will be before the court. But for her personally, it should end when the White House says here's the answer -- she's not. KURTZ: One thing I hope we can agree on, Bill Press, is that when "The Wall Street Journal" ran that photo of Elena Kagan playing softball -- do we have that? We can put it on the screen. It just struck me as monumentally silly, to have a controversy about, was that some kind of signal, that she was a switch-hitter or something?
PRESS: Well, very quickly, I have to say or whether or not she's gay or lesbian, I don't know and I don't care. But I do think there's a double standard.
There are a lot of unmarried men in the Congress of the United States. If we're going to look into her personal life, then we have to look into their personal lives, which nobody has.
But on the softball, this photo was first put up by Lynn Sweet of "The Chicago Sun-Times." And she told me the reason she put it up there is because Lynn used to play softball. And she's playing something called 16-inch softball, which, in Chicago, is as popular as deep-dish pizza. That's why they originally put it up.
So, the idea that had anything to do with her being a lesbian was just totally ridiculous.
KURTZ: Yes. Plus, it's a cool photo.
Debra Saunders, now you have some of Kagan's friends, including Eliot Spitzer, who I'm not sure I'd want as a sexual character witness, telling Politico on the record that she's dated men in the past.
Now, if her friends are going to go on the record, then is there any reason not to report on it?
SAUNDERS: You know, I think we have to report on it. Every fiber of my being yells out, it's none of our business. But in the age of the Internet, this stuff is floating around.
Here in California, we have, in a federal court, the same-sex marriage case measure passed by the voters, and it's now in federal court. The man who's looking at it, John Von Walker (ph), is guy.
The Chronicle did report about it. This is something that he's out. It was an open secret. The lawyers on both side of the case knew it.
Now, at some point in time, Judge Walker's (ph) going to make a decision. People who know him think it could go either way.
But we don't want the public to think that the fix was in on this, however it is. People could say he was closeted and he ruled against the plaintiff and that same-sex marriage was constitutional -- the ban was constitutional. People could say he's gay and he was always going to rule this way.
So we have an obligation. If everybody's talking about it, and people know about this, it's not our job to keep this from the public. And while I think this is something that has to be asked and addressed, if she says it's none of our business, fine. But it's not our job to keep what people want to know.
KURTZ: All right.
Let me get a brief response from Bill Press.
PRESS: Well, very quickly, I just have to say, there is a fallacy here that if she were a lesbian, she would automatically rule in support of same-sex marriage.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Absolutely.
PRESS: I know a lot of gays and lesbians who do not support, constitutionally, same-sex marriage.
KURTZ: It would be nice if there were a zone of privacy for people in this situation, and that we shouldn't care. But at the same time, in the modern media world, I'm not sure that is feasible when you're talking about a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
Joan Biskupic, Bill Press, Debra Saunders, Jan Crawford, over at CBS, thank you very much for joining us.
Before we go to break, last week on this program we talked about Barack Obama giving a speech in which he again took his whacks at the 24/7 media culture, and the cable chatter, and so forth. Well, that prompted a piece in "Commentary" magazine by former Bush White House staff Pete Wehner, the lead of which says, "Who knew that Barack Obama's real ambition is to be Howard Kurtz?"
Well, I was a little shocked by that, and I can tell you he probably has a better job. He's got a personal chef, he's got his own helicopter. I don't get any of that.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Michelle Mania. Do journalists focus too much on the first lady's style and fashion at the expense of her White House work?
Plus, Facebook fears. Is the social networking site allowing too much information about us to go public?
And later, "The Huffington Post" thriving at five. But its contributors mostly still don't get paid.
KURTZ: The media fascination with Michelle Obama not exactly breaking news, from her vegetable garden, to her fashion choices, to her date nights with her husband. Almost everything she says and does seems to draw ink and air time, even when she's just making some remarks in honor of Mother's Day. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: There's no way that I could ever fully measure all that my own mommy has done for me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The first lady trotted out three cabinet members and the head of a federal agency to unveil a 124-page White House report on the burgeoning problem of overweight children.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: We all know the dangers on childhood obesity and the toll that it takes on our children, our families and our country. We know the steps that we need to take to reverse the trend.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So, the media's appetite must have been bottomless, right? Actually, not so much for this story, which raises some fascinating questions about the nature of Michelle mania.
Joining us now here in Washington, Robin Givhan, who reports on the first lady, as well as fashion culture and politics for "The Washington Post," and is the author with "The Washington Post" staff of the book "Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady." And in New York, Lola Ogunnaike, a pop culture commentator and frequent guest on this program.
Robin Givhan, this White House report, I mean, it covered everything from package labeling to restaurant portions to marketing to children. I expected huge coverage, and yet you were one of the few journalists to write a detailed story on it. "TIME" gave it one paragraph. There was hardly any TV coverage.
Why do you think that is?
ROBIN GIVHAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": You know, I think in some ways, it's hard to get excited about a report. I mean, it was 124 pages.
KURTZ: But it was a Michelle report.
GIVHAN: It was a Michelle report, but, you know, in some ways think what happens is that, you know, she has finally settled on what's going to be her big project, and it's childhood obesity. And it's been sort of a series of incremental stories.
KURTZ: I see.
Lola Ogunnaike, this is arguably, however, the most substantive thing that Michelle Obama has done as first lady. Why do you think the media are yawning?
LOLA OGUNNAIKE, POP CULTURE COMMENTATOR: Because the media is far more interested in talking about what Michelle is wearing, her workout routines, her hair styles. And they don't really care about her as a substantive character, which is really disconcerting when you think about it. I mean, this is a highly accomplished, a highly intelligent woman. We should be talking about what she's thinking about and also what she's wearing.
KURTZ: That's a pretty broad indictment. They don't really care about her as a substantive player in the administration?
OGUNNAIKE: I don't think so. We constantly hear about what she's wearing, who she's going to wear, where she's going. But when it comes to really talking about the issues and what she is passionate about, and the substance of what she's saying, it gets virtually ignored.
KURTZ: Would you take issue with that?
GIVHAN: I would take issue with that. I mean, I think that some in the media actually do care a great deal about what she's been doing on a more substantive level.
I mean, certainly, "The Washington Post" has spent a lot of time, money and space covering her more substantive events ranging from childhood obesity to her solo trip to Mexico City, to even when she accompanied the president to Russia, Ghana and Italy last year. But I do think what's happening is there's a whole other range of media that's been covering her. I mean, no other first lady had Web sites dedicated solely to her clothing. And so when you kind of look at it in that regard, you do have the sense that there's this overwhelming interest in a lot of this kind of light and frothy aspects of her personality because they didn't really exist with any other first lady.
KURTZ: I did see one television debate about the childhood obesity report. That happened on "Hannity" where the guest, Michelle Malkin, talked about Mrs. Obama once having served as a member of a corporation that made less than healthy food. Let's take a look at a little bit of that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHELLE MALKIN, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: It is incredibly telling and so rich that Michelle Obama, who I call big mama or big nanny, is wagging her fingers at the food industry when she herself profited --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And Lola, whether you agree with that point or not, at least there's a debate about it. Is this sort of representative of a nanny state to make all these recommendations about how food should be sold, marketed and identified.
OGUNNAIKE: Well I think it's important to have that conversation, but I also think it's also important to debate the merits of what Michelle Obama is actually saying and suggesting and not to vilify her as this nanny figure coming in and trying to take the Big Macs out of your kids' hands. What she's suggesting is that kids exercise more, they eat more fruits and vegetables. What is wrong with that?
KURTZ: Robin, Laura Bush came out with a book just the other day, last week I guess and in an interview, she talked about how she personally, unlike her husband, in favor abortion rights, in favor of gay marriage, that was the story for about an hour. So people often ask me why does Michelle Obama get so more coverage than say Laura Bush?
GIVHAN: I think it's for several reasons. One, because she is unique if only because she is the first African-American first lady. But also because I think that she is, she has stepped out and taken on a project that does involve to some degree, policy. It does try to sort of bridge the West Wing with sort of the public at large. So I think those things make for a lot more interesting stories and then there's also certainly the aspect of her personality that does embrace the fashion industry, which I think a lot of it has become this kind of superficial coverage, but that's also a pretty significant story because --
KURTZ: You have a national industry that is now somewhat invested in the first lady.
GIVHAN: You have a billion dollar industry that managed to sort of make it through this recession without a bailout and she has championed that industry. And that's an important story as well.
OGUNNAIKE: Michelle Obama's been the stimulus package for the fashion industry, definitely.
KURTZ: And Lola, do you think it's fair to say that reporters like Michelle Obama, that perhaps female reporters identify with her and then that's why we get a lot of fairly soft coverage?
OGUNNAIKE: I think people like Michelle Obama. I think that female reporters identify with her, but I don't think that necessarily shapes the sort of coverage we have of Michelle Obama. Like Robin said, she's an interesting, unique figure and that's why people are interested in writing about her or watching about her on television.
KURTZ: But that would suggest that journalists' feelings don't come into play at all. I know a lot of journalists were not wild about Nancy Reagan to take an example of another first lady and she got some pretty harsh coverage, including about her expensive fashion taste.
OGUNNAIKE: Well, I don't think -- your state of journalists can be objective. Are we really objective? I do think that we try to be objective, but naturally, people are going to gravitate to someone like Michelle Obama because she is a story. There is a hook there. I don't necessarily think she has the same sort of baggage Nancy Reagan did so yes, you're going to see more favorable coverage of someone like her.
GIVHAN: I would also just add to that, when Nancy Reagan got a lot of that negative coverage, it was because she was doing things that were A, out of the ordinary and she was doing things that one could make a reasonable argument were troubling.
I mean, she was borrowing clothes and not returning them and so far as we know, Michelle Obama has not done that. I'm sure that she'll get some pretty negative coverage if we start hearing that she's taking freebies from design houses and stocking them away for her post White House years.
KURTZ: Lola liked that answer. When the president and first lady travel abroad, Lola, the press fixes on Michelle and Carla Bruni. What did they talk about? What were they wearing? And that seems to make up a significant part of the coverage, even though we have the first lady in the traditional role of ambassador to a foreign nation.
OGUNNAIKE: I just keep imagining that somewhere, people are hoping that Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama will get into this big fashion walk-off together and like try to battle each other on the catwalk. It's sort of ridiculous. I mean, they're both glamorous women and yes, they are great to look at and we do enjoy seeing them and watching them wear their fashions, but there has to be a little more substance there and I think both of those women are really spectacular women. They're both really intelligent and we should be talking about what they're saying and thinking, as well as what they're wearing.
GIVHAN: I would also argue that in some ways, the East Wing has allowed some of this to happen because in that first year, there really was a vacuum in the sense that things that she was saying and doing were sort of the standard issue first lady things. They were sort of perfunctory.
KURTZ: There were some grumbling about that in the press.
GIVHAN: And there was grumbling about that in the press because it was, here's this woman who is clearly you know, sort of experienced and capable and smart and can be doing so many more things and she hadn't really sort of found her footing.
So, in that vacuum, the most obvious things, the most sort of superficial things that don't require comment from the first lady came to the floor. On her Mexico City trip, I think her handlers made a huge mistake by not having press with her when she made a pit stop in Haiti. That was an enormous story and could have been even more enormous had there been actual press this there on the ground with her.
KURTZ: Lola, I've got 20 seconds. Does it embarrass you at all when you say that the profession, our profession, isn't interested in the first lady as a substantive figure?
OGUNNAIKE: It doesn't embarrass me at all, no. I'm embarrassed for some journalist who'd rather talk about her J. Crew cardigans than what she's doing. I'm embarrassed for them, but no.
KURTZ: That's what I meant. You're the professional. All right. We're going to wrap it up, guys. Robin Givhan, Lola Ogunnaike, thank you very much for kicking it around with us this morning.
Before we go to break, Barbara Walters had a heart valve replaced this week. ABC says the surgery went well and that the star of "The View" is recovering as expected. That is very good news. Barbara is 80-years-old and yet, I bet we'll see her back on the air fairly soon.
Up next, Facebook under fire. A "Wired" magazine writer charges that the Web site that knows so much about you is going rogue.
KURTZ: Facebook, as you probably know, is a place to hang out with your friends, sharing gossip updates and photos, has drawn a stunning 400 million users around the globe. But lately, the Web site has come under mounting criticism for allowing marketers and everyone else access to more and more of the profile information posted by its members. Senator Chuck Schumer has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate social networking sites and Mark Zuckerberg, who founded the site for his classmates at Harvard, convened a staff meeting this week to talk about privacy concerns.
"Wired" magazine has just run a piece accusing Facebook of "going rogue." The author, Ryan Singel, joins me now from San Francisco. You say that Facebook recently reneged on its privacy promises by making more information public. Explain to people what you're talking about.
RYAN SINGEL, WIRED MAGAZINE: In December, Facebook decided there was a whole category of your information that used to be private that you could no longer keep private, so it had to be public. That included your name, your picture, list of friends and all the causes that you decided to support on Facebook. And those things are now considered publicly available information by Facebook and they're starting to take that information and push it to sites like Yelp and Pandora and a Microsoft venture called Dots.com. And just sort of inverting the way, what people expected out of Facebook. They joined Facebook thinking they were going to share information with their friends. Facebook now wants them to share all their information with the world.
KURTZ: Let me jump in here. We tried to get a Facebook spokesman to join us. It's complicated, as they say, didn't work out. But here's a statement from the company. "We respect our users -- we listen to what they say, but as importantly, learn what they like and change what they don't. We're constantly fixing and improving our service. Critics who argue that Facebook doesn't respect user concerns around privacy are misrepresenting our history, our leadership and the facts. We're not perfect, but we're also not rogue."
SINGEL: I think Facebook has tried to defend itself saying they their changes to what user's data is public and what is private. They are trying to say they're just kind of reflecting changing privacy norms. They're trying to keep up a little bit with more public services like Twitter, but I think that it's a little self-serving. I think they're forging these privacy norms for us and less than reflecting them.
And the problem is Facebook is incredibly useful. You don't get 400 million users unless you're doing something right. So the question is, is Facebook really sort of respecting their users at this point or are they kind of taking advantage of the fact that they've given us this thing we love and we can't really leave.
KURTZ: But can't you simply opt out of allowing much of your information to be made public to anyone other than the people that you designate?
SINGEL: There are -- there's a Byzantine set of privacy concerns, privacy settings you can get into in Facebook. You kind of need a master's degree to figure it out. And you can opt out of a lot of things, but there's just now this category of information that they're pushing to other companies and they have just sort of, they're now saying that you can't actually make it private. You can sort of hide it, but you can't make it private.
KURTZ: But Facebook says that 10 million new users have joined since the changes in these privacy settings and really it's just a bunch of elite tech writers who are concerned about this sort of thing.
SINGEL: I think -- I'm hearing from a lot of people, people don't really want to leave Facebook. They just want more control. Facebook has gotten to be so big and they sort of turned from being a place where you share information with your friends and family to a place where Facebook wants your Facebook page to be your online identity. They really want to be at the center of the Web. And I think some of the privacy concerns and there's been some security concerns as well, are really ways for people to talk about how they feel uncomfortable with the power that Facebook has. And Facebook has that power because all of us give it our information.
KURTZ: But on this point about what Mark Zuckerberg calls changing notions of privacy, isn't it true that younger people kind of live their lives online and when you join Facebook and you put up hundreds of pictures of yourself, your expectations of privacy are different than they might have been 10 or 15 years ago?
SINGEL: I think it's undeniable that we have a very different sort of as a culture, we have changed what we're comfortable doing online. But I think kids are a little smarter about privacy than we give them credit for. We have a lot of people who actually use pseudonyms on Facebook because they know that their information could be used against them later if they're trying to get into a college or they want an internship, they don't want the person that's going to hire them to see the pictures of them drinking beer. So these is a -- we are a little more exhibitionist, but I think people are still really kind of smart and in control. They're very aware of what their public personas are.
KURTZ: All right, a little more exhibitionist compared to some of the people I've seen on Facebook, that might be putting it mildly. Ryan Singel, thanks for joining us from San Francisco. Sorry for the big delay we had in getting his sound.
Super Senate Tuesday is coming up and that's a big subject this Sunday morning. Candy Crowley will be here in a moment.
KURTZ: Some of the candidates in this week's Senate primaries are out on the talk circuit this morning, and that means they had to talk to Candy Crowley.
CROWLEY: Thanks. Indeed. One of the best races out there, Howie, is in Pennsylvania. Arlen Specter in the Senate for 30 years. He's being challenged by a guy named Joe Sestak, who's been in Congress for four years. What's the race about? The race is about Washington. Who's inside and who's outside. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SESTAK: Well, I think it's a race that actually where everybody knows Washington is broken and everybody knows that if you're going to send back to Washington, D.C., a career politician that actually would switch his party, as he said, to keep his job, then we're not going to fix the mess that we got into by sending him back.
SPECTER: For years I tried to moderate the Republican Party. And when the stimulus came up and President Obama asked me for his support -- for my support and it looked like we were sliding into a 1929 depression, I sided with President Obama. It wasn't my job to be saved, it was the jobs of thousands of Pennsylvanians and Americans.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Any predictions about whether his job will be saved in this Democratic primary?
CROWLEY: Well, what's interesting here is that they are fairly close when it comes to the issues. And what people are looking at is perhaps sort of a petri dish of what's going to happen.
As far as predictions, I have to tell you that I asked Sestak if he would support -- it's been a very bitter race. I've asked Sestak if he would support Specter if Specter won, wouldn't answer. He said, well, it's not going to happen, it's not going to happen. I asked Specter and he said of course I would. And so he didn't answer your questions and I did. So right down to the crunch, they are -- they don't like each other very much.
KURTZ: Any predictions from Specter's Senate colleagues?
CROWLEY: Well, as a matter of fact, Senator Schumer on another show said that he thinks Specter will pull this one out. Senator Schumer of the party now of Specter. But on this show, Utah Senator Bob Bennett said he thought Specter would lose. So there you go, take your choice. KURTZ: We're also now, of course, in the pregame innings for the Elena Kagan nomination, before the hearings start. It seems that this is starting to get a lot of coverage. She'd be the third woman on the Supreme Court. How is that playing out on the air waves?
CROWLEY: There's a lot of talk about it. One of the things that was interesting to me is when you talk to either those on Capitol Hill or to reporters, there's not a lot of -- there hasn't been a lot of real buzz about this particular Supreme Court nominee. Nothing has sort of caught fire.
KURTZ: Because they haven't found any dirt on her.
CROWLEY: Exactly, you're exactly right. But nonetheless, a lot of people out there talking about it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SESSIONS: She would not let them come to the area that does the recruiting on the campus. They had to meet with some student veterans. And this is not acceptable. It was a big error.
LEAHY: You know, if we had -- if we said that any lawyer who had ever filed a brief with the Supreme Court, that they couldn't serve on the Supreme Court because the case lost, half the members who are on the Supreme Court today would not be on the Supreme Court.
She stated a position. She challenged a law. The law was upheld. And she said we will follow the law at Harvard. I mean, I don't know what else you could ask for.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: There will be a lot of that, and then she'll probably get confirmed.
KURTZ: I bet we'll be hearing about it next Sunday as well. And hope you'll be here. Candy Crowley, thanks.
Still to come, some people scoffed at Arianna when he launched her website five years ago, but is a thriving Huffington Post good for the news business?
KURTZ: It seemed like a perfectly charming idea five years ago. Arianna Huffington would get all of her celebrity friends to blog for her. But these days, when it comes to generating not just Hollywood buzz but Internet traffic, the Huffington Post could pass the New York Times.
KURTZ: Larry David, Bill Maher, Diane Keaton. These would be the stars who would draw eyeballs to Huffington's new website. When I was writing about the launch, she put me on the phone with Warren Beatty.
Most of the celebs didn't write much, but journalists, politicians and scholars did, for free, which turns out to be a great business model.
With serious money behind it, the Huffington Post now draws 13 million visitors a month, not far behind the Times' 16 million and ahead of the Washington Post, L.A. Times, USA Today and other old- media publications.
Just as Huffington went from a Republican congressman's activist wife to a candidate for California governor, to a liberal crusader, her website evolved into a perhaps first real online newspaper. But it's not the serious blog posts that draw the attention. It's the stories that Huffington's site grabs from other news organizations that actually pay reporters to gather information. She sends some traffic their way, but feasts on their content, repackaged with flashy headlines and photos.
Here's a headline from the other day. "McCain accuses liberal media of distorting Arizona race." Click on it and you get this short piece, which is a summary of a story reported by, as you'll see if you click one more time, Politico's Glenn Thrush. The Huffington Post is unapologetically liberal, mostly boosting Barack Obama, who made a point of calling on one of its reporters at the White House.
OBAMA: Nico Pitney is here from the Huffington Post.
KURTZ: And bashing the likes of Republicans, Wall Street (inaudible) and Glenn Beck. HuffPost have added sections on entertainment, media, food and local editions in New York, L.A., Chicago and Denver.
And then there's the tabloid stuff, not safe for work links to women with wardrobe malfunctions or just plain topless. It's kind of cheesy, but not surprisingly, it draws traffic.
KURTZ: The Huffington Post hasn't turned a profit yet, and I wish it saw the value of paying outside writers for their work. But no one imagined this kind of success, which has spawned a whole bunch of similar sites. So on this fifth anniversary, a tip of the hat to Arianna.
That's it for Reliable Sources. I'm Howard Kurtz. Thanks for watching. State of the Union with Candy Crowley is up right now.