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Examining the Coverage of Obama's Iraq Speech; Making Up the News; Journalism and the Internet

Aired September 5, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: A presidential address from the Oval Office used to be a huge news event, one that journalists would slice and dice and chew over for days. But Barack Obama's speech on Iraq came and went after the usual partisan squabbling. Did the media turn the page on this war long ago?

"TIME" magazine says Obama is "Mr. Unpopular," that America is Islamophobic, that Israel doesn't care about peace. Whatever happened to straightforward news magazine stories? Managing editor Rick Stengel will be here.

"Washington Post" sportswriter Mike Wise puts a fake scoop on Twitter to see who will pick it up and winds up with a month's suspension for the talk radio stunt. Did he get off too easy? We'll ask him.

Plus, a new political Web site in Texas is earning its spurs but has yet to make a dime. Does this sort of journalism have a future?

I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.

It was President Obama's second formal address from the Oval Office about a bloody war that dominated American politics for years and left the media's reputation badly tarnished. All the networks took it live, and the stage seemed set for a major international story.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over. This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office.


KURTZ: And for a few hours, at least, most conservative commentators denigrated the speech, while liberal commentators, well, they didn't much like it either, but they're still mad at George Bush.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Some of us here on "The Factor" were discussing why the president even bothered.

Why was he so boring?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because it's not a Busby Berkeley production with dancing girls.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: I mean, this speech was really, in terms of partisan stuff, in terms of how this war was started, in terms of what the Bush administration did to get us in this war, it was incredibly restrained. Even more than restrained, it was remarkably generous.

TUCKER CARLSON, FOX CONTRIBUTOR: Everything about it was small, ludicrous. And the presentation itself, I objected to the pictures of his kids in the background.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Thank you, Mr. Bush, for starting to withdraw those troops lucky enough not to die in your false war.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: I found this one perplexing. I didn't quite understand what the point was.


KURTZ: But then the story seemed to vanish into the ether. The collective judgment, Iraq is yesterday's news, despite the 50,000 American troops still stationed there.

So what explains this lack of interest?

Joining us now here in Washington, Fred Francis, former NBC correspondent whose company 15-Seconds advises clients on handling the media; Jamie McIntyre, former CNN senior Pentagon correspondent who now founded the blog; and A.B. Stoddard, associate editor at "The Hill" newspaper.

Jamie McIntyre, how could Obama's speech about a war that was so deadly and so divisive have largely been treated by the media as a one-day story?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, FOUNDER, LINEOFDEPARTURE.COM: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head in your opening statement in that people have move on.

You know, the number of casualties that the U.S. has in the war is not a good way to measure success of the war, but it is a good way to measure how much the United States and the American public cares about it. And what they really care about is not whether you have a symbolic end to combat operations, but how many Americans are dying there. And if fewer Americans are dying there, they care less about the war even though Iraq remains a mess.

KURTZ: And, of course, Iraqis are still dying there. There was an attack today, a bombing, at least seven killed. Several hundred over the last month.

But Fred Francis, 24 hours after that speech, I turned on the 8:00 cable news shows, and none of them were dealing with Iraq. It was already considered to be old news.

FRED FRANCIS, 15-SECONDS A big mistake, in my view. A big mistake because we still have 50,000 troops there. They said the end of combat operations. It's not the end of operations. There's 4,500 Special Forces troops, the best in the world.

American soldiers are going to be dying in that war, and it's still a war, in my opinion, for the next couple of years, even if the end is in 2011. We're not going to be gone. It's a story the American media should be covering, and we're not covering it.

KURTZ: And you know what got more attention than this speech, A.B. Stoddard? Take a look here, the redecoration of the Oval Office and whether it was sufficiently creative.

So are the media just bored with Iraq?

A. B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "THE HILL": You know, listen, you can blame the media. You can also -- let's give some credit to the Obama administration for stepping on their Oval Office address by having -- they scheduled the re-launching of the Mideast peace talks the very next day, within 36 hours. That became the story.

KURTZ: But that got a fair amount of coverage with Netanyahu on a bus (ph), meeting with Hillary Clinton.

STODDARD: It's a very important story. And they knew that was going to come off the August 31 date, and they released the photos of their newly beige Oval Office.

They're keenly aware of the timing of this stuff. They know exactly when to release stuff. If they wanted to focus on marking the end of Iraq, they could have made it last longer.

KURTZ: And you know, it seems to me that you don't have either party saying we shouldn't have withdrawn these latest troops and phase out our Iraq involvement. There's kind of a consensus on that.

So, as a result, there's not very much for cable to argue about. So the passion I see are the old debates, important debates. We've heard them 10,000 times about, did Bush lie his way into war and did Obama fail to credit the Bush surge?

MCINTYRE: Well, you know, I think you can blame the media to some extent in this in it's the age-old problem where they have lost interest in this story. And you can put it in the same box with a number of really important stories that just don't get the attention that they deserve.

FRANCIS: I think that if Iraq goes into civil war, which is highly likely, if there's a coup in Iraq, an Iraqi general takes over or continues what's going on right now like a sideways -- you know a smattering of terrorists day in and day out, we'd be lucky if there are two or three American reporters in Baghdad to cover the story any time in the next year.

KURTZ: Because of the cost involved, because of the lack of interest? All these things? FRANCIS: Your first answer is the most important answer.

KURTZ: It's expensive to have --


FRANCIS: It's expensive. You will see most of the American media, with probably the exception of "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times," mostly have Iraqi reporters covering for American journalism.

KURTZ: You would think that journalists would dwell more on this war even though it's a symbolic ending and the fighting is still going on, all of that, because the toll that it took on our business, I mean, you had journalists killed like David Bloom and Michael Kelly and others who were wounded. And yet, I think you can make a case that we turned the page a couple years ago.

STODDARD: Well, I think that there's a case to be made that the media is following the American public opinion, turning the page, because the main focus is the economy. And so they follow that story every day.

KURTZ: And that got more attention in the speech when the president tried to pivot from the cost of war to rebuilding the economy.

STODDARD: Right, which was very awkward pivot. But I would say that the profound question that is raised by marking an end to the war in Iraq is the most important question, which is was it worth the cost?

KURTZ: And where is that debate?

STODDARD: And for the Bloom family, for the families of all of the more than 4,400 lives lost, when you hear General Odierno, when you hear Secretary Gates saying, I cannot answer the question whether or not this was worth it, you'll have to check back with us six years from now or more, when history will tell us whether it was a success or a failure, that means that there is no conclusion. And the media likes conclusions. They're on to Afghanistan and the economy.

FRANCIS: Well, the thing that we're stuck with for a long time is appalling suicide rates in the American military, divorce rates off the charts in the American military, veterans coming back, 32,000, who are wounded, who can't get treatment at VA hospitals. It should be a continuing story. It's going to be a continuing story. The fact is we're not covering it.

MCINTYRE: Well, the levels of violence -- the main driver of American media interest in covering the war in Iraq -- I'll get back to my original answer -- is the number of Americans dying. If the level of violence is high, but it's Iraqis who are dying, you're going to see the same sort of level of coverage you're seeing now.

KURTZ: Does that bother you?

MCINTYRE: Well, you know, I think it's something that -- I don't know if you can have an opinion about. It's kind of like the weather. You're going to have to deal with it.

FRANCIS: But we lost 4,416 troops in Iraq. I mean, doesn't that count for another year or so of coverage of why they died there?

MCINTYRE: You would think then that we would really care how it all turns out. But the fact of the matter is the media tends to care as long as U.S. troops are in danger. And as the U.S. troops leave, we care less.

FRANCIS: And it doesn't cost them too much to cover it.

KURTZ: Was it also a factor that your former Network, NBC -- or I guess it was on MSNBC -- that the night that the last combat troops were pulled out -- and this as a couple of weeks ago -- they were on for hours, they kind of had an exclusive with the Pentagon. So it seemed like the war was over then, and here's two weeks later, Obama is back from vacation and he wants to talk about Iraq.

FRANCIS: Well, it was regrettable. CNN should have done that if they could have gotten the exclusive. However, it was regrettable the way NBC covered it.


FRANCIS: They should have put more emphasis on the fact that we still had 50,000 troops there. And it's not the end -- it's the end of official combat operations.

KURTZ: So you're saying it was a mini "Mission Accomplished" moment by MSNBC?

FRANCIS: Indeed. And it did wonders for the ratings, but it wasn't the full truth.

KURTZ: I want to come back to your point, A.B., about -- you basically said it's not the media, it's that the public is tired of this war and has been for some time.

Is that how we should make our decisions? I mean, it seems to me there's a lot of things the public doesn't have a great appetite for, but we feel some responsibility to report on.

STODDARD: And it is not how the decisions should be made by the media or this administration. This administration is not being truthful.

KURTZ: About what?

STODDARD: About how dependent Iraqis remain upon us and what is going to happen when we leave.

KURTZ: But if that's the case --

STODDARD: There was a lot of happy talk in the Oval Office address. No matter what Vice President Biden says, you ask the Iraqis, there is no -- they are not close to forming a government. So, the question that the media needs to ask the administration over and over again is, what is the plan? What happens?

FRANCIS: If there's a civil war?

STODDARD: The gains from the surge are -- literally remain at risk. All the experts will tell you that. So if it unravels, what will happen?

KURTZ: All of which should be good fodder for continuing coverage.

Just briefly, are you surprised that the initial meetings with Abbas and Netanyahu and Hillary Clinton have gotten as much coverage as they can given the long history of failed talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

FRANCIS: We're very cynical about six decades of this, but frankly, Benjamin Netanyahu is strong enough to start real peace negotiations. He's strong enough --

KURTZ: And therefore --


FRANCIS: And therefore, everybody sees this. There's a real chance right now, a real chance. And that's why this is happening.

KURTZ: All right.

In our remaining time, I want to turn to something that's gone absolutely viral in terms of domestic coverage, and that is the opening statement of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in her first and apparently only debate in that race.

She, of course, was not elected to that office. She succeeded Janet Napolitano.

And I have seen this thing 10 times and I still watch it with a mixture of absolute amazement and befuddlement. Let's roll it again.


GOV. JAN BREWER (R), ARIZONA: We have cut the budget. We have balanced the budget. And we are moving forward. We have done everything that we could possibly do. We have -- did what was right for Arizona.


KURTZ: And after that, Jamie McIntyre, reporters tried to question her at the post-debate news conference and she took a couple questions and she walked away.

So is that how you recover from a stumble like that?

MCINTYRE: You know, I had something really good I was going to say here, but it kind of slipped my mind.


KURTZ: We're running out of time.

MCINTYRE: I can tell you, I sympathize. No, it's not the way to handle it. And obviously she wasn't as prepared for that as she should be. But I can sympathize with the lights going on, the camera going on, and just blanking out. It happens.

FRANCIS: You know, we've used this at my company, on Friday as a teaching moment. This is about preparation. Politicians and CEOs need to prepare more. She has a stump speech she gives, but she didn't prepare for 15 seconds on the air.

KURTZ: And just briefly, A.B., is it fair for all of us to play that 16 seconds over and over again, as striking a moment as it was?

STODDARD: You know, not really. But I think that she really dug in. Her response afterwards was, the only reason I engaged in that debate was to get my $1.7 million in public matching funds. So I'm not going to debate anymore, because I believe the debate is an opportunity for my opponent to highlight, to define himself.

The voters need an answer from her on many different issues. And the fact that she thinks they don't deserve one is really telling.

KURTZ: And the press in Arizona should not let that drop. All right.

A.B. Stoddard, Fred Francis, Jamie McIntyre, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, we're talking Texas. A new Web site covering state politics makes a surprising impact, but can it make any money?


KURTZ: Texas may be a big state, but it wasn't exactly lacking for media outlets -- "The Dallas Morning News," "The Houston Chronicle," "The Austin American Statesman" and "Texas Monthly," edited by Evan Smith. But Smith left that job, raised a bunch of money, and nearly a year ago launched "The Texas Tribune," a Web site devoted entirely to state politics.

Is that a model for the struggling news business? I spoke to him earlier from Austin.


KURTZ: Evan Smith, welcome.


KURTZ: There are a lot of good news organizations in Texas.

What is "The Texas Tribune" providing that the others aren't?

SMITH: Well, there are great news organizations in Texas, but there are fewer of them than there were 20 years ago, and there are fewer reporters covering the things that we cover, statewide issues. Certainly there are fewer of those than there were 20 years ago.

So we're just getting in there, swinging at the ball alongside them. We think there are things that are not being covered enough, some things that are not being covered at all. And so we've put ourselves in the position of joining the news organizations here in trying to put the best and most robust face on statewide issues --

KURTZ: Right.

SMITH: -- like health care, education and all that.

KURTZ: Trying to fill that vacuum.

SMITH: Right.

KURTZ: Now you got $1 million from your friend, now publisher, John Thornton. You've gotten other donations.

SMITH: Right.

KURTZ: You've yet to prove that you can make money at this.

SMITH: Well, he's our chairman, not our publisher, I'll say. And, yes, we have not yet proven that the business model for this new type of an operation works.

On the other hand, we've raised $5 million -- even a little bit more than $5 million -- over the last year to support an operation that's 25 full-time employees and 12, soon to be 13, full-time reporters, which represents currently, we're told, about one third of the capital press corps. We represent now, after one year, one third of the capital press corps. And we're bringing in money, Howard, through membership and corporate support and foundation gifts to the extent that we think we can make this business model work.

It's always going to be a challenge, but --

KURTZ: Of the money that you've raised, $315,000 has gone to your salary. There's been a little bit of flak about that.

Does that criticism bother you?

SMITH: It doesn't bother me at all. I'm happy to be as transparent with you as I expect other people to be as transparent with us.

We have salaries for all of our reporters that are competitive with the for-profit media for the simple reason that this is not a teaching hospital. We strive to hire people who are experienced journalists, who can do the job. And often, to get them away from for-profit legacy media organizations, you've got to pay competitively. And we make no bones about that and don't apologize for it.

KURTZ: All right. One of the things you do on the site is a video feature called "Stump Interrupted." SMITH: That's right.

KURTZ: I want to play a little bit of that with Governor Rick Perry for our viewers.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: Now, remember back -- that was six years ago -- but remember back with me what we found when we got -- the comptroller announced that there was a $10 billion budget --


PERRY: There was a -- we don't have deficits in Texas because we have --


PERRY: We've got a constitutional amendment that we cannot -- we have to have a balanced budget, so we don't have a deficit. We had a $10 billion budget hole --



KURTZ: Are you having a little fun with these politicians?

SMITH: Why not?

I mean, you know, from the beginning, our approach has been to cover politics the way ESPN covers sports. You know, to have fun with both the game and the players.

And certainly the idea of doing a pop-up video type deal goes back to VH1. Maybe it wasn't even original back then. But there's certainly no reason we can't appropriate it to bring more context and insight to politics.

KURTZ: Some would say there's too much of a sports-like approach in all political coverage. But let me move on to your databases. And you're putting up these --


KURTZ: -- indexes of teachers' salaries and red light cameras and campaign contributions. Has that been a draw for you? Do people like that?

SMITH: It's been the biggest draw. In fact, the biggest revelation -- absolutely.

The biggest revelation for us has been that people don't just want news, they want knowledge. They don't just want journalism, they want information. They want the tools to be better engaged and thoughtful and productive citizens. And one of the ways they get that information is through the databases. We now have more than 40 databases on our site on a range of topics. You named some of them. And they get more traffic than anything else we publish on the site.

KURTZ: You also do polling. And in a recent poll, you found that almost one third of Texans believe that humans and dinosaurs roamed the Earth at the same time, which, of course, is not true. More than half don't believe --

SMITH: Well, they think -- yes.

KURTZ: Well, it's widely accepted.

SMITH: Yes, they think "The Flintstones" was a documentary. You know, that's what --

KURTZ: And you found that more than half don't believe in the theory of evolution.

Why did you ask those kinds of questions?

SMITH: Well, you know, at the moment, we have a big debate over high school curriculum standards being set by the state board of education in Texas. Most states don't have such a board, but we do, outside of the education agency that sets curriculum. And the question of creationism and all sorts of things related to science and what we're going to teach our kids, that's very much in play right now. And so those questions felt very much of the moment.

KURTZ: I've got maybe 15 seconds.

You recently teamed up with "The Houston Chronicle" on an investigation.

SMITH: Right.

KURTZ: Are other Texas newspapers accepting you more? Because they were very wary when you announced this thing.

SMITH: Oh, there's no question about that. And it's been kind of like 10 little, nine little, eight little Indians. One by one, they've fallen, to the point that the last of the big newspapers, "The Dallas Morning News," actually ran one of our stories last week. And nobody died, no blood was shed.

The fact is we've had great collaborations with many newspapers in Texas. And our goal is to put our content in front of as many people as possible, and we're going to keep doing that.

KURTZ: Glad you did it without bloodshed.

Evan Smith, thanks very much for joining us from Austin.

SMITH: Yes. Thanks, Howard. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: And coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, "Washington Post" sportswriter Mike Wise gets sidelined for a bogus scoop posted on Twitter. What explains such a dumb move?

He'll be in the hot seat.

President Obama responds to the Muslim misinformation about him with Brian Williams, but is he fueling the story? "TIME" managing editor Rick Stengel joins us.

Plus, a Rupert Murdoch tabloid hacking the British royals and many others, and offering big bucks for dirt on Glenn Beck in our "Media Monitor."


KURTZ: Mike Wise thought he had a cool idea. "The Washington Post" sportswriter tweeted a phony scoop this week saying that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, suspended by the NFL over an accusation of sexual misconduct would be out for five games. Wise did it for his Washington radio show to show how "anybody will print anything," and the Twitter posting was picked up by several newspapers and sports sites carefully attributed to Wise. He later apologized on the air.


MIKE WISE, MANAGING EDITOR, "TIME": I made a horrendous mistake using my Twitter account. I'm sorry, especially to the good, smart people at the best place I've ever worked.


KURTZ: Soon after, "The Washington Post" suspended him for one month. I sat down with him here in the studio.


KURTZ: Mike Wise, welcome.

MIKE WISE: Thank you.

KURTZ: I've got to start with the Jay Leno question and Hugh Grant. What the hell were you thinking?

WISE: I was thinking, what the heck, I'll detonate my career over a stupid radio stunt. No. In reality, it was one of those netherworlds between at the time I'm in the radio studio, I'm not thinking "Washington Post" columnist, I'm thinking radio bit, and we're going to see if this works.

And one of the things that -- a painful lesson of this is media -- you know, you're everywhere at once, and irrespective of which medium you're using, especially -- KURTZ: But you never would have done this in the newspaper. But you say --


KURTZ: -- well, it's Twitter, have a little fun?

WISE: Have a little fun, and also try and get at the crux of the credibility problem. The irony is, in doing so, I destroyed some of my own credibility. And that is a -- that's a hard thing to stomach.

KURTZ: But let's walk through it, because you were trying to prove a serious point, which is that all kinds of unsubstantiated blather --

WISE: Yes.

KURTZ: -- gets picked up and strewn across the Web.

WISE: Yes.

KURTZ: So what's the difference between what you did -- and, you know, you weren't trying to deceive anybody, right?

WISE: Right.

KURTZ: You were going to own up to this. But what's the difference between what you did and a journalist who lies about his identity in a hidden camera investigation, or a journalist who brings fake explosives to airport security? You're trying to expose something that you think is wrong.

WISE: Yes, with all due respect, one of the programs I can't stand on television is the one in which a gentleman for ABC News -- I think his name is Mr. Quinones -- gets people to act a certain way if, in fact, a woman -- a pregnant woman is smoking in a restaurant, and then plays on those people's emotions, when, in fact, this person that was smoking in a restaurant that was pregnant wasn't pregnant and was just a studio plant. That's cruddy journalism, in my book.

And the idea that I thought that I could sort of get away with it as a radio bit is a good lesson for me.

KURTZ: So you put up this Tweet that said simply, "Roethlisberger will get five games," I'm told, referring to the length of his suspension by the NFL. And you were going to admit it right away, that it was a hoax, or you were going to wait?

What was your plan?

WISE: Well, the goal was to actually wait two or three, five minutes and write a follow-up Tweet saying, "Said a casino employee," and make it clear that I was joking. But in those three to four or five minutes, see what national publication of any merit picked it up and did not vet it, did not source it, just used it and built their home page around the fact that some guy said this.

KURTZ: And you're not just some guy.

WISE: Well, I'm from "The Washington Post."

KURTZ: That's the problem. You're not just some guy having fun on Twitter.

WISE: Yes. And I also -- I will say, substantially, I'm doing the radio show. I'm multi-platforming. I don't look up to see if the Tweet -- all of a sudden it says "Twitter over capacity," and this is 30 or 40 minutes on the radio show has gone by, and I'm going, jeez, that secondary Tweet saying that this was a joke did not post.

And so what it actually does, by that time, ProFootballTalk, all these other news organizations have picked it up. And --

KURTZ: But did you immediately realize that this was a serious mistake, or did that not dawn on you until later?

WISE: I don't think -- I realized that I should have corrected it. If I waited one second to say I was joking, it was too long. But I also thought, given that I had played up this fact on the radio show all day, that somehow that was going to get me off.

And it wasn't until after the radio show that I in fact realized, you know what? I just made something up, and it was on a Twitter account that happened to have my "Washington Post" I.D. on it -- I.D. being as a "Washington Post" columnist. And at that point, it was clear that I was in trouble and I needed to do some fessing up and basically go to the newspaper with my tail between the legs.

KURTZ: Let me explain something here. We both work at "The Washington Post."

WISE: Yes.

KURTZ: But I never see you see you because sportswriters don't come in the office --

WISE: Right.

KURTZ: -- they work crazy hours, they go out carousing.

WISE: Well, not me.

KURTZ: Yes, well, OK.

WISE: I used to.

KURTZ: Well, so you had to go to your editors, fess up --

WISE: Yes.

KURTZ: -- and you were suspended by the newspaper for one month.

WISE: Yes.

KURTZ: Was that fair or unfair for something you describe as a radio stunt?

WISE: That was a "Washington Post" Twitter account. And if there's anything -- and this is the irony of it all -- is that if there's anything I believe in, it's credibility in journalism.

And putting any kind of un-factual information is wrong. And so I have no problem with the month's suspension. And if we're being honest, I walked in there and I wasn't sure if I was going to have a job the next day. And so --

KURTZ: I felt like the penalty was a little harsh for what the offense was. And it was a dumb thing to do, as you are now the first to admit. But The Post ombudsman says you were lucky you didn't get fired and there were people who felt that you should have gotten fired over this.

WISE: I'm sure there were. I'm sure there were.

I wouldn't have went that far given the platform that it was under. But you're right, new guidelines, new social media, if there's anything I did learn from this, it's as much as they want you to be personable now in the newsroom, as much as they want you to show something of yourself through a Twitter account through -- I used to do these video columns for The Post -- they wanted to show some of my personality.

A lot of people were taking me serious. They were taking "The Washington Post" serious. And if I could take myself that seriously, I wouldn't have had the problem. And that, to me, was the best lesson.

KURTZ: I know you take media ethics seriously because you've been on this program talking about it. You had talked --

WISE: I just never thought I'd be talking about myself on this program.

KURTZ: And you have no doubt that this has caused you, as you put it, a chunk of your credibility.

WISE: Oh, yes. I think so.

You know, you could write every story under the sun, and you could vet all my stories -- and I would challenge someone to -- and find a factual inaccuracy done with any malice or anything. And there would be few. What you would find -- but it didn't matter. One thing can undo it for you.

KURTZ: One thing that took you 15 seconds to type.

WISE: Yes, 15 seconds to type and 19 to 20 years is undone like that. And so, I'm going to find a way to get it back.

KURTZ: Mike Wise, it would have been very easy to duck this interview.

Thanks very much for coming in.

WISE: I appreciate you at least getting the story out there and taking about it.

Thanks, Howard.


KURTZ: The NFL has now reduced Ben Roethlisberger's suspension to four games. So even the fake Twitter scoop turned out to be wrong.

Up next, "TIME" magazine calls President Obama "Mr. Unpopular." Would this be the same "TIME" magazine that loved the guy during the campaign? Managing editor Rick Stengel in a moment.


KURTZ: When Brian Williams sat down with President Obama in New Orleans to mark the fifth anniversary of Katrina, the NBC anchor asked one question that wound up providing the day's sound bite, picked up by news organizations everywhere. It was about that poll showing that nearly two in 10 Americans believe the president is a Muslim.


OBAMA: You know, there is a mechanism, a network of misinformation, that in a new media era can get churned out there constantly.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC: What does it say to you? Does it say anything about your communications or the effectiveness or the effectiveness of your opponents to --

OBAMA: Well, look, Brian, I would say that I can't spend all my time with my birth certificate plastered on my forehead.


KURTZ: The current issue of "TIME" magazine takes on Obama's difficulties in the polls, so we called in managing editor Rick Stengel to talk about the president's coverage and the magazine's evolution in the digital age. I spoke to him earlier from New York.


KURTZ: Rick Stengel, welcome.

RICK STENGEL, MANAGING EDITOR, "TIME": Great to be here with you, Howie.

KURTZ: Did Obama help keep that fake Muslim story alive with those colorful comments to Brian Williams? And is related to what your own recent cover story called "Islamophobia" in America?

STENGEL: Yes. Howie, did you say "that fake Muslim story"? What was the adjective you used?

KURTZ: Fake.


KURTZ: He's not a Muslim.


KURTZ: It's an established fact in my mind.

STENGEL: Ah, I thought you were suggesting that the whole story about the whole thing was fake.

No, I think he -- it's interesting, his response. I mean, you know, there's the old Mark Twain line that, "A lie goes around the world while the truth is still tying its shoes." To me, he has to say this is insane, this is crazy, I am a Christian, I am not a Muslim, not that there would be anything wrong with that.

So I don't quite understand why he doesn't actually, like, knock it down with a baseball bat if he could.

KURTZ: But Rick, you know how the media works. If he says this is insane, there would be headlines around the world: "President Calls Accusations "insane." In other words, every time he addresses it, he feeds the news piece.

STENGEL: Well, insane is the wrong word. But if he would have said this is absurd or this is a lie, you know, I think his sweet reasonableness so triumphs over him getting perhaps a little angry in saying, you know what? This is just downright wrong, and the people who are perpetuating it are doing not only me a disservice, but the country a disservice.

KURTZ: OK. In your current issue you have a piece titled, "Mr. Unpopular," referring to the president, and the headline says, "Where Did All That Adoration Go?"

Well, I'm reminded of the "TIME" cover story after the election which pictured him with a cigarette holder as FDR. Some of that admiration came from "TIME" magazine and other places in the media.

STENGEL: Absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, there were lots of folks in the media who, you know, fell in love with Barack Obama, fell in love with the idea of Barack Obama being president. But, you know, as Machiavelli said, when you're a leader and you're loved, if you do something wrong people start to hate you. If you're a leader who is feared and respected, if you do something wrong they still like you.

I think some of that has to do with Obama's -- people who adored Obama feeling betrayed or feeling in some way like he's not the person they thought he was.

KURTZ: Because journalists jacked up the expectations so high because so many journalists fell in love with candidate Obama, truthfully.

STENGEL: I'm not disagreeing with you on that, Howie. KURTZ: All right. All right.

By the way, we didn't strap you to the chair and force you to do this interview. You're recovering from shoulder surgery. So wish you luck with that.

STENGEL: Yes. Thank you.

KURTZ: Let's talk about your magazine, "TIME," of course, published by CNN's parent company, Time Warner.

You have moved from more classic news magazine, Henry Luce-style approach to the news, to what you call reported analysis. A cover story in the new issue? Here it is, "Why Israel Doesn't Care About Peace."

Is that example of reported analysis?

STENGEL: Yes. I mean, look, in so many way, Howie, as you know, the news, the information itself, has become a commodity. What we offer is insight, analysis, putting the news -- putting what you already know in perspective.

So, to take the example of this week's cover story about Israel, you know, what we did is we sent our correspondent there, and he basically went around and he said, you know, people in Israel don't care about peace. They're happy. The society is prosperous. GDP is growing. They don't regard the Palestinians as a threat.

To me, this is giving people a kind of look around the bend. It's a kind of conceptual scoop which I think we can provide that a lot of news outlets can't provide. So that's the idea.

KURTZ: But the headline is a bit of a marketing gimmick, because it suggests that Israel doesn't want to participate in the peace process, despite the meetings that started this week in Washington. And when you read the story it's as you described. So, obviously, you're trying to draw people in with a provocative headline?

STENGEL: Yes, it's provocative headline, it's provocative thesis. I mean, there are plenty of people who argue, as you know, Howie, that, in fact, Netanyahu is just giving the appearance that he actually wants peace, and to negotiate, because really he wants the U.S. to help him with Iran. And that may in fact be true.

KURTZ: Speaking of war, let's talk about the news magazine "War."

"Newsweek" published -- is still published by The Washington Post Company, where I worked -- has just been sold to a 92-year-old businessman, Sidney Harman. "U.S. News" basically has moved online. And I know you credit this formula as helping "TIME" magazine, but didn't "Newsweek" also move heavily into the opinion business?

STENGEL: Look, I mean, I think they did do that. I think they did it in a different way than we did it. I think our brand and the attachment that people have to "TIME" continues to be incredibly strong because, in fact, we do all of those things that a traditional news magazine does -- we provide insight, analysis, reporting, great photography.

And so, you know, in this world that we live in, you know, with a difficult economy, you know, it's like the old NBA slogan, "There can only be one." There are lots of areas where in fact other brands go by the wayside.

KURTZ: Speaking of a difficult economy, you have had to lay off about roughly a quarter of your staff in the last four years since you've been editor. So, in a way, you're making do with fewer bodies, so of course you're going to do less reporting.

STENGEL: Well, and in fact -- but, you know, everybody has to do more, as you know. I mean, look at how much you do. I mean, everybody has to do everything. They have to report, they have to blog, they -- we know they're carrying video cameras. So, in a way, everybody has to do more with less, and we have done more with less, and we've done it across all -- every different platform -- online, on mobile, as well as on the traditional paper product.

KURTZ: Rick, you've just hired Fareed Zakaria, whose "GPS" program on CNN precedes mine. And you have, of course, Joe Klein, well-known liberal writer and columnist.

Now, with all the hiring that you've done, how have you not managed to find a conservative columnist?

STENGEL: I would love to find one. So I'm talking -- if you're listening and you're a fantastic conservative columnist, and you want to write for "TIME," give me a call.

KURTZ: And you know, you have Nancy Gibbs writing the back page column, but at times I look at "TIME" magazine and it seems like a bit of a boys club. You have a lot of prominent male writers.

Is that an area you need to work on as well?

STENGEL: Of course it's an area we need to work on. I mean, we do a lot of stories that actually are focused on a female audience and female readers. You know, I do think that just the way "TIME" in many ways is actually a snapshot, a mirror of America -- you know, we're red and blue, we're in the center of the country, we're on the coasts -- I mean, we should also mirror the way America is too in terms of diversity, gender, all of that.

KURTZ: All right. We've got in on video. I've got about half a minute.

In addition to the print magazine which has a circulation of about 3.25 million now, you've got the Web site. And is blogging and people going online during a campaign, for example, real-time observations, moving quickly, is that as important to "TIME" right now as the printed product?

STENGEL: Absolutely. I mean, anything that we do that has our name and brand on it is important. It has to be smart, it has to be insightful. We have something online called "NewsFeed" which is sort of commenting on what is going on the Web in real time.

And again, I think every journalist today, everybody who has a strong point of view, has to be on every different platform. I mean, that's about -- that's the nature of what we do now, and that's what people want. And I think that's one of the things that we are doing.

KURTZ: It's the media on steroids.

Rick Stengel, good luck with the shoulder. Thanks very much for joining us.

STENGEL: Thanks so much, Howie.


KURTZ: President Obama may have talked about Iraq this week, but the Sunday shows focused on the economy, and particularly the White House proposal forthcoming to cut business taxes.

Candy Crowley joins us in a moment.


KURTZ: With just two months to go until the midterm elections, it would seem like it's too late for President Obama to make a major economic proposal.

But, Candy Crowley, that seems to be about what the president is going to do.

CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": It is. It's never too late to have some politics going on. And everything from now on, policy should be looked at through the prism of politics.

What we're learning is that the president is likely to propose some business tax cuts, which seems to be a gimme for Republicans who have been asking for them. However, John McCain, on one of the talk shows today, talked about too little, too late.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, my reaction is that we always like to see deathbed conversions. But the fact is, if we'd done this kind of thing nearly a couple of years ago, we would be in a lot better shape. Look, they're just flailing around.


CROWLEY: We also had Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO; Todd McCracken, Small Business Association. Both talking about the Bush tax cuts about to expire in about expire in January. This is going to be a big issue this fall.

And they disagreed. And while they both agreed that more money should be spent to kind of jump-start the economy, they did disagree on whether those Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire for the wealthy.

Take a listen.


RICHARD TRUMKA, PRESIDENT, AFL-CIO: Well, when you give tax cuts to the very rich, they don't buy much. And that's what happened. That's what resulted in the deficit in the last 30 years. They gave more tax cuts to rich. They didn't give them to the people that needed them.

TODD MCCRACKEN, PRESIDENT & CEO, NSBA: This is the wrong time to increase taxes on anybody, because the companies that do pay this tax -- and there is a minority of small companies for sure, but the ones that do are the most successful ones who will most likely be (INAUDIBLE) jobs, and the ones that want to continue to be successful. And we don't want to put disincentives in place for them to do it.


KURTZ: But none of this is going to be resolved, Candy, before the first Tuesday in November, is it?

CROWLEY: Well, precisely. No matter what the administration does right now is going to have any effect -- take effect by November.

KURTZ: Even if they pass these tax cuts tomorrow, it would not take effect until after.

CROWLEY: Right, exactly, because they don't expire until January.

But listen, you know, everything now is going to be politics, politics, politics. The Democrats are having a hard time running on the economy, which is exactly what Republicans want to talk about.

So today we heard David Plouffe, long-time political adviser to the president, as well as Lindsey Graham, Republican, kind of frame the debate for both their parties.


DAVID PLOUFFE, FMR. OBAMA CAMPAIGN MANAGER: We ought to be proud of what we've done because this is leadership. These were not normal times. We were facing an unprecedented economic crisis, and issues like health care, energy, education, that leadership in this town had refused to deal with for decades.



SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, the centerpiece of the Democratic agenda for the first two years has been the health care bill. Not one candidate on the campaign trail is talking about it. The stimulus bill that was supposed to keep us at eight percent or below unemployment has been an absolute disaster. It grew the government instead of creating private sector jobs.


CROWLEY: Economy, economy, economy. Pretty much, that's exactly what this was about.

KURTZ: And, of course, that's exactly what the Democrats want to get off, because with the unemployment rate coming up to 9.6 percent, it's a terrible environment for them to run in. So "The New York Times" this morning talks about how lawmakers are trying to individualize their races and focus on the flaws and the records of their opponents. In other words, to not have the election be on a national basis, but on a district-by-district basis.

CROWLEY: Good luck with that because it's a nationalized election. And the midterms --

KURTZ: Because eof Obama and the economy?

CROWLEY: Well, yes, but -- Obama and the economy, and it's always that in the midterms. It's always about the party in power. And that is in the Senate, in the House, in the White House, that's the Democrats. It's going to be very tough to do that, and I think what you're seeing now is exactly what you are saying, is we're seeing these commercials that have nothing to do with major issues and are just zeroed right in on a district issue.

KURTZ: Yes. One guy bought a donkey and tried to get a tax credit as a farm. That's the kind of thing we're seeing.


KURTZ: Candy Crowley, thanks very much.

Still to come, "The Huffington Post" just says no to a piece on Glenn Beck; new details on high-level phone-hacking by a London tabloid; and Craigslist takes on CNN.

All ahead in our "Media Monitor."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.

Here's what I liked.

Today's "New York Times" magazine investigating how Rupert Murdoch's "News of the World" has hacked into the phone messages of not just the British royals -- two employees of the paper have gone to jail for snooping on the likes of Prince William and Prince Harry -- but perhaps hundreds of celebrities, government officials, and soccer stars.

The Times found that Scotland Yard, which gets plenty of good publicity from the London tabloid, curtailed its investigation. The "News of the World" editor dismissed what he called "unsubstantiated claims" that there was a culture of wrongdoing approved by senior management.

Here's what I didn't like.

Beau Friedlander, the former editor-in-chief of Air America Radio, offering trash for cash in a piece in "The Huffington Post." Friedlander doesn't like anything about Glenn Beck, including his religion. He criticizes the Fox News host for being a Mormon.

And then there's this: "I hereby offer to negotiate a $100,000 payday to the person who will come forward with a sex tape or phone records or anything else that succeeds in removing Glenn Beck from the public eye forever."

Now, I know Andrew Breitbart made a six-figure offer for the confidential e-mails of that liberal group Journolist, but is that the kind of level to which Freidlander wants to sink?

But here's what I liked. "The Huffington Post" said he posted the diatribe automatically and quickly took it down, saying the piece didn't meet the Web site's editorial standards. And Friedlander has now seen the light, writing, "I owe Glenn Beck an apology. I crossed the line."

Now, this one is tricky. CNN's Amber Lyon did an enterprising report on underage prostitution being advertised on Craigslist, which has been sharply criticized for such postings. That was solid journalism.

But here's the thing -- she decided to ambush Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, after an appearance here in Washington. She even boasts about it on camera.

Here's how it went.


AMBER LYON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He doesn't know we're coming. He's been very media shy lately about all of these allegations.

So, can people trust that children are not being sex-trafficked on Craigslist?

CRAIG NEWMARK, FOUNDER, CRAIGSLIST: I think we explained that pretty thoroughly on our blog.

LYON: What are you guys doing to protect these girls?


KURTZ: Now, Lyon was respectful and asked legitimate questions, but she didn't ask Craigslist for a comment until after surprising Newmark with a crew. Now the company is accusing her of rank sensationalism, and here's what Craig Newmark posted online.

"She expected me to have all the answers on the spot about anything to do with the company. Well, I don't."

"Jim Buckmaster, our CEO, has been running Craigslist for the last 10 years. I am a customer service rep. I have no role in managing the company's operations because basically, A, I suck as a manager, and B, while overall company direction matters to me as founder and a board director, the deal was to hire good, trustworthy people and then get out of the way."

Amber Lyon told me she approached Newmark inside a building and he agreed to step outside for an interview. She says she didn't chase after him, that it was not an ambush interview, that the company is deflecting attention by trying to smear her credibility.

My take is that kind of tactic should be used as a last resort when a company's top executives are refusing to talk. What Amber Lyon did with Craig Newmark was good television, but it was unnecessary.

Meanwhile, Craigslist this weekend took down the adult services category in the U.S. Not clear whether the change is permanent.

Well, that's it for this Labor Day Weekend edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. Eastern for another critical look at the media.

"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.