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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear Takes Aim at Cable TV; Are Media Wrong in Predicting GOP Wave?

Aired October 31, 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: When Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert arrived in town, there was no question they were going to make news. The only question, what kind?

Yesterday's Washington Rally to Restore Sanity, or stoke fear, or whatever it was, drew a surprisingly huge crowd. But is Stewart's message really that our biggest problem is cable news craziness?

Arianna Huffington, who helped underwrite the event, joins our discussion.

The polls, the pundits, the prognostications, it's all a blur in these final two days of an election that everyone expects to produce a Republican tidal wave. Or could the media forecasters be off the mark?

Plus, is the press starting to denigrate the Democratic president? We'll ask someone who has been here -- Jimmy Carter.

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

I was surrounded by a sea of people yesterday afternoon as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert brought their much ballyhooed rally to the Mall. No one quite knew what to expect, seriousness or satire, but one thing's for sure, it was a huge event, probably a couple hundred thousand people. Here's a taste of how it looked.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: It's a bit of an insane scene here at the Rally to Restore Insanity. Hoards and hoards of people, and I'm just talking about the journalists. Four hundred journalists with credentials, another 600 were turned away.

This is a social event, a cultural event. Maybe all these people are passionate about moderation, or they happen to like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": And as we all know, there are really only two options in terms of reporting on a rally -- either it was a tremendous success --

(APPLAUSE)

STEWART: -- or a horrendous failure.

KURTZ: It's interesting that National Public Radio and other news organizations banned their journalists from attending here out of fear that something political might be said. The amount of political content here has been infinitesimal. And as we listen to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert debate each other behind me, they took note a few moments ago of what the news organizations have done and socked it to them.

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": If their employees attend Jon's rally, someone might think that NPR is liberal.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: No one can tell from the free pledge drive hemp fiber tote bags they use to carry their organic kale rollups to their compost parties.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: But after three hours of music and comedy kits and funny costumes, Jon Stewart turned serious.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART: The country's 24-hour politico, pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator (ph) did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And joining us now is a woman who played a key role in that rally, the founder of "The Huffington Post," Arianna Huffington.

Welcome.

We'll get to your role in just a moment, but there was a lot of chatter before this rally about this was risky for Jon Stewart and wouldn't he be taking himself too seriously. Did that happen?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, FOUNDER, "THE HUFFINGTON POST": Not at all. I think the rally was a high-wire act as anything that involves satire over three hours. But I think they really pulled it of magnificently, both the comedy, both the serious part, especially at the end.

And the message at the end is incredibly important. What he said, that what we in the media tend to cover, and cover all together, you know, Balloon Boy or Reverend Jones burning the Koran, at the expense of other things happening around the country, where we put our magnifying glass, as he put it, is incredibly important. The use of the term "the media as the unity (ph) system of democracy," in a way dates back to Jefferson. That's how the founding fathers saw it.

KURTZ: But there was no cable TV then. I want to come back to that, but first I want to ask you about your role. And, of course, "The Huffington Post" gave a huge headline to this rally.

Why did you put roughly $250,000 of your company's money into providing buses for 10,000 people to come down here from New York?

HUFFINGTON: Well, that actually was just a decision made in a moment of irrational exuberance when I was on the Jon Stewart show talking about the rally.

KURTZ: So you were sucking up to him by offering help get him --

(CROSSTALK)

HUFFINGTON: No. He was just talking about the logistical difficulties of getting people there. And I said, oh, "You know what? We'll provide buses. Anybody who comes to our office, we'll get them there," thinking there would be a few dozen people.

Then we put up a signup sheet and 10,000 people ended up being on over 200 buses. But it was just amazing, Howie, the fact that they were there, even though they had flown from other parts of the country. One of them had flown from Washington to get on a bus in New York to get to the rally.

KURTZ: Because he wanted to hang out with you?

HUFFINGTON: Not at all. Because they wanted to have that sense of community and connection. And that was really what you observed all around the rally when you walked around. It wasn't just what was happening on stage, it was what was happening among people there.

KURTZ: But let's be candid. I mean, Jon Stewart appeals to you because he comes at his comedy and satire and criticism from a liberal point of view.

HUFFINGTON: Well, actually, if you watched his interview with the president, that was a tough interview.

KURTZ: We're going to play that later, but most --

HUFFINGTON: But he exposed the Achilles heel of the president. That's not a cheerleader interviewing the president.

KURTZ: Well, now, but it was somebody -- he came off as a disappointed liberal. But let's leave that interview aside.

When I see clips of "The Daily Show" on "The Huffington Post," it's often securing Republican targets. You like that.

HUFFINGTON: Well, that's not at all actually what makes Jon Stewart special. What makes him and Colbert special is the fact that they use satire to speak truth to power. Whether that power is liberal, conservative, in the media, in politics, that's where the power comes from. And people will continue to see this sort of left- leaning show completely missing its appeal.

KURTZ: All right. I think I disagree with that.

But before that final serious oration by Jon Stewart in order to make the point about the media, he and Colbert played some clips of -- well, let me just show it. Played some clips of some well-known personalities popping off on cable news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: Progressivism is a cancer.

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: The Republican Party has gone completely brain dead.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: The far left does not want the USA to defeat terrorism.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: The Republicans want to you die quickly if you get sick.

BECK: The left believes Americans are stupid.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: Republicans lie.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: In Scott Brown, we have an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, ,reactionary, ex new model.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: A Hollywood liberal is a Learjet limousine liberal that wants to tax everybody and be generous with everybody else's money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, Stewart makes this impassioned plea against what we just saw. Now, aren't you part of that world? Don't you go on these liberal shows and bash Republicans?

HUFFINGTON: Oh, you can go on shows and disagree with Republicans, or disagree with Democrats. And I do both. The question is, is what you are saying based on fact?

However passionately you may express it, is it based on facts? That is really the key distinction that we need to make. And also, in the progress, are you disagreeing with your opponents or are you demonizing them?

KURTZ: For you it's about the tone?

HUFFINGTON: For me it's about -- first of all, it's about facts. Is it factual? That's key.

KURTZ: Right, but conservatives who disagree with you certainly think they are being factual.

HUFFINGTON: No. They can't possibly think they are being factual when they say that Barack Obama wasn't born here, or when they are saying that Barack Obama is taking us down a communist path. These clearly are not factual statements, and that is really the first distinction.

KURTZ: Well, all right, but let me ask you this, because in that montage, there was a lot more we didn't show. Jon Stewart played Keith Olbermann almost as much as he played Glenn Beck. You go on Olbermann's show pretty regularly. Do you think he's part of the problem?

HUFFINGTON: Well, Keith Olbermann actually apologized for that statement.

KURTZ: For that particular one, yes.

HUFFINGTON: For that particular statement. Have you ever seen anybody apologize, except maybe Glenn Beck when he called the president a racist?

KURTZ: Well, that took him a while.

HUFFINGTON: But it took him a while to apologize. So the question is --

KURTZ: But do you agree with Jon Stewart that Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz of MSNBC are part of the problem as much as O'Reilly and Beck and Hannity on Fox?

HUFFINGTON: Definitely not as much of the problem. Have they exaggerated? Yes. They would admit it themselves.

But the constant barrage of misinformation being put out by Glenn Beck, by O'Reilly, by Hannity is just monumental. I mean, this is a factual record that has been compiled of what they are saying.

KURTZ: Well, Olbermann tweeted yesterday that Jon Stewart had jumped the shark. He said that, basically, MSNBC was needed because otherwise you have Fox one-sidedness, which he says led to the Iraq War. But Stewart seems to be blaming both sides. You, sitting here with me, seem to be saying Fox is the problem.

HUFFINGTON: No, I'm not saying at all that Fox is the problem. I'm saying that mainstream media, cable media, everybody is part of the problem that Stewart identified at the end, which is magnifying the relevant or the demonic, magnifying the evil that's going.

As he said, stop calling people terrorists or communists. They have to earn that title. You can't just give it to them.

KURTZ: It's conflict-driven.

HUFFINGTON: It's conflict-driven.

KURTZ: And you would like to see a more civil tone on both sides? HUFFINGTON: Yes, but I would also like to see much more of that. I would like to see that magnifying glass that he talked about being put where good is being done.

I mean, we are doing that at "The Huffington Post" now. We are doing "Best Person of the Day." We are doing an interactive map where people can put stars on what is being done around the country that's creating jobs, that's helping each other.

You know, we're not doing that. We're constantly emphasizing what separates us rather than what unites us.

KURTZ: A word of advice for journalism, which does too often focus on the negative.

Arianna Huffington, thanks for stopping by this morning.

When we come back, the Comedy Central showdown Arianna referred to, the fake newsman taking on the president of the United States. Did Jon Stewart pin down Barack Obama?

And later, Jimmy Carter on Obama's coverage, Fox News, and the Tea Party.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: In one chair, a fake news anchor. In the other, the president of the United States. Jon Stewart seizing on the opportunity this week when Barack Obama stopped by "The Daily Show."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART: You ran with such, if I may, audacity. So much of what you said was great leaders lead in a time of opportunity, we're the ones we're looking for. Yet, legislatively, it has felt timid at times, that I'm not even sure at times what you want out of a health care bill.

OBAMA: Jon, I love your show, but this is something where I have a profound disagreement with you and -- I don't want to lump you in with a lot of other pundits.

STEWART: You may.

OBAMA: No, no. This notion that health care was timid, you've got 30 million people who are going to get health insurance as a consequence to this.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: In fairness, Larry Summers did a heck of a job trying to figure out how to --

STEWART: You don't want to use that phrase, dude.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Joining us now here in Washington, Paul Farhi, who's been covering Jon Stewart for "The Washington Post." And in Seattle, author and radio talk show host, Michael Medved.

Michael, my question, dude, is, did Jon Stewart conduct a revealing interview with Barack Obama?

MICHAEL MEDVED, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I think he did. And I think the president's defensiveness was profoundly revealing.

What was interesting to me is, right after that famous clip where he said, "You don't want to use that phrase, dude," Obama did a little bit of a lie, which is -- because right after that he said, oh, pun intended, like he deliberately said, "You did a heck of a job." I actually was surprised at how aggressive and effective Jon Stewart was in interviewing the president.

KURTZ: Paul Farhi, didn't Stewart press Obama in a way that no news anchor could have because he was obviously coming from a point of view sympathetic to Obama but disappointed with Obama?

PAUL FARHI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": That's right. It was the disappointed liberal questioning the president who he had higher expectations for when he voted for him in 2008. And that came across in the interview.

His perspective was not straight down the line. It was from a perspective of someone who expected more out of this president.

KURTZ: So, to all those people who said why is he going on "The Daily Show" and this is going to be a big joke, I mean, it wasn't a big joke. It actually was -- the president was defensive and it was kind of revealing, in my view. Would you agree with that?

FARHI: I absolutely do. I thought it was a very substantial interview.

I mean, you can take Jon Stewart's perspective for what it was, but nevertheless, Obama made very important points. He got out his agenda, and he actually was informative. There's nothing wrong with that.

KURTZ: And no strong disagreement from you, Michael?

MEDVED: No, except that I think the president hurt himself by going on "The Daily Show." There's no voter that he reached that persuaded because of the his appearance on "The Daily Show."

Now, I also think that this rally that you've been just showing highlights from was profoundly revealing, because what it represents to me -- and it's very striking -- is this is the old hope and change crowd. This the people when Obama promised to change the tone of our politics.

This rally is a very clear statement that he hasn't done that, that that has been disappointed. And even though he wasn't a focus of the rally at all, it seems to me when you see those faces there, you can readily believe that those are people who voted for and campaigned for Barack Obama and now are coming out and saying that actually, these two TV comedians are more the spirit of bringing America together than the president of the United States, who says Republicans can come along for the ride but they have to sit in the back seat, or tells Latinos that you should go out there and punish your enemies. Th is not hope and change.

KURTZ: And Michael, what about the people you refer to as the two TV comedians? I mean, there was some talk of Jon Stewart stepping out of his role, shedding his comedic skin. He obviously got very serious at the end there where he beat up on cable news and took some shots at Washington in general.

Does this change his image? Is this good or bad for Jon Stewart?

MEDVED: Oh, I think it's terrific for Jon Stewart, the same way that the Glenn Beck rally was terrific for Glenn Beck.

I think another striking thing here is this is a huge crowd. It was comparable to Beck's crowd. But there was something else that was comparable, is it wasn't partisan. There wasn't specific endorsements.

We forget that there was another rally in between that was a big bust, which was a rally hosted by Ed Schultz and the labor unions, and the America Working Together Rally. That rally was specific, it was on the left, it was very political, and it had a fraction of the attendance of either the Glenn Beck Restoring Honor or the Jon Stewart Restoring Sanity Rally.

KURTZ: Well, MSNBC's Ed Schultz spoke at that rally. I don't think he was the host. And I don't think we ought to judge these things by how many people come.

If 50,000 showed up for Stewart and Colbert, that would have been fine. It was a lot larger than that.

But what about the fact, Paul Farhi, that they had fun, they brought out musicians, they wore funny costumes? But at the end, the biggest argument that Jon Stewart made was that cable news is poisoning our minds.

FARHI: Yes. Well, that's consistent with what he has said for the last 10 years.

I mean, he has basically two critiques. One is that Republicans have been evil and the Democrats have been ineffective, and the media is bad for everybody. And it's not just the media, though. Really, if you look specifically at what Jon Stewart has said for about 12 years, is it's cable TV.

KURTZ: I have heard this many times. He did it on this program years ago. He famously did it on "CROSSFIRE."

He did this at the conventions when we had press conferences with reporters. He really -- and look, when he says that cable news is conflict-driven and outlandish and sensational and superficial, he is largely right. But if the cable news channels went away tomorrow, wouldn't we still have a very polarized political culture?

FARHI: Well, we'd certainly have a polarized political culture. But what he doesn't reflect in his criticism is that people, viewers want this kind of confrontation. That if they wanted simply reasonable people having discourse, they could watch that on PBS or listen to it on NPR. The audience wants conflict. It makes good television.

KURTZ: What about that, Michael?

MEDVED: Well, I think the other problem is, OK, what is he suggesting as the alternative, that they should watch me and Colbert doing political humor?

The one great thing about cable news today that I appreciate is there's an acknowledgement of bias, except on your show, Howard. I mean, generally, people -- you know where people are coming from. MSNBC and CNN tries.

But even the different hosts on CNN, there is some kind of understanding. I mean, people understand that Eliot Spitzer is a Democrat.

I think that the one thing where Jon Stewart fell short was this contradiction in his rally. He was saying at the one hand, this was a million moderate march. And on the other hand, it's nonpolitical.

If you're a moderate, it's political. And I think what's ironic here is there are real moderates on the ballot coming up on Tuesday, people like Mark Kirk in Illinois or Joe Manchin in West Virginia. And there was no support for that point of view. There was just this general cynicism that you haven't brought us together, America isn't working together, we haven't ended the red states and blue states, red networks and red (sic) networks, and become one big happy family.

KURTZ: But Paul Farhi, Stewart does suggest an alternative. It may not be a realistic one. He wants cable news that, A, is less driven by the exaggerated rhetoric of people who are more extreme. And he also wants us, journalists, to get at the truth of what people say, kind of like Stewart and Colbert see themselves as doing when they use video to show that people are lying or inconsistent.

How realistic is that?

FARHI: Well, we actually have something. It's called C-SPAN. And you can watch that or not, and you can find that kind of reasonable discourse getting at --

KURTZ: But Fox News is getting the big ratings, as you point out.

FARHI: Exactly. And that's what the audience wants. And these are businesses. And let's not be so high-minded about it. You have to do what the marketplace demands from you. What the marketplace is demanding is the kind of confrontation and kinetic and emotional confrontations between people.

KURTZ: Well, it was interesting being out there yesterday and watching Stewart with that serious close. And we can debate that probably for the next 45 shows, particularly after the election.

Michael Medved, Paul Farhi, thanks very much for joining us.

FARHI: Thank you.

KURTZ: And coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, pundits, polls, predictions. Is midterm madness getting out of control? Are journalists focusing too much on such distractions as crowd members getting roughed up?

Plus, former president Jimmy Carter on campaign coverage and why he's no fan of Fox News.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: One of the craziest campaigns in modern memory is headed for a finale on Tuesday. The Obama victory in 2008 was followed by the rise of the Tea Party, the anger over big government, the upsets of establishment Republicans, and a concerted effort by some candidates to bash, to demonize, or just plain avoid journalists.

We will get to that. But, first, for all the complaints about horse race coverage, we are now in the final stretch of the race, which means the handicappers are, well, off and running.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: It looks right now like the Democrats will lose the House.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I believe we're going to win the Senate. I think we are, indeed, going to sweep the table.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nevada: Angle, Reid?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I assume Angle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pennsylvania: Sestak and Toomey?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, Toomey.

KARL ROVE, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: We're looking at eight or nine seats Republicans are going to take.

HANNITY: Not 10?

ROVE: And it could take 10.

HANNITY: Could?

ROVE: It could take 10.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I predict Raese to win.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let's go to Larry.

The question: are you going to break this tie? Who is going to win that race?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's going to be Manchin.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So what are we to make of this blizzard of predictions and the media's rather uneven performance this campaign year?

Joining us now here in Washington, Julie Mason, White House correspondent for "The Washington Examiner"; Jim Geraghty, contributing editor at "National Review." And in New York, John Avlon, senior political columnist for "The Daily Beast" and a CNN contributor.

Julie Mason, "The Washington Post" this morning, headline, "GOP Holds Edge at Finish." There we go.

Why are journalists spending all this time on predicting races when we're all going to know the outcome on Tuesday?

JULIE MASON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER": Because everyone wants to be right ahead of time. That's what people want to know, who's going to win? People ask me that all the time, voters.

Who is going to win? They want to vote for who is going to win, which is a very strange dynamic.

KURTZ: OK. So who is going to win? Or do you answer those questions?

MASON: No. I don't know who's going to win. I hate being wrong.

KURTZ: John Avlon, does this constant drumbeat in the media about a coming Republican hurricane, or tidal wave, or tsunami, pick your weather system, does that make it more likely? In other words, is it energizing Republicans?

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think there can be a self- fulfilling prophecy. But I do think that when pundits get ahead of themselves and start getting in the prediction business, two things bother me about that.

One, the accountability sector isn't really there. You know, we should do an index for all the wrong predictions so we could establish the batting average of some of these folks. KURTZ: We're saving a half hour for that next week.

(LAUGHTER)

AVLON: Good. Good.

And I think the other thing is, we spend so much time on the pre- game analysis, looking at every detail, every poll for months. Then the election comes, the actual day occurs, and then we spend comparatively little time actually going through the exit polls, really analyzing what it means. And that distorts the coverage a bit as well, it seems to me.

KURTZ: All right.

Jim Geraghty, with all the talk about anger this year, do you see a more downbeat attitude in the media toward this Republican surge, as contrasted, for example, with 2006, when the Democrats, everyone knew, were going to have a big year?

JIM GERAGHTY, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Absolutely. The metaphor that you're using of earthquake, tsunami, it's all being treated a natural disaster.

If you're a Democrat, maybe it does feel like a natural disaster. But in 2006, there seemed to be this sense of restoring balance, a sense of, finally, Republican rule was coming to an end.

I don't think there's any disputing the sense that there's a great deal of enthusiasm for covering the midterms in 2006. A lot of places this year feel like they are going through the motions and really aren't that enthused about the story as we see it.

KURTZ: Although it is a great story.

GERAGHTY: I think it's great.

KURTZ: Go ahead, John.

AVLON: I mean, Jim makes a great point about the natural disaster metaphors, and that's something that folks should keep an eye on. But I think there's been a huge amount of interest and fascination with this election cycle. This is a remarkable moment in American democracy. This is going to be a historic mentor (ph).

KURTZ: Right. But John, I think Jim's point is that journalists seem to be enjoying the tsunami of 2006, when the Democrats kicked the Republicans out of control on Capitol Hill, and maybe a little less so this time around.

AVLON: Look, if the partisan journalists project their politics onto it, maybe so. But we should be celebrating sort of just the action of democracy every election. And I think that while there is some unconscious bias that comes up in language that it is environmental disasters, I think there's been a huge amount of enthusiasm in covering the excitement and intensity surrounding this race.

KURTZ: Julie Mason, the media -- let's look at the whole year. The media were slow on the Tea Party. That actually stretches to last year.

MASON: Right.

KURTZ: They were wrong about Scott Brown's election. They were wrong about Lisa Murkowski. I don't have time to list all the other ones where we've been caught flatfooted.

Why should anyone believe now that they have a handle on what is happening in this election?

MASON: Well, because now we have some polls. The thing is, Howie --

KURTZ: But the polls are often wrong.

MASON: I know. They are often wrong. But when you see a bunch of polls and a bunch of trend lines going one way, then you can put a little more credibility to it.

The thing is, most journalists aren't in touch with normal people. We don't know what's going on out there. That's why we love things like the Tea Party movement, because it represents a grassroots thing that sort of reflects how normal people are feeling.

KURTZ: Well, why are they not in touch with normal people? Is it because they live in a bubble in places like Washington and New York?

MASON: Definitely.

KURTZ: Any is there any way around that?

MASON: Extensive polling.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZ: Extensive polling. Well, you know, I mean, I love polls as much as the next person.

MASON: Well, we try to get out there as much as we can. There's just not that much money to --

KURTZ: Martha Coakley had a 15-point lead a few days before she lost badly to Scott Brown in Massachusetts. So that's why polls are dangerous.

John Avlon, do you see the media as being more focused on how President Obama screwed up -- I mean, after all, he came in on a great wave of hope and change two years ago -- and not pressing Republicans on the specifics of what they would do if they take over one or more houses of Congress?

AVLON: I think that there has been a reluctance on the part of both the media and the Republicans to really get in touch with specifics because people feel that if they get in touch with specifics, and start detailing budget cuts, that they might alienate voters. And that could hurt their wave election.

I don't think there's been a lot of really serious analysis of what went wrong for the Democrats, why President Obama has failed to convert that energy and optimism to successes. And we're having a sort of insane debate in the country where the far right thinks President Obama is a socialist, the far left thinks he's a corporate Wall Street sellout. Those ideas are completely incompatible, and yet those seem to be the dominating narratives on either side of the debate.

KURTZ: They may or may not be serious analysis. Certainly, there's been a lot of psychoanalysis of the president's leadership abilities.

Let me turn back to you, Jim Geraghty.

Are you surprised that the media, by and large, are letting the Republicans run as the "Party of No," "Party of No" in the sense that they opposed the Obama agenda, they want to roll back big pieces of the Obama agenda, but not as much when it comes to details of exactly where they're going to cut the government?

GERAGHTY: Two points. The first is actually repealing something like health care, that would actually be a massive legislative endeavor that may or may not occur in the next two years. And first of all, in and of itself, that is a large piece of work to -- and perhaps not an achievable piece of work.

But the second thing is, if the country doesn't like what's going on, if they're frustrated with the economy, they didn't like health care, they had it rammed down their throats, the housing market is still bad, on issue after issue, no is an improvement. No is simply, you know, I don't like what you're he serving me, and I say no, and you take it away, well, I don't have food that I like, but at the very least, the bad food has gone away.

KURTZ: Well, that might be the case from a political point of view. From a journalistic point of view, I think reporters need to press people on both sides about just what they would do. And of course politicians are very skilled at evading those questions.

Let me get a break.

Up next, from a BlackBerry message handed to one candidate during a debate, to an article about another candidate's alleged one-night stand, why are the media so focused on the sideshow?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Christine O'Donnell's Delaware Senate campaign made news again this week. It happened after a radio interview she did with a Delaware station. Let's take a look at this and look at what she does when she doesn't like the questions. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But there's still more money to cut. And how would you make us actually economically feasible in 2014? What?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Somebody got a little shove there. O'Donnell's campaign manager threatening to sue the station, WDEL, threatening to crush the station if it didn't destroy a videotape of that interview.

And John Avlon, what does that tell us about O'Donnell's attitude toward the media?

AVLON: I mean, there's a remarkable thing happening this year where candidates are getting frustrated that they are being asked questions from the media. So, they are saying, listen, I'm not going to talk until after the election.

This is part of democracy, folks. If you run for office, you're obligated to take questions and give details about the plans you want to put forward. That's how people decide.

I think a lot of what's preoccupied these elections have been distractions. But when you have moments that actually reveal a candidate's character, like slapping an aide, or knocking an aide, or Alex Sink's BlackBerry moment, I think those are legitimate because they give us insight into the character.

KURTZ: We're going to get to some of those other moments. But O'Donnell said she wasn't going to do anymore national media unless she went back on "Hannity" this week. Sharron Angle said, sure, I'll talk to the press after I'm elected.

What do you make of this?

GERAGHTY: I want to find out -- I think Ed Perlmutter slapped his opponent, Ryan Frazier, during a debate in one of their appearances. So not only one candidate is getting slaphappy --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: But the attitude toward the media, as you know.

GERAGHTY: Yes. Well, come on, don't we deserve it every now and then?

There's a certain frustration, I'm sure, particularly if you're Christine O'Donnell. I think we know the online story about a purported activity that occurred from a couple of years ago. It was only on the Gawker Web site, but basically it was speculating about bedroom activities.

KURTZ: Well, let's say what it was, because I also want to get Julie in on this. Gawker wan a piece, paid thousands of dollars for an anonymous guy to write about "My night with Christine O'Donnell" three years ago. He spent the night. No sex occurred.

GERAGHTY: Howard, if that story had been run about you, wouldn't you want to slug somebody?

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Slug the editor of Gawker, I would have understood.

Do you think, Julie Mason, that that piece -- and Gawker is a gossipy site and we have fun reading it. But that piece was -- seemed to me to have a point --

MASON: It was totally -- it was completely offensive. And the people who are celebrating the demise of traditional news media, I hope they love that piece on Christine O'Donnell, because they are going to get a lot more of it.

KURTZ: And Gawker's editor defends it by saying it shows she's not the kind of chaste woman that she's running as.

MASON: Well, you know, there's other ways to substantiate that without an anonymous first-person piece about her sex life. That is just disgusting.

GERAGHTY: Howard, when we're covering the Tea Party, and we're covering this cycle, it's a lot of fun to cover Christine O'Donnell. It's a lot of fun to cover Carl Paladino, who threatened to beat people up with a baseball bat. These guys are both down 20 percentage points.

KURTZ: Right. They give them way too much coverage. Way, way, way too much coverage.

GERAGHTY: We know nothing about Ron Johnson, who's probably going to beat Russ Feingold on Tuesday. We don't know about the candidates who are actually going to make a difference in Washington in the near future. We hear about these --

KURTZ: Well, one of them may well be Rand Paul, who is doing well in his Kentucky Senate race. And here is a bit of videotape that got a lot of attention when one of -- a person who was protesting Rand Paul essentially got beat up.

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get the police. Get the police. Get the police.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no, no, no, no. Come on.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Now, Julie Mason, that's newsworthy.

MASON: It is.

KURTZ: But it got played so many times, I don't know what went on in the debate between Rand Paul and Jack Conway. I only know about this woman that got her head stomped on.

MASON: Yes. That was a terrible story.

There were stories about the debate. I mean, you can find them. It's just this incident overshadowed everything else that happened, and we've seen that a lot this season.

KURTZ: In this same realm, we have this incident with Alex Sink. She's running for governor in Florida. And during a debate -- we can take a look at it while I'm talking -- an aide came up and handed her a BlackBerry with some kind of message on it.

That was a violation of the rules. But again, how many stories did you see about what was said in the debate?

It seems to me there are so many candidates, John Avlon, this year, that it's hard for the media to focus on all of them, so we gravitate toward these little incidents that make for good TV fodder.

AVLON: Sure. And it reflects, I think, the conflict bias in the media. Especially today.

You've got so many great races going on, but we cover the car crashes. We cover the scandals. We cover bright, shiny objects.

And in some cases, they are worthwhile because they reveal something about a character. It's an unscripted moment, so therefore it's newsworthy. But in too many cases, we ignore the civil substantive debates that are happening all over the country, and we end up I think diminishing our democracy by proxy.

KURTZ: Well, here's a moment that was less than civil, coming back to the Sharron Angle race. She, of course, taking on Harry Reid in Nevada. And Joy Behar of HLN, had something to say to and about Ms. Angle.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOY BEHAR, CO-HOST, "THE VIEW": I'd like to see her do this ad in the south Bronx.

Come here, bitch. Come to New York and do it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm praying for you.

BEHAR: I'm praying for her.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm praying for everybody.

BEHAR: She's going to hell.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I'm praying that her heart gets changed.

BEHAR: She's going to hell, this bitch.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Jim Geraghty, she's a comedian. I happen to like her. Does that kind of language bother you?

GERAGHTY: Has anyone ever been worse named when she was named "Joy"? And it doesn't -- does it bother me? Look, the Angle campaign managed to raise $150,000 from that -- by promoting that particular rant.

KURTZ: So now she's running against Joy Behar?

GERAGHTY: Well, no. The folks are going up against me. They sent her flowers. And then Joy Behar, upon hearing that they have sent her flowers, and saying, "Dear Joy, thank you for all the help, love, Sharon." went out and did another rant.

And I don't know what the fund-raising total for the Angle campaign was for that day, but in other words, even knowing that denouncing her and calling her the B-word, and all that kind of stuff, even knowing that that hurt the candidate she likes and helps the candidate she doesn't like, Joy Behar has so little self-control that she has to go out and do it all over again.

KURTZ: John Avlon, Behar eventually apologized, but we make a lot about excessive rhetoric in politics. For example, Joe Wilson, the congressman who shouted "You lie!" at President Obama. I wonder if liberal comedians like Joy Behar get off a little easy in the media. You wrote a book called "Wingnuts."

AVLON: Yes. No, and part of the point of the book was is about the interplay between the extremes and the way they end up encouraging each other, and the rise of the politics of incitement.

I do think that if a conservative talk show host had called a Democratic candidate a B-word and compared their ad to Hitler youth, you would have seen a whole different level of outcry. And what's interesting to me here is that Sharron Angle fundraised off it.

It is an example that each side uses the extremes on the other fundraise, to incite their own base. And it's this interplay between the extremes that's deeply destructive.

KURTZ: All right. Well, I'm not going to call any of you any bad names because I want to avoid the very kind of behavior we're talking about here.

Julie Mason, Jim Geraghty, John Avlon, thanks very much for joining us this morning. After the break, a former president weighs in, Jimmy Carter, on whether the press is treating President Obama the way it treated him 30 years ago.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: President Obama is down in the polls. And when your numbers drop, the media tend to describe you in more unflattering terms.

Jimmy Carter is another Democratic president intimately familiar with that pattern. I sat down with him to talk about his new books, "White House Diary," and will bring you the rest of the interview on a future program.

But with the midterms just two days away, here is part of my conversation with the former president, who was in Seattle.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Let's talk a little bit about the current political situation, Mr. President.

Barack Obama, in 2008, got the most glowing media coverage that I've seen any candidate get in my professional lifetime. Lately, to state the obvious, he's had a tougher time.

Do you think the press is starting to treat President Obama, to some extent, the way it treated you?

JAMES CARTER, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, nowadays, we have the cable news services. And we didn't have them when I was president. In fact, CNN was formed in 1980, my last year in the White House.

KURTZ: Right.

CARTER: And now, with the discussion groups, for instance, on Fox News, that are totally biased, and they implant completely false images not only of the facts about legislation that's past, or doesn't get past, but also about the character of President Obama. And they have been successful in projecting him as a person who is not a citizen of America, who is not a Christian, but a Muslim, and is not a Democrat, but he's a socialist, and so forth.

And those seeds that are planted every day that they broadcast by the discussion, in the discussion groups, have found a harvest place in the minds of a lot of Americans. So I think they have completely twisted around what he has done, what he has accomplished, and his own personal character to his detriment. It's a small portion of the total news media.

KURTZ: Right. I haven't heard anybody who works for Fox News saying the president is a Muslim. Certainly the "socialist" word has been tossed around. But it's funny, because you write about Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, in your book. At that time, as today, he owned "The New York Post." And you were going to have lunch with him, and you said, "Potentially, he's a great ally or a great knife in the back."

So do you think that Fox, by employing Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, all of whom may run for president next time around, is having an impact on the current political situation?

CARTER: I don't know. I think they're still trying to control it, the next time they have a Republican president, because almost all of those who are not holding public office are now employed by, on the payroll of, Fox News. And I think this is something that's unprecedented, so far as I know, in American political history.

KURTZ: Right.

Journalists, it seems to me, have been struggling since last year to understand the Tea Party movement, what they stand for, who's involved. Of course, it's not an organized party, it's a movement.

Do you think the Tea Party has gotten enough media scrutiny?

CARTER: Well, I don't have any criticism of the members of the Tea Party. I know them, and a lot of those same people 38 years ago were the ones that put me in the White House, the ones that were dissatisfied with what was going on in government.

But I think that this Tea Party doesn't realize that they are financed by oligarchs and the oil industry, primarily, the Koch brothers and others, to want to avoid any sort of regulation of what they do, and also want to avoid compliance with improving environmental laws and so forth. So they've been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the political system in the last few months, particularly pre -- after the -- what I call a stupid Supreme Court ruling last January that said that corporations could give an unlimited amount of money to political campaigns and remain -- the donors could remain completely secret and not identifiable. So that has really greatly distorted the American political system in a deleterious way.

KURTZ: Interesting that you see yourself as being the beneficiary of the equivalent of Tea Party sentiment in 1976.

You know, we've been hearing all year -- you turn on any television station, you pick up the newspaper -- that there's a Republican tidal wave coming. Does that reflect, you know, journalists' best estimate of reality, or do you think all of the coverage that says this is going to be a big year for the GOP actually changes the playing field?

CARTER: You know, I don't know what the headlines are going to be the day after the election. I don't think there's much doubt because of public opinion polls that Republicans are going to take over control of the House of Representatives. That's almost a foregone conclusion. I hope they won't get Senate as well, and I don't think they will. But this, I think, may have some benefits in the long term.

First of all, the Republicans will now have a role in government, identifiable as one of responsibility. That is, controlling an entire body of Congress, and whereas they have been almost completely irresponsible the first months of President Obama's term in office.

Secondly, I think it will give President Obama a lot better playing field. Now he'll be able to put forward his well-advised proposals, the Senate might very well pass them, being Democratically- controlled, I hope. The Republicans will vote it down, perhaps, and then he can go to the public and say, this is what I proposed, the Republicans have blocked it, and then let the American people make a judgment between his proposals and the Republicans'.

That's been almost absent in this first 18 or 20 months. And I think it's going to be maybe a better political environment in the next two years.

KURTZ: Obviously, that situation worked well for Bill Clinton in 1995 and '96.

President Jimmy Carter, thanks very much for joining us.

CARTER: I've enjoyed being with you. Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Again, more of Jimmy Carter talking about the media on a future program.

Still to come, Chris Cuomo gets result with an auto safety investigation, a Las Vegas publisher praises Sharron Angle for avoiding the press, and a magazine editor apologizes for this cover story.

The "Media Monitor" is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Here's what I liked.

Old-fashioned consumer reporting has fallen a bit out of fashion in network television, but ABC's Chris Cuomo seems to be trying to bring it back. The "20/20" anchor, acting on a tip he got from a woman he bumped into, launched an investigation into hundreds of complaints about a car whose name is synonymous with luxury, but which some drivers say is subject to abrupt slowdowns.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS CUOMO, ABC (voice-over): Michael Noon (ph) says the BMW he bought for his 25-year-old daughter Jennifer (ph) put her at risk.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One time it was really shaking so bad and hesitating, and I thought it was going to blow up or something.

KURTZ (voice-over): Cuomo confronted a top BMW executive.

CUOMO (on camera): What do you say to those people who say there's nothing safe about this, I thought I was going to die, I thought my daughter might die, this is an unsafe car?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it's unfortunate that the failure of the pump caused that feeling, and we certainly can sympathize with that. People have different expectations.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: But the company finally kicked its response into high gear. BMW this week recalled 130,000 cars over potential fuel pump problems and acknowledged this was in response to Cuomo's investigation.

Here's what I didn't like.

Last week we talked about the publisher of "The Las Vegas Sun" rooting for Harry Reid as the paper changed some headlines to make them more negative toward his challenger, Sharron Angle. This week, it was Sherman Frederick, publisher of "The Las Vegas Review-Journal," who seemed swept away by his pro-Angle boosterism.

He blogged that "The Reid camp is goading the compliant Nevada press into hounding Sharron Angle in the final week of the election. She outsmarted them with a decoy."

Yes, the publisher of a newspaper think it's a dandy idea for a candidate to duck reporters, the kind of reporters that Frederick employs by tricking them. Gee, whose side is he on?

And "Shape" magazine has a cover story this month on actress LeAnn Rimes, who talks about cheating on her ex-husband with her new boyfriend, Eddie Cibrian, who was also married at the time. Well, that's Hollywood, right?

But some readers hammered the magazine, and that prompted editor Valerie Latona to apologize. "'Shape,'" she wrote, "has made a terrible mistake in putting LeAnn Rimes on the cover. Please know that our putting her on the cover was not meant to put a husband- stealer on a pedestal, but to show (through her story) how we are all human."

Well, at least she apologized and -- hold on. Latona later told "USA Today" that she stands by publishing LeAnn Rimes' story of courage and strength, and that "My comments have been taken out of context."

Out of context? The words are from your own e-mail. Pretty lame. Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

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

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