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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

A Wild Ride for the Media; Journalists Face Dangerous World; Chasing the Buzz; 2011's Top RELIABLE Interviews

Aired December 25, 2011 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: It's been a dizzying year for those of us in the news business as we've lurched from one scandal to another, one hot presidential candidate to another, one foreign revolution to another.

Think about it -- Anthony Weiner, DSK, Herman Cain, Jerry Sandusky. The campaign -- Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich. The world stage -- turmoil in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, in Syria.

We'll examine whether the media's coverage of these fast-moving events has been serious, sensational, or superficial, a year-end report card of sorts.

Plus, a conversation with Ben Smith, who's leaving "Politico" for a site called BuzzFeed. What is that exactly?

And a look back at our most provocative interviews of 2011.

I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is the Christmas Day edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

(MUSIC)

KURTZ: It's been a better year for scandal. Some serious, some sleazy, some superficial, all eagerly devoured by the media.

Perhaps the most chilling of these stories came from the world of sports. First at Penn State, then at Syracuse University with popular coaches accused of horrendous acts.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JERRY SANDUSKY, FORMER PENN STATE ASSISTANT COACH: In retrospect, I -- you know, I shouldn't have showered with these kids. So --

BOB COSTAS, NBC NEWS: That's it?

SANDUSKY: Yes, I mean, that's what hits me the most.

COSTAS: Are you a pedophile?

SANDUSKY: No. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Another major scandal involved a global media corporation, the one run by Rupert Murdoch, with a slew of top executives arrested in a massive phone-hacking operation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you close the paper down because of the criminality?

RUPERT MURDOCH, CEO, NEWS CORPORATION: Yes, we felt ashamed at what had happened and wanted to bring it to a close.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And there were the inevitable political sex scandals. One topping a congressman, another exposing the dark side of a French politician, still another forcing a candidate out of the presidential race.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS: Is there a picture out there of you in your drawers that you are worried about?

NANCY CORDES, CBS NEWS: I think any normal person could say with certainty whether a picture was a photo of them or not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not a picture of you?

ANTHONY WEINER (D), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: You know, I can't say with certitude. My system was hacked. Pictures can be manipulated. Pictures can be dropped in and inserted.

ROBIN ROBERTS, ABC NEWS: Strauss-Kahn, who strongly denies all charges, pleaded not guilty and was released from house arrest.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do you want?

NAFISSATOU DIALLO, DOMINIQUE STRAUSS-KAHN ACCUSER: I want justice. I want him to go to jail. I want him to know you cannot use your power when you do something like this.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: When you say friend, was it -- I mean, I'm asking -- these are awkward questions, but I'll ask the questions you're going to be asked -- was this an affair?

HERMAN CAIN (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, it was not.

BLITZER: There was no sex?

CAIN: No.

BLITZER: None?

CAIN: No.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Joining us now to examine the media's behavior in 2012, starting with the seemingly nonstop scandals: Jamie McIntyre, newscaster at NPR and a former CNN senior Pentagon correspondent; Lauren Ashburn, former managing editor of "USA Today" and a contributor to the "Huffington Post"; and Fred Francis, former NBC correspondent who now consults with clients dealing with the media in times of crisis.

Lauren Ashburn, we just -- as we just saw, we had Dominic Strauss-Kahn accused of groping a maid. We had Herman Cain accused of harassment and groping. Anthony Weiner, accused of sending pictures of his private parts out of his Twitter.

Why did these stories have so much resonance in the media?

LAUREN ASHBURN, HUFFINGTON POST: I think it's like watching a train wreck. We were all here as we are listening to the tape shaking our heads saying, how can these people just go out and deny and deny and deny?

But, you know, it's the entertainment value of it. I've always said it's the peoplization of the media. We all love to see people fail.

KURTZ: Which is not to say these aren't serious allegations that should be covered.

ASHBURN: No, no, not at all. Not at all. I'm not saying that.

I'm just telling you why the media covers what's going to get ratings, what's going to have interest, and these kind of stories have a lot of interest.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, NPR: There's also a loss of privacy that's been experienced with the explosion of all kinds of new media and new ways to get information out. It's just simply not possible to keep things secret and to cover up things that in the past you could.

KURTZ: But take the lens on our coverage. Is it the sheer titillation of famous people plus sexual misconduct equals circulation and ratings? Or is there some lasting meaning to these stories?

MCINTYRE: Well, these stories that you highlighted are all important people in positions. These are not frivolous stories, nor are they frivolous charges. So you can have fairly high-brow coverage of even low-brow stories.

KURTZ: And, Fred Francis, a lot of it, as Lauren pointed out, revolves around lying. People saying they didn't do it. Dominic Strauss-Kahn said this was consensual sex. Herman Cain said it was character assassination, none of these women were telling the truth. And so then the media turned it into a kind of a character test for these public figures. FRED FRANCIS, FOUNDER, 15-SECONDS.COM: In each of these cases and so many others, it's an example of the arrogance and ego when people get to the power they are. It's the demonstration of their arrogance --

KURTZ: But it doesn't mean that we have to go wall to wall with it. I want to get to --

FRANCIS: No, you have to --

ASHBURN: I think you're wrong.

KURTZ: Why am I wrong?

ASHBURN: I think you're wrong. Right -- well, Fred was going to agree because in the case of Herman Cain, it's a presidential candidate. In the case of Sandusky, I mean, this is a guy who was, you know, one of the legends at Penn State.

I mean, wall to wall is not I think appropriate, but I think a serious discussion and a lot of time spent on figuring this out is important.

FRANCIS: The Strauss-Kahn case is compelling, the narrative was that he was a letch, OK? And the media latched on to it on that, yet failed to think about Ms. Diallo having her own problems. So, face with --

KURTZ: It was something of a rush to judgment. Everybody treated the guy like he was guilty.

FRANCIS: It was a rush to judgment.

KURTZ: She had -- and to clarify, she had credibility problems. She had lied to investigators.

ASHBURN: But so did a lot of the women who said they were sexually harassed or the woman who came out and said she had an affair with Herman Cain.

MCINTYRE: To your point about whether the level of coverage, the amount of coverage is over the top, I think that's also a function of how the media has changed. All news cable outlets like CNN and others don't have to be the newscast of record of every important thing that happened today. They can and often do just focus on a couple of trending stories and smother those stories with coverage.

And I think with all the places you can get news these days, that's not entirely indefensible.

FRANCIS: Let me make the point about Anthony Weiner. He was given multiple opportunities to come clean. We teach our clients at 15 Seconds --

KURTZ: He went on 27 shows and said he didn't do, it then he said in a press conference, yes -- (CROSSTALK)

ASHBURN: Think about the New Year, that we don't have to hear Anthony Weiner joke.

FRANCIS: And there were some going ones. You know, we teach our clients in 15 Seconds to tell the truth, because even if it's a bad news story, the truth is only going to be a couple of days story, maybe a week. If you lie, it stretches it out to three weeks.

ASHBURN: That's --

FRANCIS: And that's the train wreck you were talking about of --

ASHBURN: You just go -- people who are watching, you have a gut feeling about something. You can look into somebody's eyes, all the body language stuff that people tell you about. You can look into their eyes and say, hmm, he's looking down, I don't believe this --

FRANCIS: In the Anthony Weiner case, you don't have to look at his eyes, there were pictures --

ASHBURN: Oh, geez.

KURTZ: You said the last joke of the year.

FRANCIS: I'm sorry.

KURTZ: A very different tone as you started to allude to, to the case of Bernie Fine at Syracuse and Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, because now you have children involved. And now, it's just -- you know, let's face it, in a presidential campaign, these kinds of allegations come up, some people have fun with. These were not fun.

ASHBURN: They were sickening.

FRANCIS: It's a sad state of affairs -- it's a sad state of affairs when children needs parental guidance to look at the sports pages or watch a newscast.

ASHBURN: Well, that was Tiger Woods, too. I mean, we went wall to wall with that.

FRANCIS: Indeed. And the dart here goes to ESPN which had an audiotape of the Syracuse, the wife of the Syracuse coach for over a year --

KURTZ: No, eight years --

FRANCIS: Eight years. I'm sorry.

KURTZ: On ESPN, the top executive came on this program and said, "We didn't have enough. We didn't have a corroborating source." These are tough calls.

FRANCIS: If that audiotape had been of Herman Cain, it would have been on CNN that day.

MCINTYRE: Another phenomenon with that story was the fact that even though the allegations were very credible and the story was serious, we sought initially a sort of backlash against the media. Many people in the Penn State community in particular felt the media was overplaying the story and going overboard, we even saw the demonstrations from people.

ASHBURN: But that was until Jerry Sandusky went on national television and you heard that clip. I mean, you're in the P.R. business now. Can you imagine, why would anybody allow him to do that?

FRANCIS: It's not just that as a lawyer allowed him to go television. It's that his lawyer has been trying to drum up this media support. He's been trying to sell his story, and as if he were not an unsympathetic character as it is --

(CROSSTALK)

ASHBURN: "The New York Times."

KURTZ: Selling it to "The New York Times."

ASHBURN: Sell it -- it went on.

KURTZ: In my view, the local press as is often the case in college towns, builds up those coaches -- Joe Paterno who did nothing when he heard about the allegations, turned them into demagogues.

ASHBURN: But you also have to say, the Harrisburg reporter broke the story and that was a local reporter. Harrisburg is very close to Penn State. She's the one who came out and said, hey, this is going on, I'm publishing it.

KURTZ: She was on this program, she did a great job. She's in her early 20s. And "The Harrisburg Patriot News" deserves a lot of credit.

I want to finally turn to the Murdoch phone hacking scandal. "News of the World" got shot down. For all the revelations and all the people whose phones were hacked into, not just celebrities and royals, by the way -- how much did this tarnish or not tarnish Murdoch and the News Corp?

MCINTYRE: Well, if you had followed the case and seen some of the tactics employed by the British press to get information -- some of it is just shocking -- you know, I've always been a critic of what's going on in the American press. And it -- but it always compares favorably to what's going on in Britain.

KURTZ: Right.

MCINTYRE: And these hearings have laid bare a lot of that process. KURTZ: And, Fred, CNN's Piers Morgan, who was the editor of "The Daily Mirror," testified this week in that British parliamentary inquiry, he was asked about some quotes that had been attributed to him a few years back. A very widespread practice, he said, of the phone hacking. Loads of newspaper journalists were doing it. Now, he says now, I was just repeating the Fleet Street rumor mill.

FRANCIS: He wasn't exactly doing it. Piers Morgan of CNN actually took the equivalent of the Fifth when he wouldn't talk about how he learned that Sir Paul McCartney was talking to his ex-wife, how he learned of that transcript of that phone message. He refused to answer that question. And I think he has to come clean.

KURTZ: He said he was protecting his source.

FRANCIS: Yes --

KURTZ: But he didn't take the Fifth in denying that he had firsthand knowledge of phone hacking. Was that proven -- parliamentary inquiry, did it prove that he did?

FRANCIS: The fact is that so many reporters from those papers, the two papers, "The News of the World" and "The Daily Mirror," of which he was an editor, both papers, reporters from both those papers say that Piers Morgan knew this was going on.

KURTZ: They said they believed he knew. And I just want to make that distinction.

Before we go, Lauren Ashburn, is there any lesson here -- you know, it's easy to be snooty from our side of the Atlantic, say those British tabloids.

ASHBURN: Right.

KURTZ: But a lot of American organizations do questionable things. Is there any lesson here from the revolting behavior that some of these people pulled off --

ASHBURN: Oh, sure. I mean -- but I think we've talked about this a lot. You've had Chris Cuomo (ph) on the program who has talked about how, you know, it seems as if by paying licenses fees that we're actually offering people money to appear on television. And that is a slippery slope.

KURTZ: NBC has now stopped doing that, to its credit.

FRANCIS: We have all done it over the years. I have done it at NBC. Other reporters have done it.

You buy documents. You pay for video --

KURTZ: Photographs. Family souvenirs. All right.

FRANCIS: Photographs.

ASHBURN: But it's still pay for play.

KURTZ: Glad to have that confession from Fred Francis.

When we come back, presidential campaign in which the media seemed to give each candidate 15 minutes of fame. A look at the 2012 coverage in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: The presidential campaign has been a rollercoaster ride for the press with one Republican front-runner after the other, one strange scenario after another, one media obsession after another.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

DONALD TRUMP, CEO, TRUMP ORGANIZATION: He doesn't have a birth certificate or hasn't shown it. He has what's called a certificate of live birth. That is something that's easy to get.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS: Michele Bachmann won. That certainly cements her position as a serious player in this race.

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: Michele Bachmann is in sync with a lot of the mood of the primary voter on the Republican side right now.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would do away with the Education, the -- Commerce. And let's see --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my.

PERRY: I can't, the third one I can't. Sorry. Oops.

CAIN: The pundits would like for me to shut up, drop out, and go away.

MARTIN BASHIR, MSNBC: If anyone's dirty, it's Newt Gingrich, a man whose personal morality has been drawn from the sewer, a man who pontificates about his Catholic faith and morality but repeatedly commits adultery.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Jamie McIntyre, are you -- we'll take a second to recoil from that. You could say it's been a wild and crazy campaign, and it has. But -- or you could say journalists have ADD and just keep fleeting from one trivial story to the next.

MCINTYRE: Or voters have ADD or the Republican candidates --

KURTZ: You can't blame the voters. They haven't even voted yet. There hasn't been a single vote.

MCINTYRE: The polls, I guess.

KURTZ: OK. MCINTYRE: It's been an extremely fascinating phenomenon to watch the coverage of the Republican presidential candidates as they go -- as we lurch from one to the other. I'm not sure what lesson you can draw from that except -- go ahead.

FRANCIS: The media have the vested interest in quirky candidates.

ASHBURN: Of course.

FRANCIS: And because of that, they get a disproportionate amount of the coverage.

ASHBURN: How many people were --

FRANCIS: And when the coverage gets focused really drilled down on him, Cain, others, they fade away --

ASHBURN: But how come people were so sad that Cain left? Because now we're covering health care, right? I mean --

KURTZ: Deal with the issues.

ASHBURN: But you have to actually talk about an issue.

KURTZ: You know, as we have caromed from one candidate and story to the next, I mean, we not only let -- it's funny to watch now, wouldn't let Donald Trump dominate this race. The guy was never going to get into the race for weeks and weeks. But you could say the media let him push the Obama birther issue, that phony issue, into the mainstream coverage.

MCINTYRE: And you could also make the opposite statement that in each of these candidates that sort of flamed out over time, it's because there was intense scrutiny of the things that they said. Whether it was Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan or whether it was his, you know, personal life or whether it was Newt Gingrich and his record and his Congress.

In each case, we've seen them sort of raise to the top. We've seen a lot of tough reporting. And then we've seen the fortunes change --

ASHBURN: I have to agree with you about the voters because I think that among the Republican Party, they're waiting for Ronald Reagan to come in with his lasso and on his horse. And yet they have all of these other people that they're not satisfied with.

Therefore, as you say with the polls, it goes up and down. Forget --

KURTZ: Think about this point, because the polls don't just go up and down by themselves. There is this question -- of course, the debates have been a major feature. But there is this question of media coverage. And if we suddenly drill down, to use your phrase, on Herman Cain's tax plan or Mitt Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts, all of that, why do journalists only do that when somebody is rising in the polls? It almost seems like we can only cover one or two candidates at a time. Everyone else gets a pass. Then that new person rises up and all the investigative reporters get unleashed.

ASHBURN: Take a look at the control room. If you've ever been in the CNN control room, there are 100 monitors everywhere. There's no wonder that reporters have ADD.

I mean, we do focus on one -- OK, we've done that. Now, we go to the next, OK, it's Arab spring. OK, next, we're back to Herman Cain.

It's really difficult to keep all of those balls on the air.

KURTZ: You're buying the short attention span they're?

ASHBURN: Of course, I am.

FRANCIS: It is short attention span, and also -- I mean, the reason we don't give Mitt Romney the coverage is because the complaint against Mitt Romney is that he's boring. Where is it written that a candidate has to be entertaining?

ASHBURN: And it might be actually good for the country.

KURTZ: So are you suggesting that, you know, this is not just about the candidates who rise and then seemingly, inevitable fall in the GOP polls. But remember all the non-candidates. I mean, how many weeks and months that we spend "Sarah Palin might run"?

ASHBURN: Chris Christie --

KURTZ: Chris Christie was going to come in. Mitch Daniels, in fact, Sarah Palin the other day came in and told FOX, you know, it's not too late for someone to get in -- meaning maybe me.

MCINTYRE: The other thing that you see is how often the conventional wisdom is wrong, how often the candidates were written off early on --

KURTZ: Newt Gingrich.

ASHBURN: Right. That's perfect example.

MCINTYRE: -- and then reality sets in and we discover that all of the conventional -- the very appealing narrative that's been pushed along by the media turns out to be flatly not true.

FRANCIS: I give you Ron Paul, OK? If we're talking about a quirky oddball kind of candidate, this man may win Iowa. And he's been ignored except for the last few weeks that he's come up in the polls. He's been all but ignored for the last seven or eight weeks.

KURTZ: This is a fascinating case story because Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review" and many conservative pundits are trying to discredit Ron Paul. They didn't particularly worried about him before because he didn't seem to be going anywhere. He says, well, if Ron Paul wins the Iowa caucuses, no one should take them seriously again.

In other words, will be discounted by those of us in the news, the caucuses would be discounted just because Ron Paul went out, organized, got people excited and managed to win.

FRANCIS: He's wrong for the very reason Jamie just said. That's conventional wisdom. If he wins the Iowa caucus -- you will see Newt Gingrich dropping so far in the polls and Ron Paul will have money pouring in to his campaign like we've never seen --

KURTZ: But this brings us to what we were discussing, and that is the propensity of the press to pile on, many would say, the candidate who seems to be rising at the moment. So, Ron Paul has been out there all year. He was always going to get his share of the vote.

"The New York Times" the other writes a piece saying, you know, he used to put out these crazy newsletters with a lot of really revolting, racist stuff, and he claims it was just published in his names, he didn't see it. That story was written four years ago in 2008.

"The New York Times" was very blunt in saying we're just bringing this to people's attention again. Why not before? Because nobody cared good Ron Paul.

MCINTYRE: Well, you know, it's common sense that you're going to spend more time covering the people who have the chance -- who look like they're going to have a chance to win. I mean, it was a very interesting phenomenon to see the "National Review" dedicate with almost an entire issue to discrediting Newt Gingrich once they saw that he was a real, viable candidate and a possibility to actually get the nomination.

KURTZ: But, Gingrich, unlike Romney, is great copy for the press. And we love to write about his colorful language and his lobbying for Freddie Mac and his three marriages and all of that.

ASHBURN: And his Tiffany's -- don't forget the Tiffany's.

KURTZ: Tiffany's.

ASHBURN: Right.

FRANCIS: When it was starting to pile on for Newt Gingrich, Frank Bruni of "The New York Times" wrote this piece last week that was the most scathing, ticking off this sort of messianic complex that Newt Gingrich had. More and more people will talk about how Newt Gingrich compares himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lincoln and Jefferson.

ASHBURN: But I don't think that all of this matters, though, to the general voter. KURTZ: That is a very good point because, I think, have been befuddled this year, we in the establishment press. As we have said, you know, Michele Bachmann can't win, and Newt Gingrich, you know, was -- you know, was kind of run out of town when he was House speaker in the 1990s by his own people.

A lot of voters in places like Iowa and New Hampshire and elsewhere, they not only want to make up their own minds and not have us tell them who's viable and who's not, but for many Republicans, it is actually -- you know, the fact that the media are ganging up on somebody in their view is a plus because they don't like the media.

ASHBURN: Look at the way newt attacked -- was it --

KURTZ: Chris Wallace.

ASHBURN: Chris Wallace, right, at the debate. And everybody started cheering.

KURTZ: Mickey Mouse questions.

ASHBURN: That's right, because people -- there is that antipathy. We're down there with lawyers now.

MCINTYRE: You know, journalism has been famously been called the first rough draft of history. And what we've been seeing a lot of times is those rough drafts are getting rougher as time gone on. But they're also revised more often and quicker in this information age. And I want to --

KURTZ: I want to -- you all have given me different pieces of the puzzle here that amounts to what I think is a pretty scathing indictment. You've said we kind of flip from story to story. You said we're bored by something like Romney. You said we'd rather cover the birther issue than dig into the intricacies of health care.

None of that makes the press look terribly good.

FRANCIS: Yes, but none of those sell papers or get people to watch television.

KURTZ: So, what is our goal here? Is it to just sell paper?

FRANCIS: I'm saying that the factor is going after the quirky candidates and the candidate of the moment or of the week is the fact that that's the most interesting story.

ASHBURN: Let's step back. Let's step back and take a look at this. By shedding the light on all of these people, no matter that we're doing it one teamwork, three, two, one, according to polls --

KURTZ: In chaotic fashion, yes.

ASHBURN: In chaotic fashion, or you know, just by focusing one, if they're up in the polls or not up in the polls. I think if you look at our country as opposed to any other country, we are vetting these people in a way that is important to the decision-making practice. We're doing it, right?

(CROSSTALK)

MCINTYRE: It reminds me of what Churchill supposedly said about democracy, which it was the worst form of government except for every other government. This is the worst kind of journalism we've ever experienced except for the alternative.

KURTZ: Well, I think you're all being a little bit too polite. I mean, yes, we're vetting the people -- yes, the press plays a vital role in digging out information and contradictions in the careers of these candidates, for voters to decide upon. But the way in which we've done it, with the emphasis on entertainment values that you all acknowledged here and the emphasis of going from one to the other, it's been a terrible year for the press. Conventional wisdom is often been wrong. But we can come back next week and decide we were wrong on this.

ASHBURN: And we'll see it again next year.

KURTZ: Yes.

Up next, a year of turmoil and triumph of what became known as the Arab Spring -- a challenging and often dangerous story for journalists. More on that in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It started in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt and Libya and Syria. News organizations were faced with stories of stunning proportions as protesters challenged and, in several cases, toppled autocratic regimes.

But it was dangerous duty for journalists in the line of fire, especially, as it turned out, for female correspondents.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

KATIE COURIC, FORMER CBS ANCHOR: Lara was covering the celebrations in Cairo last Friday when she was surrounded by a mob, sexually assaulted, and beaten.

LARA LOGAN, CBS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It's like suddenly before I know what's happening, I feel hands grabbing my breasts, grabbing my crotch, grabbing me from behind. I mean, it -- and it's not one person and then it stops. It's like one person and another person and another person.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Lauren Ashburn, we know that covering these Middle East uprisings is a dangerous business. But after what happened to Lara Logan, who thankfully was all right, there was an outpouring from female journalists who said, yes, the same thing happened to me, the same thing happened to me, but they hadn't talked about it. ASHBURN: Well, I think that it's the third rail if you're an attractive female who is in broadcast journalism. You don't want people to be saying to you, well, the only reason, you know, she got her job is because she's good-looking and -- well, if she's good- looking she should expect it. And so, you just keep your mouth shut, you know, and you don't bring the --

KURTZ: Is that a good course of action?

ASHBURN: Well, no. Of course, it's not a good course of action. I mean, I was sitting here on your show talking about sexual harassment, how prevalent that is in the workplace.

And the Herman Cain issue brought that up. But no one wants to talk about it or will talk about it for, you know, 60 seconds, and then again, we're moving on.

FRANCIS: Lauren's right. They don't talk about it, but let me just tell you what they do about it now, and not just since what happened to Lara Logan.

What they've been doing is hiring locals -- I'll give the example of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Herringer(ph), the NBC producer who covers the Middle East for Richard Engel and his senior producer.

She circles herself with hired four or five men -- big men that you hire, and who speak Arabic so they can hear what the crowd saying and take her out of there as soon as they hear the crowd talking about this woman.

KURTZ: By the way, I didn't mean the same thing happened to the extent that Lara Logan was assaulted. But being groped, harassed, kidnapped --

FRANCIS: Happens to everyone. Happens to everyone.

KURTZ: Right.

ASHBURN: Well, sure. But it's also -- if you look at it, it's Egypt. I mean, there is state-sanctioned violence against women, rape and torture. And so it is a culture and an atmosphere.

But I also think we have to be careful not to say that it doesn't happen everywhere and that we don't just, you know, say it -- it's only in Arab countries.

FRANCIS: In a mob, it happens everywhere, whether it's Latin America or it's in Tehran.

KURTZ: And regard of gender, Jamie McIntyre, you've been in war zones. You know, there's the danger of war, but you could be embedded, for example, with the U.S. Military in Afghanistan or Egypt.

Sometimes with protesters, with mobs, that can get out of control and there can be no defense. MCINTYRE: Yes. There's a natural inclination from reporters sometimes to not make the story about them. And so they want to sort of maybe not share everything that happened to them personally.

KURTZ: They just want to be an observer, is what you're saying?

MCINTYRE: They want to be an observer. They don't want to seem they're becoming part of the story. But the reality is, whether it's Lara Logan or -- a lot of times, they are part of the story.

And their firsthand account of what's going on says something about what's going on. The attack, for instance on, Lara Logan says something about what was going on in the Egyptian society.

FRANCIS: Careers are made -- mine was -- covering wars, and diminished, OK, by the risk you take and the footage you get. And report -- that's in the back of every reporter's mind when they cover these conflicts.

And if courage and bravery were commodities that they could bank, it all of these reporters will be wealthy. But they will never stop covering it because it's dangerous.

ASHBURN: But you know, I think that there are a lot of people who watched the coverage of Lara Logan who also said, "Oh, come on." And the same with Anderson Cooper. Anderson Cooper was attacked --

FRANCIS: Was roughed up --

ASHBURN: Was roughed up --

FRANCIS: Right.

ASHBURN: And so was the Google executive.

KURTZ: So where is the "Oh, come on?"

ASHBURN: But the "Oh, come on" -- you know, why do we have to hear about this? You're out there to do a job. I mean, you can see all over blogs and opinion pages.

FRANCIS: She's lucky she survived.

KURTZ: She's very lucky she's survived.

FRANCIS: She's lucky she survived alive.

KURTZ: A broader question about the Arab spring. With Egypt and Libya and some of these other countries -- my sense is that it was a white-hot story for a while for the American media.

And then once the U.S. citizens are no longer involved, for example, in the aerial attacks in Libya, that the American media kind of lost interest, after Gadhafi was killed.

And yet, of course, there's still tremendously important stories, not just for the region but the world.

MCINTYRE: Well, really, that phenomenon -- I mean, it's undeniable that that's the case, that the interest level of the American media goes down once direct U.S. involvement is diminished.

And we're certainly going to see that in Iraq. Iraq is not going to suddenly become a very peaceful place. There's going to be a lot going on in Iraq. What I predict in the next year, you'll see a lot less coverage of Iraq with the last U.S. troops leaving.

KURTZ: In the next year. This week the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq. You spent time there. That story seemed like an anti- climax. I think the reason for that is because the coverage began to fade seriously a couple of years ago. Was that your sense as well?

MCINTYRE: Again, the extent that American forces are fighting and dying in the country, the U.S. interest is much higher. As that number began to come down and the casualties came down, the interest in the war coverage dropped.

KURTZ: And the media suffered from war fatigue.

FRANCIS: Well, that's true, too. But the biggest story going right now is in Syria and the media can't get in. And I've seen some daring reporters from American journalists and British journalists crossing the border into Syria.

And somebody's going to get killed soon, because it's such a big story in northern Syria that it's drawing -- even though American aren't involved, it's drawing journalists in to get the inside story. That's the biggest story --

(CROSS TALK)

KURTZ: But also just very briefly, Lauren, even when you have access, when it gets complicated, as in Egypt now, with the faction that helped topple Mubarak are fighting among themselves, that's a harder story to tell.

ASHBURN: Yes, but isn't this the year that Osama Bin Laden was killed? Does anybody remember that? I mean, we're not even talking about that at this table.

FRANCIS: Interesting.

ASHBURN: Right? He was killed this year. Talk about short attention spans. And you know, and that wasn't a complicated story. You know, I just think that Egypt doesn't have to be complicated. I think we're bored.

KURTZ: That was a dramatic story and story that got coverage at the time. But you're right, it almost seems like it happened five years ago. Jamie McIntyre, Laura Ashburn, Fred Francis, thanks very much for joining us.

After the break, "Politico" columnist Ben Smith is leaving to re- launch as Web site called "Buzz Feed" which features such videos as pandas love to somersault in the snow. What's up with that? We'll ask him.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: You may not be familiar with the Web site "Buzz Feed," but it's got, shall we say, an eclectic mix of stories such as "Is Selena Gomez Proposing to Justin Bieber," "Dogs in Tiny Sneakers," "The Top 10 Pranks of 2011," and "Naked Female Comediennes, Please Put Your Clothes Back On." Really.

But "Buzz Feed" has been generating a bit of buzz since Ben Smith, a top political columnist and blogger for "Politico" announced that he would take over as editor. Why would he make such a move? I spoke to him from New York.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(on camera) Ben Smith, welcome.

BEN SMITH, EDITOR, "BUZZ FEED": Thanks for having me.

KURTZ: So the last time you were on this program, you were talking about giving away all your news on Twitter and how it was hurting your blog perhaps at "Politico." I'm starting to think you were plotting an exit strategy.

SMITH: No, I absolutely wasn't. I mean, you know, no better place in the galaxy than to be a political reporter than "Politico" and I was having a great time.

But at the same time, I was certainly feeling this -- you know, the fact that I was getting most of my news not from any particular home page but from Twitter, that, you know, lots of my friends who were not so plugged in to politics but are getting their news from Facebook and from other social networks, for sure.

KURTZ: So most people I would dare to say, even in the media, don't exactly know what "Buzz Feed" is. But here are some of the categories on the site -- LOL, win, cute, fail, oh-my-god, geeky, trashy, WTF. Which of those will you be in charge of? Is this a good fit for you, Ben?

SMITH: The site's going change a lot, but what isn't going to change is that, right now, it's kind of the beating viral heart of the Internet.

It's a place where millions of people are going to find stuff to share. And what the folks who are running the site, which is enormously successful already, have found that increasingly people want to share serious reporting, you know, powerful photojournalism, the kind of he stuff that, you know, hard -- the stuff that, you know, we like to do.

And so it's -- it's going to be a matter of kind of melding things together. And I'm sure there will definitely be fails along the way.

KURTZ: Not to mention some OMGs --

SMITH: And possibly LOLs.

KURTZ: But you're obviously very steeped in politics. As I looked at "Buzz Feed," I saw some politics, but I saw a lot of other stuff.

SMITH: Yes. I mean --

KURTZ: How do you make it into a go-to political site for the junkies?

SMITH: I mean, you know, it's going to be -- we're going to do a number of verticals. My job is not to come there and just do politics for sure. But the way you make -- you know, the way you make any site great is by hiring great people.

And so we're going to basically -- in politics as in other areas, we're going to hire some great reporters and turn them loose.

KURTZ: So explain to people who aren't aficionados of this world, you know, a site that's driven by social media, by people sharing things with their friends, the people who follow them, it's very intriguing. But at the same time, it's kind of the tyranny of the majority in the sense that can lead to a lot of silly stuff.

SMITH: You know, I think the news environment is already driven by the social media. And a lot of reporters are already, like myself, certainly very aware of what people are talking about on Twitter and on Facebook.

And they're trying to answer the questions that both insiders who are on the mediums and the general public have about the things. So I don't think there's any more, you know, risk of dumbing down because people like dumb stuff than there is in print newspapers.

I mean, I think it's actually -- it's a great advance from SEO, which was the sort of fad, the trend of the last years where you were really trying to --

KURTZ: SEO -- let me just break in -- SEO, search engine, optimization, which means putting in words and phrases that will cause people who are searching the Internet on Google to find you, and therefore, you get traffic.

SMITH: Really, more specifically, to trick search engines into putting your results at the top. So it's basically writing the dumbest headlines possible so the machines will like them.

Whereas now, I think, you know, we're trying to make great stuff that real people like. And certainly, that includes cat pictures, and I love cat pictures. But it also includes, you know, like really hard, meaningful news. It includes scoops. It includes great explanatory reporting. KURTZ: All right. So here's the headline. Smith says he's not abandoning cat pictures. But is there a democratic element to it in the sense that, do you as the new editor get to decide what goes up at the top of the page?

Or are the most popular things as determined by your readers and followers and friends and enemies going to get the most prominence because they've been shared the most?

SMITH: You know, this is something we're figuring out now. And I will appreciate everybody's advice on it. Right now, for instance, on "Buzz Feed," there's a hot list which shows what the hottest things are on the Internet.

It's incredibly like an eclectic mix of the Russian elections and some crazy video of a guy, you know. So it's -- and I think I like that, like as a consumer. I like to see what that is.

At the same time, you know, as we introduced the original content, we're certainly going to be telling people what we think is important as well.

KURTZ: All right. Everybody write Ben Smith and give him your ideas. He invited the entire world to weigh in on this. But given all the aggregation you're going to do, and certainly, there's a lot of traffic in summarizing, borrowing, what's out there on other people's sites, is this going to be kind of a quirkier "Huffington Post"?

SMITH: You know, no. We're going to do a lot less aggregation than other folks do, because, you know, if you're on Twitter, if you're reading the social media, you know, you already know what the last story is.

I don't need to be the 20th one to aggregate the great story in "The New York Times" because you saw "The New York Times" list. That was the "New York Times" story. That was already shared on Twitter and on Facebook.

What you want is the next thing in the conversation, which means either some genuinely like original and fresh take on that. Or it means -- you know, or it means a scoop, original reporting.

I mean, that's what to me, as a reporter, is liberating and fun about this is that we're not going to be -- is that -- what I think particularly the scourge of young reporters' lives now, which is being the 20th person to aggregate some great story that somebody else broke is not something we're going to be doing a lot of.

KURTZ: All right. It sounds like you'll be making it up a little bit as you go along. An interesting new challenge.

SMITH: You think?

KURTZ: Ben Smith, thank you very much for joining us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Ben Smith will continue to write a weekly column for "Politico." When we continue, from Ted Koppel to Mark Cuban, from Jim Lehrer to Chris Cuomo. A look back at our most provocative interviews in 2011.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Time now for a look back at 2011 with the most revealing interviews on RELIABLE SOURCES. We spoke with Ted Koppel about the rise of a digital culture that values 140-character messages such as on Twitter.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TED KOPPEL, BROADCAST JOURNALIST: there's no way of saying this, Howard, without sounding a little bit like an old man who is losing touch --

KURTZ: Go ahead.

KOPPEL: With new technology. But the fact of the matter is that in a democracy, an uninformed electorate is the greatest danger that there is. If our -- if we confuse just the rapid-fire exchange of small morsels of information on trivial subject with real information, then I think we knock the props out from under a really functioning democracy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, who is a prolific blogger, tried to slam-dunk traditional sports journalists, bypassing them with his own Web site.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK CUBAN, BLOGGER AND OWNER OF DALLAS MAVERICKS: If you look at what has happened with the sports media as they cover sports teams, they've changed, as well. You know, the goal is no longer journalism.

They've had to respond to all these elements, Twitter and Facebook and deal with the business impacts on their -- in their world. And so they have to respond far more quickly.

They do it with fewer filters. They don't look for first and second and third sources. They don't even look for sources. You have this twice-removed headline problem where something starts as a headline or something starts -- something is written as opinion by someone who's a reporter.

KURTZ: Right.

CUBAN: But it's picked up as quote that then turns into fact seven times removed. There's all these elements that I have to take into account because the world has changed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: We had a candid conversation with longtime ABC anchor, Carol Simpson, who spoke of the pluses and minuses of being a black journalist.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(on camera) You invoke affirmative action as a perception that some had about why you got this break or that break in your career. But in a way, the flip side of this is, affirmative action also helped you.

CAROL SIMPSON, ABC ANCHOR: It did, and I'm proud to say I'm an affirmative action baby. I'm glad there were some people that looked around the newsroom and said, "We need one of those, somebody that looks like that, that dresses like that."

If that had not happened, I don't know where I'd be. So affirmative action is such a bad term now. I mean, god forbid, affirmative action. But you know, we need it back because I look around at the networks today and there are fewer African-American correspondents than there were in the '80s.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Jim Lehrer stopped by to talk about his history of moderating 11 presidential debates. And I asked him about a famous moment on "The News Hour" right after the Monica Lewinsky story broke.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(on camera) Here's the president of the United States on your program, and this is how you handled it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM LEHRER, BROADCAST JOURNALIST: Mr. President, is that true?

BILL CLINTON, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: That is not true. That is not true. I did not ask anyone to tell anything other than the truth. There is no improper relationship, and I intend to cooperate with this inquiry. But that is not true.

LEHRER: No improper relationship. Define what you mean by that.

B. CLINTON: Well, I think you know what it means. It means that there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship or any other kind of improper relationship.

LEHRER: You had no sexual relationship with this young woman?

B. CLINTON: There is not a sexual relationship. That is accurate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And what did you miss in that answer?

LEHRER: Oh, man. I missed what he was saying. I missed the whole -- I mean, thank you, Howie, for running that.

KURTZ: It's in the book.

LEHRER: I know it's in the book. I mean, it's the single worst professional mistake I ever made. Here again, I was nervous, no question about it. You have to be nervous in a situation like that.

It was the first interview after the story broke and I let my nervousness get the best of me. And he -- I was speaking in the past tense. He was speaking in the present tense.

KURTZ: Then you followed up. You followed up.

LEHRER: I did. Yes.

KURTZ: He kept saying there is no improper --

LEHRER: I thought, "Oh, my god." Fortunately, I escaped because there was so much stuff about it.

KURTZ: Yes.

LEHRER: And nobody -- no Howard Kurtz came along and handed me -- I hang my head over it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: He didn't make many mistakes. In a moment, some of our interviews on the year's biggest scandals.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Now, more of our top interviews. We've often talked about networks paying interview subjects supposedly for pictures or videos.

And when Congressman Anthony Weiner was under scrutiny for sending women lewd pictures of himself, ABC's Chris Cuomo defended him in an episode (UNINTELLIGIBLE) journalism even though he didn't much like it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(on camera) ABC paid Megan Broussard $10,000 to $15,000, I'm told, for those pictures, the ones that she sent him or Weiner sent her?

CHRIS CUOMO, ABC ANCHOR: the ones she sent him.

KURTZ: No pictures of Weiner?

CUOMO: No, we paid for her pictures.

KURTZ: OK. Did that bother you?

CUOMO: No.

KURTZ: Doesn't make it look like, by talking to ABC, she's trying to cash in?

CUOMO: Yes, it does. And that's one of the things we have to deal with in the business. We've talked about this before. The commercial exigencies of the business reach into every aspect of reporting now.

KURTZ: You felt that if you didn't -- I mean, this wasn't your decision, but if the network didn't pay her something, she might go to someone else who might well be ready to open the checkbook.

CUOMO: True, and I appreciate the protection that you're giving me, but I don't want it. It is my decision. I'm the anchor --

KURTZ: You could have walked away from it?

CUOMO: I could have said don't do it. I don't because it is the state of play right now. I wish it were not. I wish money was not in the game. But you know it's going to go somewhere else.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The good news, Cuomo later helped persuade ABC to end the practice of paying interview subjects. Now, the allegations of sexual abuse at Penn State and Syracuse came as an utter shock.

I asked ESPN news chief, Vince Doria, about the network's decision to sit on allegations against the Syracuse basketball coach eight years ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(on camera) A lot of people wondering, fairly or unfairly, why ESPN didn't notify the police in Syracuse, New York, back in 2003 since you were sitting on this audiotape, even if it wasn't totally verified. Is that something that journalists should do?

VINCE DORIA, ESPN NEWS CHIEF: I understand the argument, and it is a reasonable one coming from people who are not approaching this from a journalistic stance. We look at our material. We gather information. We assess it.

We vet it. We determine whether or not we feel we're able to report it. In this case, we felt we were not able to report it. That being the case, it was not our job to deliver it to law enforcement.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: These are tough calls when an alleged predator is involved. And then there was the phone hacking scandal that led Rupert Murdoch to shut down "News of the World." After we tracked him down at the bar, we spoke to Paul McMullen, a former reporter at the London tabloid, who defended the tactic.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL MCMULLEN, FORMER REPORTER, "NEWS OF THE WORLD": My argument is, you know, if you want to have a free democracy and an open society where politicians behave well, you've got to have a press that is allowed to stray into the area of the dark arts, not illegal area, to catch people out.

Because, fundamentally, you don't go to a politician and say, "Hello, I'm a 'News of the World' reporter. Are you filling your expenses? Are you having an affair with your secretary while presenting yourself as a happily married man?"

You've got to be cleverer than that. You've got to catch them. So I think that's the public interest defense. Sometimes, it's in the best interests of the country to have -- I mean, after all, who polices the police and who polices our politicians if it isn't a free press?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Colorful guy, but these blokes were breaking the law. Well, that's it for this holiday edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Merry Christmas and happy Hanukkah.

Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. Eastern for another edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

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