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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Botching the Santorum Surge; Minimizing Mitt's Moment

Aired January 8, 2012 - 11:00   ET

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


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: We're in New Hampshire this morning, two days before the primary here that has become the week's pre-eminent media obsession.

The press barely noticed as he campaigned across Iowa month after month, deemed unworthy of attention because the pundits said he was just too far back in the polls. As journalists lurched from one ephemeral front-runner to the next, Rick Santorum didn't make the cut.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: No, not you, Rick Santorum. You're still not possible. But everybody else, possible.

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC: Rick Santorum's political career will be ending soon. He will go to the Republican convention next year not as a candidate but as a FOX News contributor again.

MAJOR GARRETT, NATIONAL JOURNAL: Santorum has traveled all of Iowa, and he's still gaining no traction. There's a reason for that.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Then, of course, Santorum finished in a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses.

How could news outlets make this mistake again and fail to scrutinize Santorum's record in the process? Mitt Romney faces skeptical questioning despite winning Iowa because his margin was a measly eight votes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: What does did say about your candidacy that you actually won fewer votes than but in 2008, and you fought Rick Santorum to a draw?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Perhaps the press is just trying to keep this race alive?

Plus, we'll talk to the political director of the state's dominant TV station, WMUR, about covering the nation's first primary as a local story.

I'm Howard Kurtz and this is the New Hampshire edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

(MUSIC)

KURTZ: The media narrative here in New Hampshire is set. Mitt Romney wins easily, everyone else fights for second place. Sounds right, but remember four years ago when everyone in the press was convinced that Barack Obama would beat Hillary Clinton here? So much political coverage is driven by assumptions which, in turn, are driven by polls.

Take a look at these interviews with Rick Santorum in the weeks and months before his last-minute surge in Iowa.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: What space do you occupy in this race? Who are you? Are you the truth conservative? Are you the truth teller? What are you?

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS: This year, you're the underdog, relatively little money -- that's fair to say.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes.

BAIER: For Republicans, whose main concern is to defeat President Obama in 2012, aren't there several other candidates who realistically stand a better chance of doing that than you?

CHRIS WRAGGE, CBS NEWS: With poll numbers from Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry plummeting, why are not more of the social conservatives, the so-called anti-Mitt Romney, why is that contingent not gravitating towards you?

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Joining us now here in Manchester to talk about the campaign coverage: Roger Simon, chief political columnist for "Politico"; Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the "Chicago Sun- Times"; and Jonathan Karl, senior political correspondent for ABC News.

And, Jonathan Karl, I was at a Manchester restaurant on Friday packed with press and so many voters that the fire marshals came in and evicted everybody. And Santorum ended up having the event in the parking lot. Hardly anyone could hear him. That's how hot he is.

But for nearly a year, he campaigned unmolested by reporters. In retrospect, wasn't that a major miscalculation?

JONATHAN KARL, ABC NEWS: Yes. Short answer is yes. We did at ABC -- we had Shush Walshe, our great Iowa correspondent, digital correspondent out there, traveling the state with Santorum. Often she was alone with him catching a ride with him from event to event.

But -- I mean, just the transformation was phenomenal. The interesting thing is that it happened with the first poll that showed him moving up. And suddenly, overnight, boom, he was mobbed.

KURTZ: And it seems to me, Roger Simon, that the press creates this kind of closed loop. Santorum is low in the polls.

SIMON: Right.

KURTZ: So, we don't cover him except for an ABC producer, maybe couple of others. And so, he stays low in the polls. But then, finally, the voters get to show up and register what they think.

So does anything trouble you about, you know, the way we sort of marginalize this so-called also-runs?

ROGER SIMON, POLITICO: Well, the actual voting is the least important part to us.

KURTZ: The least important part?

SIMON: Yes, come on. We're a poll-driven media. I mean, Iowa is so yesterday, we don't care about it anymore, where Santorum essentially tied or maybe even beat Mitt Romney.

KURTZ: Coming out of nowhere.

SIMON: Coming out of nowhere. Well, he spent more time in Iowa than anyone else. His message was -- Iowans are the greatest people in the world.

That's not the great for New Hampshire. He'll have to tell them they're the second greatest people and the South Carolinians are the third greatest people. So, maybe that's why he's lagging behind here.

What the polls are showing in all of the future states, forget about the national polls, they don't count -- is that Romney has won the nomination.

KURTZ: We'll come back to that or argument.

Lynn Sweet, I want to read you newspaper clips from earlier. Here's "The New York Times" in October about Rick Santorum, pursuing a low budget that some might say quixotic quest for the presidency." "Washington Post" in August was speculating about whether Santorum might drop out after the Ames straw poll.

But even if Santorum's campaign becomes little more than a token bid, many say they expect him to press on. Talk about missing the boat. The guy ends up in a virtual tie or maybe winning.

LYNN SWEET, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: Well, I would never have counseled anyone to go that way since everyone knew that there was going to be a hunt for the anti-Romney candidate in Iowa. And that it's no surprise. It forces -- coalesced around someone, happened to be Santorum.

So, I wouldn't fault everyone in the media for not picking up early on that Santorum would be the Romney alternative. I think it took reasonable time to develop. He earned it. Gingrich didn't come up the way -- in a sustained way the way people thought, partly because of those super PAC negative ads.

KURTZ: The old-fashioned way, by going out on meeting small groups of voters in Iowa, but mostly unrecorded by those of us in news business.

SWEET: But not in Iowa. Not in Iowa.

KARL: But he also earned it because everybody else blew up. I mean, really. I mean, you know, this happened only after we went through Perry, Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, and finally, he was the last one left.

KURTZ: Which sets up my next question, Jonathan, because one of the factors in all those candidates blowing up is, when they looked up in the polls, suddenly, they got hit with a lot of scrutiny from the media, a lot of negative stories, whether it was sexual allegations on the part of Herman Cain, against Herman Cain, or, you know, just sort of combing through the wreckage.

So now that Santorum suddenly, you know, ties in Iowa, here just on Friday, "The New York Times"/"Washington Post" both have stories, detailed stories about Santorum's role when he was a senator in the so-called K Street project, which pressed lobbying efforts to hire Republicans. He made $1.3 million during a recent 18-month period as a not-registered lobbyist. Let's say advocate for health groups and industry groups.

Shouldn't Iowa voters have had this information from the press before they went to the polls?

KARL: Well, this is -- you go -- you do your investigative work on the candidates that are on top. I mean, look, how many stories have you seen about Perry and the gifts he received in Texas or his relationship with lobbyist down there? You don't see them anymore because he's down --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: -- the phrase investigative work because all these stories about Santorum's Senate record, they were written at the "Times." It's a question of going through the clips.

SIMON: Whom the press builds up the press tears down. We don't investigate people at the bottom of the pack because they're at the bottom of the pack. Once they climb up and they might actually win something, well, then is the time to do the investigation.

SWEET: You know the phrase "when you fly close to the sun, your wings get burned"?

KURTZ: How much investigative work does it take to look at the guide's financial disclosure form and find out that he made this more than $1 million, you know? I mean, nobody's saying --

KARL: If he's -- you played beautiful clips. Thank goodness nothing from me.

t, you know, when he's not considered somebody who has a chance, then, you know, how much ink are you going to waste or digital space going through all this --

KURTZ: Digital space is unlimited. But you're right, there's a limited amount of airtime.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMON: I'll bet you can go back in the clips and -- electronic clips or paperclips -- and actually find stories like that on Santorum from two years ago. But nobody was paying attention then.

KURTZ: Let's take his position on the social issues. Talk about, you know, this is something he talked about at every appearance he made, talked about it in the debates. Suddenly, a lot of journalists -- running up to him, what's your position on gay marriage because he's been getting booed on college campuses, what about your position that states have the power at least to ban contraception. I just wonder whether before -- this is circling back to the same question -- the press gave Rick Santorum a pass on these very -- these very positions that we now deem to be so controversial.

SIMON: Well, you do stories on that a year ago, or you do stories on that six months ago, and you're --

KURTZ: And you're saying you did it? We had it?

SIMON: No. You're accused by the public by bashing this poor man. You do it now and you're accused by the public of bashing this poor man. There's no good time to do stories that some are going to interpret as negative.

SWEET: Look, I don't want to let the big organization that's have platoons of reporters off the hook on when they should do stories. I also think we should recognize, everyone out there listening, that these -- these campaigns as the press coverage evolved. You don't do all the stories on everything up front. Sometimes you should do the lower hanging ones like you mention about lobbyist. Maybe should have done it first.

But after all this time in Iowa, if there were really things that Iowa voters -- not press -- wanted to know, they actually could have just driven in their car and probably gone up and asked a candidate.

KARL: And frankly, that's the beauty of the process, OK? So, I mean, we haven't even voted in New Hampshire yet. We're still orally, and he's getting the scrutiny.

Nobody is going to get through this process without getting intense scrutiny. Nobody with a chance of winning is going to get through this without getting intense scrutiny.

I would argue that if anything, Mitt Romney's gotten something of a pass here because you just sketched through all those candidates. I mean, Perry got all the scrutiny, Bachmann to a large degree, as well. I mean, Cain dominated our coverage --

KURTZ: But certainly there's been a lot of stories about his Massachusetts record, his health care plan --

KARL: But what's dominated the news coverage of this campaign since September --

KURTZ: The challengers, who's going to be the alternative to Romney. I do think that when all this comes in a kind of cascade where you pick up the newspapers and you turn on the TV and suddenly it's all about Santorum's record, there is a danger of a perception at least that we're now ganging up on him, which you alluded to.

Let me turn to Mitt Romney, because as you recall, was only just a few short days ago, and this was a guy who was -- the conventional wisdom in the media was that he might be lucky to finish in the top three in Iowa. And look what happened the morning after he ekes out the victory. Look at the kind of questions the anchors asked him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: You didn't spend an awful lot of time in Iowa, not a lot of energy until the very late going here. So, did you exceed your expectations, or are you just a little disappointed that you didn't walk out of that state with a more decisive victory?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, I'm absolutely delighted.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: But what does it say about your candidacy that you actually won fewer votes than but in 2008 and you fought Rick Santorum to a draw basically even though you spent -- outspent him 50 to one on television ads?

ROMNEY: Well, this was a seven-person field, of course.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Jon, he wins Iowa, and it's like, dude, you only won by eight votes. What's the matter?

KARL: And now, come on. Can we get a recounted? I mean, really? Who really won in Iowa?

Well, this is the nature -- to be fair, he -- this is what the other campaigns are saying, as well. So, he gets 24 percent, 25 percent. So, you know -- 75 percent --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: You don't have to buy it.

KARL: But we can ask him, I mean --

SIMON: It's the new math. You add up all the votes against him and you decide therefore he's lost. It was amazing, in fact, for Mitt Romney who spent the least amount of time in Iowa to beat narrowly the candidate who spent the most amount of time in Iowa.

KARL: But wait a minute --

SIMON: He lost the spin on that.

KURTZ: He lost the points that.

SIMON: Totally lost, yes.

KARL: Look at ad spending, ad spending. The only campaign combined with super PAC that spent more than Mitt Romney was Rick Perry, OK? I mean, Romney and his super PAC spent big time in Iowa.

SIMON: You got to have a real couch potato to sit in front of your TV in Des Moines or any place else in Iowa and take in those ads.

KARL: It was inescapable.

SIMON: It was wall-to-wall ad after ad. I can't believe the public did not tune out.

KURTZ: OK. So we're two days away now from the first primary here. And Romney's above 40 percent. I think it's safe to say he's going to win some kind of victory.

Will the press now discount a Romney victory because it is, quote, "expected," and focus much of the attention on who finished second or third?

SWEET: Yes, the race is for who's going to place, you know, the race is for silver. Already, you have the Democrats saying -- I think it was Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz who's going around saying if he doesn't win by 50 percent -- I think the number has gone up --

KURTZ: The Democrats are setting the bar.

SWEET: The bar at 50 percent, then it's a loss. So he's been doing so well here. If he really wins by an innate point, then there's a problem.

But right, Howard, I mean, the conventional wisdom in this one -- I'm not thrilled about it, but I think, yes, that's what the press will do. It won't be a proudest moment. But there will be an analysis of the win.

KURTZ: Does it trouble anybody sitting on the set that the guy wins the first two contests, and you're telling me the story's going to be whoever finishes second?

SIMON: It troubles me.

KURTZ: Yes. How deeply does it trouble you?

SIMON: Well, look, it's ridiculous the number of games we're playing. It's a six-person field. How do you get 51 percent in a six-person field? What we're really afraid of is this story is about to end and editors are going to call us home. We're not going to get to go to Florida. We're not going to get to Arizona, because this thing probably ends after South Carolina.

SWEET: I don't think that, but I think when you've had every poll for months predicting that Romney's going to win, why wouldn't you look for who's number two? Yes. That's a reasonable story.

KURTZ: Let me cut you off after we come back in the second block, because Roger Simon, as editor of -- revealing truth, it's all about expense accounts for journalist.

Remember the Iowa caucus night that went on 1:00 a.m. The lead kept seesawing between Romney and Santorum. Take a look at how the "Des Moines Register" mocked up a series of front pages trying to figure out what it was going to press with. Take a look.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

KURTZ: There's the first one.

And back here in Manchester, one presidential debate last night on ABC, another one this morning on NBC. A look at how the networks did in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Two presidential debates in 11 hours. That's got to set some kind of indoor record here in New Hampshire. We'll start with Saturday night's debate, ABC News, Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos.

And here's the question Stephanopoulos begun with Newt Gingrich about Mitt Romney's time as a venture capitalist working for the company Bain Capital.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Back in December, you said that Governor Romney made money at Bain by, quote, "bankrupting companies and laying of employees."

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That was, I think, "The New York Times" story two days ago.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Governor Romney, your response?

ROMNEY: Well, I'm not surprised to have "The New York Times" try to put free enterprise on trial.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Roger Simon, Newt is invoking "The New York Times." I thought he didn't like the elite media. SIMON: Well, what is surprising here is that Newt won't stand up and make the charge himself. Newt has been attacking Mitt Romney at almost every stop, attacked him very ungraciously in his own concession speech in Iowa. The most ungracious concession speech I've ever heard of.

But here we are in New Hampshire, and suddenly, Newt wimps out and -- puts it all on the back of "The New York Times."

KURTZ: He's hiding behind the newspaper?

SIMON: Absolutely. He clearly doesn't want to be out front, at least in that first debate on the attack.

KURTZ: And I don't -- the "Times" can defend itself. I don't think it's fair for Romney to say the "Times" news story, which is very factual, is putting free enterprise on trial. But probably plays well in a Republican primary.

All right. Also in that debate, we had one of our local anchors, Josh McElveen, asking a question followed by Stephanopoulos. And this had to do -- as you'll see, this had to do with recycling some of the harsher words that the candidates have used against each other. Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

JOSH MCELVEEN, WMUR: Let's go to you, Speaker Gingrich. Recently, Dr. Paul referred to you as a chicken hawk because you didn't serve, given what you just heard Governor Perry say about understanding the military and Dr. Paul's --

GINGRICH: But Dr. Paul makes a lot of comments. It's part of his style.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You've got a new ad in South Carolina taking direct aim at Senator Santorum. You call him a corrupt, a corporate lobbyist, a Washington insider with a record of betrayal. You also call him corrupt in that ad.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHULTZ: Lynn Sweet, what would you say that the moderators are trying to accomplish here?

SWEET: I think they're trying to provoke Ron Paul. And he's so -- he could self-provoke. He doesn't need moderators to do it.

I think they're trying to do what his competition won't, which is up the ante in his attacks.

KURTZ: But also, I think there's a tendency, at least by many candidates, to be a little bit more measured when they're on the debate stage. But meanwhile, on the stump and in their own ads, they throw charges around like chicken hawk. So, isn't this an effort to just kind of get, you know, I'll hold the coats, you guys fight? SWEET: Well, part of it is one of the good and bad things about the debate is the desire to want to mix it up. You know, look him in the eye and say that to his face. Are you a chicken hawk or whatever? And sometimes -- but candidates usually know that that is a trap. The reason they like to use and hide behind their spots is that they are saying what they want to say, they're measured -- sometimes tested, Howie. They don't want to get past that box. They may get in trouble.

KARL: I think it's valuable to go in there and say, hey, this is what you're people are saying, this is what your ads are saying. He's right here, say it to his face.

KURTZ: And we have other -- go ahead.

SIMON: What the moderators are trying to do is make the debates entertaining, which they are not naturally --

KARL: And illuminating.

SIMON: -- so.

Illuminating, the candidates are handling just fine. We're asking chicken hawk questions. We're asking him, insult this guy to your face. We're giving him 60-second answers and 30-second rebuttals because anything longer than that is not entertaining TV.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Not everybody gets the chance to speak --

KARL: How do you have six people on the stage --

SIMON: The whole debate structure is to make news as entertainment.

KURTZ: I'm sorry, the light just went on. Your time is up. I got to go to another sound bite.

SWEET: Or throw a punch. That people want to see a punch.

KURTZ: Right. Which sometimes can overshadow the substantive aspects of the debate, I think you were alluding to.

All right. NBC's "Meet the Press" held the second debate moderated by David Gregory. This exchange began with Rick Santorum questioning why Mitt Romney left the governor of Massachusetts job, the post of governor, after just one term.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

ROMNEY: Run again? That would be about me. I was trying to help get the state into the best shape I possibly could, left the world of politics, went back into business. Now, I have the opportunity, I believe, to use the experience I have -- you've got a surprised look on your face. Wait -- it's still my time. SANTORUM: Are you going to tell people you're not going to run for re-election for president if you win?

GREGORY: Is Governor Romney unelectable in your judgment?

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: I'm surprised the press has never brought this up, or rarely brought this up about Romney voluntarily making himself a one- term governor.

KARL: It's interesting. But the response was a lot of fun. I mean, he went back to civic life, he went to run for president, you know? And if -- right after that, Newt Gingrich called it pious baloney which may be a line we'll hear again.

KURTZ: Yes. At the time that Romney chose ton run again, he had a 54 percent unfavorable rating in the state of Massachusetts. That might have played a little bit of role.

Jonathan Karl, Lynn Sweet, Roger Simon -- thanks very much for joining us.

And a reminder that CNN will air last night's ABC/WMUR Republican presidential debate tonight. You can see it at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Up next, when politics meet tragedy, are some pundits going too far in talking about the death of Rick Santorum's baby?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Journalists face the question in every campaign, what exactly is fair in reporting about the candidates? These have range from $400 haircuts, to sexual harassment allegations to whether one presidential candidate four years ago -- you may remember her name -- was showing cleavage.

But a troubling example surfaced this week in the coverage of Rick Santorum, who has talked publicly along with his wife about their premature baby that died two hours after birth. That prompted this exchange on FOX News between liberal radio host Alan Colmes and "National Review" editor Rich Lowry.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALAN COLMES, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Once they get a load of some of the crazy things he said and done like taking his two-hour-old baby who died right after childbirth home and played with it for a couple of hours so his other children would know that the child was real, I mean --

RICH LOWRY, NATIONAL REVIEW: That's a cheap shot, Alan. To say it's crazy --

COLMES: It's not a cheap shot. Not, it's not.

LOWRY: To mock it like that is beyond the pale and beneath you. You are mocking him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Was that out of bounds?

Joining us now to examine the campaign coverage here in New Hampshire: Dana Milbank, columnist for the "Washington Post"; and Robert Costa, a political reporter for "National Review."

Dana Milbank, Alan Colmes later apologized for that exchange. But should it be out of bounds to criticize, challenge Rick Santorum over his handling of the baby's death?

DANA MILBANK, THE WASHINGTON POST: Certainly, the way that he did it there was out of bounds. The topic obviously isn't out of bounds because the candidate himself made it fair game.

I think what you're having happen here is Rick Santorum was basically ignored as a man who had no chance to win this, ignored by the media the entire time. And suddenly, nobody thinks he has a chance to win. But suddenly, it's like -- all right, let's give this guy the treatment. I think some people are perhaps overdoing it and giving him the treatment like to make up for lost time.

KURTZ: How would you define "the treatment"?

MILBANK: It's just like -- like I think we see ourselves as the self-appointed police of this. And we're going to bring up everything bad in anybody's past. You know, it's like, all right, we did it to Herman Cain, we did it to Michele Bachmann, we did it to Rick Perry. Now, it's Santorum's turn.

So, it's almost like a feeding frenzy when that guy --

KURTZ: Or like a make-up call in the basketball if the referee missed several fouls, we start calling fouls, or inflicting fouls --

MILBANK: Yes, and I think it gets overdone.

KURTZ: The fact is, I've heard people talking about this incident with the Santorum's baby. A lot of people think it's strange. Maybe that's unfair. Is it OK to talk about it?

ROBERT COSTA, NATIONAL REVIEW: I think it's OK to talk about. We have to remember that this is not the first instance. There's been strategy in major politician's life. In 1953, President George H.W. Bush's daughter Robin died at the age of 4.

And the family, they had to live in a much more quite fashion. George H.W. Bush never spoke about it in the same way that Santorum does. But because Santorum does that doesn't mean that we should just suddenly wag a finger at him like Colmes did and say that's a little strange because he played with the baby. That's a little off the wall.

KURTZ: Your "Washington Post" colleague Eugene Robinson said on MSNBC that some people might think that was weird. But then he acknowledged, he was getting dressed down by Joe Scarborough. That was obviously not the right way to say what I was trying to express.

MILBANK: And it's unnecessary. It's enough to say, present here the facts. If somebody is sitting home in their living room, wants to think that's weird, that's fine. If somebody thinks that's endearing, they can think that, as well.

KURTZ: Liberal pundits seem to be piling on this presidential candidate over this tragic incident.

MILBANK: Well, I -- liberal pundits and I think the media in general have a particular antipathy toward Rick Santorum because of the cultural differences, because he is --

KURTZ: An outspoken social conservative?

MILBANK: Yes. I think that's true. With gay rights, with Terry Schiavo, you know, going back to the faith-based initiatives. I think that he -- he has a real clash with sort of the liberal elites.

COSTA: Let me ask - at a quick political point there, Howard. You and I have been following Rick Santorum on the trial. I think the question is not whether the media is giving the right coverage to this story but whether he's focusing on it too much on the trail.

We were just in Hollis, New Hampshire the other day, covering a town hall. And he repeatedly talked about gay marriage and abortion. And this story feeds into that narrative that he's focusing too much on the social conservative issues.

KURTZ: On the other hand, I was at an event that same day here in Manchester where Santorum was making his way through the crowd. And reporters were trying to shout questions.

And the questions were like, "What about gay marriage? Have you gone too far?" And so here's a two-part question for you, Robert. Does the press like to fixate on these hot-button social issues? Abortion, gay marriage, same-sex adoption came up in the debate last night. Because it's good copy, because it's divisive?

And does much of the mainstream press treat social conservatives like some kind of alien species?

COSTA: I think it's a little unfair to say the press treats them like an alien species. They are interesting copy. They're compelling, personal stories, and that always makes for a good read or a good television show.

But at the same time, you do see Santorum and the press being almost too fixated on this. There are so many other issues in the political debate right now, from the economy to fiscal issues to foreign policy.

And both sides seem to like this because Santorum likes to be a victim against those like Alan Colmes. But at the same time, the media likes to fixate on it for copy and viewers.

KURTZ: Santorum getting much more skeptical questioning by particularly television interviews since he overtook Mitt Romney to finish in a virtual tie, technically eight votes back.

Let's look at the exchange he had with John King which begins with the CNN anchor reading something that Santorum said. I think it's back in 2003. It's been repeated a million times on the Internet.

You can Google it if you like. And we'll take a look at the former senator's response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: And that's what children, monogamous relationships in every society. The definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality.

That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. There are a lot of people saying, whoa, how do you connect that homosexual behavior to bestiality?

You went on that interview to talk about bigamy. How do you connect the dots?

FMR. SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R-PA), CANDIDATE FOR REPUBLICAN NOMINATION FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hold on a second, John. Read the quote. I said it's not. It is not. I didn't say it is. I said it's not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: I was wondering, Dana Milbank, how long it would take us to hear the phrase "man on dog" in this campaign.

MILBANK: As often as I can say it.

KURTZ: Is it fair, unfair to throw that back at Santorum? He says he was making - that he was not trying to compare the two, but just the fact that he used the phrase is obviously -

MILBANK: Of course he was trying to compare the two. He's saying it's not that, but if you start this, then you go on a slippery slope toward that. Yes, he was making a distinction but putting the two on the slippery slope.

I can see why people were outraged. And I can see why when you Google Santorum as you just suggested viewers may do, they may be surprised at what they find there. But I don't think we should be surprised that there's so much media focus on this.

To say focus on the economy, that's a bit of a red herring. You know what? Whenever we focus on the economy, it's terribly boring. Have a debate on the economy - (CROSS TALK)

KURTZ: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.

MILBANK: Everybody's giving the same answer.

KURTZ: So you're saying - you're saying that the press should focus on things like gay marriage and abortion -

MILBANK: No, I'm saying -

(CROSS TALK)

KURTZ: Because it's a heck of a lot better show than dealing with the jobless issue.

MILBANK: I'm saying focus on something where there's controversy or there's something interesting.

COSTA: But not the death of Gabriel Santorum. I don't think that's -

MILBANK: No, no, no. I'm not talking about that.

(CROSS TALK)

KURTZ: How about gay marriage and contraception.

MILBANK: But when you ask questions about the economy and taxes over and over to a Republican debate, it's always the same answer from every one of them.

COSTA: I disagree. If you watched the debate last night on ABC, it was too focused on contraception and George Stephanopoulos grilling them for minutes on end.

And I think the viewers, especially the primary voters, want to hear more than that. It is interesting copy. I understand the media should focus on this. It's part of the story. But at the same time, I think everyone was rolling their eyes last night.

KURTZ: And in reality, there is no state among the 50 states in the United States of America that is even considering banning contraception. But the arguments are interesting.

I guess it's a matter of judgment whether it went on too long. Let me get to the larger issue here. We're two days before the voting in New Hampshire. We've just been through Iowa.

Here's "Slate" magazine's Jake Weisburg writing the following. If you put it up on the screen, "Face it, Romney's a nominee. The media will desperately try to persuade you there's still a Republican race. Do not pay attention."

"We journalists are sorriest of all, because Romney coasting to victory is a weak story. Were the press any other industry, cynicism about its self-interest in promoting marginal challengers would prevail." Is it that bad?

MILBANK: Well, here's the dirty little secret, Howie. We all have these nonrefundable hotel rooms up here in Manchester, which is why so many people are up here. I think there's 20 from my news organization for basically what is basically a foregone conclusion at least -

KURTZ: In New Hampshire?

MILBANK: At least here in New Hampshire.

KURTZ: Yes.

MILBANK: So yes, I think particularly in TV, I think people are particularly upset at all the lost potential here, but that's how it looks.

KURTZ: Is there one scenario here that horrifies the media, and that is Romney wraps it up early?

COSTA: I think that's horrifying for the media. It's January. We want this race to last forever. It's going to be great primary. But I think you're right.

If people say that Mitt Romney's the nominee right after New Hampshire, even if he gets 40 percent of the vote here, there's a big contest coming up in South Carolina. You have Super Tuesday in March, early March.

This is I think maybe going to be a deep primary. But Romney will be the nominee if he surges ahead here and wins South Carolina.

KURTZ: But Weisburg says it's not a question of whether we're making this call too early. He says that basically it's a grand pretense to inject some - basically false drama into a foregone conclusion.

COSTA: False drama, OK. Rick Santorum's raising $1 million a day. He had a surprise finish in the Iowa caucuses.

(CROSS TALK)

I think we're able to cover these stories, especially Rick Santorum, and say this is a compelling news story, the narrative. Why not? It's not just looking beyond Mitt Romney's inevitability.

KURTZ: That's the thing about the declarations of the press of who's inevitable and who's not. Sometimes we're wrong. Robert Costa, Dana Milbank, thanks for joining us this morning.

Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, MSNBC covers the caucuses with five - count them - five liberal hosts. Is neutrality a thing of the past?

Keith Olbermann misses caucus night during a spat with his new bosses at Current TV. Plus, covering the New Hampshire primary is a local story. A chat with WMUR's James Pindell.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: I was struck the other day by a question that Tom Brokaw asked Mitt Romney. It wasn't a gotcha question or even a particularly aggressive one, but it was unusual nonetheless.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM BROKAW, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT, NBC NEWS: But as a result of this downturn, we have a much larger group of people who are no longer in the middle class. They've gone the other direction.

MITT ROMNEY, CANDIDATE FOR REPUBLICAN NOMINATION FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes.

BROKAW: They've gone down.

ROMNEY: Yes, yes.

BROKAW: They were at the poverty line or dropping below, and food stamps are way up. Are you going to have to spend a lot more time worrying about the poor as well as the middle class if you're elected president?

ROMNEY: Well, I want to make sure we have a safety net that cares for those that are poor. But I want to get those that are poor into the middle class.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now here in Manchester to examine how media organizations are covering the primaries is Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media and a former managing editor of "USA Today Live."

All right. Lauren, why aren't more journalists asking questions about poverty in inner cities? It seems like it's totally of the radar. Poor people don't count?

LAUREN ASHBURN, PRESIDENT, ASHBURN MEDIA: No, they don't vote. That's the problem. You look at the 43 million people who are poor in this country. Those who earn $25,000 are two times less likely to vote than those who earn $75,000.

KURTZ: So the candidates obviously aiming their rhetorical fire or their rhetorical arguments at the middle class. But isn't it the responsibility of the press to bring some of this up as (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

ASHBURN: Well, and thank goodness we have the dean, right, Don Brokaw, doing this. I sat and watched the debate last night in the press room here. And I didn't hear the word "poor" once come out of anybody's mouth.

And maybe I don't have a transcript and maybe I'm wrong. But my point is that nobody is asking those questions, and the candidates aren't driving that.

KURTZ: I didn't hear - I barely heard in any of the debates. Now, MSNBC on the Iowa caucus night went with a lineup of five hosts, all of them of the liberal persuasion.

Let's take a look at some of what they had to say and then this particular montage ends with a - not an apology but a bit of a retraction by Rachel Maddow for something she had reported previously. Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: They are junk-laden with droppings with the Democratic Party they can't think.

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: What you're saying is, how can Rick Santorum be a nominee? Which is exactly the right question. How can any of them - you're right. We kind of look and go, you're kidding me. Rick Santorum?

REV. AL SHARPTON, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: None of them have a message, Rachel. None of them have come out with any message that will resonate against President Obama.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I should let you know that there - that the news about Gary Johnson dropping his libertarian party bid and endorsing Ron Paul was a hoax. So -

O'DONNELL: Oh -

MADDOW: Yes, sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That will happen.

MADDOW: That will happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Live television, ladies and gentlemen.

O'DONNELL: That will happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: I don't know if she made the mistake or it's the producer. But in terms of the lineup on the field here, you know, five unabashed liberals. Is that the approach a news network should take?

ASHBURN: Well, in 2004 or 2008, I'm sorry, if you remember, they had Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, you know, sort of leading their debate coverage -

KURTZ: And threw a lot of flak.

ASHBURN: And got huge amount of pushback from people internally at NBC saying, "How can we do this? How can we let primetime bleed into what is supposed to be standard news coverage?" KURTZ: To the point that when it came convention time, election night, MSNBC brought David Gregory over from the NBC side so a neutral journalist would be in that chair.

This time, not only does MSNBC go with this commentator live, and they were relatively restrained. You didn't hear that much (UNINTELLIGIBLE). We heard a few things. Nobody seems to care. There was no flak about it.

ASHBURN: Well, I think - I actually looked back to see what Phil Griffin said in 2008. And he basically said, you know, it's tough to balance because the ratings are so good when you have incendiary figures of one political bias or another commenting during coverage.

KURTZ: Phil Griffin, of course, the president of MSNBC. And just the other day, he was quoted as saying that Pat Buchanan, one of the few conservative commentators on that network, is now off the air indefinitely because of a book that he wrote in which Buchanan argues that the growth of minority populations have hurt America at its Christian core.

Griffin saying this is not a proper subject for national dialogue. You mention - nicely setting me up for the next question - Keith Olbermann in 2008, the decision to put him out front on some of the primary nights drew considerable consternation.

ASHBURN: Right.

KURTZ: Over now, of course, working at Current TV. He was not on the air at Current on Iowa caucus night. It was a little bit of a mystery why. On Twitter, Olbermann said that he referred all questions to Al Gore, the co-owner - co-founder of the network.

And Olbermann told "The Hollywood Reporter," "I was not given the opportunity to host under acceptable conditions." We're told the lawyers are now talking. Does it sound like they're not all getting along there at Current TV?

ASHBURN: Well, Keith Olbermann is brilliant. And there's a reason networks continue to hire him. But he's a narcissist. If you're going to hire Keith Olbermann, you better hire a lion tamer to go along with him.

KURTZ: A narcissist unlike most of the people who work in television?

ASHBURN: Who work in television - no, but my point is that he's going to do what he's going to do. He's going to bite. If he doesn't like something that he doesn't like, he's going to push back.

By the way, the graphics at Current TV and the technical capability - yes, it needs a lot of work. Some people were floating that as why he needed to not cover it.

However, in the past, there have been allegations that he didn't want to cover Republican debates simply because he doesn't like Republicans. And that's when he was working at MSNBC or at NBC. So, you know, who knows?

KURTZ: Hard for me to imagine him not wanting to be on the air on such an important night. We'll see how that plays out.

Before we go, there was a study report in "The New York Times" by two Israeli professors that says more attractive members of Congress get more airtime on television.

So the top two, for example, from 2011, and this is excluding the leadership - Marcia Blackburn and then Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. How shocked are you -

ASHBURN: Two women.

KURTZ: And there were some good-looking guys on the list, too.

ASHBURN: You're right. Sure.

KURTZ: How shocked are you by this?

ASHBURN: Oh, come on, please. I mean, I think that everybody in the TV business likes to be around good-looking people. I mean, from the producers and the bookers and the people who put them on.

However, I will say that unless you have something of substance to say, you can get on one, two, three, maybe four times before the producers and the booker and hosts are saying, "Get them out of here. They don't have anything to say."

KURTZ: But it sounds like if there is a choice between two equally substantive esteemed members of Congress and one is a looker and one is maybe not so much - I will make an exception of Barney Frank here, because he gets on a lot.

ASHBURN: Oh, please.

KURTZ: That television is doing what it does with anchors and reporters, which is, looks are a factor.

ASHBURN: Well, I mean, look at Fox. You know, everybody says, oh, there's a fox babe. People like to get information and news from people who are good-looking. I mean, I think it's self-selecting in society. I don't think it's just a problem with television news. But no. Not so.

KURTZ: So it's just about presidential candidates, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin?

ASHBURN: Oh, that's interesting. Well, I wasn't thinking about women, but I do think that, yes, you have to look presidential. It's harder for people to hire or to vote for somebody who is not of a certain weight and cut and - I'm going to get myself in trouble.

KURTZ: I'll cut you off right now, because unlike you, I was thinking about women.

ASHBURN: Right.

KURTZ: Lauren Ashburn, thanks very much for joining us here in New Hampshire. After the break, the political director of New Hampshire's biggest television station on whether local news coverage has more impact on the primary here than the invasion of the national pundits.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: We're coming to you from the studios of WMUR, the ABC affiliate here in Manchester as well as a CNN partner and it's the largest television station in New Hampshire. Joining us now for a look at the local coverage of this primary is the station's political director, James Pindell. Welcome.

JAMES PINDELL, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, WMUR: Welcome to New Hampshire.

KURTZ: Thank you. It's my sixth New Hampshire primary. I know my way around. But I'm picking up chatter from some of your colleagues in the local press corps that - with Romney having a 20- plus-point lead. This is maybe not the most exciting New Hampshire primary you've ever covered.

PINDELL: It's really not. It's not been the most exciting, I mean, to be able to happen is - we started very, very slowly.

In fact, almost the first year in basically 15 years or so where we didn't have a single presidential candidate visit the state. But that briefly changed in 2008.

KURTZ: You felt bad about that. This is your -

PINDELL: That's right.

KURTZ: This is your shot at the big time.

PINDELL: This is why I work in this state. There's no question about it. But look, we've seen New Hampshire voters reacting like they always do at these town hall meetings, asking very pointed, tough questions.

I think you see at the end here are these town hall meetings, a lot of enthusiasm. This is our state sport, politics.

KURTZ: And do we cover it like a sport?

PINDELL: We do. I mean, there's a lot of ups and downs, standing. I think we see these presidential debates something like an NFL season where all the action once a week and everyone watches. And then they go to Iowa and New Hampshire and try to practice a bit. But -

KURTZ: Do people go to bars and argue about -

PINDELL: They do. KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they just saw.

PINDELL: You know I've got to tell you, Howie, I go to the grocery store and someone always stops me every single time to give their views or to talk about politics.

KURTZ: You're obviously a rock star here. But how much access does WMUR have to the campaigns? Because obviously, when the invasion of national media come, we're all trying to get, you know, five minutes with Romney or Santorum or Gingrich, and it can be hard.

PINDELL: It can be hard. You know, WMUR is such a unique media property in American politics around this country as really the only TV station in this really important state. These candidates are in all the time.

And we talked at Mitt Romney, 20 months without doing a major Sunday show. He did our show three times in that time period. These candidates want to be on our airwaves. We're the most dominant media organization in the state.

KURTZ: You're beating them off with a stick. The problem is not access. Maybe you have too much access.

PINDELL: We had four come in the day after the Iowa caucuses. And we had - I think everyone has come through at least twice, I think, since Iowa.

KURTZ: Does the game change for you when all of the national journalists, the morning after the Iowa caucus, and now, they're just a week apart, suddenly get on their airplanes, come here. And now you've got a lot of competition for what had been a story that you pretty much had to yourself.

PINDELL: Well, I think we feel pretty good and well-positioned this particular week. Of course, we have the most dominant poll from the University of New Hampshire, the most respected poll.

We have two versions of that coming out this week, obviously, co- sponsor the debate. We are going to have an election night special on primary eve running an hour long.

KURTZ: You're hitting on all cylinders. But WMUR is not the only important ally in the state.

PINDELL: Of course not.

KURTZ: Of course, there's Manchester's union leader, influential, quirky, some would say. I picked it up this morning, the Sunday edition, the Sunday news. I'm just going to hold it up.

Another front-page editorial by publisher Joe McQuaid in favor of Newt Gingrich, which the paper has endorsed, saying, let's see now, Romney may be the worst candidate. Does the union leader have the clout that it used to in the days when TV was a little less important? PINDELL: No. Of course, it doesn't. In fact, when I hear about front-page editorials, usually, I hear it from a friend in Washington before I hear it from a friend in New Hampshire.

But there's no question, the editorial page in particular has had a lot of influence in terms of driving a conversation in this state, particularly in Manchester. It's kind of driven the conversation. But the circulation is down 60 percent in the last 20 years.

KURTZ: And so the full-throated backing of Newt has not, if you believe the polls, helped him all that much.

PINDELL: Well, at the same time, I mean, this is not game over for Newt Gingrich. We came out of Iowa thinking it was all about Rick Santorum and all about Mitt Romney, and certainly it's not.

KURTZ: I think you alluded to this earlier about - this question comes up very much so every four years with Iowa, to New Hampshire, as well, which is, "Why should your state hold the first in the nation primary?"

It's not totally representative of the rest of the country. I know there's a great deal of pride about the primary here. So what's your answer to that?

PINDELL: Look, it's - if you believe in the romantic notion of the person who runs for president is probably a senator or a governor, maybe a businessman or a member of Congress, and they're hanging out in these circles. They don't even relate to regular people.

KURTZ: Are you saying they live in a bubble?

PINDELL: Of course they do.

KURTZ: Yes.

PINDELL: And I'm not criticizing that.

KURTZ: What happens when they come here?

PINDELL: Well, the point is, if you believe that at some place and at some time, the person who's going to be the next leader of the free world, who makes decisions on who goes to war, who wins and loses in tax policy, should have to engage and interact in regular people, who in new Hampshire - you've seen these crowds.

They are engaged, and they're not star-struck. They see these people all the time, so they're not exactly just nice. They're going to actually ask the tough question.

And my favorite moments here are not about media moments. It's when real people ask real questions of these candidates, and that's the magic.

KURTZ: And sometimes it gets lost in the coverage, but it's my favorite thing about coming to New Hampshire. People here take it very seriously. They are well informed. They ask those kinds of questions. Hopefully, we've held up that tradition by (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

PINDELL: When Hillary cries in Portsmouth, it's because a person asked a question.

KURTZ: That's a very good point that I've forgotten. James Pindell, thanks for stopping by this morning -

PINDELL: Thank you.

KURTZ: From WMUR. Still to come, MSNBC's Ed Schultz takes a stand and tells viewers what they can do with their complaints.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Before we go, on MSNBC the other night, Ed Schultz, who's a pretty fiery liberal, said, hey, Rick Santorum is really good on this stuff, as good as Barack Obama. Imagine. That was too much for some viewers and Schultz responded in a video.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: All of a sudden, I start getting all of these tweets from liberals who think that I am eating Santorum salad or I'm a turn coat and E-mails are coming in and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Shut up. Are we at the point now where on "The Ed Show" that I can't go out and do an objective story?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Good for him. Some Fox anchors have told me about taking heat from the right for challenging Republicans. If we're at the point where ideological viewers will punish any deviation from the party line on these two channels, that puts more pressure on the liberal or conservative host to just give the audience what it wants. The honest ones should push back the way that Schultz did.

Well, that's it for this New Hampshire edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again. We're back in D.C. next Sunday morning for another critical look at media.

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