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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Joe Paterno Dead at 85; Newt's Nuclear Attack on the Media; Interview with ABC's Brian Ross
Aired January 22, 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: The people in our business kept telling you he was toast. Newt Gingrich, said the media, dead, after much of his staff quit last summer -- dead three weeks ago after being buried under negative ads in Iowa. And, yet, somehow, Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary yesterday, a humiliation for the pundit pack he loves to attack.
ABC airs a sit down with Gingrich's ex-wife on the eve of the primary, reviving the issue of infidelity, and Newt denounces CNN's John King for using that report to lead off a debate in South Carolina.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Was that a mistake by CNN? And was the ABC story itself a late hit, repeating charges that Marianne Gingrich first made long ago?
We'll ask the correspondent, ABC's Brian Ross.
FOX's Juan Williams draws flack at another debate for challenging the candidates with a series of race-related incidents, including this one, to Gingrich.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Can't you see that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Was he acting as a journalist, or an advocate?
Plus, the "New York Times" ombudsman hit by a media firestorm after asking whether his paper should be a vigilante for truth?
We'll ask Art Brisbane why his column touched a nerve.
I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
KURTZ: We'll get to the campaign shortly, but the breaking news this hour, Joe Paterno is dead at 85. The former Penn State football coach who has been much in the news lately, had been hospitalized for lung cancer.
The word came this morning that he has passed. He has been with that program, associated with that school and that program for half a century, associated with college football himself. His name is practically synonymous with the sport of college football.
We're going to go right now to the Penn State University campus where CNN's Susan Candiotti is standing by.
And, Susan, as this news has broken this morning, tell us a little bit about the scene at the school where he was, you know, frankly a beloved figure?
SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's hit hard here, Howard. It's a very difficult day for the men -- for everyone who believed and loved the man that they've known as Joe Pa. For all these many years, certainly, as you can see over my shoulders, that iconic statue of Joe Paterno here, posed with his number one finger up in the air, saying we're number one. This man, the winningest coach in football.
More than one person here I have seen shedding tears. They said, you don't understand what Joe Pa, Joe Paterno, means to Penn State unless you actually are part of this community. He made Penn State. He is Penn State.
And there were candles set up here last night in a vigil. Dozens of students and non-students here coming by. They said to pay their respects as soon as they got word that his condition was downgraded to serious at the hospital, following complications for his treatment for lung cancer.
The family put out a statement saying that he fought hard until the end and how much they loved him, how much he meant to this community.
You know, behind that statue, Howard is a saying, and it reads, in Joe Paterno's words, "They asked me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write, I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."
CANDIOTTI: Yes, Howard.
KURTZ: As you know, Susan, some of the words that are going to be written, pretty prominently in the stories tomorrow, are going to be about the sex scandal involving the former assistant coach into which Paterno was drawn, did not acquit himself very admirably, and how that, unfortunately, is part of the legacy. But I would imagine that looms less large for those who loved him on the campus where you are standing right now.
CANDIOTTI: Absolutely. Although people bring that up themselves. They know what happened here in the last few months here, it's hit everyone hard here. It's affected Penn State.
But they believe in their hearts that Penn State will be able to overcome that. They say they loved Joe Paterno despite that. Many of them saying that they think that the board was wrong to fire him as head coach during all of this, and they still support him.
KURTZ: All right. Susan Candiotti, thanks very much -- from State College, Pennsylvania, this morning. We're reaching out to people in the sports world, the journalism world who cover Joe Paterno, worked with him. We'll bring you more later this hour and later throughout the day.
Turning now to the political portion of the program, it was in the annals of presidential debate a classic confrontation. John King began a CNN faceoff in South Carolina, as everyone knows by now, by asking about an ABC News interview with Newt Gingrich's ex-wife Marianne. And the former speaker, he looked furious.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: She said you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?
GINGRICH: No, but I will.
GINGRICH: I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office.
To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: When King protested that the story reported by ABC News did not come from CNN, Gingrich cut him off.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GINGRICH: John, it was repeated by your network. You chose to start the debate with it. Don't try to blame somebody else.
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Joining us now to examine Gingrich's war with the media and his stunning comeback victory in the South Carolina primary, Ryan Lizza, political correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine; Jennifer Rubin, author of "The Washington Post" "Right Turn" blog; and Terence Smith, former media correspondent for PBS' "NewsHour."
Terry Smith, was it a blunder, plain and simple, for John King to lead off that debate, very first question -- with the question about Gingrich's ex-wife?
TERENCE SMITH, FORMER PBS CORRESPONDENT: It was a gift to Newt Gingrich, I'll say that. I mean, you got the impression that Newt was rather ready for that, didn't you?
I mean, he used it. He used it effectively. And you would have to judge from the results profitably in the primary.
Was it -- was it a mistake? You can defend it on the grounds that it was the news of the day. But it certainly was maladroit. It wasn't very well done, and it would have been vastly better if it had been brought up by one of the other candidates.
KURTZ: Well, I've said it's a misstep. I think it was perfectly fine for John King to ask the question, but the way he asked it at the very top, Ryan Lizza, didn't it give the impression, fairly or unfairly, that CNN thought this was the most important thing to be discussed, you know, more important than the economy, more important than health care, more important than Afghanistan?
RYAN LIZZA, NEW YORKER MAGAZINE: Wait a minute. I totally disagree. We had over a dozen debates, right? We've gotten to every single important issue in this campaign. It's come one after another, week after week.
That was the issue that day. It was driving all the coverage of the campaign, and right now we would be sitting here talking about why didn't John King ask that question if he hadn't.
KURTZ: You are totally fine with him asking, and you are fine with him asking it at the top of the debate?
LIZZA: Absolutely is. It's what everyone was tuning in, was wondering about this campaign. It's what everyone was tuning in to see.
I mean, the genius of Gingrich here was, as Karl Rove wrote in a column recently in "The Wall Street Journal" -- these aren't really debates. They're press conferences.
And the fact --
KURTZ: And a theater.
LIZZA: And they're theater.
And the fact is, as Rove pointed out, I thought this was very shrewd. They've sucked some of the power from the campaigns to us in the press, which is great if you are in the press. And Newt's gift here is he figured out a way to sort of shift that power back to him.
KURTZ: Jennifer Rubin, it's no secret that you have been a big Mitt Romney supporter in your blog and very --
JENNIFER RUBIN, WASHINGTON POST: Oh, not exactly. Also, I'm the only one to ever come for Rick Santorum before the rest of the media caught up.
KURTZ: That's fine.
RUBIN: I have been very critical of so many other candidates.
KURTZ: You have been critical of one Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
KURTZ: Coming back to the John King question. On Twitter when this happened, you called him a dope. This is a guy who's been a respected political reporter for 25 years for the "A.P." and for CNN. I thought that was beneath you.
RUBIN: No, I think it's fair. I think the question was phrased in a very dopey fashion, which was set up --
KURTZ: OK. So, maybe it was a dopey question.
KURTZ: You called him a dope.
RUBIN: Listen, it's Twitter, in the midst of the moment.
KURTZ: Do you regret using that language?
RUBIN: The question was dopey. If he hadn't thought through it, then shame on him. It was a setup. He should have -- Newt Gingrich should thank him for the largest in kind donation in American political history because he probably won the South Carolina primary on that basis.
And for someone to ask a question in that fashion where you know he is going to hit it out of the ballpark, follow it up with a very defensive kind of silly argument that it didn't come from CNN, I thought was beneath him. And it didn't play to his benefit. It sort of transfixed the rest of the panel, subsumed the rest of the debate, and I think it was a mistake.
KURTZ: Let me pick this up after we have a chance to hear what John King said after the debate. Here he is on "THE SITUATION ROOM" talking about his decision, he said it was his decision to use that question at the top.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KING: We decided -- I decided that we were going to do it, and then we decided, don't try to be cute, don't try to hide it as part of any other discussion, just ask the speaker. You look in his business -- you know this -- you got to take your lumps.
I stand by the decision. I have my job to do. He's a politician. He has his job to do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Terry Smith, Ryan Lizza makes the point that this is what everyone was waiting for. But everyone, I think, what Ryan really means is journalists, political insiders. People obsessed with this stuff.
I wonder if there's a disconnect with what the political media complex was obsessing on, and average folks who may not care all that much about what Marianne Gingrich thinks about their marriage.
SMITH: I suspect there were people in that audience and in the audience at large that did care about what Marianne Gingrich said and were at least curious to see what Newt Gingrich would say in response.
But what stunned me was the standing applause for Newt Gingrich when he attacked John King. The delight of that audience in South Carolina, that Republican largely white audience in South Carolina, who loved to see the media skewered by --
KURTZ: Cared more about that than the messiness in Gingrich's personal life?
SMITH: More than the answer.
RUBIN: Well, I think they like the answer? Because what the answer was is: we're sick of the media. It was a non-substantive, had nothing to do with the issues of the day, and he has tapped into that vein of segmented anger.
KURTZ: The answer of the skewering.
SMITH: And that's what they liked.
LIZZA: But let me just say, I think the gap between what the average voter wants, what we sometimes think the average voter wants, which we really don't know, and what so-called insiders want in these campaigns, it's narrowed.
Everyone has access to the same information these days. Everyone is online. People who watch a Republican debate or in that Republican debate, they know exactly what the political conversation is among the insiders, because that's now been sort of universalized.
I don't think we should pretend to know what people really want. KURTZ: Right. But there are times, let's face it, when the media are simply out of touch with America. I want to come back to this conversation.
KURTZ: I -- settle down. I didn't mean to shock you. I know it's early on a Sunday morning.
An unusual move, FOX anchor Neil Cavuto tore up the format of his program to defend CNN's John King. Let's take a look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEIL CAVUTO, FOX NEWS: John King is an excellent journalist. Newt Gingrich is an excellent politician. The excellent politician swaths away at embarrassing question by trying to embarrass the guy who asks it. Now, that's to be expected.
The excellent journalist, nevertheless, asked that question -- knowing full well a crowd, and a big one, will turn on him because he did ask it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Ryan, should King have frame the question more pointedly rather than to say do you want to say something about this, so that the audience would understand why it was important. And once Gingrich, you know, just unloaded on, and took that club and whacked him, should he have come back more forcefully and defended his question?
LIZZA: Well, look, I'm not going to criticize King and it's very tough situation to be in. But I don't think the way he asked it really mattered. Gingrich was prepared for that to be the first topic of the night, and he had an attack planned on the press, no matter how it was asked.
KURTZ: But the danger then, you are the moderator of the event, is you don't want to be drawn into the position of debating the candidate, like you're not just a moderator, but a participant.
LIZZA: You don't want to make it all about you.
SMITH: You know --
RUBIN: I have to disagree. There was a great opportunity to do that because in an earlier debate, when they were speaking more generically about the issue of infidelity, Gingrich gave a rather sincere little spiel that, yes, this was important. People had to be concerned. It's part of the whole.
And I wonder if John King had read that back to Gingrich in this context and explained people's concerns, whether he would have gotten such a strong response. SMITH: To your point, should John King have come back at him. The next day at lunch, an attorney friend of mine, Mike Grouse (ph), said to me he should have. That he should have come back and said to Gingrich that he was being hypocritical.
KURTZ: Your character. You led the Clinton impeachment.
SMITH: I would I argue, no, that that's not his role. That he is a moderator and a moderator is supposed to ask the questions, frame the debate, keep it moving.
It's different than an interviewer. A moderator has a different role.
KURTZ: And speaking of framing the debate, I want to get now to the FOX debate a couple of days earlier because Juan Williams did a lot to frame that debate and the coverage of that debate and the former House speaker went back.
Now, Williams asked a series of questions of various candidates that were race-related. He is there as a FOX commentator and an African-American journalist. The one that got the most attention was this exchange.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and propose having them work as janitors in their schools.
Can't you see that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans? You saw some of this reaction during your visit to a black church in South Carolina.
GINGRICH: First of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Did it seem to anyone here that Juan Williams by focusing on race and belittling comments was pushing any kind of an agenda?
LIZZA: I think the start of the question, can't you see, rather than do you believe, that gave the question a little bit more of an activist edge, but it's a legitimate issue to raise.
RUBIN: Actually, I would take issue with that. Republicans care nothing about this, and I think part of this has to be taken --
RUBIN: Yes, relatively nothing. KURTZ: About what?
RUBIN: About the comment, the accusation of race, they don't believe it. They're not interested. It wasn't a point of controversy within the Republican primary.
This is an issue from the mainstream media and from the left with the Republican Party, but not --
LIZZA: But that's a strange standard --
KURTZ: I have to ask you to hold that thought. I got to get to break.
I talked to Juan Williams, by the way, and he said that he felt that these kinds of questions were not being asked in any of the debates, and I have to agree with him on that.
We're going to go back to the Joe Paterno story, the breaking news, if you haven't heard, about the former Penn State coach dying this morning at 85. "USA Today's" Christine Brennan will join us in just a moment.
KURTZ: We've learned this past hour that Joe Paterno is dead at 85. The former Penn State football coach has been much in the news lately. People are gathering for sort of a vigil at the campus in State College, Pennsylvania.
And joining us now on the line is "USA Today" sports columnist Christine Brennan, who has written and talked about Paterno much over the years.
And, Christine, to what extent will the stories and the talking about this legendary coach be influenced, marred, some would say, by his role in the sex scandal involving his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, which, of course, has been a huge story this past year?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA TODAY (via telephone): Yes, Howie.
I think it will be to a large extent, which is sad. I mean, there's nothing but sadness right now about this news and I know everyone, you know, is thinking of the Paterno family and his wife and coach Paterno himself. There's no way you can not feel incredible sadness for them at this time.
But you mentioned the news that broke November 5th that within a few days, he was fired by Penn State, which are words we never would have thought we'd hear that Penn State fired Joe Paterno. That is a huge part of Joe Paterno's legacy.
Sadly, it will be there. It will be part of his biography. It will be in the first paragraph or two of every story, every obituary that's written, as it should be, unfortunately.
KURTZ: Right. But at the same time, half century career as a college football coach who became an icon for the sport, just briefly.
BRENNAN: Oh, yes. No, without a doubt. And that can't be forgotten either.
But as an educator, he admitted himself that he, of course, failed, didn't do enough with the Sandusky news, and I think that is something.
But, yes, the sports end of Joe Paterno's career -- amazing, memorable, never to be forgotten.
KURTZ: Thank you for putting that in perspective. Christine Brennan from "USA Today" -- we appreciate it.
By the way, I made a mistake last night on Twitter because there was a false report that he had died last night. Got picked up by CBS Sports blog, by "The Daily Beast" where I work.
I didn't check it, I decided it was sad news. I should have been more careful. Lesson learned.
Turning now back to the presidential campaign. The tawdry tale had been public for 13 years now. Newt Gingrich dumped his second wife Marianne while having an fair with a congressional aide who is now his third wife, Callista.
Marianne Gingrich talked about what happened to print reporters in the past, but never on camera until her ex-husband started doing well in his presidential campaign.
ABC's Brian Ross sat down with the second Mrs. Gingrich for this report on "Nightline."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARIANNE GINGRICH, EX-WIFE OF NEWT GINGRICH: I said to him, "Newt, we've been married a long time." He said, "Yes, but you want me all to yourself. Callista doesn't care what I do."
BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS: What was he saying to you, do you think?
M. GINGRICH: He was asking to have an open marriage, and I refused.
ROSS: He wanted an open marriage.
M. GINGRICH: Yes, that I accept the fact that he has somebody else in his life.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But was it fair to revive that story from Gingrich's past 36 hours before the voting began in South Carolina?
I spoke earlier with ABC's chief investigative correspondent from New York. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
KURTZ: Brian Ross, welcome.
ROSS: Good to be here.
KURTZ: To air this story a day and a half before the South Carolina primary feels like a late hit. Were you uncomfortable with the timing?
ROSS: Not at all. We had done a story on Wednesday night about Mitt Romney and his accounts and funds that are in the Cayman Islands offshore, and we have the story on Mr. Gingrich and his ex-wife for Thursday. We wanted to run them in tandem, and we felt that as long as it wasn't within 24 hours, that was good for us.
KURTZ: Twenty-four hours would have been too close, but 36 or 48 hours is OK?
ROSS: Well, it sort of one news cycle to allow Mr. Gingrich to respond, and respond he did.
KURTZ: Respond he did. And we'll get to his response in a moment.
But on some level, wasn't ABC used by Marianne Gingrich to take revenge against her ex-husband, just at the time that he was surging in the polls?
ROSS: We didn't know he was surging in the polls, first of all, Howie. But we had been trying to get this interview with her since November, and if she was out to really get him, I think she probably would have pushed to do it in December when he also appeared to have been surging.
This was a long involved process, and we did the interview last Friday, and took a few days to sort of digest it, and then we were ready to go. And we had to squeeze it in to make sure that we gave Gingrich time to respond. We contacted him on Tuesday, and didn't really get any response until Thursday.
KURTZ: And on that point, Brian, during the CNN debate, while Gingrich was in the process of unloading on the vicious and destructive media, he made some very particular allegations against ABC News. Let me play that for you.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GINGRICH: Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period said the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested, because they would like to attack any Republican.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Your response? ROSS: That simply is not true. We offered two people, his two daughters from his first marriage, Jackie and Kathy. I interviewed both of them on Thursday afternoon. We included them in our "Nightline" report. Nobody else was offered to us at all.
And our request to talk with the speaker himself was also declined by the campaign.
KURTZ: So when Speaker Gingrich says ABC refused to talk to people, we were making available, that is --
ROSS: That is not true.
KURTZ: Now, what about his point that he added on about ABC taking an opportunity to get Republicans, make it very partisan point there, trying to suggest that your network had an agenda?
ROSS: We don't have an agenda, and it's the same thing we heard from Democrats when four years ago I reported on Reverend Wright and the Obama supporters felt we were out to get Democrats.
We're not out to get anybody. We're out to cover the news and to frame what's going on in this campaign. You know, our viewers and the voters in this country have a right to know all they can about the candidates, and in this case, questions of the moral character, of Newt Gingrich, was one of the campaign issues.
KURTZ: Were there some people who were at ABC who were either opposed to running the story or at least felt it shouldn't have run on Thursday so close to the primary?
ROSS: Not that I know of. Thursday was the day we ended up scheduling it, and that was the plan. The cruise ship story on Monday and Tuesday, which I was involved in, sort of disrupted some of our long range planning.
But we did want to run both the Gingrich story and the Romney stories in tandem. And Wednesday and Thursday, it worked out best.
KURTZ: Who made the final decision on that?
ROSS: Who made the final decision as to when it was going to air?
KURTZ: To go with the Gingrich story?
ROSS: Well, it ultimately, Ben Sherwood, the president of ABC news, and the executive producer of "Nightline," Jeanmarie Condon made the decision we should go on Thursday.
KURTZ: You talked about trying to get her to come on camera since November. What kind of argument did you make as to why she should sit down in front of a camera and do this interview?
ROSS: Well, she recognized that at some point people would be asking her, her comments about her husband. And I started the process because we were interested in some of the investigations into Gingrich's ethics and FBI investigation that ultimately fizzled out. That was a starting point for us in the ABC News investigative unit.
And as we talked to her more and more, she said she wanted to answer those questions and also talk about what she thought was his inability and a moral level to serve as president.
KURTZ: You know, watching the "Nightline" story, I felt that most of what Marianne had to say and she'd never done in a television setting, she has said in the past to print reporters, for example, for "Esquire," and "Washington Post" -- what made that newsworthy since the allegations themselves, the accusations about open marriage, so forth, were not new, but what was new was that you had video?
ROSS: Well, what was new was that she was speaking now, as he is a candidate for president. I don't think she had said that -- particularly the phrase open marriage had been used before. She had not commented before on the FBI undercover sting.
And she also has had things to say about him, I think, in which she defended him and his actions in Congress. So, she said as far as she knew in that context, as far as she knew in that context, he was an ethical man.
KURTZ: Well, actually, the allegation of open marriage, whether those particular words were used didn't appear in this "Esquire" interview. But --
ROSS: Those words -- I think those words or that phrase is key really in the sense. That's outside the norm for most people.
KURTZ: As you know, Brian, Newt Gingrich has acknowledged his messy marital history. He has publicly asked for forgiveness. So, in that sense, this is not new.
But was ABC, with this story, making a statement that his personal problems, his marital history, his acknowledged sexual misconduct is directly relevant to his presidential campaign?
ROSS: I think moral character is a relevant factor for every candidate now running for president. And he has campaigned on the platform involving policies that are family values and the sanctity of marriage. So, I think, yes, it is an issue.
KURTZ: So, you are saying there's a hint of hypocrisy in the former speaker's public statements versus his private conduct?
ROSS: Certainly, his ex-wife would say so.
KURTZ: All right.
And you mention the story coming a day after your story on the Mitt Romney campaign. That had to do with some investments by his former firm Bain Capital. Let me play a little bit of that story.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REPORTER: ABC News has found that millions of dollars of Mitt Romney's personal wealth is in investment funds set up in the Cayman Islands, the notorious Caribbean tax haven where secrecy is the rule.
REPORTER: You can't talk about it?
UNIDENIFIED MALE: Unfortunately not.
REPORTER: Nothing at all?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nothing at all.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: You didn't get anything from the Bain representatives in the Cayman Islands. But the Romney camp, as you know, says no tax advantages to putting that Bain Capital money in the offshore accounts, and you don't seem to have anything to dispute that. So, what's the story?
ROSS: Well, first of all, he hasn't answered the question why his money is in offshore accounts. I do know the "Wall Street Journal" followed up in our reporting, saying there are distinct tax advantages to having money in offshore accounts in the Caymans and other places. We can't really know without seeing Romney's tax returns, which to this point he has not released or made public.
KURTZ: Did you know about these Cayman accounts in the 2008 campaign, or was this news to you?
ROSS: This was news to me. "The Los Angeles Times" did a report on a 2007, but we went back and looked through the most recent disclosure form that all presidential candidates have to file and went through with Matt Mosk of our investigative unit, looking, you know, point by point at all his money and where the funds were.
KURTZ: And then, of course, you had the hardship assignment of going to the Cayman Islands yourself.
ROSS: That was a one-night tour. Left Matt back in New York.
KURTZ: All right. Well, Brian Ross, you often seemed to be involved in the controversial stories and at the same time you are always willing to come on this program and talk about it, and we appreciate that. Thanks very much.
ROSS: We're proud of what we do.
KURTZ: Thank you.
KURTZ: More on the presidential campaign coverage, in just a moment.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: We just heard ABC's Brian Ross talk about the decision by the network to put on that interview with Mary Ann Gingrich, Newt Gingrich's ex-wife. So let me ask you all very quickly, is that a story you would have run so close to the South Carolina voting?
TERENCE SMITH, FMR. MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWS HOUR: Yes. I think ABC and Brian Ross were on solid ground there. Newt Gingrich himself says character and so forth are legitimate issues.
If it was legitimate for Newt Gingrich to go after Bill Clinton on the Monica Lewinsky affair as he did, then this is legitimate as well.
KURTZ: Does it feel like a late hit?
RYAN LIZZA, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORKER": Look, the timing - you'd drive yourself crazy with that question there, primaries from January 3rd to the convention. And then you got the general election and then how close - I think big stories are very, very close to the general election.
There's a serious consideration there, but the South Carolina primary - I don't think so. This is part of the debate.
KURTZ: But my argument to Brian Ross was there wasn't anything new here except that she said it in front of a camera. She had made these accusations before. That's enough.
JENNIFER RUBIN, COLUMNIST AND BLOGGER, "WASHINGTON POST": Many people are not familiar with them. And I would argue that, in fact, there were more interesting, more relevant questions from that "Esquire" interview that Mary Ann did in 2010 that were not as sensational.
But I think ABC would have gotten more mileage out of had they asked her about - one was that he was giving speeches to morals groups at the same time he was having an fair.
He told Mary Ann allegedly, "I can say whatever I want to say. It doesn't have anything to do with what I do." That I think is a noteworthy attitude.
And secondly, of course, he was having an affair with Callista at the time he is skewering Bill Clinton. And he, at some point, should be asked about his risk-taking, his recklessness.
RUBIN: So I think there's plenty that the public doesn't know (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
KURTZ: All right. Let me move on because, as I mentioned at the top, Newt Gingrich with a huge comeback victory in South Carolina, double digits over Mitt Romney. And Fox News to its credit in its coverage last night played some older clips of some of its panel and pundits talk about the Gingrich candidacy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He didn't have a big chance from the beginning, but now it's over.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is Newt Gingrich in or out for the week?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look, this campaign is over. It's just a matter of if he announces it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: It's over. He is done. He is toast, except he won South Carolina. So no one is talking about this embarrassment.
We have buried this guy twice, once last summer, again after Iowa. Why does the press keep underestimating Newt Gingrich?
LIZZA: We never learn. The press is wrong about everything every four years in politics. And now, today, there are people saying, well, it's over for Newt. He won South Carolina, but he can never win Florida.
And so, you know, my advice to everyone is just ignore what everyone says right now about what's happening next. We don't know.
SMITH: Ryan's really right. We don't ever learn. Predictions are a dangerous business, and they're usually wrong.
KURTZ: And so let me first get Jennifer in. You're not a fan of Newt Gingrich, but he does have sort of a knack for out-foxing and showing up the press.
RUBIN: Yes. That's his great talent in life. Whether that's relevant to the presidency or not, voters are going to have to decide for themselves, but that is what he does. That's his shtick, not unlike Sarah Palin, who made what she called the "lame-stream media" the focus of her ire.
Now, my own view is that the Republicans, as a whole, as an electorate, don't really want to make that the primary issue. They want to make the primary issue the president and the president's record.
How he is going to be able to translate that into a more workable agenda that's going to appeal to Republicans and primary after primary, we'll have to see.
KURTZ: I want to connect it -
SMITH: You know, I'm looking at my notes from his acceptance speech last night. Newt Gingrich referred, again and again, to the elite media, the media elites, the growing anti-religious bigotry of the elites, how it makes the elite media nervous. I mean, he is loving this.
KURTZ: And then, what did he do this morning? He went on three elite media programs, "Meet The Press" "Daily Union" and "Face the Nation." So he obviously uses the media to his advantage while ripping what we do.
I want to come back to your immortal quote, Ryan, which is that we are wrong about everything in the press. How much does our reputation, our collective reputation, suffer for it? I mean, if we were in the stock-picking business, the clients would be bankrupt.
LIZZA: We're on twitter, on TV all the time, if you are in political journalism now. And so the pressure is to predict what's going to happen next, overanalyze things at every moment.
You're on these shows. People ask you questions, and the pressure is to be unequivocal about things. And it takes a lot of restraint not to do that.
KURTZ: Restraint that is in short supply usually.
LIZZA: What needs to be done is exactly what Fox did. There's a little bit of shaming every once in a while to remind us all that predictions matter.
KURTZ: A little bit of humility never hurts. When we come back after this break, Mitt Romney, who was the frontrunner in the GOP nomination race until, what, 24 hours ago - let's talk about the coverage of the former Massachusetts governor. Stay with us.
KURTZ: The press has really pounced on Mitt Romney this week as he has given stumbling and varied answers about whether he would release his tax returns as he has explained that he paid a 15 percent effective tax rate without an elaboration.
And Ryan Lizza, I'm wondering whether the media is feeding a narrative here, that Romney is so rich that he is kind of clueless and out of touch with ordinary folks?
LIZZA: They're covering that issue, and he - every once in a while, he will give them something to work with. The Romney campaign is very shrewd about releasing information at the most opportune times.
This is one where they stumbled a little bit. They took care of his health care mandate thing with the speech much earlier in the year last year, hasn't been as big an issue as I think people thought it would be.
And now, with the tax returns, I think they let him comment, said he would maybe do it. That allowed the press to say when, when, when, when. And now, they've come out with a somewhat unequivocal statement that, Tuesday, he will release last year's - well, excuse me. He will release 2010. But he says he's only going to release a summary of 2011.
KURTZ: All right.
LIZZA: So that's going to cause the press to come back to this in April.
KURTZ: Somewhat unequivocal. But isn't it fair game for the media, Jennifer, when Mitt Romney says, "Oh, yes. And I did some speaking fees and it was not very much." It turns out this was $347,000.
So maybe there is a narrative here that money doesn't mean to him what it means to most of us, but he seems to be helping.
RUBIN: Well, I think they mishandled this. They've acknowledged that. They're going to release the tax returns on Tuesday. And I think the response and sort of this defensiveness by the Romney camp is going to change. You saw it last night.
KURTZ: But tell me, do you think the coverage is fair?
RUBIN: I think it has been slightly unfair because they have focused on his wealth. There are many wealthy people who have been in this campaign. They never focused on the wealth that Rick Perry made off deals when he was in office. Newt Gingrich, of course, is not a man in poverty. But -
KURTZ: Let me get to -
RUBIN: But I think this is important.
SMITH: I think the issue is legitimate and has to be explored. And what you are seeing is that residual resistance to Mitt Romney among Republican voters. He never goes above 20 percent to 25 percent.
KURTZ: Except it isn't there -
KURTZ: Very briefly, many journalists have a bit of an inherent bias against somebody who was a wealthy venture capitalist who made his money the way Romney did.
SMITH: Not the wealth journalist like you.
RUBIN: Yes, obviously, they're feeding into this class, you know -
KURTZ: Before we turn on the host here, I've got to call into this.
LIZZA: I would like to see your tax returns before April.
KURTZ: I'll release all my tax returns, maybe. Brian Lizza, Jennifer Rubin, Terry Smith, thanks for joining us.
After the break, should "New York Times" reporters challenge lies and exaggerations by the newsmakers they cover? The paper's ombudsman has taken abuse on that subject. He is here, in a moment.
KURTZ: Arthur Brisbane thought he would kick off a high-minded debate on whether "New York Times" should function as a truth vigilante.
Instead, the paper's public editor admits most folks responded with comments along these lines, "Yes, you moron." Brisbane clearly touched a nerve in questioning whether reporters should aggressively challenge so-called facts offered by public figures when it could be hard to prove or disprove them.
And Art Brisbane joins me now from Boston. Welcome. And I have to ask you the reaction to this column was so fierce and so negative that - do you regret writing it or wording it as you did?
ART BRISBANE, PUBLIC EDITOR, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, there's a certain regret in that maybe I could have worded my question differently.
But I feel like the subject itself is worthwhile. And I think that if you look at a lot of what has been written - there's been a lot of good discussion about the topic.
So yes, I ended up as a pinata on this one, but the subject is important, and I think it's a reasonable thing for the public editor to have raised it.
KURTZ: And certainly, a fascinating question with people with strong opinions. You've been sort of painted as the guy who thinks it's fine and dandy to passively publish the misstatements of prevaricating politicians without challenging them.
Based on what you wrote this morning in a follow-up column, I don't think that's where you are, but that certainly is the way you have been portrayed.
Has the media coverage made of you and the column made you think at all that maybe the press doesn't always get it right when writing about its own?
BRISBANE: Well, I have been on the opposite end of an interviewer in a number of circumstances, so I know what it's like for newsmakers who scratch their heads about stories that have been published about them. You know, I do feel as if my initial effort to raise the question translated into a very strange response, one that I was not expecting, especially when you consider, Howard, that what I did in my initial blog post was to raise the question.
And I really didn't expect that asking a question would translate into a lot of people making assumptions about what I believe and attacking me for those assumption, which largely were false.
As you mentioned, you know, in the column, which I produced in today's "New York Times," I offered my opinion which, you know, I think would probably surprise some of the people who reacted to my earlier post because, no, I didn't think the "New York Times" was a truth vigilante as some people assumed I did.
And no, I wasn't asking , you know - I wasn't saying I thought it was a question whether "The Times" should do any fact-checking. Of course, "The Times" should check facts and claims by politicians, but it was a question of degree and I was looking for reader opinion.
BRISBANE: And you know, I guess I got it.
KURTZ: And you do write this morning that you think that "The Times" should do even more and devote more resources perhaps to fact- checking.
But an example in the original blog post you said - you threw this out. Mitt Romney routinely accuses President Obama of apologizing for America. You say it's not a slam dunk to contradict that.
On the other hand, "The Washington Post" fact-checking column said that in every instance, those Obama's speeches were either misquoted or taken out of context.
I guess the point you're trying to get to is whether or not it seems tendentious for journalists in straight news stories to be vigorously challenging the premises of what politicians say.
BRISBANE: well, I think it can get that way. And everybody loves the word "tendentious." I like "argumentative." I think more people understand that word.
I think that if you argue things that are essentially fairly subjective and if you argue things constantly in your straight news coverage, you come across as a combatant, to use the word Jill Abramson, the executive editor at "The Times" used.
You come across as a combatant in the political fray when that's really not the role for the straight news reporter. So if you take the apologizing for America thing, multiple fact-checking outfits weighed in on that.
You cited Politifact. There were others. And I think each had a different sense. And I have spoken to other people. You know, there's a point of view that while it's true, the president didn't use the word "apologize."
So in that sense, it's not correct to say he apologized. There's a broader sense of apologizing for something.
And it was clear the president did weigh in on some of the very controversial aspects of the Bush administration and try to set a different tone, try to establish a departure from how things were done. Maybe that wasn't apologizing but it was something.
KURTZ: Right. I understand.
BRISBANE: And just state it's not apologizing maybe goes too - maybe misses the larger point.
KURTZ: OK. I've got about a half a minute here. Jill Abramson (UNINTELLIGIBLE) saying "The Times" already does a lot of fact- checking. You think the paper should do more. Explain what you mean just briefly.
BRISBANE: Well, I think "The Times" has a fact-check feature that applies to the debates and occasionally to advertising. I think broadening it to issues outside of the debates, maybe to the campaign at large, and possibly to public affairs more generally I think is a sound move to make.
But I am saying that ubiquitous argument in daily news coverage, I think, risks creating the appearance of fighting with your newsmakers and your sources.
KURTZ: All right. Art Brisbane, public editor of "New York Times." Thanks very much for stopping by this morning. And the "Media Monitor" is straight ahead.
KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," where we look at the hits and errors in the news business.
There's no other way to put it. South Carolina's largest newspaper got hosed. It was just last Sunday that the state endorsed its pick in the presidential primary, Jon Huntsman as a man of honor and old-fashioned decency.
And it was that night that the Huntsman camp leaked word that their man was getting out of the race the next day. How did that play at the paper?
Cindi Scoppe, the editor the endorsement, put it this way to "The Guardian," "It is rather like having gone through a courtship for some period of time and finally making love with a man for him to suddenly turn around and say, 'You know what? I think I'm gay.'"
Classic case study on how journalists feel like jilted lovers. The paper went on to endorse Mitt Romney. A strange thing happened this week that transformed the complicated Congressional debate into something that, if you own a computer, was impossible to miss.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR: Gone blank. Tonight, the big fight behind what happened to some big names on the Web today and why they went away.
DIANE SAWYER, ABC ANCHOR: You may have noticed today if you happened to go to Google or Wikipedia, the popular Web sites were blacked out in protest over proposed new crackdown on the Internet.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: These and other opponents say the heavy hand of government regulation could ruin the Internet. They are taking the fight to the big media companies and the Motion Picture Association, which say new restrictions are needed to crack down on online piracy.
And it worked. Public pressure forced congressional leaders to put the bill on hold. But here's the thing - when "Good Morning America," "CBS This Morning" and the "Today" show first covered the blackout, they didn't mention that ABC, CBS and NBC have lobbied hard for the restrictive legislation, although the "Today" show did take note of it during a subsequent interview.
No initial disclosure as well on CNBC. The "New York Times" says that CNN has been, quote, "relatively diligent" in disclosing that parent company, Time Warner, supports the legislation.
This is an important story about online freedom and thievery. And it's just plain embarrassing that the networks didn't fess about the very clear financial interests of the companies that own them.
Rupert Murdoch's company is still feeling the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal that led him to shut his "News of the World" tabloid.
News Corp agreed to shell out more than $1 million to settle lawsuits with 37 hacking victims, including such celebrities as actor Jude Law, sports stars, lawmakers and others.
And here's how we know the cover-up isn't over. The victim' lawyers said in the statement that senior company officials and directors, quote, "knew about the wrongdoing and sought to conceal it by delivering deceiving investigators - deliberately deceiving investigators and destroying evidence." What a bloody mess.
Brian Williams, it turns out, is a fan of the gossipy Web site, "Gawker." In fact, NBC anchor complains that "Gawker" founder, Nick Denton, during the Christmas break, that, "Weekends have been allowed to grow awfully fallow and it was a fallow holiday period for those who check your stuff 10 times a day by iPhone." Williams has opinions about "Saturday Night Live" for instance, saying that singer Lana Del Ray had one of the worst outings in "SNL" history.
Now, we know this because "Gawker" posted Brian's E-mail and that brought a sharp reaction from the NBC press office, which demanded that the story be taken down, "That was sent in confidence as friends and absolutely never intended to be public. A speedy removal would go a long way in maintaining the trust and respect we have for your site."
Well, NBC may be a little less trusting these days. The story is still up. And now, we know what Brian Williams does with his iPhone in his spare time.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. CNN will continue to follow the breaking news story of the death of Joe Paterno, the former Penn State football coach later this day, so stay tuned for more on that.
And as for our program, you can join us again next Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. Eastern for another critical look at the media.
If you missed our program, you can also download the podcast on iTunes and you can follow us on Facebook or on Twitter. Well, I'm going to be more careful in breaking new situations.
That's it for us. "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.