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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Campaign Lull & Cable Ratings; Obama Hit Over Economy Remark; The Media Vs. Mitt

Aired June 10, 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: With Mitt Romney now running neck in neck with President Obama, the press, you may have noticed, is examining his life in great, sometimes excruciating detail.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC: In tonight's episode of how weird is Mitt Romney.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY, MSNBC: Say what you will about Romney's family dog who had to ride on the roof of the car. That's nothing, next to the reported cruelty that young Romney inflicted on one of his peers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But is Romney getting far tougher scrutiny than Obama did four years ago?

Cable news ratings are down and there may be lots of reasons, but my sense is that one of them involves this long general election. Is the public losing interest in the way we cover the presidential campaign?

The Justice Department is investigating national security leaks to "The New York Times" and critics blame the Obama team for spilling some of the secrets that put the administration in a favorable light.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: A firestorm today as Republicans claim the White House has been leaking national security secrets to the press, to make President Obama look good.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: David Sanger, the author of one of those stories, will be here.

Plus, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALTER CRONKITE, LEGENDARY ANCHOR: And that's the way it is, Friday, March 6th, 1981.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But sometimes he did things that were rather untrustworthy. Would that have gotten him fired today? We'll ask his biographer, Doug Brinkley.

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

(MUSIC)

KURTZ: Remember when the Republican primaries were going strong and we all bounced from Bachmann to Trump to Perry to Cain and the hottest story around was -- who would win Iowa?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TERRY MORGAN, ABC NEWS: And what an extraordinary night here in Des Moines. Welcome to ABC News's special coverage of the Iowa caucuses which basically ended in a dead heat.

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS: Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strong making the announcement that Governor Mitt Romney, former Governor Romney, won the Iowa caucuses by eight votes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But the tone was a bit more subdued by the time Mitt Romney officially clinched the GOP nomination.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: He goes over the top with 1,144 plus delegates he needs to get the nomination in Tampa. Texas did it for him.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: This is not a surprise. Once everybody else was effectively out of the race, and frankly before everybody else was out of the race, you could do the math pretty easily.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now we're in the dog days of the campaign and coincidentally or not, cable news ratings are down. FOX News down nearly 250,000 viewers in primetime since January, but from a much higher base of almost 2 million viewers. MSNBC in second place down 130,000 in primetime, and CNN has been hardest hit down 450,000 viewers during those primetime hours.

How much of this has to do with an increasingly dull political season?

Joining us now, Christina Bellantoni, political editor at the PBS "NewsHour"; Paul Farhi, media reporter for the "Washington Post"; and Terence Smith, former correspondent for PBS, CBS, and "The New York Times". And, Terry, cable news still immersed in this presidential campaign, 34 percent of the time according to a recent report devoted to politics, but many viewers may not be.

TERENCE SMITH, FORMER CBS CORRESPONDENT: Obsessed, I would say is the word. I'd like to put the decline in ratings down to viewers' taste and discrimination, but I doubt that's the real cause. In this case -- I mean, we're in a lull in the political campaign right now, between the freak show that we had in the early primaries where you literally couldn't believe that this was the cast of characters and this was going to -- OK, that's over. You have Romney, you have Obama. I don't think the public will pay much attention again until the conventions or the debates.

But the cable news channels don't seem to know that and haven't noticed.

KURTZ: And as you know, Christina Bellantoni, cable loves drama. Once Romney effectively wrapped things up, we get this long drawn-out six months general election.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI, PBS NEWSHOUR: There's far less tension now, particularly after Rick Santorum said he wasn't running anymore.

But what's so interesting is when you talk to voters and ask them what they want to see as far as news coverage, they frequently say they want to know the facts, they want to evaluate someone's record. At this point, a lot of news organizations held off until Romney was officially going to be this nominee.

So now maybe is the time to evaluate how he would actually implement these policies he says he would do in all of his television ads and increasingly more networks are showing punditry and people talking about what think about what someone said, not necessarily evaluating both the president's record and Mitt Romney's record.

KURTZ: Paul Farhi, cable news also has more competition from the web, from Twitter, from people getting information on their phones. I wonder in a broader sense whether that's affecting the numbers.

PAUL FARHI, WASHINGTON POST: Yes. All television is declining. All ratings for most shows starting with "American Idol" are in decline. The cable networks are in the middle of a trend that has been going down not just this year and not just last year -- last year was flat -- but since 2007, 2008 when there was a big spike with Obama and Clinton and the election that year.

KURTZ: There were two races that year for the nomination.

FARHI: And much more exciting. But the trend since then for four years has been downward generally.

KURTZ: Taking up on Christina's point, let's go back to Terry. Could viewers be turned off by the way television covers politics, the flap of the day, the ephemeral back and forth, the embarrassing sound bites? SMITH: I really think they are. You know, it's repetitious, it's predictable. The opinions of those on, say, FOX and MSNBC particularly are pretty predictable. You know what position they're going to take. And, therefore, there's not much drama in it.

And I think Christina has a good point. Let's actually try some substance and see if people are interested in what Mitt Romney thinks about taxes or the economy or what Obama might do in a second term, something he has not told us so far.

BELLANTONI: And increasingly, you're seeing, because of technology, people are turning to shut out those filters of whether it's a newspaper or a cable news network or any network really, because they want to go to the original documents. They want to watch a speech that the candidate is giving and increasingly watching it from wall to wall.

And so, you're seeing the campaigns were able to pick on this very quickly and take their message to the voters and bypass the press, which is something that has been a continual theme since 2008.

KURTZ: We do tend to get wrapped up in Bill Clinton makes some remarks that are off message from the Obama campaign message and he walks it back and we all get very energized by that. But I think voters are more interested in what are either of these gentlemen, Obama and Romney, going to do for the economy.

You were talking about longer trends for television and increased competition. Does that put cable news in an increasingly difficult position or maybe cable news audiences have peaked because most of the country has cable, which wasn't the case, you know, 15 years ago.

FARHI: Most of the country had cable and at least the cable news networks four or five years ago as well. But yes, cable news networks are basically in the same position as newspapers. Their revenue is still staying very high, because they get fees from cable operators, but increasingly the way people get news is digitally. They get it online. They don't necessarily get it from television and this puts the cable networks in the position of having to say, what do we do in terms of the long term?

And the long term might be invest more in your digital side because your television side is perpetually going to be in decline.

SMITH: But the test is if the audience comes back in a big news story. The killing of Osama bin Laden, something like that, that is an absolutely riveting thing. And in the past every time, the audience has come back and I will say they come often to CNN first.

KURTZ: But that brings up the role of CNN. It's no secret CNN's ratings have suffered the most action even though all three are down. CNN has -- I respect CNN for trying to be a straight news channel at a time when it is certainly easier or cheaper to go the partisan or opinionated route that MSNBC has done following the lead of FOX News.

What CNN executives say is that this right now is kind of a seasonal blip. The numbers have bounced up and down for 15 years and competitive season of the primaries, but before the general election really under way with the conventions and the fall campaign and that CNN admittedly is most tied to the news cycle. In other words, CNN does the best when there's a big breaking story either internationally or here at home.

FARHI: But the cable networks have figured out that you can't rely on the news cycle, you've got to get appointment television, you've got to get regular viewers and partisanship by MSNBC and FOX has been the strategy.

CNN's strategy has been to play it down the middle more. If it changes, if it went more partisan, it would be dividing a market that is already occupied by a player as well. So it's not necessarily a good strategy to go partisan. They have got their market niche.

The problem is if the news doesn't cooperate, you won't get the viewers.

BELLANTONI: And you don't always view CNN -- people don't portray it as I'm going to turn to it for politics, although it does excellent political coverage.

KURTZ: It has more viewers around the world than the other two.

BELLANTONI: And when something happens, whether it's in conflict or even a big crime or some big breaking news conference on something else, you're probably going to turn to CNN first because you're thinking more in those terms and less in the political both sides terms.

SMITH: But you know we saw it in the coverage of the Wisconsin recall election earlier this past week where the two, FOX and MSNBC, gave you a lot of opinion. I would say even advocacy of their respective positions.

KURTZ: It was like watching two parallel universes. Ed Schultz is a big union guy on MSNBC. He was openly depressed. He said it's going to be a difficult night for me.

And meanwhile, FOX News' Sean Hannity and others were saying this was the death blow to the power of labor unions because of the recall, and then Lawrence O'Donnell came on and said President Obama is the big winner tonight, even though most people would say it wasn't a good night for the Democrats.

FARHI: Well, here's the scary part, Howie. The scary part was last year was a great news year. You had the Arab Spring, you had the killing of Osama bin Laden, all these very big stories. And what happened to the ratings for the cable networks? Up 1 percent. Just 1 percent.

KURTZ: But not necessarily at that particular time when those big stories were breaking and people do tend to --

FARHI: Right, but if you are running a network, you need not just big spikes for one day or another, you need general rising ratings over a long haul. And you're not getting that, even with the news.

BELLANTONI: But it's important when you talk about the ratings not to lose sight of the whole point of journalism is to actually inform people and teach them different things. So when you think about what MSNBC or FOX are offering with saying they're on one side of the issue or another, how about really taking a look at what it actually means. That's what people continually say that they are looking for.

I asked this question on Twitter before we came on. Why don't you watch cable news? Everyone says I'm looking to learn something, not necessarily hear my own views reinforced.

KURTZ: And cable news audiences have never been huge. We're generally talking about a combined three million or so. But I think the coverage is important, even though it has the flaws that you have all described, because it drives a lot of media chatter elsewhere and eventually becomes fodder for the op-ed pages for newspapers, magazines and online.

SMITH: But I do think now if you hear of a big story, you understand that something is breaking, whereas before you might have gone to a television set and turned on CNN or whomever, whichever, now you go to your tablet or your phone.

KURTZ: Well, Christina is always on twitter. I think that's where she goes.

BELLANTONI: Exactly.

KURTZ: Before I take a break here, in the "Washington Post" this morning, the first point by-line looking back at Nixon and Watergate nearly 40 years ago. The anniversary of that breaking at the Watergate Hotel in Washington coming up.

When we come back, the press piles on after President Obama's rather clumsy comment about the economy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: President Obama had a news conference at the White House on Friday to address concerns about the economy, but he ended up making news in a way he didn't intend.

Let's take a look at the one sentence the president uttered that has gotten a lot of scrutiny, shall we say, from the media, and then we'll give you the fuller context of what Obama said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The private sector is doing fine. The private sector is doing fine. The private sector is doing fine. The truth of the matter is that as I said, we've created 4.3 million jobs over the last two -- 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone.

The private sector is doing fine. Where we're seeing weaknesses in our economy had to do with state and local government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Christina, politically it was a dumb thing to say. He walked it back a few hours later. Of course, Mitt Romney would attack it.

But there wasn't a journalist who didn't know what Obama meant. He was comparing the private sector's performance as compared to public sector and layoffs in state government.

BELLANTONI: Sure. And this is sort of the cue up the umbrage meter, right? And when campaigns react and respond, in this very specific example, the Republicans pounced on this by using Twitter and other social media to be able to get many, many people to join in. And then I think that a lot of news networks and news organizations feel compelled, oh, well something is blowing up on Twitter, we need to cover this in a way and really overdo it.

KURTZ: We can prove that. Let's roll a little montage of sound bites from the networks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

JOHN KING, CNN: Start this evening with what you might call President Obama stepping in it today.

LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS: This is not fine by any measure. It is shocking and it's unacceptable.

KIMBERLY GUILFOYLE, FOX NEWS: You can't tell us that the economy is okay. We all know the truth. You might as welcome clean on it.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Of course, terry, we should cover politicians making gaffes, but is there a gaffe obsession, do use your earlier word, that turns viewers off?

SMITH: Oh, I think it is. I think it's a reflection of what we were talking about earlier. In other words, it's a slow news season. It's a slow news period. Obama makes a statement that is Romney-esque in its clumsiness and yet, you know, everybody jumps on it, takes it literally. He knows it's not fine.

KURTZ: And Romney responds by saying we need more firemen, policemen, more teachers, did he not get the message in Wisconsin? And Democrats say he wants to layoff teachers and firemen and cops.

FARHI: Sure, attach it to all the larger issues in the campaign themes, that's the idea. Both sides will play this game. I think most people will forget about this and the Republicans' challenge is to make them not forget about this. They'll run the ads. KURTZ: What's the media's challenge? Very quickly.

FARHI: The media is going to move on. The media is waiting for the next conflict.

BELLANTONI: Well, how about putting it in context, too?

FARHI: Yes. Well, that was actually done in many of the story that say I saw that it was placed in context. But we're not going to shy away from a fight. We love a fight.

KURTZ: And the sheer reputation of a sound bite, that's why I played it three times, tends to undermine context.

Christina Bellantoni, Paul Farhi, Terry Smith -- thanks very much for joining us.

After the break a question of bias. Are journalists far more interested in Mitt Romney's personal history than they have been in Barack Obama's?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Mitt Romney has faced plenty of stories this year about his flaws and his foibles, his wealth and his past. For instance, that report of cutting the hair of a gay student back in prep school.

And that prompted conservative commentators to declare a double standard.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BERNIE GOLDBERG, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: This was also on page one today of "The New York Times," not just the "Washington Post." If the media is interested in what Mitt Romney did when he was 17 years old in high school, how come it wasn't interested in what Barack Obama did when he was at Columbia University and what kind of papers he wrote? Were they anti-American?

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: The president in his own words admitting that he rarely went to school, that he drank a lot and used drugs enthusiastically, that he even did cocaine and he said drugs, plural. Where are the media questions about this?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Liberal pundits for their part are always on the lookout for new fodder about Mitt like this long ago tale.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O'DONNELL: When Mitt Romney wasn't gay bashing kids whose hair he didn't like, Mitt Romney's other favorite sick thing to do was to impersonate a police officer.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SCHULTZ: "Politico" has waded into the debate saying Republican complaints of bias often ring true.

Joining us to examine this question in Providence, Rhode Island, David Shuster, reporter and anchor for Current TV, and host of We Act Radio's "Tax Action Now."

And here in Washington, Jennifer Rubin, CNBC contributor and author of the "Right Turn" blog for the "Washington Post."

And, Jennifer, I'm sure you saw this "New York Times" spread of the home section about neighbors being upset about Mitt Romney's mega house in La Jolla, California, lot pool, Jacuzzi, five bathrooms, the whole field. The argument isn't whether the media are fixated -- unduly fixated on Romney's wealth, his houses and what he did in high school. Your take?

JENNIFER RUBIN, WASHINGTON POST: Yes, I think so. In fact, I have a whole series and award a prize on Thursdays for the shiny object story of the week -- the nonsensical, the irrelevant, the highly partisan story that really has no information for the average voter in which to make up their minds.

It's not a question of this being different than the reporting that was done for Barack Obama when he was a new candidate in 2008 is that we're not covering the current race. We're not covering Barack Obama's performance. We're not going back to see whether his economic policies actually worked.

There's a dearth of actual analysis --

KURTZ: OK.

RUBIN: -- of what's going on at the White House, and instead they substitute this --

KURTZ: I don't necessarily agree but I want to bring in David Shuster.

"Politico" as I mentioned says the political charge of bias in this race and all the personal story about Romney often rings true. Do you disagree with that?

DAVID SHUSTER, CURRENT TV: Well, it's interesting that "Politico" would say that without any sources. And then the sources that they do cite, Ari Fleischer and Haley Barbour. They never mention the Pew nonpartisan study which found President Obama has never received more favorable coverage than Mitt Romney, only because "Politico" says so because they say somehow the "Washington Post" and "New York Times" are biased does that somehow make it true to the right.

The fact of the matter is, "The Washington Post" and "New York Times" have done plenty of stories about whether President Obama's policies worked. They had vetted President Obama back in 2007-2008. They are vetting Mitt Romney now. This argument about bias is just the usual B.S. from Republicans who are trying to political purposes to gin up their base. I give them credit, it's smart politics, but it's bunk.

KURTZ: One example cited in that political piece, a new biography is about Obama growing up. It's a terrific book. He reveals basically how much dope Obama consumed in college. "The Washington Post" ran that inside the paper whereas the front page of the story about the incident with prep school and cutting the kid's hair.

RUBIN: Yes.

KURTZ: Is that a strong example, though? I mean, who cares what pages something runs on in the digital age?

RUBIN: Well, to a certain extent it does, because first of all, it also runs on the home page on the digital age and there are a lot of people who read the deadwood paper that's on their driveway.

But David is wrong. I have written multiple posts within the "Washington Post" -- they give me a lot of running room on all the stories they are not covering, of all of the analysis they are not doing of the last four years, in terms of the last issues, policy outcomes. And that is really being ignored

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER: You just wrote a commentary saying that Barack Obama is poison for the Democratic Party. You're not exactly a neutral observer.

RUBIN: No, but --

SHUSTER: You're entitled to write whatever you want. But to suggest you're the arbiter of media bias is a little strange.

RUBIN: No, if I write 10 things that "The Post" isn't covering, "The Post" isn't covering. Whether I'm biased or not, whether I have a perspective or not, "The Post' is not covering those 10 stories. I didn't lie. No one at "The Post" comes up and says, hey, here's four stories we've done on that. They're not covering the record of Barack Obama.

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER: Jennifer, you believe there's an equivalency between Mitt Romney as a teenager forcibly cutting the hair of a gay kid who was crying and wailing and he can't remember that. You say there's an equivalency between that and Barack Obama's details pot smoking, most of the marijuana details and the pot-smoking years ago. You say there's an equivalency on how the media should treat those stories?

RUBIN: I say they are both irrelevant and should get on with the true issues. The president has an interest in not having the media examine his record, and the media is playing along. They are throwing out one shiny object, one irrelevant story after another. In fact, they're not really covering the substantive issues on which most Americans are going to vote on.

KURTZ: Well, a quick point, which is one of the reasons that the stories about Obama's drug consumption and so forth as a college student and as a young man haven't had the impact is that he told that himself in his autobiography, which diffused some of that during the '07-'08 campaign cycle.

Now, before I come back to this -- bias is not always on one side. For example, I'm still shaking my head over this four-minute video that "FOX and Friends" ran the other week, about 10 days, 14 days ago, that was presented as a great piece of reporting by FOX News, although FOX said in a statement that this hadn't been approved by senior management, nobody has been fired and no disciplinary action. They haven't really denounced it.

Let's take a brief look at that video.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Hope has been the guiding force behind the most improbable changes this country has ever known.

I cannot wait for good jobs or living wages and pensions --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: David Shuster, not quite fair and balanced in your view?

SHUSTER: No. This was a campaign commercial for a network that is run by Roger Ailes, an expert at campaign commercials. FOX should have been ashamed and embarrassed.

The fact of the matter is what I found astounding is not that FOX would put this out but their management would claim we didn't know anything about it. You cannot have a four-minute piece as highly edited and polished as that ridiculous piece is without management knowing it. I'm convinced this was a deliberate effort by FOX to put this out there.

Then they walk away and say we shouldn't have done it. Yes, come on, they knew what they were doing.

KURTZ: OK. Let's be fair, there's no evidence that Roger Ailes had anything to do with it, but obviously somebody who ran that morning program, which is an opinion program, they don't like Obama, the hosts, and that's fine. It just seemed like a parody of a campaign commercial.

I want to come back because one of the things that I hear echoing in the blogosphere and elsewhere, Jennifer Rubin, is -- well, Mitt Romney is a rich guy, and the press is obsessed with that. But what about John Kerry?

I think John Kerry faced some of this. Not as much in 2004 because it's his wife's money that he inherited. But all the things about Romney being rich and also whether it's his houses, a couple of Cadillacs, his wife has a horse that I guess is going to be in the Olympics or training for the Olympics -- isn't that fair to report when you're running for president?

JENNIFER RUBIN, CNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Sure. But all of this is a matter of proportion. All of this is a matter of putting things in context. He's also given more in charity than we'll ever make in our lifetimes in income.

So a balanced coverage would also point out that although he's not worth eight figures, the president is worth seven figures. These are not one rich guy and one poor guy. They're two guys, one extraordinarily rich and one just super-rich.

So I think there's a limit to what you want to do and that repetition and the plethora of these stories is really excessive.

KURTZ: I would argue, David Shuster, one of the reasons -- go ahead.

DAVID SHUSTER, CURRENT TV: Jennifer, is it balanced when the "New York Times," four weeks before the 2004 election, does a story about John Kerry's story and his houses?

I mean, let's be consistent here. If you think it was unbalanced for the media to talk about this mansion that Mitt Romney is building in San Diego and the impact it has on its neighbors, shouldn't you also publicly say now that it was unbalanced for the "New York Times" to talk about John Kerry's wealth four weeks before the election back in 2004?

RUBIN: The "New York Times" was running such a full-time ad for John Kerry. Don't beat up your kind in the coverage in 2004.

SHUSTER: Come on.

KURTZ: You guys can debate the 2004 campaign off the air. I would just make the closing point that I think the reason that Romney is getting so much scrutiny right now is because the press belatedly, in my view, has finally come around to the view that he may win this election.

I think, a month ago, the conventional wisdom was the president is going to skate in. And now, with the polls being tight, with Romney outraising him in the latest period and the economy having that bad jobs report, there is a sense that this is going to be a very close election and we could possibly be looking at a Romney administration.

And that's the reason that the scrutiny I think has jumped up a notch. David Shuster, Jennifer Rubin, thanks for stopping by.

Up next, is the Obama administration leaking classified information to make the president look good? David Sanger of the "New York Times" on being at the center of this growing storm. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: The "New York Times" has landed two major national security scoops in recent weeks. And now the Justice Department and the Senate are investigating.

One story by David Sanger reported that President Obama has intensified cyber warfare against Iran's nuclear program.

The other said Obama is personally approving strikes against suspected terrorists on what was dubbed the "kill list." The story sparked questions about the source of these leaks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: Bipartisan outrage in Congress right now over classified information leaks. Is the White House responsible?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: President Obama dismissed that notion on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It's wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But is it that clear cut? Joining us now is David Sanger, the "Times" chief Washington correspondent and author of the new book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."

Now, I'm not suggesting in any way that you get spoon-fed these stories. These are hard stories to piece together, particularly on national security.

But your story about the computer warfare against Iran, including what Obama said in a tense Situation Room meeting seems like information the administration wanted out.

DAVID SANGER, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES": You know, I have my doubts about that. And I have my doubts about that for several reasons.

First of all, this was 18 months of reporting, long before the political season started.

KURTZ: Right.

SANGER: Secondly, when you're running a cyber-warfare campaign and you're doing it at a covert program, I think there are probably a lot of people who didn't necessarily want that out. I'm sure there are some people on the political side who, you know, always like to read stories about the president in the Situation Room handling presidential problems. There are also people who are less enthusiastic about that.

But the central point, Howie, is you open up the beginning of this book and you begin to read about Olympic games, this classified program.

The first four pages of the book are all about what they did when the program went awry on President Obama's watch.

The virus, the worm that was supposed to stay secret gets out of the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant and gets onto an Iranian engineer's computer, replicates itself around the world and suddenly the entire world in 2010 knows that there's a computer virus aimed at Iran.

KURTZ: It's a very dramatic story. But in your book, in the acknowledgements, you say scores of officials and former officials helped you.

And you say that you actually credit two of the Obama administration spokesmen on national security for helping set up interviews at all levels of White House staff.

SANGER: Right.

KURTZ: All I'm saying is some of these stories you can't do without some cooperation from the White House administration.

SANGER: Absolutely. This is a book about the totality of the national security strategy of President Obama, what's worked and what hasn't.

It covers Afghanistan and Pakistan. It covers Iran. Of course, it covers China. It covers how they reacted to the Arab spring.

Did I talk to a lot of people in the administration? Of course. How do you report a book about that without talking to people who were involved in the room? But you know, since you read a section that refers to the entirety of the book.

KURTZ: OK. And in the "New York Times" kill list story, the story about the targeted strikes, Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, was quoted on the record, which said to me there was a certain degree of cooperation here.

SANGER: And in this book, you will see Mr. Donilon quoted on the record --

KURTZ: I see Mrs. Hillary Clinton --

SANGER: Hillary Clinton quoted on the record, the treasury secretary, many people, many layers down. KURTZ: I just wanted to clarify that. But among the critics of these national security leaks have been a couple of prominent Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein who had this exchange with Wolf Blitzer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Are you saying you're not ruling out the possibility that journalists like David Sanger of the "New York Times" who was here in "THE SITUATION ROOM" yesterday, that they should be prosecuted as a result of this classified information being released?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-CA): Well, don't put words in my mouth.

BLITZER: No, I wanted to just clarify that.

FEINSTEIN: Well, I didn't say that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: A little sobering to see this debate on television about whether you should be prosecuted for publishing the story.

SANGER: Yes, a little bit. But look, there's a reason that we publish stories like this. The "New York Times" is here, as many newspapers are, to publish stories about issues of public interest.

You just had a panel on here who was saying all we've been doing is doing shiny objects and the latest horse race and so forth and so on.

Some of that has got to get covered. We've got a big election underway and that's all interesting and important stuff, so is how Barack Obama has pursued the most important issues of national security, whether it's how he's doing drone strikes and what rules he sets up about it or the first use of -- sustained use of cyber weapons, a new weapon of war.

Can you debate those out in the open? Of course, we can, because after the atomic bomb was dropped, we spent the entire Cold War debating the rules under which the United States should use nuclear weapons.

It took us 20 years to come to the conclusion that we probably shouldn't use them except in the most extreme case. We're still debating drones.

KURTZ: These are very important issues, just to clarify, because a lot of people say, "Why does the "Times" need to run this stuff? It helps our enemies," and that sort of thing.

The "Times" editors went to the administration and said, "We are going to go with the story." Do you have any objection? And was there any point where anybody from the White House or the administration said do not publish this? SANGER: No one from the White House, no one from the administration ever said, "Do not publish this." We have said that they had asked for some technical details to be left out and we complied with that.

But the most important thing I think to remember here is there are no more vital questions than how the president of the United States uses American power.

And the very fact that we were using cyber war against Iran is something we've written about back in early 2011 and the Iranians knew when that virus got out.

KURTZ: Right. Also this week, a "Wall Street Journal" reporter, Gina Chon, took a leave of absence at the "Journal," says it's looking into an embarrassing episode in which she had a bunch of romantic E- mails with Brett McGurk, who was now nominated as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

They're now married, in fact. And it appeared that he was perhaps telling her some confidential details at the time about a troop agreement with Iraq that he was negotiating which seems to be way out of bounds for a reporter.

But let me come back with this final question. I saw this in the Bush administration. Don't all administrations denounce leaks, get on their high horses, as terrible but are willing, in some selected instances, to help reporters with stories that perhaps cast that administration in a positive light?

SANGER: Or do we explain a story that doesn't cast them in a positive light? I spent a lot of time with the Bush administration after they failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, talking to them about how that happened.

And you know, there's another element of this that's important, Howie, which is that reporters need to have a channel to go when they are getting ready to write a story which got built from the bottom up, and as I said, this took 18 months, and be able to say, "OK, if there's something operational, if there's something that's going to put somebody's life in danger, we need to talk about it." And they need to be able to find a way to do that.

KURTZ: David Sanger, thanks for helping to illuminate how this works. It's a controversial story with these leak investigations that is going to continue.

After the break, he was the most trusted journalist in America, but a new biography of Walter Cronkite reveals a darker side to his career. Author Doug Brinkley in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Walter Cronkite was one of the great journalists of the 20th century. Of that, there can be no doubt. And he led the country through many historic moments. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALTER CRONKITE, FORMER TV JOURNALIST: The lunar module cutting itself free from the command module, beginning the maneuvers which should place it on the surface of the moon.

Man on the moon. Boy.

It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But a new biography called "Simply Cronkite" paints a somewhat darker picture. I spoke with author Douglas Brinkley here in the studio.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(on camera) Doug Brinkley, welcome.

DOUG BRINKLEY, AUTHOR, "SIMPLY CRONKITE": Thank you for having me.

KURTZ: You found in this book, among other things, that Walter Cronkite did something grossly unethical in an interview with LBJ shortly before Johnson's death. Explain how that happened.

BRINKLEY: This comes from Tom Johnson and others dealing with the LBJ library.

KURTZ: Johnson, a former aide to LBJ as well as the future president of CNN.

BRINKLEY: Absolutely. And Cronkite got a big Johnson interview because of his memoir, "The Vantage Point," was going to be done with CBS connection. So Cronkite went to the ranch of LBJ's. He did a long interview of him.

KURTZ: And then?

BRINKLEY: They would overdub -- they cut Cronkite to do different frown and facial expressions. And so by the time it got --

KURTZ: They would take a pre-existing answer that the former president of the United States gave and Cronkite would react to it, not in real time, but in something shot later.

BRINKLEY: You got it.

KURTZ: Absolutely (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BRINKLEY: And Lyndon Johnson -- and went crazy on CBS and they ended up rectifying it. But that was a fairly common practice back in TV in that era. But to do that with the former president that late in the game was beyond the pale. KURTZ: Unconscionable. Cronkite also had a secret meeting with Bobby Kennedy in 1968 as Johnson's candidacy was faltering. I found that stunning. Explain what happened.

BRINKLEY: Remember, Walter Cronkite was with the U.P. during World War II. They were all in this together. It was, you know, winning the war so journalism had a propaganda aspect to it.

Cronkite was pro-NASA, pro-Federal Government, was, you know, pro-Vietnam War from '65 to '68.

KURTZ: Until --

BRINKLEY: He goes to Tet, does all the reports from Vietnam, comes back and does a February 27th, 1968, the primetime special saying that Vietnam was a stalemate. Big ripple effect.

KURTZ: Big ripple effect. That changed the debate. It shook Lyndon Johnson. Why did he have -- we'll come back to the other point in a minute. Why did he have so much authority, one reporter, one anchor?

BRINKLEY: He had that much because he became beloved. He brought the nation through -- we were used to him in the 1950s. He was one of the inquisitors of the Nixon-Kennedy debate.

But mainly the Kennedy assassination when he guided America almost as pastor-in-chief through that long weekend and just started building an audience, Mr. Steady Eddie. TV was news. And also, some areas only got CBS News.

KURTZ: Well, that's the thing. I mean, CBS and NBC had huge audiences. There was no cable television and all that. So come back to the evening in the Senate office, Bobby Kennedy, and Walter Cronkite tells him what?

BRINKLEY: Cronkite recognized that Morley Safer was right. In '65, Morley told him that the Vietnam War was a bust. Cronkite now not only did that report, but he went to see Bobby Kennedy, sat with Frank Mankewicz, then Kennedy press secretary and said, "You've got to run for the presidency. You've got to challenge Lyndon Johnson."

Cronkite turned anti-war and he felt a moral obligation to try to end Johnson policies. For people in your world, that is an unconscionable --

KURTZ: That's a line that should never be crossed. And then he compounds it by interviewing Sen. Kennedy on the air three days before he wound up throwing his hat into the '68 presidential race.

You know, we all remember -- I knew Cronkite. I liked him. I respected him. He was a warm guy, but in his heyday, he was seen as Mr. Objectivity.

You report that in his radio commentaries, which didn't get widely picked up, he was quite a liberal and said some pretty harsh things about the Nixon administration.

BRINKLEY: That's right. And he would do a regular commentary. Most people don't go back and look at CBS radio reports.

Cronkite didn't write all of them. There were scriptwriters for some. Nevertheless, Lyndon Johnson knew about Cronkite's radio reports. He even said, "I can't believe he is getting away with this."

But at that point, Lyndon didn't mind. But the Nixon people found out and Chuck Colson went after Cronkite, but to no avail.

Everybody had made a decision in America. They liked Walter Cronkite. They didn't want to hear anything negative about him.

And the journalists, the press world thought of him as like the king daddy of the fourth estate, Uncle Walter, almost a patriarchal figure to young reporters, so he had immunity.

KURTZ: He had immunity, but I can't imagine, even if he was as popular today as he was in the '60s and '70s, that he would enjoy that immunity today in the world of 24/7 cable, bloggers, Twitter.

I would imagine his image in some of these things -- he even took a freebie deal from Pan Am airlines -- his image far more tarnished than it was at that time.

BRINKLEY: Absolutely. But he was a pioneer of TV. The rules were being made in a hurly-burly fashion. Don Hewitt was creating the industry of broadcast news in many ways.

But no, the Cronkite -- what some people call the golden age of TV, but Cronkite's authority couldn't happen today since we had Telestar(ph), and we have, you know, thousand cable channels, the Internet.

KURTZ: Right.

BRINKLEY: And so I'm writing about a historic figure of an important moment in American journalism and equating him to Walter Lippman and Edward R. Murrow.

KURTZ: Right. Doug Brinkley, thanks very much.

BRINKLEY: Thank you, Howard.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Still to come, Barbara Walters makes an international blunder, MSNBC' Chris Hayes apologizes to American soldiers and CNBC reporter falls into a Twitter trap. "Media Monitor," straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Time now for "The Media Monitor," our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business. Barbara Walters has a long track record of making news with world leaders. But this week, she was the one making headlines with this serious international stumble.

You may recall that the ABC veteran landed an exclusive sit-down last December with Syrian strong man, Bashar Al Assad.

The woman who helped arrange that interview is the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the U.N., Sheherazade Ja'afari.

Starting the day after it aired, Walters tried to help her get admitted to Columbia University or land an internship with CNN's Piers Morgan.

In an E-mail exchange obtained by London's "Daily Telegraph," Walters wrote, "You have been much in my thoughts. I am off today to interview my own President and First Lady. Are you alright? I would love to hear from you. Once more, my gratitude and affection, Barbara."

Ja'afari responded, "You can never be a better mom to your adopted daughter (me). Will buy you some jewelry from Syria. Let me know if you need anything else from there! Thank you so much. Your daughter, Sherry."

Walters wrote a former ABC News executive at Columbia, "She is brilliant, beautiful, speaks five languages. Anything you can do to help?"

In a statement, Walters said while she declined to help get Ja'afari a job at ABC, "I did offer to mention her to contacts at another media organization and academia, though she didn't get a job or into school. In retrospect, I realize that this created a conflict and I regret that."

I have enormous respect for what this 82-year-old woman has accomplished in her career. But the problem with helping the woman who assisted Walters in getting the interview with the leader of a brutal and bloody regime is that it had the air of a quid pro quo.

What Chris Hayes did on Memorial Day weekend wasn't just a gaffe or a poor choice of words. If you missed it, here is what the MSNBC host had to say about fallen American soldiers being described as heroes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC: I feel uncomfortable about the word "hero" because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: This was an outrage. These are people who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country, carrying out of the flawed decisions made by political leaders. Last weekend, he apologized.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HAYES: I can understand entirely why someone reading those headlines would think, at a very minimum, "What a jerk" and basically said, "My brother died in Iraq. Who the hell are you to say he wasn't a hero? And uncomfortable? Really, Mr. TV pundit? It causes you discomfort that someone might call my brother a hero? Well, too bad."

And reading those messages, I had to agree, "Who was I to say who is and isn't a hero?"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Let's give him this -- that was a real heartfelt apology.

CNBC's Darren Rovell was hunting for a story on Twitter and a guy named Tim responded with tantalizing news he runs an escort service for NBA players.

After several E-mail exchanges, Rovell posted a story on CNBC's Web site about the call girls costing as much as $4,000. But as reported by the sports site, "Dead Spin," Tim turned out to be a bored 18-year-old high school student playing a prank.

Rovell has now apologized saying, "He duped me. Shame on me. I apologize to my readers. There will always be people out there who want their 15 minutes of fame and not really care how they get there."

Well, I've got to blow the whistle on that explanation. Rovell went with the story based on some unknown guy who E-mailed him without so much as a meeting? That was an embarrassing air ball.

That is it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern for another critical look at the media. "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.