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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Mitt Romney's Overseas Trip; The Media and the Aurora Massacre; Ferreting Out Facts
Aired July 29, 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: Remember how the media went wild over Barack Obama's overseas trip four years ago? Well, Mitt Romney is getting a very different reception for his visit to London with the British press ridiculing him for a gold medal gaffe.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAN CRAWFORD, CBS NEWS: I picked up a copy of the tabloid "The Sun" this morning. And look at its headline, can you see it? "Mitt the Twit."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But is the American press being unfair in its Olympic scoring?
The gun control debate explodes in the media in wake of the Colorado movie massacre with pundits accusing each other of exploiting the tragedy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: The left wing and gun control advocates are wasting no time politicizing the tragic shooting in Colorado.
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC: When a mass murderer uses 100-round ammunition clip to kill and wound as many people as he possibly can, our government believes that we should do nothing.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
KURTZ: Are the media inflaming the issue?
Plus, the London Olympics underway, NBC News pulls out the stops to promote the network's coverage of the games.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Back here in London with Tower Bridge lit up so beautifully behind us, with less than 24 hours to go now until the opening ceremony.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Is this promotion in the guise of news? We'll talk about that and more with veteran sports writer Frank Deford.
I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
KURTZ: It's becoming standard practice for a presidential candidate to buttress his diplomatic credentials by meeting with world leaders. When candidate Obama did it in 2008, all three network anchors flew overseas to interview him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: I'll be reporting next week from the Middle East. We'll have the first one-on-one interview with Senator Obama.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But the coverage of Mitt Romney's visit to Britain, Poland, and Israel turned sour just as he was arriving in London. And when the visiting American offended the Brits by expressing concern about security plans to the Olympics -- well, reporter and pundits were quick to give him a failing grade.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: What Romney answered in that question is unbelievable. It's beyond human understanding. It's incomprehensible. I'm out of adjectives.
O'DONNELL: Well, he did it. After a day in London, the British press is actually saying Mitt Romney is worse than Sarah Palin.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
KURTZ: Was this a major international incident or something that was pumped up by the press?
Joining us now here in Washington, Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" and a CNN contributor. Jim Geraghty, contributing editor at "National Review." And in New York, Keli Goff, contributing editor at Loop21.com.
All right. Ryan, I'm going to be contrarian here.
So, Romney tells Brian Williams about disconcerting things about the security preparations for the games. The press has been pounding him. But he didn't say anything that wasn't in the British papers, and NBC didn't even use the initial sound bite because it didn't consider it particularly newsworthy.
RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Classic, classic Michael Kinsley gaffe. He just said something that everyone else was saying, something that was the truth. But if a politician says it, it gets you in a lot of trouble. And remember, the British press has an outrage machine the likes of which we do not understand in the United States. And they have a hair trigger for the -- someone from outside of the U.K. offending them.
And so, you know, this was a British press -- this was driven by the British press. I don't think the American press would have picked up on it unless we saw those headlines over there. Unless we saw the outrage that the British --
LIZZA: -- the street generated. You disagree?
KURTZ: I do.
Let me come back to historical perspective from Keli Goff. You saw the coverage. We all saw the coverage of Obama in '08 when he went overseas. It's hard to argue with this Romney trip that the media are taking the same approach.
KELI GOFF, LOOP21.COM: No, but although I will say, though, that you have to keep in mind that there were specific reasons why the coverage was slightly different, Howard. For one, if you remember at the time that then-Senator Obama visited in 2008, polling showed that the British public overwhelmingly wanted troops out of Iraq. And since that was the centerpiece of his campaign, there was a level of jubilation and sort of the red carpet being rolled out for the then- senator with this idea that he would help support all of these troops coming home.
And so that was part of the focus of the coverage. Then you had his speech in Berlin, and that sort of solidified his international rock star status. So, you know, when you compare the coverage, it's not entirely a fair comparison because I think there are specific reasons why some of the international press was a little more excited that President Obama was coming.
KURTZ: Jim Geraghty, I disagree with Ryan to this extent. I think even if the British press said nothing, the American press is also on gaffe patrol and would have called Romney out on this. But he did spend a couple of days trying to walk back his remarks about security preparations and some conservative commentators said he royally screwed it up.
JIM GERAGHTY, NATIONAL REVIEW: Look, he gave the mayor of London the excuse to say, this terrible American coming along and saying we're not ready. Now, one of the issues was that there were 6,400 secure personnel short like weeks before the election. The British press has been beating the hell out of the security contractor saying that this is an issue --
GERAGHTY: Wait, wait, wait. You know, that's our job. Not your job -- KURTZ: Why is the false setting of at least the American coverage that this was a really dumb thing for Mitt Romney to do if, in fact, what he said was basically true?
GERAGHTY: Because we're -- we have a hay trigger for outrage. But basically people are looking for it. That basically the Romney campaign made a huge deal out of "you didn't build that" and "the private sector is doing find" and all that stuff. Everybody who's rooting against Romney needs something else. And this was the most convenient, you know, raw tomato to throw at him in the circumstance.
LIZZA: He said something that was true that -- we should stipulate. What Romney said was true. It was disconcerting, that the Brits weren't ready or had security issues. As one --
GERAGHTY: They were shutting down Heathrow --
KURTZ: But it's rarely mentioned in the coverage. It's just Romney stepped in. He has a tin ear for this sort of stuff.
Go ahead, Kelly.
GOFF: Well, I was going to say, though, there's been a little bit more to it than that. We've had this conversation on your show before about when certain stories become part of a larger framework of a narrative that the media has already sort of set up. And so, they give less leeway when someone steps right into it. That's why when Dan Quayle misspelled potato, it was sort of funny and became this long term, you know, mythologized thing about him because people already have this mini-narrative that we wasn't particularly, you know, intellectual or bright.
That thing with Mitt Romney is, you know, we know he has issues with being aloof, with being likable. And so, this story sort of plays into that, that he can't even be "polite," quote-unquote, when he goes to a foreign country. So, therefore how could he be a diplomat. It's part of the larger narrative that's been painted about Governor Romney.
LIZZA: I think she hit a point there. It was true but not diplomatic. That's the peg for the press if you want to blow this up --
KURTZ: Oh, my God. He wasn't diplomatic. I'm just explaining --
LIZZA: I'm not saying, you know, I wasn't very outraged with what he said. But I'm saying that's the peg in the press.
KURTZ: You know how a lot of FOX News shows deal with this. They didn't deal it with or played it down. Obviously, if Obama had made a similar gaffe, I think it would have been big news on FOX.
But is this the classic issue that pundits get exorcised about that becomes a two, three, four-day flap, and then voters don't really care about?
LIZZA: Yes. You know, I've actually had a lot of good political scientists studying this campaign, looking at the gaffes, and showing if any of the gaffes or any of the controversies that we cover so religiously, if they are actually moving the polls. So far this campaign they're not moving the polls.
GOFF: That's partially true because -- that's only partially true because remember, sort of death by 1,000 cuts. It's true that one gaffe rarely takes out a candidate. But a series of gaffes becomes a thing that they go viral. They become campaign ads. That's when it ends up making a difference in the campaign.
GERAGHTY: Anyone who's undecided is not paying attention right now.
KURTZ: Well, speaking of gaffes, even before Romney touched down in London, there was this earlier flap kicked off by the British paper "The Telegraph" that quoted an unnamed Romney adviser saying that the Obama White House didn't understand the shared Anglo-Saxon heritage between the United States and the United Nations.
Brian Williams in that same interview we talked about asked the candidate about this in London. Here's what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: What's your reaction to this quote from an adviser of yours in "The Daily Telegraph" here in London?
MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, first of all, I'm generally not in enthusiastic about adopting the comments made by people who are unnamed. I have a lot of advisers.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: OK. So unnamed adviser, quoted by "The Telegraph," and the press pounces on the story.
LIZZA: Look, I agree with Romney in this case. It's really, really unfair for a candidate or the president to be nailed by something controversial that an anonymous official who we have no idea who this person is -- like you said, these guys have a lot of advisers. I hate to be critical, but the British press and we have a similar situation in the Israeli press today with an anonymous quote about the Obama side, they don't have the same standards we do in the states, all right? And I -- I don't necessarily --
KURTZ: You don't have confidence?
LIZZA: I don't have a lot of confidence that this was his top aide telling this reporter that this is what Romney believes.
KURTZ: And yet it hit the media megaphone here in the U.S. GERAGHTY: If this is, you know -- Stu Stevens or Beth Meyers saying it, this is a very big deal. If it's Ervin Smith (ph), the copy guy who refills the water bottle, it's not very big deal.
Also, there was nothing in the statement said anything, you know, racial or ethnic heritage --
KURTZ: Let's let Keli in on this.
GOFF: We're going to disagree. First of all, what I found really amusing about, as heavily as this quote was covered, no matter who said it, is that all the announcers left out the fact that President Obama has his own Anglo-Saxon heritage. He's half English and half Welsh on his mother's side. That gets lost in these conversations, and in the coverage, frankly.
But in terms of -- I agree with Ryan, though, that there's a real problem here when you're going to use an anonymous source for something that this controversial. I think that goes for both campaigns.
KURTZ: You know, I'm listening to you all talk about both of these incidents, and it sounds like --
LIZZA: We're being reasonable, aren't we?
KURTZ: You may be reasonable, but it sounds like the press is driving stories that you all agree in one form or another, either not very important, flash in the pan, based on unnamed sources, hyped up by the Brits. Not a terribly impressive performance.
LIZZA: I would say that the American press had every right, though, to cover the British press' outrage over the -- you know what I mean?
KURTZ: Even if it's utterly manufactured?
LIZZA: Basically, yes. He's going over there, and you're basically -- you're covering this as a foreign story, and the story is local press absolutely bananas over this comment. That's a story.
KURTZ: By the way, the other story you referred to appeared this morning in the Israeli newspaper "Haaretz," unnamed U.S. official, again, unnamed, quoted as saying that President Obama's national security adviser had talked to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about contingency plans to attack Iran. That is now being denied by Israeli officials -- conveniently timed for Mitt Romney's visit. Romney, by the way, in Israel today, is going to give a foreign policy speech, in the noon Eastern hour. CNN will carry that.
Before break, I want to mention all over Twitter this morning, I'm seeing talk about a fake op-ed piece by Bill Keller, the former executive editor of "The New York Times" about WikiLeaks. Keller himself tweeted that this is not him and please don't pay attention. Some other people re-tweeted, meaning they sent it out, including another "New York Times" columnist. So, this goes to show you can't believe everything you read on line.
When we come back, "The Washington Post" says Mitt Romney is losing the likability sweepstakes. Does that matter?
KURTZ: "Washington Post" has a piece out this morning by Karen Tumulty which she writes of Mitt Romney, Americans don't like him as well as they do Barack Obama. Citing a 60 percent to 30 percent divide on the likability question in the "USA Today" poll.
And, Keli Goff, the president not wild about Mitt Romney either. He's been critical of his personality among other things.
KELI GOFF, LOOP21.COM: Look, but the only good thing that happened for the Romney campaign in terms for press coverage this week is that that girl from "Twilight" got caught in a love triangle or else there probably would have been hundreds more negative articles, you know, about the campaign. That took a little bit of the heat off.
But we've seen this movie play out before, Howard, the only difference is there was a different leading man, but also from the state of Massachusetts and also running for president. A lot of the coverage that Romney has received in terms of likability is very reminiscent to the coverage that Kerry received.
KURTZ: But that doesn't make it fair, the fact that they've done it to someone else before.
GOFF: Well, here's the thing, though, Howard, is that unfortunately, do you know what the most accurate predictor of the president has been for the last seven elections? The brew test -- as in which candidate would you prefer to have a beer with. That doesn't speak particularly well of the American electorate, but that's a fact.
So, you know, we can't entirely blame the media for covering something that does tend to affect the outcome of elections, which is apparently likability.
KURTZ: Interesting point. Romney, of course, is a Mormon and doesn't drink beer, but I think --
KURTZ: -- your larger point is well taken. But then Romney doesn't help himself with his contentious relationship with the press. He has done a round of interviews and network correspondence this morning. We'll be seeing those soon. But then h reacted to the bad press over to the London flap by closing a fundraiser that he had in Israel and reporters, of course, are not happy by that. They traveled half way around the world and they can't even get a pool reporter into seeing this fundraiser.
JIM GERAGHTY: Yes, it looks like a catch-22. If you open yourself off any little gaffe, as we talk in the last segment, would be blown up to epic proportions. But if you close yourself off, it gives them a reason to dislike him more.
I looked back to see what was the favorability rating of the whole bunch of folks at a similar point, a similar years. It's not actually that much better than Romney's doing now.
In June 1992, Bill Clinton had a favor ability rating of 60 percent. This is when Gennifer Flowers and all that stuff was going on. Reagan in 1980, on the way to a big win, 42 percent. Bush in 2000, 37 percent. George H.W. Bush -- these were not spectacular numbers.
I think the issue is that in midsummer, Americans don't like politicians very much.
KURTZ: Well, especially in a year when you're getting pounded with all of these negative ads by both sides. And so, both candidates' negatives or unfavorability rating up over 40 percent this latest NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll.
Let me come back to this likability question. Is the whole thing overdone by the press? Maybe this year, the public will want somebody who can fix the economy and doesn't particularly care if it's the most charming person on the planet.
LIZZA: Well, look, I think one of the things holding Obama up despite the bad economy is those likability numbers. It seems to be giving him a couple more point --
KURTZ: So, this is a legitimate story in your view?
LIZZA: I think it's legitimate, but I think actually because of the polarized electorate, these guys have a very, very -- you know, a narrow range they operate in, both their approval and their likability. Romney's approval or likability is never going to get that low, at least not in this election because the base of the Republican Party is going to support him. Same thing with Obama. They have a --
KURTZ: I've got to go.
LIZZA: They have a floor. They have a pretty -- you know, it's in the 40s.
KURTZ: Well, it is true that Americans like to be comfortable with their president or their presidential candidates. I don't think we've heard the last of this.
Jim Geraghty, Keli Goff in New York, Ryan Lizza -- thanks for joining us this morning.
Up next, in the wake of the Colorado movie massacre, are the media playing the same polarizing role in the debate over gun control?
And are news outlets focusing too heavily on the deranged shooter?
KURTZ: There was no question that the gun control debate would be high the media's agenda after the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. I felt it should be a decent interview of a couple of days while we focused on the victims of this awful tragedy. But after the weekend, the decibel level really got ratcheted up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Predictably, far left ideologues are demagoguing the mass murder in Colorado.
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC: Tonight is the night to welcome Bill O'Reilly to the ranks of the far left loons who want more gun and ammunition control.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
KURTZ: So are the media conducting a responsible debate here? And is the news business lavishing way too much attention on the crazed gunman?
Joining us now here in Washington, Jane Hall, former reporter for "The Los Angeles Times," now an associate professor of journalism at American University. And Fred Francis, former NBC senior correspondent and co-founder of 15-seconds.com.
Fred, we absolutely should have a gun control debate in this country after such a tragedy. Not three seconds later, but certainly a couple days later. But some in the media seem to relish shouting over this.
FRED FRANCIS, 15-SECONDS.COM: There's nothing else to shout at now. OK? Frankly. Look at the way the political campaign is going. It's pretty weak. And then when you see both candidates, Governor Romney and President Obama, are running away association far away from this issue so fast as if somebody were shooting at them with an AR-15.
So, you know, it draws the attention of the media, and not just because it was so horrific but it draws the attention because there's little else to talk about.
KURTZ: Obama has uttered a single sentence about the shooting, maybe two. And Romney who signed an assault weapon ban he was governor of Massachusetts, has stayed away, as well.
But it's almost -- let's talk about the tone, Jane. It's as if the media polarization matches the political polarization. I understand it's a very sensitive issue. Even when we get to something like should there be a limit on high-powered magazines. Should this guy have been able to get 6,000 rounds of ammunition through the mail?
It just seems -- I mean, I'm just wondering whether we are bringing more heat than light?
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I think that the pundits are debating it and the pundits are polarized. I think the news media, with some exceptions, the straight reporting done by "The New York Times" that pointed out that this man did buy 6,000 rounds on line of ammunition, I think we're not getting -- we're not getting enough of how is it that the NRA has presumed -- although there's a new story out -- how is it that the NRA is presumed to have a stranglehold on Congress? What do the American people really know about this?
We're reporting on this as isolated, almost natural disasters. And even the facts are in dispute by the pundits when, in fact, there's consensus among the American people that they would like for this to be dealt with as an issue.
FRANCIS: We try in the media to focus on gun control. But there are so many little things that can happen, that can get by the NRA, that can get passed in Congress to get some grip on this. So many little things that, as an example, what Canada does, when somebody buys a gun. They have to have two people vouch for them.
FRANCIS: Little, small thing --
HALL: I don't think the American people know what kind of gun laws we have on the books. And who's -- the media should probably be doing more reporting about what are the laws in the books now?
KURTZ: The phrase gun control is almost inflammatory now.
HALL: It is, right?
KURTZ: Because it gives the impression that we want to take people's guns away, legitimate right to hunt and defend yourself. But when we get into the details of background checks, and gun shows, and how much ammunition you can get and how much does one person need.
Now, I don't want to paint it with too broad a brush. There's a very good cover story in "TIME" magazine. If we take a close up here, "How Guns Won," by John Klein, which talks about the NRA and the perception among Democrats that this is political suicide.
FRANCIS: When I talk about the little things that can happen, 40 percent of the weapons purchased in this country are purchased through private -- people who you don't have to get a background check. That's a little thing that you could probably get by the NRA.
Hey, Listen, I own a weapon. I own an AR-15, OK? I don't mind if there are restrictions on me buying a 100-round magazine. I mean, that's a little thing that can get by and get passed in Congress.
KURTZ: But yet on some shows, somebody would respond what you said by saying, well, you're politicizing this tragedy, pushing the agenda.
I'm not saying you are. I'm saying there seems to be this sniping, for lack of a better words, and excuse me for using that in this context, where anybody who tries to push for any change is accused of somehow trying to exploit the tragedy in Aurora.
HALL: Well, I agree with you. And that's why I think the media -- publications what who -- I mean, "The New York Times," NPR, have done stories on the actual facts of how many rounds, how do you get it, who are these gun manufacturers? Do NRA members even support the right to bear AK-50 -- 57?
You know, it's a debate that's happening only on the periphery. It's not being reported. That's my point.
KURTZ: Before we go to break, this story burns so brightly because it was so shocking and heartrending, people going to a "Batman" movie. And yet, after three or four days, it almost seems to have dropped of the cliff. You don't see many stories about it anymore on the tube.
FRANCIS: Well, I think it was dropped back for two reasons. The victims and their families pushed back very, very hard in Aurora about not coverage. And then, of course, we're in the doldrums of summer.
KURTZ: People would rather focus on the Olympics. It's a story that's depressing.
HALL: Howie, I think that the mainstream media are afraid of being accused of taking sides. I think that is one of the factors here.
FRANCIS: I will agree with you. And I see that right here. I agree.
KURTZ: I've got to slip a break in. I want to talk more on the other side about the coverage focusing on the man who allegedly did this. We'll be right back.
KURTZ: The coverage of that awful shooting tragedy in Aurora took a sharp turn this week when the alleged shooter appeared in court.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DIANE SAWYER, ANCHOR, ABC "WORLD NEWS": The flame-red hair, the dazed look, and in the front row, parents and friends of the victims studying his face. The father-in-law of one of the victims said he looked demonic.
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: It doesn't look like a good dye job. It looked really weird. He's dressed in jail garb. He's in a jumpsuit, so of course, he looks guilty.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Fred Francis, I don't think we want to mention this guy's name. Feel free to do so, if you want, but people -- and people have a natural curiosity about, Who is this guy? Why made him do it? But I agree with one thing President Obama said, the focus here should be on the victims.
FRANCIS: I disagree. I'm sorry. We need to know how this guy worked. How did he get what he got? You know, we need to talk about him and talk about his life so we can see what led him to that theater.
KURTZ: In doing that, the media are giving these sociopaths what they want, which is a twisted kind of celebrity.
FRANCIS: You're going to change 250 years of reporting history by just concentrating on the victims of this thing? If one family can recognize in their cousin or their nephew or their son this kid in Colorado, then focusing on him is helpful.
KURTZ: I -- go ahead.
HALL: I think you can do what the families have asked for and I think CNN and other networks have done, which is to talk about the lives of the people who were lost. You know, and I think you do want to know -- I'm less interested in his sociopathic behavior than how was a sociopath able to get these guns. I think that you can do both.
KURTZ: That is a very important part of the story, the guns and the ammunition...
HALL: And the ammunition.
KURTZ: ... the 6,000 rounds of ammunition gotten through the mail with no background check.
FRANCIS: But you have to talk about him and his psychology to get at that.
HALL: Yes, but you get into a thing of whether he could have gotten them or not. That's not the point. How did he get them? Where is the gun -- where are the guns coming from in this country?
KURTZ: Fred, I'm not saying that the guy who allegedly did this shouldn't be part of the story. What I am saying is, because the media like to reduce this to personalities, that an almost obsessive focus on this person -- you know what it is? We are all scrambling for some rational explanation about how somebody could go in and commit such a deranged...
FRANCIS: There is that.
KURTZ: ... act, and there is none.
FRANCIS: But what you're asking for, Howard, is the reason this story has dropped off the map. You're asking us to concentrate on the victims, as journalists. You're asking us to concentrate on those left behind, as journalists. And after a few days, that story goes away. And that's why this story has dropped off the map. HALL: But see, I think...
FRANCIS: Now we have to concentrate -- now have to concentrate on how he got what he got and what little (ph) laws we can change to make that not happen.
KURTZ: But the gun control debate doesn't go away unless...
HALL: The gun control...
KURTZ: ... we choose to put it on the back burner...
HALL: Unless people say it's a non-starter. It may not be a non-starter. It's been declared a non-starter. The other thing is, we're not connecting how many incidents, how many mass shootings have there been since Gabrielle Giffords? There have been a lot. And if you start to see a pattern, you may want a debate in this country about what do we do about it.
KURTZ: All right, Jane Hall, Fred Francis, thank you for helping us to illuminate a difficult and sensitive topic and a very hard story to talk about in light of what happened in Colorado.
After the break: NBC News is all over the London Olympics. Is this journalism or corporate promotion? We'll talk about that with Frank Deford, and his colorful career as a sports writer.
KURTZ: NBC has paid billions for the right to carry the Olympics through 2020. So of course, it's going to pull out the stops in promoting the games that began this weekend. But with Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie and Brian Williams having spent much of the past week in London, to what extent should that include the news division?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: While his easy-going, light-hearted manner may fool some, Ryan Lochte has always been a fierce competitor and a contender.
Missy's family has been there every step of the way...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good back float!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... encouraging her to swim when she was just 2 years old.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good job!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... devoting much of their lives to helping Missy follow her dreams.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Except for some final touches, the Olympic Park is ready, and the folks in charge of security say they are, too.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The year of the woman. Even before the torch is lit, these Olympic games are making history.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Is this a case of journalists trying to build up the athletes? Joining us now from New York to talk about that and some other sports news is Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at "Sports Illustrated," commentator for NPR, and the author of the new book, "Over Time: My Life as a Sports Writer." Good morning.
FRANK DEFORD, AUTHOR, "OVER TIME": Good morning, Howard.
KURTZ: Basic journalistic question. Is NBC News going too far in using these news programs to promote the Olympics?
DEFORD: Oh, Howard, come on. I think you can be naive to think otherwise. I'm quite sure that ABC pushes the Academy Awards that way when they own them. The Olympics are no different...
KURTZ: ... whoever's got the Super Bowl, the World Series.
DEFORD: Yes. It's no different than a royal wedding. And after all, some news does come out of it. I mean, the -- you always have that standard pre-Olympic story about the traffic, the local traffic, so you get to interview the cabbies. And then, of course, Mitt Romney dropped from heaven, tone deaf, insensitive and made a real story.
And so, yes, it's -- it's fair to have news. "The New York Times" has a story about the Olympic mall today tipped on the front page.
DEFORD: So you can't expect NBC to be any kind of shrinking violet here.
KURTZ: NBC, by the way, getting a lot of heat on Twitter and elsewhere for editing out of the opening ceremonies, which drew about 40 million American viewers here in the U.S., a commemoration...
KURTZ: Go ahead.
DEFORD: You should have seen BBC covering that opening ceremony. I mean, Katty Kay, who's a wonderful journalist and anchorwoman, was like a giddy school girl talking about it. I mean, it -- it made NBC...
KURTZ: Look prim and proper?
DEFORD: Oh, my gracious! They were just subdued compared to the BBC.
KURTZ: I was just going to make the point that NBC edited out of those opening ceremonies a tribute, a dance tribute to the victims of the 7-7 London subway bombings, and instead ran a Ryan Seacrest interview with swimmer Michael Phelps -- a lot of heat over that.
One more question on the Olympics, Frank, and that is, I talked to NBC's Bob Costas, who says maybe sometimes we go a little too far in talking about the athlete who dedicates the medal to his 85-year- old grandmother. Is there a certain sob story aspect to some of this as we bring in the personal stories of these Olympians to try to appeal to non-sports viewers?
DEFORD: You -- the last few words are exactly it. The Olympics are different from all other competitions. I mean, they're more of a spectacular. People's passions are much more devoted to the team sports, whether it's soccer in most countries, or baseball and basketball and football here.
So you're trying to reach a wider audience, which is another reason to excuse NBC from using the "Today" show and its news resources to try to bring in that big audience. It's -- it's a sob sister kind of sport event.
KURTZ: Well, it does bring in huge audiences by any measure.
KURTZ: Fascinating to read your memoir, and in there, you talked about back in the '60s, I guess when you first joined "Sports Illustrated," that the editor there was worried, you say, that if he kept putting black stars, black athletes on the cover, he might turn off white readers. Talk a little bit about that era, if you would.
DEFORD: Well, it wasn't just the magazine that was scared of that. The NBA itself and sports were afraid too many black players are going to turn white fans away. Not only was it our magazine who was afraid of that, endorsements -- it was very common for the best African-American players not to get endorsements while lesser white players did. You didn't want your product identified with a black player. You were afraid that that was going to scare, you know, some whites away from your product. So it was across the board. There was no question about it. There was...
KURTZ: And frankly, you go a step further...
DEFORD: ... a fear of that.
KURTZ: If I can quote from your book, you write that, "Given the existing journalistic mores at the time, a great many white reporters were something of default racists."
DEFORD: I think that's true. I think that we were going, all of us, all of us white folks were going through a transformational period, and that we still retained with us, if reluctantly -- and I think we were somewhat embarrassed, but nonetheless, it was the case -- some residual racism that, thank the Lord, was passing by.
I think one thing about being in sports, whether as a -- an official, or in my case, a journalist, is that you got to deal personally with black athletes, and then that might have changed your opinion. In fact, I think it did with -- with a lot of sports writers.
KURTZ: You mention -- you know, I don't want to go out on a limb here, but I think one of the reasons that beach volleyball may have some popularity as an Olympic sport is the skimpy outfits that the women athletes wear. You mention that the "Sports Illustrated" annual swimsuit issue, you know, obviously very popular, sometimes accused of being a tad sexist. But you don't have any problem with it, based on your book. There we see it.
DEFORD: I don't have any problem in saying that it's sexist. I don't think there's any question about that. I don't think anybody is under any illusions. People always come up to me and say, I know why you have that swimsuit issue. It makes money. Yes!
DEFORD: That's OK. "ESPN," the magazine, now has naked athletes on the cover. They have both male and female. So they're equal opportunity sexist.
KURTZ: Pushing that envelope. But speaking of coverage of female athletes, you recall when you first wrote about Anna Kournikova, when she was a rising tennis star but she was only at the time ranked number 15 in tennis. And some women hammered you for playing her up. What was your reaction to that?
DEFORD: What was her reaction?
KURTZ: No, what was your reaction to the criticism you got?
DEFORD: Well, I was -- I was not altogether surprised. Women are -- and I understand why -- very sensitive any time you talk about the appearance of a woman athlete. You can talk -- you can call a male athlete handsome, strong, well built. You can use all those -- attractive -- sex-related words, sexy-related words.
But the minute, the second you use one with a woman athlete, they -- there's a certain element that comes down on you and says, All you care about is sex. And of course, that's not true.
At that time, Anna Kournikova was an absolute phenomenon. There had never been anybody, male or female, like it in the history of sports. She was a genuine story. And the fact that she wasn't the best player in the world didn't mean that she wasn't the best story.
KURTZ: Right. You have been a sports writer for half a century now.
KURTZ: You're known as quite a wordsmith. How much has the decline of newspapers, in your view, hurt or is hurting the art of sports writing?
DEFORD: I think what's missing so much, Howard, is the good writing. The long pieces have all but vanished from the sports pages.
KURTZ: Everybody wants to just blog and get on ESPN and say something quick...
KURTZ: ... and provocative and punchy, right?
DEFORD: And not only that, I just think we've been so overwhelmed by statistics. I mean, statistics have always been part of sports, but now it's just numbing the number of figures that they're throwing at you. We have more numbers than words, I'm afraid. And that, I think, more than anything else has affected sports writing.
And the irony is, I think that there are more good sports writers around than ever before because I think the profession is more respectable. It's all right for your child, your son or your daughter, to be a sports writer now than...
DEFORD: Thank you. Thank you very much.
KURTZ: Thank you so much, Frank Deford, for joining us. Enjoyed talking to you this Sunday morning.
DEFORD: You're very welcome. You're very welcome, Howard.
KURTZ: Next on RELIABLE SOURCES, veteran newsman Frank Sesno on his news project -- his new project to get politicians and journalists to stick to the same set of facts. Is that possible?
KURTZ: With charges and countercharges dominating the presidential campaign, the basic facts can often get lost. Now George Washington University is launching Face the Facts, using video, on- line tools and social media to illuminate the issues.
And joining me now to explain the venture is Frank Sesno, director of G.W.'s school of media and public affairs and a former Washington CNN bureau chief.
All right, Frank, what is Face the Facts?
FRANK SESNO, DIR., G.W. UNIV. SCHOOL OF MEDIA & PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Just what it says, facts go first. Imagine that, facts going first, that before you have the debate, before you dive deep, you actually know something about it.
So we're going to take 10 topic areas -- debt, deficit, jobs, economy, energy, environment -- 10 facts within each of these 10 areas. We release them one a day starting tomorrow, 100 days before the election. They'll tweet out. They'll e-mail out. They'll be part of a big deeper dive. And maybe, maybe we can put some orienting facts out there, and start with those.
KURTZ: Are Republicans in on this, as well?
SESNO: This is bipartisan. We've got Republicans, Democrats, and even people in the middle on our advisory board. And we are aiming to be right down the middle. The facts, the sources of the facts are revealed with every single one of them. And it can't be "The New York Times" says or even Howard Kurtz says, it has to be right down to where the stuff comes from.
KURTZ: But how do you -- I know you've thought about this. How do you break through the static...
KURTZ: ... the political attack ads and media hyperventilation? In other words, some would say this is a job media should be doing without an outside group. How do you break through...
SESNO: That noise...
SESNO: We're sort of a cross between ProPublic and the Associated Press. We're philanthropically supported. We're giving it away to any news organization or any other organization, including civic organizations, whether it's the League of Women Voters or the Concord Coalition. We're putting together guides for parents to sit down around their table at night and talk with their kids.
What does it mean to be -- that one out of seven Americans is on food stamps? That's a fact. What does it mean that 67,000 bridges in this country are structurally unsound? That's a fact. What does it mean when we see that we have a $15 trillion debt? And by the way, China and Japan are not the largest holders of the debt, we are.
KURTZ: Whether it's the budget or foreign trade or gun control, facts are often in despite. Why should we trust your facts?
SESNO: Because our facts will come from original source information. We'll be utterly transparent about that because we will have a section on -- after you look at the fact, you can go on the page and see what others are saying. And we will have left, right, center, white papers, academics and others who will weigh in.
The point is, though, that there are certain facts that are actually facts. And what I want to do is turn it on its head and start with the facts.
KURTZ: Forgive me, but it sounds a little pie in the sky in terms of getting attention in a very crowded media marketplace.
SESNO: It's very hard to get attention in a crowded media marketplace, and that's part of the problem. Part of the problem is that people are buried by information.
And so that's why we're here talking to you. We've got the word out. People can sign up. They can get it. I think that we can have an impact. I really believe that. Maybe that's pie in the sky, but we have to try. We have to try.
KURTZ: As a guy who spent most of his career before he went to the academic world in the news business, including here at this network...
SESNO: Right here. Right here.
KURTZ: ... OK. Why is it that -- why do we need you? Why don't news organizations -- and with some -- you know, there are exceptions here. Let's not paint with too broad a brush. There are explainer pieces in the newspapers that try to provide an unvarnished look at the facts and move beyond political rhetoric.
But by and large, your whole premise here is that press isn't doing its job. Why is that?
SESNO: I think part of it is because the press is caught up in the same cycle that the politicians are. It's a vicious cycle of attack and response and horse race. The news media, commercial news media, is caught up in circulation and ratings battles. And so sometimes, it's a race for the noisiest, rather than a race for the brightest. I think that it's an organizational issue.
We are going to start with a little 60-second video. Think of it as a fact PSA or an infographic. And we will make sure that things flow from that. We're not trying to put programs together. We're not trying to write big, long pieces. We're going to curate in the most simple, straightforward way.
And we're building it to be viral. I want you to find this amusing or different. It might be an animation, and hit tweet or send.
KURTZ: You don't have an agenda.
SESNO: I don't have an agenda. My agenda...
KURTZ: You don't have to worry about -- I mean, you'd like...
SESNO: ... I want people to start with facts. I want people to see the facts first. Fact, context, consequence. That's what we've talked about, fact, context, consequence.
KURTZ: We'll check it out with great interest. Frank Sesno...
SESNO: FacetheFactsUSA.org. You can go there now and sign up and get one fact a day... KURTZ: Is this guy a good pitchman or what?
SESNO: No, come on! You got to work at this!
KURTZ: Thanks very much. We're on television. I've got to go.
Still to come, a change at the top for CNN, a "Washington Post" reporter's unusual arrangement with his sources, and an astronaut's obituary actually breaks some news. "Media Monitor" is next.
KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.
First, in speaking about CNN contributor David Gergen last week, I made a mistake. I questioned whether Gergen should have mentioned in every CNN appearance that he has had financial dealings with Bain Capital, Mitt Romney's former firm.
But I used the present tense, rather than making clear that Gergen has had no connection to the company for four years. Now, I don't agree with every detail of how this was handled, but I do believe Gergen tried to do the right thing in disclosing his past Bain ties, and I regret the error.
There has been a big change at the top of this network. Jim Walton, the president of CNN Worldwide, announced this week that he's stepping down after 10 years, prompting lots of media speculation about who will succeed him. CNN is launching a search.
Walton says in a statement he's proud of his tenure but that CNN needs new thinking. "That starts with a new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences and a new plan, one who will build on our great foundation and will commit to seeing it through. And I'm ready for a change."
A "Washington Post" reporter did something rather unusual, preparing a story on the Collegiate Learning Assessment. As disclosed by "The Texas Observer," Daniel de Vise gave the group a draft of the story, allowed its officials to suggest changes, saying in one e-mail, Everything here is negotiable. And in fact, de Vise accepted some of the group's suggestions, softened language and cut a critical quote that the organization had objected to
Now, that goes beyond fact checking to letting sources help write your story. "Post" editor Marcus Brauchli has now tightened the paper's policy to discourage the approach of sharing story drafts in advance, saying such instances will now require approval from a top editor.
Meanwhile, that "New York Times" story on how some reporters for that paper, "The Washington Post" and other organizations have been negotiating with Obama and Romney campaign officials for quote approval, letting them dictate the wording of what's on the record, has sparked something of a counter-reaction. The Associated Press, "National Journal" and McClatchy newspapers have all declared they are banning such negotiations over quotes.
Finally, did "The New York Times" bury the lead in the 38th paragraph? That's how long it took the paper's obituary on Sally Ride, the pioneering astronaut and first woman in space, to mention something the public didn't know, that Sally Ride was gay and is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy.
Now, Ride had every right to keep her private life private, and there's no reason for anybody to go overboard about this. But the fact that she was in a relationship with a woman for nearly three decades and was using the occasion of her death to come out seems a pretty important fact in any summing up of her remarkable life, not something to be tucked into the bottom of a story.
That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. If you miss a program, you can check us out on iTunes every Monday, download a free audio podcast or buy the video version. We'll be back here next Sunday morning 11:00 AM Eastern.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.
CANDY CROWLEY, HOST: I'm Candy Crowley in Washington, and we are just moments away from Mitt Romney's foreign policy speech in Jerusalem. Right now, we want to show you a live picture where we expect to see Romney any minute. He is at a community center in Jerusalem.
The backdrop is spectacular. We will be looking at the Tower of David and the Old City wall behind him when Mitt Romney speaks. Also, somewhere in that area is our Jim Acosta, who is covering the Romney campaign.