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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Whiffing on the Fiscal Cliff; Petraeus and the Press

Aired November 25, 2012 - 11:00   ET

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


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The nation is heading for a fiscal showdown that could seriously damage the economy. There's a raging debate over the future of the Republican Party and renewed violence in the Middle East. Yet, the media's march toward the fiscal cliff keeps hit a detour.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: The president's first meeting with congressional leaders today got off to an optimistic start.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: The country faces drastic tax hikes and spending cuts at the end of the year, the so-called fiscal --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's get right to the CIA sex scandal and those breaking new details overnight about the veteran FBI agent who took the first --

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Today, we're learning how much access the alleged mistress --

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: You find a guy who --

(CROSSTALK)

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Are our journalistic priorities out of whack?

And did David Petraeus get unusual treatment from the journalists he cultivated? We'll ask veteran military reporter Tom Ricks.

Some ignorant teenagers wrote horribly racist things about President Obama on Twitter, messages that were exposed by the Web site Jezebel. But did the editors go too far in trying to get these students punished?

Plus, Bill O'Reilly called him one of the biggest race baiters in the country. But he says it's the media, including FOX News, that inflamed the subject of race. A conversation with Eric Deggans.

I'm Howard Kurtz and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.

(MUSIC) KURTZ: The president of the United States and congressional leaders have begun negotiations to avoid the draconian package of spending cuts and tax hikes that automatically takes effect in just over a month if they can't reach an agreement. At stake are Medicare, Social Security, tax breaks for the wealthy, the health of the American economy and maybe if it goes down to the wire, the fiscal cliff story will receive 1/10 the media attention as the scandalous saga of David and Paula and John and Jill.

What accounts to this absurd discrepancy in press coverage?

Joining us now here the Washington: Jane Hall, associate professor of American University School of Communication.

Bob Cusack, managing editor at the Capitol Hill newspaper "The Hill".

And Amy Argetsinger, co-author of the "Reliable Source" column for "The Washington Post."

Bob Cusack, why has the fiscal story as the media story becomes synonymous with boredom?

BOB CUSACK, THE HILL: Well, there's no sex with it. That's the bottom line. You know, sex sells, and that -- and this story is wild. The Petraeus story has gone in a lot of different directions.

First, he resigns. And then we find out why. Then we find out about the other woman. These inappropriate e-mails. But it's --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: You're saying that Barack Obama meeting with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell doesn't quite get readers as excited?

CUSACK: Not as titillating.

KURTZ: All right.

But, you know, semi-seriousness, Jane, you've got dire consequences. These are the biggest issues facing the country. This is what the election was fought over and yet I have the impression that a lot of the country is yawning, but really that many of the journalists who have to cover this stuff are yawning.

JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATION: Well, you know, there's something extremely compelling a story about, you know, lo, how the mighty are falling. Petraeus, it gets into bigger issues that the media can they're covering -- privacy, secrecy, nation security, while covering the sex. So, it's got all that --

KURTZ: Are you suggesting that the bigger issues are actually a bit of a shall we say figure fig leaf?

HALL: Well --

KURTZ: So that we can wallow in the salacious details? Yes, you are.

HALL: To some degree. I think -- you know, I think the question of privacy and there are bigger issues there, but the problem is the fiscal cliff is extremely important. And I think, you know, it's interesting to me that it's Ben Bernanke who dubbed it. I would have thought a media reporter would have created that to create drama, you know?

KURTZ: A good headline (INAUDIBLE) phrase.

As a consumer of news, information, gossip, you-name-it, Amy Argetsinger, when you see stories about the fiscal cliff, do you go clicking off to someone else?

AMY ARGETSINGER, WASHINGTON POST: No. I don't. I try. I try my darndest. I pick up these stories and think I'm going to understand it for once.

I can tell that the reporters who are covering this are very gripped by the drama. I think there is drama for them. It's a big, big story if you're covering economics on a national stage. They should -- and I think, from the print side, I think it is getting covered a lot. You can't blame the media, though, if readers are going to be clicking more or turning more to story about Petraeus.

KURTZ: The problem with the budget negotiations as the story is that it's incremental. Every day, only a little bit happens and the next day, you know, maybe a slight movement. I mean, it's not like -- it doesn't have the natural arc of a holiday thriller shall we say.

Now there was a Pew Research survey the over day, and asked people what stories they were very closely following -- fiscal cliff, 33 percent. That's pretty good. Twenty-eight percent, the situation in Benghazi, the fatal attack there. Twenty-two percent, the Petraeus scandal, and I would say the other 78 percent are lying.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZ: Come on, 22 percent? Anybody buying that?

HALL: You know, I saw that. And I also thought it was interesting that they thought the Petraeus story was important, unlike the Lewinsky story. People thought this story had more to it than the Lewinsky story. We talk about what's interesting.

KURTZ: The Lewinsky story did lead to a presidential impeachment as I recall.

HALL: I did, but I think people may not be telling the truth about their interest. But I think people -- you know, one thing John Boehner did say is one message out of this election is people want us to do something. They want to end the gridlock.

So I think there is a seriousness too in covering this.

KURTZ: I asked about the "Slate's" editor, David Plotz, about the Petraeus scandal and he said it's fun. We should just enjoy it. You know, no apologies for diving in to the details.

There's this incredible cast of characters. It's not just Paula Broadwell. It's not just Jill Kelley. It's Jill Kelley's twin sister who's now hired Gloria Allred.

So, is he -- is Plotz right? Should we not feel embarrassed by this?

CUSACK: Well, I think also a lot of the reporters in Washington now, they're coming back from the campaign trail. And if they have a choice what they're going to pick, Petraeus or Medicare reimbursement, all these policy changes, tax policy, they're probably going to pick that because they know that's going to get more clicks.

ARGETSINGER: And I would also say Petraeus is a very popular figure with Washington media establishment.

KURTZ: And that was no accident.

HALL: Yes.

ARGETSINGER: I would argue that it's possible the Petraeus scandal is more engrossing for Washington, for Beltway people, than it is for the rest of the country. Just the conversation I had with someone in Richmond the other day who was kind of hazy on who Paula Broadwell was.

We're as guilty as anyone in being stuck up into this as anyone else in the rest of the country.

KURTZ: But if "Saturday Night Live" is the standard, the Petraeus story is a much hotter. I don't see any skits about the fiscal cliff. But take a look at this one that aired the other weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One woman stands at the center of it all. Jill Kelley, seen here leaving her home in Tampa, Florida, walking down some stairs and getting into a car.

Seen here in the same clip doing the same thing because it's the only footage we have of her.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: OK. Need I say more?

ARGETSINGER: That's the best media commentary I've seen in months. I thought that nailed it.

KURTZ: Yes, television does do that when it's the only clip we have.

ARGETSINGER: Yes. CUSACK: Yes. The only problem is that Congress doesn't act until it's right up against a deadline. We have another month. And you may see a "Saturday Night Live" skit of John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi down the stretch, because who knows? They could be here right up until New Year's Eve.

KURTZ: Now, there's another somewhat serious story that has gotten a lot of media attention since the election, and that is what's going to happen to the Republican Party, which has lost two straight presidential elections. And it's interesting to me that some of the conservative commentators seem to be shifting a little bit. For example, Sean Hannity of FOX News, he's evolved on immigration, a path to legalization for those in this country illegally. Charles Krauthammer says let's just do amnesty because that will help the Republican Party.

It's interesting to me that the pundits who are often more visible than any of the wannabe presidential candidates now seems to be changing their tune.

HALL: I think they're thanking their tune on immigration because they saw the disastrous results of Romney talking about self deportation, which was insulting. And I think it was very interesting that Hannity said that.

I mean, the interesting to me is the bloodletting that's going on as to who's to blame, you know?

But I think a lot of people think we have to do something. We can't deport 12 million people. We have to figure this one out.

KURTZ: So is this a course correction by the people on the right who spout off for a living? You know, we're accustomed certainly to politicians who bob and weave and move toward the center after a primary and so forth. It seems to me some of the pundits are doing that as well.

CUSACK: They are and Republicans, just like Democrats, like to win. And when they lose they have to assist, lessons learned. It was interesting, too, that Bill Kristol said, maybe we should tax millionaires. Why are we going to fall in our sword for millionaires?

ARGETSINGER: And also if you're a pundit -- I mean, if you're going to get attention, you need to say something a little bit counterintuitive. You need to make an argument that's different that yesterday's argument, that's different from last month's argument. It's a natural progression.

KURTZ: Maybe there's a vacuum here for people like Kristol and Hannity and Krauthammer and others to engage in this -- I mean, they may be engaged in this anyway. But maybe there's a vacuum here because we haven't heard a public word from Mitt Romney.

He has vanished from the stage. Other Republicans are beating up on him. The only thing we did hear was that conference call he had with donors which he talked about Barack Obama giving gifts to favorite constituencies like women, Hispanics, younger people, gays.

So, has the Romney fade-out may be kind of shifted the spotlight back to, you know, Rush Limbaugh and everybody else who opines for a living?

CUSACK: Yes, I think so, to some degree. I mean, Republicans want Mitt Romney to now fade away. I mean, President Obama has invited Romney over the White House. That hasn't happened yet.

Republicans don't want Romney at the White House. He has no policymaking role. They don't want him giving anything the president as far as policy. So I do think now, we're going go back to the pundits, but the pundits, as you said, are shifting.

HALL: But, you know, the thing that's not going to work is to demonize the American electorate. You know, when you have Bobby Jindal saying I don't think insulting voters is the way to win.

I mean, that whole argument that somehow people want treats -- I mean, literally like animals, they want treats. That's what Laura Ingraham said.

KURTZ: This is interesting you saying -- I would not argue with you.

HALL: I'm sorry. That was Ann Coulter.

KURTZ: OK. Let's quote her accurately.

I would not argue with you in your view that many Republicans would want to kind of whitewash or erase Mitt Romney from their collective memory and pretend this election didn't happen. But what's interesting to me is that the press -- I mean, do you think leading news organizations are dying to get an interview with Mitt Romney and get his take on the election and going forward? Or is he just considered old news because he lost, and you know how we kind of brand people a loser, even though, you know, it was a relatively close election?

ARGETSINGER: Well -- I mean, listen. Before Election Day, people were already talking about who we should be looking for in 2016. Yes, absolutely.

KURTZ: Maybe that had something to do with the fact that Chris Christie was playing himself on "Saturday Night Live" look forward to the election four years from now. And, you know, fascinating. We talked on this program a couple of weeks ago about the coverage particularly by FOX News and MSNBC -- FOX obviously favoring Mitt Romney and being negative toward Barack Obama. The reverse at MSNBC.

Pew has come out -- the Project for Excellence in Journalism has come with some final weeks figures. This is like on steroids. You have FOX News airing in the last seven days, only 5 percent stories positive about the president, MSNBC, zero. Not a single positive story about Mitt Romney.

What does that tell you?

HALL: Well, it tells you that the FOX and the anti-FOX have been prospering, and it will be interesting to see. You know, I think it's very interesting the moment of truth when Megyn Kelly challenged Karl Rove and they say we are a news organization, we are going to prove that.

It's going to be interesting, whether people -- what will be the role of MSNBC. Will they be critical of Barack Obama now that Obama is elected? That's going to be interesting to me to see.

KURTZ: And when you take it out of the hothouse of electoral politics, is there room for other views on this increasingly opinionated channels, or are they just going to play to their base because, frankly, it's good for ratings?

CUSACK: Well, I think playing to the base is always going to be -- right before the election, obviously, everyone is playing to their base and there's these battles around the water cooler. But now, I think things have calmed down a little bit, but when we get to the fiscal cliff and who blames whom, I mean, it's going to heat up again.

KURTZ: All right. Well, we hope it heats up again so we'll have plenty to talk about here.

Let me get to break.

When we come back, the pundits who botched the election big-time. Is there any punishment for being embarrassingly wrong?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: In any other profession, if you are wrong, repeatedly wrong, you pay a price. Maybe even lose your job. But what if you're a professional pundit and you blow the big one like these folks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

DICK MORRIS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: We're going to win by a landslide. It will be the biggest surprise in recent American political history.

HANNITY: I got this Romney three points.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm picking Romney to narrowly win.

LARRY KUDLOW, NBC NEWS: This just further evidence why I believe he will sweep the Midwest and win this election going away. And I'm now predicting a 330 electoral vote landslide. Yes, that's right, 330 electoral votes.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, TALK RADIO HOST: All of my thinking says Romney big.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Romney big, Romney landslide. Jane Hall, should pundits pay any price for being spectacularly wrong?

HALL: No, I think it should run under there. I mean, Karl Rove, to me, is the best and worst example of a man who raised $300 million. I'm sure those millionaires are trying to find out what happened and why didn't any of their people win.

KURTZ: That's his political role?

HALL: His political arm, which is his pundit arm. And he's writing op-eds for "The Wall Street Journal". Dick Morris is still there. There's no penalty for being wildly wrong.

And, in fact, they continue to be asked to punditize again.

KURTZ: Except for the fact that we have the videotape as we just played, Amy. It seems like it's just kind of disappears into the ether. Next week, they come back and say, yes, I miscalculate. I didn't do the right weighing on the polling or whatever.

ARGETSINGER: Yes, but here's the thing. I don't want to blame the media being part of the media, but let's face it. There's going to be a lot more interest if someone says unlike what's been said before, if someone says something risky or daring or counterintuitive. You know, why should we care what any of these guys have to say in the first place? Let alone --

KURTZ: Well, because presumably they're smart students of politics who understand the electoral trends and polling, and then they have more insight than the average person. I mean, or they look good on TV or cute. I don't know.

ARGETSINGER: Because they have something interesting to say and that's why they're getting booked.

HALL: It's new to have political operatives -- it's relatively new to have political operatives be pundits.

KURTZ: I want to come back to that point. But let me ask about, Bob Cusack.

We have to point out that people we all just played there, they are conservative commentators who at the same that they were predicting were rooting for a Romney victory. And I'm not saying this to beat up on the right. If Barack Obama had lost this election and there were a lot of liberals out there saying the president is going to win a landslide, I would ask the same question, does that undermine their credibility?

CUSACK: I think it does. You know, Dick Morris is columnist for "The Hill" and he wrote a mea culpa saying why he was wrong. And I think the punishment is that tape. I mean, that looks pretty bad, when I make those predictions.

And obviously, I think both on the left and the right, they can't separate their rooting interest sometimes. They get -- think, OK. Romney can -- they look at -- cherry pick certain data to say, well, he's going win and clearly there were some major mistakes.

Now, I think four years from now, we're going to remember that. You're going to play those predictions --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Nobody's going to remember this four years from now. They're going to come out with fancy new sets and say here's why I think Marco Rubio is going to win or Jeb Bush, or -- you name it.

But this does get to the core questions -- you know, obviously, Karl Rove took a lot of heat from it on election night saying Romney wasn't out of it in Ohio when in fact, FOX News and everybody else said he was. Were these honest miscalculations because everybody in the business makes mistakes especially when they put and try to read the crystal ball, or were they just being partisan cheerleaders?:

HALL: Well, I don't really know. Watching FOX last night, when I saw long faces, I knew that the Romney campaign had told FOX they thought they were going to lose, way before this happened, if you really read the tea leaves.

I don't know. I don't know whether Karl Rove generally didn't believe it. But the interesting thing is if you were a viewer to FOX, including Romney, you apparently had trouble believing what reality was because you had been so told -- snowed I think is the word we used to use. And I think that is a problem for news organizations --

KURTZ: You don't think FOX viewers went into election night thinking this would be a close election?

HALL: I don't really know. But all I know is they clicked off right at after it was declared.

KURTZ: Well, there was all that push back about the polling, and so those Unskewed Polls site, in other words, the polling was wrong and, you know, some number of Republicans I talked to, Republican analysts said, you know, there use going to be so much more enthusiasm on the GOP side to get Obama out of the White House that you have to weigh these polls differently.

Well, it turned out the polls are right.

ARGETSINGER: Well, this is what happens. I mean, if you cover a campaign, you even been in that position where you see everyone's in the bubble. You're surrounded by people who are voting your way, and wherever you go, there are big crowds and it becomes very hard to look at any hard data that counteracts the feeling you have around you.

KURTZ: How did we get into this whole sort of culture of prediction? I mean, the media have always kind of given you a wink, a nod, a lean this way or that way. Here's what's likely to happen.

Now you come out there and say, Mitt Romney's going to win in a landslide and you hope you're right. CUSACK: I mean, it's more blatant than it used to be, because I mean, obviously, all campaign coverage is geared toward who's going to win.

KURTZ: Right. It's one thing to be an NLF analyst and say, you know, the Jets are going to win big on Sunday. You're wrong, it's sports. This is the democracy at stake.

So, is it -- is it that the rewards are such that you've got be out there but stick your neck out and read the tea leaves?

CUSACK: I think so. I think -- as you were saying, it's provocative and it gets headlines and that's what cable news is about.

KURTZ: About getting ratings, about getting clicks online and it's about -- you know, if you just say, well, on the one hand, on the other hand, it's not clear to me. But the data would seem to indicate you don't get invited back.

HALL: And you don't get picked up online for which you say either.

KURTZ: And online culture is driving a lot of this.

Amy Argetsinger, Jane Hall, and Bob Cusack -- thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, do defense reporters view the Petraeus scandal differently because they worked for the four-star? Veteran reporter and author Tom Ricks in moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: The media furor over the David Petraeus scandal cast a harsh line on the man who is hands down America's most famous general. It also sparked questions about the way in which Petraeus courted journalists and how that may have affected his coverage, including the affair that prompted his resignation as CIA director.

Joining us now is Thomas Ricks, longtime Pentagon correspondent for "The Washington Post" and "Wall Street Journal", and who blogs at ForeignPolicy.com. His latest book is "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today".

Tom, welcome.

THOMAS RICKS, "THE GENERALS" AUTHOR: Thank you.

KURTZ: Based on this book, "The Generals", one of them is Petraeus. You had one earlier book called "The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq." Fair to say I think that you're an admirer of Petraeus?

RICKS: Yes, and I remain so.

KURTZ: And what's it like working with him? He's known to be very adept at working the press?

RICKS: And that was a good thing, I think in terms of generalship. He understood, as many Army generals don't, that you need to use the media to get your views out, that it's a responsibility of a general to explain to the American people what you're doing with their money and their children in some war overseas.

And so, he engaged and he used that megaphone to explain -- this is what I'm doing, this is what I'm trying to do.

KURTZ: That's an interesting verb, "use" the media. Some would see that as manipulating the media.

RICKS: I think he did. And I think he did it well. But it's part of the job of a good general. I think Dwight Eisenhower did it in War World II. He became the face of the war, kind of explaining it to people, routinely holding press conferences, talking to reporters.

KURTZ: And how much did that courtship and those relationships and the e-mails exchange with journalists, and all of that, has that contributed to more sympathetic coverage given his problem with the affair with Paula Broadwell and the resignation at CIA, that he might have gotten otherwise?

RICKS: No, I don't think so. Actually, I think the media has been in full shark bite frenzy without regard really. If anything I find the real scandal here -- or one of the scandals here is how much the media has turned on Petraeus.

Here's a guy who has four combat tours in recent years. That's more combat time than any American general had in World War II, who has a smashed pelvis from a parachuting accident, who has a bullet wound through the chest from a training accident. He and his family, and I include his wife Holly Petraeus in that, have given enormously in the last 10 years.

Yet when this scandal broke, we as a country were not as generous with him as his family had been with the country.

KURTZ: You seem to be suggesting that journalists are biting the hand that fed them, they were perfectly happy to have good relations with General Petraeus when he was on top. Suddenly, this scandal happens, fall from grace, huge tabloid style scandal, and you say the press has turned against him. Because I've seen a lot of -- particularly people like who know the guy, it seems to me the tune is more sympathetic, a tragic -- a tragedy for his family as opposed to the junk yard (INAUDIBLE).

RICKS: It's a matter that should have remained private, first of all. It's not a criminal act. There's no allegation that he's committed a crime here, as far as I know. You know, it could always change, more information could come out.

But here, he was in a relationship with a consenting adult who was not in his chain of command. He's hardly, I think, probably the first CIA director to have had an affair. This begins with another scandal which is the FBI investigating a lover's quarrel, which I think is an abuse of taxpayers' dollars.

KURTZ: You think Petraeus should not have resigned.

RICKS: No, I don't think he should have --

KURTZ: Or once it became public, you felt he had no choice?

RICKS: Well, it became public because he resigned. I think in -- President Obama could have handled by saying, you know, Dave, you screwed up big time here, you need to make amends to your wife and your punishment is you're going back to work. It could have been kept quite. And if it ever leaked out, the president could have said, look, this was a private matter involving a misjudgment by Petraeus, he's dealt with it and I'm confident the national security hasn't been harmed.

KURTZ: And you would have that view if this was some former four-star you hadn't dealt with?

RICKS: I'd have that view I think of any public official who has given great service to the country. You know, I just don't understand the frenzy of going after this guy. There is no allegation of crime. It's even worse with John Allen, this Marine general, who sends a bunch of e-mails to a woman, and he's suddenly engulfed in scandal.

I mean, news flash here number one, David Petraeus is a human being. News flash number two here, Marine officer flirts with a woman. I mean, I think the standard of journalism is getting pretty low here for using the word scandal.

If you want a scandal? Scandal is mediocre leadership in Iraq for several years and nobody asking a question in Congress about it. A scandal is John Allen, a fine general, being dragged into this mess, and people thinking it's part of a scandal. A scandal is FBI looking at lovers' quarrels. A scandal in Afghanistan is 11 commanders in 11 years.

KURTZ: As you write in your book.

RICKS: No way to run a war.

KURTZ: So you believe the media's priorities are completely screwed up in the sense that the serious questions about running a war and people's careers devoted to military have been subsumed, overshadowed, blown off the screen so to speak in favor of the focus on sex and scandal.

Let's face it. I mean, the CIA director resigns under these circumstances. The general is running the war in Afghanistan. His nomination to be the top NATO commander is put on hold under these circumstances. I mean, it's hard not to cover the story, but you think that the -- we are scandal obsessed in this business?

RICKS: Yes. I was thinking earlier this week that I'm glad I'm no longer in "The Washington Post" because I would have been pressured to cover this. I would have had to cover this. KURTZ: Sure.

RICKS: And I would have been really conflicted, because I think it is an immoral misallocation of priorities. We as a nation seem to care more about the sex lives of our generals than the real lives of our soldiers. I actually printed out something before I came over here today.

It's a great trivia question. Excuse me, in my service I need to use glasses. Who is Sergeant Channing B. Hicks? Who is Specialist Joseph Richardson? The answer is they were two soldiers who died last Friday in Afghanistan. Everybody in the country knows Paula Broadwell's names. Nobody knows those men. Nobody knows soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan.

KURTZ: In addition to Petraeus, just briefly, you think the media coverage has been unfair to Paula Broadwell, to Jill Kelley as they have become the center of this media storm?

RICKS: Yes. We've just set these people on fire basically. These were consenting adults engaged in private acts. The lack of decency, I think, is kind of appalling to me. I mean, also the consequences of what's happened to these people.

We don't have so many good leaders that we can throw them away casually. General Petraeus stood out over the last 10 years as notably more effective than most of his peers. The message we have sent here is you can be a mediocre general as long as you keep your pants on.

KURTZ: You're not proud of your profession at this point?

RICKS: No, I'm embarrassed for the profession. I really am. I'm worried for the country that we don't talk about our wars until there is some sort of titillating scandal.

KURTZ: That would be exhibit A for that view. Tom Ricks, thanks very much for stopping by. Appreciate it.

After the break, are the media playing an incendiary role when it comes to racially charged stories. We'll talk to an author who says yes, Eric Deggans in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Even with an African-American president having won re- election, race probably remains the most divisive issue in the country, a constant flashpoint for the media. Do news organizations handle racial questions with restraint or do too many played an inflammatory role in reporting such stories?

Joining us now from Tampa is Eric Deggans, media critic for the "Tampa Bay Times," and author of the new book "Race-Baiter, how The Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide A Nation." Eric, welcome.

ERIC DEGGANS, AUTHOR, "RACE-BAITER": Thanks for having me. KURTZ: Let's start with Bill O'Reilly calling you -- and you've put this in the book right at the top, one of the biggest race-baiters in America. How did he react when you challenged him on that?

DEGGANS: Well, it was interesting. He was giving a speech in nearby Sarasota, which is close to my St. Petersburg home. I was invited to take part in a news conference, an impromptu news conference he was holding right before his speech.

And when I asked him about this, he wouldn't really engage. He said he needed to see the exact words that he had said, and he couldn't remember something that happened so many years ago. This was in 2008 when he first called me this.

And I asked him about this idea that white people couldn't talk to black people about race, because it's too explosive, and he recounted some of the times when he felt like he had been unfairly maligned for the way that he talked about race. I don't think we really had a meeting of the minds. We didn't really have a conversation about it.

KURTZ: OK, you are really rough on Fox News in this book. In fact, there's a section entitled, "Fox News Channel's focus on scary black people." It seems to me that's painting with an awfully broad brush.

DEGGANS: I guess in one way you could say I'm being tough on, them but really I'm outlining a program structure that's seemed to emerge on that channel where I felt they have unfairly singled out these instances where black people seem to be threatening or seem to have done something untoward.

And in the case of Shirley Sherrod, you know, we had a woman who was at least talked about on some of their opinion shows who hadn't really done anything wrong. So my hope is that we get these issues kind of out there. We talk about these things and we sort of try to understand why people react to them in the way they do.

KURTZ: Well, just to remind people, Shirley Sherrod was the former Agricultural Department official who was the focus of a deceptively edited video that made her appear to be racist when in fact she was just the opposite.

You hit O'Reilly on that too, but O'Reilly when he went on the air to talk about Shirley Sherrod, she'd already resigned by that time. The next day he apologized and said he hadn't done his homework.

So when you say it's a consistent programming strategy on the part of Fox, I'll let you respond in a second, it seems to me that you are not saying that there are individual hosts or commentators that you have a problem with. But you are saying the whole network is devoted to demonizing black people, and that seems overstated.

DEGGANS: Well, in the book, I did point out that Bill O'Reilly apologized for what he said about her, but there were other opinion shows on Fox News that also talked about her and without -- before people realized that video had been deceptively edited.

And in that chapter, I point out several different instances where Fox hosts seemed to cross the line in terms of talking about scary black people and either offered these sorts of very superficial apologies, who were not disciplined.

And I think when you see something happen over and over and over again and you know, I've been talking about how Bill O'Reilly talks about race on Fox since 2002, and when you see something like this happen again and again and again, and people are not significantly disciplined, it takes forever, you know, for there to be some fallout from Glenn Beck on calling Barack Obama racist on the air, you really have to question how seriously they are worried about how these incidents are viewed and whether or not they're willing to at least crack down on that to make sure that they don't happen again.

KURTZ: You've also criticized MSNBC for hiring Al Sharpton who, of course, is not a journalist but an activist. Explain.

DEGGANS: Right, well, you know, I've been on your show a couple of times talking about my misgivings about Al Sharpton and you know --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Particularly with regard to the Trayvon Martin murder case in your state of Florida.

DEGGANS: Exactly. And in the book, I talk a little bit about how he toggled between these roles of acting as a spokesman for the Trayvon Martin's family and also hosting a show that talked about the news on MSNBC, and how that might be difficult for some viewers to accept, and how that might erode people's confidence in the honest broker status of even people who express opinions on cable television.

I mean, there has to be some sense that you're an honest broker at the very least. That you're not directly involved in a news story that the cable channel is also trying to cover and that has always troubled me about Al Sharpton's role in the Trayvon Martin situation.

KURTZ: Could it be said, Eric Deggans, that you as an African- American journalist, as an officer one time of the National Association of Black Journalists, that you are sensitive on this subject and you are playing up racial aspects of many of these stories?

DEGGANS: Well, I mean, you know the point of the title of the book is that when you try to talk about these issues, the first thing that some people do is try to accuse you of being overly sensitive, but I think in the book I tried very hard to present opposing points of view.

I tried very hard to reach out to some of the people that I criticized the most, and give them a chance to say what they felt they were doing. But at the same time, when you want to talk about these issues, you do have to have a sense of what's going on. You have to look at studies, you have to talk to experts, and you have to be willing to endure a certain amount of criticism yourself. You have to be strong to present these points of views and say, you know, there's a problem here.

And I think we realized in this run-up to the election, seeing how people talked about the 47 percent, seeing how people talked about a food stamp president, seeing how people sort of sloughed off the working poor and talked about how minorities and women voted because they got gifts --I mean, I think this kind of language, this kind of race-baiting and gender baiting is all around us and it's been around us throughout this political campaign, and I think people are getting tired of it.

And they want some way to sort through it all. They want to understand what's at risk, and I try to put all of that in this book.

KURTZ: All right, Eric Deggans, I appreciate the chance to talk to you. Thanks very much for joining us.

KURTZ: Thanks a lot, Howie.

Ahead on RELIABLE SOURCES, calling out teenagers who posted racist tweets about Barack Obama playing of our segment you've just seen. Did the web site "Jezebel" go too far? The editor will be here in a moment.

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KURTZ: There was some exceedingly ugly stuff on Twitter after President Obama was re-elected. Racist garbage using the "N" word and comparing him to a monkey, some of these tweets written by high school students and exposed by "Jezebel," a web site that usually focuses on women, sex, and gossip.

But "Jezebel" went a step further calling the school officials to ask whether they were aware of the offensive messages. Was that a step too far? Joining us now from Chicago is the editor-in-chief of "Jezebel," Jessica Coen. Welcome.

JESSICA COEN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, JEZEBEL.COM: Hi.

KURTZ: How did you find out about these racist tweets in the first place?

COEN: You know, we were just doing a search for Barack Obama and taking a look at the Twitter reaction, and we saw some unfortunate things, and then we started doing searches for racial slurs. And so many tweets came up, it was shocking.

KURTZ: Shocking.

COEN: Well, maybe not shocking but upsetting, certainly.

KURTZ: And then did you decide as a result of this shocking news to make an example of some of these students who had put out this racist trash?

COEN: Well, first we wanted to document what was going on. That was the first post, but the story doesn't end with documenting it. It's important to talk about what happens after these tweets go out there.

So many of these students actually are representing their schools as parts of teams or they're looking for college scholarships, and more importantly they're all part of institutions that have very clear codes against this kind of hate speech.

So what happens when you put that sort of message out there? That's the question. So we called the schools to find out.

KURTZ: So when you took that extra step of calling school officials, school administrators, it sounds to some people, including me, like an effort to get them punished, some people even thought it was even bullying.

COEN: No. What's going to happen is probably inevitable, yes, but we're not bullying bullies. They put their messages out there. They put their names on it. They're publicly part of these schools.

To call an organization, when you find out an individual is part of an organization and they are acting in a manner that violates the codes of that organization, as a reporter, it makes sense to call that organization.

KURTZ: I would never want to defend this kind of hate speech, but these are teenagers. I mean, what you just said certainly would be the case if dealing with anybody who's an adult.

But by taking this extra step and calling the school folks, it seemed like you wanted to make sure your reporting had an outcome as opposed to letting the schools deal with this on their own.

COEN: I don't think it matters they're teenagers. I understand there are protections legally when it comes to minors, but these kids weren't actually breaking the law, they were just demonstrating some really awful speech and really reflecting insidious thought process.

So they need to learn, everybody needs to learn here that there's no divide between real life and online. What you say online is just as important as what you say in real life. So I don't think it matters what actually happens to the kids at the schools per se. We're not acting as judges or juries. Our responsibility is just to the story.

KURTZ: Right, but again, you know, the stuff was just awful. Some of it I can't repeat on the air.

COEN: Absolutely.

KURTZ: But you know, some of these kids are 15, 16, 17, some repeating what they heard their parents say. COEN: But they're old enough to know exactly what they're saying. I don't care if you're 15 or 16, I think no one would disagree that those kids didn't know what they were saying.

They were expressing dissatisfaction with the election. They were upset that Barack Obama was president. They knew they were using negative and offensive words to express their disappointment.

KURTZ: But they didn't think that anybody outside their circle of friends would see it probably.

COEN: I don't know what they thought, that's the thing. We're talking about a native population of users here. The Internet was thriving by the time these kids were born.

So really it follows that they should actually know exactly that the message is going out there, and they should know exactly how Twitter works. Maybe they didn't think anyone would find it.

But when you are using words that are incendiary and people look to see the larger public reaction involving those words, of course, their tweets are going to come up.

KURTZ: So Jessica, part of your goal here in addition to going after the hateful speech posted online by these particular high school students was kind of to teach a lesson to a lot of younger people who may just think their Facebook and Twitter postings, you know, exist within this protected world and can't get them into trouble? Is that part of what's going on here?

COEN: I mean, we're not actively trying to teach anyone anything. Hopefully the general public gleans something and pulls some sort of information out of what happened here, but we're not shaking our fingers and saying you better learn next time. That's not our position or our role.

KURTZ: Did these stories produce a lot of traffic for Jezebel?

COEN: Sure, absolutely.

KURTZ: I guess you touched a nerve, and the thing is by posting the tweets themselves, you showed the ugliness and some of the language out there against the president.

COEN: And to come from the mouths of children is incredibly upsetting and really disturbing. We talk about racism in this country and it is such a timely nature with Barack Obama and the election, it's going to kind of set off a fire storm of controversy.

People are very involved in this issue. They're -- it's very emotional for a lot of people, very sensitive. There's a huge historical and political context there, and yes, those stories traditionally will get a lot of attention.

KURTZ: Jezebel did precisely that. Jessica Coen, thanks very much for joining us. We appreciate it. COEN: Thank you for having me.

KURTZ: Still to come, a great American novelist lays down his pen. Some closing thoughts on Phillip Roth.

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KURTZ: I could hardly believe it when Phillip Roth said he is giving up writing. The man has written 31 books since 1959 including such classics such as "Port Noise Complaint, Goodbye Columbus, Zuckerman On Bound, The Ghost Rider, Professor of Desire, Savage Theater and The Human Stain," and I've read most of them.

In a three-hour sit down with "The New York Times," Roth provides fascinating insight into the allure and the hardship of writing fiction. After trying to get juiced up by re-reading some literary classics and most of his own work Roth said, I knew I wasn't going to get another good idea, or if I did, I'd have to slave over it.

I know I'm not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration, it's daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It is like baseball, you fail two-thirds of the time.

I can't face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can't do that anymore. Boy, do I know that feeling. All good writing involves re-writing, going back to that keyboard again and again and again.

Three years ago, Roth spoke to Tina Brown about the sensual role that writing plays in his life.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PHILIP ROTH, AUTHOR: I think I write as publish as often as I do because I can't bear being without a book to work on, but routinely when I finish a book, I think what will I do? Where will I get an idea?

And a kind of low level panic sets in and then eventually something happens. If I knew how it happened, I would repeat the process, but I don't know, something just occurs to me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But now he's done, Roth is spending his time cooperating with a biographer, and I love this part, playing with his new iPhone. Now part of me says, no, you're too talented, you can't give up writing, but Philip Roth is 79. I guess, he earned the right to take it easy.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Hope you're enjoying this Thanksgiving weekend. If you missed the program, you can go to iTunes on Monday, get a free audio podcast or buy the video version. Just search for RELIABLE SOURCES in the iTunes store. We're back here 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.