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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

The Media and the Massacre; 2012 Gaffe Patrol; Engel Escapes Syria; Zero Dark Thirty

Aired December 23, 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: There are signs, maybe just a glimmer, maybe something more, that the tone of journalism is starting to change in the wake of the Connecticut school massacre. Signs that this is not just another tragedy that we talk about for a week and move on, but it has changed the sensibility of the news business. And that has some commentators rethinking their long-standing opposition to gun control.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: I knew that day that the ideologies of my past career were no longer relevant to the future that I want. That I demand for my children. Friday changed everything. It must change everything.

It is time for Congress to put children before deadly darkness. It's time for politicians to start focusing more on protecting our school yards than putting together their next fund-raiser.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHULTZ: A very different message for the media in a rather unusual televised speech by the NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WAYNE LAPIERRE, EXECUTIVE VP, NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION: Rather than face their own moral failings, the media demonized gun owners.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: What role should the media play in this emotional debate?

Plus, a new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden revives a passionate debate about torture.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No birth certificate, no cell phone. You guys are ghosts.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's right in the inner circle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole world is going to want in on this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want targets.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Is "Zero Dark Thirty" an accurate portrayal of the CIA woman at the center of the movie, or did the filmmakers get a bit too cozy with the Obama administration?

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

(MUSIC)

KURTZ: It was billed as a press conference, but it was anything but. Wayne LaPierre took no question on Friday as he delivered the NRA's argument in the wake of Newtown. He called for armed guards in school and ripped the media for peddling misinformation, glorifying violence and failing to nail the real culprits.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAPIERRE: In a race to the bottom, media conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate and offend every standard of civilized society, by bringing in an even more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty right into our homes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, is there any validity to these bombastic charges against the press?

Joining us now here in Washington: Terence Smith, former correspondent for PBS "NewsHour" and CBS News and "New York Times." And CNN's Tom Foreman, who attended Friday's NRA event.

And, Tom, what was it like being at this NRA event? I won't call it a press conference. Are you surprised that not a single journalist got to ask a question?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the biggest surprise that it was not a press conference. All of us expected to exchange questions and answers with Wayne LaPierre, maybe with Dave Keene, the president of NRA who was there. And that didn't happen at all.

It not only didn't happen, but it adamantly did not happen. There were several of us who tried to call out questions to any of the participants. And at one point, I even said to them, one question -- would you answer even one question? Are you willing to talk to the White House about any of this? And even to that, they just kept walking.

So, that was a big disappointment and sort of set the tone for the room.

KURTZ: Right.

When Wayne LaPierre says, Terry, that the media are peddling falsehoods about semiautomatic weapons and the media are demonizing gun owners, is he right?

TERENCE SMITH, NEW YORK TIMES: No. But even before that what he got was a priceless gift of 25 minutes of free media from those news organizations that elected to carry it live. And I bet they were rather disappointed when they learned, as you just said, Tom, that there would be no questions, no opportunity to challenge any of the assertions made, including the two you just mentioned.

KURTZ: Let's talk about the tone of the coverage of the NRA event. If I can put up on the screen, the New York tabloid covers, "The New York Post" with a big headline, "Gun Nut: NRA loon in bizarre rant over Newtown." There's "The Daily News," "Craziest Man on Earth." "The Huffington Post" also said the nuts come out.

So, this was an occasion for a lot of criticism and mockery of the NRA.

FOREMAN: Yes, and I think that does not help. The truth is, all that does is validate to Wayne LaPierre and all the people who would very much ascribe to his view, yes, the media is against us and they're unfairly against us.

I think there were a lot of legitimate assessments and analysis of that news conference, which could be done by many people without calling people nuts, without saying they're crazy because the truth is, one of the reasons the NRA has so much clout is because there are a lot of good Americans out there who believe that their direction is the right direction.

SMITH: I don't want to see news organizations characterize the NRA one way or the other. I want to see them look into the $100 million a year they get in donations from gun manufacturers and gun retailers. I want to know more about the donations they in turn make to key legislatures. There is serious reporting to be done about the NRA.

(CROSSTALK)

FOREMAN: Plenty of it, too. It's everywhere. It's not just on a small scale.

If you look at what's going on at the local level, forget about the national level. The state level, the local level, the degree to which they play ball politically is huge. And that's a great story. You don't have to take it one way or the other. You can simply report on it.

SMITH: Exactly right. That's what I want to say.

KURTZ: It was a strange spectacle on Friday, but to throw around words like nut in the headline and I don't think it was a coincidence that Rupert Murdoch, who owns "The New York Post", has come out for a ban on semiautomatic weapons and then his paper takes that kind of hard line.

Wayne LaPierre was interviewed earlier this morning on NBC's "Meet the Press". I don't I've never seen David Gregory be so aggressive with a guest. Here's a clip of that interview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: Here's a magazine for ammunition that carries 30 bullets. Now, isn't it possible that if we got rid of these and we replace them and we said you can only have a magazine that carries five bullets or ten bullets, isn't it just possible that we could reduce the carnage in a situation like Newtown?

LAPIERRE: I don't believe that's going to make one difference.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Is that aggressive interviewing or is it almost taking a stand?

SMITH: You know, I'm happy with that, but I don't want to see it become too prosecutorial for the reasons that Tom was just saying. You know, don't do that. Go after the facts about the NRA.

KURTZ: Well, Gregory was pressing LaPierre on the facts and LaPierre was responding with the NRA's point of view that the problem was not guns. And I wonder since you said that this is not helpful. Doesn't Wayne LaPierre have a point on this score when he says that companies, media companies, either glamorize violence through the colors and making the movies and television shows and video games? I mean, isn't that something that should be on the table for discussion, as well?

SMITH: I think if you look at all the statistics about violence and everything that has changed in our culture over the past 20 or 30 or 40 years, I don't see how you can't look at everything. This is the place where the NRA probably ran afoul, though, on Friday. They said, look at everything except guns.

The truth is, many of us came out of there saying if at one point they said in addition to all of this, yes, we should look at gun laws because we at the NRA look at gun laws every day, it would have completely changed the tone of how people addressed it.

But to say it's all about everything except guns, I think that's one of the reasons that so many reporters have gone on the attack here saying, come on, you have to talk about this.

SMITH: I'm sure that's why networks took it live, because they wanted to hear if in the wake of this horrific event, the NRA would at least change its approach to gun control or some of the issues of gun control.

Instead, I think what they saw was an effort to shift the argument away from gun control.

KURTZ: The NRA argument as summarized by Maureen Dowd on her "New York Times" column was, guns don't kill people, media kill people.

SMITH: Right.

KURTZ: So, is there some room here --

SMITH: There's something to go back to your first question.

KURTZ: OK.

SMITH: There is something, of course, he is right. Wayne LaPierre is right when he talks about the dreadful glorification of violence.

KURTZ: So, where is --

SMITH: But we didn't need to learn that from Wayne LaPierre.

KURTZ: Right. But in the wake of this horrible tragedy in Connecticut, where is the media soul searching on its role, their role, these companies, on the whole question of the violent culture? I don't see much of it. But on the NRA front, I do take your point that perhaps with this very aggressive characterization would happen on Friday -- those who are supporters on Friday believe they can't get a break from the mainstream media.

FOREMAN: And I think when you talk about the soul-searching of the media -- look, the soul searching of the media has to be the same soul-searching that politicians have to do. If you're Barack Obama, you should be saying to yourself, why didn't I do anything about this when I was a senator? Why didn't I do anything in my first term? Why didn't I wait until the latest calamity to suddenly say it's important?

Because I have been covering school shootings for 20 years and this happens after every one of them and eight months later you can't get anyone to talk about it and the media should also following up then and saying, why not?

KURTZ: We respond to tragedy and too often it goes off the radar screen.

Terry Smith, Tom Foreman, thank you very much for coming by this morning.

When we come back, is the Newtown story starting to fade or will the emotional impact on journalists help keep it alive?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: The shock of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, still hasn't worn off. And for many of the journalists covering the tragedy, it is impossible to treat it as just another story. The pain surrounding the young children who were killed is just too raw.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS: That's what you would do, too. You would get into the child's bed and remember all the things you loved about them.

DON LEMON, CNN: For the past three days I have been on the verge of tears every second and most of the people here have been crying 24 hours straight.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: But how much will the emotional impact shake the coverage of this sensitive story? I put that question to the panel of top media critics.

Joining us now here in Washington: Fred Francis, former NBC senior correspondent and founder of 15seconds.com.

Lauren Ashburn, editor-in-chief of daily-download.com, where I am also a contributor.

And Steve Roberts, professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University who spent decades at "The New York Times."

Fred Francis, are the media now, finally, belatedly, leading a national debate on guns?

FRED FRANCIS, 15SECONDS.COM: Reluctantly and awkwardly. I mean, the way they got this started off was painful as a journalist for 40 years to watch all the mistakes, but carrying it through now over a full week clearly going into another week after this and into the holiday weeks. I think the debate is of and running and I think it has legs.

KURTZ: It seems like the reporters and the pundits, some of them, at least, finally showing the emotional impact of covering this awful story.

LAUREN ASHBURN, DAILY-DOWNLOAD.COM: I think so. And in the beginning, you want to do the job you're sent there to do. You get your mind in the game. You find your cell phone, you find your laptop, you pack your clothes, you know you're going to be there for five days, and you're in this -- yes, this bubble where you cannot let emotion come in.

And it's not until a week later, four, five days later where we're starting to see the toll that it's taking on journalists.

KURTZ: Is there a danger, Steve Roberts, that as the media do now, you know, either lead or become swept up in this debate about guns and safety, that they will be seen as pushing a liberal agenda, a pro-gun control agenda?

STEVE ROBERTS, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Sure, there is a danger with that. And, look, I agree with Lauren. I have six grandchildren between the ages of 7 and 11. I couldn't help but feel those tugs of emotion. We're trained as journalists to try to resist them. But --

KURTZ: But who could resist it? Who could not think about their kids?

ROBERTS: Exactly. But I think that -- you know, one of the powers we have, Howie, who we give our microphones to and voices we amplify. And the National Rifle Association has had a very big microphone in this country and has dominated this debate and outspent all gun control organizations by huge sums.

And, so, I think it is appropriate for us to give voice to other organizations and other voices, but there is a danger of seeming to be leading the charge for gun control.

KURTZ: You get into this question of, if people come on the air and in print and say, OK, we need to now talk about gun control because we've been through Aurora, we've been through Columbine, we've been through Virginia Tech, and now, we've been through Newtown, some people more on the right side of the spectrum, accusing of politicizing the issue?

FRANCIS: Now, in the past, I think you could have accused people of politicizing, but not now. Actually, this actually started almost 14 full days before Newtown when Bob Costas went on the air and talked about that gun issue.

KURTZ: And got hammered for it.

FRANCIS: He got hammered --

KURTZ: But that looks a little different now.

FRANCIS: Now, it looks like he was prescient, OK?

So I just think that now that this has happened and, like you, Steven, I have two grandchildren, 6 and 9. My daughter-in-law is a first grade schoolteacher. This really hit home and I think it hit everybody home.

KURTZ: But I think the media have to be careful here to have balance. For example, on MSNBC, the anchor Thomas Roberts who is interviewing a Republican congressman, who is not in favor of changing gun control laws, and Roberts came back and said, well, so, you think we should just send our children to school to be assassinated? And that suggests that anybody who has a different view is somehow the enemy.

ROBERTS: That's very unfair.

But one of the reasons why this debate took off is that you have unusual voices stepping forward, particularly Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who was -- gets an "A" rating from the NRA and did an ad -- a famous ad in his last campaign shooting a rifle and he comes out and says, "I've changed my mind."

ASHBURN: So does Joe Scarborough on MSNBC.

ROBERTS: That's how the debate changes. KURTZ: And as we heard earlier, Scarborough used his "Morning Joe" show and, of course, he is a former Republican congressman from Florida --

ASHBURN: Endorsed four times by the NRA.

KURTZ: -- to say I -- that day changed everything for him. He is rethinking his position on gun control.

ASHBURN: He has small children. He called the school immediately, said, can I come and get my children, and it's that emotional impact that, Fred, you were talking about.

FRANCIS: If there's one thing we learned from Friday a week ago to now because of the mistakes made in the media is that now young reporters and older ones have to be more thoughtful about how they frame this debate. And have to really stay in the center, if that is all possible, especially in a place like Washington.

ASHBURN: We have to have the debate. I mean, I think this is the issue because next time there's going to be another shooting, but that's going to be, who knows, months down the road.

In the next week, we're going to be on to something else. That's just the way we are. The media have ADD.

KURTZ: That has always been the case. Even after these mass tragedies that, you know, it dominates the discourse. It dominates the media for seven days, eight days, 10 days, 14 days. As you say, we move on.

I wonder this time whether it will be different. You listen to Scarborough calling out his former colleagues to take a stand on gun regulation. And you listen to all of you at the table talking about your kids and your grandchildren --I wonder whether this time would be different. You sound skeptical.

ASHBURN: I want to believe that this is going to be the high water mark. This is the place where enough is enough. But I don't believe it will be.

ROBERTS: I -- look, the NRA is, obviously, not gone away. They might have gone dark for a few days but they have an enormous amount of money, an enormous amount of clout in the city. But when an issue like this takes hold and it appeals not on an ideological point of view, so much of the feelings are filtered through the personal stories that Fred and I were talking about. When it has that quality, it transcends ideology and it transcends partisanship.

So when a Joe Scarborough says I'm not looking at this through the lens of my kids, not through the lens of partisan politics or political advantage, that's a very different way of looking at it and, therefore, has the chance of continuing.

KURTZ: Too often, Fred, as we saw in the presidential campaign. The media didn't talk about gun control because the politicians didn't talk about gun control.

Now, President Obama clearly shake shaken, like all of us, about what happened in Connecticut, is talking about it and maybe that makes it easier for journalists to keep it on the front burner?

FRANCIS: Well, it's not the journalists' responsibility to keep it on the front burner.

KURTZ: Why you say that?

ASHBURN: What? I disagree.

FRANCIS: It is not our responsibility to keep it up. We cover the news. We cannot -- it is the news this week. It is the news through the holidays, OK?

Is it going to be the news the first week in January? Only if politicians, political leaders and corporate leaders, civic leaders make it the news.

ASHBURN: President Obama put together a task force. What we're going to do is not track that task force and it's all going to peter out. What we should do is track the task force and hold them accountable, but we don't do that.

FRANCIS: That's covering the news.

KURTZ: Here's why I disagree with you. Journalists say if politicians are going to talk about civil rights, we're not going to make it a front burner issue. Politics -- journalists say if politicians don't talk about gay marriage, we're not going to cover it.

Your seeding responsibility to a political class that wants to duck uncomfortable issues, don't journalists -- not to take a side, not to be advocates, don't they have a responsibility to say we just saw 20 children killed, we think this is important?

FRANCIS: We've covered civil rights and the gay rights because it was in the streets, OK? We covered it because it was a legitimate news story. This is a legitimate news story.

We cannot go on "Today" show or CNN in the morning and others --

ASHBURN: Right.

KURTZ: But we can --

FRANCIS: Week after week covering the story that is only being talked about on sets like this.

ASHBURN: There was a mall shooting. There was a mall shooting two days or a week before this where two people were killed. That was it.

(CROSSTALK) ROBERTS: There are two policemen killed in Topeka, Kansas -- there were two policemen killed in Topeka, Kansas, the same day. Do we now point our cameras at those incidents more? Do we ask questions of the president --

FRANCIS: Cover the news.

KURTZ: And you know what, Fred? The news is also not just a spectacular, horrifying, and heart-rending incident when there's a mass shooting. Every weekend in major cities across the country kids, often minority kids, are gunned down because there are a lot of guns on the streets.

I'm not advocating a position here. What I am saying is we could play that up if we weren't so jaded about it.

ASHBURN: We took the lead during the presidential election from the politicians who never raised gun control. You know what we talked about, we talked about etch-a-sketch, we talked about Big Bird, we talked about binders full of women -- did we talk about that? No.

ROBERTS: But there is -- I think that Fred has this point that's fair, it takes the politicians to set the debate, but we can choose to amplify certain voices, we can ask questions and we can take them seriously and this issue is now a front burner issue. Questions are justified and investigative reports are justified.

So, we can be part of this.

ASHBURN: There's no money for it.

FRANCIS: I'm just saying I heard anchor people, men and women on the air this week, grilling pro and con gun support. Grilling them to the point of excess and I'm saying we can't cross the line. We'll cover the story, but we have to stay in the middle.

KURTZ: Got it.

We'll talk more about some of the issues you raised, including etch-a-sketch when we come back. We're going to look at the highs and lows of this year's presidential campaign coverage. Did the media rise to the occasion?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: The presidential campaign was the most intensely covered in history and was built as being about big issues -- taxes, spending, health care, immigration. But all too often, the media were consumed by gaffes, flaps and missteps.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: Yesterday, this like to fire people, I mean, I guess the only thing worse you could say is in a time like this when people are out of work is that Herbert Hoover is my hero. ERIC FEHRNSTROM, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an etch-a-sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over, again.

JAKE TAPPER, ABC NEWS: Mitt Romney and his campaign wanted to talk about his victory in the Illinois primary, but then the debate over this iconic children's toy, the etch-a-sketch threatened to erase all that.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The private sector is doing fine. The private sector is doing fine. The private sector is doing fine.

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

CLINT EASTWOOD, ACTOR: What do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that to himself. You're crazy. You're absolutely crazy.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: That is the weirdest thing I have seen at a political convention in my entire life.

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I went to a number of women's groups and said, can you help us find folks? And they brought us a whole binders full of women.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN: It's the phrase that won't die. You cannot escape it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Binders full of women.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Binders full of women.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Steve Roberts, when you look back at this campaign and the media on balance provide nutritious fair or a lot of empty calories?

ROBERTS: Look, you can say that they got distracted by the etch- a-sketch or by binders full of women --

KURTZ: You could say that. I just did.

ROBERTS: But you could also say these candidates are so scripted, they are so focused, they are so predigested that we get very few real glimpses into what they really think until some of these, quote, "gaffes" are revealing moments.

When Mitt Romney says, "I like to fire people," that revealed a mindset. When he talked about 47 percent, it revealed the mindset.

ASHBURN: All we care about is that one sound bite that we can then play over and over and over again. FRANCIS: But what Steve said is they're so scripted -- well, they're not so scripted until they're not, OK? And they don't script their ad libs. OK?

And the ones that get in trouble with etch-a-sketch, that wasn't Romney, but it was one of his people. And the others who get in trouble like Hilary Rosen, they make these gaffes or the candidates go off message and start ad libbing and they are prepared to do that. And it's the one sound bite that you're looking for.

ASHBURN: That's true. Well, don't look at me in looking for it. But it's driven, right, Howie, by social media--

FRANCIS: Indeed.

ASHBURN: --because so many people are dual-screening. They're watching the TV. They're on the Twitter. And Twitter is 140 characters, and you want to be snappy and you want people to think, Oh, they're clever. And so you take Big Bird and you take ``binders full of women'' and you run with it.

KURTZ: I was at the second presidential debate, and I had my head down, and I didn't realize until I looked at Twitter a little later that ``binders full of women,'' this phrase that (INAUDIBLE) slipped out talking about, you know, trying to recruit more women in Massachusetts, had gone utterly viral.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: It had the virtue of being-- you know, spreading vicious truths. I mean, the fact is that we get so few moments where we see inside these candidates and see what they really think.

KURTZ: I want to-- I want to--

ROBERTS: And these moments can be very important, Howie.

KURTZ: I want to blow the whistle. I'm not saying that none of these are stories. If Romney's chief adviser says he's going to Etch- a-Sketch his whole campaign to reset for the fall, that's worthy of being covered.

What I am saying-- I think you will agree me, these guys don't-- is that the extent to which it comes to dominate a whole week's worth of coverage--

ROBERTS: Well, sure.

KURTZ: --completely, in many cases, squeezed out any serious debate of what we all would agree where what the campaigns should have been about.

FRANCIS: Both the Romney and Obama campaigns, OK, went along with a very scripted five or six or eight or ten months. And everybody covers that. As soon as they go off script in an Etch-a- Sketch moment or a ``the private sector is doing fine'' moment-- as soon as they go off script, everybody jumps up. So you cannot blame--

KURTZ: You don't see any excess here?

FRANCIS: No, I don't.

ASHBURN: Whoa!

FRANCIS: No, I-- in fact, I do not.

ASHBURN: You think binders and Etch-a-Sketch and all of that was played just the right amount of time.

FRANCIS: First-- first-- no, I'm not saying that. I'm just saying if we ran what they said week after week after week, we'd be running the same sound bites.

ASHBURN: Because they have the same speeches.

FRANCIS: So when they go off message-- when they go off message, it's news.

KURTZ: You make it sound like we're a captive of sound bites because one thing is--

FRANCIS: Oh, we are not?

KURTZ: Well, we are, but here's-- here's an alternative approach that I think the press used to follow 20 years ago. We could have reporters digging into-- and some news organizations did this, to be fair-- digging into their records, what Romney accomplished in Massachusetts, what they really believe or don't believe on a whole range of issues, taxes, spending, gun control, immigration, instead of just being, you know, Aha, here's the interesting--

(CROSSTALK)

ASHBURN: You have to go to the niche Web sites to find that. You have to go to the non-profit-funded--

ROBERTS: No, you don't!

ASHBURN: --sites.

ROBERTS: You can go to "The New York Times." That's not a niche Web site. You can go to "The Wall Street Journal." That's not a niche Web site. There are plenty of--

ASHBURN: If you want to drill down. I agree with you, you can get expert analysis from those papers and from Web sites. But if you want to drill down on the super-PAC money and who's giving what to whom, you go to these databases. They are available!

ROBERTS: I'm not defending-- I'm not defending the sound bite. I think Twitter has-- can have a very deleterious effect. You cannot say anything intelligent in 140 characters, period. You can't do it.

ASHBURN: And you can hurt yourself, too.

KURTZ: All right, here we get a lot of angry tweets!

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

ASHBURN: Are you on Twitter?

ROBERTS: No.

ASHBURN: Aha!

FRANCIS: Let me make this point. If the candidates-- I don't care if it's presidential or congressional or Senate candidates. If they make themselves available to media, if they made themselves available to media, when these blurbs come out, when these missed-- these unplanned moments happen, they won't be as big as news (ph).

KURTZ: President Obama, in particular, made himself available to the media. He was on "The View." And he was on Leno. He was on Letterman.

(CROSSTALK)

FRANCIS: You make my point.

KURTZ: Exactly. One are a that I found was kind of an oasis in terms of substantive coverage of what the issues were, were the three presidential debates and the one vice presidential debate, where journalists led pretty serious conversations, even though the aftermath tended to focus on--

ASHBURN: And female journalists.

KURTZ: Really?

ASHBURN: Oh, yes!

KURTZ: You think that was a factor?

ASHBURN: I do think it was a factor! I think--

KURTZ: Well, speak up.

ASHBURN: Oh, I-- please, I'm happy to. Look, Candy Crowley was the first female journalist in 20 years to host a presidential debate! That debate was thoughtful. It was provocative. It made news. She got the candidates to make news. Same thing when we had the vice presidential debate.

KURTZ: ABC's Martha Raddatz. But the media, or some elements of the media, made Candy Crowley, Jim Lehrer--

FRANCIS: The news. KURTZ: --the news and took issue-- you know, they're fair game. But it almost seemed like they were dissected as much Romney and Obama were.

ASHBURN: And let me ask the women, when is it going to be that we don't-- that we don't make a big deal of the fact that it's a woman?

ROBERTS: Look, I'll tell you the-- one story-- look, being married to a female journalist, I agree with you 120 percent. But I-- I-- there's a--

KURTZ: You have to.

ASHBURN: You're getting dinner tonight!

ROBERTS: No, I also believe it. But I tell you one thing that-- where we fell down-- why were people so surprised, including Republicans-- so surprised at the turnout among Democratic voters? That was a story that got missed.

The fact is, block by block, iPad by iPad, town by town, Obama was organizing and generating a good deal of effort on the ground. That's a much harder story to do than repeating sound bites. You got to get out there and report it.

And the fact that a lot of people were surprised at the turnout, including Republicans, tells me that that was one of the big stories that was undercovered.

ASHBURN: That was a social media gaffe that the Romney campaign made. They had this big organization that they had put together, and it didn't work.

KURTZ: All right, and just to button this up, I don't think we're ever going to have a presidential campaign again where there's just one token woman acting as a moderator. So that was a positive step.

All right, Steve Roberts, Fred Francis, Lauren Ashburn, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Ahead on RELIABLE SOURCES, a harrowing ordeal in Syria for Richard Engel. My thoughts on the NBC correspondent and Risk-taking reporters in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Richard Engel is one of those reporters who just can't stay away from danger. From Iraq to Afghanistan, from Lebanon to Egypt, NBC's chief foreign correspondent is magnetically attracted to war zones. I was sickened to learn that he and his crew had been kidnapped by what Engel later described as pro-government militants in Syria.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Hello. How are you?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: A sigh of relief when it was announced that he was safe inside neighboring Turkey. He later popped up on the "TODAY" show to describe what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ENGEL: A group of gunmen just literally jumped out of the trees and bushes. They dragged us out of the car.

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KURTZ: What followed was a five-day ordeal that is chilling to listen to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ENGEL: We weren't physically beaten or tortured. It was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed. They made us choose which one of us would be shot first, and when we refused, there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot Ghazi several times.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The NBC journalists escaped when the kidnappers came to a rebel checkpoint. A firefight erupted in which two of the captors were killed. NBC had asked news organizations not to report Engel's disappearance and most complied, although a few Web sites refused. Same thing happened at the request of "The New York Times'' when its reporter, David Rohde, was kidnapped for months in Afghanistan.

Now, critics say the media are just protecting their own, but it's hard to publish a story that could endanger a colleague's life, especially when journalists like Engel are taking risks to bring us the stories of war.

After the break, the movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden sparks questions about accuracy, torture and coziness with the Obama administration. We'll look at "Zero Dark Thirty." That's next.

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KURTZ: Rarely does a movie generate so much controversy before it hits the theaters, but this film is about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, features a female CIA agent whose identity remains secret, was produced in close cooperation with the Obama administration and revives the polarizing debate over torture. No wonder the media are hotly debating "Zero Dark Thirty."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) some working group coming to the rescue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I want you to know that you're wrong. There's just us. We are failing!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You really believe this story? Osama bin Laden?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you're right, the whole world's going to want in on this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You will never find him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So is the movie accurate? Is it balanced? And is it and fair to the CIA folks being portrayed? Joining us now here in Washington, Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst and author of the book "Manhunt: The 10-Year Search for bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad,'' and in New York, David Edelstein, film critic for ``New York'' magazine.

David, filmmakers-- the filmmakers themselves are presenting this as a work of journalism. But there's so much dramatic dialogue that seems a little too perfect and composite characters. So which is it?

DAVID EDELSTEIN, FILM CRITIC, ``NEW YORK'' MAGAZINE: Well, that's what they're saying. The filmmakers are saying, Oh, this is an act of journalism, Oh, this is completely neutral.

From what I see, it's a very standard action revenge movie. It begins with a horrible insult. It ends with payback. At the same time, it's done in a very cool, if not icy, objective style. There's no attempt to make the torture seem anything other than it is, which is ugly and brutal. There's no attempt to soft-pedal or glorify the violence. The SEALs put extra bullets into people who, from what we can tell, aren't even armed.

So it's got all kinds of distancing--

KURTZ: Right.

EDELSTEIN: --devices into it. But it seems to me that despite their protests to the contrary, there's no way you can interpret this as a movie that is anything but means justifying ends, ugly as they are.

KURTZ: Let me-- let me get Peter Bergen in--

EDELSTEIN: The guy did something bad to us and we got him.

KURTZ: Aside from the message of the movie and whether it's a good movie-- it's generally gotten good reviews-- is this film an as accurate depiction, as best the filmmakers could put together, of the hunt for bin Laden, or does it have the cinematic elements that for good movie viewing?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's not a documentary, it's a movie. But the reason we're having this conversation, Howie, is that they-- you know, they have said that-- they've claimed that it's a form of journalism, so therefore it can be judged as a form of journalism. And I think, in some cases, it's found to be wanting.

KURTZ: Is your view of it influenced by the fact that you were unpaid adviser to the film?

BERGEN: No. My view is totally not influenced by that. I was unpaid, and they asked me to come and critique it and I did. And I said some of these torture scenes were overwrought, and they toned some of them down.

But that's said, most viewers are going to come out of here feeling that coercive interrogation somehow led to bin Laden. The Senate Intelligence Committee has now sort of more or less definitively refuted that. That report remains classified.

You know, it's hard to make a fully-- you know, fully comment on that in the absence of this report being public.

KURTZ: Well, since you brought out the question of torture, which has received so much attention, and about 30 minutes of the film is devoted to some pretty raw torture scenes, let's take a look at what director Katherine Bigelow had to say on this when she was interviewed on CBS.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLIE ROSE, ``CBS THIS MORNING'': There is some controversy about the film because there is graphic torture, including waterboarding, because there was an obsession on the part of the CIA and the government to find the people who did the terrible thing to America that they did on 9/11. Why was it important for you to show that?

KATHRYN BIGELOW, FILMMAKER: Well, I think it was important for us to tell a true story. And it's part of the history. It's controversial, but it's part of the history.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: David Edelstein, was there just too much torture in this as a way of, you know, making it bigger at the box office?

EDELSTEIN: Oh, I don't think so. I mean, I think it-- I think it-- there-- we know there was a ton of torture. My problem-- in some ways, there wasn't enough because one of the problems with the film is that there's no context for the torture.

They torture the right people at the right time. They get the intel that they're looking for. What you don't see is the vast number of casualties, of innocent people pulled in and tortured in all kinds of non-systematic ways, generating absolutely no valuable intel whatsoever.

Now, Peter can speak to that a lot better than I can. I'm just-- you know, I'm a film critic. My idea of torture is a Stallone movie. But I know from Peter's book and from others that-- that, you know, this just-- contextually, this is just-- you know, this is just very misrepresentative of what happened--

KURTZ: Let me--

EDELSTEIN: --and of the discussion in the CIA at the time.

KURTZ: Let me broaden the question to Peter Bergen. And that is, what about-- also what about Jessica Chastain's portrayal of the woman known in the film as Maya. This is a real-life CIA operative. She can't defend herself because she's not allowed to go public.

A "Washington Post" front page story said that she was abrasive, her colleagues didn't like her, that she was passed over for promotion. It troubles me a little bit that somebody who actually was instrumental in getting bin Laden was being portrayed and trashed in this fashion.

BERGEN: Well, in the film, of course, she comes off very well. And as I talked to Mark Boal, the screenwriter, about this, he said that was a creative choice, to make a female analyst at the center of the story. I think that's--

KURTZ: I'm shocked to hear that.

BERGEN: It's a very defensible creative choice. I mean, of course, there were men involved, an analyst by the name of John played as important a role. He is not in the film at all, as far as I can see.

But you know, I think it's fair enough, and I think that it's representative of this very large cultural shift at the agency in the last decade or so, where women have played a much more important role in not only in the terrorism world, but also in the agency in senior positions.

KURTZ: The ample cooperation that Kathryn Bigelow and the other filmmakers received from the Obama administration, from the White House, from the CIA, from the Pentagon-- it's been documented in the e-mails that have come out-- do you think that maybe unbalanced the film a little bit or compromised its independence?

BERGEN: Not at all because the Obama administration comes off, if anything, poorly in this. The one scene with the president, he's-- his view on torture comes off I think as slightly prissy in the film, and he only appears in a cameo in the background in a "60 Minutes" interview.

KURTZ: Right. David Edelstein, I've got about half a minute. You have written-- there's a theory, at least, that screenwriter, Mark Boal, fell in love with his CIA sources and embraced their perspective wholeheartedly. Explain. EDELSTEIN: Well, I mean, from what I gather, I think that's true. And in a peculiar way, this is sort of a feminist movie in that he put a lot of their feelings into the character of this woman, who actually-- whose role in the story is to drive the men to be more decisive, to be, if you will, more macho, take a chance, take risks, take this SOB down and not do this mamby-pamby probability stuff.

KURTZ: I'm going to make a prediction, which is this film is going to do very, very well given the avalanche of publicity even before it opens nationwide.

EDELSTEIN: And it's a phenomenally well made movie.

KURTZ: All right, thank you for the film critic analysis there. Peter Bergen, David Edelstein, appreciate your joining us.

EDELSTEIN: Thank you.

KURTZ: The acting CIA director now says in a statement that the movie takes significant artistic license, that it is not a realistic portrayal of the facts, and that the idea that torture was key to finding bin Laden is, in his word, false. We'll be back in a moment with the ``Media Monitor.''

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KURTZ: Time now for the ``Media Monitor,'' our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.

Here's what I like. With the country a week from sliding off the fiscal cliff, "The Wall Street Journal" has a terrific reconstruction of how the talks collapsed. At one point, President Obama reminded John Boehner of the election results, saying, You're asking me to accept Mitt Romney's tax plan. Why would I do that? The ``Journal'' piece is packed with revealing details.

Boehner's backup bill, dubbed plan B, may have failed spectacularly on Thursday night-- it never even got to a vote-- but The DailyBeast had its own failure. The Web site, where I work, reported that the House had passed plan B before correcting the error about 15 minutes later.

Hillary Clinton did not testify this week at a congressional hearings on the Benghazi attack because she's recovering from a concussion suffered after she had fainted. But some Fox News commentators practically demanded that she get a note from her doctor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, FOX CONTRIBUTOR: She's suffering from acute Benghazi allergy, which causes lightheadedness when she hears the word Benghazi or is being asked about it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How could she get a concussion when she's been ducking everything? This is what I don't understand.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Makes no sense to me!

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, ``THE O'REILLY FACTOR'': Hillary Clinton-- I guess she passed out somewhere. Is she unconscious somewhere?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She can't testify--

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Really? They're making fun of the secretary of state's injury? This drew a retort from Greta Van Susteren, who blogged, ``I don't agree with any of my FNC colleagues or anyone who is a tad bit sarcastic on our air about Secretary Clinton's health.'' Good for Greta. And Clinton will testify next month.

Catching up on a story from last week, Rhonda Lee lost her job because of Facebook. Lee was a meteorologist at the ABC affiliate in Shreveport, Louisiana. Was she rude to a viewer? Not at all.

A viewer wrote on Facebook that ``The black lady that does the news needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair.'' Lee responded that, ``I am sorry you don't like my ethnic hair. I am very proud of my African-American ancestry, which includes my hair. Conforming to one standard isn't what being American is about, and I hope you can embrace that. Thank you for your comment, and have a great weekend. And thanks for watching.''

And she was fired for that?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RHONDA LEE, FIRED AS TV METEOROLOGIST: I feel like I was being punished for defending myself. Whereas other people are given platforms, I was given a pink slip instead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, KTBS said in a statement, ``If harsh viewer comments are posted on the station's official Web site, there is a specific procedure to follow. Ms. Rhonda Lee was let go for repeatedly violating that procedure, and after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued. Rhonda Lee was not dismissed for her appearance or defending her appearance. She was fired for continuing to violate company procedure.''

I'm sorry, but a company in the communications business should encourage communications with the public. Rhonda Lee was nothing but polite, and the firing was absurd. Would the station rather she just ignore viewers in this Facebook age?

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. By the way, if you miss a program, go to iTunes on Monday and download the audio podcast or buy the video version. Just search ``Reliable Sources'' in the iTunes store.

We're back here next Sunday morning 11:00 AM Eastern for another critical look at the media.

``STATE OF THE UNION'' with Candy Crowley begins right now.