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A Real-Life "House Of Cards"; "Who Decides Which Stories Are Covered?"; Public Uproar Over Skating Scores

Aired February 21, 2014 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. The Politics Lead now, as a wise man once said, if you don't like how the table is set, turn over the table. That's the kind of sage advice fictional Congressman Francis Underwood passes on to the viewer when he ever he breaks the fourth wall of the hit Netflix series "House of Cards."

It a show set in the seedy underbelly of a fictional D.C. where corruption, sex, and power ruled the day. By most accounts, the Netflix version of Washington, D.C., is far more hideous than the real one. But the other day we here at THE LEAD were discussing about how one way the fictional version is preferable in some ways to our D.C. reality. How? Well, take a look, but I do want to warn you, there are some minor spoilers in this piece.


TAPPER (voice-over): Here are two stories about reforming social safety net or entitlement spending in Washington, D.C., one from real life and one from Netflix's "House of Cards." And amazingly, the more cynical version is not the bloody, sleazy amoral Hollywood one. If you can get past the show's almost criminal errors and Senate procedure, the plot lines, believe it or not, are kind of similar.

Start with the proposition that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in both real-life and the TV show believe these programs such as Medicaid need to be reformed that not enough money is going in and too much is going out. Now let me give you a minor spoiler alert.

In the first few episodes of the new season of the Netflix show, lawmakers actually passed a controversial reform. They've raise the retirement age to 68. In the show, Democrats have to do it on their own after Republicans walk away right before a key vote. And here's the point here, the Democrats do it on their own.

(on camera): Now, this would be a good time for a Frank Underwood-like aside to the camera. Please understand, I'm not taking a position on raising the retirement age or Medicare reforms, but regardless of the merits, it would be significant and very politically risky thing to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Order in the Senate.

TAPPER (voice-over): You don't see President Obama or Vice President Biden making such a big policy move, despite their claim that they make a political dancing partner. In fact, this week, in real-life Washington, the Obama administration dropped, change CPI or Consumer Price Index from their 2015 budget proposal.

What is change CPI? It's a change in the inflation formula used to determine cost of living increases in Social Security checks. That proposal once on the table now, off the table would not slow the growth in Social Security spending as much as the "House of Cards" idea of raising the retirement age, but it would slow growth.

President Obama recently expressed envy at Frank Underwood's ability to get things done in Washington. Now fans of "House of Cards" know that many of Underwood's ways of achieving things are downright illegal. Not just immoral. But it also turns out news flash the real-life politicians aren't as courageous as their TV counterparts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now I'm only 3 feet away.


TAPPER: Sorry about the spoiler, so would Washington run smoother if Frank Underwood was calling the shots? Joining me now, Carol Lee, is White House correspondent for the "Wall Street Journal" and Michael Crowley, deputy Washington Bureau chief for "Time" magazine.

Let's just talk about, let's avoid the "House of Cards" construct of this and talk about the idea of what the president just did in his budget or what he is about to do. He had a proposal that was a modest reform to the growth of these social safety net programs and now it's gone. Why?

CAROL LEE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": Because he wants to play to the political base, but the White House's version of that story is that he took it out of his budget, which is going to come out in a couple of weeks because they tried working with Republicans.

And so didn't work and they offered them olive branches such as changed CPI, and that didn't get them any closer to a deal. So the way they tell it is that they are moving back to a more traditional order where the president sets a budget and it's his priorities and then Congress can do what they want with it.

But essentially it's an acknowledgment that, A, nothing is going to get done on the deficit this year and, B, the president has some things that he needs to do to get Democrats and they were really upset that he put this in the budget last year.

TAPPER: So the president has said that he thinks these entitlement or social safety net programs need to be reformed. He doesn't believe in everything that's been proposed by Republicans, but he does acknowledge that something needs to be done. The math just doesn't add up. Why not try to do something if that's what he believes, regardless of whether or not the Republicans have come to the table. MICHAEL CROWLEY, DEPUTY WASHINGTON, BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME": Sure, well, because I suspect the answer is that politics is the art of the deal and you get concessions from the other side when you have a very adversarial system like we have now. It's a very polarized system. If you give away a pretty good thing, you -- it's just a missed opportunity.

And you -- and actually, you create a perverse incentive for a party that has dug in and not willing to deal with you if you throw up your hands up and say, I surrender.

So you know, the question is, at what point does the policy -- is it so important that you have to be willing to sort of violate these basic practices of politics where you don't give something without getting something in return.

You don't reward a dug in opposition party and I think in this case the White House is probably thinking there's another way to do it. It doesn't have to be done right now. The republic will survive.

TAPPER: The way that all of these bipartisan groups say that these entitlements need to be reformed and the deficit would be brought down is a combination of spending cuts, entitlement reforms and also raising taxes. Republicans, to be fair, have refused to go along with any of that.

LEE: Well, and that's what the White House said. I mean, on one hand the president is trying to have it both ways because he's taking this out of his budget, which the base loves, all the progressives are rallying around that yesterday. On the other hand, the White House is making very clear that it's still on the table. It's just not in the budget and so he'd be willing to do that, but only if Republicans moved on taxes.

CROWLEY: And by the way, the political environment has changed a little bit. Deficits are falling right now. There was a freak-out after the economic crash, after the stimulus where people rightly or wrongly felt that Washington was throwing money in the air for no reason. That's kind of cooled down. The long term budget picture in this country is still very problematic. Deficit is going to rise again, but we're in a moment where people are not as upset about those issues.

TAPPER: Let's take a quick look at Michelle Obama, the first lady of the United States, making an appearance on the Jimmy Fallon show last night.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: Thanks to the affordable care act, young people can stay on their parents' insurance until they are 26, but once they hit 26, they are on their own. A lot of young people think they are invincible, but the truth is young people are knuckleheads. They are the ones who are cooking for the first time and slice their finger open. They are dancing on the bar stool, you know.

JIMMY FALLON: Young people.

OBAMA: Yes, young people.


TAPPER: Obviously part of the reason that she's on Jimmy Fallon talking about that is --

CROWLEY: Well, they need to get young people to sign up for Obamacare. The only way it works is if you have a lot of young people do it. It's a smart way you want to popularize and using a term like knucklehead is funny. It will break through. The problem is young people never learned the lesson that they are invincible. People have been telling them for time in memorial. I don't know if they'll ever learn it. That's the challenge they are up against.

TAPPER: How did she do last night, you think?

LEE: She got plenty of laughs and they are good. She's done a bunch of things with Jimmy Fallon in the past.

TAPPER: They really seemed to like each other.

LEE: They do. They were jumping around in potato sacks in the east room.

TAPPER: I know conservatives are worried about Fallon has a close relationship with Michelle and conservatives will be shut out. I'm sure that won't happen. But anyway, Carol Lee, Mike Crowley, thank you so much. We appreciate it as always. Have a great weekend.

Coming up, the next time you are in a meeting at work. Imagine someone from the federal government sitting in and asking what are you doing, why are you doing it? Well, that's what some people fear the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission is talking about doing.

Plus, the stakes were high and I'm not talking about the gold medal. I'm talking about battling our neighbor to the north over who gets stuck with one not so well-behaved star.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Time now for THE BURIED LEAD, that's what we call stories we think are not getting enough attention. Now imagine you work in my business. You're a news man or news woman. You are sitting in a meeting with your staff and going over the stories you plan to cover that day. It might look like this.

Now imagine a contractor who was hired by the FCC and he walks in and starts asking you questions like, what is the news philosophy of the station? Who decides which stories are covered or have you ever suggested coverage that was rejected by management? Doesn't that sound like an infringement on the rights of the freedom of the press?

But those were the exact questions in a proposed study written for the Federal Communications Commission. Last year, a pilot program to go to news organizations in one South Carolina city to find out what barriers exist for the population on, quote, "critical information needs."

This FCC program and questions about government meddling in a fair and free press have generated a lot of controversy after FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai decided to speak out against the study in a "Wall Street Journal" opinion piece.

He wrote that, quote, "The agency plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors, and station owners about how they decide which stories to run. As a consumer of news, I have an opinion, but my opinion shouldn't matter more than anyone else's merely because I happen to work at the FCC."

Now in response, the FCC chair announced that the questions about news philosophy and judgment and choices would not be asked. We spoke earlier today.


TAPPER: Explain to us, why did the FCC think this study was a priority for them? In the first place, what were they trying to learn?

AJIT PAI, FCC COMMISSIONER: So, the stated purpose of the study was to fulfill a statutory requirement, a law that requires the FCC to report to Congress every three years on barriers that entrepreneurs and small businesses face when they try to get into the communication's industry.

But if you look at the design of the study, it doesn't really have anything to do with that purpose, and that led a lot of people, including me, to wonder what the real purpose is and whether it's fulfilling a necessary goal of the FCC.

TAPPER: Well, what do you suspect the real purpose was, if not what the stated purpose was?

PAI: To be honest, I'm not sure. I didn't have input into either the adoption of the study or into the implementation. But if you look at the study design, it goes into the core functions of the newsroom. How do you decide which stories to cover, do you have a news philosophy?

Listeners or viewers perceive that your station is biased. Those are the types of questions that don't have anything to do with that stated purpose, but do go to, I would say, editorial and newspaper judgment and freedoms.

TAPPER: So this was written last year. What made you write this op- ed now?

PAI: So the proposed study design was adopted last year. In November, the first pilot site was located, was going to be Columbia, South Carolina. It was supposed to start this spring and as I dug into the 78-page study design, I got a little more worried about what the proposed implementation would mean for our basic constitutional freedom of the press. That's why we decided to speak out on the op-ed pieces of the "Wall Street Journal."

TAPPER: You've acknowledged that the FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who came in after this program was already under way, he has said they plan to remove some of the more controversial questions, four people in the newsroom about their editorial judgment, about their philosophy.

The FCC spokesman released this statement. Quote, "By law, the FCC must study the ability of entrepreneurs and small business to compete in the media marketplace. The commission does not and will not interfere in newsrooms or editorial decision making.

Any suggestion the commission intends to regulate the speech of news media as false. The draft questions in the study are being revised to clear up any confusion. What's your response? Do you take the FCC, your organization, at its word?

PAI: I certainly think it's a positive step for the FCC to instruct the contractor who is doing this study to remove any questions about news philosophy, about editorial judgment, and otherwise, to keep the government out of the newsroom.

My own preference would be for us not to do the study at all to the extent that it doesn't really relate to our purpose, which is reporting to Congress on barriers to entry. As I said, this is a positive step and the devil is going to be in the details when the study is actually implemented.

TAPPER: Is there not an interest -- I'm going to play devil's advocate here obviously. I don't like the idea of the government intervening in the gathering or distributing of news. As a news man, I have a bias in that way. But to play devil s advocate, aren't there places where local political industry or local political parties have too much influence and it might be in the interest of the public to try to push back on that?

PAI: Well, one of the great things about the modern media marketplace is that consumers in markets big and small have unparalleled choice when it comes to the news that they want to get. It's no longer a few broadcasters and perhaps a radio station. They've also got print media, which is exploding in some markets. They have online options, which never existed before.

And so I think especially in the context of a more competitive media marketplace, it doesn't really make a lot of sense for the FCC to assume that an uncompetitive marketplace is the norm and to send researchers out to confirm or disconfirm that supposition.

TAPPER: Commissioner Ajit Pai, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

PAI: Thanks for having me, Jake.

(END VIDEOTAPE) TAPPER: There is some breaking news on this story. After we interviewed Pai earlier today, the FCC sent us another statement announcing that the study would no longer include any questions to men and women in newsrooms.

Quote, "Media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in the Columbia, South Carolina pilot study," the FCC said. I just got off the phone earlier from -- on the phone with Commissioner Pai, he called this move an important victory for the first amendment.

We should note that the FCC says this pilot program will continue once they create a new study design. We will continue to stay on top of the story.

Coming up next, she was left speechless by her result after finishing lower than a skater who had fallen on the ice. U.S. figure skater, Ashley Wagner is calling out the Olympic judges. Does she have a point? We'll be joined by Brian Boitano.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. A really interesting sports lead now, before the torch was even lit, it was already being called the most corrupt Olympic games ever and now athletes and fans alike are crying foul over the results of last night's women's figure skating competition in Sochi after Russian skater, Adelina Sotnikova beat out the reigning champ, South Korea's, Yuna Kim to take the gold home for Putin's home team.

Sotnikova's victory sparked a firestorm of debate over the judging system. Some also pointed out that she seemed to stumble after landing a triple combination. The International Olympic Committee says, quote, "There's no scandal."

But Team USA's Ashley Wagner says the results left her speechless and that she felt personally cheated when she came in seventh behind some skaters who is had fallen during their programs.

This morning, Wagner gave a more diplomatic response to the "Today" show.


ASHLEY WAGNER, TEAM FIGURE SKATING BRONZE MEDALIST: I think that the ladies in the top three, absolutely hands down belong in the top three. I don't even question that. I think that the system is too opaque. It's not clear enough to the audience and it needs to become more fan-friendly so we can get a wider fan base. I think we need to get rid of the anonymous judging.


TAPPER: For more on this, I'm joined by Olympic gold medalist and a member of the U.S. delegation to the Sochi games, Brian Boitano. Brian, thanks so much for being here. A big fan of yours, more than 1.7 million people have signed an online petition calling for an investigation here. Who do you think won last night?

BRIAN BOITANO, OLYMPIC FIGURE SKATING GOLD MEDALIST: You know, Jake, it's such a mathematical equation that it comes down to component scores, which are the skating skills and choreography versus the technical scores. Yuna Kim and Carolina Costner are by far the best in component scores, their maturity level, their performance quality.

But Sotnikova brought a whole another level of technical expertise and risk factor to the competition. So here's where the gray areas, which should be scored higher or lower? In my opinion, I think Yuna Kim needed to be further ahead of everyone else after the short program because her component scores are too strong.

I think Sotnikova was too close to her after the short. That being said, she wouldn't have been able to make up the difference and Yuna Kim would be an Olympic champion again.

TAPPER: What do you make of all of the outrage?

BOITANO: I understand the outrage. The thing that I read online today was 90 percent of the 1.5 million are from Korea. So that makes a lot of sense because they are standing up for Yuna Kim and it makes a lot of sense to me.

TAPPER: One of the judges had been suspended for a year for trying to fix an event at the Winter Olympics 16 years ago another judge is married to the head of the Russian skating federation. This is where a lot of these conspiracy theories come from. Is there anything there, do you think?

BOITANO: You know what? I don't know if there's anything there. We're figure skaters. We grew up in a very controversial sport. It's political. It comes down to a judge's opinion and we're used to dealing with the politics. I do agree with Ashley Wagner about the judging system, it has to be more transparent but it's a subjective sport.

You're in front of judges and it's always going to be subjective. Whether or not you have the old judging system or the new judging system, but I do think it needs to not be anonymous anymore. You have to put a number with the face.

TAPPER: Adam Lee for the U.S. figure skating. He analyzed the performances for "The New York Times." He said that the Russian's double axle triple toe combo was technically harder than the South Korean's triple sacho double toe combo? How much of this ratings are a science and how much is this at a judge's discretion?

BOITANO: That's pretty much a science. Most skaters who see a combination know that double axle triple toe is more difficult because you have to land the double axle with a lot of speed and in a certain way so you can add that other rotation on a second jump into a triple. It's much harder. The flow in between the two jumps.

That being said, a triple south being first and then a double, you can do a double from a standstill so you don't have to have the preciseness on that. So most all skaters know that. I think the problem comes in that some of the judges that are judging this sport haven't been skaters and they may not know that, you know, one thing is more difficult than the other.

TAPPER: I apologize for mispronouncing -- I'm new to judging this sport. One other question, Brian, you came out publicly after being named to the delegation.


TAPPER: Do you think Putin got the message at all over Russia's ant anti-gay laws and what the rest of the world or a lot of countries in the world think about them?

BOITANO: Jake, I definitely do. When we went over there with the delegation, everybody in Russia knew why we were being sent and the message of President Obama's tolerance and diversity message through the delegation and the reason that I decided to come out publicly, I think everyone knew why we were there. We did press conferences. We did individual interviews.

And the Americans knew why we went and President Putin definitely got the message. And I just talked to Billie Jean King who is on her way over for the closing ceremonies on the delegation and I'm so glad that she's able to go as well.

TAPPER: Well, you're the first gold medalist that we've had on THE LEAD and we hope to see you again soon. Thank you so much, Brian.

BOITANO: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Have a great weekend -- Mr. Blitzer.