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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Journalists Skeptical on Bush's Claim of Iranian Weapons in Iraq; Coverage of Nonbinding Resolution on Iraq

Aired February 18, 2007 - 10:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Deja vu again. Journalists turn skeptical on President Bush's claim of Iranian weapons in Iraq. Do they feel burned after reporting all those stories about Saddam's supposed stockpile.

And covering the non-binding congressional vote against Bush's Iraq plan, big news or mere symbolism?

Beltway buddies. Have Bob Woodward, Tim Russert and other big- name journalists gotten too cozy with their White House sources?

Radioactive bloggers forced to quit after John Edwards refuses to fire them.

Plus, Anna Nicole fever. As the story gets weirder, why can't television shake its addiction?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Attention: We are not leading with Anna Nicole this morning, even though it did well for us in the ratings last week. But we will turn to the increasingly bizarre coverage of her death a bit later. For now, our critical lens is focused on something of slightly more global importance, the debate over the war.

The Senate yesterday couldn't even manage to agree on holding a vote on a non-binding resolution against President Bush's escalation in Iraq a day after the Democratic-controlled House passed such a measure. But for all the media attention it's drawn, that symbolic vote changes nothing.

Iran, meanwhile, very much in the headlines. When President Bush met the press this week, journalists were notably skeptical about his contention that Iran is supplying powerful roadside explosives to Iraqi insurgents.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: General Pace says that these bombs found in Iraq do not by themselves implicate Iran. What makes you so certain that the highest levels of Tehran's government is responsible?

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: Critics say that you are using the same quality of intelligence about Iran that you used to make the case for war in Iraq, specifically about WMD that turned out to be wrong, and that you are doing that to make a case for war against Iran. Is that the case?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: What assurances can you give the American people that the intelligence this time will be accurate?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining me now to sort through all this, Linda Douglass, former ABC News correspondent, now a fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press; Steve Roberts, professor of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University and a former "New York Times" correspondent; and Jill Zuckman, national correspondent for the "Chicago Tribune."

A quick answer from everyone.

Linda Douglass, we'll start with you.

Are reporters balking at the administration's claims about Iranian weapons because they are embarrassed by their performance during the run-up to the Iraq war?

LINDA DOUGLASS, SHORENSTEIN CENTER ON THE PRESS: Well, that may be part of it. It's clear that it's legitimate to say that the administration might be crying wolf here because they cried wolf before. On the other hand, Democrats are going to have to be careful that there's not really a wolf there, because the skepticism is rampant without really analyzing whether there could be something about the claims that are serious.

KURTZ: Steve Roberts.

STEVE ROBERTS, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Oh, absolutely. I think there's a significant feeling that the coverage in the early days of the war was flawed, deeply flawed. Failure to prove the -- and really hold accountable the administration for their claims about WMD, nuclear weapons stockpiles and all the rest.

Very strong. You heard that in those clips, very strong feeling. This time we've got to get it right.

JILL ZUCKMAN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": And too many reporters just accepted what White House officials told them without, you know, finding a way to check it out. And, in fact, there wasn't really a way to check it out. And so this time they're saying, oh, we don't want to take what you're saying at face value.

KURTZ: And on that point, there was this bizarre briefing in Baghdad last weekend with three U.S. military officials making the case about Iranian officials. And they wouldn't let their names be used.

Why does the press go along with that? ZUCKMAN: Well, you know, that's been a constant tension at the White House, and it's very frustrating for reporters. You know, we'll sit down and brief you, we'll give you all this information, but you have to say "senior official" or some other euphemism, and you can't use the name. And it just undermines the credibility.

ROBERTS: Look, there are many times when using anonymous sources is absolutely essential for us doing our job -- protecting critics, whistleblowers, getting leaks of information to people we're (INAUDIBLE). It's a very, very critical tool.

In this case, none of those tests were met. We weren't protecting leakers, whistleblowers, anything. We were just protecting the identity. I think it was a mistake for news organizations to play by those rules in those cases.

KURTZ: One of those briefers was reported by a foreign news element (ph) to be the chief P.R. guy for the military mission in Iraq. And you just wonder if they're so sure of their evidence, why not attach their names?

DOUGLASS: Well, that's one of the many things that has undermined the credibility of this claim.

I mean, number one, you had these strange, anonymous briefers, nobody official on the record.

Number two, a lot of this information has been out there already. They're calling a lot of this new information that the Iranians -- that these Iranian forces are sending these weapons over. That's been out for a couple of years.

Number three, the national intelligence estimate was saying that Iran isn't necessarily contributing to the violence in Iraq.

So there's a lot of reasons to be skeptical. But I wonder if reporters this time might go overboard being too skeptical.

KURTZ: I wonder if there's an overcompensation factor.

Now, the U.S. may not be talking to Iran about the Iraq war, but Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" did sit down this week with President Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Let's take a look at that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: Are you saying there are no Iranian weapons in Iraq?

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, PRESIDENT OF IRAN (through translator): You see, the position of the government is important. We are opposed to any kind of conflict in Iran. This is not in our advantage. Anyone who gets killed, we will be sad.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, he ducked every question she asked about it, but, interestingly, Diane Sawyer said on the air that some people were saying, some viewers were saying, why give a platform to one of America's enemies?

What's your reaction to that?

ROBERTS: Absolutely wrong to make that criticism. Our job is to give voice to everybody, including people who are enemies to the United States.

They felt the same way about the Osama bin Laden tapes when they came out. You have to be careful. You have to make sure you're not manipulated, you don't give someone a chance simply to spew propaganda.

But is it absolutely in the American interest to hear a voice of someone who this administration considers a mortal enemy, a head of the axis of evil? We'd be doing -- it would be journalistic malpractice if we didn't put him on the air.

KURTZ: The president gave an interview this week to C-SPAN. And he was asked a question -- and this has been a constant refrain from administration officials since this war started, what do you think of the media's coverage of Iraq?

Let's take a quick look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But do you think the media are doing an adequate job covering the full picture?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, that's wise enough not to bash the media. I would hope, however, they would take a good look at, for example, the rest of the country outside of Baghdad and Anbar Province.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: (INAUDIBLE) president toward the press?

ZUCKMAN: Well, you know, it never really pays to say, oh, you guys are doing a terrible job. But it was a softer tone. I mean, what we've heard from the administration for a long time is that the media has been too critical of Iraq and there are all these good things that we're not reporting about.

KURTZ: It's been a constant refrain.

ZUCKMAN: Constant.

KURTZ: Vice President Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and others who are always saying this. So I was just really struck by Bush's tone. ROBERTS: Yes. I mean, after all, he says -- this guy says, I'm smart enough not to attack the media when for six years that's all his administration has done -- Cheney, Rumsfeld et al, because they've been trying to intimidate the media.

DOUGLASS: But also he's smart enough not to make too strong a claim this time around that it's going really well in Iraq. I mean, that has become just a great source of derision for the administration every time they say things are going well. So he did soften his tone for that reason as well, I think.

KURTZ: You mean the administration says things are not going all that well, that's why they need a new plan.

Now, the Capitol Hill debate, the vote Friday in the House, the non-vote, or the vote not to debate yesterday in the Senate, why are the media spending all this time and energy covering a non-binding resolution about Iraq? I mean, obviously, the symbolism is important, but it's kind of a charade, isn't it?

DOUGLASS: Well, but it is -- I think it's around important turning point. I mean, number one, there is -- you know, there's a lot of pressure from the left wing of the Democratic Party for the Democrats to make a very -- to cut off the money for the troops. So there's a political dynamic.

They are finally, the Democrats in the Senate, this time around, three years later, trying, trying to send a message that they want to pull the troops out. And now they're about to confront a serious vote.

KURTZ: But you say to send a message. But until they actually put on the floor to debate something where it's a restriction of how you can spend the money, as Jack Murtha wants to do, it is pure symbolism.

ZUCKMAN: Howie, this is the issue of our time.

KURTZ: Right.

ZUCKMAN: And it's Congress's responsibility to do that. And they believe -- the Democratic leaders believe that if they send a strong enough message, that with bipartisan support it could make a difference.

ROBERTS: And symbolism matters. Pure symbolism doesn't mean it's unimportant. We have a symbolic vote, we have 56 votes in the Senate, a clear majority against the president.

KURTZ: Including seven Republicans breaking ranks.

ROBERTS: Seven Republicans. This is an important political fact. That's not meaningless.

It foreshadows the lineup politically of future fights when money will be at stake. It gives us some sense of the president's clout on Capitol Hill, his ability to lobby Republicans. These are very important political facts all contained and revealed in that debate, very much worth covering even if it's a non-binding resolution.

DOUGLASS: But there is this convict inside the Democratic Party where many Democrats are still -- Senate Democrats are afraid as being characterized as being weak on national security, which over the decades has been the charge that's being leveled at the Democrats. But this is a story in part about whether these Democrats are going to respond to what happened in November. The message that was sent to them by the voters.

KURTZ: Well, I agree with you only on this point -- this is the issue of our time. This war has gone on for four years, more than 3,000 Americans dead. And I think that journalists, too many journalists, are acting as enablers for a Congress that is afraid to actually vote on whether or not to continue to fund this war.

Maybe they'll get there. But right now, these are non-binding resolutions. They're not worth the paper they're printed on, except you all think it sends a political message.

I think that we have given them a pass.

On the Iranian weapons, journalists should be skeptical about these administration claims if nobody is willing to go on the record with definitive proof. We got into a lot of trouble last time, as you all pointed out, quoting senior administration officials about Iraq, which turned out not to be true.

Before we go, I want to turn to our Google searches. We do this from time to time.

What are the top five things that people are searching for?

The biggest increase, Valentine's Day, number one, Michelle Manhart -- do you know who Michelle Manhart is? She's the Air Force sergeant who posed nude for "Playboy" and was removed from active duty.

Number three is the Grammys.

Number four, the peanut butter recall. That obviously affects a lot of households.

And number five, the Dixie Chicks sweeping at the Grammys.

When we come back, Scooter Libby may be the defendant, but the media seems to be trial. We'll take a look at the tight relationships between some journalists and senior administration officials they cover.

And later today, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, join CNN's John Roberts for "THIS WEEK AT WAR."

Here's a preview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The militias and the insurgents have simply melted back, waiting to see what we do. We know that there are some rough days ahead.

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: What kind of proof really is needed? Americans are dying from those weapons.

SMITH: The president saying, I dare you to come up with a binding resolution that would take away those dollars.

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN AFRICA CORRESPONDENT: We were surrounded by masked men shooting at us, demanding who we were.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Bob Woodward was one of several prominent journalists to testify in the Scooter Libby perjury trial which is heading towards closing statements this week. And as a case study in the relationship between the press and the powerful, it's hard to beat this tape of Woodward's conversation in 2003 with former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage. They talked about why the administration has sent former ambassador Joe Wilson to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain nuclear material from Africa.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

BOB WOODWARD, JOURNALIST: But it was Joe Wilson who was sent by the agency. In many that's just...

RICHARD ARMITAGE, FMR. DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: His wife works in the agency.

WOODWARD: Why don't that come out? Why is...

ARMITAGE: Everybody knows it.

WOODWARD: ... that a big secret? Everyone knows?

ARMITAGE: Yes. And I know (EXPLETIVE DELETED) Joe Wilson's been calling everybody. He's pissed off because he was designated as a low-level guy who went out to look at it. So, he's all pissed off.

WOODWARD: But why would they send him?

ARMITAGE: Because his wife's a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) analyst at the agency.

WOODWARD: It's still weird.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KURTZ: Steve Roberts, is this the kind of transaction that takes place every day in Washington, and is there anything wrong with it? ROBERTS: Well, I do think there are some advantages and some disadvantage. It is the kind of transaction that takes place every day.

Bob Woodward has written many best-selling books, has provided enormous amount of information to his readers over the years because he has those kind of close, trusting relations with Rich Armitage. The downside is, do you at some point protect your sources? Do you pull you punches so that you can have access the next time?

So there's a big upside to those kinds of relationships. Significant potential downside, too.

KURTZ: Woodward didn't report anything on the Valerie Plame business, although other reporters obviously did.

Linda Douglass, during your years at ABC, you talked on background and off the record to sources all the time, I am sure. Did you worry about being used?

DOUGLASS: Absolutely, because now what's happening with confidentiality is it used to be, as Steve pointed out earlier, that you would offer confidentiality in order to coax information out of somebody who was reluctant to give it to you, a whistleblower, or somebody who really had a piece of information the public needed. Now you offer confidentiality to a high public official who is using you to push forward a political point of view and spin.

So, in other words, these are people who want to get something out but don't want to be identified as the source of the information. And that...

KURTZ: And why do journalists go along?

DOUGLASS: Well, because -- because in many cases it's the only way you can get the information. But it's wrong, because, first of all, starting a conversation with somebody assuming that you're off the record, which is one of the things that came out in this trial -- the conversation begins off the record with the assumption that you're off the record. That's a mistake.

KURTZ: You get the juiciest stuff on background, I'm sure, when people's names aren't attached.

ZUCKMAN: You know, we spend years trying to develop these close relationships. We need this. But there is always this danger that, well, at some point you're going to feel more concern for your source than for your story.

ROBERTS: And there's a change in newsrooms, I think, a little bit, Howie. I teach journalistic ethics at George Washington, and the word we use every single session is "transparency". There has to be greater accountability, not only for the people we're quoting, but for journalists ourselves. We have to be much more open about how we operate, who we talk to, so we can be held accountable the same way we hold public officials accountable. KURTZ: Well, I did a little search from the 1980s in "The New York Times," and here we have Steven B. Roberts, "'Reagan planning to seek more aid for the Nicaraguan contras,' say senior administration officials." "'Reagan due to rule on the U.S. indictment of Ferdinand Marcos,' say senior administration officials."

When you cover the White House, do you have a choice or not?

ROBERTS: Well, I think that sometimes you don't have a choice. But I think from the 1980s, when I covered the White House, there is a difference today.

I think people are -- reporters in Washington are far more reluctant in a good way to accept those kinds of easy shields for -- for administration officials. There's much more determination to put people on the record or describe more carefully, give your readers more information, than -- as much as possible, so that they can understand where your information comes from.

DOUGLASS: But, you know, what you can do in print, you can describe the source in print. In television and broadcast, you have a very limited time to convey the story, and broadcast reporters don't routinely describe the nature of the confidential source.

There is -- there is still a rule that you have to have more than one source. I think that's still a standard rule. But you don't explain the source.

ZUCKMAN: You know, I think that reporters can make a personal choice not to use blind quotes, for example, not to just say, you know, "some person," but to really insist to your sources that you need to have them on the record. And if they will not be identified, then you don't use it.

KURTZ: Let me just...

ROBERTS: That quote would not be in "The New York..." -- that phrase that I used in the 1980s would not be acceptable by editors at "The New York Times" today, I don't think.

KURTZ: Why? White House officials saying the president was about to make a major decision?

ROBERTS: White House official -- you have to describe more about why you're granting anonymity, the causes and reasons for it. That kind of phrase would not get past the desk today.

KURTZ: Glenn Kessler -- this goes to your point, Linda -- who is a diplomatic correspondent for "The Washington Post," was one of those testifying at the Scooter Libby trial this week, and he said the following: "Almost every single conversation I have in Washington is on background."

So this is how far the disease has spread.

DOUGLASS: Well, "on background" is a conversation in which you use the information but you don't identify the source precisely.

KURTZ: Right. It's a...

DOUGLASS: "Off the record" is...

KURTZ: Right?

DOUGLASS: ... you're not even supposed to use it. And what some people testified during the Libby trial is that they actually would begin a conversation off the record with no permission to even use the information. But on background in Washington has become, I think, far too routine. That is, you assume that the source of your information is not going to want to be identified without doing, as Jill said, an effort to really push that person.

KURTZ: And what people out there think is that we don't write anything negative about these sources, who you say we spend years trying to cultivate these relationships with, because we don't want to lose our access to them.

ZUCKMAN: That's true. And the other -- the other problem is, I think, when you use blind quotes you're undermining your credibility. I think readers today, they are skeptical. They look at that and they say, why should I believe that that really is someone? Look what Scooter Libby did about trying to cloud who he was when he said, I want to be described as a former congressional aide.

DOUGLASS: But the other thing I just -- you know, back to the point of when you give confidentiality, I mean, I think the most important point here is the notion that you give confidentiality to people who are trying to use you for political purpose, because there are plenty of reporters in Washington, David Rodgers of "The Wall Street Journal," the great congressional reporter, he doesn't go to cocktail parties, he doesn't hang around with people at the highest echelons. He does shoe leather and cultivates sources in agencies and has lots of sources.

KURTZ: I think you've hit it on the head. You can't break a lot of important stories without unnamed stories. Bob Woodward is a perfect example of that. But the problem is that too much of the leaking these days is by people with political agendas, often transparent political agendas.

And their effort is to make their guy look good, make the other side look bad. They're not spilling something out of their own shop. And that's why too many people out there think that this has become an insider's game, and we have been, I think, as a profession too willing to play along with that.

Jill Zuckman, Linda Douglass, Steve Roberts, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Coming up, some good news for the reporters who helped crack baseball's steroids scandal.

NBC hands Tiki Barber the ball. And a new winner in the most watched sport in media, the ratings race.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Time now for the latest from the news business in our "Media Minute".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): The two "San Francisco Chronicle" reporters who broke the Barry Bonds steroids scandal will not be going to jail. A federal judge had held Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada in contempt of court for refusing to testify about where they got grand jury transcripts implicating Bonds and other baseball players in illicit drug use. But their source has gotten the reporters off the hook.

Troy Ellerman, who represented the BALCO lab that allegedly supplied some of the steroids, agreed this week to plead guilty to revealing the secret transcripts and faces up to two years in prison. The "Chronicle" reporters still won't confirm that Ellerman was their source.

TIKI BARBER, FMR. NFL PLAYER: Today was where I wanted to be.

KURTZ: Tiki Barber may have spent most of his career as a New York Giants running back, but he wants to report on more than just sports. Barber, who had been appearing on the morning show "FOX and Friends," was drafted this week as a "Today" show correspondent. And NBC executives say they'll turn him loose on plenty of topics.

CHARLIE GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Welcome to "World News".

KURTZ: And Charlie Gibson has reached a milestone with ABC's "World News" finishing number one in the ratings for the first full week since he took over eight months ago. Gibson edged out Brian Williams and "NBC Nightly News" by 200,000 viewers. And the two could find themselves in a long race for the top spot.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: It looks like we have a horse race.

Ahead in the second half hour of RELIABLE SOURCES, the Anna Nicole frenzy, why television just can't get enough.

Mitt Romney and the Mormon issue. Is the press obsessed with his religion?

Plus, the controversial bloggers hired by John Edwards call it quits, but not quietly.

All that after a check of hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back.

In death, she looms larger than life, at least on television. I'm talking about Vickie Hogan, who called herself Anna Nicole Smith.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBIN ROBERTS, ABC NEWS: First it was a battle over her baby. Now it is a battle over her body.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Another twist in the week-old drama over the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Yes, it's another twist. Now her boyfriend and mother are in a fight to the finish over the body.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do you make of all that? She doesn't trust her brother at all.

GARY STERN, BROTHER OF HOWARD K. STERN: My brother loves Dannielynn.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: This is where things really get dysfunctional. Her mother wants her body. Her lawyer wants her body. No one can agree.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The half-sister, Anna Nicole's half-sister, is now claiming that there's the potential that she may have frozen J. Howard Marshall, her husband's -- here second husband's sperm.

BERNARD GOLDBERG, FOX NEWS ANALYST: The third reason, and it's the most important reason, is that she has big breasts.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Joining us now to sift through this wreckage and examine the presidential campaign coverage as well, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Rachel Maddow, host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on Air America Radio.

RACHEL MADDOW, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Hi.

KURTZ: And in Seattle, Michael, Michael Medved, host of "The Michael Medved Show" on the Salem Radio Network.

Michael Medved, is this sheer exploitation, this Anna Nicole story, on the part of television? Or is there some deep American fascination with this woman's tabloid life?

MICHAEL MEDVED, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, there's a deep American fascination, and it's not just American. It's timeless.

I mean, you can go back in history -- and I try to make the case -- make this case with my listeners -- you can go back in history and find parallel kinds of fascinations in the 19th century, 18th century. At the turn of the century, the last century, there was a great national fascination with Evelyn Nesbit, who, like Anna Nicole, was basically notable only because of her physical attractiveness and because she was involved in sleazy affairs, one of which led to a big murder by her then husband of her former lover, Stanford White. And that was a huge national obsession back then when America was supposed to be solid and full of decent values.

Look, this is as timeless as it could be. If Escalus was around today, if Shakespeare was around today, they might be writing about Anna Nicole.

KURTZ: All right.

MEDVED: I'm not trying to suggest that she's a classy figure, but just that she deals with timeless kinds of passions.

KURTZ: Well, Rachel Maddow, I would quarrel with the notion that this is a deep obsession, because there's a new Pew poll that says 61 percent of those surveyed say the story is being overcovered, but 11 percent say they're following it very closely. And cable television -- this is not much of a newspaper story -- cable TV is catering to that 11 percent.

MADDOW: That's right. People are not proud to say that they're following this story. It's one of those things like, you know, around political season they always say, oh, I don't like negative ads. But just like the ratings reflect an interest in Anna Nicole Smith that we may not be willing to admit to, I think the negative ads show over and over again that there have -- they have a real effect on voters.

I want to differ with Michael in that I hope that Escalus and Shakespeare would be writing about the Iraq war and not about Anna Nicole. But, I mean, I don't think there's any shame in being interested in this.

MEDVED: Dysfunctional families.

MADDOW: Yes.

KURTZ: Well, they can't be reached for comment.

But Rachel, how much of this is so television -- and I want to avoid doing it here -- just keep showing those pictures of her spilling out of her dress? "The New York Post" ran some pictures of her in a bed with the immigration minister of the Bahamas, a question about whether she used her relationship with this guy to get residency there.

How much is this about pictures? If you ban pictures from television, would the coverage of this story go down?

MADDOW: I think it would go down. Obviously, a lot of what this is about is what Anna Nicole was famous for, which is what she looked like.

At the same time, I think that we've always been fascinated with scandal and celebrities. We have royals. We have celebrities. We have pretty people. And we follow their exploits. We always have. The question is -- the real ethical question is, how much time news agencies want to devote to this and want to cater to those ratings they you know they'll get. And...

KURTZ: And on that...

MADDOW: Yes?

KURTZ: And on that point, Michael Medved, MSNBC and FOX News on Thursday, I believe, broke away from a speech that President Bush was giving on Afghanistan and the need to send more troops there and get NATO allies involved to cover another Anna Nicole hearing.

Is this what cable television has come to?

MEDVED: Well, it is. And it's what cable television has always been specializing in. I mean, we've had one obsession after another.

You may remember that America stopped -- I think they cut away during a State of the Union speech from Clinton for the O.J. verdict. And this is just one of those things that is deeply, deeply fascinating the people.

One of the reasons for it, it seems to me, Howard, is that people look at Anna Nicole, and they can feel -- you can't feel superior to many people in the news, but Anna Nicole's life is so unbelievably tacky, with five different candidates as the father of her child, I think it reassures people about their own shortcomings.

KURTZ: Right. And CNN hardly exempt from this orgy of coverage.

I'll give the last word to George Lipper (ph) of Las Vegas. He e-mailed us, "Anna Nicole Smith coverage gives new meaning to the term 'boob tube.'"

(LAUGHER)

KURTZ: Let me move on -- let me move on to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who declared his presidential candidacy this week. And I want to ask a question. First I want to play some of the coverage of the former governor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAMPBELL BROWN, NBC NEWS (voice over): His biggest hurdle, though, may be Romney's religion. He's Mormon. And a recent poll found about half of Americans had at least some reservations about a Mormon candidate.

ALAN COLMES, FOX NEWS: Will America's vote -- will Americans vote for a Mormon candidate?

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Will a Latter-day Saint go marching into the White House? A new candidate raises the question: Is America ready for a Mormon president?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Michael Medved, I can't imagine reporters saying without comment, well, polls show that America may not be ready for a Jewish president, but everybody seems perfectly willing to make this Mormon religion of Romney's an issue.

MEDVED: It's terribly unfair. And the one thing that's striking to me about it, Howard, is that in 1968, Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, ran for president. He was an equally devout Mormon. He was the governor of Michigan, and there was not this same kind of focus on his religious background. He was treated as a serious candidate.

The thing that I think is of great concern is that this really does seem to be having an impact on the launch of Romney's campaign. It has not gone quite as well as people had hoped it would within that campaign. And I think part of it has to do with they're treating his candidacy as if it were a referendum on Mormonism, and that's a terrible thing.

KURTZ: Rachel Maddow, it seems to me that have only sort of room for two facts about Mitt Romney: He's a Mormon and he changed his stance on abortion and gay rights from where it was 10 years ago. Both true, both relevant, but perhaps, you know, being trumpeted to the exclusion of just about everything else.

MADDOW: Well, I think to say that this is a media problem is a little bit of a copout. We have never had a president in this country who was not a white Christian male. If you're not white or you're not a Christian or you're not a male, that is going to be a major factor in your candidacy. And we can wish that it wasn't so, but it absolutely is.

KURTZ: But look at the difference -- look at the difference between the way Hillary Clinton, the first potential woman president, is described, the way Barack Obama, the first potential black president, is described, and Mitt Romney, can a Mormon be elected president? It just seems to me there is a real difference in the tone here.

MADDOW: I don't think so at all. I've been booked about nine times in the last few weeks to talk about Barack Obama's candidacy. Every single time, the question has been, is he black enough or something about exactly how black he is.

With Romney, he does have a challenge on his religion. That's just a fact. We wish it wasn't true, but it is true.

And he's going to have to be a very strong candidate in order to overcome that. It's not impossible that a Mormon could be elected president, but it will be a factor.

His candidacy so far has been fairly weak. I mean, he left the state house in Massachusetts -- he's my governor -- as the third most hated governor in the state. His handpicked successor lost in a landslide. We don't know if he's from Utah or Massachusetts or from Michigan. I mean, his campaign is not strong enough. KURTZ: All right. Let me move on. And as far as his campaign, it's about a week old. So I'm going to give him at least another week before I make a pronouncement.

MEDVED: Good.

KURTZ: Now, we talked last week on this program about two liberal bloggers hired by John Edwards' presidential campaign. They became very controversial for making anti-Catholic and other inflammatory remarks on their personal blogs.

Edwards decided to keep them. This week they quit. One of them is Amanda Marcotte. The other is Melissa McEwan. Amanda Marcotte yesterday on MSNBC.

Let's take a quick look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMANDA MARCOTTE, BLOGGER: I feel bad that there was so much negative attention, but I don't really feel that was my fault. I feel it was -- I was being used as a way to get to the senator, and I don't think that it had anything really to did with me. I was just a method to attack him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Michael Medved, Marcotte is blaming what she calls the right-wing noise machine for her decision to resign.

MEDVED: Well, I think it's nonsense. I happen to believe it's a terrible idea for people, to candidates to hire bloggers or to hire journalists at all. I mean, the whole idea of the blogosphere, the whole idea of talk radio, the whole idea of all of the new media, is a free-wheeling opinion.

And if you are having any doubts at all about whether somebody is being paid for that opinion, it's a terrible thing. It undermines the entire medium. And I wish that Senator Edwards and the rest of candidates would not attempt to blur the lines between independent commentary and campaign advocacy.

KURTZ: Well, I would say that bloggers don't -- many bloggers don't act like journalists, they don't want to be journalists. They're opinion people, and if they are up front about the fact that they've signed on the payroll for a presidential candidate, I'm not sure I see a problem with that, except that then the candidate is held responsible for everything they've ever written.

Rachel Maddow, one of the things Amanda Marcotte is saying in resigning is that she's young and female, and that various right-wing bloggers were obsessed with her sexuality. Is it fair for her to play the gender card?

MADDOW: Well, it's interesting. The political blog world is very, very male-dominated. And for Edwards to have chosen two female political bloggers, I think was a great move politically by Edwards in terms of making the left more interested in him. I think it was also strong of Edwards to say that he was not going to fire the bloggers.

I also think that the right-wing noise machine argument really matters here. I mean, Bill Donohue is the man who was leading the charge against these two bloggers.

I was once on a television segment with Bill Donohue, where he said that gay people need to apologize to straight people for AIDS. And this is the man saying that people should be fired for making inflammatory statements. This is kind of...

MEDVED: He's not working for any campaign, Rachel.

MADDOW: What's that?

MEDVED: He's not working for any campaign.

MADDOW: No, but he's telling...

(CROSSTALK)

MEDVED: Bill Donohue is independent. He can be as outrageous as he wants. When you start working for a campaign, you're blurring that distinction.

KURTZ: I would suggest that if any blogger, male or female, and even if there were no right-wing critics, had written what Amanda Marcotte wrote about the Virgin Mary taking Plan B birth control -- and I can't even say the whole thing on the air -- there would be a storm of controversy.

We've got about two minutes left. I want to turn to Barack Obama. You mentioned him earlier, Rachel.

MADDOW: Yes.

KURTZ: He has gotten, in my view, you know, coverage that has ranged from glowing to worshipful, and yet a few days ago he made very clear, Senator Obama did, that he was not happy with the way the media portray him.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: The problem is not that the information is not out there. The problem is that that's not what you guys have been reporting on. You've been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Michael Medved?

MEDVED: This is absurd, of course, because the whole point about Barack Obama is there really is not a great deal of specificity about his policies. The whole reason that he's a candidate is because people are compelled by his personal story, his personal appearance, his personal approach.

And for somebody to -- it's as if a Miss America contestant were scolding the media for obsessing about her appearance. The entire thing with Obama is a personal story and a background. That's what his books are about and that's what his candidacy is about.

KURTZ: Rachel Maddow, even the swimsuit coverage was positive. But does he need to get a thicker skin if he's going to be in the thick of a presidential race?

MADDOW: No. I think that -- I think that what he's saying is right.

He's not running for Miss America, Michael, so that's not exactly fair.

But the thing about Obama, and I think this is relevant because we do have serious candidates who are a woman, in the case of Hillary Clinton, who are not Christian, in the case of Mitt Romney, or at least not mainstream Christian, and who is black in the case of Obama, I think the question of whether or not these candidates are going to be able to overcome those demographic challenges in part depends on how much the media is willing to talk about something other than the way they're different from all of our previous presidencies.

We do not always talk about Hillary Clinton's gender. We do still always talk about Obama's race.

KURTZ: We are going to have to call that a wrap.

Michael Medved, Rachel Maddow, thanks very much for a lively conversation.

MEDVED: Thank you.

MADDOW: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: This morning, everyone has color TV these days, but in a very real sense, television is still a matter of black and white. A look at the racial divide in the media in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Las Vegas.

Coming up at the top of the hour on "LATE EDITION," the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, addresses concerns about President Bush's Iraq war policy, and the possibility of war with Iran.

The Senate's top leaders, Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell, weigh in on the Iraq war debate.

Plus, assessing the state of black America 2007. All of that and much more on "LATE EDITION."

Now back to Howard Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES.

KURTZ: Thanks, Wolf.

And speaking about the state of black America, CNN has launched a year-long initiative, "Uncovering America," to examine people and issues often ignored by the mainstream media. In that spirit, we're taking a look at how television is still very much a matter of black and white.

Joining us now to look at the racial divide in the audience to both news and entertainment, in Tampa, Eric Deggans, media critic for "The St. Petersburg Times." And here in the studio, Paul Farhi, reporter for "The Washington Post."

Eric Deggans, when it comes to television and black viewers and white viewers, is it really a tale of two cities?

ERIC DEGGANS, "ST. PETERSBURG TIMES": In some measure it is. I think on some level we see that black viewers watch what white viewers watch. They watch the NFL, they watch "American Idol." But we also see that black viewers are much more interested in seeing black people on television.

So, shows that all have all-black casts and that feature black culture, some of the CW comedies, like "Everybody Hates Chris" and "One on One" get higher viewership in black households because black people want to see other black people on television.

KURTZ: Let me put up a chart about the top 10 shows among non- black viewers. We've got it here.

The number one is "CSI". Number two, "Desperate Housewives".

The ones that are in yellow there are also going to show up on the list of favorite shows among black audiences.

And if we can go to the second half, Reza (ph), you will see that NFL "Monday Night Football" number 10.

Now let's go to the top 10 shows for black audiences. "Girlfriends" is number on. Let's get that up on the screen. And "Monday Night Football," which is also on the other list, number three.

And if we go to the bottom half of the top 10, "CSI" and "Desperate Housewives" show up toward the bottom there, where those are the two most popular shows among white audiences.

So, Paul Farhi, I would think that brilliant programmers would create shows that appeal to all groups.

PAUL FARHI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, and they do. And, in fact, the trend in network television is to create shows that appeal to both black and white audiences by having these ensemble casts. A few black stars, a few white stars. Put them all together.

That's what's happened in the last few years because programmers have realized, we can't segregate the audience. The audience is both black and white simultaneously.

KURTZ: Is that also a reaction to the NAACP a half-dozen years ago threatening a boycott against the networks because the 26 new shows that year had no African-Americans in the lead?

FARHI: It helps. The campaign that the NAACP waged was very successful. It got more black stars on television, and it got more black people behind the camera as well.

KURTZ: And Eric Deggans, when I try to think of popular shows that have an all-black cast that doesn't feature dysfunctional characters, I think of "The Cosby Show," and that's 20 years ago. Are there other shows around today that are anywhere in that mold?

DEGGANS: Sure. I think there are a lot of shows out there.

"Everybody Hates Chris" I think would be the best example on network television, where you have a great show. It's very creative, and it has an all-black cast or almost an all-black cast.

I think one difference I would point out is that I think black viewers are interested in shows that also sort of embody black culture. They want to see shows -- they just don't want to see black people. They want to see acting like black people that make sense to them.

And another thing that's popular in black households is reality television. So some of the shows we didn't see on your list -- for example, "American Idol," and the new show "Flavor of Love," the sort of anti-bachelor dating show that VH-1 does, and "I Love New York," the spin-off from "Flavor of Love," those shows are also very popular in black households.

KURTZ: What about in the consumption of news, Paul Farhi? Do you have the sense that blacks and whites either watch different amounts of television news or look for different kinds of programs?

FARHI: Well, first of all, blacks and whites watch different amounts of television. Black households watch 20, 30 percent more television than white households do. So blacks are the best consumers of television, if you will.

And yes, news over-delivers black viewers, just like most television does. "60 Minutes" is one of the top shows in black households, as well as in white households.

KURTZ: And I would think, Eric Deggans, that's because "60 Minutes" for so many years featured Ed Bradley. And since his death now there is no black correspondent, at least for now on "60 Minutes." And I wonder if that will affect the show's popularity in minority communities.

DEGGANS: Certainly I would wonder that as well. I would also think part of it would be coverage.

I mean, Ed Bradley also did some amazing reporting on the Duke rape scandal, for example. And that was an issue that was very important to black viewers. A long time ago he did some groundbreaking reporting on the boat people in Vietnam -- coming from Vietnam.

So part of it is content and part of it is who is delivering the content.

KURTZ: But if you look at it in purely color terms, Paul Farhi, there's never been a network evening news anchor who was black. We have the first woman in Katie Couric, and a big hoopla over that.

And you look at cable news and primetime, the three big cable news channels, zero black talk show hosts on those programs. There we see all those faces on the screen, everybody from Sean Hannity to Keith Olbermann, to Paula Zahn.

I don't see any black faces there.

FARHI: Well, let's put it in perspective. Blacks represent 12 percent of the American population. That's a very small portion, relatively speaking, of the television audience. The television audience, of course, is fragmented across many, many different channels and programs.

Economically, it's often difficult to justify targeting specifically to black viewers. The best strategy that the networks have found and the news networks as well is to try and be universal and try and get everybody to watch the program.

KURTZ: Eric Deggans, I've got about a half a minute for a response here.

DEGGANS: Yes. One of the things I would say is that network executes have learned -- I think network executives have to fight their own sort of prejudices on this. And I think sometimes they think black people won't necessarily tune in or only black people will tune in if they feature a black host. And then they find out differently if they take a chance.

KURTZ: Right. Well, 12 percent of the population, but zero percent of the talk show hosts. That's not a good record.

Paul Farhi, Eric Deggans, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, the week's biggest story in cable news, maybe the biggest story of the year, or the century, a larger-than-life woman and an even larger media obsession.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It's a chart that just jumps out at you, makes your eyes bulge. And for me, at least, prompted this carefully considered response -- huh? (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): What were the top five stories on cable news last week? The Project for Excellence in Journalism says the number one topic was the death of Anna Nicole Smith, eating up more than 20 percent of the air time, beating out Iraq policy, the 2008 campaign, the Scooter Libby trial, and the astronaut attempted murder case.

And you know what's really amazing about this figure? Anna Nicole's death wasn't reported until Thursday afternoon, February 8th. But she still rocketed to the top of the entire week, which might explain this exchange on "THE SITUATION ROOM"...

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: That's the only story we reported for two solid hours, and we weren't the only ones. Her death was tabloid gold. And apparently we just couldn't help ourselves.

BLITZER: I know a lot of people are complaining about that, Jack, but a lot of people are also watching.

KURTZ: The Smith saga was also the lead story that day on "PAULA ZAHN NOW," "LARRY KING LIVE," "ANDERSON COOPER 360," "The O'Reilly Factor," "Hannity & Colmes," Greta Van Susteren's "On the Record," Keith Olbermann's "Countdown," and "Scarborough Country."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: All of which made me wonder, is it possible to opt out of one of these frenzies when everyone else is blathering on about Anna Nicole's drug use and who's the baby's father and showing pictures of her in various states of undress? Could you say, folks, we're going to cover the developments in this story for a few minutes every hour and we're also going to keep you up to date on the White House and Congress and Iraq and politics and winter storms and all the rest?

Would your audience go like this?

Everybody's numbers went up during the height of the Anna Nicole's craziness. And if you were a cable executive, you got to love the short-term bump. But what about all the people you alienate with these tabloid melodramas?

Could you be driving some of them away over the long term? Could you be damaging your brand as a place for real news?

Anna Nicole Smith was no Princess Di, but on cable these days, you can barely tell the difference.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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