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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Former White House Officials Weigh in on Tony Snow as Press Secretary
Aired April 30, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Tony already knows most of you. And he's agreed to take the job anyway.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Snow day at the White House. FOX News commentator Tony Snow takes the podium vacated by Scott McClellan. Will he ease the president's tense relations with the press or just be a more telegenic salesman in reciting the talking points? Two former administration spokesmen join the discussion.
ABC captures a family beating and doesn't notify the authorities. NBC's "Dateline" uses money and deception to catch predators. When should journalists act as cops?
Plus, Rush Limbaugh settles his drug case. And Deep Throat makes his cable debut 34 years after Watergate.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the administration's FOX-y new spokesman. I'm Howard Kurtz.
Tony Snow, the former host of "FOX News Sunday" and now a radio and TV commentator for the network, took the White House press secretary's job this week, replacing Scott McClellan.
Snow is no stranger to 1600 Pennsylvania, having served as speechwriter director for President Bush's father. But lately, he has voiced some occasional criticism of the 43rd president, who acknowledged that in introducing his new man at the podium.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: He's not afraid to discuss his own opinions. For those of you who have read his columns and listened to his radio show, he sometimes has disagreed with me. I asked him about those comments. And he said, "You should have heard what I said about the other guy."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But can Snow lower the simmering tensions with the media at a White House whose attitude towards journalist often seems to range from indifferent to hostile? Snow offered this response to Brit Hume in what was, unsurprisingly, a FOX News exclusive. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TONY SNOW, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I get to know the people who's out in that room every day. As you know, these are people who are holed up in close quarters for an extended period of time, and one way or another you're going to have to get along. So I want to get along with the press corps and understand whatever concerns they may have, and at the same time try to figure out exactly the technical aspects of doing the job effectively.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now are two people who know what it's like to speak for an administration and face those snarling reporters. Joe Lockhart, former press secretary to President Clinton and Mary Matalin, former adviser to President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Welcome.
Mary Matalin, Tony Snow has said in the last year that the president's domestic policy was timid, it was lackluster and he'd become something of an embarrassment. Now he's going to tell the world what a great job Bush is doing?
MARY MATALIN, FORMER ADVISER TO BUSH/CHENEY: Yes. There's a difference between being a commentator and being an advocate and a spokesman for the administration, which he made clear.
Here's the real skill amongst his many that FOX-y, and he is, Tony Snow brings to this job. He has been in your seat. He has been on the other side of the podium, and he knows what these guys, who aren't snarling. They really do want to get the job done. We all have the same objective, which is to serve the public. He knows that they need to do that, and he knows -- and he's had to reach audiences himself, so he knows how -- he brings a very unique skill to that job.
KURTZ: Joe Lockhart, Snow is the first Washington pundit ever to hold this job. Is this the new model, the briefing as TV show and the press secretary as the host?
JOE LOCKHART, FORMER CLINTON PRESS SECRETARY: I think there's a lot of different models. This is certainly one. I think if you're the president, you want someone who can convince people and persuade people. You're talking both to the reporters in the room and the public that's tuning in every day, you know, on CSPAN or more broadly on CNN or on the network news at night.
I think the -- the idea that he has disagreed with the president and written some things and said some things actually helps him a lot. I think...
KURTZ: Establishes his independence?
LOCKHART: Yes, I think the rap on this administration with -- with Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan is that they haven't been out there as an advocate of the president. They don't have their own independent thinking. They've just been sort of robotically repeating. I don't think it's fair, but that's been the rap on them. I think the fact that he has said some things critical of the president gives him a little bit of credibility, and that little bit of credibility goes a long way.
KURTZ: A lot of chatter, Mary Matalin, about whether Tony Snow can ease tensions with the press corps. Does the president really want better relations with the press? In the first term, a lot of people thought he wanted to go around the press, to communicate without the filter that -- he loves that word filter, the filter of the press.
MATALIN: It's not about the relationships with the press. It's about the end result, which is getting his -- not just message; it's not a messaging marketing thing. It's making people understand in ways they clearly do not at the moment what's going on in Iraq, what's going on in the economy.
There's cognitive dissonance, and we have the fastest growing economy in two and a half years, and the majority of the people say they're better off today than they were four years ago, but they don't give the president any credit for these fiscal policies.
KURTZ: Because of the press corps?
MATALIN: There's just a synaptic lapse. There's no point in blaming in on anybody, but they're -- but it's not necessarily about, or exclusively about relationships.
What can we do -- and Josh Bolten's made a lot of changes. It's not just in the press briefing room. It's with Capitol Hill. It's a myriad across the board to, as he says, get the mojo going, reorganize, and refocus, to be able to explain to people in a more effective way what it is we're doing and how successful it is.
KURTZ: Well, the perception, Joe Lockhart, is that this is the tension filled administration since the administration and the press since the Nixon days. But I think people forget what you went through. You were press secretary during the Clinton impeachment, and our crack RELIABLE SOURCES staff has dug out a little bit of footage of you in action.
KURTZ: Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LOCKHART: So you think that's a responsible thing for you to do, to repeat an accusation without any evidence?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you have any reaction to his...
LOCKHART: I asked -- I actually asked you a question. Do you think that's a responsible thing to do? OK, then I'm not going to answer. Next question. I am not going to allow this room to become a place where unnamed people can pass rumors around and where innuendo lives in the same place as facts. I'm just not going to do it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: You were asked a question whether the White House was responsible for leaking derogatory information about a congressman. So you had your share of tensions to deal with, as well, correct?
LOCKHART: Sure. I think time heals a lot of wounds.
KURTZ: You winced when that came up.
LOCKHART: Yes. It was funny, because I did run into Tony Snow the other night, and some people were talking about because he has it so much harder because things are so much more difficult, and I kept thinking of the word impeachment and people do forget that.
It's not -- I agree with Mary, it's not whether you get along with people in the room. I think Scott McClellan had got along very well with the reporters in the room, and I think they respected him.
I think there was a fundamental sense that whatever the president was doing, there wasn't enough time and effort put into how do you explain that, and there wasn't enough detail and texture to what they were saying. And I think there was a sense of we're just going to tell you what we think and you're just going to have to buy it. And there is a give and take in that room.
And you know, we'll see with Tony. If he's empowered to give more, to make it more of an interactive process, then I think they'll do better. But if it's just an idea that we're going to change faces and we're going to stick with these talking points no matter what, I think he's going to be very frustrated.
KURTZ: But can you understand, Mary Matalin, the larger picture why journalists feel under siege? You have investigations of leaks. You have reporters being threatened with jail. You have reporters saying they were misled in the briefing room about the Valerie Plame case. So there really -- it's not about people liking each other; it's about the sharpening of this adversarial relationship.
MATALIN: You know, it was the press, and specifically "The New York Times", that was hammering away for an investigation, and that the press got caught up in that investigation is not because the president did something or the administration did something.
There -- this is a really serious issue, the leaking of classified information to the detriment of our national security. And that -- that policy is going to be in place to track down leakers of classified information, pre-Bush and post-Bush, as it should be.
But that's not what this is about. What Joe referenced is very important. It's not that the press expects you to hand them everything on a silver platter, but they want texture. They want contours. They want to be inside the room. How did you arrive at this decision? It's what we call color, but it's very important for making the audience understand.
KURTZ: Do you agree with that?
LOCKHART: I agree. And I think -- I think most of all, they want the sense that, from the press secretary, that when the decision was made, you were in the room.
LOCKHART: And that when -- when the president is looking for counsel, that you're part of the group that they include. And they have a sixth sense for knowing.
You know, I would always remember, you know, Helen Thomas would sit outside my office in the morning. She'd be there almost before me at 6 a.m. in the morning. And almost every day she'd kind of look at me and sort of scowl and say, you know, "Are you in the loop? Do you know what's going on around here? Do I know more than you?" And you know, it's a good thing to stay ahead of.
KURTZ: Let me ask you the credibility of the people who move back and forth between politics and journalism, as you have. I mean, you worked for the first President Bush in the reelection campaign and then you became a talk show host on "CROSSFIRE", and then you worked for Cheney and Bush in the first term.
Are you telling me right now what you really think, or is it your job to reflect the White House point of view?
MATALIN: I have never been a media person. I've been a conservative commentator. I've been an advocate.
KURTZ: You've been a talk show host.
MATALIN: As a conservative. I haven't been Vanna White. I haven't just done TV. I've only done TV relative to my political and philosophical beliefs. And when I had an opportunity to go back in and to make a difference, I hope a small one, as Tony feels now, then I think that's OK. I never tried to pretend I'm anything but a conservative.
And, yes, I'm always going to give you a conservative view, because I'm conservative, whether I'm in the White House or...
KURTZ: The conservative view or the White House view? Sometimes there's a difference. There's conservatives who are mad at the White House.
MATALIN: You know what? If I have anything to say, and I appreciated this when I was inside the White House, I prefer to pick up the phone and call directly. I have never been a believer, from days of Reagan onward, that you play these things out in the press.
KURTZ: All right. I want to play something from last night's White House correspondents dinner. Steven Colbert of Comedy Central was providing the entertainment. Let's take a look at one of his lines.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEVEN COLBERT, HOST, COMEDY CENTRAL'S "THE COLBERT REPORT": As excited as I am to be here with the president, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of FOX News. FOX News gives you the both sides of every story, the president's side and the vice president's side.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The administration seems to love FOX News.
LOCKHART: Listen, I think FOX News was the result of a business decision by business people who thought there was a market out there for news that's skewed to the conservative side.
You know, I know there's a lot of whining that goes on from people in my party about it, but you know, they just need to get over it. It's -- this is a market. People want to watch it. It's -- the idea that it's right down the middle is -- I don't agree with. I think it does skew conservative, but people want to watch. And news is a business right now, and people who don't believe that are naive.
KURTZ: You measure these things at the box office. Before you go, Mary Matalin, tomorrow big immigration day. There will be rallies across the country. There will be people staying home from work. Do you think that the press has covered the president's proposals on immigration fairly? It's a very, very tendentious, contentious issue.
MATALIN: I think the -- it's not just tendentious. It's complicated; it's complex. I think the press has been pretty fair on immigration. I mean, the Republican Party is split. The Democratic Party is split. The country is split. We're pro-immigration, but we have a security imperative. I don't think there's the press problem on this particular issue as there may be on other issues.
KURTZ: There's our headline. Mary says press pretty fair?
KURTZ: A good place to stop?
LOCKHART: A good place to stop.
KURTZ: Joe Lockhart and Mary Matalin, thanks very much for joining us.
Next up, can Tony Snow win over the tough-as-nails White House press corps? We'll talk to two reporters who have done their share of combat in the briefing room.
And coming up at 1 p.m. Eastern, CNN's White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux goes "ON THE STORY" of the new White House secretary and the big shake-up at 1600 Pennsylvania.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COLBERT: Mr. President, I wish you hadn't made the decision so quickly, sir. I was vying for the job myself. I think I would have made a fabulous press secretary. I have nothing but contempt for these people. I know how to handle these clowns.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Steven Colbert at last night's White House correspondents' dinner. Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
And joining us now, Elisabeth Bumiller, White House correspondent for "The New York Times", and Dana Milbank, who writes the "Washington Sketch" column for "The Washington Post." I would never call you clowns.
Elisabeth, you were in the briefing room every day and have been for almost five years. How difficult a task...
ELISABETH BUMILLER, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES": It sounds very long, yes.
KURTZ: How difficult a task does Tony Snow face coming in with this climate, this environment right now, this administration?
BUMILLER: Well, he'll get a bit of a honeymoon right in the beginning, I think.
KURTZ: For a week?
BUMILLER: Probably. We'll see. Until the really disastrous news happens.
It's a tough -- it's a very tough situation. Briefings have changed radically since they televised them live, starting in the Clinton administration.
And really, the press secretary, his role has changed. You are -- you're a television personality now, and there's not that much information imparted in those televised briefings. Most of what goes on goes on, you know, behind the scenes.
KURTZ: Right, right. This is kind of a show put on for the cameras.
KURTZ: What does Tony Snow bring to the podium that Scott McClellan did not have?
DANA MILBANK, COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": Just the fact of arriving is something good, because in the sense, it's like the guy who comes in as the takeover artist at the failing company. You know, 32 percent in a Gallup poll. There's only one direction, at least hopefully for them, where you can go.
KURTZ: He's the press secretary. He's not taking over.
MILBANK: No, but he's the -- he's the public face of it. So if events go in their favor, he will only benefit from that.
What the press is really hoping that he will do, is because he's a larger personality, because he presumably won't want to suffer sitting there saying, "No comment, I have nothing to say," that he's going to force more information out of the White House. That's the hope, at least.
BUMILLER: That's a very hard job. We'll see what happens with that.
KURTZ: You're skeptical of the notion that he will be able to provide more timely information because -- the question here is -- I've heard President Bush say that, he doesn't think he has a problem with the press. He answers questions every day and all of that. Does the president really want a more open, cooperative relationship with the press corps?
BUMILLER: I don't think so. I think he -- I think he -- this press policy is set by the president. And I think he has the press policy he likes.
I think the difference with Tony Snow will be that, because he's so comfortable with television, I think he'll be able to freelance a little bit more on the edges in the briefing, instead of just standing up there and saying the same thing 15 times.
KURTZ: Ongoing investigation, I can't not comment.
KURTZ: But if he mixes it up with the press, Dana Milbank, will we then probably see him making more gaffes?
MILBANK: Conceivably. I think he's very quick on his feet. And, you know, Elisabeth is right. It is about being on the cameras. Really, off camera, Scott McClellan was widely admired by the press corps. It's only on camera where they started to eat him alive. So...
KURTZ: I heard complaints that he didn't provide much in the way of valuable background information away from the cameras. That's really what the press secretary does as his job, his or her job.
BUMILLER: It depends what you would ask Scott. And we don't want to get into this too carefully here. But I mean, yes, the press secretaries like Scott can be very helpful at 6 a.m. when you're on deadline and in providing guidance to a reporter about waving you off a story, waving you toward a story. I mean, that's -- we don't talk about that as much, but that's very valuable. KURTZ: Just this morning, the new chief of staff, Josh Bolten, appeared on "FOX News Sunday". When Vice President Cheney had his little problem with the hunting rifle, he went on FOX News. Has FOX News become the preferred outlet for this administration?
MILBANK: Tony Snow did not answer questions when he was introduced in the White House briefing room, but then he went onto -- on Brit Hume.
So there's danger here with FOX News, is that -- sort of the accusation is it's a mouthpiece for the administration and now literally, in the sense of Tony Snow, becomes a mouthpiece for the administration. So they need to distance themselves a little bit from that.
KURTZ: Is it possible that in the first term, when the president, particularly after 9/11, was riding kind of high, they all decided that basically they didn't need the mainstream press? They could go around. They could appeal to the American people. They could stiff reporters, and if you didn't like it, so what?
And now the administration in somewhat more political trouble, maybe is in a little bit more needy position.
BUMILLER: Sure. I mean, I think all administrations come in and think that and hope that they don't need the press. And they've all done it. They go over our heads.
KURTZ: Clinton went on "LARRY KING."
BUMILLER: Right. Right. They go out and they do press conferences outside Washington and so forth.
But I think it all -- you know, at the end, this is what happens. And in also -- what this administration, has never totally understood is that there's never any -- there's not any real engagement with us about how decisions are made. They feel that's not -- nothing -- something we shouldn't know or shouldn't write.
KURTZ: In other words, they announce the decision, and you want to know, who was in the room, how did you decide...
BUMILLER: Yes. What was the debate? What were the pros and cons?
MILBANK: The tick tock.
BUMILLER: That never happens. That never -- it's very hard to get that. And, again, about the process. They -- they always say, we're not -- we don't want a process story.
KURTZ: But "The Washington Post" ran a front-page story saying this -- the appointment of Snow, in addition to whatever personal gifts and glibness he brings to the podium, represents a change of heart for the administration. He perhaps ran a more administration. Do you... MILBANK: I think that's the hope. Will it actually occur? I'm not so sure.
As Elisabeth points out, every administration tries to do this sort of clampdown on information. When you have a policy failure, major policy failure or a scandal, it all falls apart, no matter what you do. And the administration has both of those things to deal with. In fact, plenty of both of those things right now to deal with.
So arguably there's nothing they can do, whether it's a friendlier face or a more glib persona at the podium, that will change anything.
KURTZ: Nothing they can do?
MILBANK: Well, you can -- you could conceivably adopt new policies, but of course, they are living through the consequences of...
KURTZ: So in other words, you see this as a marketing change, perhaps, but not as a substantive change.
MILBANK: Yes, to take the CEO takeover analogy. They're not actually changing the product, they are changing the pitch.
KURTZ: Now Elisabeth, a couple of press conferences ago, President Bush jokingly accused you of sleeping through one of his speeches.
BUMILLER: Here we go. Here we go. As I said at the time, it was completely inaccurate.
KURTZ: I know. I was going to give you that. You denied it. Independent evidence.
But at Friday's availability with the press, the president had this to say to NBC's David Gregory. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: Thank you for your penetrating question.
DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Thank you.
BUSH: Plus, I'm not going to hire you. If that's what you are suggesting.
GREGORY: I was not suggesting that.
BUSH: OK. I would, except you can't pass the background check. OK, an unnecessary cheap shot. I take it back.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: A semiserious question. Is the president trying to lighten things up in terms of his relationship with the reporters? BUMILLER: Yes. I mean, he's seen Gregory for five years there. He's -- you know, they have a give-and-take. They have a good relationship, you know. Yes, absolutely, he does that. I think he gets -- he tries...
KURTZ: Does it get him anything?
BUMILLER: Does it get the president or David Gregory?
KURTZ: No, does it get the president of the United States anything to joke around with reporters and give them nicknames and some of the things he did...
BUMILLER: It makes him look like a regular.
KURTZ: ... when he was a candidate.
BUMILLER: It makes him look like a regular guy, you know, that he has relationships. It makes him look sort of normal and relaxed. I think -- I think he enjoys it.
KURTZ: Elisabeth's colleague, David Sanger, wrote, perhaps only partially tongue and cheek, that the briefings are so useless that we should get rid of them, not have them any more, pull the plug. What do you think?
MILBANK: I think we should pull the plug on the cameras. We have a morning gaggle, which nobody sees, because it's off camera. You actually can get some decent information there.
BUMILLER: That -- that is actually the real briefing, is the morning gaggle at about 9:45. And it just...
KURTZ: But you're print people. Shouldn't the American people get to see on television the kinds of questions that are asked and how the press secretary answers them?
MILBANK: Do it for a few minutes like they used to do it and then everybody can get in their five minutes of posturing and then we can get down to do some serious questioning.
BUMILLER: The morning gaggle is actually -- business gets done there. It takes about 15 minutes, and it's very cut and dried. And if you're out of there by 10 and you -- it's what you need.
KURTZ: I think some of your television colleagues may not buy this approach, but we'll have to leave it there. Elisabeth Bumiller, Dana Milbank, thanks very much for joining us.
MILLER: Thank you.
KURTZ: Just ahead, guess who's blaming the press now? He used to work for Enron.
Plus, Deep Throat finally speaks about his role in Watergate.
And later is NBC's "Dateline" getting too close for comfort with the police?
KURTZ: Checking now on the world of media news, Ken Lay has joined a long list of public figures blaming the press for his problems.
The former Enron chief, on trial for his role in the collapse of a corporation built on lies, testified this week that a media witch- hunt was to blame for Enron's fall, oh, and a series of biased articles in the "Wall Street Journal." If not for that irresponsible newspaper, I'm sure Lay's company would be bigger than stronger than ever.
Maury Povich says he intends to vigorously fight a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment, which has gotten big play in the New York tabloids.
A producer in his daytime talk show alleges that he and others subjected her to ridicule and intimidation and that Povich had a long affair with another producer. A spokesman for the program says the suit has no merit. This is one topic you're not likely to hear about on MSNBC's "Weekends with Maury Povich and Connie Chung".
For 33 years, we didn't know the name of Bob Woodward's secret Watergate source. For another year, we didn't hear Deep Throat speak. But this week, with a book coming out, 92-year-old Mark Felt, largely coherent, despite a faded memory, sat down with CNN's Larry King.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Why did you decide to help Woodward? Why did you decide to do what you did?
MARK FELT, "DEEP THROAT": Because he was doing a good job.
KING: You were an FBI guy. Yet, are you sad over the fact that most people, all people, are going to remember you as Deep Throat?
FELT: No. No, I'm not. Because Deep Throat didn't do anything -- didn't do anything that was wrong. He was in the background, trying to help. And that's what I was doing. Trying to help.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Coming up in the second half hour of RELIABLE SOURCES, should NBC be going undercover to catch sexual predators? And why did ABC do nothing after videotaping a girl being beaten by his father? All of that and more after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody, I'm Betty Nguyen at the CNN Center in Atlanta. Now in the news, a call for U.S. action to stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. Celebrities and politicians will lead a rally today on the Washington Mall, one of several across the U.S. in recent days. Now, they're calling on the Bush administration to do more to end a three-year conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
In other news, 100-mile-an-hour winds, hail the size of baseballs. Look at this damage. Eastern Texas is cleaning up after a weekend of savage thunderstorms that damaged homes, cars, businesses and parked airplanes at an airport near Dallas. No injuries, though, were reported.
And it's all about what you don't see here. Take a good look. The New York skyline without the Empire State building. The iconic building will be dark until tomorrow night. That's when a yearlong celebration begins marking the skyscraper's 75th anniversary.
We'll have more headlines in just 30 minutes. RELIABLE SOURCES continues right after this break.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
A controversial "Dateline" NBC series on pedophiles under new fire from media critics this week as the network aired its fourth installment of "To Catch a Predator".
"Dateline" works with a watchdog group Perverted Justice, which NBC is paying $100,000 to expose pedophiles by posing online as underage boys and girls. The men are lured to a house where they're waved in by a decoy and then confronted by reporter Chris Hanson, armed with a transcript of their explicit online chat.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS HANSON, CORRESPONDENT, NBC'S "DATELINE": It appears to be clear from this transcript that you are open to the idea of having sex with this girl.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. Well, appear, yes. Would I? No. Or maybe. Or maybe.
HANSON: What is it, Alonzo, yes, no, maybe so?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe.
HANSON: Maybe. So maybe you would have had sex with this girl?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe.
HANSON: What should happen to you, Alonzo?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I should go to jail.
HANSON (voice-over): And that's exactly what's about to happen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sheriff's office. Put the beer down right now. Put it down. Put your hands in the air.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Three more programs featuring the hidden camera stings are scheduled for May, which just happens to be sweeps month. But should NBC be cooperating so closely with law enforcement?
Joining me now in Tampa, Eric Deggans, media critic for "The St Petersburg Times". In Knoxville, University of Tennessee law professor, Glenn Reynolds, who blogs at Instapundit.com and the author of a new book, "The Army of Davids". And with me in Washington, Steve Roberts, syndicated columnist and professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University.
Eric Deggans, journalists work with law enforcement all the time. They go on stings. They ride along for arrests. What bothers you so much about NBC's relationship with Perverted Justice?
ERIC DEGGANS, MEDIA CRITIC, "ST. PETERSBURG TIMES": The one big problem is the financial consideration. Having them pay money in order to have Perverted Justice involved, creates a link, I think, between Perverted Justice and the news media and law enforcement that's troubling.
Another thing is that in Ohio, where they did these stings, some of Perverted Justice's -- the people that they speak -- that speak to the pedophiles were actually deputized, and that creates a link.
We have to wonder, when these cases go to trial, is "Dateline" going to be involved? Are they going to have to testify? Was the situation created unduly by "Dateline"? And if there are problems with either the arrest or with the way in which these guys were solicited, is "Dateline" going to report independently on what happens?
KURTZ: That's a good point.
DEGGANS: That's a big problem.
KURTZ: Now, NBC's Chris Hanson of "Dateline" was on our program a few weeks ago talking about these issues. Let's take a quick look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HANSON: We worked very hard, and there was a lot of internal discussion, Howard, to make sure that there was a wall between us and law enforcement, that we would not be in arm of law enforcement.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So what they say, Steve Roberts, is "We're catching bad guys." What's wrong with that? STEVE ROBERTS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, there's nothing wrong with catching bad guys and, in fact, journalists do have obligations as citizens, Howie.
There are times when we do have to withhold information to help law enforcement. There are times when we have to testify, in very rare cases, where we might be witnesses.
But this is -- this goes beyond that. It goes beyond the line. And I think part of the problem is that we're really talking about an entertainment show as much as a news show. The head of this show, the executive producer, David Korvo (ph) said, "We are bending journalistic norms. We are changing journalistic traditions."
And I don't think that's a good thing. If it's a reality show, that's one thing, but this is a news show, and you have to play by different rules. And NBC is not playing by the traditional journalistic conventions.
KURTZ: Glenn Reynolds, does this sort of TV undercover work bother you?
GLENN REYNOLDS, LAW PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE: Well, I guess my first thing is to congratulate "Dateline". They couldn't gin up any racism in the NASCAR events, but here they seem to have found something.
But if I were a defense lawyer, I'd make the trial all about "Dateline", and I'd bring up their track record of rather contrived and sometimes phony news stories and make it about them.
And while I think there's a real risk for journalists in getting in bed with law enforcement, I think there may actually be a bigger risk for law enforcement in getting in bed with journalists. And I think cases like this pose a real risk for complications and problems.
KURTZ: Explain very briefly what you meant by racism at NASCAR events.
REYNOLDS: They've been sending some guy around dressed in -- to look as Muslim as possible around NASCAR events with a hidden camera in the hopes of getting somebody making racist remarks about him. Apparently, they haven't had any luck yet. But somebody suggested they put a Jeff Gordon T-shirt on him. Maybe they're get a little more hostility.
KURTZ: Eric Deggans, do you see "Dateline" as engaging in deception here, even though its own correspondents are not acting as online decoys? But obviously, they are teaming up and even paying an organization that does so.
DEGGANS: I don't -- in other stories, we have seen that they've engaged in deception. I did a story about another story that they did involving MySpace and a police officer who created a fraudulent profile in order to lure teens on MySpace. And in that case, they weren't straight with viewers about why he was doing it. They made it sound as if he was doing on it his own and they observed him. And the policeman said that he was doing it at "Dateline's" behest.
So I think there is some question about whether they can be truly honest all the time when they're doing these kind of stories, particularly when they're going out there and creating situations and they're reporting them.
KURTZ: Right. MySpace, of course, the hugely popular online site for kind of teenage and young people networking. Steve Roberts?
ROBERTS: Well, you know, we're going to talk later about "The Los Angeles Times" dismissing a columnist. And they said the absolute bedrock journalist ethical point for "The L.A. Times" is you never deceive. You never deceive your readers, you never deceive your audience, you never appear as something other than you are. ABC has...
ROBERTS: NBC has deceived people in all sorts of ways. They set up this phony situation. They have these hidden cameras, which should only be used in the very rarest cases, because they, in themselves, are a form of deception. And I think that they really have crossed a line here.
But the reason why they've done it is because entertainment values have polluted news values. And we have all these reality shows and we have all of these prime time magazines, and the line is blurred to the point where you can't tell the difference between "American Idol" and the news show.
KURTZ: Although when you're going after real criminals and some of these people are getting arrested, I would say it's not purely entertainment.
But I need now to move on to our other topic for this segment. ABC News also under scrutiny this week for a story which was featured on "Good Morning America" and "Prime Time Live" about the problems of step families.
The network placed cameras in the homes of several families, with their permission, and recorded hundreds of hours of videotape. One father was seen in the tapes hitting his adolescent daughter. I have to warn you, the images are difficult to watch.
DIANE SAWYER, CO-HOST, ABC'S "PRIME TIME LIVE" (voice-over): As you are seeing, the fury escalates and escalates.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because you're not dealing with reality.
SAWYER: Rage out of control? (END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: It's provoked an angry response from some viewers, and local authorities in upstate New York are investigating the incident, which occurred three years ago. Why didn't ABC, which saw the beating incident, videotaped back in 2004, notify the authorities? Diane Sawyer responded on "Good Morning America."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAWYER: There was an issue raised whether ABC News, upon viewing that one moment, should have gone to authorities, and we did not feel we should. And everybody out there, I hope, knows about us. If we ever think that anybody's in peril, we move in. That's why we're here, that's what we do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Glenn Reynolds, should ABC have called the cops in this instance?
REYNOLDS: I don't think so. It's not as if anybody's life is in danger.
The question to me is always why anybody would agree to let somebody film hundreds of hours of their lives and then edit it and present it on TV, but apparently lots of people think that's fine. I don't know why.
KURTZ: You say nobody's life was in danger, but who knows whether those beatings might have taken a more serious turn. I mean, that was awfully hard videotape to watch.
REYNOLDS: Well, of course, I can't see the videotape from where I am, so maybe I'm not judging fairly. The story I read said somebody smacked a teenager. That's not abnormal, perhaps, but it's not murder either.
KURTZ: Well, OK. But it was more than just smacking.
KURTZ: It was repeated punching, at least as I viewed it.
Eric Deggans, how does a journalist see a man beating his daughter and, in effect, look the other way before airing it a long time later?
DEGGANS: Well, one of the things we know is that there's sort of a process here. You have to weigh the confidentiality promise that you've given your source with the possible harm.
Now, ABC is telling us that by the time they realized what had gone on with this tape, the family was in counseling, the daughter wasn't in the home anymore and that they felt that there was no continued danger to the girl. And so they felt safe in being able to honor their promise to the -- to their sources.
Unfortunately, we're going to have to trust ABC on this one, because these are the kinds of judgments about sources that journalists make every day.
KURTZ: But confidentiality, when they aired it on national television so...
ROBERTS: Right, the confidentiality issue is not as important to me as the question of how serious was this incident? It seemed to have been a onetime incident. The girl herself has said repeatedly she did not feel in danger from her father.
And, look, it's a question of degree. If it was an imminent danger to this child, would the obligations have risen? The answer's yes. There is no fine -- no sharp distinction here.
As I said earlier, we do have an obligation to be citizens. We do have an obligation at times. I don't think this is one of those examples where ABC was, in fact, obligated to report it, because it didn't rise to that level of seriousness where there was an imminent danger.
KURTZ: All right. Well, let me ask you all to stick around.
When we come back after the break, Rush Limbaugh makes a deal on doctor-shopping charges.
And a Harvard sophomore borrows a little too much in her debut novel. What was she thinking?
KURTZ: Rush Limbaugh surrendered to authorities Friday on a charge of fraudulently obtaining prescription drugs. This was part of a settlement of a three-year-old case that had prompted radio's most dominant talk show host to seek treatment for addiction to painkillers.
Limbaugh agreed to pay $30,000 in legal costs and, under the deal, his record will be expunged in 18 months.
Glenn Reynolds, does this undermine Limbaugh's reputation by reminding people of something that had kind of faded from the news, and that is, his addiction to painkillers?
REYNOLDS: I guess. I mean, the whole seems to me to have ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. And I would say that it is as much a blow to the prosecutor as to Limbaugh, because it's pretty much, obviously, a face-saving end to what was a politically motivated prosecution.
KURTZ: Why do you say politically motivated? I mean, lots of people get prosecuted on this sort of thing.
REYNOLDS: I sure know a lot of people, in my own experience, who have had problems like that who were never prosecuted and certainly not with such vigor. So I really dispute that.
Of course, I would legalize all drugs anyway, so perhaps I just don't think it's that big a deal to begin with.
KURTZ: All right. Steve Roberts, liberals are obviously going to use this endlessly to mock Limbaugh.
ROBERTS: They will, in part because Limbaugh has been so outspoken that saying drug addicts and drug users should be thrown in jail. We're seeing all these quotes this morning where he has taken this point of view.
I -- I hope that Rush Limbaugh will learn from this that the world is not quite so black and white as he has sometimes depicted it.
And the fact is, I have a lot of sympathy for Rush Limbaugh. It would appear that he became addicted because he had this medical problem.
ROBERTS: And his lawyer said this shows that we should have a program that is flexible and that is lenient. And people like Limbaugh, who become addicted, should be treated gently. Well, I agree, but Rush Limbaugh should be treating some other people just as gently, and he hasn't done that.
KURTZ: Eric Deggans, do you think Rush Limbaugh's fans, his 15 million regular listeners, have forgiven him and sort of moved on from this whole issue?
DEGGANS: I think that's obvious. One of the things we've seen here in Florida, thought, is that there are people who have been prosecuted for having far fewer amounts of painkillers illegally, and they've been offered deals that were much less attractive than what Rush eventually got. So there is still this idea of an inequity, given his wealth and his fame.
I think, you know, he wanted to avoid a trial, obviously he couldn't avoid -- afford to have days or weeks of embarrassing testimony. And I think the prosecutor needed to get this case resolved, because obviously Rush has some really good attorneys.
KURTZ: So on...
DEGGANS: And they ran the risk of losing this case.
KURTZ: So unlike Glenn Reynolds, you think that Rush Limbaugh has been treated more leniently because of his fame?
DEGGANS: Well, one thing that newspapers in Florida have done, and we've found cases where people have been prosecuted more harshly, facing 25-year prison sentences for carrying much fewer drugs than Rush is alleged to have taken. And the deals that they were offered involved three years house arrest, two years house arrest. Nothing like what Rush got. KURTZ: All right. Well, of course, he did, when he took a break from his radio show talk very openly about how he had struggled with all this, and so this might be the last time it's in the news.
I want to turn now to the Harvard sophomore, Kaavya Viswanathan, who wrote a book for which she was paid a lot of money, got a lot of attention and then, oops, it turns out that she borrowed many, many passages, 30, 40 by some counts, from another author named Megan McCafferty.
Now, Kaavya was on "The Today Show" this past week, talking to Katie Couric, and here's what she had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KAAVYA VISWANATHAN, AUTHOR ACCUSED OF PLAGIARISM: I read both those books three or four times each. I completely see the similarities. I'm not denying that those are there, but I can honestly say that any of those similarities were completely unconscious and unintentional. That while I was reading Megan McCafferty books, I must have internalized her words. I never, ever intended to deliberately take any of her words.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The publisher, Little Brown, has now withdrawn the book. Steve Roberts, what do you make of her explanation?
ROBERTS: It's implausible. I have sympathy. She's 19 years old. She's caught up in something that she never anticipated. But it's totally implausible that this was simply an unconscious plagiarism.
You know, I teach 19-year-olds. I teach them ethics. And one of the things that has happened is, in the age of computers, you can cut and paste material very easily. Plagiarism is a far easier thing to do than it used to be. And is it possible that, you know, she -- she did some of that? This is an implausible explanation.
I do have a lot of sympathy for her and part of the problem is she's gotten caught up in the big industry.
ROBERTS: She didn't just sit there and write this book in her dorm room. She is part of a huge deal with William Morris Agency. And a lot of this reeks, Howie, of exploitation of this young woman, as well.
KURTZ: Well, does she bear some responsibility?
ROBERTS: Sure, she does.
KURTZ: Eric Deggans, why does plagiarism -- I've covered a lot of them, from Jayson Blair to -- this is a list too long to repeat. Why do they make these lame excuses when they get caught -- "Oh, I mixed up my notes and, you know, the dog ate my computer disk" -- that nobody was going to believe?
DEGGANS: Well, what else can she say? I mean...
KURTZ: "I did and it I'm sorry. I did it, and I'm sorry. And I regret it." That's what she can say.
DEGGANS: Right, right. Well, you know, when you have an attorney whispering in your ear, admission of guilt is not necessarily the first thing they tell you to do.
I agree with Steve. This is -- this is a young girl who is sort of at the center of a lot of institutions that were sort of -- I mean, as "The New York Times" reported, the plot of the book and a lot of the framework of the book was sort of conceived before she was even brought on as the author. So, she's in the middle. She's a small cog in a huge wheel.
What I do think this reveals is that the publishing industry has got to figure out a way to get a handle on this. What we know is that they vet books for legal considerations, but they don't necessarily vet books for plagiarism or nonfiction books for factual accuracy. And I think they're going to need to figure out a way to do some of that.
KURTZ: That's a very good point.
Glenn Reynolds, I want to turn now to Michael Hiltzik. He's "The Los Angeles Times" columnist and blogger who lost his column and his blog just the other day over an incident in which he posted on his own blog and on other people's blogs some pretty disparaging language under pseudonyms. He didn't use his own name. The "Times" said that this was unacceptable.
Should a blogger for a news organization, as opposed to an independent guy like yourself, be able to post comments anonymously?
REYNOLDS: Well, you know, I don't know. To me, this seems more like a misdemeanor than like a felony.
I mean, what he basically did is he created what are known in the Internet world as sock puppets, which were fake I.D.s in the comments section of his blog and others, and these sock puppets would say, "Michael Hiltzik is really smart. Yes, he is." And, you know, they would take his side in arguments with other commenters and such.
And you know, it's quite embarrassing for him to have it come out. It's kind of cheesy. But I guess this is my day to say that people aren't as bad as the general press coverage of them is. But, you know, it just doesn't seem like a felony to me. It seems like the tackiness rule should apply.
KURTZ: All right. All right. We'll leave it there. He also got suspended for an undetermined period of time.
Glenn Reynolds, Eric Deggans and Steve Roberts, thanks for joining us. Congressman Cynthia McKinney tangles with a reporter and forgets that her mic is still on. That's next.
KURTZ: A few weeks back we noted that indicted Republican Congressman Tom DeLay found time to rip the press when he announced he was resigning from the House. Now Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney is blaming the fourth estate for her recent problems.
KURTZ (voice-over): McKinney, you may recall, is under grand jury scrutiny for allegedly hitting a Capitol security guard. She was trying to go around a metal detector and wasn't wearing her congressional I.D.
Was that the media's fault? I don't think so. Was it the media's fault for covering her charge that this was a racially motivated incident? I don't think so. Was it the media's fault for covering her apology days later?
REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY (D), GEORGIA: And I apologize.
KURTZ: Now, apparently, journalists aren't supposed to ask her about the incident? When McKinney sat down with Renee Starzyk from Georgia station WGCL, she got this question.
RENEE STARZYK, WGCL CORRESPONDENT: Has anyone asked you about your confrontation with the Capitol police officer?
MCKINNEY: Actually, you media people are the only ones who are asking about that.
KURTZ: The reporter tried a follow-up question about whether the investigation had become a distraction.
MCKINNEY: Well, you're a distraction, because that seems to be all you want to talk about, but people here understand that my representation is much larger than any discrete incident.
KURTZ: McKinney then walked out of the interview, but alas, her microphone was still on.
MCKINNEY: Oh, crap, now, you know what? They lied to Coz and Coz is a fool.
KURTZ: The congresswoman, who was referring to her staff member Coz Carson, came back and tried to lay down the law.
MCKINNEY: Anything that is captured by your audio that is captured while I'm not seated in this chair is off the record, and is not permissible to be used. Is that understood?
(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: Well, I'm afraid it doesn't work that way. You have to make an agreement with the journalist beforehand that something is off the record. But now Cynthia McKinney has one more reason to blame her troubles on the press, that and a live mic.
That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 10 a.m. for another look at the critical at the medial.
"LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.
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