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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Cable Commentary Out of Control?; Can TMZ Be Trusted?
Aired August 2, 2009 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Thanks, Jessica.
It's getting ugly out there. And by out there, I mean the great cable echo chamber. Six months after Barack Obama took office, the vitriol that often marked the Bush years when Iraq and terror were the driving issues is now being directed at his successor. And apparently, you can say just about anything about the president of the United States and still stay on the air. The national outrage meter doesn't even seem to move very much, so accustomed have we become about incendiary. My personal needle has hit the maximum. Glenn Beck, who makes a living saying inflammatory things, sometimes to be entertaining, reached a new and disturbing level in talking about the furor over the Henry Louis Gates arrest. Beck said this about President Obama on FOX News.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS HOST: This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I'm not saying that he doesn't like white people. I'm saying he has a problem. He has a -- this guy is, I believe, a racist.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: FOX senior vice president Bill Shine said that in a statement that as with any commentator, Beck was offering his own views and not those of FOX News Channel.
KURTZ: Beck's broadside came during a period when the Birthers have been getting air time for their ludicrous claims that Obama is not an American citizen, questions that have been pressed by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and CNN's Lou Dobbs. And that controversy led Dobbs to take a very personal swipe at MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
KURTZ: So, is some of this cable commentary getting out of control? Should there be a line you can't cross without getting fired? And why are we still debating the Skip Gates arrest?
Joining us now, Michel Martin, host of "Tell Me More" on National Public Radio; Amanda Carpenter, reporter and columnist for "The Washington Times"; and Michelle Cottle, senior editor of "The New Republic." Michel Martin, is calling the president a racist, not saying that he made a racist statement, but that he hates White people, is that simply out of bounds?
KURTZ: And yet, there doesn't seem to be any great uproar about it.
MARTIN: I don't know. That's the part that surprises me a little. But there's a lot -- I guess it would be funny if it weren't so -- and here's a word that we've heard a lot of lately -- stupid.
I mean, here is a man who has a white mother, here is a man who was raised by two white grandparents who obviously adored him and who he adores. Here's a man who's better at so-called "white culture" than Glenn Beck is, and yet we have to hear this kind of commentary. It's quite remarkable.
The only thing I would say about this is there's a long history of people with racial animus toward African-Americans, trying to pathologize African-Americans for speaking out about it. In fact, I was reminded by -- in 1851, there was a doctor named Samuel Cartwright who coined the term "drapetomania" to describe what he said was a syndrome of runaway slave who ran away from abusive treatment. And so, he said that this was a mental illness.
And so this was part of this long tradition of trying to pathologize people who speak up on their own behalf. KURTZ: Except, we do have a situation where one such person was the president.
Amanda Carpenter, is it enough for Fox to say, oh, that's just Glenn's opinion. Fox News gives him a platform.
CARPENTER: Well, we have the situation where we have people who are on news channels, cable news channels, who are known as personalities. They said he is voicing his opinion. Lots of commentators say things that lots of people disagree with, and I think they have a right to say it.
KURTZ: Does this one disturb you?
CARPENTER: It does. I don't think it would be printed in "The Washington Times," for example. And I think maybe Glenn Beck realizes that, because I didn't see him repeating that on his show later that day. This is something he said in a different show appearance.
KURTZ: Michelle Cottle, I've interviewed Glenn Beck back when he worked for CNN's Headline News, and you ask him about his inflammatory statement, and he says, "You know, I'm just a rodeo clown." He kind of portrays himself as an entertainer.
So, my question is, how does he get away with this? He doesn't seem to be paying any price. If anything, he's getting more attention. COTTLE: Two words: crazy sells. I mean, if you're talking about political punditry, it does not serve you well to go out there and talk nuance and whatever, or at least it doesn't get you the big audience. And more than that, the committed audience.
I mean, normal people have lots to do with their time. What you have with Glenn Beck is, the crazier he gets, the more obsessive he draws. And these people sit and watch every word and buy every book and go to every speech, and it's great for him and it's great for Fox, so they're not going to do a thing about it.
KURTZ: So, playing to the base, so to speak?
COTTLE: Yes. Based in both terms of the word.
MARTIN: And the fact is, big numbers in the cable world is a relative term; is it not?
MARTIN: I mean, the big stars in cable would not draw a needle in the broader network universe. But it's great for selling books.
KURTZ: Right. You get two or three million viewers in cable and you are a superstar. And you worry -- you basically -- you can make a very nice living catering to those people, even if everyone else says, racist? How can you call the president a racist? Especially a president, ironically enough, who usually tries to avoid or neutralize racial issues, except in this case
I mentioned at the top Lou Dobbs and the controversy over the Birthers. These are the people who, against all available evidence, insist or question whether or not Barack Obama was born in the United States. In fact, he was born in Hawaii in 1961.
Let me show you a little bit of what Dobbs has been saying on this issue. And he got some unexpected support from Fox, from Bill O'Reilly, who was disagreeing with a guest about whether or not Dobbs should be kicked off CNN.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of questions remaining, and seemingly, the questions won't go away because they haven't been dealt with, it seems possible, straightforwardly and quickly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: CNN ought to do something about it.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: I still disagree with you calling for his head. Look, I don't mind you coming out and saying you disagree with him, that it's totally absurd, it's wrong to exploit it, he's playing upon fears, there might be a racial component, although I don't think Lou Dobbs is a racist is all.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Dobbs says he personally believes Obama is an American citizen, but he has people on the show and he continues to raise questions about, why doesn't the White House just clear this up?
Is that a responsible position, to say, oh, lingering questions remain about whether or not Barack Obama is truly an American?
CARPENTER: I think it's almost too clever by half. And when I was thinking about the coverage of this story, I was trying to think, why is this being talked about now? Because this is something that's been on the Internet. You know, we've been getting e-mails about it forever. And I sort of trace it back to the Republicans that are sponsoring a bill to require future presidents to produce documentation of their citizenship.
KURTZ: Which is clearly a shot at Obama.
CARPENTER: Yes. That started in March, but then it got 10 more cosponsors recently, and I think people are using that as a reason to cover it across the networks. And I think that's wrong.
MARTIN: But that does make me uncomfortable, the idea that somebody should be kicked off the air for covering a particular story. Because we all cover stories. I mean, cover stories perhaps on my program, and perhaps some stories with more depth and more duration than others because I think they're a particular interest to my audience, and they make some people uncomfortable. It does make me uncomfortable, the idea that somebody should be penalized for covering a story.
KURTZ: Leave aside the question of somebody being banished from the airwaves. The Associated Press yesterday said that Lou Dobbs has become a publicity nightmare for CNN. Brooks Jackson, a former correspondent of this network, says he's an embarrassment.
He says he's just raising the questions. But when you raise the questions in the face of what the CNN network itself says is a settled question -- in other words, there is really no dispute, no factual dispute that Obama is a citizen -- don't you therefore raise questions about yourself?
MARTIN: Well, there are other remedies here. If CNN wants to continue to use him as a commentator, per se, then that seems reasonable to me. I mean, newspapers have op-ed pages and opinion pages.
The difficulty then is reporters appear on his program, they're required to answer his questions. He's put in the power of position of being a host. He interviews people and so forth.
So, the difficulty here is you're blurring the lines for all the other people who work on this network. That's the problem.
KURTZ: I don't think there's any question that Dobbs is in the opinion business, and he was criticized for his position on the Birthers by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. Lou then took a shot back at Rachel.
Let's show you that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: Today on his radio show, CNN host Lou Dobbs called me a "tea-bagging queen," because I made fun of him on this show for helping into the mainstream the off-the-deep-end, wing nut racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama is secretly foreign, and therefore secretly not really president.
A tea-bagging queen? What kind of queen would that be, exactly?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COTTLE: You know, I would like to ask, what in the heck was he talking about, anyway, a tea bagging queen?
COTTLE: Well, he's the one that introduced that term into the media sphere when she was making fun of the TEA party protesters. That started on her show, and so he slammed it back against her. And now she's offended. Maybe -- I hope she understands why now the TEA party protesters were offended when she said.
CARPENTER: But she's not -- I mean, understand -- we're just calling names at this point. It has nothing to do with... (CROSSTALK)
KURTZ: I was about to say, the average person must be watching this and saying, this is a like a high school spitball fight.
CARPENTER: O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann, you know, would go at each other like this. I mean, this is not the first time this has happened. You know, cable news hosts decide that they need a nemesis, and it actually kind of jacks up their ratings, if you can have somebody on the other side to get your followers fired up about being ticked off about.
MARTIN: This is like a hip hop beef, where they sell records by beefing on each other.
KURTZ: Let me now take you back to the heart-stopping drama of last Thursday, when CNN and MSNBC has countdown clocks -- I kid you not -- ticking off the minutes until we had the White House beer summit. Of course, Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley meeting over brews with the president.
Boy, this story just took on a life of its own. Here's what some of the coverage looked like.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN: Breaking news tonight, the beer bash just wrapping up at the White House. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Was there any warmth, could you see, in the body language?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Didn't look like an especially warm moment.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm told that the interaction between these two men was actually quite warm.
MADDOW: We can report that President Obama, as expected, drank a Bud Light.
O'REILLY: The four sat around drinking a little brew, chatting, but nobody could hear what they said. There were also snacks.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Let me ask you the broader question, Michel Martin. Why are the media still talking about this two weeks later, and what do you -- what's your reaction when people say, this is such a distraction from the real issues?
MARTIN: There are so many strains to this, Howie. You know, you and I have talked about this.
First of all, it's August. I mean, we're normally talking about shark attacks and jellyfish infestations. So it's August, thing one.
You know, thing two, this actually is about something deeper. It really is.
These interactions between African-Americans and Latinos and law enforcement are a very deep strain in our society. It's like constant back pain. And for a lot of African-American to sort of say, well, this is a distraction, they're saying, well, why something that so profoundly affects me, why can't it engage the broader public?
On the other hand, you know, we all are a race, and we think we're experts. So we all feel inclined to opine about this.
Is this destructive in the long term, constructive? You know, I don't know. It's one of those only time will tell issues. But it's unavoidable. As Shelby Steele told me, you know, who's a commentator on a number of these issues, you know, race is a free market, people can say what they want.
Obama suggested the media were hyping this. He said it wasn't really a summit and he's fascinated by the fascination, as we saw earlier.
Excuse me. Who invited these two guys to the White House?
CARPENTER: Yes. He is the one who's interested in advancing this dialogue. He said as much in the prime-time press conference.
He wants to talk about it. He convened the summit. Photographers came.
I think this is something -- he's always been interested in exploring racial issues. His first book is about struggling with his identity as a half black man, "Dreams of My father." So, I think he wanted this conversation, and it's a convenient distraction from the health care debate.
MARTIN: I don't agree with that. I don't think he wanted it. But having...
KURTZ: Well, let's face it, he stepped in it with the word "stupidly."
MARTIN: He stepped in it.
COTTLE: Well, also, if he wanted to have a constructive, serious discussion, you would go inside the White House doors and you would have no cameras sitting around watching. Many of these guys are out in their short sleeves and their beers, posed like they're at a photo shoot for Oprah, for God's sake.
MARTIN: Yes, but I think they can make an argument that modeling civil discourse is not a bad thing to do. I mean, how many times have you been invited to a party in Washington where there are no people of color there? I'm sorry, I've been to plenty of rooms where my husband and I were the only black people there in this day and age. And so, modeling civil discourse is not, to me, necessarily a bad thing to do. COTTLE: Well, sure. But then you can't be unhappy when people sit around and parse body language.
COTTLE: I mean, you can do it and you can say it's a good thing, but then you can't throw up your hands and go, I don't understand why everybody's picking it apart?
KURTZ: Wasn't there sort of a comical gaffe between the volume and intensity of the media coverage and what we're actually allowed to see at this photo-op, which was a 40-second appearance before the cameras that were kept 40 feet away? I mean, it was almost surreal.
COTTLE: They're not fools. They know how to work the media. I mean, they are extremely good at putting forward the tableau that they want to without actually having anybody in there with the microphones to -- nobody needed to report out what was said. Otherwise, it's kind of a false, you know, exercise in general.
KURTZ: But then you had Sergeant Crowley afterwards holding his news conference to say this was a productive discussion. It sounded like he was discussing the SALT talks with the Soviet Union. And we've agreed to have a telephone conversation about meeting again, we're going to debate the shape (ph) of the table.
CARPENTER: But he camps out on his lawn again. I mean, they wanted to get this over with. I think Crowley held a press conference so they wouldn't be hounding him later. KURTZ: I don't blame him for holding the press conference, I'm just saying it became like this international negotiation.
COTTLE: We discussed the movies. We want to know how the Redskins are going to do in the fall. Of course it's going to be...
MARTIN: But let's also mention the fact that this is high stakes for this man. His career is on the line here.
The fact of the matter is, the initial caller to the police did not mention race at all. The police report magically says there are two black guys breaking in, and so it raises a question about his own voracity. So, he's got some rehabilitation work to do, as does Henry Louis Gates, as does President Obama.
I actually think this is an example of a rare misstep on the part of the administration, at least politically. From a substantive standpoint, yes, this is an important issue to have.
The issue around law enforcement treatment of minorities is a serious one. But for the president to kind of prolong the issue in the way that he did was, I think, a rare misstep and a lack of discipline on his part.
KURTZ: Well, he had some help from those of us in the news business who obviously thought this was a lot more interesting than health care.
Here's my two cents.
Did we overdo this relatively minor incident in Cambridge? Yes, of course we did. We overdo everything. But I found it instructive as I listened to and read African-Americans who talked about incidents in their lives, and they had been pulled over by the police, when they had been in the confrontations, what they taught their kids about it.
I came to realize -- and it was impossible not to realize -- that minorities look at this whole issue of dealing with the cops very different than white people do. And that, I think -- although people did demagogue it, including the commentator who called the president a racist, I do think we kind of stumbled our way into a revealing conversation about this. On the other hand, if I hear one more commentator anchor call this a "teachable moment," I am going to gag.
KURTZ: When we come back, Sarah Palin says we make stuff up. Is that her final swipe, or is she making the media her permanent punching bag?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SARAH PALIN, FMR. ALASKA GOVERNOR: We represent what could and should be a respected, honest profession that could and should be a cornerstone of our democracy. Democracy depends on you. And that is why -- that's why our troops are willing to die for you. So how about, in honor of the American soldier, you quit making things up?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The former governor of Alaska rhetorically addressing journalists on her last day in office last Sunday.
Michel Cottle, she has every right to take a whack at the media, but what was she talking about there?
COTTLE: Well, you know, she very pointedly did not say what she thought we were making up. But look, bashing the media is the last great refuge of any desperate politician. It doesn't even matter what team you're on. KURTZ: Why does she need to be desperate? She's leaving office.
COTTLE: Well, she's leaving office with the impression that she didn't do a great job. I mean, she can talk about how this is for the sake of Alaska all she wants to, but the sense is, is that she kind of was a disaster, off and on, for the entire time she was in the spotlight. And so she has to have somebody to take a hit at. So why does she look like a disaster? Because we were mean to her.
CARPENTER: But even this week, there were rumors starting -- and I do agree, I think up in Alaska, I think she sometimes confuses the blogs and traditional media, but there were rumors that her marriage was in trouble that got picked up by other media outlets. They were...
KURTZ: Let's be explicit here. This was a blog in Alaska called AlaskaReport.com which said she was getting divorced from Todd.
CARPENTER: A guy who describes himself as a CNN stringer in his bio.
KURTZ: Well, I don't know about that part, but that's not the mainstream media. And, in fact, the governor's office put out a quick denial on Facebook saying this was ridiculous and thanking journalists for checking first before reporting it. So I don't think that is an example.
CARPENTER: But that's what happens. Things can start on the blogs and then real journalists start calling to see if it's true or not. And I think that's what she's so irritated about.
KURTZ: Well, you're a blogger. You don't think that journalists should check out things that are on the blogs? CARPENTER: Yes, I absolutely think so. But this is what I -- I think there's a confusion between how they work together. And now she's doing these preemptive statements, so to speak, putting them out on Facebook. And, you know, that's why people don't understand why she's so wound up about it. She wants to nip it in the bud before it goes even further.
MARTIN: No she doesn't. She wants to have an enemy. There is a simple remedy -- name names.
If she feels she's been ill treated by any particular media outlet, name names. We saw this during the Republican Convention when there were all these blog rumors about her child. OK? That was nasty, that was unfair. I do not know one single mainstream media outlet who reported this.
CARPENTER: Well, (INAUDIBLE) talks about it to this day.
MARTIN: What are we supposed to do about the blogs? What are we supposed to do about the blogs? (CROSSTALK)
CARPENTER: This is what she thinks she should do about it.
MARTIN: I don't feel like I need to take responsibility for the "Free Republic" blog who prints these vicious, racist comments about the Obama children.
So, name names. If she feels she's been ill treated, she has access to Twitter, Facebook, and all these other outlets. Name names when she feels she's been -- so the rest of us can evaluate the truth or falsity of her claims.
KURTZ: There were times during the campaign when I think that there was some irresponsible reporting about Governor Palin, or intrusive of her family, and I think she was right to complain about that. That campaign ended nine months ago. She's leaving office, and I'm just kind of wondering, does she want to continue to fight this war and build her career with the media as the whipping boy?
COTTLE: Of course. I mean, that...
KURTZ: Why not move on?
COTTLE: Why not move on? What's she going to move on to at this point?
I mean, look, her support is dropping even among the base. She needs to get people fired up. And like I said, if there's one good bogeyman for any politician who needs to kind of reinvent herself, you just blame it all on the media.
MARTIN: Well, I think she's very well positioned to become a talk show host, because then she can pick fights with people without any accountability.
COTTLE: She can use the phrase... (CROSSTALK)
KURTZ: Ironically, becoming part of the media, if that happens. Do you see that as a...
CARPENTER: I don't think having -- being a type of media person is in her future. I think she wants to be the leader of something. Do I think it's president of our country? No. But I think she wants to be the leader of some kind of cause.
KURTZ: Yes. A lot of the pundits are operating under the assumption this is just the first shot at her 2012 campaign. She must have known when she stepped down as governor of Alaska that she was diminishing her chances for the Republican nomination.
KURTZ: So, I think we shouldn't make those assumptions.
MARTIN: Well, I'm not sure -- see, the thing is, I don't know that I believe that everybody plots their lives in this linear fashion. I really don't.
KURTZ: Right. And many decide later.
MARTIN: I think that she's a very intuitive politician. I mean, that's part of her gift as a politician. She's very intuitive, she kind of goes with her gut. And I don't think she knows what she's going to do next.
CARPENTER: I also think that, frankly, she might just take a break for two or three years. She has a very young child to raise.
KURTZ: It doesn't seem like she's taking a break from beating up on the media.
Here's what I think she should do. I think she should invite all the television cameras to Alaska and sit down and have a beer with Katie Couric.
All right. Michelle Cottle, Amanda Carpenter, Michel Martin, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, TMZ reported way before anyone else that Michael Jackson's death had sparked a criminal investigation involving drug use, but many news organizations held back. TMZ's Harvey Levin faces off with two other journalists on whether his gossiping Web site can be trusted.
Plus, making a mark. We'll talk to a Bronx high school student about why one of America's youngest journalists is getting so much attention.
And then at noon Eastern, Jessica Yellin talks with White House Economic Adviser Christine Romer about whether the painful recession is finally ending. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
YELLIN: I'm Jessica Yellin, and this is STATE OF THE UNION.
Here are the stories breaking this Sunday morning.
The remains of the first American lost in the Persian Gulf War 18 years ago have been found and positively identified. Military officials say they belong to Navy Captain Michael Scott Speicher. Speicher's jet was shot down on the first night of the 1991 war. Military officials say tips from Iraqi citizens helped them find Speicher's remains last month buried in the Iraqi desert.
We now know the name of one of the three American hikers arrested in Iran after crossing the border from Iraq's Kurdistan region. He is Joshua Fatal (ph), and he lives in this house park in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. His mother told CNN the family is only concerned with Fatal's (ph) welfare. Iran's state-run media says the men were arrested after they entered the country illegally.
President Obama's top economic adviser predicts 2010 will be a milestone year. This morning on STATE OF THE UNION, Christina Romer said she's confident the administration's economic recovery plan will create or save millions of jobs, but she adds, any major unemployment turnaround requires robust economic growth, which she says is not expected until the end of 2009, at the earliest.
That and more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION. Hi, Howie.
KURTZ: Hi, Jessica.
You know, "The Washington Post" has a video series called "Mouthpiece Theater," where Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza pontificate with pipes and smoking jackets, but the columnist went too far with a routine about beer suggestions for politicians after that suds summit at the White House in which they said Hillary Clinton should drink "Mad Bitch Beer." Ouch.
These are two smart guys. That was pretty dumb. They have apologized, and the video has now been taken down.
So, sometimes humor can cross the line, Jessica.
YELLIN: Yes. It's one of the lessons reporters learn, especially print reporters. Going online and doing these live chats can get really dangerous. You've got to be careful.
YELLIN: Howie, I want to tell you and your viewers about something coming up on CNN, which is our "Second 100 Days Report Card." Now folks have a chance at home to grade the president on how he is handling everything from the economy to -- and I think, your viewers will like this one especially -- question number nine, grade the performance of the media. Oh, yes.
We get judged as well as anyone else.
KURTZ: Do I get a shot at that?
YELLIN: Yes. We would like you to go online and vote, but I'm not going to actually hit any of the buttons, because you know I'm an impartial reporter and I can't be voting for anything.
KURTZ: All right. Well, since I'm a media analyst, I will give the press in his first six months a C plus. I think it will last two or three months. Coverage has actually been quite good on the complexities of health care, on the impact, or lack thereof, the stimulus law, the Sotomayor nominations, and holding President Obama accountable. But the first three months, going back to the inauguration, I thought the coverage ranged from positive to gushing. There was too much about the dog, the vegetable garden, going out for burgers.
So that's why I would give it a mixed grade.
YELLIN: Fair to say we're trending upward?
KURTZ: Certainly compared to the first three months, absolutely. It will be interesting to see what our viewers think.
Thanks very much, Jessica Yellin.
YELLIN: All right, Howie.
KURTZ: Two and a half weeks ago, the Michael Jackson investigation took an ominous turn. We learned that not from any major news organization, but from TMZ.
KURTZ (voice-over): The gossipy Web site reported on July 15th that the L.A. Police Department was treating the pop star's death as a homicide and was focusing attention on Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray. The site had already reported that authorities found vials of the powerful anesthesia Propofol at Jackson's home.
Some television programs credited the scoop to TMZ, which is owned by CNN's parent company, Time Warner, but it wasn't until Monday when The Associated Press matched the story through its own sources that it really took off.
HATTIE KAUFFMAN, CBS NEWS: According to this Associated Press source, the doctor at Michael Jackson's side when he died was Dr. Conrad Murray.
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: According to The Associated Press, Michael Jackson's personal doctor, Conrad Murray, gave Jackson a powerful drug before he died, and authorities believe that drug killed the singer.
JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, HEADLINE NEWS: And get this -- an unnamed source tells The Associated Press that Michael Jackson used Propofol like an alarm clock.
KURTZ: That opened the floodgates for more stories crediting TMZ.
O'REILLY: The Web site TMZ reporting that emergency responders to Michael Jackson's home the day he died found the singer hooked up -- hooked up -- to an i.v., dead.
JEFF ROSSEN, NBC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: TMZ is now reporting that when paramedics arrived at Jackson's home, he was already dead.
KURTZ: By Tuesday night, the authorities had moved in, and so had the nightly newscasts.
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: In Los Angeles, police and federal drug agents made a house call today on a doctor -- Michael Jackson's personal physician.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Police and federal agents raided the home and office of Dr. Conrad Murray.
KURTZ: So, what role is TMZ playing in the Jackson case? And why are many traditional news outlets still wary of its reports? I spoke earlier about the man behind TMZ and other journalists following the investigation.
KURTZ: Joining us now from Los Angeles, Harvey Levin, founder and managing editor of TMZ.com; Sharon Waxman, the founder and editor- in-chief of TheWrap.com; and here in Washington, Amy Argetsinger, who co-authors the "Reliable Source" gossip column for "The Washington Post."
Harvey Levin, why did much of the media ignore your earlier reporting on the Jackson criminal investigation and wait for the AP?
LEVIN: I mean, I'm not sure it was ignored. I think there were some people who didn't do it. And, you know, I think part of it is that this was a little bit of a watershed moment, because I think there is a transition, frankly, between traditional media and digital media. And I think that, you know, five years ago, there really wasn't a news operation online.
Well, the world is changing. And I think it's hard in some ways for some traditional media, especially traditional media that's having trouble now with an audience, kind of accepting that and dealing with it. I think this is a reality of technology and just of what has happened online in the last five years.
KURTZ: Let me turn to traditional media.
Amy Argetsinger, when you see a story from TMZ, especially one that relies on unnamed sources, are you comfortable putting that in your column?
ARGETSINGER: It really depends on the situation. Frankly, we tend to be pretty cautious. My editors tend to be cautious with the stories they're going with.
Frankly, TMZ should not be hurt. When the AP came out with their story in the past week based on one anonymous source claiming that the doctor had hooked Michael Jackson up to Propofol, we didn't go with that either. My editors took a pass on that because...
ARGETSINGER: Because it was one single anonymous source that was unknown to "The Washington Post." And that's just -- there's too much tension, there's too much competition. There's too much potential for a lot of loosely-attributed material coming out.
KURTZ: Although you won't be surprised to hear that most of the media world went with the story based on the AP's anonymous source.
Sharon Waxman, when you were covering Hollywood for "The New York Times," did you occasionally chase stories from TMZ, or did you kind of look down your nose at the operation?
WAXMAN: Oh, TMZ didn't exist when I was at "The New York Times" covering for Hollywood. But now we've been also chasing the Michael Jackson story. It's not as single-mindedly as TMZ. But I really -- I want to take issue with what Harvey just said.
I do agree that there is -- we're certainly in a time of transition. But I think that online media sources such as The Wrap, there are those that are considered as credible, certainly, as traditional media. And that has a lot to do with the people who are doing the reporting and the methods in the reporting.
KURTZ: So you seem to be implying that...
WAXMAN: So, Harvey, I would to say it has more to do with the sort of tabloid message versus reporting messages that are not tabloid. And so, I think there that there's a problem when there are some stories that TMZ...
LEVIN: I'm not sure I understand that. I'm not sure I get that.
WAXMAN: ... is doing -- well, I'll explain it. I will explain.
I mean, when there are stories on TMZ that are correct, but then there are stories on TMZ that are just thrown out there and that are not followed up -- and I'm not familiar with the corrections policies. I mean, you can't say, Harvey, that the way that you guys report stories is the same way that "The New York Times" or NewYorkTimes.com or that TheWrap.com, for example, report something. I'll give you an example.
LEVIN: OK. Let me just say...
KURTZ: Let Harvey respond first. Let Harvey respond first.
LEVIN: Yes, we do. We actually have been around for three and a half years. And if you look at the history of our stories, everybody from "The New York Times" on down has quoted us thousands of times. I mean, with the Mel Gibson case, with the Britney Spears case, with Heath Ledger's death, with all of these. So, it's been done for years now, where everybody has quoted us.
Secondly, our standards are as rigorous as anybody else's. Everything we have is lawyered, everything we have is researched. And I think the funny thing is, is that when you look at what happened here from the very beginning -- and Howie, no disrespect to CNN, because it's a great organization -- but when we reported that Michael Jackson died, "The L.A. Times" then reported, no, no, he's in a coma.
We knew he was dead, but what happened was, then people...
KURTZ: Yes, we've talked about that. I'm going to come back to you in a second.
LEVIN: But CNN actually said "The L.A. Times" is reporting he was in a coma.
LEVIN: So they had to make a choice. When you look at the track record...
KURTZ: Since you mentioned "The L.A. Times," on July 19th, after TMZ had reported that the L.A. Police Department was conducting a homicide investigation, that paper ran what I would call a knockdown piece, saying that, "Sometimes breathless coverage is belied by the fact that a senior law enforcement official" -- unidentified, of course -- "said there were unlikely to be any murder charges. This was remote, this was unsupported by the facts."
Was that story wrong?
LEVIN: Well, it may well be wrong. I can tell you right now -- I mean, it's interesting, because even today, I looked at some of the traditional media talking about this as a manslaughter investigation. That, again, inaccurate.
If you look at the -- you know, the search warrant talks about manslaughter, but that doesn't mean the charge is going to be manslaughter. A, there may not be a charge. Based on what I'm hearing, there probably is going to be a charge in this case. But it could be second-degree murder, and it's being discussed in the DA's office. So, murder is a possibility, as much a possibility, frankly, as manslaughter. So, it's inaccurate to call this a manslaughter investigation.
KURTZ: All right. Let me get a question to Amy, and then I want to come to you, Sharon. I know you have an example or two you want to raise.
Law enforcement sources, unidentified law enforcement sources, they sometimes float theories or information to journalists off the record to put pressure on potential targets or witnesses. So, shouldn't we all be wary of that?
ARGETSINGER: We should all be wary of that, of course. Now, granted, if it were "The Washington Post" that were talking to their own law enforcement sources, you know, it's all case by case. It may be something that you feel better about, but newsrooms are having these debates all the time, whether this source is good enough, whether you're getting played here for some reason or another, whether the fact that you're getting played even matters if it's true.
KURTZ: Except sometimes it's not true. I'm reminded of the case of Richard Jewell, who was accused in the press of participating in the Olympic bombings in Atlanta, and it turned out not to be true and was based on law enforcement sources.
Sharon, go ahead.
WAXMAN: Well, I have a question for Harvey. So, I'd just like to clear this up, and maybe you've answered this publicly.
But when you talk about your methods versus traditional media methods, or I should professional reporting methods, tabloids pay their sources. Doesn't TMZ pay its sources?
LEVIN: No, we don't pay sources. We pay for a couple of things.
We pay for video. We pay for photos which, frankly, everybody does. And we will pay a tip fee.
We very rarely do it, but we will pay a tip fee. If we pay a tip fee...
WAXMAN: What's the difference? What's the difference? What's the difference? That's paying sources.
LEVIN: I'm surprised you don't know. The difference is that if you pay for a tip, then what you can do and you have to do is you start anew. You have to find out, is this story true or not? So, you use exactly the same journalistic skills that you would if you didn't have a tip. I mean, we won't put a tip up. We have to then look at the story, find out if the story is real, source the story, put it through legal, put it through research.
I'll tell you where it becomes wrong. And this is what some of the networks are doing. When you pay for an interview -- in other words, if you paid somebody to go on television and to say, well, I'll give you $200,000 if you talk to me, then what you're doing is you're skewing the facts and saying, make it really good, make it worth my money. And then you can't rely on the information because you haven't independently verified it.
KURTZ: We're getting short on time.
Sharon, go ahead. WAXMAN: I'm going to argue that's a very fluid line when you start paying for information, number one. Number two, I absolutely agree with you that what the broadcast networks are doing is they're trying to pretend that they don't pay for things like that fantastic Debbie Rowe special.
But I want to ask you a question. So, here's my issue. I'm looking at TMZ now because we're breaking stories on the Michael Jackson thing, and you guys have broken a lot of stories.
But then you had that story Debbie Rowe is not the biological mother. OK? That story had no named sources and it just fell like a stone to the bottom of the ocean.
That's a huge allegation. And I said at the time that if that turns out not to be true, that's going to really hurt TMZ's credibility. So...
KURTZ: All right. Let me get a -- we're short on time. Let me get a quick answer from Harvey.
Let me get a quick answer from Harvey, Sharon. We're almost out of time.
LEVIN: I mean, first of all, you need to see the way this whole thing gets played out, because there is more to this story than you think. And there are some legal documents here. It's just going to be interesting to see how this story ultimately gets played out, if it gets played out in court.
KURTZ: All right.
WAXMAN: And how about the story that Michael Jackson is not the father?
KURTZ: Sharon, I got to take it back. Sharon, I got to take it back.
Very briefly, Amy Argetsinger, sometimes "The Washington Post" will quote other newspapers...
KURTZ: ... based on their unnamed sources. So, is there a different standard for an online operation like TMZ?
ARGETSINGER: Listen, it takes a while for any new publication to establish credibility. And TMZ established a lot of credibility when it broke the Mel Gibson story and other stories like that back in 2006, 2007.
A year later, a colleague of mine had to write a very embarrassing correction because they had taken information from TMZ that turned out not to be true. And it was "The Washington Post" that got the angry phone call from the prominent individual, not TMZ. Listen, I don't want to trash TMZ on the basis of this. I have to write corrections, too, sometimes. But you know what? My stock goes down a little bit when that happens. That's going to be the case for any other organization.
KURTZ: Harvey Levin, Sharon Waxman, Amy Argetsinger, thanks very much for joining us.
KURTZ: And after the break, he may still be in high school, but Myles Miller is holding his own as a member of New York's grizzled press corps. That's next.
KURTZ: We've put some young journalists on this program over the years -- we've got to appeal to that key demographic -- but not quite this young. Myles Miller has written for "The New York Daily News" and other publications, appeared on C-SPAN, and is the political editor for the organization Children's PressLine. He is also 15, a high school student in the Bronx.
Not long ago, we decided to find out what he's got.
KURTZ: Myles Miller, welcome.
MYLES MILLER, CHILDREN'S PRESSLINE: Hey. How are you?
KURTZ: When I was 15, I was basically interested in basketball and girls, and not necessarily in that order. You seem to spend all your spare time doing journalism.
Do you have any fun?
MILLER: I do have fun. I mean, I think that journalism is a fun career aspiration for me. But the program I work with, Children's PressLine, not all the kids are interested in journalism, but we are a unique program where we can get kids interested in the process, and from there they make their own career choices. But I really do think I have a lot of fun in journalism, and I feel like I make a lot of good friends in the business doing it.
KURTZ: All right.
Now, when you go down to City Hall for the mayoral press conferences, and Michael Bloomberg calls on you, how is that he's recognizing you when you've got all these big-shot reporters there from the New York papers and the local TV stations? What's your secret?
MILLER: Well, I mean, I made an effort to make a name for myself and make a name for my organization. I'm one of the only reporters who actually still goes to City Hall and says the name of the organization they work for. So, Myles Miller, Children's PressLine.
And I went with a team back when I was a reporter. I'm not an editor, so I don't ask most of the questions. Now I'm sort of facilitating with our young reporters age 8 to 13. And I really think that it's important for young people to start asking questions.
KURTZ: You've tried consciously and deliberately to make a name for yourself. So it sounds like you've already learned the self- promotional skills for journalists.
MILLER: Hey, I mean, I think that -- I mean, it's something that's needed, but it's also needed that, you know, my organization, Children's PressLine, we really are the only advocates in the youth media field. I mean, we are the ones who give kids 8 to 18 the opportunity to actually ask questions of their politicians, who are the ones making legislation for themselves -- or making legislation for the people who are in their communities, and even for them.
KURTZ: Just a quick follow-up on Bloomberg. The mayor gave you an award, and I wonder if that might make you a little more sympathetic to Mike Bloomberg.
MILLER: Oh, he actually didn't give me the award. He introduced the award. Children's PressLine actually gave the award to me. And no, I'm not sympathetic at all.
I mean, I think that as a journalist, I'm very objective. I make sure that all my questions are asked from a point of view that don't have my opinion in it. And I also make sure that the reporters that I manage are asking questions that are objective because I feel that that's the integrity of journalism.
We've lost integrity a lot. And I feel that we are the ones who are going to bring it back.
KURTZ: Do you think that the media generally, the big news organizations that bring us news, television and radio, newspapers, magazines and all of that, do you think they kind of miss the point or ignore the young person's point of view today? Seem like a bunch of middle-aged hats to you?
MILLER: I mean, I wish that there were younger faces on our nation's televisions. I mean, Children's PressLine is ready for the opportunity. Give us the time, we'll...
KURTZ: It sounds like you're ready for your close-up.
MILLER: You know, I mean, we have a number of reporters who came to our training last weekend at Air America, and the training is so that kids can be reporters for The Daily News with Children's PressLine.
And we went through the newspapers and we saw that every story that dealt with kids who were in the paper was about either violence or about kids graduating, but nothing about the true stories that we actually report on -- kids playing, you know, soccer in fields that are messed up, or syringes found in playgrounds.
KURTZ: So, despite the fact that you and your friends and colleagues are obviously young and haven't had a chance to have that much experience, you feel like you and some of them could step right in and be reporters for "The New York Daily News" or a local TV station?
MILLER: I do. I mean, I think that -- I mean, we have actual proof that we can do that.
We had a reporter work with us -- or actually work for "The CBS Early Show." She was a special correspondent with Harry Smith at the DNC. And she asked tough questions. And I think that big media is giving us a wonderful opportunity.
KURTZ: I've got half a minute. That's a phrase you'll recognize if you go into TV.
You went to both political conventions last summer. Was all of that kind of a heady experience for you at your relatively tender age?
MILLER: Yes. I mean, well, with our predecessor organization, Children Express, since 1976 we've been going to the conventions.
KURTZ: But I'm talking about for you personally. You keep talking about the organization. What was it like for you to be with all the big shots?
MILLER: Yes. I mean, it was wonderful. An honoring experience.
It was typically something that kids my age won't be able to do, but I really believe that I was able to sort of help my reporters ask the right questions. And when my reporters weren't around for stuff, when it was, like, stuff that was really important, that I was able to use the skills I had as a reporter to ask tough questions to Sebelius, to, you know, a ton of politicians.
KURTZ: I have a feeling we'll be seeing a bit more of you, perhaps when you get a little older as well.
Myles Miller, thanks very much for joining us.
MILLER: Thanks so much.
KURTZ: I think he's got a future.
Up next, Hillary Clinton back in the news. Why are the media fixated on one question that has nothing to do with foreign policy? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
KURTZ: Sometimes it's pretty obvious when journalists are wrong. We say candidates are likely to win, and they blow it. We say there are probably weapons of mass destruction, and there aren't. We say a player's washed up, and he hits the game-winning homer. And sometimes we just hope that everyone kind of forgets that the thing we were obsessing on never quite happened.
KURTZ (voice-over): Within minutes after Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination last year, the chattering clashes began chattering.
Would he offer the vice presidency to Hillary Clinton? How could he not? It would be, everyone said, a dream ticket.
GIBSON: Does there have to be a yes or no on the issue of Hillary Clinton before you get to the others?
COURIC: So in the spirit of Kennedy picking Johnson and Reagan choosing Bush, why not pick Senator Clinton?
DAVID LETTERMAN, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": You look great together. I mean, here's two good-looking people.
KURTZ: Well, OK. That didn't happen.
And after the election, most of the pundits were convinced that the president-elect wouldn't put his bitter rival in the cabinet, at least until word leaked that the former first lady might be tapped after all.
HARRY SMITH, CBS: Hillary Clinton is being considered for secretary of state.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: I want to go back to this Hillary Clinton thing.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN: What's the latest on her possibly becoming the next secretary of state?
MATT LAUER, NBC: Let's go back to Hillary Clinton for a second.
DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC: Senator Hillary Clinton has decided to accept the job of secretary of state.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not quite a done deal yet.
KURTZ: But the press potshots kept growing louder. Would Hillary compete with Obama for the limelight? Would she battle Joe Biden for foreign policy supremacy? And what about Bill? How could Obama possibly bring the former president, with his worldwide connections and array of potential conflicts, into the inner circle? Well, all that seems like ancient history. We've barely heard a peep from Bill Clinton, who has dramatically lowered his profile. Secretary Clinton has kept her head down and done the unglamorous work of diplomacy, generating stories about how she's been utterly eclipsed.
Hillary resurfaced last weekend on "Meet the Press," where the questioning ranged from North Korea, to Iran, to Israel, to Russia, to Afghanistan.
So, what clip got replayed the most? When David Gregory asked whether she might run for president again?
HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: But the answer is no.
DAVID GREGORY, "MEET THE PRESS": But you didn't say never.
CLINTON: Well, you know, I say, no, never. You know, not at all. I don't know what else to say.
GREGORY: Are you saying you wouldn't entertain another run?
CLINTON: I have no absolutely belief in my mind that that is going to happen, that I have any interest in it happening.
KURTZ: So, if you're keeping score at home, Hillary didn't get the job we thought she might get. She did get the job we thought she wouldn't get. She's been a team player when we said she might not be. And now we're worrying about whether she might run for president in 2016?
The upside, you won't know for seven years whether we were wrong.
Still to come, dirty dancing.
KURTZ: You think the network morning shows compete only for celebrities? No way. The booking wars can erupt over just about anyone.
KURTZ (voice-over): "Good Morning America" flew Jill and Kevin Hynes (ph) to New York last week because there was video of just about everyone at their wedding dancing down the aisle. OK, it was a slow news week. But as "The New York Post" was the first to note, before the couple appeared on the ABC program, they danced over to NBC to pretape a segment for "The Today Show," which wound up airing first.
So much for GMA's exclusive.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Talk to me a little bit about the choreography, those late-night rehearsals. How did you keep it a secret, that sort of thing?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We really only did one rehearsal.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How long did it take to get it all down?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not really long, actually. The wedding procession, we had one rehearsal.
KURTZ: But When GMA learned that "The Today Show" was planning to have Jill and Kevin back last weekend, with all their bridesmaids and groomsmen, no more Mr. Nice Guy. The program kicked the couple out of their hotel and canceled their flight home, letting NBC pick up the tab.
And I can't say that I blame GMA. The couple may be newlyweds, but they did act rather promiscuously.
And Jessica Yellin, as I turn things back over to you this Sunday morning, the Sunday morning programs get involved in aggressively trying to book exclusive guests as well, but it doesn't usually get quite this down and dirty.
YELLIN: No disco dancing, folks, fighting for first air time on the morning shows on Sundays.
That's right, Howie.
KURTZ: All right. Thanks very much, Jessica. Back over to you.
YELLIN: Thanks, Howie. Good to see you.