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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Sawyer Moves to ABC Nightly News; Year-End Wrap-Up
Aired December 27, 2009 - 10:10 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KING (voice-over): From President Obama's first year in office to the scandals that engulfed prominent politicians and celebrities. How did the media cover the big stories of 2009?
Plus, ABC's Dianne Sawyer moves from weekday morning interviews to the nightly news anchor chair.
In this hour of STATE OF THE UNION, Howard Kurtz, as always, breaks it down with his RELIABLE SOURCES.
KURTZ: There was no drum roll, no neon signs, no pictures on buses as Diane Sawyer took possession of the ABC anchor chair. But that doesn't mean her debut was exactly low key. Sawyer, as the cliche goes, needed no introduction. The one-time Louisville weather girl, as they were called in those days, went from the Nixon White House to CBS's morning show to 60 minutes, to ABC's "Primetime Live" to "Good Morning America" before succeeding Charlie Gibson on "World News."
And while the network decided against a big promotional campaign, Sawyer generated some attention on her own, landing an interview with Iran's president for her first evening news broadcast.
She got up early to preview the scoop at her old hangout, GMA.
DIANE SAWYER, ABC ANCHOR: I had a chance to push President Ahmadinejad on exactly what Senator McCain was talking about, whether time is running out, whether he's ready to come back to the table, and what about that report that he was developing a trigger device.
ROBIN ROBERTS, HOST, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": And we are excited to see you begin this new adventure.
SAWYER: Thank you my friends.
(END CLIP) KURTZ (voice-over): When the broadcast began, there was no speech, no mission statement. Just this. SAWYER: Good evening, and it is so good to be here with you tonight.
KURTZ: But Sawyer has a way of letting viewers know she cares about, for instance, the impact of the Senate health care measure.
SAWYER: The heart of the matter is what the bill means for American families and their health. And you have been sending us questions all day. Dan Harris (ph) tackles the top of the list.
KURTZ: And then came the exclusive sit-down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
SAWYER: Critics of Iran saying this is the smoking gun. Have you been testing a neutron initiator?
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I think that some of the claims made by the Americans and other Western statesmen about our nuclear issue have turned into a repetitive and tasteless joke.
SAWYER: Would you like to see this document? Is it a joke?
AHMADINEJAD: No. I don't want to see them at all. I don't.
KURTZ: So what do the critics have to say about "World News" with Diane Sawyer? And what does the revamped program mean for ABC? Joining us now in Philadelphia, Gail Shister, columnist of the Web site TVNewser, and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. And here in Washington, David Zurawik, television and media critic for The Baltimore Sun who likes to blog Z on TV.
David Zurawik, would you say as an anchor that Diane Sawyer has a more emotional style?
DAVID ZURAWIK, THE BALTIMORE SUN: Sure. There's no doubt about it. And in fact they're presenting her in a more personal and up close kind of way.
ZURAWIK: Well, the camera is much tighter on her for one thing. I was struck the first night. I thought, oh, my God, we're right on top of her. But it works with her. It works with her. Across the board that news cast cosmetically is a warmer, more inviting place. The lights seemed brighter. The graphics -- and they said they are using new graphics...
ZURAWIK: ... that seem larger. It's very attractive. Even -- one of nights last week -- how she was wearing a pin-striped suit. But it was either beige or cream. It was softer. It wasn't gray or black. It's a much more inviting kind of place. KURTZ: Usually we don't do fashion reviews on this program...
ZURAWIK: No. No. No.
KURTZ: So I'll go to Gail Shister...
ZURAWIK: But they haven't sacrificed the journalism one bit. That's the point I want to make, Howie.
KURTZ: Gail Shister, how well did Diane make the transition from morning news to the evening show.
GAIL SHISTER, TVNEWSER.COM: Well, first of all, Howie, I personally have no problem being right on top of Diane Sawyer. So that -- that was not a problem for me. I think when you've got somebody that classy, and -- and visually attractive, why not get up close with her?
I don't think they're going to stay that close every single news cast. I thought she made a seam -- a seamless transition. I was pleasantly surprised at how seamless it was. She...
KURTZ: Well, why does USA Today in the review say: "The question is whether she has the gravitas to be an evening news anchor?" After all that she has accomplished?
SHISTER: I think that's ludicrous.
ZURAWIK: I do too. I think it's outrageous.
SHISTER: That is a -- a ludicrous statement. She has proved it over and over and over again. But I have to say something because Zurawik brought up what color suit she was wearing.
SHISTER: And thank you, Zurawik. I can always count on you. I was very pleased to see -- that -- to see no mention anywhere that I read of her make-up, her hair, or her clothing. And I think that she owes a big debt to Katie Couric for -- for taking all the hits. When she went on first, she was a pioneer.
KURTZ: Well, have we -- let me with you for a second, Gail. Have we come now to the point -- you -- you remember three years ago. I mean, the media went haywire...
KURTZ: ... over Katie Couric's CBS debut. Are we now at the point where we don't have to say, wow, two of the three network anchors are women? SHISTER: I think it's a tremendous sign of progress. Now you could look at it both ways. Some people say it's a sign of our progress as a culture. And some people are saying -- the cynics are saying it's a reflection of the -- the demotion of the job as -- in terms of glamour. That it's -- it's no longer the pinnacle of glamour for people in journalism. Therefore, it has gone to two women. I don't subscribe....
ZURAWIK: I don't -- I don't...
SHISTER: ... to that.
ZURAWIK: Yes. I don't think it's about the pinnacle of glamour. I think it still is. And I think putting Diane Sawyer in that chair proves that the networks still believe it is the pinnacle of journalistic excellence at the network. And I think in Couric and Sawyer we have two really outstanding journalists. And we have the best journalists at their network in those jobs.
KURTZ: You -- you wrote this week...
KURTZ: ... that Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer are now the two strongest journalistic forces on network TV.
KURTZ: What kind of anti-male discrimination is that?
ZURAWIK: I was worried... (CROSSTALK)
ZURAWIK: I was worried about being on with Gail. No.
ZURAWIK: No. And -- and I -- and, Howie, I preface that by saying this is no knock on Brian Williams, who is the number one rated anchorman, and who I also like. But I think both of those journalists are really -- they're outstanding interviewers. They both have, Howie, really the kind of killer instinct that Dan Rather had to really go for a story and get it -- number two.
And that's why that thing from USA Today is so outrageous. She has sat in that anchor chair. She made this transition a million years ago.
KURTZ: But you know, the anchors are also the managing editors of their broadcasts. And they make choices about journalistic stories. So on Tuesday night, Diane Sawyer "World News" led with this story, which was also covered on the other broadcasts, but not in the lead position. Take a quick look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "ABC WORLD NEWS WITH DIANE SAWYER")
SAWYER: Good evening. Out of nowhere tonight a brewing storm. An Army general in Iraq has issued an order to his troops which makes getting pregnant a punishable offense for the man and the woman involved.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, Gail Shister, is it possible that a male anchor just wouldn't have thought that was a story that was so important as to merit the number one spot at the top of the news cast?
SHISTER: I would like to think that that's not true. However, my gut tells me it probably is true. I thought it was a terrific choice for the lead. I think it's going to affect possibly hundreds, maybe thousands, of women and men. And it is seen by a lot of women as -- as a very anti-female kind of -- kind of rule. I think it was -- outside the box, I liked it.
KURTZ: By starting with the Ahmadinejad interview, David Zurawik, ABC and Diane Sawyer kind of took the focus off her and put it on the news. What do you make of this whole approach of putting her on four days before Christmas? No doing -- no interviews. No big promotional campaign. Does that make sense?
ZURAWIK: I think it does make sense. And I think -- she was on four days. It was started four days before Christmas, because they wanted to play it low key.
I mean -- again, as you said in the introduction, that -- what we went through with Katie Couric was just insane. You know? And -- and -- and we should all probably in some ways apologize to Katie Couric, because it took a while for us to all step back and say, "You know what? She's a great journalist. And she's doing a great job in this." A great job at that anchor desk.
KURTZ: She also -- and has now -- has since regretted it, probably moved a little too quickly on...
KURTZ: ... making a lot of changes in the CBS "Evening News", which had alienated some of the audience. It looked to me that -- I mean Diane Sawyer chatted rather casually with some correspondents. There were other little tweaks. But it really wasn't that different from the Gibson...
ZURAWIK: Howie, I thought about that. You know, I like Diane Sawyer bringing the correspondents out and talking to them. It brings energy onto the set. It's a great thing. And she doesn't have to carry it herself. And then I thought back and thought, "Wow, when Katie Couric tried that, we all jumped on her." You know? And they are both superb interviewers. So it was right for Couric in a way to try to do that. She caught flack for it. We're sitting here and saying it's a good idea. You know what?
SHISTER: Yes, but I...
ZURAWIK: It was a good idea for both of them. SHISTER: I have to jump in here, Howie. Is that I think that they approached it in different ways. I think that -- that Katie in some ways was set up as a sex symbol in this -- in that they took the long shots of her legs. There was a long discussion about her legs, and her make up. And -- and ABC isn't going anywhere near there. So part of it is probably not even Katie's fault.
One thing I want to -- I want to bring up is that...
KURTZ: Just briefly.
SHISTER: ... I think that the slow -- the quiet launch of Diane was a brilliant idea, because it doesn't set unrealistic expectations. But more importantly, it saves an enormous amount of money for ABC, and perhaps they can hire another correspondent.
KURTZ: All right, David, I've got 15 seconds. Over time, could Diane Sawyer improve on Charlie Gibson's numbers? That is the ...
ZURAWIK: I think she will.
ZURAWIK: I -- I absolutely think she will. And I think she's going to get baby boomer viewers. And baby -- baby boomer women who are going to be pleased to see somebody like Diane Sawyer in that thing (ph). It says the battles that they fought in news rooms and in job fronts, they won in some ways. I think it's very reassuring and very pleasurable to see her in that chair.
KURTZ: The critics, of course, will keep an eye on the numbers.
David Zurawik, Gail Shister, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, we move down the hall for a year in review from David Letterman to Tiger Woods. The media couldn't resist the series of scandals that played out in 2009.
And did journalists send President Obama into the stratosphere this past year only to watch him falter.
CROWLEY: I'm Candy Crowley and this is "STATE OF THE UNION". Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says at this point there's no indication an attempted terror attack on a U.S. airliner is part of a larger terrorist plot. The lone suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been charged with trying to destroy a Northwest jet Friday by igniting a small explosive in his lap. Napolitano says officials are investigating how he boarded that plane with the explosive.
Tensions are high in Iran. A massive crackdown is under way. Police are patrolling the streets of Tehran in an effort to put down anti-government rallies that have been popping up during a major religious observance. Opposition Web sites say three protesters have been killed. Since Iran's disputed presidential elections in June, protesters have turned public gatherings into rallies against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Those are your top stories here on "STATE OF THE UNION". Coming up, Howard Kurtz and his RELIABLE SOURCES looks at President Obama's first year in office.
KURTZ: It's been a head snapping year for media organizations, which have struggled to cover the news even as they've cut their budgets -- slashed their staffs. Those that haven't shut their doors, of course.
In 2009 we grappled with the seemingly endless effort to pass health care reform and a new Supreme Court justice. With Michael Jackson's death and the investigation that followed, with the almost bizarre comet downfall of Rob Blagojevich. With the tabloid tale that forced Tiger Woods off the golf course. Not to mention the tawdry sex scandals involving Mark Sanford and John Ensign.
But the biggest story had to President Obama's first year in office. And what happened to him after the media made him an almost mythic figure during the inauguration. Remember when "Time" and "Newsweek" couldn't decide whether the new president was more like Lincoln or FDR? Well, that certainly changed.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAMES CARVILLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (voice- over): This is something unbelievable. I mean the -- the crowd. Just the entire thing.
JIM ANGLE, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: This is an affirmation of all we hold dear in America. That any person of any station -- and now of any color -- can rise to the most important post in the land.
AL ROKER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: It doesn't hurt, I should say, that he's -- he's a good looking guy. You know, so I -- I think -- you know? And look, this is a guy -- this is a president who can take his shirt off, you know?
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS HOST: The president under pressure. His job approval ratings slide as he wrestles with everything from job creation to the future of Afghanistan.
CHIP REID, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: The president is getting battered on everything from health care, to the economy, to foreign policy. Some polls show Americans are increasingly questioning his credibility.
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: With the president's approval rating dipping below 50 percent in some polls, it's clear the health care debate is taking a toll. (END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the media's performance this past year, Jessica Yellin, national political correspondent for CNN. Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media, and a former managing editor of "USA Today." Nationally syndicated radio talk show host Bill Press. And Chris Stirewalt, political editor and columnist for the "Washington Examiner."
Lauren Ashburn, did the media inflate the expectations surrounding Barack Obama to an almost unrealistic degree, and now are chronicling (ph) the disappointment?
LAUREN ASHBURN, ASHBURN MEDIA: Of course. Of course they are. He was as some -- some people put it the second coming, almost.
KURTZ: And he could take his shirt off.
ASHBURN: Yes. Well, yes. I'm in. I don't know. But you know, it -- I mean I think that the problem became that he had two very quick legislative victories, right? He did the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act right away. He had the economic stimulus right away.
KURTZ: And then...
ASHBURN: And then we waited, and we waited. And then Copenhagen came. And he went to Chicago -- he went to Copenhagen for the Chicago Olympics. He failed. He became number four, and Americans like number one. You know? They don't like number four. And all of a sudden he became human, and the chink was in the armor. And...
KURTZ: Jessica Yellin, it almost seems like the Obama coverage was like a bubble, and then in popped.
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look I think the president himself, and his team created a mythic narrative for himself during the campaign.
KURTZ: With no help from you and your colleagues...
YELLIN: Media -- the media certainly propelled the narrative along with other narratives. But they fed that beast as aggressively as any campaign I've ever seen. And I would argue that it's not surprising at all that as he got his hands dirty after what he ran on is this like -- you know, perfect image. Once he started getting his hands dirty, of course the coverage is going to shift, and I would say it even began sooner than Copenhagen.
I think it began with the stimulus. I think as soon as they ceded control to Congress, and it got messy, the Republicans saw that they had a chance to get Obama, and it was all -- the rest is history.
KURTZ: Bill Press, now that it looks likely that the White House will get health care after getting the 60th Senate vote -- it still has to get through a House Senate conference. We know how messy that is. Will the press perception of this president change, and the liberal commentators who are disaffected. Will they go back on board?
BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: If the president signs a health care bill, it's -- you know, you -- you bet. It's going to be sold as the greatest thing since sliced bread. It's already -- the president has already said it's the biggest success since Social Security and Medicare.
KURTZ: I detect a note of skepticism in your voice.
PRESS: Well I do, because it's not that good a bill frankly. Yes. But I think if he signs that if jobs start to come back, that the -- that the White House is going to say, "Look. You see? We did deliver after all." But what Jessica and Lauren said is true. We now see that this guy is a human being. He can not -- he's not a miracle worker. He could not deliver health care, and end the war in Iraq, and end the war in Afghanistan overnight. And that settled things down, which I think is healthy for this country.
KURTZ: Perhaps journalists should have...
PRESS: He's a human being.
KURTZ: Perhaps journalists should have conveyed that notion earlier. Chris Stirewalt...
CHRIS STIREWALT, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Yes?
KURTZ: ... most conservative commentators were wary of this guy from the start. Now it seems like almost no one will cut him a break. I mean, most of the people on your side don't like the health care deal. Sure, but even when he wins the Nobel Peace Prize he gets flack.
STIREWALT: Well, look. I think part of the problem for the administration has been trying to control the narrative, and too many narratives, and too much going on. They -- they have stayed in campaign mode. They've micro managed each message. They've had too many loops playing simultaneously. So that fair-minded or favorable media outlets can't follow along in the play book. And it's been too complicated. It's been too hard, and they've asked too much of the press. And even the people who are trying to cut them a break have had a hard time keeping up.
KURTZ: But I wonder Lauren, why the journalists suffer from short attention spans. OK, he hasn't fixed the economy or global warming, or -- it's taken a year on health care. But these things take time. Government moves slowly. And yet we, in this business, we want the answers by Sunday morning talk shows.
ASHBURN: Sure with the McDonald's generation -- the McDonald's country. You know, if you don't get your McDonald's burger in -- in a minute and a minute and 30 seconds, you're complaining, right? And -- and so I think that that is where not only journalists, but the American public are. And -- and what I said was Ledbetter and economic stimulus. It happened like that.
You know, health care and the economic stimulus take time, and we just do not have the patience for that. KURTZ: And -- go ahead.
PRESS: Well I just think that's a very good point, because we -- we are the now -- we want everything to happen right now. I don't -- so many people I've heard complain about the fact -- "Well, look. Guantanamo Bay has not closed yet." Well he did say in January 2010. You know? He didn't say August 2009, or whatever.
KURTZ: Well we're the now generation.
KURTZ: I want to bring this back to the media. We're the now generation, because we want to be able to Tweet it, and put it on our Facebook pages...
KURTZ: And do a breaking news update on CNN.
PRESS: We are as impatient as the most impatient of all.
YELLIN: But also our viewers aren't dumb. They know that we're coving what's happening right now with an -- a level of energy and passion that they've come to expect from the media. But that doesn't represent the entirety of coverage.
I mean evaluate the media over the course of the year. And you thought that there was excessive adoration when he was inaugurated -- he was the first black president. That was a measure of what was being reflected there. Over time the media has become increasingly critical of them.
ASHBURN: But there's an opportunity cost here -- not to put everybody to sleep and use an economic term. I mean, you know, you -- you put all of this energy into covering this deity almost. And there are things that -- that are going to be missed. And I think now we are just starting to come back to the point where it is balanced.
YELLIN: Well we tell -- I mean we tell stories. It's part of our job. And that's part of the trap we fall into sometimes. It goes too far.
KURTZ: But the president -- I'll cut to you in a second, Chris. The president has seemed increasingly annoyed as the year has gone on with what he calls the 24 hour news cycle. He's pushed back there. And at the same time, he courts journalists, and pundits, and commentators by having them over for lunch.
YELLIN: Oh, I know. We're still mean to him now. They think we're so hard on him.
STIREWALT: Well, and isn't that the soul of this? That it's a 24 hour news cycle that the president deplores. But at the same time, they've used greater benefit politically than anybody before. And I can't stress this enough. I think that the decision to stay in campaign mode all year -- press -- you know, July was exhausting.
KURTZ: Doesn't every president stay in campaign mode?
STIREWALT: Well not to this degree. You lower expectations by kick -- kicking it down one watch.
PRESS: I -- I really disagree. I think every single politician in this town is always in campaign mode. I regret it, but they are.
YELLIN: But the point isn't...
PRESS: And the -- and the White House -- the Bush White House was as well. But being down there two or three days a week at these briefings, I've got to tell you, I think the media coverage of Obama has been -- has been pretty fair now. It's no -- they're not pussycats in that -- in that briefing room any more. They ask tough questions every day of Robert Gibbs.
KURTZ: Isn't it pushing back against the media, Chris Stirewalt -- the -- looking back now on the White House war against FOX News? Did that backfire. Did it get the administration part of what it wanted which was to get other news organizations not to chase every story that's being pumped up on FOX?
STIREWALT: I think -- I think both parties won a little bit. And I think both parties lost a little bit. I think that FOX redoubled its efforts to fair and balanced, and reemphasized that. And you saw more of Bret Baier, and you saw more of Shep Smith. And they really -- they laid on that more.
I think the White House also got its hand burnt and realized that they had over played. Because when you get into things like who gets to be in the pool rotation, and how things are going, I think the professionalism and the esprit de corps of the -- of the press corps came forward, and I thought that was admirable.
So I think it was a learning experience for both parties.
ASHBURN: Wait. Time out. This is all inside the Beltway. This is all Washington. I mean, if you talk to people in Cleveland, or you talk to people in Oklahoma, or -- you know, where -- Pittsburgh, where I have family -- this is not what they're seeing. I mean, the media is so fragmented right now that Obama going on all of the Sunday shows just means that somebody in those places might catch it, right?
And so, I think that while he is using the media as a -- as a tool, it is -- it's not over -- it's not overkill.
KURTZ: Well, and on the conservative side of the spectrum, Bill Press, I don't see the media focusing a great deal on John Boehner or Mitch McConnell. I see Rush Limbaugh this year on the cover of Newsweek. I see Glenn Beck on the cover of Time. It seems like we have collectively made a decision to anoint them the spokesmen if not for the Republican Party, then for the conservative movement. Why? Because they're more colorful, and sometimes flamboyant.
PRESS: Well, I think there are two things going on. Number one -- I think that what they are -- the -- the void that they're filling is the lack of leadership in the Republican Party. The Republican Party doesn't know who their leaders are. So the media has been able to come forth with particularly Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. And they...
KURTZ: Who elected us? Who elected us to decide who the spokesmen for a whole movement should be?
PRESS: No. No. No, but they have. I mean, Rush says he is the self-appointed head of the Republican Party.
KURTZ: Let me get Chris in...
PRESS: But I just -- just if I can, just to finish that.
PRESS: What's happening also on the other side is you have voices on the progressive left that are also very loud and very critical of Barack Obama. That didn't happen on the right under George Bush.
KURTZ: Recently and increasingly on health care. Let me get your take on this question of the -- the big conservative broadcasters.
STIREWALT: Well, I think the -- the issue here is it doesn't really matter who the head Republican is.
KURTZ: It doesn't really matter?
STIREWALT: It doesn't really matter who -- Mitch McConnell does...
PRESS: Some day it's going to.
STIREWALT: Right. Just -- quite right. That's -- that's -- that's the answer. Right now what the Republicans do is -- this is a -- talk about a rebuilding year. Try a rebuilding two years. So it doesn't matter that much. So you have the loudest voices come to the fore. But the moment of consequence comes next year. And that's when it counts.
KURTZ: All right. Well, the moment of consequence is always here for the media. That's why we do this program. Let me get a break.
When we come back, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, John Edwards, and the cottage industry of political sex scandals. Are journalists hounding them, or holding them accountable? And have the media simply moved on to the likes of Tiger and Letterman?
KURTZ: This was a banner year for scandals. And not just your boring, complicated, garden-variety scandals. The media pounced on one sex scandal after another involving politicians, entertainers, athletes. Each one seemingly more salacious than the last.
I'd say that we're reduced to fodder for late night comics, except one of them starred a late night comic.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHARLIE GIBSON, ABC: The extramarital affair that brought an end to John Edwards' political career is resulting in a spate of new headlines, and potentially legal trouble for the former presidential candidate.
NATALIE MORALES, NBC: Investigators are looking into whether any campaign money was wrongfully paid to the woman he admitted having an affair with.
JOY BEHAR: Let's tell this one like it is. He's a dog. And people do not like him. And I think his -- his political career is over.
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: We now know where the governor of South Carolina was and what he was doing. And he wasn't hiking the Appalachian trail.
JOHN ROBERTS, CNN: Governor Sanford spent the last few days in Buenos Aires.
SANFORD: I developed a relationship with a -- what started as a dear, dear friend from Argentina.
I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boy.
MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ, CBS: All of us here at CBS just shocked to hear that our own Dave Letterman was reportedly being blackmailed by a CBS employee who said that he had proof that Dave was having affairs with employees at the Late Show.
DAVE LETTERMAN, TALK SHOW HOST: The creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show. Now, my response to that is, yes I have.
KURTZ: What a year. Lauren Ashburn -- the political sex scandals have gotten plenty of coverage. No question about that. But Letterman and Tiger just ricocheted into the media stratosphere. Is that because they're inherently more fascinating or better for ratings?
ASHBURN: I think that Americans have an obsessive-compulsive disorder when it comes to people who are in the public eye. I mean, you know, it's titillating, it's scintillating. It's better than hitting the alarm clock at 7:00 o'clock in the morning, getting up, going to your job, doing your job, coming home. This gives people something to talk about -- something to get excited about. And you know, there just happened to be a lot of it this year.
KURTZ: The water cooler factor. Jessica Yellin, when you have cases like John Ensign, affair with a former aide, and the husband was a former aide. John Edwards -- the affair was with a campaign aide. Shouldn't journalists care more about those who are elected to a public trust than comedians and athletes?
YELLIN: Yes. Except...
YELLIN: Except there is a human interest story component to everything we do, and that really adds the human factor to the human interest story. So I think we gave a fair amount of attention to Ensign and Edwards. I -- I don't think we're going to get slapped on the wrist for ignoring those stories.
KURTZ: Right. But Tiger of course was one of the world's most famous people, the world's top golfer. Letterman coming into your homes every day for...
YELLIN: (inaudible). Let's not be naive. That's part of what we do. If we cover the serious stuff well, we can do some of the lighter stuff too.
KURTZ: Chris Stirewalt, does a political sex scandal now need an extra added attraction for the media, like John Edwards' alleged love child, or Mark Sanford hitting the Appalachian trail?
STIREWALT: I -- I think the secret is -- and we saw this with the -- the mini scandal with Max Baucus and his girlfriend who he appointed -- tried to get appointed as U.S. attorney. The secret was he came right out and said, "Yes. It was me."
STIREWALT: "I did that. Bad call. My mistake."
STIREWALT: Then we saw the obverse. We saw the worst possible handling of a sex scandal by a politician...
ASHBURN: Rambling on, and on, and on...
STIREWALT: ... in American history, where the seven minutes that Mark Sanford talked -- we timed it for seven minutes, he stood there and yammered incoherently before finally stumbling into the admission of this horrid...
KURTZ: And where does that leave Tiger Woods who hasn't uttered a syllable in front of a camera? They just filed these big statements saying, "Yeah, I guess I kind of did something wrong?"
PRESS: Well, first of all, I've got to say, as a radio talk show host, I make no apologies for spending a lot of time talking about all these scandals, because our job is to talk about what people are talking about. And this is what people are talking about.
I thought you were going to say the worst -- the worst possible P.R. job here was Tiger Woods. I mean, I think the fact that we spent so much time -- more time talking about Tiger Woods than David Letterman is that Letterman came up, we just heard him say, "Hey, I had sex with all these women." And then when the various women came up, nobody cared because we knew there was a whole list of them.
With Tiger, every one became a major story, because he felt he could control the story by not saying anything. He should have hired you. He was dead wrong.
ASHBURN: Hey, I don't do P.R.
STIREWALT: The volume is a consideration with Tiger though, just the sheer volume.
KURTZ: And the women who had these relationships with David Letterman have basically stayed in the background. And every single woman who was ever shared an elevator with Tiger Woods seems to want to get the moment of things.
Let me put up on the screen a poll taken by the "Wall Street Journal" and NBC News. The question was which of these people most disappointed you? And they're all figures from this year. John Edwards, 33 percent. He is twice as disappointing a figure as Tiger Woods at 16 percent. Chris Brown, of course, beat the crap out of his girlfriend Rihanna -- 15 percent. The balloon boy parents -- 11 percent. John and Kate -- 6 percent. David Letterman -- this goes to your point, only 4 percent found him the most disappointing. And A- Rod using steroids -- 4 percent as well.
YELLIN: Part of that's expectations. I mean you expect celebrities to...
YELLIN: ... do their deeds -- to misbehave. KURTZ: Right.
YELLIN: You don't expect it of your political leaders.
KURTZ: Of your presidential candidate who uses his wife as part of the campaign.
ASHBURN: But why don't we expect it? I mean Bill Clinton, an intern, the White House. Hello? You know, it -- it -- when are we going to stop thinking that these people don't do this just because they hold public office. You know, it -- we've been talking about this for years, and years, and years. Why is it every time there's somebody...
YELLIN: Well there's a hypocrisy factor with Edwards. I mean he was on the campaign as a family man with his wife at all times. And then it turns out...
STIREWALT: Her cancer was his motivation for getting in the race, quite frankly.
PRESS: You know -- yes. And I -- I'm surprised that there's that trust in -- in John Edwards. Or that that's -- that there's that trust in politicians any more. I mean...
PRESS: My rule of thumb is if they parade themselves around as family values, and -- and holier than thou, you bet there's some big scandal about to break.
PRESS: And it's happened.
YELLIN: Is that the televangelist rule?
KURTZ: Now sometimes...
YELLIN: The holier they seem...
KURTZ: Sometimes -- sometimes there are consequences. For example, Mark Sanford escaped being impeached by the South Carolina legislature last week. And John Ensign is under investigation for the lobbying help he gave to his former aide, the one whose wife he had the affair with.
But let's take sex out of it. I can just see our ratings dropping (inaudible)...
YELLIN: Oh, come on.
KURTZ: Rod Blagojevich -- I don't think there was any sex involved. Then he was booted out of office.
YELLIN: The hair.
KURTZ: The hair.
And yet, despite the fact that he was ousted as Illinois governor, he went around giving us all those memorable T.V. interviews. And he became this sort of entertaining figure. How is that possible?
PRESS: I'll tell -- I'll tell you why. Because he gave me one of those interviews. Because he is colorful.
PRESS: And he does not back down. He insists that he is innocent. And I might remind you, he has not yet been convicted or found or indicted for any crime. I mean, where's the crime?
ASHBURN: It's an old rule of the theater. Right? Those who are the most animated. Those who are the loudest. Those who draw attention to themselves are the ones who are going to be watched.
STIREWALT: We also might point out that the seat that he was accused of selling did belong to the person who was just elected president of the United States.
STIREWALT: That added a little throw away. And that seat was bleeping golden.
KURTZ: How come some of these calls (ph) Blago, Eliot Spitzer, the prostitution scandal in New York, I mean, are able to -- he lost his job. But they ride these things out. And then they come back as media commentators. How come some can do that, and some can't even have a prayer of doing that?
STIREWALT: We live in a redemptive society. We -- a lot of what America is about is the -- is the -- the possibility for redemption. And whether it's either the evangelical movement, or the great push to the west. That's what we're all about is reinventing yourself. Now the problem is is that we in the media also need that -- that sturm und drang. We need the down and the up so that we have this narrative arch that we can talk about.
KURTZ: So in other words, the Tiger comeback story is next?
YELLIN: Right. STIREWALT: The Tiger comeback story is next. And what's interesting is the Sanford case -- and go back to that -- where's going to be -- the drama is not going to be there with Sanford. He seems to be just sort of a defeated person. He just seems done and dragging his way out. His wife provides a great narrative arc. But Governor Sanford seems to just be done.
YELLIN: I think Sanford's a new archetype. It's the older man who wants to reveal his romantic longings to the public.
STIREWALT: It's stud syndrome.
YELLIN: Stud syndrome. We saw -- what is it with Sanford? Even Baucus did it a little bit by saying, "This relationship is deeply satisfying. It's so romantic."
STIREWALT: We don't care.
YELLIN: We don't care? What? Our masses do care. PRESS: I have to say, I have to say I think this -- I agree with you on the redemption. But there's a certain sick side of it it seems to me when it comes to the media. Nobody else would give Eliot Spitzer a job except MSNBC. And he's not a contributor, but he's on a lot and I'm sorry, I don't want to hear what he has to say about anything. I just think of this guy at the Mayflower Hotel.
ASHBURN: How about the call girl?
PRESS: She gets a column. She gets...
ASHBURN: She gets a column, right?
KURTZ: In the "New York Post," Ashley Dupree. I mean, I have to close by asking about the financial scandals that rocked our economy over the last year and a half. And I kind of wonder if the media had provided Tiger Woods level coverage -- that kind of saturation, of not just Bernie Madoff, but you know, these regulatory agencies that did -- that fell asleep on the job.
PRESS: Fannie Mae?
KURTZ: These banking agencies and the housing agencies. Could we argue that that failure to be a early warning system for the country was on a par with the failure before the war in Iraq?
PRESS: Yes. I have to jump at -- but it's not as sexy for sure -- and...
KURTZ: It's complicated.
PRESS: ... it requires work to understand what these issues are all about. The sex stuff is easy, and the media takes the easy route.
ASHBURN: And the cutting of the budgets. I mean that's the other thing. I mean news rooms -- you walk in -- in news rooms. I mean they're empty seats -- they're a football of empty seats now -- football field.
KURTZ: There were a lot.
YELLIN: And they're doing it still in some ways -- all of the media collectively -- by continuing to cover Wall Street right now as if it's the measure -- the barometer of what's going on in the economy when we know it's not. But again complicated to get down to the brass tacks.
STIREWALT: And yes. And a -- and a reporter who said, "I want to expose Fannie Mae for recklessly inflating a housing bubble." That's a politically charged story. That's -- that's -- that's not just on its face Tiger Woods.
STIREWALT: That's a politically charged story. KURTZ: It's bringing bad news at a time when the Dow is hitting 14,000. And so there is some pressure on you not to do that. It's complicated. And there were some financial columnists and reporters who did get pieces of this. And they often ran inside the financial section. They didn't run on the front page. They certainly didn't run on the network news.
PRESS: No. That's right.
KURTZ: And I think that's part of the collective failure as well just briefly.
YELLIN: Even then we covered the AIG bonuses breathlessly. But right now financial regulatory reform got almost no coverage.
PRESS: And that's -- and the thing is we are back to business as usual, and nobody's talking about it.
KURTZ: Yes. I'm glad we're talking about it here at least briefly. Jessica Yellin, Lauren Ashburn, Bill Press, Chris Stirewalt -- thanks very much for joining us.
CROWLEY: Thanks, Howie. Up next, an update on the investigation into the attempted attack against the Northwest Airlines flight. Insight on the Obama administration's response and much more ahead on "State of the Union."