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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Tragedy in Tucson
Aired January 16, 2011 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: A rare moment of introspection for the mainstream media which usually focus more on pointing fingers than examining their own behavior. Now, in the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, some commentators say they will watch their language more carefully, while some are attacking the other side for politicizing the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.
Is the corrosive media culture really going to change?
President Obama wins praise from the press for his handling of the tragedy, while Sarah Palin gets panned after she attacks what she calls reprehensible conduct by journalists and pundits. We'll talk about that. And are some in the media starting to push gun control?
Plus, the gunman's background prompts veteran anchor Bill Kurtis to make a painful disclosure about the mental illness that afflicted his own son.
I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
It's been eight days since the gunman killed six people and wounded 14 others in Arizona, and some people have joined me in saying the media have played a role in fostering a toxic political culture, but that while it's fine to criticize someone like Sarah Palin for violent imagery, it's also unfair to link her to the shooting. I've gotten a fair amount of vitriol in response.
But Roger Ales is not one who dismisses the argument. The Fox News chairman told Russell Simmons he directed his network to "shut up and tone it down," and that he hoped the other side would do the same. Other side. That's an interesting phrase.
On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann has also called for a bit of restraint, promising to rename his "Worst Persons in the World" segment, but also slamming the likes of Palin and Glenn Beck.
Let's listen to some of these voices and how they're framing the climate at this tenuous time. We'll start with MSNBC.
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: The special comment Saturday night concluded with a call for politicians and commentators of all political leanings to take a pledge. I asked for them to denounce acts or threats of violence and to repudiate, as I did, anything they said in the past, inadvertent or otherwise, that could be construed as advocating either.
ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: Hell, we can't even communicate without yelling at one another. And you know what? I'm at fault. I admit it.
I get passionate, but not in a violent way. And I believe that we have to say things on this show and we have to be honest, because there's a lot of stuff, especially across the street, that is not the truth.
KURTZ (voice-over): Now here's how the Fox folks responded.
GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: They're desperately using every opportunity to try to convince you that somehow or another, Sarah Palin is dangerous. Somehow or another, Rush Limbaugh is dangerous. That I am. Anything to shut her down, shut me up, shut talk radio down, shut Fox News off.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Only moments -- moments -- after Congresswoman Giffords was shot, some far-left loons began to spew their hatred. Conservatives encouraged Loughner to pull the trigger. Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Fox News all spurred the psychopath to kill the six people.
That is flat-out reprehensible. And every American should condemn that "New York Times" editorial. Republicans had nothing to do with these murders in Arizona.
KURTZ: Rush Limbaugh wasted little time assailing the left.
RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I find it fascinating that the media, many in the Democrat Party want to try to blame people who don't know this kid -- the kid never knew, the kid never heard, the kid never was exposed to. And let me do this here at the outset, folks, because this is what all of this is really all about. It is all political.
I was blamed for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It's the template. It's the narrative.
KURTZ: So, are much in the media finally backing away from the blame game, or just taking a brief respite?
Joining us now here in Washington, Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media and a former managing editor of "USA Today Live"; David Frum, the founder of FrumForum.com and a former speechwriter for President George Bush. And in New York, Dana Milbank, columnist for "The Washington Post."
Dana Milbank, when you listen to some of these voices, Fox, MSNBC, talk radio, is there -- are there signs of a genuine attempt to dial it back, or just blaming the other side?
DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I would say the attempt is genuine, but it's destined to fail. And that is, even if it's in their best interest, their best intentions to try to dial it back, what's going to happen is people will find out that that's not where the audience is. People like this hot rhetoric.
You know, I wrote a piece this week about all the lovely speeches on the House floor on Wednesday praising Giffords, saying, why can't we all get along, tone down the rhetoric? You know, you write a piece about Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin in "The Washington Post," 1,500, 2,000 comments. You write something about all the nice things they're saying in the Capitol, I think there were like 60 comments.
It's a gauge of how much interest is in that sort of thing. That's why I think even the best intentions will ultimately fail to tone it down.
KURTZ: I want to come back to that point.
But David Frum, let's be clear. Has most of the toxic talk on the airwaves the last couple years come from the right? And do you see that changing in the aftermath of Tucson?
DAVID FRUM, FRUMFORUM.COM: Well, in the past couple of years, obviously most has come from the right because there's been a Democratic president. In the years before that -- I think the question is not which is worse, right or left --
KURTZ: Is it comparable? The vitriol directed at President Bush, who you worked for, is comparable to some of the anti-government rhetoric now?
FRUM: In this way, because I am not bothered when people say -- have a harsh name to call or say that somebody's a liar or a jerk. That is not what is corrosive of democracy.
The thing we have to worry about is not the effect on crazy people. It's the effect on normal people. And the thing I worry about is not rhetoric, it's the construction of paranoid narratives.
When respected people say that the foreign policy of the Bush administration is controlled by a tiny cabal of Jews who are aligning the country into war, that -- no matter how politely you say that, that is a false paranoid narrative. And in the same way, when people say that Barack Obama's deliberately trying to destroy the economy of the United States in order to lead us to overthrow the Constitution, lead us to a Marxist dictatorship, again, you can say that without a single harsh syllable or negative adjective, but it's a false and paranoid narrative. And that attacks the governance of the country.
And in that sense I would say yes, there have been comparable degrees of paranoia, but sequentially, not at the same time.
KURTZ: I'm struck, Lauren Ashburn, by the way, that everybody in the media, most people in the media, say they're for civility. But in the next breath, many of them say yes, but we have to respond to the lies and the outrages on the other side -- Fox, MSNBC, Rush, you name it. LAUREN ASHBURN, PRESIDENT, ASHBURN MEDIA: Right. Well, you know, I have to say that I completely disagree with what you said.
And to this point, I think that in the very beginning, on Saturday, journalists got it wrong. Journalists got it wrong in saying that Representative Giffords was dead.
Right after that is when the opinion makers got it wrong by inciting all of this anger, and these so-called opinion leaders need to go back to kindergarten. They need to learn the elemental lessons that they haven't learned yet, which is play fairly, share everything, and be --
ASHBURN: -- nice. I'm not kidding. I think that what you're saying is wrong.
KURTZ: How is David Frum wrong?
ASHBURN: See, you're just like them.
KURTZ: How is he wrong?
ASHBURN: You are wrong because you're saying it doesn't matter if we call someone a jerk or a moron or a pinhead or the worst person of the year, that that doesn't really impact the rhetoric of this country. And you're wrong.
I mean, I think that what happens is that people get so angry, that you're right, you do -- journalists feel like, OK, now we have to cover this anger. OK, now we have to cover that anger. And, you know, the paranoia you're talking about may be important, but the basic elemental, fundamental niceties are what need to be addressed first.
KURTZ: All right.
FRUM: Let me uphold why I think I'm right.
Look, the driver -- the reason people are so upset in the United States is not because of what they hear -- of what the five million people who -- out of the 300 million people who watch cable news hear on cable news. People are angry and upset because the country's been through an economic trauma of the worst kind since World War II. And that means that they have these emotions already and they look for people who will speak to them.
In that sense, it's just background noise. The thing that is -- yes, it's corrosive of the media culture, but the thing that paralyzes the government, the thing that makes it difficult for members of Congress who are elected by all 300 million people, or at least of voting age, not just the five million who watch the cable news, is that they are trapped within false narratives that are widely believed that it would not be better if Rush Limbaugh were convincing people politely that the president is a Marxist trying to overthrow the Constitution, because to the extent the people are convinced, the government seizes up.
KURTZ: Let me go back to Dana Milbank, because I want to bring up a column you that wrote this week in "The Washington Post."
You wrote about, among others, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. You mentioned that that drives traffic and ratings. And undoubtedly it does. They're both of course on Fox.
And you said two things. You said, one, "There's no evidence that they inspired the Tucson gunman." And then you said, and I'm quoting here, "Both are being finally held to account for recklessly playing with violent images in a way that is bound to incite the unstable."
"Bound to incite the unstable." You're connecting the dots between their rhetoric and violence.
MILBANK: Well, between violence, but not in this case, the Loughner case. What I -- in a sense, it's rough justice. I think it is very important that people are held to account for this nasty rhetoric that is causing -- in Glenn Beck's case, I've documented a few cases in which it's led a crazy person to snap in the opinion of --
KURTZ: Well, wait a minute. Hold on, Dana. You just used the verb "led." There was a case -- we talked about this last time you were on -- where somebody wounded two California police officers who was very angry --
MILBANK: And said he was driven to do so by what he heard from Glenn Beck.
KURTZ: OK. So it's fair to hold a talk show host responsible for what some violent or perhaps unbalanced person does because they like what this person says on the airwaves?
MILBANK: Yes, Howie, in the aggregate. I don't think -- you can't say in every individual case.
You know, who knows what any one crazy person is going to do? But the problem is there's developing a pattern here.
That's why I'm saying yes, I think it's irresponsible, and I think it's a bit of a straw man, that people are claiming that, you know, Beck and Palin are being blamed. Mostly, people are saying they're not being blamed for this particular incident. They are being blamed, as well as some on the left should be blamed, for inciting people generally.
It probably -- we don't know for sure. It probably wasn't a driver in this case, but it's a driver in so many other cases. And I agree with David that you need to look out for the effect your words are having on the sane people. But I think you also need to worry about that fraction of one percent who just might be driven over the edge.
FRUM: If we make this about the intensity of the adjectives, then we let off the hook people who should be on the hook. And I want to go back to the Bush years. When eminent professors write books that are published in respected magazines suggesting that -- with language that sounds a lot like traditional anti-Semitic language, that the foreign policy of the Bush administration has been captured by a tiny cabal of Jews, that -- look, that is language that has gotten over the years a lot more people killed than any talk about the need to use non-hybrid seeds.
KURTZ: What about journalists who frame the question as, "Can this be explained because of a climate that the media have both fostered and enabled?" Is that a false framing, in your view?
ASHBURN: No, it's not a false framing. I think, as I said before, that journalists are leaders. These opinion makers have this platform that allow them to be leaders in America. Leaders -- is -- are Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly leaders?
KURTZ: Well, they have big audiences.
ASHBURN: The same with Keith Olbermann. But what is a leader? I don't think that leaders frame debates in angry tones, and that their opinions, negative opinions of the other side, are what drive this country forward.
KURTZ: Let me briefly come back to the point you made earlier, and that is -- you wrote about this in "The Huffington Post" this week, about all the news organizations that declared that Gabrielle Giffords was dead. The ombudsman of "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" this morning questioning their own news organizations handling that.
CNN got it wrong briefly. Fox News got it wrong briefly. NPR has apologized for a "serious and grave error."
I don't see a lot of soul-searching here about -- you know, we've totally moved on from that.
ASHBURN: It's ridiculous.
KURTZ: Gee, how did we get this wrong?
ASHBURN: Nobody, including you -- last week everybody went to the rhetoric of violence and to Sarah Palin's crosshairs --
KURTZ: No, we started with the mistake.
ASHBURN: You started with it, but it was this much of your show. This much.
And my point is, what happened to America and what happened to journalism that people weren't outraged that we called a congressman and said a congressman was dead? The basic rule of journalism is get it right or don't report it.
KURTZ: Or don't get it. Or what was the great rush?
Before we go to break, we've been reporting this morning about Eric Fuller. He's one of those who was shot a week ago Saturday in Tucson, and he has now -- he has been arrested at, ironically, a town hall meeting organized by ABC and Christiane Amanpour of the program "This Week" to try to bring some closure to the community.
And then he said to a Tea Party leader, "You're dead," and was arrested for threatening. Eric Fuller, a couple days earlier, telling the liberal group Media Matters, "I think Sarah Palin should be incarcerated for treason for advocating assassinating public officials." Of course she did nothing of the sort, so not exactly toning it down, even from a guy who took a bullet at the scene.
When we come back, a tale of two speeches. President Obama basks in media praise this week, while Sarah Palin continues her war on the press. A look at the coverage in a moment.
KURTZ: Many were breathlessly waiting this week to see how Sarah Palin would respond to the criticism of her language and imagery in the wake of the Tucson tragedy. The former governor used a Facebook video to ratchet things up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SARAH PALIN (R), FMR. ALASKA GOVERNOR: If you don't like a person's vision for the country, you're free to debate that vision. If you don't like their ideas, you're free to propose better ideas. But especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: President Obama spoke at a memorial service for the victims and struck a very different tone.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost.
Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And that, of course, spurred plenty of media chatter, especially on the airwaves.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOM BROKAW, JOURNALIST: Well, I thought the president hit all the right notes and had exactly the right tone. This is always the test of a presidency.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I think the way that he seized the moment, where he referred to Gabby opening her eyes, and he brought the audience into that and he became so inspirational.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nation witnessed a speech that struck just the right tone, somber and uplifting, both emotional and inspirational.
EUGENE ROBINSON, "THE WASHINGTON POST": And then to immediately jump into this, you know, "blood libel" thing was not only weird, but I think a real mistake.
ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: For a week we've had people blame Sarah Palin for this death. So today she says something, and they're attacking her again for the use of "blood libel."
STEPHEN HARRIS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I think she had to make this statement in part because of the misreporting and the irresponsible reporting from the mainstream news media, who raised the question oh, so gently, you know, is Sarah Palin's rhetoric responsible for this attack? And threw it out there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Lauren Ashburn, Palin got hammered by the media over this video. Could that bear some relation to the fact that she went after journalists and pundits very strongly in her own words and not by implication?
ASHBURN: You know, I think that you've got to look at these two speeches in context. I think both of them were trying to say, and they actually did say at one point, almost the same words -- we cannot allow this event to have us turn on each other.
The problem with what Sarah Palin did with the "blood libel" comment is she made it about her at a time when President Obama is making it about the victims and the people who were hurt. She had good intentions, I believe, up until that point when she became the victim. She made herself the victim yet again.
KURTZ: But, now, David Frum, you wrote initially that it was unfair for the media to tie Palin to this tragedy in any significant sense. So if the media dragged her into it, doesn't she have a legitimate grievance to respond? FRUM: She has a totally legitimate grievance. She was -- she's absolutely right. She was treated unfairly. And I can understand why she wanted to say something.
That did not mean she was obliged to say something dumb. She could have said something smart. And she could have said something generous and big and humane, presidential, even, if that's the job you seek.
I wrote on my site on the weekend before she did speak a guide. I mean, she's not somebody I'd want to work for as a speechwriter, but if you're Sarah Palin, and you were to speak, here are some things you might want to say.
KURTZ: She did not take your advice?
FRUM: What a surprise. There are things she could have said that would have made people think -- that would have carried her point, shown some concern for what had happened, and also, incidentally, make people feel more sympathetic to her rather than less.
KURTZ: And the media, Dana Milbank, really seized on those two words that Palin used, "blood libel." Was that fair or unfair?
MILBANK: Well, I think it was fair just because it's such a peculiar term that has such a specific connotation. I think it was probably an accident she probably had no idea what she was saying, but I'm not sure ignorance is a better defense here.
I think the one thing that is a little unfair to Sarah Palin is the volume of coverage. She's always getting this outsized amount of coverage, and I think the best thing would be -- it's impossible, of course, that we in the media should declare some sort of a Sarah Palin moratorium. She's clearly setting herself out as some sort of a provocateur who either is not going to be running for president, or is not running in a serious way for president, and is just trying into inflame things. I think if somehow we could have an agreement to tone back our own coverage of her, we'd be better off.
KURTZ: And just to clarify for those not familiar, I mean, "blood libel" is an old anti-Semitic slur having to do with Jewish people taking the blood of dead children and using it in food. And I don't know whether Palin or anybody on her staff realized it, but that certainly pressed a hot media button.
Lauren Ashburn, could critics look at the Obama speech, overwhelmingly positive views, and say it was a nice speech, but the press is falling back in love with the president?
ASHBURN: No, I don't think so. I mean, look at Senator McCain today or --
ASHBURN: Today, in "The Washington Post." KURTZ: Op-ed piece.
ASHBURN: In the op-ed piece. And he said, "Great speech." And he -- this is what I was saying about how negative rhetoric spawns negative rhetoric.
Positive rhetoric, that given by President Obama in what most people are calling a fantastic speech, had an effect on his opponent, had an effect on Senator John McCain. And he went and wrote an op-ed all about how good -- well, rather -- President Obama handled things.
MILBANK: You know, that may have been a terrific speech, but I still think the adulation was just over the top. One network news correspondent said it gave him shivers. You know what? It gives me shivers when network correspondents are saying that about the president.
ASHBURN: Shivers down his leg?
MILBANK: We saw this at the last --
KURTZ: What network did this person work for?
MILBANK: I'm not going to -- he's a friend of mine. I'm not going to --
ASHBURN: Oh, come on.
KURTZ: Just name the network. Just name the network.
MILBANK: You can find it in "Nexus". It's not CNN.
ASHBURN: Well, at least it wasn't a shiver up his leg like Chris Matthews said.
KURTZ: All right.
But, David Frum, I mean, it wasn't just McCain. A lot of conservative commentators -- Charles Krauthammer, Rich Lowry, Glenn Beck, Pat Buchanan -- praised his speech. That is unusual.
FRUM: Well, you know, these kinds of speeches, these memorial speeches, really are great at pass-fail. They're not great at -- you either do the right thing or you fail to do the right thing. And emotions run so high.
I mean, this situation is so terrible. The grief is so awful. I mean, with this little girl, it's just so overwhelming.
And the person who speaks for the country, the designated -- they either say something appropriate and right or they don't. And if they do, then they're speaking for everybody. And a lot of emotion flows through that. But look, the president knows perfectly well, it lasts for 48 hours.
(LAUGHTER) ASHBURN: Right. And we've seen this before, right? I mean, we've seen this. He's done very positive things that his base has liked, and he's ridden the wave for that in the media, and then he's done things that not a lot of people like and he comes back down again.
KURTZ: What do you think of Dana Milbank's point earlier in the program that the volume and intensity of coverage for someone like Sarah Palin or someone like Glenn Beck is driven by the fact that it sells at the box office, that it produces ratings and circulation and Web traffic?
ASHBURN: Here's my opinion on that. I mean, I think that if people weren't angry with these opinion makers, you know, like Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, weren't so angry, that they would lose their jobs, because people wouldn't watch and they'd go out and ride their bikes. And so then they wouldn't have a job.
KURTZ: So, Dana, since you brought this up, I mean, these people are just sort of responding to market forces? In other words, they're giving the audience what they want, which often is a very emotional and one-sided take?
MILBANK: Exactly. We're giving them exactly what they're asking for.
Every few years there's some movement in journalism to do good news stories. Well, they always fail because, guess what? People say they want good news, happy thoughts, and then they hear it on the TV and it's extremely boring, and they move on. So --
ASHBURN: It's true.
MILBANK: -- people are driving -- you know, I could tone it down and sort of just say what all these nice guys in Washington are doing all the time. Howie, you'll never have me back on the show.
KURTZ: We'll pull the plug right now.
FRUM: But be careful, because one of the most sensitive and successful of those broadcasters, Glenn Beck, is picking up a change in the air.
ASHBURN: That's true. No, that's true.
FRUM: If you watch him over the past week, there's much more personal empowerment, there's much more Oprah-esque talk. What Beck seems to intuit is that as the economy recovers, as we all feel less afraid, as houses are not being foreclosed on anymore, we're going to go back to being America as it normally is, less obsessed with politics and less hungry for explanations of what's gone wrong.
KURTZ: We will keep our critical lens on that and see if you are right. David Frum, Lauren Ashburn, Dana Milbank, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, James Fallows weighs in on the way journalists talk about politics and violence and early signs of a gun control debate in the press.
And later, the gunman's troubled past prompts veteran anchor Bill Kurtis to speak out about mental illness involving his own family. He'll be here.
KURTZ: One journalist who has been having a dialogue with his readers in the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy is James Fallows, national correspondent of "The Atlantic," and he joins me now here in the studio.
It's been interesting to watch you engage with people who follow you on "The Atlantic."
The media have kind of led a debate over Jared Loughner and whether he had political beliefs that spurred him to do this. And you make the point that defining any assassination or assassination attempt as political is a difficult thing to do.
JAMES FALLOWS, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE ATLANTIC", : Yes. And I was saying that in one sense these are all political. There's a reason we have the word "assassination" and not just murder or killing, because there's some freight that goes with killing a public figure.
But it's interesting, and sort of to me, the kickoff of this is thinking about how often it's very, very difficult to connect the political motives for a political act. For example, when Gerald Ford was attacked twice by Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, no one could figure out what their political motives were even though it would have been a profoundly political act. And so, too, with Jared Loughner. We don't really know -- you know, will know for a long time, maybe ever, what was going on in his mind.
KURTZ: And that is an interesting question, because you had this sort of rush by journalists, because this is what we do, to ask questions about, is this political, is it related to the climate, is it all about Arizona's culture? And yet, at the same time, the more we find out about this guy, his views on anything seem to be utterly incoherent.
I mean, he's fixated on numbers, on Karl Marx, on Adolf Hitler. And then just the other day, the community college he had been attending releases video in which he called it a genocide school.
So, is there an attempt here for the media to take something that's kind of senseless and impose a narrative?
FALLOWS: Well, in a sense, that's what we do all the time. That is the purpose of storytellers, it's the purpose of journalists, to say, OK, we see those four dots, let's see if there's a pattern there.
And the thing I wrote for "The Atlantic" site an hour or two after the killing, I said -- I made the point, number one, these assassination attempts are often so murky, we never really know. But number two, it's legitimate in our current climate to ask whether there is some kind of question. I think that asking will go on for some time. And I do agree with what David Frum was saying earlier, that a particular kind of political rhetoric which suggests paranoia, conspiracy, that individuals are being victimized, that that can provoke people. We don't know if it had any bearing in this case --
KURTZ: But can the asking be involved -- and forgive this phrase -- loaded questions? Can it set up a straw man or try to shoehorn even the -- there aren't usually very many available facts in the immediate aftermath -- in a way that can be unfair just by asking the question?
KURTZ: Because, you know, it's chaos. Nobody knows who this guy was. All of these people are dead. And so it is a natural instinct, but I wonder if it's the correct instinct for to us try to fit it into some kind of template.
FALLOWS: I think of course you can do these things in a wrong way, in a dangerous way, in a prejudicial way. But you don't have to do them in that way.
I think, again, speaking in a previous segment, that you can give good speeches in reaction to tragedy, or you can give bad speeches in reaction. And so, too, you can ask questions making clear they are questions. And there are kinds of evidence we will look for, and you'll rule out from the beginning, we're saying we're not saying X, Y, and Z, we're not assuming any side is particularly to blame, but let's see -- when there are these national events, let's see what we can learn about them.
KURTZ: After you wrote about this question of political shootings going back to Sirhan Sirhan, going back to Lee Harvey Oswald, "The Weekly Standard" magazine criticized you, saying, "This was a shameless analogizing of Sarah Palin to the JFK haters of Dallas in 1963."
FALLOWS: Shockingly enough, "The Weekly Standard" is not fairly representing what I was saying. What I was saying is there were a number of political killings where you can't find any kind of logical connection at all, and there are others where you can ask, was there some connection between the mood of the times and the event?
And, for example, for a long time -- I lived in Texas for some while -- for a long time, people in Dallas asked whether the very vitriolic anti-JFK tone before his assassination had anything to do with that event even though Lee Harvey Oswald was a communist and wasn't part of that. So, too, we've been in a time of inflamed political rhetoric. It's legitimate to ask.
So I wasn't saying these are the same. I'm saying it's legitimate to ask.
KURTZ: OK. Let me put up on the screen a column this week from David Brooks of "The New York Times," get your reaction.
He says the following: "We have a news media that is psychologically ill-informed but politically inflamed, so it naturally leans toward political explanations. We have a news media with a strong distaste for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, and this seemed like a golden opportunity to tarnish them."
"We have a segmented news media, so there is nobody in most newsrooms to stand apart from the prevailing assumptions. We have a news media market in which the rewards go to anybody who can stroke the audience's pleasure buttons."
FALLOWS: Yes. And I think that, to me, the most significant part of that column which I basically agree with was the part about the segmented media. As it happens, both you and I work for media that are trying to appeal to what part of a center there is. And so it is not in our interests to say, OK, we're sure this person is to blame, this movement is to blame. A lot of other media outlets over the last generation have become more and more segmented politically, so it is --
KURTZ: That's how they make their money, that's how they get their ratings, that's how they get their circulation.
FALLOWS: Yes. And so it is natural -- it's natural that for a lot of people to say, OK, let's play this to one side of the politics, so I think the segmented point that David Brooks makes I agree with.
KURTZ: But he makes the overall point -- and obviously you worked for President Carter, so you come from a particular viewpoint -- the media have a strong distaste for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement.
Would you --
FALLOWS: When I worked for President Carter, you know, 30-plus years ago for a couple of years, that -- I think -- I bet you could find some people who worked for President Carter and still like Sarah Palin now. I've tried to -- I'm a Democrat --
KURTZ: This was all the point I was trying to make.
FALLOWS: Yes. I'm a Democrat. I've tried not to say, OK, therefore, I must oppose whatever the Tea Party does. And so I've tried to say, let's look at the political rhetoric of this time. Is there part of it which is violence-laden, is there part of it which is conspiratorial? And let's see whether we can do anything about that, whether it has any effect. KURTZ: Let me get a break in.
And when we come back, we'll talk about the coverage of gun control this past week on the other side.
KURTZ: In the wake of the Tucson shootings, there have been more stories appearing in the press the last couple of days about gun control.
And James Fallows, they've been very specific. They haven't been about gun control as broadly defined. There have been proposals in Congress to limit the size of ammunition clips so that somebody like the gunman in Tucson could not fire 30 shots before having to reload, which, of course, is when he was tackled. And then, almost in the second paragraph, third paragraph, fourth paragraph, it says but this is all moot because Congress isn't going to pass, this the NRA is too powerful.
Do you think that the media should stay on this subject, or does that amount to pushing an agenda?
FALLOWS: So, if you're asking for my own personal political preferences as a voter, as somebody who's lived around the rest of the world a lot of my life, one of the things which is most unusual about America in a negative way is the prevalence of guns and gun violence here. And so, personally, I'd be happy to see more controls, especially on these extended ammunition clips.
I think if journalists -- if their experience in the last, say, 50 years in American politics is in fact that these proposals are not going to get through Congress because the NRA is so powerful, that could just -- that could make them feel they're kind of pointlessly crusading, that unless they have want to have an actual civic crusade of running stories every single day about something they know is not going to pass, perhaps they're justified in this view.
KURTZ: Although journalists have had civic crusades in the past. I'm thinking the civil rights movement --
FALLOWS: Sure. Yes.
KURTZ: -- and, you know, anti-corruption efforts which led to some of the post-Watergate reforms. I'm not taking a stand on this issue, but I am wondering, you know, if journalists just say, well, this is not an issue -- it's not just the NRA. I mean, a lot of Democrats run away from gun control. Gabrielle Giffords, by the way, owned a gun and was not in favor of strict gun control. But sometimes political attitudes change if we bring an issue front and center, as opposed to just kind of taking it off our radar.
FALLOWS: Oh, sure. And I think this is -- you've raised one of the central questions of journalists who prize their objectivity and not being active participants in politics of there are times when just, inevitably, they are having political effects by their decisions to cover or not. And as you properly point out, there have been issues where journalists said we know that the weight of opinion is against us but we think X, YELLIN: , or Z is wrong. And I would be happy to see some news organizations saying we think there can be a change here and try to reduce the number of these killings.
KURTZ: One of my colleagues called the NRA for comment about this specific thing about the ammunition clips and the magazines, and the NRA not commenting right now in this time of tragedy. I would be interesting to see what is the objection to that particular reform.
Let's go back to the broader question. You know, many in the media, including me, including you in this dialogue with "The Atlantic" readers, talking about the need for more civil discourse, certainly not toning it down or neutralizing opinions.
Why, for people in this profession, has this been so hard to achieve?
FALLOWS: The toning things down? I think because partly, as we discussed earlier, the economic imperatives of our business are promoting a more sort of polarizing discussion --
KURTZ: Do you feel that pressure at all?
FALLOWS: I don't. But I'm in one of the organizations that is working towards a sort of informed middle ground.
KURTZ: OK. You feel like you're in an oasis?
KURTZ: But you look at the television business, or even the newspapers, certainly online, you want to get a lot of clicks, and taking a moderate tone or not using some of those metaphors -- I've even stopped myself in the last couple of weeks from using "so and so returned fire," the things that we all do instinctively. But you don't think that helps get an audience?
FALLOWS: Sure. I mean, anybody who writes on the Web knows that the more extremely you state your position, the more traffic you're going to get. And so that just is one of the realities.
And if you are judging what you do entirely by traffic generation, you'll be drawn more that way. But I think it's not -- it's part of the big mixture of opinions that's going on all the time. And so that's what I think.
KURTZ: You think it's a work in progress. I mean, look, none of us want to go out of business, and so you want to do things that attract an audience. And at the same time, you want to be responsible.
FALLOWS: Sure. And I think that the larger point here is for 200-plus years, American democracy has been a stew, a boiling stew of different opinions. There have been times when it's been more fractious, more embittered, and times when it's been more pulled together. And so I think we need constantly to push for the more calm, more pulled together opinion, without thinking this is ever going to be resolved, you know, forever.
KURTZ: James Fallows, thanks very much for stopping by this Sunday morning.
Up next, the Tucson tragedy prompted Chicago anchor Bill Kurtis to make a very personal disclosure on his newscast. How journalists talk about mental illness, in a moment.
KURTZ: Bill Kurtis, the veteran anchor at the CBS station in Chicago, is a Windy City institution, and this week he spoke out about something both personal and painful, prompted by the media furor surrounding Jared Loughner and the shootings in Tucson.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL KURTIS, WBBM-TV: My son was schizophrenic. And I've been listening of course over the weekend and trying to draw parallels.
One, he showed a dramatic personality change at 19. I was told by doctors that at 19, something happens in the brain to turn off a chemical, perhaps. I was told my son went nonviolent and that he was no danger, but 10 percent of the crimes are committed by mentally ill people who do turn violent.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Kurtis's son Scott died a year and a half ago at the age of 38.
The WBBM anchor joins me now from Chicago.
Bill Kurtis, welcome.
KURTIS: Good morning, Howard.
KURTZ: Good morning.
How difficult was it for you to go on the air and talk about this?
KURTIS: Well, it kind of came out, frankly. We're beyond emotion, if you will.
I think everybody -- those who live with this situation, the kind of situation where family, friends, especially parents reach a point where they realize their children will never be normal, never marry, never do the things that we expect them to do, and kind of have to go into a survival mode. So I felt that I could draw parallels, if you will, and be able to look at it from a unique perspective, because I was seeing all kinds of similarities. And of course he has to go through a psychiatric evaluation, but there are commonalties -- a rejection of authority, marijuana use, strange thoughts, ramblings, both in video and writing it down, the use of inappropriate smiling and laughing as if there is a third party in the room, and you and he aren't the only ones.
My son said, "Dad, you talk to me over the television and radio." And I said, "Well, that's my job." And he said, "No, no, no. When the television set is off."
KURTZ: I see.
But as a public figure, Bill -- I mean, you're a long-time Chicago anchor, you've been a CBS morning anchor, you've worked for A&E -- why did you feel before that this was just too private to discuss?
KURTIS: I didn't want to exploit it. Primarily, I felt that my son should have that decision. If he wanted to talk about it, he should.
It's a stigma. If he didn't want to live with it, and everybody pointing fingers at him, he shouldn't have to.
Now I think it's time to remove the stigma and let people know that they are not alone. That's certainly been the response that I've gotten from essentially three seconds of mentioning his name and the fact that he was schizophrenic, and the fact it's not their fault. They should -- we should all come forward.
KURTZ: Those few seconds obviously have sparked quite a debate. And I was going to ask you, of course, what kind of public reaction have you gotten from people who have watched you on the air for a long time?
KURTIS: It was picked up by a television critic here in Chicago, Rob Feder, then picked up by a blogger for "The New York Times" called "Parenthood," I believe -- "Motherlode." There are 80 of the most remarkable long blogs from doctors and other people who suffer this same problem, and really reaching out. And it is clear that people, first of all, don't understand.
To me, this isn't about political rhetoric. It's not about access to a gun. Those things should be examined, of course.
This is about mental illness. This is about a young man who was struggling inside, rejected by the military, rejected twice in trying to get -- he was trying to have a normal life, and he was caught in a cage.
KURTZ: And yet he obviously --
KURTIS: He went in a different direction. A tragic direction.
KURTZ: And yet, obviously the difficulty is in identifying such people who maybe haven't done anything wrong yet. What do you do? Do you force them into an institution? Can you take them off the streets? But you were careful to say, even in your initial remarks, that there isn't necessarily a direct link between schizophrenia and violence.
KURTIS: No. My -- and we had the best Menninger Foundation in Topeka. And I said, "Is he likely to cause harm to others?" And they said, "No, your son is of a more nonviolent."
Now, he had his run-ins with police because he hated authority. He tackled a deputy sheriff at one time and got into the criminal justice system.
KURTZ: He did?
KURTIS: Oh, yes. The mental health workers who are a dedicated lot because there's no real feedback, they -- there's Scott -- they took over and said, you know, "There's no use sending him to jail. Let us take him to a state hospital."
And he did. And he was in and out over a period of 20 years. So -- but, they said, you know, he doesn't look like those who will go assassinate someone.
Very difficult to identify, but more difficult for a parent to say, "I'm going to commit you to a state mental hospital," knowing that the stigma that it attaches will stay with him and make it hard to get a job if he is normalized by medication. One of the most difficult things in your life.
KURTZ: Absolutely. An awful decision to have to make. But a decision made, of course, out of love.
Given your all-too-personal experience with this, given the fact that you've now addressed it publicly, can you see yourself doing some original reporting in the area of mental illness?
KURTIS: I think so. I think I've tapped into a big, big, big strain there of a lot of people who are in pain and would like to know, what can I do?
Maybe we need some pressure to improve mental health treatment, because it's difficult to know where to go and difficult for them. You know, medication, we say they're not on their medication, or they're off their -- medication only suppresses the symptoms. There's no cure to this disease.
And in the case of my son, it caused weight gain. He went from a beautiful child, sweet, to 300, 350 pounds when he died, with his pancreas going, diverticulitis, diabetes, heart failure. He died of obesity. So the side-effects --
KURTZ: Very, very painful to talk about.
KURTIS: Yes, indeed.
KURTZ: All right. Bill Kurtis, we really appreciate your speaking out, and speaking out with us, about this very personal matter. Thank you very much.
KURTIS: Good to talk to you, Howard.
KURTZ: And still to come on this broadcast, lots to catch up on -- an ESPN announcer fired; a History Channel series killed; a high- level resignation at NPR; and some equal time for those who have been criticized on this program.
The "Media Monitor" is next.
KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," and the person we're going to start with is me. I get two thumbs down this week for mishandling a correction.
A few weeks back I asked Congressman Darrell Issa's office for an interview. The phone soon rang, I thought I was talking to Issa. I called him "Congressman" several times. I e-mailed his press secretary saying, "Thanks for getting me the congressman."
But it was some kind of misunderstanding. And after my "Daily Beast" story ran, the spokesman sent a note saying I had interviewed him, not Issa.
I still don't quite understand how this happened, but I know this: the cardinal rule is that when you get something wrong, you take responsibility and correct it right away. And I didn't. I let the correction slide, and that was a mistake.
A few other important media items have gotten overshadowed in the last couple of weeks.
ESPN often seems to operate as a male locker room. The latest case study, announcer Ron Franklin, who made some snide comments to sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards.
During a staff meeting, Edwards told "Sports by Brooks," the blog that broke the story, when she tried to join the conversation, Franklin said, "Why don't you leave this to the boys, sweet baby?" When she objected, he called her an expletive beginning with "A."
Now, ESPN put out a statement by Franklin saying, "I said some things I shouldn't have, and I'm sorry. I deserved to be taken off the Fiesta Bowl."
When that didn't quiet the furor, the network fired him. ESPN does get some points for taking a stand on this incredibly boorish behavior.
We told you last year how the History Channel had come under fire for planning a miniseries on JFK starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes created by an unabashed conservative. Historians were denouncing a leaked script for the "dramatization" that featured Jack Kennedy and at least a dozen extramarital sex scenes. Well, the History Channel has now caved, pulling the plug on the controversial project that, in my view, threatened to tarnish its image as place in real history. Showtime has also passed on the project.
You may have heard that the other shoe has dropped over National Public Radio's decision to fire Juan Williams over those comments about Muslims he made on Fox News. After an internal review of how this was bungled, Ellen Weiss, the top news executive at NPR, and the woman who dumped Juan over the phone, resigned under pressure.
Weiss defended the decision that ended her nearly three-decade career at NPR. Williams treated the development as good news .
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I'm amazed that anything good has come of this, because I thought they were having an in-house investigation that was just going to further disparage me in order to make them look good and justify that, you know, unjustifiable action they took against me which was just full of venom and bitterness.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: NPR's board penalized president Vivian Schiller, who approved the decision by canceling her bonus.
We like to provide equal time for those who are criticized on this program. Vanity Fair's Buzz Bissinger was pretty hard on Fox commentator Tucker Carlson for having said that quarterback Michael Vick should be executed for his role in a dogfighting ring.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUZZ BISSINGER, "VANITY FAIR": Tucker Carlson is a fake, a fraud, a farce, and an F-bomb. He only did that to self-aggrandize himself. He is desperate for attention.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: I thought Carlson might punch back, but instead, he backed off his original and somewhat outlandish comments.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hyperbole?
TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: This is what happens when you get too emotional.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm asking.
CARLSON: And I did.
Look, the bottom line is I'm a dog lover. I've had dogs my whole life. We have three of them now. I love them, and I know a lot about what Michael Vick did, what he admitted doing.
And I'm not going to get into it on the show because it's too upsetting, frankly. But if you take some time -- anybody who takes the time to look into how he mistreated these dogs and personally tortured them to death gets upset. And I overspoke.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: As appalling as Vick's crime was, we're glad Tucker realizes he went too far.
"TIME" magazine's Joe Klein took a swipe at MSNBC's Ed Schultz on this program last week, and this week, Big Ed swung back. Here's how it went down.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE KLEIN, COLUMNIST, "TIME": I was on Ed Schultz's show to discuss Afghanistan. I was just back from there. It is the most complicated issue imaginable, and the guy writes down on a piece of paper, "Get out now" and holds it up in front of the screen. That's so stupid and it's so unworthy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCHULTZ: Stupid? Unworthy? Well, you see, my opinion that we should get out of Afghanistan is not stupid and it certainly isn't unworthy.
And most Americans, interesting enough, they've had enough details about your reporting. They want to get out too.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: With all due respect -- we're into civility here -- I don't think Klein was criticizing Schultz' stance on the war as much as the brevity of his argument.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.