updated 11/5/2007 3:25:32 PM ET 2007-11-05T20:25:32

Guests Stephen Colbert, Howard Kurtz

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  And welcome again.

Later we’ll talk with “Washington Post” media reporter Howard Kurtz about his new book “Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War”.

But first, recently on MEET THE PRESS we had the first television interview with the latest entry into the presidential race, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert.

Let’s listen.


RUSSERT:  This is what the world watched on Tuesday night.


STEPHEN COLBERT, “THE COLBERT REPORT”:  Well, after nearly 15 minutes of soul searching, I have heard the call.

Nation, I shall seek the office of the president of the United States.


COLBERT:  I am doing it!


RUSSERT:  We know you’re doing it...


RUSSERT:  ... but why are you doing it?

COLBERT:  I’m doing it, Tim, because I think our country is facing unprecedented challenges in the future.  And I think that the junctures that we face are both critical and unforeseen.  And the real challenge is how we will respond to these junctures, be they unprecedented or unforeseen, or, God help us, critical.

RUSSERT:  You’ve thought this through.

COLBERT:  That’s a generous estimation.  Thank you.

RUSSERT:  The press reaction to your announcement has been mixed. 

Here’s one headline.


RUSSERT:  This was on Thursday.  “Electile Dysfunction: Colbert Running For President.”

COLBERT:  That’s good work.  That’s good work.

RUSSERT:  Are they questioning, shall we say, your stamina?

COLBERT:  I don’t know.  I think a lot of people are asking whether—they say is this—is this real, you know?  And to which I would say to everybody, this is not a dream, OK?  You’re not going to wake up from this, OK?  I’m—I’m far realer than Sam Brownback, let me put it that way.

RUSSERT:  Authenticity’s important to the voter.

COLBERT:  Absolutely. You’ve got to—you’ve got to convey to them that you mean what you say, and that you’ve put some thought into what you do.

RUSSERT:  Many people in your family and you used to be Colbert (pronounces it Colburt).

COLBERT:  Right, yes.

RUSSERT:  You are now Colbert (pronounces it Colbare).


RUSSERT:  I would be Russert (pronounces it Russare)?

COLBERT:  Russert.  Russert (pronounces it Roosare). Yes.

RUSSERT:  OK.   “Sesame Street.”  There are two characters...

COLBERT:  Is this...

RUSSERT:  ... Ernie and...

COLBERT:  And Bert.  Ernie and Bert.



RUSSERT:  Then why aren’t you Colbert?

COLBERT:  Are you saying that I don’t have the right to drop the T in my name?  Are you saying that?  Last time I checked, this was America.  Or does that mean not a thing to you anymore?

RUSSERT:  Then why not call him “Ber”?

COLBERT:  Because that’s his choice.  You’ll have to ask him.  I dare you.

RUSSERT:  Are you...

COLBERT:  Ask him.  Right now.

RUSSERT:  But why did you change your name?

COLBERT:  I changed my name because I knew that there were people out there who—who needed Ts.

RUSSERT:  Not comfortable in your own skin?

COLBERT:  Oh, I’m extremely comfortable in my own skin.  I’m comfortable in other people’s skin.

RUSSERT:  Why are you running only in South Carolina?

COLBERT:  Because I believe that it’s the greatest state of the union, I believe there are things that—I believe I can make a difference there.  I think it is time to focus on South Carolina.  Florida tried to jump South Carolina’s primary date for both the Republicans and the Democrats.  I want to put the focus back on South Carolina.  I want it to be a permanent thing.

I don’t want Iowa and New Hampshire to be the only people in the United States who get to control who is a bellwether state.  And if Iowa and New Hampshire don’t like that, they can take some of that Iowa corn and stick it right up their Dixville Notch.

RUSSERT:  You—yet another attempt at humor, Mr. Colbert.  You say...

COLBERT:  Oh, I’m serious. 

RUSSERT:  Are you...

COLBERT:  I’m serious.

RUSSERT:  Are you a son of South Carolina?


RUSSERT:  You know a lot about the state?


RUSSERT:  What’s the state amphibian?

COLBERT:  The state amphibian?


COLBERT:  It’s my dog Cookie.

RUSSERT:  No, no, it’s not.

COLBERT:  She swims, and she goes on land.

RUSSERT:  It’s the spotted salamander.

COLBERT:  That’s the easiest—what’s the state flower, sir?  What’s the state...

RUSSERT:  Go ahead.  Go ahead.

COLBERT:  The confederate jasmine, also known as the yellow jasmine.

RUSSERT:  Well done.

What’s the state motto?

COLBERT:  Dum spiro spero.

RUSSERT:  Which means?

COLBERT:  While I breathe, I hope.  Come on!  I thought you had better researchers!  You can’t nail me with harder things than this?

Did you know the South Carolina Democratic electorate is half black? 

Did you know that?

RUSSERT:  I did.

COLBERT:  I have said publicly that Rosa Parks is overrated.

Why the softballs?  Why aren’t you nailing me here?  Don’t treat me like Cheney.  Come after me.

RUSSERT:  I will.  And I have.

COLBERT:  All right.  Let’s do it.

RUSSERT:  Are you a liberator?

COLBERT:  Excuse me?

I believe I will be greeted as a liberator in South Carolina.

RUSSERT:  The mandatory presidential campaign book, all the candidates seem to have them.  Yours is out, “I Am America (And So Can You!)”.

On Iraq, this is what you say.  “Once again, God won the war.  He just doesn’t occupy very well.”


RUSSERT:  God’s on our side in Iraq?

COLBERT:  I would say he’s not on their side.  Do you—do you think he’s on our enemy’s—do you think he’s on our enemy’s side?

RUSSERT:  I’m only asking—I’m asking the questions.

COLBERT:  No, you’re implying.  These are your words.  Not mine.

RUSSERT:  These are your words from your book.

COLBERT:  But your words are certainly in your question.  You’ll have to grant me that.

RUSSERT:  So God’s not an occupier?

COLBERT:  He just didn’t occupy very well in Iraq.

RUSSERT:  You know, if you look at the voting blocs that exist in South Carolina and around the country, I’m quite surprised the way you treat them in this book.

COLBERT:  What do you mean?

RUSSERT:  Senior citizens?  This is what you call them, old people.

“Sorry, but retirement offends me.  You don’t just stop fighting in the middle of a war because your legs hurt.  So why do you get to stop working in the middle of your life just because your prostate hurts?”

COLBERT:  Well, Tim, I just don’t understand pensions or Social Security.  Why do you get paid after you stop working?  That doesn’t make any sense to me.

RUSSERT:  Abolish Social Security?


RUSSERT:  Abolish Medicare?


RUSSERT:  Abolish all pensions?

COLBERT:  Abolish tipping waiters and waitresses, because I’ve gotten my food.  They get paid by the hour.  Why am I giving them extra money?  That’s all pensions and Social Security are.  It’s a tip at the end of your life.

RUSSERT:  Senior voters gone.  Now fathers.  Again, your words, your book.  “The father.”

“America used to live by the motto ‘Father knows best.’  Now we’re lucky if ‘Father Knows He Has Children.’  There’s more to being a father than taking kids to Chuck E. Cheese and supplying the occasional Y-chromosome.  A father has to be a provider, a teacher, a role model, but most importantly, a distant authority figure who can never be pleased”?

Are you a presidential candidate who speaks to your children?

COLBERT:  Oh, absolutely.

RUSSERT:  Do you think candidates should speak to their children?

COLBERT:  If they have them.  I don’t think that you have to have children to be a presidential candidate.  It might actually help to, you know, move in a quickened light.

RUSSERT:  The mother, another source of...

COLBERT:  I love my mother.  You’re not going to—you’re not going to attack me for loving my mother, are you?

RUSSERT:  You attack all mothers in your book.  Again, your words, Mr.

Colbert.  And here they are.

“Scientists have proven, one assumes, that every flaw in a child can be traced back to a mistake made by the mother.  As adults we’re all imperfect, so that means all mothers are incompetent.  But some mothers are worse than others.  Take women who work.  If you work outside the home, you might as well bring coconut arsenic squares to the school bake sale.”

Doesn’t Hillary Clinton work outside the home?

COLBERT:  I believe she does, yes.

RUSSERT:  Are you talking about her?

COLBERT:  I’m talking about all mothers who don’t spend all their time thinking about their children and nothing else.

RUSSERT:  Women should be out of the work force?

COLBERT:  No, they can be in the work force as long as they bring their children with them.  That’s all I mean to imply.

RUSSERT:  Gay marriage.


RUSSERT:  This is, again, from the Colbert Bible.


RUSSERT:  “The biggest threat,” you say, “facing America today—next to socialized medicine, the Dyson vacuum cleaner and the recumbent bicycle.”


RUSSERT:  That—to you, that means it’s a serious threat to our culture.

COLBERT:  Right.  It’s...


COLBERT:  Excuse me?


COLBERT:  Why is gay marriage?

RUSSERT:  Mm-hmm.

COLBERT:  Marriage is the basic building block of society.  And if gay men get married, that threatens my marriage immediately because I only got married as a taunt toward gay men because they couldn’t.

RUSSERT:  So it makes you feel insecure.

COLBERT:  Well, I just don’t know else—why I got married other than to rub it in gay people’s faces.

RUSSERT:  Would you consider Senator Larry Craig as your running mate?

COLBERT:  I would.

RUSSERT:  Have you had conversations with him?

COLBERT:  Define “conversation”.

RUSSERT:  Have you spoken to him?

COLBERT:  No, no.

RUSSERT:  Have you met with him?  Have you been in the same room together?

COLBERT:  Yes.  And my...

RUSSERT:  And how...

COLBERT:  Sorry, my lawyer’s telling me to say no more.

RUSSERT:  And we’ll be back with more of Stephen Colbert.  Wait until you hear who is favorite president is, just after this.



RUSSERT:  And we are back with more of Stephen Colbert, the latest candidate into the race for White House.  This candidate has some unique political views, as expressed in his new book, “I Am America (And So Can You!)”.

Yes, that’s the real title—“I Am America (And So Can You!)”.

Here again, Stephen Colbert to explain it.


RUSSERT:  Vanity Fair wrote this...

COLBERT:  It’s a fine news magazine.

RUSSERT:  This is what they said: “Unlike many of his friends, Colbert did not return to Charleston, South Carolina after graduation”—from Northwestern, I might add—“instead staying in Chicago.  He cut a distinctly un-southern look: he wore black turtlenecks, had what he describes as a ‘Jesus beard,’ and grew his hair out.”

Now, NBC News’ MEET THE PRESS has researched this.

COLBERT:  Oh, I know all about your researchers.

RUSSERT:  Take a look at this picture.  That is you!

COLBERT:  Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT:  Do you deny it?

COLBERT:  I don’t deny it.  What good would it do me?

RUSSERT:  All right.  Do...

COLBERT:  My time away, my time away...

RUSSERT:  Do you—do you know a gentleman named Chip Hill?

COLBERT:  I’m familiar with Mr. Hill.

RUSSERT:  You’ve known him 30 years.

COLBERT:  I have, yes.

RUSSERT:  He’s godfather to your child.

COLBERT:  Yes, he is.

RUSSERT:  This is what Mr. Hill had to say: “When he was growing up, Colbert, according to Chip Hill, used to joke about how he ‘wanted to major in mass psychology and start a cult.’”

I want to see that picture again.  That’s a cult leader.

COLBERT:  Look, I don’t deny that my time away from the South has been a time in the desert for me, and...

RUSSERT:  Do you have Manson tendencies?

COLBERT:  Inclinations is as strong as I would go.  I don’t actually have a group of people who—who I can snap my fingers and have them attack people.

RUSSERT:  But you would like to be a cult leader?

COLBERT:  I did, at the time, want to be a cult leader.  I find that being a TV pundit is—is much more powerful, and you have to be less reliable.

RUSSERT:  But would being president be, in your mind, a cult leader?

COLBERT:  I don’t want to be president.  I want to run for president. 

There’s a difference.  I’m running in South Carolina.

RUSSERT:  You’d like to lose?

COLBERT:  I’d like to lose twice.  I’d like to lose as both a Republican and a Democrat.

RUSSERT:  And what statement would that make?

COLBERT:  I think that statement would make that I was able to get on the ballot in South Carolina.  And if I can do it, so can you.

RUSSERT:  In your office in New York City you have a large...

COLBERT:  You’ve been in my office.

RUSSERT:  ... a large poster of a president, don’t you?

COLBERT:  Richard Nixon.

RUSSERT:  Yes, indeed.

COLBERT:  1972.  Now more than ever.

RUSSERT:  Now, let me show you and our viewers what you said about that.  And here’s something Colbertophiles might not know or might not want to know:  He loves Richard Nixon.  He has a 1972 Nixon campaign poster on the wall of his office.

He points at it and says, “He was so liberal.  Look at what he was running on.  He started the EPA.  He gave 18-year-olds the vote.”

“His issues were education, drugs, women, minorities, youth involvement, ending the draft, improving the environment.  John Kerry couldn’t have run on this.  What I would give for a Nixon.”

COLBERT:  It’d be great.  It’d be great.

RUSSERT:  You love Richard Nixon.

COLBERT:  I have great warm feelings for Richard Nixon.  He was the first president that I was aware of, and I was a little upset with him because, when I would come home in the afternoons from school, instead of “The Munsters” or “The Three Stooges” on TV, it was Senator Sam Ervin.  And while his eyebrows were hilarious, they weren’t quite as good as Herman Munster.

RUSSERT:  Would you be Nixonian in your approach to the presidency?

COLBERT:  I’d be Nixonish or Nixonoid.  Is that like being Nixonian?

Define Nixonian.  Powerful?  Paranoid?  Fun-loving and gay?  Absolutely.

RUSSERT:  Is this a self-analysis?

COLBERT:  No, I don’t put myself on the couch.

RUSSERT:  But you are Nixonian.

COLBERT:  If you say so.

RUSSERT:  Well, you just did.

COLBERT:  Again, if you say so.  I don’t even listen to what I say.

RUSSERT:  Richard Nixon had a very difficult relationship with the media, as you well know.

COLBERT:  I have a very difficult relationship with the media.

RUSSERT:  That’s my point.

COLBERT:  Because I’m a member of the media, and I don’t trust us.

RUSSERT:  “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”  Do you remember that?


RUSSERT:  And I remember the White House correspondents’ dinner, April of 2006.

COLBERT:  I blacked out for most of that, but go ahead.

RUSSERT:  Stephen Colbert, at the presidential podium, the seal in front of him, and this is what he said to the Washington Press Corps.

Let’s watch.


COLBERT:  Write that novel you got kicking around in your head.  You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration?  You know, fiction.


COLBERT:  Yes.  That sounds familiar.

RUSSERT:  And why did you say that?

COLBERT:  I just had so much respect for the way the press supported the goals of the administration for the first four years.  And I was just so distressed that, at any point, they started standing up to the administration asking questions.  And I just couldn’t understand why they couldn’t go back to the good old days of 2001 to mid-2004.

RUSSERT:  Which did you prefer?

COLBERT:  I preferred when they didn’t ask any questions at all.  I mean, it was easier for the president to get things done, and that’s what he’s there for.

RUSSERT:  What do you watch, yourself, as a person preparing a run for the presidency?

COLBERT:  I watch my show to get a pulse for the nation.  I have to watch Jon Stewart’s show because he tosses to me at the end of his show.  I like “Grey’s Anatomy,” that’s a pretty good show.  I like Conan O’Brien.

RUSSERT:  These men you’re describing, aren’t they liberal?

COLBERT:  Jon’s—I would say Jon has had some misguided statements.  I don’t think Conan’s liberal.  I don’t think Conan’s taken any political statements.

RUSSERT:  If you are trounced in South Carolina, I mean...

COLBERT:  All right, all right, here’s the attack.  Go ahead.  Yes.  All right.

RUSSERT:  Simple question.

COLBERT:  Yes, I’m trounced.

RUSSERT:  What happens then?

COLBERT:  Well, it’s proportional voting on the Democratic side.  All I need is enough votes on the Democratic side to get one delegate, and I’ll feel like I’ve won.  Because if, at the Democratic National Convention, somebody has to stand up and say, “The proud state of South Carolina, the Palmetto State, the home of the greatest peaches and shrimp in the world, casts one vote for native son, Stephen Colbert,” I’d say I won.

RUSSERT:  So you will not allow that Democratic convention to claim their nominee.  There will be no unanimous acclamation.


RUSSERT:  You’re going to stop that.

COLBERT:  Listen, why else run as a favorite son if you’re not going to broker a convention.  And if I get—if I get a delegate, it will be a brokered convention.  Unless they offer me to speak there, then maybe I would turn over my delegate.

RUSSERT:  Well, I’m going to ask you the same question I asked all the other Democratic candidates up in New Hampshire.  Will you pledge to stop the war in Iraq within the first—by the end of your first term?

COLBERT:  I think talking about ending the war in Iraq or any war sends the wrong message to our enemies.  I will say this, that I don’t think anyone else has said.  I have a plan to get us out of Iran.



RUSSERT:  Not Iraq?


RUSSERT:  Global warming, real?

COLBERT:  It’s real.  Yes, Al Gore’s movie made money, and therefore, the market has spoken.  Global warming is real.  I just don’t think we should do anything about it.

RUSSERT:  And you’re for abolishing Social Security...


RUSSERT:  ... Medicare.  Is there any other issues that are important to you that you want to frame?  Here’s your chance, Mr. Colbert.

COLBERT:  Gosh, I hit the peaches—I hit the peaches part.  That’s really going to be the cornerstone of my campaign.  It’s pretty much peaches, South Carolina peaches.

South Carolina first, South Carolina always.

RUSSERT:  Stay with us for more as Stephen Colbert goes out of character and reflects on his real job and his real family.



RUSSERT:  And we are back with more of Stephen Colbert, but this time the father and the son, not the actor.


COLBERT:  Hi, Tim.  How are you?  It’s so great to be here.

RUSSERT:  How do you prepare for your show?

COLBERT:  I read a lot of newspapers and watch a lot of news.  And I’ve got 12 really great writers.  And then we chop wood all day long.

We show up, you know, exasperated or angry about something and we try to turn that into jokes six hours later.

RUSSERT:  I read a wonderful quote from you.  You were talking about humor, and particularly after September 11, 2001.


RUSSERT:  And you said, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.”

COLBERT:  That’s not a philosophical statement.  I think it’s a physiological statement.  When you laugh, you’re not afraid.  And sometimes you laugh because you’re afraid, but when you laugh the laughter goes away.  And it’s not just whistling past the graveyard.  It actually just goes away when you’re laughing.

And that’s why I think—I don’t think I could ever stop what I’m doing, because I laugh all day long.  And if I didn’t, I would just cry all day long.

RUSSERT:  You have three kids, and you said you don’t want them to watch your show because you want them to know you, dad.

COLBERT:  Right.  Right.

Yes.  Also, two reasons.  One is, you know, I’m insincere on the show.  My character’s very sincere, but, you know, I look like their dad and I sound like their dad pretty much.  I shout more than their dad, hopefully.

But I just say things I don’t mean.  And a child just is not going to know that’s a character, and they’re going to think that I don’t mean it when I say that I’m proud of them, or I don’t mean it when I say that I love them.  And  I’m going to tuck them into bed one night and I’m going to say, “I love you, honey.”  And they’re going to say, “That’s good, dad.  That’s very dry.”

RUSSERT:  Is it hard going in and out of character?

COLBERT:  No.  No.  You know, I started at “Second City” in Chicago, and the rule there, the old—the old saying was, wear your character as lightly as a cap.  You know, you can take them on and off as you need.

And on the show, too.  Like, I’ll have—I’ll have on, you know, someone who’s there to talk about genetics or something, and I’ll dial the character down very low.  And we’ll have Tom DeLay on, and I’ll dial him up as I as I can.  So it’s a sliding scale, depending on the situation.

RUSSERT:  But it is interesting.  In your program you’re not afraid to take on the press corps or the president, issues.  You do it in a humorous way...

COLBERT:  Right.  There are no consequences.

RUSSERT:  But you’re still informing, educating and entertaining people.

COLBERT:  Well, that’s—you have to get—you have to get the education out for people to get the joke, because the playing field we’re on has got to be laid out for them.  And so if they don’t understand the news story, they’re not going to get the joke.

And I think a lot of people—you know, people say young people get their news from Jon Stewart and myself and other late night people, but I think they wouldn’t get the joke if they didn’t know some of the news already.  I think those studies are a little off.

RUSSERT:  Before we go, you’ve got a terrific mom.  You talk about her all the time.


RUSSERT:  Say hello to her.

COLBERT:  Hi, mom.  Is this—hello.  Hi, mom.  I love you.

RUSSERT:  Happy birthday.

COLBERT:  Yes, not quite.  Almost.  I don’t want to rush it.

RUSSERT:  Stephen Colbert, thank you.

COLBERT:  Thanks so much for having me on.


RUSSERT:  Next up, a behind-the-scenes look at the workings and influence of network news.  I’ll be back talking to “Washington Post” media reporter Howard Kurtz about his new book, “Reality Show,” after this quick break.


RUSSERT:  And we are back with Howard Kurtz, media reporter for “The Washington Post”.

You watch his show on CNN.  He now has a new book out called “Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War”.  And the author is with us tonight.



RUSSERT:  Let me ask you about fake news.  We just saw Stephen Colbert.

KURTZ:  Right.

RUSSERT:  You write about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in your book.

What role impact is fake news having on American culture and news viewing?

KURTZ:  It’s having a lot of impact, in part because those two guys are so popular, obviously, with younger viewers who the network newscasts are dying to get.  They really want younger people to watch.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson are going to the fake news business.  But I believe that Jon Stewart in particular is having an impact on these more traditional newscasts because he does something that they’re starting to copy.  And that is using videotape to illustrate the absurdity of politics.

Remember the story about Hillary’s laugh?  She goes on five Sunday shows, one of them was yours.  Laughed a lot when tough questions came up.

Jon Stewart created that story.  Everybody picked it up.  It was played on the “CBS Evening News”.  That’s the kind of technique where he is having an impact on the mainstream media.

RUSSERT:  The cackle.

KURTZ:  The cackle, right.

RUSSERT:  Using videotape and saying to a politician, this is what you said, or this is what you didn’t say, but Stewart seems to string it together, as you say, pointing out sometimes the absurdity, sometimes the humor, sometimes an ideological point that he’s not afraid to make.

KURTZ:  There is no question that Jon Stewart is strongly against this war, gives the Bush administration a hard time.  Stephen Colbert says in his personal life, not the guy who plays the right wing blowhard on Comedy Central, that he is a Democrat.  And so I think they obviously have more appeal to younger liberal viewers.

But it really is a technique.  And, you know, look, having a little bit of fun with the news, not when it’s serious stuff, like people dying in Iraq or California wildfires, but having a little fun with the news is not the world’s worst thing in our culture today.  But it’s a technique that can be used to skewer liberals, as well as conservatives.

RUSSERT:  What about the notion of objectivity, that if you’re in the mainstream media, you’re supposed to say this is what we found today, this is one interpretation from a Democrat, this is one interpretation of a Republican?  Some are suggesting, throw that out.  You know what the truth is.  The truthiness is.  Tell the truth.

KURTZ:  That’s what I’ve been saying.

Well, I think there is still a place, and particularly in a cable universe occupied by so many people with so many often high-decibel opinions, for a network newscast to at least attempt to do it, to tell the story down the middle.  And that doesn’t mean you don’t make judgments.

Obviously, Tim, you make judgments about what you put at the top of the broadcast, what stories you don’t include.  I argue in “Reality Show” that the network newscasts still have the biggest megaphone around, played a key role in 2005 and 2006 in helping to turn public opinion against the war, not because the anchors are antiwar, not because the anchors are anti-Bush, but because they showed us the reality night after night of what was happening on the ground in Iraq despite administration criticism, despite administration pressure that they were being too negative, they were too focused on violence.

That’s the kind of reporting that can distinguish them because they have more time to prepare these reports than the cable networks do from all of the cacophony out there.

RUSSERT:  Do you think or did you find any evidence that it was a calculated decision by the networks to turn on the war?

KURTZ:  I don’t find that at all, although it was a calculated decision by NBC to use the term “civil war,” and that was controversial last fall.  But I do think that it was the accumulation of what frankly was bad news from Iraq night after night, and also the way that the anchors framed the story.  Again, not in overly opinionated way, but, you know, we all got sort of deadened to the nightly body counts.  And there’s no question that viewers suffered from Iraq fatigue.

So, when Brian Williams on NBC talked about how coffin makers in Baghdad couldn’t keep up with the demand because there were so many causalities, when Charlie Gibson on ABC took a figure for Iraqi civilian deaths in the previous two-month period, 6,600 and said—looked into the camera and said, “You know, in American terms that would be 75,000,” when Katie Couric went to Iraq just in September and found that some modest progress is being made in some areas, she got criticized from the left on that.  Anyway, these are all ways in which the anchors, I think, shape their newscasts.  Again, not in an opinionated way, not in a truthiness way, but in a way to cut through the clutter and tell us what is happening in that war.

RUSSERT:  I watched you explaining this to Jon Stewart, and he challenged it, saying, well, no, why would you say that?  They should be reporting those stories, and they should have been reporting those stories sooner than they did.

KURTZ:  I certainly heard from a number of liberal commentators that the problem with the networks was that they were not skeptical enough during the run-up to war.  And I think most news organizations would acknowledge that—if we had it to do over, we should have been a little more skeptical, a little more aggressive about the way the administration sold that war.  But now I think news organizations have been redeeming themselves to some degree.  And it’s interesting.

I mean, Jon Stewart I think feels very passionately.  This was not a time when he was trying to be funny.  He feels very passionately that news organizations need to tell us the truth.

But the problem is, what is the truth?  Is the truth that the surge is working, or it’s having only modest progress, or it’s not having any impact at all at the political situation in Baghdad?  That’s a hard thing for journalists to say they have a monopoly on.

RUSSERT:  It was interesting when I had a chance to talk to Jon Stewart myself.  I told him of an interview with Vice President Cheney the Sunday before the war where he made several judgments.

I asked him about the number of troops necessary.  General Shinseki saying he needed 500,000.  He said that’s wildly off the mark.

I asked about the cost of the war.  According to Lawrence Lindsey, the former budget director, of $200 billion.  He said that’s too high.

I asked about the certainty of weapons of mass destruction.  He said absolutely.

I asked about sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis.  He said anywhere in the world, it’s not going to happen in Iraq.  We’ll be greeted as liberators.

There were no right or wrong answers at that time but there were judgments being made.

KURTZ:  Right.

RUSSERT:  They have proven to be wrong, but what do you do at that moment?  Say, “I’m sorry, you’re wrong”?

KURTZ:  Well, that’s the thing.  I mean, conservatives have been criticizing the media for 30 years.  And indeed, the surveys show that Republicans have a lot less confidence in network news than do Democrats.  I think that’s a problem, in fact, for network news organizations.

But now liberals feel that interviewers, reporters, people like you, if a President Bush or a Dick Cheney or a Don Rumsfeld says something that is arguable in defense of the war, that you should lean across the table and say you’re wrong, that you should be a debater.  In effect, that you should be a partisan.  And that is not the role of journalists.

Now, Jon Stewart can do that because he leavens it with humor.  And it’s interesting the degree to which personality plays a role in these newscasts.  So, for example, I talk about the coverage of the war.  But Brian Williams has been urged by some of his friends and colleagues at NBC to show more of his personality—very funny guy off the air.

Is it an accident that Brian Williams is not only funny on “The Daily Show,” but he’s going to be hosting “Saturday Night Live”?  I think that’s—I think—you know, some people say, oh, Walter Cronkite would never do that.  I think it’s fine if he’s funny.

But I also think that you can have fun on Saturday night and come back on Monday night and anchor the news and do it in a more serious way.

RUSSERT:  Ted Koppel had The Muppets on.

KURTZ:  That’s right.  And nobody accused him of not being a serious newsman.

RUSSERT:  We’re going to take a quick break.

Our guest, the author Howard Kurtz.  The book, “Reality Show”.

We’ll be right back.


RUSSERT:  “Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War” by Howard Kurtz.

You mentioned conservatives have problems you think with the mainstream news organizations.

KURTZ:  Gallup polls show that 65 percent of Democrats think Katie Couric is doing a good job as CBS anchor, only 36 percent of Republicans.  There are similar but smaller gaps for the other anchors.  And so even if that’s just a perception problem, that’s a hell of a perception problem for these big news organizations.

RUSSERT:  Do they like FOX News?

KURTZ:  Well, a lot of conservatives love FOX News.  They feel that FOX News fills a gap that wasn’t there before.  They feel that all of the mainstream media, the big newspapers and so forth, lean to the left, and they think that FOX tells it straight.

A lot of other journalists might question that, but I’m glad there’s a FOX News.  I’m glad there are a million Web sites and bloggers that we can get information from, that can criticize us, even though sometimes it stings a little bit, because, you know, I wouldn’t want to go back to the days of the three-channel universe.

I mean, I liked getting my news from Walter Cronkite when I had a black and white TV, but there ought to be a lot more voices out there now.  But this is, of course, part of the problem that the anchors face.

They come on once at night at 6:30.  They’ve got half an hour at a time when we all are very accustomed to getting all of our news instantaneously almost anywhere.

RUSSERT:  But what about this notion that it’s one thing to be a pamphleteer, to be a crusader for a cause, it’s another to be a journalist trying to find out what happened that day and present it in an objective way and let people draw their own conclusions?

KURTZ:  It’s interesting.  There’s a great debate now in the media world, Tim, about whether or not people want that kind of—let’s call it straight news or news that just reinforces what they already believe.

No, I found some instances in this book with stories that were unfair to President Bush or stories that I thought leaned to the left.  But I also found anchors and correspondents trying to give the White House a fair shake, sometimes getting criticized by the White House.

And I found some news organizations internalizing the White House criticism so that correspondents like Lara Logan on CBS would be asked -- and she just won an Emmy for her coverage from Iraq—did you find any good news stories from Iraq?  Can you find some feature stories from Iraq?

How about doing a story on the Iraqi soccer team?  And after that suggestion was made by a CBS executive, the next day a kid on the Iraq soccer team was killed by a stray bullet.  So it shows that even when you try to show things that are a little more positive, sometimes war and reality can intervene.

RUSSERT:  So what is the future of network news?

KURTZ:  Well, a lot of people would ask whether there is a future, Tim.  I happen to believe network news will stick around because I think there is a role for this kind of reporting.  But I think it has to change.

If you’re only coming on once a day—obviously it has to have a greater presence on the Internet.  That’s where a lot of the media are moving.  But if you’re only coming on once a day and you somehow have got to compete with these cable networks that are on all the time, you have to find a way to do things a little differently.

Katie Couric made some changes at CBS—the audience did not like that -- and has gone back to a more traditional hard news format.  But if the anchors of these broadcasts can’t find a way to make their broadcasts more compelling, and also to do it in a way that it doesn’t just appeal to people who are 60 and 70 years old—there’s so much coverage of all these terrible disease you get when you get older—then I think that’s slow suicide, because eventually their audience is going to die off.

RUSSERT:  So what do you do when you say make changes and make it more compelling?  Does that mean more analysis, more interpretation?

KURTZ:  I think, first of all, it means more original reporting.  I was surprised at the degree to which I found that I could predict what be at the top of these newscasts by reading the front page of “The New York Times”.  I do think that taking more chances, taking more risks.

If newscasts become predictable and they don’t break new ground, and they don’t challenge themselves, and they don’t inject a little humor, and they don’t cover pop culture a little more, then I think they run the risk that we can get that elsewhere.  I’m a big believer in network news.  I don’t think they’re dinosaurs.

Twenty-five million people a night watch these programs.  But that’s a lot less than it was in the Huntley-Brinkley era, and I do think we would lose something if everybody just said, OK, we’ll let cable cover the news, there won’t be any network newscasts, because it’s the one place where people could come and try to get a sort of relatively unvarnished look at the facts.  But you’ve got to get people inside the tent in order to pull that off.

RUSSERT:  Twenty-five million is still probably the largest cumulative audience of any major media outlet.

KURTZ:  And that is why when Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for president last January, the first thing she did was let it be known that she would be available for interviews with Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson.  And in fact, she wanted those interviews to be about three and a half minutes with no editing, and Charlie Gibson did not like that and pushed back and said, we don’t even make that promise to the president of the United States.

They ended up compromising on a live interview instead of a taped interview.  But my point is, you’re running for president and you’ve got a cause, if you’re in Congress, you know that this is the biggest part of the media playground.  That doesn’t mean you ignore everything else out there and all the real-time aspect to it.

I think it’s a mistake—I would like to see the networks, when there’s a really big story like Katrina, like the California wildfires, break in to some of that lucrative entertainment program and cover it with their star anchors, with their front line correspondent, instead of leaving it all to cable.  They did a terrific job on the California fires, but they needed to be on more than just half an hour a day.

RUSSERT:  Take a minute on newspapers.  You work for a great newspaper, “The Washington Post”.  Do you confront similar challenges as the major networks?

KURTZ:  It’s very similar in the sense that our circulation which was going up for 20 years has now been going down.  Part of our problem is that we give away the paper every day for free on the Internet.

As a writer, I like that.  I get read all over the world.  People can click on it and not just buy it in the Washington  area.  As a business model though, it makes it more difficult to support the large staff that we have to cover not just the area, but the country and the world.

So newspapers also having a harder time connecting with younger people and trying maybe to take a page from Jon Stewart and not take ourselves quite seriously, do things a little differently.  But the action seems to be on the Net.  And that’s why Brian Williams is the only network anchor who does a blog every day.  I think that’s a step in the right direction.

ABC does a webcast, which is more informal, which deals more with technology topics, separate from the newscasts that we saw on the air.  Maybe that is part of the answer, that everybody’s got to play online because online is where the action is.  But I’d hate to see that be the only thing that the media world consisted of.  I hate to see the network newscasts and the newspapers go down the tubes, in part because I’d be out of a job, but in part also because I think it’s important to salvage that as a way of delivering information.

RUSSERT:  But—and it’s important to note that much of what you see on the Internet and on the blogs is derivative from what has been on the network news or in the major newspapers.  It’s reacting to and commenting on.

There’s some great independent work done on the blogs, don’t get me wrong.  But there’s an awful lot of discussion about what they saw or read in the major outlets.

KURTZ:  The liberal blogs and the conservative blogs love to kick around the MSM, the mainstream media.  And again, I think it’s wonderful and healthy and has kind of broken the stranglehold that a few organizations used to have on things.  But what are they talking about?  They’re talking about the stories that are being reported in the newspapers and on the networks.

If we all went away, it would just be a big spitball fight.

RUSSERT:  And what does that mean?

KURTZ:  Well, it means that the hard reporting about scandals in Congress, about what the government is doing about what’s going on in Iraq, is still being done by these dinosaur news organizations.  They’ve got to find a way to modernize what they’re doing and to be more compelling, particularly the younger people.  But they’re the ones doing the heavy lifting, Tim.

RUSSERT:  Another quick break.

Howard Kurtz is our guest and author of “Reality Show”.

We’ll be right back.


RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Howard Kurtz the author and our guest.  “Reality Show” the book.

You write a lot about the CBS transition from Dan Rather to Katie Couric.  Dan Rather, tell us about him.  What did you find in your research for the book?

KURTZ:  Look, Dan Rather has had a 44-year career at CBS, a long, illustrious and controversial career.  But I describe in some detail about the story that essentially cost him his anchor job, and that is the famous Memogate story, the story about  Bush and the National Guard documents.

To this day, Tim, I have a hard time understanding how somebody with his experience could have gone on the air with such a shaky story, with documents that even CBS now acknowledges cannot be authenticated, and then he ended up not just losing the anchor job—first succeeded by Bob Schieffer and then Katie Couric—but also being not a terribly popular figure with “60 Minutes” and then CBS not renewing his contract after all.

He comes off as a sad figure, I have to be honest, because he’s now suing his old network for $70 million.  Dan Rather doesn’t need the money.  What he wants is vindication.

He still thinks this story was accurate.  It may be true that George W.  Bush got favorable treatment from the National Guard.  But those documents, those suspect documents, do not prove it.

And Dan Rather just can’t let go.  He can’t move on.  So even his friends have said to me, why is he reminding America of the story that represented the low point of his career?

RUSSERT:  Were there—are there other people involved with the story who support him and his version of an interpretation of the facts?

KURTZ:  Look, there are some—there are some hard-liners who believe that George W. Bush got this kind of favorable treatment.  But the problem is you can’t go on the air with a story about 30-year-old National Guard memos unless you can prove that they are real memos.  And all kinds of handwriting experts looked at this and warned CBS, we can’t validate this.  We can’t vouch for this.

It went on the air anyway.  In fact, rushed it on to the air within a five-day period.  And so, you know, we could argue about this endlessly, but I think for purposes of Dan Rather, he did apologize.  He took 12 long days in defending this story, defended the story with me on the phone several times.

He did apologize.  He now says he was pressured into apologizing by the CBS brass.  And so I just think that’s a tough sell at this point after the story was widely discredited.

RUSSERT:  You reported with a firsthand conversation with one of his producers that he threatened to leak the materials to “The New York Times”.

KURTZ:  It’s a remarkable scene, Tim.  Dan Rather was on the set of the “Evening News” a half an hour before air time, the day before CBS openly would air that story, and he picked up the phone and he called Josh Howard, the executive producer of “60 Minutes II,” and he said, are we running this story? And Josh Howard says, I can’t promote the story because we haven’t finalized it, we haven’t approved it.  We haven’t spoke to the White House yet.

And that’s when he threatened to leak some of those documents to “The New York Times” as a way to get our hooks into this story, Dan Rather said.  And to make sure that CBS got credit for it.  He was afraid he was going to lose the story.

You know, this is a problem we all face as journalists.  We’re very competitive.  We want to be first.  We want to be the guy who gets the front page scoop on the air first.  But when you—when you let that be the thing that drives you, sometimes you make mistakes.

And this case, it clearly was a mistake.  He didn’t end up leaking the documents to The Times because CBS did air that story.  And I think that’s one that CBS News would like to have back.

RUSSERT:  You were on the receiving end of barbs from the blogs because people said, Mr. Kurtz, that story appeared in a paperback edition of another book.  Why didn’t you acknowledge that?

KURTZ:  And I would have been happy to acknowledge that, Tim.  In fact, I am a fanatic about giving credit.

I never saw that paperback edition.  It didn’t get much coverage.  I got the—I got the story directly from a conversation with Josh Howard.  And I always give credit, but you’ve got to know about it, that the story was out there, in order to properly credit it.

RUSSERT:  Politics—you write about Mark Foley, the former Florida congressman involved in the Capitol Hill page scandal.

What lesson can be learned from the networks’ coverage of that story?

KURTZ:  Well, here’s a case where ABC was cautious.  And it’s interesting.

You know, when I try to take you inside the studio and inside the control room about the deadline pressures and the decisions that anchors have to make, Brian Ross, ABC’s chief investigative reporter, got a hold of one e-mail, a single e-mail from Congressman Foley to a 16-year-old page saying, send me a picture of you.  And the kid had written back to someone else this was sick, sick, sick, sick, sick.

The question was, do you go on the air with that?  And the story was taken to Charlie Gibson, who was a new anchor at ABC News.  And Charlie said that story is not strong enough to go on the air.  He feared that maybe he’d be ruining a congressman’s reputation based on a single e-mail.

Brian Ross then broke that story online, on ABC’s Web site.  It caused a huge explosion and the next day Congressman Foley was gone and he resigned.

Ten years ago, the story just wouldn’t have seen the light of day.  And that wouldn’t have been available as an outlet.  Of course, then we find out there were many, many, many more sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages.

So, it does show you that, to some degree, the networks still act as gatekeepers and have to make decisions about when a story is strong enough, even at the risk of losing it.  But it also shows that there’s a big, bad Internet out there that really can now be a very good way to put out a story that’s not ready for prime time, so to speak.

RUSSERT:  And the candidates are using their own Web sites and their own blogs in a way that can avoid scrutiny from the mainstream networks.  They want to put a video out, they want to put their positions out. 

They don’t want to come on and take tough questions.

Will they be able to succeed in circumventing the mainstream media and doing niche or targeted communication to their base?

KURTZ:  Well, let’s take Fred Thompson as an example.  I mean, he has done very few interviews of any type, and he seems to enjoy going on FOX News, and he always is interviewed by Sean Hannity.  What I would describe as friendly interviews.

And I don’t think he’s been on MEET THE PRESS, although I’m sure you’d like to have him.

But he has done a lot of his campaign online.  Of course, for a long time, he had this wonderful position of not really running, even though everybody knew he was going to be a candidate.

I think all of the candidates have learned that the Internet is a powerful instrument they can use to get around us.  I don’t think you can ultimately win a presidential nomination or win the election without dealing with the mainstream media, but I do think it is a way for candidates to develop their own channel, unfiltered, as they would put it.

Certainly Rudy Giuliani lately has been criticizing the “liberal media”.  That’s a popular phrase in a Republican primary in terms of his coverage.  But all the candidates don’t particularly like dealing with the press.

In a way, though, it’s really good training for what they deal with—would deal with as president.  I mean, in the White House, you’re under media scrutiny and media siege every single day.

RUSSERT:  You cannot make tough decisions unless you’re going to answer tough questions.  That’s the essence of the job.

KURTZ:  And I think that people out there, they don’t particularly like us.  Sometimes we look like we’re rude and overly aggressive and just obnoxious.  But we act as their proxy.

We try to ask these candidates tough questions.  Sometimes the questions are about things that aren’t terribly important.  But I think it is the closest that we can come—you see this in the debates as well—to candidates having to respond under pressure.  And that’s a way that people make judgments—how would this person respond under pressure in a real crisis, as opposed to having to, I don’t know, talk to somebody like you?

RUSSERT:  Howard Kurtz.  The book, “Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War.”

We thank you very much for coming on and sharing your views.

KURTZ:  Thanks, Tim.

RUSSERT:  And we’ll see you next week, right here on MSNBC.



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