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Media Notes: Howard Kurtz on the Sex Scandals of David Letterman and John Ensign

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If Letterman were the chief executive of a defense contractor, instead of a TV production company, would the media critics be so quick to let him skate on sleeping with the help? Fortunately for Dave, he's a likable guy who doesn't have to "go on Oprah and sob," as he joked -- he has his own nightly forum to try to repair his relationship with the audience.

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In a Rasmussen poll, 29 percent of those surveyed said they are less likely to watch the "Late Show" because of Letterman's admissions, while 5 percent said they are more likely and 63 percent it would have no impact.

America is a forgiving place when it comes to sexual matters. Eliot Spitzer, who hired prostitutes, has reemerged as a financial commentator, and ex-congressman Mark Foley, who sent sexually graphic messages to House pages, now has a radio show. In the end, it's Letterman's viewers -- not the media -- who will decide whether today's red-hot scandal becomes yesterday's yawn.

Engel's War

Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent, has kicked up a fuss with some decidedly pessimistic comments on the war in Afghanistan.

"I honestly think it's probably time to start leaving the country. I really don't see how this is going to end in anything but tears," Engel said last week on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." He added: "The idea of going in to nation-build and win hearts and minds, I think, over the long term is kind of a loser."

That sounds awfully opinionated for a working reporter, but Engel says in an interview that he wasn't "taking sides. If it came across that I was giving my opinion or advocating one particular policy or another, I was just trying to reflect what I'm seeing on the ground. . . . A lot of Afghans tell me that over the long term there can't be a military solution to this."

Engel, who recently returned from Kabul and is going back Tuesday, says he's "not a military commander" and that it is probably necessary to beef up U.S. forces in the short term. But, he says, "the idea of sending in more troops for a population that isn't asking for protection just seems problematic."

Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's "World News," takes issue with Engel's remarks: "The audience has to be convinced that our reporters are objective and unbiased, and I'd be concerned that expressing a personal opinion dilutes that, or worse."

Leaving Print Behind

Christina Bellantoni, White House correspondent for the Washington Times and a frequent television guest, has quit her job to join a liberal Web site.

Bellantoni says she was hired as "a really good political reporter," not a lefty commentator, by Talking Points Memo, whose readership has soared from 1.35 million unique visitors in May to nearly 2.1 million last month. TPM, founded by Josh Marshall, tapped Bellantoni to cover the White House and coordinate coverage for its new, four-person Washington bureau.

Other journalists have also flocked from print to online. TPM's editor at large is Matthew Cooper, Time's former White House reporter. As The Washington Post has downsized, assistant managing editor Bill Hamilton left for Politico and technology writer Jose Antonio Vargas jumped to the Huffington Post.

Is it odd for Bellantoni to land at TPM from the Washington Times, with its staunchly conservative editorial page? "Josh and I discussed this extensively," Bellantoni says. "There were similar concerns about the Washington Times, and I worked there for six years without really worrying about the guys who ran it and what their ideological leanings are."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."


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