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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2003; 12:00 PM

Consumers used to get their news from newspapers, magazines and evening broadcasts from the three television networks. Now, with the Internet, cable TV and 24-hour news networks, the news cycle is faster and more constant, with every minute carrying a new deadline. But clearly more news and more news outlets are not necessarily better. And just because the press has the ability to cover a story doesn't always mean they should -- or that they'll do it well.

Howard Kurtz has been The Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Howard Kurtz (washingtonpost.com)

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Arlington, Va.: When are we going to get a retraction from the New York Times about that silly story that Air Force One was spotted by a British Airways pilot on its way to Bagdhad? Even BA is denying that it happened!

washingtonpost.com: Pilots Didn't Radio Air Force One, Airline Says (Reuters, Dec. 2)

Howard Kurtz: Well, more than the NYT went with that story, and it was based on a White House account. So we have to wait and see how the administration responds to the British Airways denial before figuring out whether the whole thing was bogus.


New York, N.Y.: Howie -- USA Today reports the White House is peeved the network anchors aren't reporting from Iraq. As a former cable news junkie, I am relieved that Peter and Dan aren't cheering the war like their associates. Isn't this treading on dangerous ground by telling the media what it sure be doing? 22 minutes on CBS and ABC beats anything produced by the 24 hours channels. Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: No news anchors in Iraq has White House troubled (USA Today, Dec. 1)

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me the White House has plenty to do running the country as opposed to acting as an assignment desk for the networks. Besides, if the anchors went over there, as Rather did during the war, I wouldn't expect them to be acting as cheerleaders. The Bush team seems consistently unhappy with the media coverage out of Iraq, but as long as American soldiers keep getting attacked, that's going to be a continuing and important story.


Jacksonville, Fla.: In the aftermath of President Bush's trip to Iraq, there has been some debate about whether the journalists accompanying the President should have leaked the information. This sounds like sour grapes from those who weren't on the trip -- how does this differ from other embargoed news stories? Is it because journalists theoretically have a choice whether to follow embargos, and they did not have one here?

Howard Kurtz: The difference is that the reporters involved had to play along with a phony story - that Bush would be spending Thanksgiving at the ranch with his wife and parents. Even as the pool reporters were flying to Baghdad, TV correspondents were talking about the turkey menu in standups from Crawford. Is there also a bit of sour grapes to some of the criticism? Sure.


New York, N.Y.: Mr. Kurtz,

You wrote an article last week about how the candidates were getting tired of debating. I would like to say that I would actually like to see more debating -- especially in the general election. The one thing I would change however is that it would be better to have one topic per debate (i.e., the first debate would be aout tax policy, the next bout Iraq, etc). Although I know it will never happen.

washingtonpost.com: The Debate Over the Debates (Post, Nov. 26)

Howard Kurtz: It's not that they're tired of debating. It's that the top candidates are tired of sharing the stage with other contenders who have no chance of winning, making the debates more like joint appearances where each person gets only a few minutes of airtime. Once the field winnows to two or three, I don't think you'll hear any complaining about debates.


Bangor, Maine: I really enjoyed reading your column about Anderson Cooper. I just hope that, even if his show's ratings are not that big, he will keep his show for a long time.

I find that networks are somewhat impatient and do not give enough time for a show to developp an audience.

Finally, a fresh, new face that has not been formatted by network honchos to have a big deep voice, a "sexy look" and nothing else.

The best anchors are the ones that have seen the world...

washingtonpost.com: Tongue in Cheek, Hip On Camera (Post, Dec. 1)

Howard Kurtz: The networks are incredibly impatient. They should give some of these folks more time to develop a style and a following. People forget that Bill O'Reilly struggled in the ratings for a long time before breaking through.


Greenbelt, Md.: Good Day Mr. Kurtz,

I am completely flabbergasted at the corporate media's inept coverage of the President's turkey day redux of his aircraft carrier "mission accomplished" political stunt. The media was literally out there comparing his "exploits" to the patriotic likes of George Washington and Paul Revere.

Contrast this with the scant coverage of Senator Clinton's pre-Thanksgiving holiday visit to Iraq; not in a bunker, but hobnobbing with regular Irqui folk, at some real risk to herself.

My political nose smells she has tossed her hat in the ring and is about to cast aside her stumblebum primary opponents; what does your smell?

Howard Kurtz: No way. Hillary isn't running, at least in '04. She's denied it too many times. As for the Thanksgiving Day coverage, it ranged from upbeat to gushing. Some commentators acted like Bush had landed on the moon. It was a great morale-booster for the president to be able to visit the troops, but it was also a great big photo op, and having no access to him or his top aides, the cable nets just kept rerunning the footage of Bush giving his pep talk and holding the turkey platter.


Fairfax, Va.: In the post-Don Hewitt era, do you expect 60 Minutes to cave in to ratings pressure and become more like its rival magazine shows (Dateline, 20/20, etc.) in pursuing celebrity scandal, sensationalism and stories involving personal melodrama? Somehow, those endless promos that CBS ran telling viewers to "tune in and find out what Mike Wallace said that made (controversial ex-football player) Lawrence Taylor cry" seemed unworthy of that landmark program's lofty stature in the annals of TV news.

Howard Kurtz: I don't expect that. In part because of its Sunday time slot and in part because its audience doesn't expect tabloid fare, "60 Minutes" has largely resisted those pressures and hasn't gone down the let's-profile-Britney-Spears road.


San Diego, Calif.: Is everyone so afraid of this president that No One, not even Howard Dean, would utter the thought that it was just plain too dangerous for Bush to go to Baghdad? What if his plane had been hit on the way into Baghdad airport? Can you imagine the turmoil of passing the reins of leadership while the president was on a stealth mission? I think it was plain irresponsible on Bush's part.

Howard Kurtz: Bush himself, in briefing the pool reporters, said he had originally thought it was too dangerous and wouldn't have gone if he thought he was endangering anyone's life. Obviously it was a calculated risk, and just as obviously he pulled it off. Had something gone wrong, he'd be paying a big political price.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Hi Howard, I enjoy your column. I was wondering why so few political columnists over the weekend seemed to contrast the President's trip to Iraq to Senator Clinton's trip to Afghanistan? Is it simplistic to wonder if the President would have made that trip at all had a dreaded Clinton not decided to spend the holiday in a war zone?

Howard Kurtz: The White House had apparently been planning the Thanksgiving Surprise for several weeks, so I don't think it was tied to Hillary's visit. Clinton got some coverage - for all her fame, she is just one of 100 senators at the moment - and one reason she didn't get more is that she was restrained in her criticism of the administration.


New York, N.Y.: In your "red-meat" column today, you mention Dean's I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-yours remark on TV and the claim of a Texas state archivist that Bush's gubernatorial papers are available. Talk about red meat! Are any reporters yet digging through Bush's papers? If they are, shouldn't we be seeing more stories developing out of this?

washingtonpost.com: Dean's Red-Meat Diet (Post, Dec. 2)

Howard Kurtz: I think much of that digging was done during the 2000 campaign, when every investigative reporter on the planet went to Austin to dig into the Bush record. Now all the same journalists are descending on Montpelier. By the way, we don't know that there's anything embarrassing or particularly revealing in these Dean papers, though you have to wonder why he was hot to get them under seal.


Hillary's Visit to Iraq: I've already heard people comparing her to Jane Fonda for criticizing Bush in front of the soldiers. That's uncalled for. I don't like her much, and I thought she showed extremely poor judgment. But criticism of the President during wartime is not treason.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not clear, then, what the extremely poor judgment was. Lots of lawmakers, by the way, have visited war zones and have criticized administration policy. Besides, Senator Clinton's criticisms were relatively mild.


Oxford, Miss.: Since it's been brought up, I wonder when you think that people (in the public AND in the media) will get the picture that Hillary is not running for president this time around? I'm starting to suspect that we'll still be hearing rumors of her imminent campaign on Election Day.

Howard Kurtz: I think the media have a professional interest in keeping this speculation alive, because it's fun and because reporters would love to cover a Hillary presidential campaign. Conservative pundits in particular have been fanning the flames because they're just salivating at the idea of their least favorite former first lady jumping into the race. Looks like they'll have to wait until '08.


Hampton Roads, Va.: Howard, I've been reading a lot about the size of the Republican fundraising, and last week two Post reporters wrote about a massive email and registration effort. I'm reading a book about George Bush and Karl Rove (Bush's Brain) and the authors cite a Rove habit of appearing more powerful -- an example was appearing at high school debates with stacks of note cards, mostly blank but it looked like the knowledge of the world. A huge email address list is just that, only a list and campaign pledges are only promises. While the GOP may have a sizable edge, do you think this is really an effort to persuade the media -- and opponents -- that the campaign is invincible?

Howard Kurtz: To some degree, but the Republicans have raised a lot of money, and they did mount an impressive Get out the Vote effort in 2002. There's always some degree of boasting in these things, but getting your supporters to the polls is ultimately what elections are all about.


Ioannina, Greece: Do you think the story of Neil Bush's financial affairs has gotten adequate media coverage?

What he got up to in hotel rooms isn't any of the public's business, but it surely is some of the public's business if someone gets big contracts from China apparently on the strength of employing, or being, the President's brother.

Howard Kurtz: I'm surprised it hasn't gotten more coverage. Not just because of the prostitutes angle, but because it's based on legal depositions, not shadowy sources, which makes it an easier story for reporters to write.


Minneapolis, Minn.: How are we expected to respect news outlets and especially television broadcast ones as unbiased when on the day prior to Thanksgiving they were full of reports comparing Bush spending the day in Texas with the troops in the field and how this shows he doesn't care, and then when reports of his trip are made known, these same commentators spend the whole time demeaning the trip as a political stunt and one that means nothing to the war effort?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see many commentators deriding the trip as a political stunt, at least not on Thanksgiving. People were falling all over themselves about what a brilliant masterstroke this was, especially the parade of retired military types.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Why did MSNBC cancel Buchanan and Press? If it was due to ratings, that show is not the only show on that network with low ratings. This shows a problem with MSNBC in that they keep changing shows. They need to find one line-up and stick with it for a couple of years. It took Bill O'Reilly that long to get where he is.

Howard Kurtz: It's a pretty fickle network. I thought Buchanan and Press was a pretty good show, as these things go, and MSNBC had given it a better time slot at 6 pm. But now reports say it's looking for a woman (Connie Chung has already said no) to anchor a tabloid-style hour at 9 pm. Phil Donahue, Alan Keyes, John Hockenberry and many others have come and gone on the MS prime-time lineup.


Vermont: Can you explain, elaborate more on what is the idea behind "the pool." Does it happen often?

And, isn't it dangerous for democracy that, at one point, only a handful (the chosen ones) can follow the President?

Howard Kurtz: The pool is a rotating group of journalists, and its use is utterly routine. Basically, the pool is used when the setting is small or sensitive enough that you can't have 50 reporters and cameramen tromping in. For example, when Bush meets foreign leaders in the Oval Office, a few pool reporters are there but not everyone in the White House press corps. Pool reporters are then duty-bound to share their notes and TV footage with the rest of the White House press so that no one is at a disadvantage. On the Baghdad trip, for example, Mike Allen of The Post wrote an incredibly detailed pool report that everyone else used for their stories.


New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Re: your column today quoting "Newsweek": How much buzz would be generated by the announcement that the Democrats will nominate a ticket of Shania Twain and Nicholas Cage? (Notwithstanding her being Canadian and his being, well, Nick Cage...)

It will at least knock the Jacko/Kobe/Peterson circuses off the tube for a day or two, no?

Howard Kurtz: I was thinking more along the lines of Al Franken and Rob Reiner. Let's get real here.


Washington, D.C.: While reading the post.com story yesterday about the international media's reaction to the President's Thanksgiving trip, I noticed that every single one of the Muslim sources cited used the phrase "under cover of darkness" to impugn the visit -- those exact words, in every story.

I'm not especially a Bush fan myself, but this seems to me like a created phrase to manipulate the debate, much like the Republican party would try to get everyone talking about the "death tax" or "school choice." Do you have an opinion on this, or is it a non-issue?

washingtonpost.com: Muslim Online Media See Bush Visit as PR Stunt (washingtonpost.com, Dec. 1)

Howard Kurtz: You're certainly right about phrases like "death tax." But I'm not smart enough to figure out how Karl Rove & Co. could have persuaded all these various Muslims to use their preferred lingo.


Louisville, Ky.: And yet Scarborough's fare remains. Does he have an audience? I was particualrly appalled with a show that devoted 10 or so minutes to Frank Rich's column on HBO's Angels in America in which he and his talking heads weren't even aware the thing was a Pulitzer and Tony-winning play.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what former representative Joe Scarborough's ratings are. But I wonder if MSNBC will ever offer a former Democratic congressman a show.


Washington, D.C.: I have heard Dean say that the formats of the debates are not the best, you cannot explain in 60 seconds how you will fix the economy, let alone rebut an attack from another candidate. He did mention a format that sounded good, where you get grilled by news people for about 30 or 40 minutes, where attacks are not as quantiful. I believe it happened in Oklahoma. I think this would give everyone a true sense of the candidate. Is this a possibility in the general election? If not, how can it become one?

Howard Kurtz: There have been debates (usually 1 on 1) where candidates have basically fielded questions from a TV moderator (Larry King and Tim Russert come to mind). But that, of course, sparks complaints that the debate is too much about the TV personality and not the candidates themselves. Basically, any format that the campaigns can agree upon is fair game.


Minnesota Point: Howard Kurtz: the great Bush turkey photo-op may have been a poor choice media-wise--considering the wordplay that keeps gobbling up,spinning the ludicrous with the ridiculous--disolving pretty much, anything of a more serious nature;or for whatever reason the trip was originally staged? Even the world press won't let it go and caricatures of Bush, on or off the platter certainly hasn't given much positive feedback?

Howard Kurtz: Whatever the carping, I'd say most Americans appreciate the president going to visit our fighting men and women at some personal risk. So in that sense it's somewhat different than the flight-suit landing on the USS Lincoln.


Clifton, Va.: For myself, I was glad to see Bush holding the roast turkey platter -- at last, he's served in the military.

Howard Kurtz: I'll put you down as a non-fan.


Detroit, Mich.: Maybe a silly question but I'll ask anyway:

How much time it takes for former White House "employee" like George Stephanopoulos to become journalist in the mind of viewers.

Also, maybe not today but in one of your future columns, could give us more background on how the "pool" works and its utility.

Howard Kurtz: That's up to the viewers. George was such a prominent member of the Clinton White House that it's hard for some people to forget (he worked for Gephardt before that). But it depends on what the statute of limitations is. Tony Snow, just stepping down from Fox News Sunday, worked for Bush 41. Paul Begala and James Carville, holding down the fort at Crossfire, were also Clintonites. Tim Russert worked for Mario Cuomo and Pat Moynihan, but that was nearly two decades ago. The list goes on.


DeKalb, Ill.: Dear Howard,
Do you think Howard Dean is causing himself more harm by trying to limit access to information regarding his tenure in Vermont than he is adverting? I can understand his reluctance to release some information because it could be taken out of context, but, as he showed on his appearance on Meet The Press, he has an ability to explain his actions and decisions that most reasonable people agree with. Wouldn't this trait help to minimize any thing found in those "papers"? When will Politicians learn that it is almost always the cover-up that does the most harm?

Howard Kurtz: I doubt average voters care much about Dean's Vermont papers, unless there's reason to suspect something highly questionable in there. But it's already becoming a big media issue. Now that Dean is the undisputed front-runner, he'll have to get used to these media-driven controversies. For example, it's been known for some time that Dean flunked his military physical -- Russert mentioned this in the appearance you cited, asking how he could then spend time skiing in Aspin -- but the issue bubbled up again when the New York Times decided to do a piece on it.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I am concerned about some of the media coverage of Howard Dean. It seems like most people in the press and many pundits portray him as an angry anti-war liberal. But the fact is that just because he opposes the Iraqi war specifically doesn't mean that he is a radical peacnik. Dean supported the Afghanistan war, the Kosovo war, and the first Gulf war. He also had a pretty moderate record in Vermont. Yes, he has been too angry at times.But having read accounts of his speeches, he does inject patriotism and some hope. He talks about needing to have a sense of community and he tells voters that they have the power to change the country. Do you think that pundits have a responsibility to point out those things?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. I saw Dean say repeatedly in New Hampshire on Sunday that he had supported Gulf War I and Afghanistan. The larger issue for Dean is not that he opposed going into Iraq - if anythingk that has helped him greatly in the Democratic race - but whether he is seen as a potential commander in chief in an age of terrorism. Bush also had no foreign policy experience (nor did Reagan or Carter, for that matter), but he was elected before 9/11 in a campaign in which foreign policy barely seemed to matter.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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