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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2004; 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)

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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.

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Towson, Md.: Howie,

Do cabinet secretaries and administration officials at a similar level hire their own press aides, or are those staffing decisions centralized within the White House? I am wondering about this because I see that Emily Miller, formerly worked for Tom DeLay -- not exactly an ideological soulmate of Colin Powell -- and she seemed to be preventing Sec. Powell answering a question where he might say something critically different from the official Administration line. When she grabbed that camera yesterday, do you think Miller was protecting Powell, or trying to keep him in line?

washingtonpost.com: Colin Powell Interview With Russert Is Cut Off (Post, May 17)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know who hired Emily Miller, but it's safe to say that Colin Powell did not appear pleased by the camera-moving stunt. It appears to have been related to the time issue (that Russert had gone over his allotted time and Fox was waiting for the next interview) as opposed to "protecting" Powell from Russert's questions (it wasn't a confrontational interview and Tim was in any event in the process of asking his last question.)

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Now that Sarin was found in a roadside bomb from a type of shell that had been declared destroyed -- does this change any of the reporting and claims that Saddam never had Weapons of Mass Destruction and a chemical weapons program?

washingtonpost.com: Sarin Detected in Roadside Bomb in Iraq (AP, May 17)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. I suppose one question is whether this was newly imported stuff or part of a previously existing Saddam stockpile.

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New York, N.Y.: Thanks for the informative look at the problems reporters are having in Iraq. I had heard some of this before but didn't realize to what extent they were trapped in the Green Zone.

Is this true for all reporters or more specifically U.S. and Europeans? Are Arab reporters able to move around more freely?

Howard Kurtz: To some extent, and western news organizations tell me they are relying more heavily on Iraqi stringers. But they face their own difficulties in a U.S.-occupied country. In fact, the Committee to Protect Journalists has just put out a report saying that 12 of the 14 journalists killed there have been Iraqi.

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Geneva, Switzerland: Hi Howard, was reading your column today on the growing numbers in the 'States blaming the media (!;) for over-covering the prison atrocities story. Just a view from afar: I think most Europeans would simply see this as America's denial, of its blinding (and dangerous) belief that it can do no wrong in the world. My question is: does the rest of the world's view of the US filter into the minds of the American public at all? Do they have any idea what this scandal has done, not just in the short- but the long-term, to America's credibility? Thanks. (Love your column by the way!;)

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. Sure, any American with a television set is well aware of the growing anti-U.S. sentiment around the world, especially in countries that had been considered allies. The question is whether the Iraqi prisoner abuse is the unauthorized misconduct of a few sadistic soldiers or part of an administration policy fueled by an arrogance toward international rules. I'm sure America's detractors around the globe have concluded it's the latter, but I'd like to know more in the way of facts.

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Houston, Tex.: Howard,
I realize the morning news shows have long been used to promote a network's entertainment programming, but I found it pretty darn sad that in the middle of a huge scandal, Dateline, which claims to be NBC's premier news magazine, dedicated its coverage to the end of Friends and Frasier. Basically it seems NBC News is saying that their shows come first, and all other news is second.

Howard Kurtz: I devoted part of a column a couple of weeks back to how Dateline had become a promotional vehicle for trumpeting such NBC entertainment shows as The Apprentice, Friends and Frasier. NBC News President Neal Shapiro defended the segments by saying they tap into popular culture, but I don't think he realizes the extent to which all this makes the news division look like it's shilling for the corporation.

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Boston, Mass.: Hi Howard, Post reporter Susan Schmidt wrote an article about Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald questioning two Post reporters about the Plame investigation. What is the Post's policy about revealing sources under these types of National Security situations? Is it a reporters own decision or do they follow a Washington Post policy, and if so what is that policy? Also can Fitzgerald detain reporters if they refuse to answer his questions?

washingtonpost.com: Leak Prosecutor Seeks To Question Reporters (Post, May 15)

Howard Kurtz: The Post's policy, and that of its reporters, is that we don't reveal confidential sources, period, because, rightly or wrongly, we have given our word to protect the identity of those sources. So unless a source voluntarily agrees to come forward, you won't see The Post or any other news organization I can think of offering this information. This, of course, puts the paper in an awkward position when reporting on the Valerie Plame/Bob Novak story. The same was true during the controversy over Ken Starr's office leaking to news organizations that included The Post.

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Orange, Va.: I'm definitely not a fan of the current administration but I'm still befuddled by the big deal Russert is making about yesterday's Powell interview. Press aide tries to cut interview short... so what? Seems like a huge non-story to me. What's your take?

Howard Kurtz: In the long run it's not a big deal, but it was a stunning thing to watch on TV -- the camera drifting off to some palm trees, Russert demanding that the camera return to his guest, Powell telling his press aide to get out of the way. I guess it was Russert's "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Breen" moment.

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Arlington, Va.: Seroiusly, Howard, can the people at the Metro desk stop with the cicada stories? They're coming, we know, and we can't do anything about it. End of story. It seems like a snow story every day with these insects.

Howard Kurtz: We've gone a bit overboard. I mean, no one's dying because of these ugly little bugs. But it is a big topic of conversation around town.

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Oxford, Miss.: I think it's interesting that the New Yorker has suddenly become the vehicle for breaking news. Could this have happened before the internet (i.e., before the magazine could publish a story online five days before it arrives in stores and mailboxes)?

I wonder if this is part of a concerted effort by the New Yorker to be more competitive with daily papers and other newssources or whether this was just an example of them (i.e., Hersh) hitting the right story at the right time for three weeks in a row.

Howard Kurtz: Any magazine that employs Sy Hersh is going to break news. And the New Yorker has made news for decades. I don't think the Internet is a big factor here. The magazine chose to post Hersh's story on Saturday before it hit newsstands today, but in the pre-Web age it simply could have sent out a press release with the key findings. The New Yorker was incredibly slow to launch a real Web site, and certainly the Net gave the Hersh piece more and earlier prominence than it otherwise would have gotten.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think the Powell aide will be fired? I would think so, but after the Rumsfeld aide left the classified info at Starbucks and held on, I can't be sure.

Still, this seems a bit more deliberate, and unprecendented.

Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I have no idea. But I wouldn't look for her to get a big bonus this year.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I found it interesting that in a recent poll about half the respondents said that there has been too much media coverage of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal. Do you agree? While I think that many who say that simple don't like any critical coverage of the Bush administration, there is probably reason to question whether it should be front page news every day for a couple of weeks now.
I personally think the coverage has been about right, although I'm not sure if the frequent replay of the Berg beheading video is necessary or in proper taste.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, 50 percent of Republicans in the Pew survey said the press has given too much attention to the prisoner scandal, compared to 26 percent of Democrats. I happen to think it's an incredibly important story. But I do think we're reaching the point where the networks should stop using the pictures as video wallpaper, and where journalists should concentrate on advancing the story (how many higher-ups knew, was it part of a broader policy, etc.) rather than just rehashing the abuses that everyone is now sadly familiar with.

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Washington, D.C.: OK, what was up with the Colin Powell Interveiw and his crazy press secretary? I was stunned when I saw the replay on CNN last night. That press person has to be fired by now, right?

It was the weirdest thing I have seen in a long time....

Howard Kurtz: It's definitely up there on the weirdness scale. Ironically, if Powell had felt the interview was running too long, he could have said, "Tim, I'm sorry, but I've got to go," and Russert told me he would have had no choice but to go along. Instead you had this strange spectacle.

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Alexandria, Va.: The "delay" in the Meet the Press interview with Powell wasn't more than a minute... in your article it sounds a lot longer. Although if time was the issue, that just served to extend it even more. Russert even prefaced his question to indicate that it was his last before the picture was interrupted -- my initial reaction was that he was about to ask something the aide didn't want Powell to answer.

Howard Kurtz: Here is what Russert was starting to ask: "Finally, Mr. Secretary, in February of 2003, you placed your enormous personal credibility before the United Nations and laid out a case against Saddam Hussein, citing..."
I'm sure it wasn't the State Department's favorite question, but Powell has obviously been asked about this before.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you find it unfortunate that politics is often reduced to who can say their message in the shortest time? I think so because there are issues such as Iraq and national security in general that aren't simple black-and-white issues. There are a lot of factors to consider. Does the media have a responsibility to cover what a candidate says in depth so people could get the whole picture?

Howard Kurtz: You're darn tootin'! (Sorry, we're out of time.)

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Regarding the coverage of prisoner abuse in Iraq: It was recently shown that as far back as November 2003, the Associated Press' Pulitzer Prize-winning special correspondent Charles Hanley filed a 1700-word story on the very subject now gaining worldwide attention. The obvious main difference, of course, is that Hanley's piece lacked photographs. But, as Hanley himself said last Thursday evening on "The News on CNBC," there is another element to the lack of interest on the part of the mainstream media in such cases: "...there is undoubtedly a reluctance on the part of the US media to quickly publish material that is detrimental to the reputation of the US military." He explained that there may be a "...natural inclination, human nature, tribal instinct...to side with someone like yourself. In other words, the US military as opposed to someone perhaps...whose language you may not even understand."

Howard, in your opinion, was it simply a lack of pictures which affected the "play" of the original story, or was it the possible systemic self-censoring of unpleasant information during wartime?

Howard Kurtz: I think many journalists feel they just didn't have the story nailed down, that there had been allegations but there wasn't any hard proof until the pictures emerged. At the same time, there's no question in my mind that the media weren't aggressive enough on this story. There had been pieces of it reported by various news organizations - CNN disclosed after the Pentagon probe was announced in January that partially unclothed Iraqis had been photographed - but there was little follow-up by other news outlets.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Being a former Sinclair Broadcast employee I a was ashamed at their response to Ted Koppel's program listing the Americans who have died in Iraq. Has there been any backlash on this to Sinclair?

Howard Kurtz: I'd say Sinclair has gotten a whole lot of bad press, some of which has pointed out that its top executives are big Republican Party contributors.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why the incredible delay in the POST's coverage of the revelation of former Democratic Governor Neil Goldschmidt's statutory rape of a young woman? I heard about this on the radio days ago but it is only now appearing in your paper (below the fold of course)and why on earth is the word "Republican" mentioned in the article before the word "Democrat?" The only role the members of the GOP has in this scandal are as outraged onlookers.

washingtonpost.com: Oregon Roiled by Politician's Sordid Secret (Post, May 17)

Howard Kurtz: The day after it happened, The Post ran a short wire story on the matter. I remember thinking at the time that it was incredibly underplayed. I devoted an online column to the Goldschmidt saga last week. My educated guess is that having not jumped on the initial disclosures, the paper wanted to send Seattle bureau chief Blaine Harden to Portland to do a more detailed account that ran on our front page today. But I was also struck by how little attention this story got from the rest of the media (obviously Iraq is a factor here). Yes, the events took place 30 years ago, but we're talking about a former governor, mayor and federal transportation secretary having had sex with a 14-year-old girl while in office.

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New York City, N.Y.: So the UK tabloid The Mirror published false pictures meant to discredit the war. The editor-in-chief was forced to resign. Last year, the BBC had a false story about a dossier being "sexed up". The Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of the BBC were forced to resign. And the anti-war media is complaining about pro-war lies?

Howard Kurtz: Both of them undoubtedly deserved to lose their jobs. But I don't think it's fair to tar the rest of the press as "antiwar" media, as if everything they do is motivated by some kind of political agenda.

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Harrisonburg, Va.: Howard: The local paper in Harrisonburg, Va., has started running ads along the bottom of its front page. On the day before a local election, one of the candidates bought the space. In big type, it read, Vote For Joe Blow" or whatever his name was. What do you think of that -- does it harm the paper's integrity?

Howard Kurtz: I've never been a fan of the practice, but USA Today does the same thing.

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Texas: Howard,
In your column you made it pretty clear that you think the McCain-as-VP thing is not a possibility. Fair enough, given all his denials.

But are you really positive? Deeply divided country, war going badly. Things overall aren't good. If McCain became convinced that we're headed off the track and that he could help save us, he might consider some things.

Howard Kurtz: At one point I thought, well, McCain is a maverick, has no great love for Bush, has moved left on some issues and clearly likes Kerry, maybe he'll do it. But the man has denied it so many times, in such emphatic terms, and it's hard for me to believe he would do that if he wanted to leave the door ajar. I just think it's very difficult for this lifelong Republican to in effect join the Democratic Party. But you can tell the press is still hoping against hope that it will happen.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for the background on the palm tree dustup during the Powell interview on "Meet the Press".

But you didn't mention one of the funniest lines I've heard on "Meet the Press". Later, when Russert launched into his question on being Kerry's VP, Sen. McClain protested "I wish I had some palm trees to hide behind !".

Howard Kurtz: It was a great line. McCain may be the funniest man in politics, as I learned during all those bus rides in 2000.

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Nederland, Colo.: You reported yesterday that the "fog of war" is increasing because of growing dangers to journalists in Iraq. Aren't there ways to interview Iraqi individuals or organization representatives, who would meet foreign journalists in relatively safe locations? While rightly proud of the excellent work of their Iraq correspondants, is the Post concerned that far more info still comes from the CPA and our appointed Governing Council than from regular Iraqis? Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Reporting Under a Shadow (Post, May 17)

Howard Kurtz: The Post, like other news organizations, would like to report more on the views of ordinary Iraqis, and its reporters have done a fine job under difficult conditions. But I'm not sure there are any safe locations any more. Remember that the hotel that Paul Wolfowitz was visiting was shelled while he was there. Also, journalists tell me that just getting from one place to another can be treacherous in this time of roadside attacks and bombs. So it's hardly surprising that journalists and their bosses have gotten more cautious.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard, I thought the coverage (or lack of it) of the Indian election results by the major news networks was disgraceful. This is clearly major world news. The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall street journal covered it in their front pages and editorial columns. For the BBC World News, it was their headline item. But for the CNN. Fox, MSNBC Kobe Bryant was more important!

At least some of the local channels in the NYC area covered this event, probably because of a large Indian-American community.

Howard Kurtz: It was a huge story in part because it was so unexpected -- virtually no one among the reporters, pundits and pollsters expected the government to fall. I don't know how much the networks did on it, but at least the major newspapers recognized its importance.

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Lexington Park, Md.: I understand that guy Jonah's (from your show yesterday) point that running the pictures of the abuses may have inflamed passions and put our soldiers more at risk, but there's no doubt that the pictures needed to be published. Maybe I am too naive, but I would have never believed some of the things the pictures show without such incontrovertible visual evidence.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure any of us would have believed it. And even if we had believed it, the most finely crafted sentences in the world could not have conveyed the cruelty we saw in some of those pictures.

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Towson, Md.: Howie,

Would you agree that the Washington Post is a "liberal" newspaper to the same degree that Fox News is a "conservative" cable channel?

Howard Kurtz: No, I wouldn't. First of all, while Fox clearly has some high-decibel conservative commentators, I don't think it's fair to tag all its reporters with the C word. Chris Wallace certainly wouldn't have been described as a conservative at ABC and NBC before taking over "Fox News Sunday." As for The Post, some liberals are mad at its editorial page for supporting the war in Iraq and taking other insufficiently liberal positions. As for the reporting, the Clinton White House certainly didn't consider those who were endlessly probing its various scandals to be liberal allies.

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

Thanks for taking our questions.

Are you going to continue to ignore the amazing double standard highlighted by the media's prominent placement of the most horrific pictures of torture at Abu Ghraib, while refusing to show the horrific pictures of Nicholas Berg's beheading? (And please don't tell me that the media "showed" the beheading by showing a picture of him sitting in front of the killers -- the media obviously didn't just show an Iraqi prisoner sitting in front of a US MP.)

Your ombudsman, Michael Getler, who said it was SO important to show the torture pictures, made a pathetic attempt to reconcile the two treatments yesterday.

The disparity in the treatment of the two apisodes just confirms for me how bad the anti-war bias in the media really is: it is the worst I've ever seen.

Howard Kurtz: This is a totally false comparison. News organizations, which have to worry about such things as children seeing their product, are simply not going to show someone's head being cut off. That's very different from running a picture of a guy in a dog collar. If some crazed U.S. soldier had cut off the head of an Iraqi prisoner, you would not be seeing that either.
I agree that the Berg execution should be covered as fully as the prisoner scandal (though in both cases I object when the networks turn the pictures into video wallpaper and run them every 12 minutes). But questions of taste are also involved, and that has nothing to do with any political agenda. (The Post, for example, supported the Iraq war editorially and yet has been very tough on the administration for what it sees as fostering a climate in which the prisoner abuse could flourish.)

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Virginia: Howard - Always enjoy the columns and chats. The Islamic journalist on your show yesterday (whose name, I apologize, eludes me) seemed incredibly disingenuous and determined to portray most of the Arab world as moderate, rational and not at all opposed to the West. This would seem to contradict current world events. Is she a professional mouthpiece for someone, or ideologically at odds with much of that region, or what? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Her name is Irshad Manji and she's an independent journalist and author. She did allow that many Arab media outlets run propaganda (her word) that is biased against the United States. But I try to have people with lots of different views on the show.

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Houston, Tex.: Remember the good old days, when the New Yorker used to be about New York?

Howard Kurtz: Actually, the New Yorker has always been about the whole world, going back to the days of John Hersey writing on Hiroshima. But it did have a regular column on city politics, which is not covered as intensively these days. I recently read a piece saying that a surprising chunk of its circulation is in California.

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Arlington, Va.: Actually, I'm enjoying the cicada stories. Hey, at least it's not a "beat the heat" headline! (You know, insert stock photo of "children frolicking around open fire hydrant" here.)

Howard Kurtz: I'll put you down as generating good buzz for the cicadas.

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Albany, N.Y.: Are the media adequately reporting positive developments in Iraq? For example, the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger had a column Friday about seven Iraqi men who each lost a hand to dismemberment under Saddam. Their lost hands are now being restored thanks to some individual Americans. This is wonderful for the seven Iraqis, of course, but also emblematic of numerous ways Americans are improving Iraq -- and even, perhaps, building some good will. Recognizing that bad news must be covered, is adequate attention paid to good news?

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair point. There was a concerted effort earlier this year, perhaps in part because of administration criticism, to report more heavily on the progress being made in Iraq and some of the good efforts by Americans, to balance all the stories about the violence. But it would be hard to argue in the last two months, from the bodies being strung up in Fallujah to today's assassination of the president of the Iraqi governing council, that there's been a whole lot of good news to report in Iraq.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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