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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 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)

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.


Newtown, Pa.: With the signing of Howard Stern, is this a new dawn for satelitte radio and will more personalities follow?

Howard Kurtz: It's already happening. Bob Edwards has jumped to XM Satellite Radio, and the shock due Opie & Anthony are trying to revive their careers there. Sirius has not just Stern but all NFL regular-season games. If the Stern move boosts Sirius's subscribers (now just 600,000), I can certainly see more big radio names jumping on the bandwagon.


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

Why can't we get rid of the spin after the debates? Also why did MSNBC have two Republicans and no Democrats on its post debate coverage?

Howard Kurtz: ABC News has, at least for now, become a no-spin zone. It didn't interview any of the paid partisan persauders after the debates, on the novel theory that what the Kerry spinners and Bush spinners have to say is entirely predictable.


Stavanger, Norway: The harm in Carl Cameron's parody was not that he did it but that the Fox News Channel hosts picked it up off their website and reported as news the manicure as a "Carl Cameron scoop" in the hour of coverage before the 1st debate! I remember thinking at the time, is Fox trying to take my focus off the subject matter and instead get me to look at Kerry's fingernails? This goof was not just limited to the web site, but was also broadcast worldwide.

Howard Kurtz: I've not heard that this actually made it onto the air at Fox. If so, it's news to me.


Yonkers, N.Y.: Hi Mr. Kurtz

Let's say that Candidate X makes a campaign speech and states that Candidate Y wants to euthanize babies on food tubes because the costs outweigh the benefits.

Does a reporter have an obligation to write the story as stated above even if he knows that Candidate Y has never taken such a position?

Should the timing of the speech, ability for Candidate Y to rebut, fact checking, etc be taken as considerations or is the reporter's job just to write what Candidate X said?


Howard Kurtz: We're not in the business of censoring what candidates say. We are in the business of fact-checking what candidates say. So the baseless charge should be reported in the context that Candidate X has produced no evidence for this, Candidate Y denounced him as a smear artist, etc. Wouldn't that tell voters something about Candidate X and be preferable to suppressing the news of what he said? Besides, if the media simply refused to report exaggerated or irresponsible charges, the size of newspapers and length of broadcasts might shrink dramatically.


Female Stern Fan: Hi-on your show this Sunday you referenced that you had recently interviewed Stern. Can you provide any interesting insights or comments from your interview?

Howard Kurtz: Feel free to look it up on Washingtonpost.com. Stern told me the last two years of FCC fines and the crackdown on indecency had been a "nightmare" for him and that he had lost his joy for radio. Now he feels rejuvenated and that on satellite he'll be able to do the kind of no-holds-barred show he's always wanted to do. He was funny and sounded exactly like he sounds on the air. He also said a couple of unprintable things that I tried to clean up a bit.


Washington, D.C.: Hello, can you tell me who are the Post reporters at the White House Daily Press breifing?

Howard Kurtz: It hasn't been very daily lately, but generally it's our White House correspondents, Mike Allen and Dana Milbank.


New York, N.Y.: I may be fantasizing, but my question is this: If Bob Schiffer decided, on the spot and on the air, to announce different rules from those previously agreed to (e.g., letting the candidates question each other), would the candidates have any choice but to go along with it, without protest? It seems they could hardly walk off, and there would be no other debate to boycott without protest.

Howard Kurtz: You are fantasizing. Journalists may or may not like the rules the two sides agreed to, but by agreeing to moderate a debate you are agreeing to play by those rules.


New York, N.Y.: Your thoughts please on the Carl Cameron reporting of phony quotes attributed to John Kerry. Has he been reassigned away from the Kerry campaign-- if not, do you feel that this incident calls his objectivity into question?

Howard Kurtz: I deal with this in today's column. Sure it calls his objectivity into question. But Cameron was writing a parody that was not meant to be published or broadcast, and which was mistakenly posted on Fox's Web site.


Williamsburg, Va.: What is your reaction to Arthur Sulzberger and Russell Lewis' column in yesterday's New York Times, calling for a federal shield law that protects reporters from revealing their sources? Do you think the Valerie Plame case is a good example of why such a shield is needed, or a bad case that would be protected under such a law?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't taken a position on a federal shield law, but I can tell you that journalists--not just those at the Times--are very, very worried about the special prosecutor's actions in the Plame case. It is somewhat remarkable that Judith Miller of the NYT is facing a possible jail term for contempt when she didn't write a word about the case, just conducted some interviews. Talk about a chilling effect.


Toronto, Canada: Thanks for taking our questions. The Washington Post carried a story, over the weekend, about a site devoted to exploring whether President Bush may have been using an ear-piece, allowing him to be coached by, by his advisers. The site implies that some reporters have been aware that a linguistically and fact challenged Bush routinely needs, and makes use of an ear-piece. It compared the journalistic silence over Bush's rumoured ear-piece to the silence over JFK's adulteries. Here are my questions: If this rumour were true, how much coverage do you feel it would deserve? How far should responsible journalists go to determine if there is any truth to the rumours? While it remains just a rumour how much coverage does it deserve?

washingtonpost.com: Bulge Under President's Coat in First Debate Stirs Speculation (Post, Oct. 9)

Howard Kurtz: It is nothing but a rumor at the moment and deserves very little, if any, coverage. I'm not sure I would have run a story at all without some shred of proof (beyond a photograph that appeared to show a bulge in Bush's suit) or at least someone making an on-the-record charge. If it turned out to be true, that would be a huge story. The idea that journalists have known about this and haven't said anything is both ludicrous and untrue.


Ramsey, N.J.: Have you actually tried to find out what, if anything, has Fox News done to punish Carl Cameron? He is obviously still covering a the campaign of a man he wants to lose.

Howard Kurtz: Fox executives say Cameron has been disciplined. Obviously, they haven't taken him off the Kerry campaign.


Chicago, Ill.: Love your chat Howard. I'm astonished at how little attention the so called liberal media has paid to the mysterious bump under W's coat during the first debate. Can you imagine the uproar if it were Kerry? You guys have been cowed by the right.

Howard Kurtz: You seem to be suggesting that the press is covering up something here. There is, I repeat, nothing to back up this rumor. Besides, if Bush's handlers were feeding him answers, wouldn't he have done better in the first debate?


Washington, D.C.: You know, so answer me this. How does a parody that was not meant to be published or broadcast get mistakenly posted on a Web site?

Howard Kurtz: A not terribly sharp Web person at Fox found it in a file of what he thought were scripts that were awaiting airing and said, hey, this is a pretty neat story.


Glen Gardner, N.J.: The "debates" between President Bush and Senator John Kerry are so scripted and constrained by the candidates' handlers that viewers get an extremely limited view of how each candidate thinks and reacts under intellectual stress. I remember this was not true when The League of Women Voters was moderating the debates between Presidential candidates. How can we get back to more "reality" in these confrontations?

Howard Kurtz: Candidates have become more risk-averse in what they will agree to in terms of debating. This was also true back when the League of Women Voters ran the debates, but then you generally had a panel of journalists and a wider variety of questions. The problem is, no matter who runs the thing, no debates take place unless both sides agree to a set of rules (which were amazingly long and detailed this year). Who ever heard of a debate where one guy can't at least rhetorically address a question to the other guy? So they do often resemble parallel press conferences.


St. Louis, Mo.: There's already been talk of the "armies" of lawyers standing by on both sides to attack the issues of possible voter fraud and irregularities at the ballot box come election day.

Given the race is in a dead heat, do you foresee a challenge in which the losing candidate will automatically question the results, no matter who it is?

Howard Kurtz: Only if it's extremely close. If a candidate loses by several states, it's hard to imagine him mounting a legal challenge.


Cincinnati, Ohio: I've noticed that in the past three weeks or so, I haven't seen James Carville on any of the talking head shows that I watch. This leads me to believe that he is now the brains of the Kerry campaign. Is this the case?

By the way, life is fun in this battleground state. I wonder if this is what it typically feels like in New Hampshire during the early primary season, although none of the candidates has offered yet to rake my leaves... but we still have three weeks to go!

Howard Kurtz: Carville appears regularly on Crossfire. He's never done that many other shows. So I wouldn't conclude he's the brains of the operation. In fact, with his old pals Lockhart, McCurry and other Clintonites now part of the Kerry campaign, James's role is rather minor. Which doesn't mean he and Paul Begala should be advising Kerry and holding forth on Crossfire at the same time.


Edison, N.J.: Regarding this big uproar over the Valerie Plame case, and how journalistic freedom in this country is imperiled because Judith Miller might end up in jail -- Since outing a CIA person is criminal, isn't Judith Miller actually abetting criminal activity? Then why shouldn't she be in jail?

Howard Kurtz: But Judith Miller DIDN'T OUT ANYONE. She did not publish a word about the case. Administration officials apparently told her about Plame, but she didn't write anything. The outing occurred in Robert Novak's column last year. We don't know whether Novak has been subpoenaed in the case or threatened with contempt because he's not saying.


Oxford, UK: What do you think about Daniel Okrent's revealing the identity of someone who sent Adam Nagourney a nasty email? Do you think that all reporters should publish the text and source of every nasty email they receive?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't have any problem with it. If people sign their emails and don't say "off the record" or "not for publication," seems to me there's no reason they can't be used. I generally ask permission, but that's mainly as a courtesy.


Arlington, Va.: Howard: Why do you not believe it to be part of journalism's duty to comment on the spurious nature of some political statements and/or ads? Would adding a phrase such as "There is no proof available to us to back-up this statement by So-and-So...." really be such a bad idea? Given the attention span and knowledge of a lot of Americans who vote, unless they hear such statements are questionable at the time the statements are broadcast, they will immediately from an opinion and ignore the follow-up days later when jopurnalists finally get around to noting there was no proof to the statements. Long-winded, but I'm really fed-up.

Howard Kurtz: You've got my position 180 degrees wrong. I do believe it is the responsibility of journalists to blow the whistle on false, exaggerated or misleading claims by public officials and candidates. For the fourth campaign in a row, I am writing The Post's "ad watch" feature, as well as news stories, which attempt to do just that for political commercials.


Bethesda, Md.: The thought of the story being "mistakenly" placed on a Fox News web-site strains credibility. But what makes me giggle even more is the notion posted by one of the chatters above that Cameron shouldn't be allowed to cover Kerry because he "obviously wants him to lose". Using that criteria regarding an alleged rooting interest, practically no one currently covering the Bush campaign for most of the TV networks should be allowed to do so ...

Howard Kurtz: I'm not buying your comparison, but even if it were true, the test isn't whether journalists have opinions but whether they can keep those opinions out of their work. As for the notion that the Fox posting was no accident, this doesn't make sense. Why would a news organization put up a story it KNEW to be false, since that would cause great embarrassment and require a correction? Remember, these bogus quotes were attributed to Kerry, so it's not like no one would notice.


Tokyo, Japan: Hi, you stated the J. Miller didnt out anyone, but she knows who the "outer" is, right? That's why they are trying to get her to talk, isnt it?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. At least, she may not who the outer is (or are, since Novak has said there were two administration officials). I was just making the point that Miller herself did not reveal the name of a CIA operative.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Good Morning. On NPR today and throughout the media I've been hearing the laments of the press, TV news, etc. becoming more partisan. For me this is certainly true. I see a left spin on CNN, NY Times, LA Times and an even harder right spin on Fox.

Although generally discussed as a distructive trend, I wonder how bad it would really be if the U.S. developed into a sort of European model where newspapers wore thier ideological bias on their sleeve and people knew about it beforehand.

Journalists know there is no such thing is true objectivity. You can strive toward it, but just picking what stories to write about makes you subjective. Couldn't this more explicit ideological slant just make official and open the biases that news organizations already have but often deny?

Howard Kurtz: I think that's a terrible idea. There may not be such a thing as pure objectivity -- everything about a news story requires a series of choices -- but there is such a thing as striving to be fair and to present all sides of a controversy. However flawed the execution may be, I don't want to see the American press lose that. (It's fine, obviously, for opinion magazines, columnists, etc.). I would also argue that not everyone at big news organizations, even those perceived by some to be liberal, shares the same views.


Anonymous: Excuse me?

Why would you buy into that lame excuse provided by Fox News? Are you trying to be fair and balanced? Or are you attempting to obfuscate the fact that more than likely, those people at Fox News knew exactly what they were doing when they "leaked" Cameron's parody of Kerry.

They make news, remember?

Fair and balanced they are not.

Howard Kurtz: I still don't see how this episode helps Fox. Executives there are angry at Carl Cameron and see this as a setback for their credibility.


Ashland, Mo.: In light of the increase in bloggers, CBS false memos, the ABC memo on not treating campaign spin equally and the New York Times coverage in general, do you think we simply are seeing a change in US journalism so that it is more like British media where you know the media is biased and the customer picks the slant he or she wants?

Howard Kurtz: You're conflating too many things here. Bloggers are individuals who make no bones about being opinionated; indeed, that's why people read them. CBS made a major screwup with the National Guard story, but while critics say the network displayed an anti-Bush bias, it could also be just sloppy journalism (and a source who didn't tell the truth) in pursuit of a hot exclusive. The ABC memo didn't say don't be fair to both sides; it said that if the Bush team's distortions are worse, don't be afraid to call them on it rather than pretend for the sake of artificial balance that both sides are equal offenders.


Germantown, Md.: Howard, you're fighting a losing battle it seems; I don't know how you can keep from screaming in frustration! The Post does an EXCELLENT job of truth-squadding in it's campaign reporting... granted, you might have to READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE, but well, ya know, that's the price of living in a democracy. Sheesh.

Howard Kurtz: Reading the entire article is a heavy burden. But the paper is doing its best. We had three reporters, for example, writing the truth-squad piece after Friday's debate.


Oak Hill, Va.: During Reliable Sources, you mentioned that you conducted a rare interview with Howard Stern. Where and when will we read (or see) this interview?

Howard Kurtz: The interview is part of this story:



Washington, D.C.: How large of an audience of satellite radio listeners is there? I just know there aren't as many satellite listeners as there are potential FM listeners. So are these big names who are switching to satellite being drawn, or are they doing some pushing of the system?

Howard Kurtz: XM currently has 2.5 million and Sirius 600,000 -- a relative drop in the bucket. The question is whether it's like cable in the early days, when most homes weren't wired and most people saw no reason to pay for additional programming when television was free. The satellite companies are banking on luring more customers by offering 100-plus channels of music, sports, news and entertainment, and if they do the business could really grow.


McLean, Va.: Is this chat just for conspiracy theorists or can anyone join? I'd just like to add a positive note: I was happy to see the Post giving the story about Afganistan's stabilizing election equal play, after the highly placed story the day before about how the election would fail.

Howard Kurtz: A positive note. What a welcome development. But we welcome all views on the chat, even those that should be set to Twilight Zone music.


Clemson, S.C.: Do you think media consolidation will occur as ownership regulations are watered down under the current administration?

Howard Kurtz: The administration has already tried to do this, and Congress balked. Given the financial and lobbying muscle of the broadcasters, this battle is not over by a long shot.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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