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Media Backtalk

With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 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."

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.


Winchester, Va.: Yesterday on Meet the Press Tim Russert pounded Howard Dean about supporting a tax increase because he supports canceling Bush's tax cuts. True if Bush cut them, I guess reinstatement would be a tax hike, but that is in the future and seems to take the issue to an artificial platform by arguing it is a hike. The future cuts haven't happened, why would it be a take hike? And why was Tim so hard on Dean?

Howard Kurtz: Russert, who's always aggressive, did seem unusually aggressive with Dean. But he's on solid ground in terms of saying that rolling back the Bush tax cuts -- both the 2001 and 2003 editions -- is a tax increase. Dean did not contest that point, arguing instead that the money would be better spent on health care and other programs and that the Bush cuts were forcing state and local governments to boost taxes. Sometimes these arguments are complicated; this one isn't. Russert's questions on that score were perfectly fair.


New York, N.Y.:

Hi Howard,

I just finished watching Tim Russert's interview with Howard Dean, and all I can say is: Wow. I have rarely seen a more determined and less sympathetic interview. Russert seemed bound and determined to concentrate more on finding minute inconsistencies in Dean's statements over the past ten years and treating Dean to a series of military trivia questions than on finding out his philosophy of government. Dean's call to repeal the Bush tax cuts was characterized by Russert as "raising taxes," and the figures he cited were from the GOP Treasury Dept... not exactly the most credible source. And on, and on.

While I feel that anyone getting involved with politics in America should know that this sort of stuff will go on and needs to be strong, I feel that Russert did a disservice to us in grilling Dean in ways that I considered pointless and self-serving. Did you watch the interview? Any thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: There's no question that Russert seemed unsympathetic, though as I said I thought the tax questions were fair. This is what Russert does -- he interrogates candidates and tries to expose inconsistencies in their positions, but in this case, at a couple of points, it seemed to get personal. He badgered Dean, for example, about not serving in the military, though Dean said the armed services had refused to take him after he flunked a physical because of back problems (even though he was still able to do things like go skiing). But it was a substantive interview, and if you want to be president and deal with crises around the world, you have to be able to handle the likes of Russert.


Washington, D.C.: The figures Russert used to illustrate the effects of repealing the Bush tax cuts were produced by the Treasury Department--at Meet the Press's request. What kind of journalist collaborates with a political arm of the administration in order to ambush an interview subject? Shouldn't Russert have been more forthcoming about the numbers' origins?

Howard Kurtz: That's actually quite routine - a reporter calling the government to ask for the official statistics. But Russert should have said up front that these were Treasury figures (I don't recall if there was an on-screen graphic) and let viewers decide. Instead, he left Howard Dean an opening to dismiss the numbers as a political document put out by the administration.


Delran, N.J.: In reading the articles regarding Chief Moose's resignation, the fact that the his book is available for pre-order on amazon.com is consistently mentioned. But why has the Post been inserting a standard parenthetical along the lines of "Chief Moose's book isn't the only one being written about the Sniper Attacks... we have one too, and you can pre-order it on amazon.com as well." Is this shameless self promotion? Or some twisted attempt to avoid a conflict of interest? Do tell, Dear Mr. Kurtz!

Howard Kurtz: I've seen that kind of disclaimer about the Post's sniper book in at least a couple of stories. I guess they don't do it every time. It's obviously relevant.


Frazier, Pa.: Howard, good morning,
Is Ted Koppel semi retired? I had not seen Nightline regularly in years but recently caught it when out of town. No sign of Mr. Koppel, just some fat blond dude. Another night a young African-America woman was the anchorperson. I could not stay awake, the show did not hold my interest? Is it on it's last legs? Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: Nightline is actually going quite strong, and really got a jolt when Koppel, $8-million salary and all, risked his life by going to Iraq and reporting from the desert battlefield. Koppel's contract calls for him to work three days a week, and his principal substitute is Nightline veteran Chris Bury, who I can assure you from personal observation is not fat.


Ashland, Mo.: Have the media considered assigning reporters to a campaign for no more than a month or two?

The Post is already printing candidate profiles when most of the public is not paying attention. By the time the public becomes interested, the reporters have already heard the same speech many times and revert to horse-race reporting because that is all they know that is new -- to them.

If reporters were rotated, perhaps the reporting would be more in sync with the public's interest.

Howard Kurtz: The Post does rotate reporters on campaigns occasionally for that very reason. Obviously, having one person who spends months with a candidate enables the reporter to develop expertise (as well as sources) about a potential president.
Yes, it's absurdly early, but the nine Democrats (at last count) are out there campaigning their butts off, and it's not a bad idea for a newspaper to run profiles taking a first cut at explaining who these people are. (The Boston Globe just ran an exhaustive, and exhausting, seven-part series on John Kerry.) Next year, when more people are paying attention and the field gets winnowed to two or three, I can guarantee there will be more profiles, analyses and other coverage.


Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think that the Dems may put on the ticket a woman for vice president in 2004?

Howard Kurtz: That's always a possibility, but if you take Hillary at her word than she's sitting out '04, it's hard to imagine who that might be. To avoid another Geraldine Ferraro situation, what woman officeholder would have the stature and experience to be a heartbeat from the presidency? Dianne Feinstein, maybe, although California is not exactly a swing state for the Democrats. Jennifer Granholm, the new governor of Michigan, might be a possibility down the road except that she wasn't born in this country. All this says less about the number of qualified women than the continuing male-dominated nature of the political system.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Howard,

Why is it that Howard Fineman isn't being raked over the coals a la Jayson Blair for his shoddy journalism in using two urban legends as "evidence" of the need for tort reform?

Howard Kurtz: You're referring not to Howard Fineman but to my column this morning on Mort Zuckerman, the owner of U.S. News & World Report. And the answer is, nobody knew about it until now. Though the Blair reference is unfair, since Zuckerman was relying on past clips and didn't know these cases were bogus.


Easton, Md.: I was just wondering which you thought would happen first: Hell freeing over, pigs flying or Walter Pincus having a "named" source in one of his articles?

OK, more seriously, what do you think of the seemingly growing number of unnamed sources that are appearing in articles in The Washington Post? Walter Pincus has now written EIGHT consecutive articles (as of Sunday) without having a single named source. Dana Milbank is also notorious for using unnamed sources in his Bush-bashing articles.

And does The Washington Post have an official policy on what is considered a "senior" official or is it just up to the reporter to classify whether the supposed unnamed source as "senior?"

Howard Kurtz: The "policy" is that it has to be an honest rendering of whether someone is at a senior level in an organization. I agree that there are too many anonymous sources in journalism, and The Post is a prime offender. But Pincus has been reporting on some very difficult stories on WMD -- including Dick Cheney's role in the CIA's prewar assessments -- that simply can't be reported if people have to have their names attached. You're asking people who work in the administration to go out on a limb and provide information that in some cases undermines what their bosses are saying.


New York, N.Y.: How do you think that Dean did in his interview yesterday? I was hoping he'd stand up a little better to the pounding -- which was pretty merciless, but as you said earlier anyone who wants to be President needs to be able to stand up to stuff like that.


Howard Kurtz: On balance, I thought he stumbled a few times. He struggled, for example, to explain his change of position on the death penalty and whether the gay civil unions he advocated in Vermont should be recognized by the rest of the country. Some of his answers weren't very strong, but on many other questions he stuck to his guns. But in Dean's favor is the fact that he comes off like a regular person who's grappling with hard issues, rather than a slick political salesman who recites robotic talking points.


Avon Park, Fla.: I am upset as a Democrat that Congressional Democrats supported campaign finance reform. Did they have any idea that banning soft money would seriously cripple their chances to get their message out in 2004? Were they delusional that they could raise more hard money? Since Bush has more hard money than the Democratic candidates, he could spend all summer running ads that cause swing voters to form such negative impressions of the nominee that by the time of the convention, their impressions would be so set that nothing the Democrats will do will change that. What were the Democrats thinking when they voted for campaign finance reform?

Howard Kurtz: They were thinking that, even though this might hurt their party, that the right thing to do was to try to limit all the special-interest cash that has corrupted the system. There's no question they put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. It does seem unfair that when their primary winner runs out of money, Bush can spend a small fortune on ads for the rest of the spring and summer. But, of course, that's what Clinton did to Dole in the spring and summer of 1996.


New York, N.Y.: Per your column this morning, do these "no-chance" having Dems have nothing but yes-men and women surrounding them? Why doesn't someone just say, "for the good of the party and the good of the country, back out now because you have no chance in he--." There are, in my opinion, only five legitimate Dems currently in the race (Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, Gephardt and Dean) and four who are doing nothing but mucking-up the process (Sharpton, Moseley-Braun, Kucinich, Graham). And of those top five, it's gonna go down to Kerry and Edwards. Then there's Clark, Biden and even Hillary who have yet to toss their hats in the ring. If these Dems could focus on Bush's shortcomings as much as they're focusing on possibly running for President, they'd have a much better chance at successfully highlighting the fact that this is a nation in disarray. Instead, the focus is on them as a party in disarray.

Howard Kurtz: People run for president for lots of reasons, and they don't always include a realistic chance of winning. It's an ego trip and a chance to get lots of attention for yourself and your ideas. So it's not very likely that anyone is going to talk the second-tier candidates into giving up at this stage. Besides, who gets to decide who's "legitimate"? Six months ago most pols and experts would have said that Howard Dean had no chance, but he's moved himself into contention by running a smart campaign.


Syracuse, N.Y.: Not to pile-on Russert, but I too was struck by his aggressive stance versus Dean. (And I don't particularly like Dean.) Several weeks ago, Russert brought up the Homeland Security/Texas Democrats controversy and he let the guests laugh about BBQ sauce instead of dealing with the serious subject he brought up. When Dean laughed off a negative description Russert quoted from a John Kerry operative, Russert said, "This isn't funny. This is serious." I used to think Russert was tough but fair, but now I suspect he's catering to the conservative audience that tends to watch political talk shows in disproportionate numbers. Do you think my market-based critique of Russert has any merit?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think he's catering to the left or right. I just think he treats an interview with a president candidate with a whole different level of scrutiny (he gave Dean 50 minutes) than a controversy over Texas Dems absconding to Oklahoma, which did have its soap opera aspect. It also may be that he just got his back up with Dean, or was trying so hard to be aggressive that he got carried away. Russert once told me there were a couple of interviews where he felt in retrospect he had been too harsh. Don't know if he considers this such an example. But most of the questions were substantive and on issues that are certainly fair game.


Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I have to ask, how can the sometimes fawning coverage of Hillary Clinton's and the Harry Potter books be justified? I realize both are considered to be "event" books, but in reality, isn't there a point where the articles just serve as free publicity?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, and we passed that point a long time ago. Both books have been covered as such a phenomenon -- and in Hillary's case, a chance for both sides to refight the Clinton wars -- that whether they're good books or not is totally irrelevant. By keeping the books under wraps until a certain date (despite the inevitable leaks), the publishers created a media wave that boosted both authors to record heights.


Southside: Howard -- I saw Reliable Sources yesterday, great show, as always. But anybody who says that CBS was not using its other, related properties to shill for a Lynch interview is either being blind or disingenuous. Like "Time" putting every hot Warner Bros. movie on its cover and proclaiming them "cultural milestones," it's nauseating. Thanks, Howard.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Time has occasionally criticized Warner Brothers movies too. But it's very hard to read that CBS letter -- with its tempting talk about a CBS Entertainment movie, a Simon & Schuster book deal and an MTV special -- and not get the impression that the news division was acting as a sales agent for Viacom, and dangling the prospect of a big payday for Jessica Lynch that CBS News, under its rules, cannot offer. The irony is that no one even knows at this point whether the wounded Lynch can do an interview.


Orange, Va.: Glad to see your bit about the New York Observer but I think you might have missed a key reason for their appeal, at least to this non-New Yorker. Unlike most of the media, they are refreshingly unpredictable. While, of course, it wasn't surprising that you fit some obligatory Clinton bashing into your brief article, I never know who's going to get skewered by the Observer. They attack Democrats and Republicans with equal glee.

washingtonpost.com: A Little Snag in Those Frivolous Suits (Post, June 23)

Howard Kurtz: I don't quite get how it's Clinton-bashing to mention that the Observer had called for Hillary's resignation in a front-page editorial. I asked Editor Peter Kaplan to cite some of its most important pieces, and that was the one he mentioned. I do agree, though, that unpredictability is an important asset in today's all too predictable media world.


Washington, D.C.: Howard, can I sneak in a media question? I read Christopher Hitchen's review in Atlantic Monthly of Sidney Blumenthal's book "The Clinton Wars." These guys are adversaries. I thought journalistic practice was to avoid such pairings of reviewee-reviewer. Didn't the Post have a problem recently in which a book reviewer failed to disclose a relationship, as did, more brazenly, the Tina Brown New Yorker?

Howard Kurtz: I basically believe that it's best to pick reviewers who don't know the author. But in Hitchens's case, it's not exactly a secret that they were friends who had a huge and very public falling out over the Lewinsky case, which is chronicled in the book. By picking Christoper Hitchens, a magazine is really presenting an argument rather than making any stab at an even-handed review.


Somewhere, USA:

It's interesting that Russert pounds hard on relatively insignificant issues such as taxes; but when he has Rumsfeld on, he suddenly goes soft on the more substantiual issue of the lack of wmd's in Iraq.

This clearly shows the conservative bias in the media.

Howard Kurtz: As a former Democrat who worked for Mario Cuomo and Pat Moynihan, I'm sure Russert would be amused at being called a conservative.


Baltimore, Md.: A couple of months ago the big story coming out of Iraq was that the Antiquities Museum had been looted of many of its priceless treasures.

Then we learned that many of its most important artifacts had been protected before the war, and that only 33 artifacts had disappeared, and conservative media outlets jumped on the initial reports as examples of liberal bias and unsubstantiated gloom and doom over Iraq taking precedence over what was really going on.

Now, The Washington Post reports (June 21) that at least 6000 artifacts WERE in fact, looted, and the number is expect to rise after a full accounting:

So what's the story here? Why is it taking so long to get a clear picture of what went on with the Museum? Did the Administration organize a disinformation offensive to counter an initial story that was bringing them some pretty bad PR?

Also, a couple of months ago I asked you if the media had a responsibility to come up with a total for Iraqi civilian casualties in the face of the Administration/Pentagon's refusal to do so. You said you felt the media did have such a responsibility. But so far we've seen nothing, and frankly, I'm skeptical we ever will. This is disappointing, especially given how much the media profited financially from the war, sending its "embedded" reporters along for the ride, and providing us all with so much live-from-the-scene-reality-TV-eat-you-heart-out nonstop, 24 hr. coverage.

Howard Kurtz: It's hard to know what the story is on the museum artifacts, though even if the 6,000 figure is accurate, that hardly approaches the earlier reporting of 170,000 stolen artifacts. But I haven't seen any evidence that an administration plot is to blame. Also, it may well be that there's no way for either the U.S. military or journalists to come up with a definitive figure on how many Iraqi civilians were killed, though a reasonable estimate shouldn't be that difficult.


Annapolis, Md.: Tim Russert's unrelenting pressure on Dean was great. I only wished he used the same level of "attack" on all of his guests. Dean turned out to be an easy target (he would allow himself to be on the defensive).

If Tim could just figure out a way to keep the pressure on those who smoothly side-step issues it would be wonderful. The next time Powell is on, I hope he goes after the specifics on WMD. For example, where are they? If they don't know, then that means we have moved from (a) contained WMD in Iraq to (b) WMD dispersed to who knows where. Every time I hear him talk he keeps saying things like "I can't say things that are secret" or "I am sure we will find them eventually". That is way too fuzzy to be acceptable at this stage.

Howard Kurtz: Fair enough.


Reston, Va.: Maybe I'm just beginning to pay attention, but it seems to me that there has been an unusual interest recently in how religion is portrayed both in the news media and in the entertainment industry. The CBS Evening news had an 'Eye on America' segment on this topic last week, the Post's June religion question is on this same topic, and a number of news organizations have produced stories on the allegedly increasing influence of religious filmmakers who are pushing for more values driven projects in Hollywood, both film and TV. It seems to me that in the past, such things wouldn't have stood a chance of hitting the press's radar screen, so why the attention now?

Howard Kurtz: Religion is one of the great under covered topics in the media. The only network that had a religion reporter was ABC, and I believe that journalist has moved on and not been replaced. Not sure if there's been a resurgence lately, although the question of religious themes in movies may be driven in part by an interest in all things Hollywood.


Minnesota: What did you think about Dean's comments about gay's marrying on Meet the Press yesterday? It seemed to me that the issue was more muddled after he was done talking. How can he be on the cover of the Advocate with those views?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't find his position that hard to grasp. Dean argues that gay couples ought to have the same equal rights as everyone else when it comes to insurance, benefits, hospital visits, etc., regardless of whether they're seen as "married." He also said that each state should make its own decision and he wouldn't impose Vermont's model on the rest of the country.


Kansas City, Mo.: It's fine for Russert to be tough if he's tough on everyone. I thought the 2000 election was finalized when he got Lieberman to say they should give military ballots special review. Russert wasn't as indignant about regular people's votes getting tossed. It's been awhile since I read the Post's book, but I thought it said this led to the "Thanksgiving Stuffing" by the GOP of the ballot being recounted.

Howard Kurtz: Well, but you say he "got Lieberman" to say that. Russert asked the question and Joe Lieberman gave the answer -- an answer that angered the Gore campaign because it deviated from the veep's position. I don't see where Tim Russert can be blamed for the answer that a vice-presidential candidate chooses to give in response to a legitimate question.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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