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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2005; 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.


Rockville, Md.: A few weeks ago, I saw Ben Bradlee speak at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Mr. Bradlee was asked about an editorial position the Post had taken. In response, he said that he never got involved in the editorial positions of the Post so he could not comment. Is this a common practice that the executive editor is removed from the editorial stance of a newspaper? Is the publisher similarly removed?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, it's extremely common at many (but not all) newspapers. Bradlee's successor, Len Downie, has nothing to do with the editorial page, and the editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, has no influence over the news coverage. The publisher (not to mention the CEO) is a different story, however. Publishers oversee the editorial page because the page is speaking for the newspaper.


Geneva, Switzerland: How did the Post play the story of Eason Jordan's resignation from CNN? The International Herald Tribune, which has gone downhill since the Post is no longer part of it, played the story on page 14 in the Business section! This is not a business story, it's a political one.

It shows how the US media is self-censoring and defining news value according to political pressure and ratings.

As an American doing journalism training in former authoritarian countries, I am already getting flack. Who am I to talk to others about free and independent journalism they rightly ask?

Howard Kurtz: Even though the Jordan resignation story broke late, at 7 pm, The Post put it on the front page, unlike several other major newspapers. There's no question it was an important story, which is why I did a follow-up yesterday on the role of bloggers in that and other high-profile media controversies.


Gaithersburg, Md.: It would seem that your own bias slipped through in today's column when you wrote, "So why is a Washington think tank funneling money to universities to encourage liberal journalism? Isn't that a bit like pumping sand into the Mojave Desert?"

Bias wouldn't matter if the media were printing the truth and organizing it appropriately. Often times stories get an amount of play that is disproportionate to their relative importance. It seems as though the media is very susceptable to Manipulation by Deluge--important stories are lost from the public's eye by flooding the zone with many related but relatively unimportant stories. For example, a dozen stories about correspondants on NPR or wherever else who have accepted contract work with agencies/companies/etc who they might end up covering will drown out stories about comentators paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to actively support a specific policy through their coverage.

Howard Kurtz: It was a tongue-in-cheek line, not a biased one. It would seem to the average person that college campuses are basically liberal and so would not need an infusion of cash from a liberal Washington organization. The rest of the item basically was devoted to the folks at the Center for American Progress explaining why they think their efforts are necessary in light of the much larger conservative grants to student groups and publications.


Ellicott City, Md.: I find it surreal that both Deep Throats are getting attention at the same time 30 years later. Has anyone done a crosscheck of assumed Nixon Deep Throat's vs. who is ill right now?

Howard Kurtz: Lots of people have -- William Rehnquist has frequently been noted -- but it's not an established fact that Deep Throat is ill. John Dean says Bob Woodward told this to Post Editor Len Downie, but Downie says they had no such conversation. How does Dean know this anyway? He's got his own Deep Throat, an unnamed source he won't identify.


Charlottesville, Va.: Howie, why did Eason Jordan resign? Couldn't he have called for release of the video footage of his comments? Surely they can't be as bad as everyone says -- calling our troops murderers who intentionally target journalists. Or... could they be worse?

Howard Kurtz: Many people are saying that Jordan SHOULD have asked the Davos conference organizers to release the videotape, and I don't know why he did not. Perhaps he didn't believe it would vindicate him. Nor do I know why he chose to resign, although I've reported that he did so under some pressure from CNN management.


Victoria, B.C., Canada: What is your explanation for the poor coverage of the Eason Jordan talk at the Davos forum? Why are not serious investigative reporters from the MSM pushing the questions that occur to the average man on the street: What did Eason Jorday actually say? Why did he back away from it, but all accounts of others present, when present? Was it because he had no evidence for such an incinderary charge against the US Military in Iraq? Why this pattern of Jordan's to make such accusations in previous years? Why do the head honchos in Davos not release the tape, or a transcript of the actual forum speeches and discussion? Is it part of a cover-up? Do MSM types cozy up to Europeans and use this kind of inflammatory accusations to get brownie points with them. You see where I'm headed: How do you explain what happened and why Jorday felt he had to resign?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know why the Davos folks don't release the tape, even though it was billed as an off-the-record session, and I bet they would have had Jordan made the request. As to the coverage, the fact is that there were stories this week in The Washington Post (by me), Boston Globe, Miami Herald and finally the AP, along with a column by a Wall Street Journal editorialist who was there. Other than a few talk show segments, that's it. There was nothing in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, USA Today and others before the resignation or on the broadcast networks as far as I could tell.


Boston, Mass.: Howard-

Do you find it scary that a guy using a fake name got access to the White House and eventually made it within 50 feet of the President during a news conference?

Howard Kurtz: No, because "Jeff Gannon" obviously had to give his real name to the Secret Service to get in. There are lots of questions to be asked about his role and the fact that he got these daily credentials, but I don't think there was a security concern.


From the grave...: Edward R. Murrow here. I don't speak out very often, but I have to say, to the pundits and demagogues that pass themselves off as journalists, cut it out. That's it. Just stop. Readers and viewers used to believe what we read and reported as news was the truth and not some shaded and jaded version of the truth. Not anymore. Greed, ego, and media oligopolies have put a stop to that. Go back and watch Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley. And then watch what passes as news now. I don't want to spin in my grave, but you'll have to notice a difference. Jon Stewart hit it right on the head. Stop it. Cut it out.

Howard Kurtz: Of course, you, Mr. Murrow, interviewed celebrities on your "Person to Person" show, so it wasn't only hard news even in the good old days.


Reston, Va.: Why have you shifted the focus in the Gannon/Guckert story from the fact that a man who received a stipend from a conservative web site connected to a conservative, Texas Republican, and who could not qualify for a Congressional press pass, attended White House press briefings for over two years using daily passes, where Scott McClellan and Pres. Bush both called on him? Why is your focus instead on allegedly 'personal stuff' people supposedly said about Guckert? If people merely shared the information that Guckert/Gannon had registered certain web sites that featured his picture, isn't that public information, rather than private? And why, when you are careful to identify certain blogs as liberal, don't you do the same about blogs like instapundit, which are run by conservatives?

Howard Kurtz: Let's be clear here. I thought there was enough controversy about Jeff Gannon to interview him (and the Texas Republican activist who owns the two sites he writes for) before he resigned, and to write that the question he asked Bush was not only loaded but inaccurate. But there is no question that he resigned because of the personal information that was dug up on him, a tactic that even some liberal bloggers have criticized. I also interviewed Kos about why he felt the tactic was justified. So I've provided all sides.


Washington, D.C.: Good couple of columns yesterday and today. What I find most disconcerting about the payola to journalists that you wrote about today is the utter lack of responsibility they show once they get caught. They honestly don't believe they have done anything wrong. Have journalistic standards at B-level publications (not like The Post or even the Washington Times) really fallen that much?

Howard Kurtz: I'll leave that to the readers to judge. In the case of Eric Wesson, he was kind enough to talk to me but sees absolutely nothing wrong in what he did. And the editor of his newspaper had no comment, so I guess she thinks it's okay. The congressman whose campaign paid Wesson while he was covering the campaign also sees no ethical issue there.


Lebanon, Tenn.: Re: Jordan Eason

Among police officers it is called the "Blue Wall of Silence".

What is the proper term for Main Stream Media's wall of silence regarding Mr. Eason after his anti-US Military gaffe but before his resignation.

Howard Kurtz: Not all of the mainstream media, as I noted earlier. But I understand your point.


Alexandria, Va.: I've noticed that there has not been a clamor among conservative journalists and talking heads, all shouting from the rooftops that they are not taking government money. To me that says that they are and are just hoping it won't come out.

Am I reading too much into this silence, or do you think there will be a steady stream of "payola pundits" showing up before this blows over?

Howard Kurtz: There may be more, and new cases will probably come dribbling out. But I don't think it's fair to assume that most pundits are getting money just because they haven't put out a statement denying it. And there's no reason to think that conservatives have a monopoly on this, as my column this morning suggests.


Beaufort, S.C.: re "Jeff Gannon" --

How likely do you think it is that Gannon was hired/enlisted by the Bush PR team to work/act as a shill at press conferences?

Howard Kurtz: Great story, if true, but I've seen no evidence of it.


Dayton, Ohio: Isn't the pundit payola scandal part of the larger erosion of factual reporting into opinion-laden reporting? There used to be a clear distinction between reporters and columnists; to a great degree, that distinction is gone.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that's true. You're thinking of "reporters" as the people who pop off on TV. Ninety-nine percent of reporters toil away for newspapers, magazines and straight news broadcasts, they're not famous, and while they're far from perfect, their job is to gather facts, not to spew opinions.


Manhattan, N.Y.: One of your guests on your CNN show this weekend made the comment, in reference to the blogosphere, that everyone is a journalist now. This supports a belief I have, which was rather unpopular among my coworkers when I was a reporter for a national magazine. And that was that anyone can be a reporter. It's not much different from coming home from work or school and answering the question: how was your day? Anyone knows to lead with the most interesting point. Almost every instinctively retells stories in the inverted pyramid.

Maybe this is why so many main stream journalist disparage bloggers: the truth hurts.

Howard Kurtz: I'd suggest that being a successful reporter is just a wee bit harder--you've got to have some skill at writing, at interviewing people, at digesting large amounts of material, and doing it under deadline pressure. But Jeff Jarvis (the guest on my show you cited) is right when he says that in the age of bloggers, anyone can be a journalist. But there are many different levels of journalist in this digital age.


Louisville, Colo.: Howard Dean's fame was a creation of the pre-Iowa Democratic campaign that received far more media coverage than ever in history. Now Dean's ascendency to DNC chairman has received media coverage that is thousands of time more intense than the selection of any other party chair in history.

This strikes me as strong media bias in favor of the Democratic party. The only other possible explanation is that news media can't find anything important or useful to focus on. Which is it?

Howard Kurtz: You could certainly argue that Dean benefited from a lot of media hype before the Iowa caucuses, although raising $40 million and mobilizing a grass-roots army didn't hurt. You could just as easily argue that the press helped bring Dean down in the primaries with an avalanche of negative stories punctuated by the endless scream coverage. Leaving that aside, Dean's ascension to head of the DNC has properly received a lot of coverage. One, it was an outsider upending the party establishment. Two, if there's another case of a former presidential candidate taking over as party chairman, I can't think of it. Three, the Democrats are in such disarray right now -- which the supposedly liberal press has made painfully clear -- that whoever won the DNC job was going to get a lot of attention because temporarily, at least, he will be the face of the party.


Arlington, Va.: Wait a minute... you just wrote "No, because 'Jeff Gannon' obviously had to give his real name to the Secret Service to get in. "

You know this for a fact? I haven't heard any news accounts about what name he gave the Secret Service. Is this a verfied fact or just your opinion? Please clarify for your on-line readers.

Howard Kurtz: That's what Scott McClellan has said.


Kensington, Md.: Didn't US airplanes also strike the Baghdad headquarters for Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV the same day they killed journalists at the Palestine Hotel? I believe at least one journalist was killed in those attacks. Maybe they don't count because they were televising Iraqi civilian deaths, and therefore were legitimate Pentagon targets? After all, we have the right to kill any messenger who gets in the way of our geopolitical ambitions.

Howard Kurtz: The Al-Jazeera office was bombed on the same day, or within a day, of the U.S. shelling of the Palestine Hotel, where 100 foreign journalists were known to be staying, killing two cameramen. There's a definite debate about whether the military has been too careless, even reckless, in these and other cases. That's a far cry, though, from the notion of deliberately targeting journalists.


Baltimore, Md.: I saw you on CNN with Wolf Blitzer and the both of you seemed to be going out of your way to defend the "reporter" Jeff Gannon. Where is the upside in main stream journalists defending a right wing plant? Don't you think this kind of pandering to the right wing is exactly the reason that so many seek out truth on the Internet?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not pandering to anyone. I've criticized Gannon/Guckert for asking Bush a loaded and inaccurate question of Bush and for being so aggressively conservative in his writing that it raises questions about his journalism. I was simply making the point that there are some out-and-out liberal columnists in the White House briefing room as well, and you can't make the case that it's okay for them to be there but not a self-described conservative.


Cleveland, Ohio: Would blogs be as powerful as they are if they were trying to serve the same mass audience as the mainstream media?

I love reading blogs, but it seems to me that a lot of their effectiveness comes from being able to hammer at points, over and over, to an elite audience. Newspapers that try to do the same would come off as shrill, because most readers wouldn't care about any particular subject and would wonder why the paper seems to have such an agenda.

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't say it's an "elite" audience--anyone can start a blog, and anyone with a computer can read them--but they certainly don't have to worry, as newspapers do, about offending advertisers or little old ladies. Bloggers can be as partisan or shrill or repetitive as they like (and many are also thoughtful, reasonable and fair). That's what is fun about the blogosphere and gives it great energy, but obviously it's a different enterprise from a big organization that has editors and lawyers and other checks on what can be published.


Arlington, Va.: I'm sorry.. one more question on the Jeff Ganon thing. I just looked at the White House web-site, and I don't think you accurately reflected what McClellan actually said.

Q: So he was being cleared under James Guckert, or whatever his name is?

MR. McCLELLAN: My understanding, yes.

So, to clarify, we really don't yet know whether Gannon provided his real name or not, correct? Your statement that he "obviously" proivided his real namer is actually unsupported by McClellan or any facts that I've yet seen.

And if he did not provide his real name, that would be criminal, correct?

Howard Kurtz: McClellan told me the same thing. And yes, it would be a crime to lie to the Secret Service. But no matter how much the White House may have loved Gannon, I can't see how he could be cleared in with a fake name, since (as one who's been through the process a few zillion times) you also have to provide your date of birth and Social Security number.


Washington, D.C.: Do you honestly think that if a person writing for a liberal web-only newsletter, funded by say, Teresa Heinz Kerry, using a false name, applied for a press pass (even a daily one) to the White House, that they would be approved?

I'm really curious if this would work both ways.

Howard Kurtz: Not under a false name, no. But one person who regularly gets cleared into the White House is Russell Mokhiber, who writes for Corporate Crime Reporter and supported Ralph Nader. I think if Kos showed up and asked for a White House day pass (and used his real name, not Kos), he would be let in because he has a popular site. (If not, he would blog about it and we'd have a new controversy.)


Philadelphia, Pa.: Howard,

While I appreciate that bloggers will cover subjects that the mainstream media either ignores or treats less seriously, who exactly are these bloggers accountable to? It seems to me that as opposed to a regular reporter (who would be held accountable by his/her editors, etc.) a blogger can essentially spread unsubstantiated rumors and damage a person's reputation, and yet be accountable to no one.

Howard Kurtz: That's exactly right. That is both the promise and the peril of the blogosphere. People have the freedom to say whatever they want without the annoyance of editors, fact-checkers, CEOs, you name it, but they also are free to float rumors and innuendo and to pulverize people without calling them to get their side. It's up to discerning readers to figure out who they trust, who they sinmply find entertaining and who they don't want to click on.


Falls Church, Va.: Manhattan wrote: "...anyone can be a reporter."

Yes, and a hamburger is just a hamburger. How much difference could there be between one and another? And since McDonalds sells the most, they must make the best hamburger in the world, right?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I like the journalistic hamburger served up by The Post. And it's only 35 cents, cheaper than Mickey D's.


Blogging isn't reporting: Bloggers are to journalism what "Entertaiment Tonight" is to television news -- nothing more than infotainment and gossip. Furthermore, someone who relies on bloggers for information (or newspaper columns) is performing the same quality fact-checking that led to situations such as Jayson Blair and Dan Rather's early retirement.

Finally, your bio indicates that you do an awful lot of TV moonlighting away from the Post. How do we know that you are not just another pundit paid to advocate blogging?

Howard Kurtz: You can look at what I write in The Washington Post virtually every day and decide whether I'm worth reading or not. Same goes for my TV appearances -- you can always click me off.
Many bloggers do provide entertainment, but some of these folks, I must tell you, are really smart and thought-provoking and cover things the mainstream media miss or miminize, or from different angles than we working stiffs might have thought of.


New York, N.Y.: Howard,

I beleive it was Bill Press on Sunday's "Reliabale Sources" who brought up the lack of outrage by the White House press corps regarding "Mr. Gannon."

In practical terms, what could an aggrieved member of the press corps have done, without suffering repercussions from the White House?

Howard Kurtz: Called a reporter -- say, me -- to question what Gannon was doing. Or report it himself or herself. And not worry about any White House repercussions.


Reston, Va.: How come no one seems to make a stink (besides me) about the transparent use of "new" programs to cross promote the parent networks' television programs. I saw on ABC's PrimeTime Live that Diane Sawyer had an "exclusive" interview with Terri Hatcher of Desperate Houswives, which is also on ABC. Was landing that interview really such a coup? Do you think Dian Sawyer would interview cast members from CSI, which is a CBS program?

This is just one example, but as you know it's goes on all the time. Every single day. But just because everyone does it, does this make it right?

Howard Kurtz: No, it's cheesy. And I've written about it from time to time, whether it's CBS's morning show plugging Survivor, NBC's Today and Dateline promoting Trump, or ABC's Good Morning America taking the show to Disney World. But it should probably be a bigger issue than it is.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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