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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 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.


Medford, Ore.: I'm a big fan of media disecction, and consider you the dean. I am simply flabbergasted at the wall-to-wall coverage surrounding the passing of il Papa. Turning to CNN for your take yesterday morning, of course I met only with a series of smiling insipid faces (I'm sorry, but not only does the coverage never end, it is for the most part grossly inappropriate in tone) adding nothing new to the media orgy, but relenting not. Yout analysis of the fray? Your take? Thanks for the great work.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, my show was preempted, along with many other shows, for wall-to-wall Pope coverage. I understand that this, unlike Terri Schiavo or Robert Blake or any of the other recent media obsessions, is a story of great importance to millions of people around the world. Although the Pope's death was hardly unexpected--he was 84 and had Parkinson's--he was one of the most important people in the world and had inspired many during his reign (while also drawing critics of some of his policies, which television has rarely touched on). But you do come to the point where you wonder how much coverage is too much, and whether it's right for everything else to be blown off the radar screen, at least on cable.


Syracuse, N.Y.: On Sunday morning, I opened The New York Times expecting pages of material on the life and death of the Pope. Yet the extent of their coverage was a few articles in the front section and one article in the Week in Review. The Post, on the other hand, published a full special section, which I believe is more fitting to the historic nature of the occasion. Mr. Kurtz, why do you think that the Times was so skimpy in its coverage, especially given that it has tended towards going overboard on other subjects (such as the Iraq war or Sept. 11)? I'm not Catholic but I was quite shocked at the lack of material.

Howard Kurtz: I just checked and the Times had a special section on John Paul yesterday as well, along with a number of news articles. I didn't find the paper's coverage to be skimpy at all.


Washington, D.C.: I don't have a question, but since the media often gets trashed in this chat--sometimes deservedly, sometimes not--I just wanted to say I thought the networks' handling of the Pope's death was pretty classy. Interuptions for news when it broke, and then a return to the normal broadcast schedule. And best of all, I didn't see one talking head try and draw comparisons between the Pope's death and Terri Schiavo's.

Howard Kurtz: Your view has been duly recorded. There has been some chatter about the fact that Brian Williams and Bob Schieffer didn't anchor when the news broke Saturday (Peter Jennings did), but I don't think that necessarily detracts from the coverage or that anchors can be on duty every second of every day. Fox, meanwhile, had the unfortunate incident of announcing the Pope's death Friday, based on wire reports out of Italy, and then apologizing.


Arlington, Va.: In your article today, you mention the TelePromTer. Why are the three letters, T, P and T again, capitalized?

Howard Kurtz: I believe it's because some company trademarked the name and spelled it that way.


Ft. Belvior, Va.: Please address the discrepancy between the memo story that appeared in the print edition of the Post, and the version distributed through various wire services with the byline "The Washington Post" instead of a specific reporter. The wire service reports specifically claim the memo was distributed by Republican leaders, which differs significantly from what the Post printed. Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I address this in my column today. The Washington Post's news service, which sent out an early version of the story, has now moved an advisory correcting some, but not all, of the Post reporters' story that appeared in a number of other newspapers but not in The Washington Post.


Boston, Mass.: Last week you mentioned a reporter who was sued for reporting that some city councilors leveled outrageous claims against other city councilors. I always thought an absolute defense against libel was proving that what you printed was true. So if in fact the other councilors did say those awful things, then how can the reporter be sued? Unless he somehow implied the charges were true?

Howard Kurtz: There is no absolute defense that something is true, although news organizations certainly use that when defending against libel suits. If Jones calls Smith a thief and a newspaper accurately publishes that, it does not mean that Smith is a thief, and this particular court ruling says a Pennsylvania newspaper is liable for carrying that, even though it's true that one politician said it about other pols.


Alexandria, Va.: Until Thursday (the day Terri Schivao died) I had no idea how sick the Pope was. Did I miss the stories and articles or were updates on the Pope considered less important by the press than updates on a woman in Florida?

Howard Kurtz: You just missed them. There had been a fair amount of coverage as he went in and out of the hospital earlier and then returned.


Portland, Ore.: Mr. Kurtz:

While several media outlets, including the Post, are doing an excellent job with their coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II, it does remind me that we get very little coverage of religion most of the time. Given the importance of religion to the lives of tens of millions of Americans and its influence, positive or not, on political debates, why doesn't the media devote more resources to coverage of religion on an ongoing basis? Related to that is another question: Why do you think surveys show reporters are substantially less religiously observant than the population as a whole?

Howard Kurtz: I've never fully understood this. None of the networks has a fulltime religion reporter. Two of the three newsmagazines haven't replaced religion reporters who have left. Some newspapers do a good job, but in general it seems like the media shy away from a subject of vital interest to millions of Americans, except perhaps for stories about Christianity at Christmas and Easter time. One possible explanation is that news organizations are wary of offending people of faith, or of other denominations, or other faiths, or no faith. Religion seems to be covered mainly where it intersects with politics, such as Christian conservatives getting involved with debates over euthanasia, teaching of creationism, abortion and gay rights.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think that the media has overestimated how much people really care about the Pope and his death? Certainly many do care, but not so much to warrent the endless coverage.

I suspect that as with Michael Jackson and Terry Shaivo, they're just happy to have something the drone about endlessly. Much easier than trying to dig up new stories.

Howard Kurtz: I've talked to many people who feel the coverage has been overdone. Certainly many non-Catholics and non-Christians must feel a sense of exclusion in the overwhelming nature of the coverage, even those who recognize the Pope was an important religious leader and historical figure. And since John Paul was appointed in 1978, this sort of turnover at the Vatican doesn't happen very often. But I'll bet that cable news ratings are three and four times higher than usual, which is a reminder of how that business works. A "hot" story (a la Schiavo) doesn't have to matter to everyone; it just has to pull in an additional 500,000 or million viewers who are strongly interested to make it worthwhile for cable networks to overdose on it.


Columbus, Ohio: Do you find it ironic that two of the world's leading conservatives -- former President Reagan and Pope John Paul II -- died on Saturday afternoons EST -- too late for that national edition of the New York Times?

Howard Kurtz: But the Pope died about 3 pm EST, which isn't too late at all. Besdies, the Times and other papers were clearly going to blowout coverage whether the Pope died or not, since he was clearly gravely ill by Saturday and on the verge of death.


Re: Pope: I see the recent coverage of the Pope's death as very similar to the coverage of Reagan's death. Neither death was unexpected, so there were a great deal of mini-shows already in the can to use. Plus 24/7 coverage. Plus most, if not all, positive reflections.

I don't think you should deride someone who's just died, but isn't this a very, very good time for us to assess what exactly John Paul was and what he wasn't? Why are media organizations so hesitant to do that?

Howard Kurtz: Some news organizations have run balanced pieces that have included criticism of the Pope for his stands on abortion and birth control, for example, or not being aggressive enough in response to the child molestation scandals. But television has a great tendency to stay mostly positive after someone has died. This was particularly noticeable, as I wrote at the time, after Reagan's death, when criticism of his presidency was mostly minimized or whitewashed. My view is that the normal standards of journalism should prevail after someone has passed away, especially after the initial 24 hours.


Arlington, Va.: As for "overcoverage" of the Pope, wouldn't you agree that he's at least as globally important as John F. Kennedy, Jr.?

Howard Kurtz: That's probably true. Some believe there's no way to "overcover" this story. I'm simply raising the question of whether all other news--the selection of top government officials in Iraq, Sandy Berger's guilty plea, the presidential commission report on the WMD fiasco--should be minimized or lost while the world mourns the passing of the 84-year-old Pope. Unlike JFK, of course, the Pope did not die suddenly in the prime of his life.


Washington, D.C.: I've heard the suggestion from some people that we ought to watch the newspapers very closely this week, as elected officials may try to release stories that they'd like to have buried by coverage of the Pope's death and the appoitment of a new pope.

How cynical is this? How likely?

Howard Kurtz: Hey, if I were about to plead guilty to something, I'd do it now.


Washington, D.C.: The earleir questioner who stated the classy level of reporting for not comparing Schiavo to the Pope must not have watched Fox News. Brit Hume did just that -- compared Schiavo's death to the Pope. Anyway my comment is that I no longer want to hear from the 24 hour news people that they simply can't cover any story in-depth. Any person watching the wall-to-wall coverage this weekend could see very in-depth reporting. So is it just because this story was easy to go in-depth? Most of the info is very public?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it's absurd to compare the Pope and Schiavo deaths--certainly not in terms of media coverage, or in the fact that both had feeding tubes at the end of their lives. The difference, obviously, is that the Pope was a globally renowned religious leader and Terri Schiavo was an unknown Florida woman who would have died in obscurity had politicians and the media not seized on her case and her feuding family to make her a symbol of the right-to-die debate.


Skeptic in Washington, D.C.: While I'm truly respectful of some of the actions of Pope John Paul II, I have been fairly upset by a lack of any mention of some glaring problems during his reign. This has been an extraordinarily conservative Papacy and one beset by real issues of child molestation here in the U.S. Are we so obsessed with commemorating the Pope that these are off-limits?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think they should be off limits. Obviously, no Pope or religious leader can be responsible for everything that happens in a worldwide institution like the church, but John Paul was criticized in life for his handling of the issue, which to me means it's worthy of mention now as part of a balanced look at his career.


Greenbelt, Md.: Thanks for writing about the wonderful Ted Koppel today. I remember how, in the 1980s, he got the chance to interview a lot of people who otherwise would not have consented to be interviewed in front of a camera. In particular, I remember a night in 1987, during the "glasnost" era, when "Nightline" was being simultaneously broadcast for the first time as a morning show on Soviet TV. Koppel had to keep apologizing to his Soviet viewers for "doing something that is incomprehensible for many of our viewers today, which is to pause for something called 'commercials.'"

Howard Kurtz: People forget what a groundbreaking role Nightline played in the early years with those kinds of interviews. The program has had to evolve, of course, but continued to distinguish itself by going on the road to cover difficult and complicated stories. Whether the "new" Nightline, with a live format and different anchors, can make its mark journalistically remains to be seen.


Baltimore, Md.: Did you find the "Papal Death Watch" on Thursday and Friday a little disrespectful? The Pope has had last rites! The Pope is breathing shallowly? How are the Holy Kidneys holding up? The Pope is dead, says Fox! No not yet.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't find it disrespectful -- news organizations were trying to stay on top of a huge story -- but it had its absurd moments. On television especially, you had anchors and correspondents filling 24 hours a day with little new information, except for occasional Vatican statements about the pope's deteriorating condition. The "death watch" is an awkward spectacle for the media, yet no one wants to be last with the news.


Not a Pope Question...: So, any bold predictions for the Pulitzers? Any dark horses you care to wager on?

Howard Kurtz: Since we'll all find out in 2-1/2 hours, I'll save my money.


Arlington, Va.: Just a curious question about the Pope's coverage. Were networks grappling with the issue of the Pope staying in a deteriated state for more than a few days?

This is a difficult quesion to ask, but what was going on behind the cable news scenes as to how long the vigil was going to be covered?

Howard Kurtz: What was going on was that news organizations were gearing up with all kinds of special coverage plans to follow the Pope's death, while in the awkward position of covering a man who was not yet dead but seemed likely to die soon.


Iowa: I am frankly astonished at the level of media coverage of the passing of the Pope, and I am Catholic. At this point it is far too early to make an assessment of the ultimate results of his papacy-both for the Church and for the larger world in which it operates. Are we now to expect this sort of wall-to-wall coverage anytime an iconic figure passes on?

Howard Kurtz: Short answer: yes. Even when a non-iconic figure (initials: T.S.) passes. This seems to be how the media operate today.


Chicago, Ill: Perhaps there aren't more reports on religion because its not news. What are you going to report -- church attendance? And no reporter could ever be critical of a religion's stance on a certain topic. Its a non-issue used by religious people (read Christians) to point to some imaginary bias in the news.

Howard Kurtz: It's not news? I beg to differ. There are debates raging within every religion about the most important questions of life and death. Religious beliefs play an increasingly important role in our politics. Name an issue - birth control, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, death penalty, stem cell research, euthanasia, what is taught in public schools -- and religion and religious people play a role.


Houston, Tex.: I have watched you on the program Reliable Sources where 'the media critiques itself'. Well the excessive coverage of the Terry Schivo story which then went into continuous coverage on CNN, MSNBC,FOX or any other cable or satellite news station you can think of, on the dying and then death of the Pope is outrageous. Most people have to purchase either cable or satellite services because TV reception without them is impossible in most urban and rural areas. Is it too much to expect a 'news' station like CNN to broadcast the news? Instead we have endless discussions from program to program with so called 'experts' or 'insiders' about whatever the Media has designated as the story of the hour. I no longer watch CNN or MSNBC. I have decided to vote with my remote. I hope that others will do the same and maybe CNN will get the message, but it's a large corporation so they really don't care about the consumer. Is there anything that the FCC can do about this problem?

Howard Kurtz: You're entitled to your view and to vote with your remote (or with your quarters in the newspaper equivalent). But I don't think you want the government stepping into decisions of how news organizations decide what to cover. It would also be a violation of the First Amendment. The FCC can get into subjects like obscenity because the television airwaves are licensed by the public, but I don't want political appointees telling journalists how much Pope coverage they should or shouldn't have.


Ellicott City, Md.: Yes, the Pope's death is a major story. But it has reached the point where everything else is pushed aside. Today, the CNN web site doesn't have any other headline stories but those dealing with the pope. This was not an unexpected death, this is really only affects the Roman Catholics in the population (a minority), so why the 24/7 saturation coverage? Slow news week?

Must admit though, it has taken Terri's plight off the front page.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it doesn't only affect Catholics, but when a news Web site has no other story, it does make you wonder if other important events are getting short shrift, or no shrift.


Washington, D.C.: In your column, you ask, "What is it about Koppel's generation of larger-than-life anchors that their careers became so intertwined with the narrative of American history as experienced through the small screen?"

When there were only a few news outlets, the anchors thereon had a "gatekeeper" role that doesn't really exist anymore. Also, younger reporters presumably grew up wanting to be the next Cronkite or Koppel, etc., so the larger-than-life quality would be partly just a function of the media lionizing their own heroes.

Howard Kurtz: You are right on the gatekeeper role, as I mentioned in my column. But people like Koppel, Rather and Brokaw remained major figures over the last 15 years, despite shrinking audiences and growing competition from cable, talk radio and the Internet, so obviously they have some kind of staying power. Besides, while their audiences will never return to Cronkite-like levels, the evening news broadcasts alone still reach a combined 30 million people, which even in an age of fragmentation is the biggest soapbox around.


Washington, D.C.: Don't you think the Republicans-For-Hillary-in-'08 sound a little off-key, like perhaps they're trying to entice her to run? Whenever Peggy Noonan expresses any trepidation about the Clintons, I have to wonder..

Howard Kurtz: I don't think they're FOR Hillary, but they love to keep talking and arguing about Hillary. Which, by the way, is also true of most political reporters and pundits.


Springfield, Va.: Please thank your staff for a well written obit for Frank Perdue. He really was an amazing marketer and an interesting person -- I think that this came across in the obit.

washingtonpost.com: Poultry Magnate Frank Perdue, 84, Dies (Post, April 1)

Howard Kurtz: It takes a tough editorial writer to make a tender review of Purdue's life.


New York, N.Y.: I guess I'm the liberal you were expecting to hear from. When will you and the MSM stop referring to The New Republic (or Peter Beinart or Marty Peretz) as a liberal magazine? It hasn't been "liberal" for some time. If it's not Beinart berating "liberals" for supporting Move On and other populist democratic movements it's Peretz unctuous uncritical support of Israel flailing about in some sort of human rights free zone. I won't bother to remind you that the conservatives favorite gay person, self described conservative Andrew Sullivan, was a past editor. This is why no one wants to identify as "liberal" -- they might get mixed up with the aforementioned creeps.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's a magazine that supports Democratic candidates and supports the Democratic Party, although it also criticizes some Democratic dogma. Yes, the New Republic supported the Iraq war and yes, Andrew Sullivan was its editor a decade ago, but Peter Beinart certainly describes himself as a (somewhat hawkish) liberal, and most of the magazine's prominent writers have a liberal orientation. Which is why it's news when Al Gore pal and New Republic owner Marty Peretz writes a cover story saying Dems aren't giving Bush enough credit for his foreign policy achievements.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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