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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 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)

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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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Riverdale, Md.: Hello Howie,

It's a fact -- not a matter of opinion -- that the first US reaction to the tsunami disaster was weaker and later than those of other governments.

However, it was my impression that the US media tended to avoid reporting this unfavorable comparison. The comparison, if it was made at all, appeared in editorials, not in news stories.

So, Howie, do you think the US media, in trying to avoid criticising the White House, under-reported the feebleness of the initial US reaction to the tsunami?

Howard Kurtz: Gee, that wasn't my impression.
Washington Post, Dec. 29: "The Bush administration more than doubled its financial commitment yesterday to provide relief to nations suffering from the Indian Ocean tsunami, amid complaints that the vacationing President Bush has been insensitive to a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions...Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in morning television appearances, chafed at a top U.N. aid official's comment on Monday that wealthy countries were being stingy with aid."
Washington Post, Dec. 30: "Bush's remarks followed several days of criticism that the United States has not been as swift or as generous as other countries in its response."
This was all when the U.S. contribution was $35 million, not the current $350 million.

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Annandale, Va.: I thought the Post's summary of Ronald Reagan's Presidency in your annual roundup of celebrity deaths went out of its way to emphasize the negative. Mentioning Iran-Contra and the increase in the deficit was certainly fair game, but there was not a word about the economic boom under his Presidency and the suggestion was made that his Nicaragua policy was a "failure." Hello, Nicaragua is now a democracy thanks to his policy of supporting the anti-Communist contras which put pressure on the Sandanistis to hold free election! Not to mention that his realistic hardline attitude toward the Soviets one of the prime causes of the collapse of the evil Empire just two years after he left office, something else the summary failed to even hint at.

washingtonpost.com: 40th President Became a Republican Icon (Post, Jan. 2)

Howard Kurtz: It didn't say the hotly disputed Nicaragua policy had failed. It said the following, after listing other foreign policy successes:
"But Reagan failed to mobilize public support on behalf of his favorite anti-communist insurgents, the Nicaraguan contras, whom he called 'the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.'"

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

You seem to spend an awful lot of time in these chats answering questions asking something along the lines of "Someone wrote something I don't agree with politically. Can you please make me feel better about myself by calling this 'journalistic bias' and reaffirming my own political ideology?"

Nine times out of 10, meanwhile, you answer with "No."

Given how valuable your time and insight is -- and especially considering your readers' relatively limited access to both -- why bother humoring these people? Surely there are more important things to discuss.

Howard Kurtz: I try to respond to a wide range of questions. Yes, some of the people who see media bias lurking behind every corner have very strong political views about Bush or Iraq or whatever (as I occasionally point out). But many other critics have legitimate beefs. Anyway, I think this is a good space for letting people vent, both pro and con, and I hope people appreciate my efforts to respond.

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Alexandria, Va.: Whenever there's a televised press briefing at one of the Executive Branch sites, the backdrop has an oval sign with the location ("The White House," "The Pentagon," etc.) with a picture of the building. Last week I saw that the same thing exists outside of Washington -- "The Western White House, Crawford, Texas." Does this really qualify in the same way, since it only exists because of the current president? Would we have had "The New England White House" if Kerry had been elected?

Howard Kurtz: Obviously, each White House can stage these things as they see fit. It's unofficial, of course, but each president's vacation area does serve as a sort of makeshift White House while he's there. So Crawford will lose that distinction in January 2009. Some WH reporters told me they were rooting for Kerry on at least one score: Having a New England White House at Nantucket or Western White House at Aspen would have beaten the many weeks they're now required to cool their heels in Waco.

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Ventnor, N.J.: Question re the Tsunami Disaster:
Mr. Kurtz:
Enlighten me if you can: The terrible tsunami that struck Southeast Asia, and is being mentioned all over the news media, is the same tsunami that has, also, struck Somalia and other parts of coastal Africa.
In fact, it is estimated that over 10,000 people, in Africa, have been affected. 10,000!... and yet, I hear little or no mention of Africa and how this tsunami has affected this area.
Why is that?
Or need I ask?
Sincerely

Howard Kurtz: I think Somalia has gotten its share of coverage, but when you have more than 100,000 dead in a few Asian countries, unfortunately that becomes the main story even when thousands are killed elsewhere.

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Vancouver, Canada: I am wondering about the speed of news reporting. For example, how long did it take the cable news networks to begin reporting last weeks disaster in Asia? Do stories like this normally break first on the Internet or on television? How important is it to be the first to report a big story?

Howard Kurtz: They usually break first on the wires and then more or less simulataneously on television and the Web. But television needed time with this tragedy, not only to get the pictures but to get correspondents to the hardest-hit areas, which I'm told was not an easy thing to do (most western news organizations don't usually have reporters stationed in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The WP got a front-page piece by reporter Michael Dobbs, who happened to be vacationing in Sri Lanka.)
The real innovation here has been all the blogs that have sprung up to chronicle the disaster with first-person accounts and video from folks who understand these areas, as well as info for victims' families. You simply wouldn't have seen this five years ago.

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Southern Maryland: I personally feel the US is doing a lot for the tsunami victims. $35 million to $350 million, helicopters landing with supplies, military personnel helping out, now the Navy is sending a hospital ship to help out... so to say the U.S. is not doing enough is hogwash. Good for Japan for putting up $500 million, we (the U.S.) do not always have to give the most in dollars, personnel, supplies.

Howard Kurtz: Duly noted.

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Washington, D.C.: There's been some talk about the role of blogs in the tsunami story. Are these bloggers new people who are writing about the tsunami event, or are they old blogs from the '04 campaign who have latched onto the newest mega-story?

Howard Kurtz: Well, both. Lots of exisitng bloggers have weighed in, but there have been brand-new sites that came seemingly out of nowhere to chronicle the disaster from places like Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

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Clifton, Va.: Don't understand the crtics of the President regarding his response to the disaster in South Asia. If he had shown his face on TV earlier they would have accused him of showboating or trying to use a disaster to repair his failed foreign policy. I dont see French, German or Russian ships, planes, choppers and military manpower helping out to the degree the US is.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think Bush would have been accused of grandstanding if he had made an early televised statement of sympathy for the victims. Like it or not, the journalistic focus often shifts to the White House in time of tragedy, and given the scope of this tragedy, it was somewhat odd that Bush remained secluded at the ranch. There was no reason for him to interrupt his vacation, but politics is all about symbolism, and the president saying nothing and the U.S. offering a measly $15 million in the early days seemed, intentionally or not, to be sending a message of indifference.

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Arlington, Va.: I have seen lots of tsunami pieces that focus on the stories of American or European tourists who survived. In particular, it seemed that most everyone was reporting from Thai resorts. Do you agree that there was a tilt toward these "here's another white person who survived" stories? Do you think that's because these stories are easier to cover, or some other reason?

Howard Kurtz: The cover of today's New York Post is a case in point: a photo of the ailing supermodel Petra Nemcova, who survived the tsunami, in a Thailand hospital bed. The former Sports Illustrated cover girl has gotten a lot of attention.
I think some western news organizations have sought out westerners because they want victims their audience can relate to, because of the inherent drama of a vacation turned tragedy, and because they need folks who speak English. But many correspondents have done a remarkable job, under difficult conditions, of interviewing Indonesian and Sri Lankan survivors and telling their stories.

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Columbia, Md.: I can't stand it when CNN pre-empts your show. Your show is the only thing worth watching ont he network. Seriously, was 23 hours and 30 minutes of Tsunami coverage not enough that they needed those extra thrity minutes to tell us the same thing over and over again? Your show probably would have covered the Tsunami coverage anyway, but at least we would have had a different angle to the story for thirty minutes.

Howard Kurtz: Well, thanks for noticing. CNN has gone all out on this disaster, it has the global work force to do it and its ratings have benefitted. But as I said on the air later in the day, it's awfully hard to take wall-to-wall coverage of this story, in part because relentless death and destruction is depressing. I think the network should make some time for other news stories if only to give the audience some moments of relief.

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Alexandria, Va.: Imagery of the tsunami victims has been very graphic and moving. Even on the network news at 6:30, when children may be watching, we see bloated corpses, corpses with arms or limbs sticking out due to rigor mortis, corpses of all ages. It is as strong as Matthew Brady photos from the Civil War.

It's hard to avoid remembering the networks' hesitance to show similarly explicit photos from Iraq, especially during the initial invasion. By comparison with this more straightforward coverage, that decision now seems like fearful self-censorship. Or is there some other difference I'm missing?

Howard Kurtz: I believe, and I've heard some war correspondents complain, that major news organizations were too timid in showing the casualties of the war in Iraq. You don't want gratuitously graphic pictures, but neither do you want to pretend that war is all about smart bombs and demolished buildings.

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Washington, D.C.: Kudos to the major news organizations, they proved what it takes to run a truly professional organization last week when the Post, NY Times, and CNN all amazed me with coverage of the Tsunami. I didn't go to Network news but I hear they did a pretty good job too. CNN, however, reinforces to the world why it is the global leader in news coverage with nearly 24-hour coverage of the Tsunami. This is, in my opinion, the largest catastrophe, and thus the largest news, the world has seen since the end of the Vietnam war, possibly since the end of WWII. Fox News and MSNBC could only pull in American people to comment on what the likelihood of a Tsunami hitting the US was while CNN had correspondents in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and Thailand DURING the event. Amazing stuff....they continue to do a wonderful job of bringing the tragedy to life for those of us thousands of miles away...

Howard Kurtz: I talked to one CNN correspondent, Mike Chinoy, who told me how difficult it was to get to Indonesia, how primitive are the conditions he and his crew and living under and how emotionally depressing it is to try to report on such widespread death and destruction. So while most of the big-name anchors were on vacation last week (though I see the new kid on the block, NBC's Brian Williams, will begin reporting from Indonesia tonight), many correspondents have done yeoman's work in trying to chronicle this tragedy.

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Hampton Cove, Ala.: I question the medias double standard in treating the tsunami response of President Bush and Kofi Annan. The Washington Post led the charge against Bush waiting the weekend to respond publicly, even though Colin Powell was constantly on TV on behalf of the administration. Yet, the MainStreamMedia was silent about Kofi Annan staying on vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming until Thursday. Don't you see why we don't trust you guys?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe we hold the president of the United States to a higher standard.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I understand the difficult of reporting from Iraq given the security situation (and the Post's Shadid has done a better job than anyone). Moreover, the consequences of the Tsunami rightfully dominates media coverage right now.

Still it seems important to hear more news about Fallujah, a city with a population more than half that of Boston, and its displaced population. This story has largely fallen off much of the media's radar screen now. For more than two months now, 300,000 former residents of Fallujah have been dispossessed. How are they living? How has the situation shaped their political attitudes? What progress is being made in rebuilding and restoring services? When can the majority of residents again be able to live in their homes?

Howard Kurtz: I have read a couple of good pieces about the difficulties involved in people returning to Fallujah. But the whole Iraq situation has been washed off television and the front pages by the tsunami. Today's Washington Post has "Suicide Blast Kills 29 in Iraq" on Page A10, the last page of the World News section. I have little doubt that would have been played far more prominently if not for the disaster. But with the Jan. 30 elections approaching, Iraq is certain to come roaring back as a national and international story.

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New York, N.Y.: Iwould like to see more coverage on the politics and economics of the lack of a Tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean.

Howard Kurtz: So would I, but several big papers, including the L.A. Times, have taken a whack at it. It's quite remarkable that some scientists had some indications of this but no system for alerting the threatened countries, no phone numbers for reaching officials on a Sunday, etc.

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Ellicott City, Md.: Howard --
It took three days for our leadership to say anything about the tsunami crisis? I understand wanting to wait to measure the money to be metted out, but at least to say something about us being there for them, and offering sympathy? I mean on 9/11 every country seemed to say something that day, why the delay?

Howard Kurtz: I don't really have an explanation. By the second day it was clear this was a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions.

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Crystal Ball?: Mr. Kurtz:

Care to predict what you think will be the major trends/storylines in the media during 2005?

Thank you for holding these chats--I don't know how you do it, remaining so objective all the time!;

Howard Kurtz: Many thanks. I try to shy away from predictions because you usually wind up looking foolish, and who among us is so brilliant that we can peer into the future? But I think it's safe to say that Iraq will remain a huge story, that the battle over Social Security will dominate domestic politics for the next few months, and that cable will obsess over some murder case involving people no one has ever heard of before. Also, I hear the Super Bowl may be pretty big.

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Arlington, Va.: Is it a slow news week, or would the tsunamis received as much coverage at any other time of the year? It's over a week later, and nightly newscasts are still devoting 15 minutes to startup charties and local families from the affected areas. Morning shows are doing easily 30 minutes on it, stll.

Howard Kurtz: The fact that the Xmas/New Year's week is probably the slowest of the year--the president and Congress are off on vacation, along with most anchors and talk show hosts, Time and Newsweek don't bother to publish--undoubtedly gave the disaster coverage an extra boost. With the exception of Iraq and the college bowl games, there wasn't that much else going on. But I think the deaths of 140,000 people in more than a half-dozen countries from earthquakes and tsunamis would have been a huge, huge story at any time of year.

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Fort Worth, Tex.: Is it "media bias" when you refer to reporters having to "cool their heels in Waco" instead of being in the great Northeast?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure Waco is a very nice town. But it's not the ideal vacation spot for journalists, especially since the lack of facilities in Crawford means they're many miles away from the man they're supposedly covering. The reporters who covered Carter weren't wild about going to Plains, either. But the WH correspondents under Reagan certainly enjoyed going to Santa Barbara, and I didn't hear many complaints from Bush I reporters who had to pass the time in Kennebunkport. So it's not a commentary on Texas.

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Alexandria, Va.: I thought Powell's appearance on Meet The Press Sunday was an excellent explanantion of, as he put it, the "life cycle" of responding to the disaster.

Howard Kurtz: Powell has always been a good Sunday guest. This was probably a more successful appearance than when Russert was interviewing him from the Middle East and a State Department aide ordered the camera moved to a palm tree because the allotted time was up. It was probably also Powell's last MTP appearance as secretary of state.

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Reston, Va.: Given the scope of the tsunami disaster, I am a bit amazed of the lack of focus on the number of missing Americans (some say over 3000). Considering that the death toll here could rival 9/11 in the number of American dead, you'd think the press and the Administration would redouble their efforts to find, cover and account for our missing people.

Howard Kurtz: In ordinary circumstances, sure. But the sheer magnitude of the tragedy has overshadowed this, although I'm sure we haven't heard the last of it. Some of the missing are obviously being covered by local papers from their area.

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New York: Yesterday in the New York Times there was yet another sympathetic suggestion that Colin Powell might write a memoir discussing his qualms about supporting the Bush policy on Iraq. Is it just me or is there something bizarre here? I can't imagine any other figure in public life who has been held to such a low standard -- if he disagreed and still participated (as in knowingly presenting false information to the UN and by association to America's citizens) than he didn't do his job as Secretary of State but merely was loyal to an individual.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know who made this suggestion, and it's hardly surprising, given that Powell is the most popular person in the Cabinet and has already written a monster best-seller. Certainly some commentators have said he should have resigned after the Iraq war, but Powell's view, apparently, is that he made his best case to the president, helped broaden the coalition and get the U.N. involved, and then felt he needed to be a loyal soldier. At any rate, there is no evidence that he knowingly presented faulty intelligence to the U.N. He relied on the same bad data that everyone else in the administration did.

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Washington, D.C.: Concerning the Tsunami coverage. This is nothing new to the media, but is there any way for major publications to stop announcing the death toll like a video game score? I feel like all publications lead with "Death tolls at 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, and 120,000" all last week. My coworkers made comments such as, "We're up to 90,000" like it was a competition. This is an age old problem, do you see any solutions?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know how you avoid it. It's a natural question -- how many people died? -- and is obviously news. It's an attempt to get some kind of handle on what is being billed as the greatest natural disaster in decades. And the initial estimates were so low--less than 10 percent of the actual death toll, we know now--that the mounting casualties were far more newsworthy than is usually the case in disaster reporting. I do think the media have made valiant efforts at getting at the human toll behind the macro numbers.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Just a general question: What trend in journalism (good or bad), which took hold in 2004, do you foresee expanding during the coming year?

Howard Kurtz: Bloggers being ever more aggressive in critiquing the mainstream media, and having a growing impact.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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