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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2003; 1:00 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)

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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.


Mclean, Va.: Why does the Post expect Letters to the Editor authors to identify themselves, but lets the editorial writers remain anomonoyous. Why does the "right to know" end before editorial writers are identified?

Seems like the typical hypocracy of the journalism business.

Howard Kurtz: Interesting point. In part because the editorial writers aren't just writing for themselves but for a consensus opinion by the whole editorial board. And obviously they represent the Post, whereas we don't always know the affiliations of Joe Blow letter writers unless they ID themselves.


Reston, Va.: Why does Stephen F. Hayes' Weekly Standard report on the memo regarding the relationship between Saddam and Osama continue to be ignored by the mainstream press (including The Post, as far as I can tell)? I know "the mainstream press" is not a monolithic organization, but it seems that after months of essentially pointing out as idiots the folks who have enough common sense to see the possibility of ties between Saddam's regime and al Qaeda (possibility, not certainty) there should be some reporting on the intelligence which may show this to be true.


Howard Kurtz: The Post did deal with the Weekly Standard report in a recent news story, which contended that the story, based on a government memo, contained no dramatic new evidence. Whether that's true is very much a subject of debate.


Delmar, N.Y.: Have you noticed how the Republican Party for the last several years has managed to change the name of the Democratic Party to the Democrat Party. This has been a less than subtle coordianted effort and the "media" has been complicit. I don't think I've ever heard a reporter or correspondent correct a speaker on this and the other day CNN's senior political correspondent Candy Crowley at the Iowa Democratic function referred to the Party in her on camera spiel as the "Democrat" Party. Are the Democrats at fault for not protecting their "tradmark" or does the media have some responsibility?

Howard Kurtz: Republicans definitely use "Democrat Party" as a perjorative, and the media shouldn't play along. I can't remember a time when I've heard an anchor or correspondent use the shortened term.


Philadelphia, Pa.: What did you think of Wesley Clark's preformance on "Meet the Press?" Also why do so many polilticans eagerly go on that show knowing that they are going to get grilled very hard by Tim Russert? Are they that desperate for camera time?

Howard Kurtz: I thought Clark did very well and never got rattled. (I was a bit surprised that Russert devoted 95 percent of the interview to foreign policy, so we never got a sense of the general's views on domestic issues). As for why candidates go on, the main reason is obviously that "Meet the Press" is the top-rated Sunday show, by a substantial margin. But I also think there's a sense that Russert is the toughest interrogator and that candidates feel they have to show they can hit major-league pitching.


Rockville, Md.: So Sen. Kennedy calls Bush's judicial nominees, which included or include a Latino lawyer and an African-American judge, "Neanderthals" and hardly anyone bats an eye? Where is the media pouncing that would have occurred if it had been a Republican making the comment about minority nominees of a Democratic president?

Sen. Lott was forced to give up his leadership position (and rightly so) over his racially insensitive comments regarding Strom Thurmond's '48 campaign; why then is Kennedy's comment simply being shrugged off?

Howard Kurtz: One reason, I suppose, is that "Neanderthals" is not a racially charged term. The Post mentioned Kennedy's blast, and the GOP condemnation of it, near the top of story on the judicial nominations debate that day. But I'm surprised that it hasn't become a bigger story. It was an insulting remark, and doesn't seem to have gotten as much attention as it should.


Knoxville, Tenn.: Why are the mainsream media down playing all the "leaks" coming out of this administration repeatedly showing the links between the Right Wing media and the Bush administation. First we find aout about the "Memo" at FOX telling their reporters the daily public message -- then the E-mail showing that last weeks "fillabuster" was being timed to match the opening of 6PM Fox Report -- then the Weekly Standard story by Stephen F. Hayes using a memo from the Senate's Justice Committee that was apparently illegally obtained then misrepresented. When will the mainstream media find a backbone and start challenging the conservative media and their manipulation of the truth.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the mainstream media live off leaks, too, so there would be something of a double standard in whining about an intelligence memo that was leaked, for example, to Sean Hannity. I gave the Fox memo about trying to time the filibuster opening for Brit Hume's show to Al Kamen, who led his Post column with it. And the administration leak to Bob Novak about Valerie Plame certainly became a huge issue. But leaks are a fact of life in Washington, and conservative journalists are obviously going to get their share.


Reston, Va.: Did you see John Kerry on the Tonight Show last week? They showed him riding his motorcycle to the studio and dressed him in jeans and a leather jacket in an attempt to look "cool," I guess. The funniest thing though was that he was the second guest that night. The first guest was Triumph the insult comic dog.

Howard Kurtz: The ultimate indignity - following a stupid puppet. The Boston Globe used it as another example of Kerry's bad week (after firing his campaign manager): biting comments, and so on.


Raleigh, N.C.: At CNN.com, the following two paragraphs (with updated numbers) are now in every daily article on the war in Iraq.

"Overall, the Iraq war has claimed the lives of 422 U.S. troops, 283 after May 1. Of those after May 1, 180 occurred in hostile situations.

There is no reliable estimate of Iraqi deaths over the course of the conflict. The Associated Press reported an estimated 3,240 civilian Iraqi deaths between March 20 and April 20, but the AP said the figure was based on records of only half of Iraq's hospitals and that the actual number was thought to be significantly higher."

What are your thoughts on this? Needless repetition of information better conveyed by a section dedicated to the "body count" on the site? Or a sobering reminder of what is going on there? Is there an anti-war bias at work here? (And I write this as someone who was and remain against the war.)

Howard Kurtz: I don't see the antiwar argument. Obviously there is strong interest here in American casualties, and it's certainly fair to point out that more than half the deaths followed Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner. As for Iraqi deaths, what you've excerpted sounds like a simple recitation of "here what we know and here's what we don't know."


Chicago, Ill.: Who is Limbaugh's ghost writer? Doctor Phil? Those were some hard-core platitudes he fed the dittoheads yesterday... Of course, no mention of how being responsible for one's own happiness relates to slipping cabbage to your housekeeper in return for thousands of blue babies -- truth and honesty have their limits. Do you think if Ted Kennedy had given this same speech about alcohol, Limbaugh would be understanding -- or would it be grist for six months of material?

Howard Kurtz: Limbaugh keeps saying that he's constrained from discussing part of the story - an obvious reference to the investigation by Florida authorities. (He took a shot at the National Enquirer yesterday, as I reported, but without specifying what was wrong about its report.) And yes, I doubt he'd have much sympathy for the Kennedys of the world. I was struck that a guy just back from rehab would use the word "dysfunctional" in referring to the Clintons.


Ames, Iowa: With so many of the Democratic candidates except Dean having trouble raising money, isn't it interesting that Wesley Clark is projected to raise over $12 million this quarter? It seems like every time I turn on the TV or read the newspaper pundits are disparaging Clark. Why is this? And isn't it too early for the press to be "calling" the nomination?

Howard Kurtz: Way too early, in my view. And Clark remains a candidate of enormous potential. But since he made a number of mistskes out of the box, has slipped in the polls and is blowing off Iowa, the press is now treating his campaign somewhat negatively. It might be nice if we let a few of these states vote before telling the world that Dean's got it wrapped up. After all, it wasn't that many months ago that the media were trumpeting Kerry as the front-runner.


Houston, Tex.: Will the Gore network have much of an impact?

Howard Kurtz: Sort of depends on whether it gets on the air, and in how many markets. I also wonder whether it will be openly and unashamedly a liberal network, or a news network that just tries to be more open to left-of-center points of view.


Fairfax, Va.: All last week we read and heard (in The Post, other papers, on the morning shows) how Pvt. Lynch was disputing the Pentagon version of her capture and rescue.

I may be wrong... but wasn't she disputing The Post's erroneous (and never corrected) early version that was picked up by everyone else. It seems to me that everything she said matches the offical reports from the Pentagon.

Howard Kurtz: You're right except for the "never corrected" part. The Post ran a lengthy front-page piece that tried to set the record straight after its earlier story, based on unnamed sources, depicted Jessica Lynch as a female Rambo. I think the paper waited too long to run that follow-up, and has given short shrift to what Lynch is saying now in her book and TV interviews, but it did ultimately own up to its mistakes.


New York, N.Y.: Is Hillary running -- yes or no?

Howard Kurtz: No. But the press won't take no for an answer.


Monterey, Calif.: How come there have not yet been any "Watergate size" leaks and or whistleblowers from the secretive Bush Administration and the White House in particular? It seems there is so much hypocrisy and dirty politics going on amidst the "daily prayer meetings."

Is everyone just to scared of the consequences, given the retaliatory strategies of Rove et al?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe there's nothing Watergate-sized going on in this administration. But one leak - the one to Novak that blew a CIA operative's cover - has certainly sparked a dirty politics investigation.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Howard Dean was a second-guest on Leno also -- at least he got to follow an attractive woman instead of a sock puppet. Maybe it was just a bit of equalizing the two.

Howard Kurtz: Trust me, no one wants to follow a sock puppet.


Alexandria, Va.: Bill Saletan of Slate writes that John Kerry made a great speech last weekend at the Iowa Democratic fundraiser, but no one reported it because journalists were obsessed with Hillary Clinton making an appearance. Do you agree? Is this fair?

Howard Kurtz: I did think the whole Hillary angle at that Iowa dinner was overplayed. I didn't hear Kerry's speech, but even if there had been no Hillary he would have had to share news space with the half-dozen other candidates there. It takes more than one good speech for a presidential candidate to break through the clutter.


Fairfax, Va.: "The Post ran a lengthy front-page piece that tried to set the record straight"

But the story never said anything like: We printed something that wasn't true. Or even called it a correction.

This is why regard for journalists is declining.

Howard Kurtz: Well, there should have been a separate correction. But at least the Post didn't bury the followup.


Alexandria, Va.: I did not see much coverage about the FOX News Memo revealing a connection between them and Senate Repubs for the talkathon. Was that much to do about nothing? I just get the feeling that the pendelum has swung really right in a way that it was never left because the 'mainstream' press has this fear of being labelled bias even though the emperical evidence show for the most part there the idea of a liberal media is exaggerated at best.

Howard Kurtz: We handled it in Al Kamen's column - in part because Fox never agreed to anything and the planned choreography, to have the filibustering GOP senators walk onto the floor for the beginning of Brit Hume's show, didn't happen. A Fox spokesman blamed the memo on an "overzealous press secretary," and the Bill Frist aide who wrote the memo pleaded guilty to a poor choice of words.


Derwood, Md.: Howard -

Just wondering - Did you move your discussion to Tuesday in order to listen to "Rush" Limbaugh, then realize it had to be 1 p.m. so you wouldn't miss Weingarten's chat?

Howard Kurtz: I moved it because I was reporting in New York yesterday.


California: I always enjoy your work. I frequently read of soldiers dying of "non-hostile gunshot wounds" or something similar. Could you tell us what that means? Accident? Suicide?

Howard Kurtz: It generally means accidents, as opposed to enemy ambushes.


McLean, Va.: Don't understand your claim that editorials are a consensus opinion and that is reason to hide the nemes of the participants. So do you agree that all committees should be able to hide the names of the participants.? This is remarkable similar to the actions, found to be lies under oath, bythe lady Clinton HealthCare Project Task Force. Why are journalists so defensive of secretcy in the media and not protective of national secrets, for example, the name of a covert CIA agent? Please explain your preferrence for secretcy?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it's all that difficult to find out who wrote a particular Post editorial, or who serves on the editorial board. There's only a dozen of them.


Bethesda, Md.: Enjoyed your article on Chris Matthews today.

He strikes me as representative of many Catholic Democrats who still tend to be liberal on economic issues but conservative most of the time on social matters (except for abortion where he appears vaguely pro-choice). He's also an anti-Communist yet very anti-war (a child of the 60s and the latter quite fashonable in Catholic circles now post Vatican II). A Tip O'Neil Democrat who hated Clinton and admitted that he liked Reagan & voted for George W. Bush the first time around will tick everybody off eventually in our increasingly hyper ideological times. While not an intense partisan he is rabid in every other way (all of that interrupting!) and very "inside-baseball" on politics when most people in the country who are political junkies tend to be hard over one way or the other on the political spectrum. As a result,I am not shocked that he now draws such low ratings but very surprised MSNBC keeps him on the air with those poor numbers considering that someone like, say, Donahue wasn't much worse -- yet he had to go. My prediction is MSNBC will can him and he'll go to Fox where he will be their perfect in-house liberal: that is, someone who agrees with the conservatives at least half the time! Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Given the amount of money MSNBC is spending on promoting Matthews, and the fact that he serves as lead anchor on political events, I'd say that's highly unlikely.


Monterey, Calif.: Thanks for being such an articulate and direct "straight shooter."

It's refreshing!

I'm glad you're doing what you do.

Howard Kurtz: Who am I to argue with such a discerning reader?


New York: Chris Matthews, who has generally been negative on the war in Iraq, had a section all of last week called "Iraq the real story." In this segment, he had Bob Arnot (who is far more positive on the situation in Iraq than other MSNBC reporters there) come on and talk about things that were going right in Iraq. He also had soldiers on etc.

These are certainly valid stories to tell, especially to counter Matthews himself -- but I was a little struck by the reference to "Iraq the real story". Is Matthews saying that he and MSNBC have not been giving "The Real Story" so far? Surely, "Iraq -- the complete story" would have been better?

Howard Kurtz: The "real" Iraq story is a bit of a promotional gimmick, just as we were promised "The Real Jessica Lynch Story" a few days earlier. And I'd say news organizations generally, not just MSNBC, are making an effort to report that there are signs of progress in Iraq, as well as the attacks and ambushes that tend to dominate the news.


Fairfax, Va.: You were critical of the NYT for not revealing the association with a local lawyer pack. Yet The Post never tells us that William Kristol was or is an Enron wemployee hired by Mr Fastow. Why hhave you neglected or failed to tell us the affiliations of the proIsrael and warmongering crowd at the Post Op Ed page?

Howard Kurtz: As I reported at the time, Bill Kristol was among a handful of journalists who was paid by the pre-scandal Enron to attend a couple of advisory board meetings. That was several years ago, and as far as I know he has had no further relationship with the company. That's a little different than a lawyer who writes a piece about clients he is currently representing -- a problem, by the way, that has affected the Post and other papers as well as the Times.


Indianapolis, Ind.: What are the chances of us seeing what is really going on in Britain this week? Or do you think Bush's media will cover up for him again? Why do we continually have to get unbiased news from other countries?

Howard Kurtz: "Bush's media?" "Cover up?" Perhaps you have a lower opinion of this president than the portrayal of him in the press, but I was blissfully unaware that there was a coverup going on. Of course, on this trip we can always rely on the contentious British press to keep its Yank cousins honest.


Knoxville, Tenn.: In the Limbaugh story there seems to be a fear in the media to bring up the possibility that Rush will be arrested and charged with possesion for purpose of resale. When this happens will we finally see reporters talking to people in the legal profession and not the people in the rehabilitation services. If Rush were not a rich person wouldn't by now the Florida drug investigators have already searched his house -- had him in for questioning -- maybe even had him give a formal statement.

Howard Kurtz: My view is that we're not in the prediction business. We don't even know that Limbaugh is a target of the Florida investigation. If in fact any charges are brought against him, it will be a huge story. But I think the stories until now have made clear that he has a potential legal problem as well as a personal addiction problem.


In the USA: Howie, years ago, a former editor asked me if I was first an American or a reporter. We were discussing the importance of not taking the government's words at face value without first investigating it or buying into propaganda out of some sense of jingoistic pride. After watching the first segment of "Reliable Sources" Sunday, I believe the national media could've used some of my editor's advice when it came to the Jessica Lynch tale. (And my boss was editor of a small suburban daily!;) The national media bought the Bush administration's version of the Lynch drama without any skepticism. Incidentally, my answer to my boss: I'm first a reporter, but that doesn't make me unpatriotic.

Howard Kurtz: I would agree that, in the early days of the Iraq war, the Pentagon wanted heroes (one reason the Lynch rescue was videotaped) and the media wanted heroes (one reason that Jessica ended up on Newsweek's cover). The press, particularly The Post, contributed to the myth by reporting, falsely as it turned out, that she had been shot and stabbed and continued to kill Iraqis, when in fact her rifle had jammed. What continues to amaze me is what a huge story Jessica Lynch (now on the cover of Time) remains, even though we now know that what happened to her is far less dramatic than originally advertised.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Just a quick question -- do you know if E.J. Dionne's appearance on the "Capital Gang" means that he'll be a regular panelist (I'd like him to), or was he just there as a substitute?

Howard Kurtz: I believe he was just filling in.


Bethesda, Md.: Dear Mr. Kurtz,

I hope this isn't a stupid question. I know you are TWP's media critic and TWP also has an ombudsman. I wrote to the ombudsman regarding a columnist who I thought use very questionable (and probably illegal) means to base a column on. I received a reply back that his mandate only stretched as far as news and not opinion columnists. If something is done that appears to be lacking in journalistic integrity, why can't the ombudsman take this on?

Howard Kurtz: I'm surprised he didn't -- unless the columnist in question is not a Post employee, but someone whose syndicated pieces we merely run. In any case, you can always e-mail such information to me.


MIddleton, Wis.: Lately we've been subjected to pundits floating a curious notion: that liberals are guilty of "political hate speech" when they criticize the Bush Administration. David Brooks, Nicolas Kristof, and others apparently equate the foam-flecked ravings of Ann Coulter and Jerry Falwell during the Clinton years with the pointed but well documented observations by Paul Krugman and Molly Ivins that the Bush Administration often says one thing and does another. Conservatives can sure dish it out, but oh how they whine when someone like Al Franken rubs their nose in their own track record!

Just as the term "class warfare" only gets trotted out when working folks complain about tax cuts for the rich, the commentariat apparently feels it is "political hate speech" only when folks to the left of Sean Hannity fight back.

Heaven help the Republic.

Howard Kurtz: I did a long piece on this subject a few weeks ago after Jonathan Chait of the New Republic declared himself a Bush hater in a cover story. There are some very hateful things being said about the president by some characters on the left, just as some conservatives were brutal toward Bill Clinton. I hardly think that liberal criticism of George W. on Iraq, the budget, the environment or other topics constitutes hate speech, no matter how much the Republicans would like to mute these sorts of attacks.


Washington, D.C.: How has the administration dodged potential full blown media scandals, like Halluburton and especially the CIA leak? Clinton was hammered by the media for far less scandals, eg. Travlegate, Whitewater. Is it because 9/11 has changed media coverage of Bush or that the war debate takes the headlines every day?

Howard Kurtz: I fail to see how the administration has dodged scandal coverage of the CIA leak. It was a huge media story for weeks, but has quieted down because investigators have made no discernible progress in identifying the leakers, or at least aren't saying anything publicly.


Washington, D.C.: has your appearance in K St made you more of a Washingtonian celebrity?

Howard Kurtz: Nah. No one cares.


Louisville, Ky.: In light of the Massachusetts court decision, I was wondering if you had heard whether the Bush campaign team (or the GOP more generally - the two could have different preferences) planned to emphasize gay marriage in 2004.

If so, how effective do you think it might be? And, have you caught wind of any dissension in the Republican ranks about focusing on this issue (given that Cheney's daughter is a lesbian and that there are other gay Republicans). Sorry about the long question -- feel free to ignore parts of it.

Howard Kurtz: My sense is that the Bush team would have preferred to avoid making this a big 2004 issue, which is why the president hasn't explicitly endorsed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The Massachusetts decision is going to make it more difficult for Bush to finesse the issue, especially with his Senate majority leader pushing for such an amendment. Obviously there are Republicans who are pro-gay rights, but even most of the Democratic presidential candidates are not in favor of legalizing gay marriage.


Erie, Pa.: What do the Clintons really think of Howard Dean as the potential dem nominee? I've read in several places that they are both, at the very least, cool to him and see him as damaging the party. Do you have any "inside the beltway" knowledge re this?

Howard Kurtz: There's been a lot of chatter in the press that the Clintons aren't crazy about Dean, pushed Wes Clark as an alternative, etc. They haven't said anything publicly to that effect. I think it's safe to say that Dean represents a more liberal approach to government than the ex-president and his DLC backers would prefer (remember "the era of big government is over"?). But I don't think the Clintons want to be seen as openly taking sides in a Democratic primary fight.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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