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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 11, 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 media have the ability to cover a story doesn't always mean they should -- or that they'll do it well.

Today's Column:Media Notes: Cuban Tries to Score Online (Post, April 11)

Howard Kurtz (washingtonpost.com)

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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."

Message Board:Kurtz: Cuban Tries to Score Online

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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Washington, D.C.: Did Mitch Albom commit a mortal journalistic sin by writing a column on Friday that described events that "happened" on Saturday (except they didn't)?
Isn't there a somewhat different standard for columns versus straight news stories?
What responsibility do his editors have to for their part in this gaffe?

Howard Kurtz: Columnists have the same obligation as working-stiff reporters not to report things that aren't true, or to assume something will happen and write as if it's already happened. This is a big deal. That's why Mitch Albom has apologized and made no attempt to defend what he did. And yes, the editors are equally responsible. This is not a case where editors had no way of knowing. If Albom turns in a column on Friday describing what two guys in the stands did during a basketball game that wouldn't take place until Saturday night, did that not ring anyone's alarm bell? Hello?

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Chicago, Ill.: From a journalist's perspective, exactly how objectionable was Albom's column? It seems to me a pretty flagrant violation of journalistic principles, but I wanted to get your honest opinion on the situation and if there should be serious repercussions for Albom.

Howard Kurtz: "A pretty flagrant violation of journalistic principles" is about as good a description as I could come up with. Look, this guy is a veteran columnist, as well as a best-selling author and radio host, and he knows the rules. Why take a chance like that? Why not say that the two ex-players PLANNED to be in the stands at the game? Even on routine stories, when the White House hands out a text for reporters on deadline before the president has spoken, we write something like "in remarks prepared for delivery" in case he trips on the way to the podium or his plane gets grounded or something. That's just simple self-protection as well as common sense.

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Atlanta, Ga.: In today's Media Notes, you discussed what appeared to be a correction on the Schaivo memo. However, there was one line regarding the validity of the paragraphs. The rest of the article reiterated the charge for the first two paragraphs and then issued two more unsubstantiated or rebutted criticisms by the very same people who you were correcting. I also noticed that you did not even give your post colleague any opportunity to respond to the new accusations

A serious question that I hope you answer. When a source is shown to be completely incorrect in a story that headlines one of your stories, do you feel that a follow-up correction or story should include a response from those who were accused, or should it be an opportunity for the accuser to apologize or issue their own correction of their original accusation. This goes for all media outlets, not just your column.

Thanks

Howard Kurtz: My Post colleague Mike Allen declined to comment for the column. What I did was either call some of the people who suggested The Post was misdescribing or hyping a potentially fabricated memo -- or cited what they'd written since it was shown to have come from a Mel Martinez aide--and let them say whether they'd made a mistake. My readers are smart enough to judge who's acknowledging error and who is refusing to acknowledge that they were wrong on the central point about the memo, namely who wrote it.

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Arlington, Va.: Mr. Kurtz,

Thank you for your informative chats and columns.

It seems the criticisms of the Post's coverage of the Schiavo memo can't get the facts straight. The Post, to the best of my knowledge, never labeled it a GOP strategy memo and never claimed that it was widely distributed among the partly leadership. To what do you attribute this discrepancy and is it possible in the current media and political climate to have a decent debate on current events?

Howard Kurtz: The paper did say, as I noted last week, in an early-version story that was distributed on its news service but did not appear in The Post, that the memo had been distributed by party leaders. The news service eventually sent out an "advisory," not a correction, and did not retract the phrase about party leaders. To this day we don't know if GOP leaders were involved in circulating the thing. But we do know, despite earlier denials by Mel Martinez's office, that it was written by an aide to the Florida senator--an aide who has now resigned.

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Washington, D.C.: Howie,
I hate to write in with criticism, but I was very offended by the piece you wrote about the selection process for a new pope. I found your tone and views on the conclave to be disrespectful in an attempt to be witty. In trying to be pithy, you demeaned the role as successor to St. Peter to someone who gets free room and board in Vatican City.

And yes, cardinals select a new pope through divine intervention -- through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Is the press typically enthusiastic to judge and opine on the sacred traditions of world religions? What would readers think if a paper printed criticisms of Jewish or Muslim practices?

Howard Kurtz: I certainly didn't mean to offend anyone. The piece was intended as a satire, to compare the secretive papal selection process to an American political campaign. (The serious point is that U.S. journalists will cover it like a regular campaign anyway, such as the NY Daily News cover yesterday that declared the cardinal of Milan a 3-1 favorite, even though we don't even know who the candidates are.) I certainly intended no criticism of the way the Catholic Church chooses its leaders.

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Tampa, Fla.: How believable is it that Sen. Martinez doesn't know what he's handing to another senator? Is this common? Are senators nothing more than couriers for their staffs?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what to make of that. But the senator has a bit of a history of saying he didn't know about or wasn't responsible for material developed by his staff.
I picked up the following from a blog in this morning's column:
"Poor Mel Martinez. People just keep putting nasty words in his mouth without his knowledge. It's so sad.

"In his primary race against Bill McCollum, someone on his campaign staff -- entirely without Poor Mel's knowledge -- made a series of 'hateful' attacks on McCollum. . . .

"McCollum is 'anti-family' and a political opportunist who can't be trusted.

"McCollum, according to a Martinez for Senate flier, is 'pandering to the radical homosexual lobby.'

"Poor Mel explained, 'Words were used that were not mine, and were not of my choosing. Those words were spoken by others.' He said that 'he did not review the flier or see its contents before it went out.'

"After winning the primary against the anti-family opportunistic tool of the radical homosexual lobby, Poor Mel 'had to apologize to McCollum to get his endorsement. He reshuffled his campaign staff and demanded to see all ads before they ran.'

"By an astonishing (and sad) coincidence, the same sorts of things happened all over again just weeks later.

"'[A] Tallahassee group with Republican ties ran a newspaper ad across the state with a large picture of Osama bin Laden, inferring [sic] that he would support [Poor Mel's opponent] Democratic Senate candidate Betty Castor and presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.' Poor Mel's staff said that they knew nothing, NOTHING, about the ad and didn't condone it.

"The Martinez campaign sent a statement to Cuban-American radio stations condemning the law enforcement officers involved in the Elian Gonzalez case as 'a crew of armed thugs.' Poor Mel had to tell Judy Woodruff on national TV that this was 'inappropriate,' even though it wasn't his fault! It was all a big mistake: 'I never said that. It was something put out by someone in my office.' "

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Is Mel Martinez ...: ... the stupidest man on earth? If not, how are we supposed to believe that he "unknowingly" distributed this memo, that came from his office, not knowing who wrote it or what it said? Yikes! Either he's completely lying, or he's a complete moron, either way, I'm glad he doesn't represent me!

Howard Kurtz: Well, I take him at his word, only because if he had known what he was handing to Tom Harkin, he probably would have gone into damage-control mode right away, rather than denying for a week that his office had anything to do with the Schiavo talking points.

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Baltimore, Md.: Can you provide a link to the Albom column?

washingtonpost.com: A question of ethics (Detroit Free Press, April 8)

Howard Kurtz: My crack staff has it for you.

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Washington, D.C.: Albom had a big best seller talking about "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" -- and presumably he hasn't actually been to heaven; so maybe this column was just a sequel -- the "Two People You'll See at the Basketball Game"

Howard Kurtz: Both hard to verify, obviously.

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Big Time Columnists: With all the multimedia pursuits of Bob Ryan, Mitch Albom, Kornheiser and Wilbon, how much pressure do editors have to assuage egos instead of disciplining a writer?

What prevented Ryan or Albom from saying, "I make more money from broadcasting and other interests than dead trees."

Do print guys view newspapers as a superior place to work?

Skip Bayless and Woody Paige left pretty good jobs to work in TV full time.

Wouldn't losing a Albom type affect the Free Press more than vice versa?

Howard Kurtz: Probably. He's a pretty big name, and undoubtedly makes plenty of money on the outside. But this wasn't a matter of taste or sentence structure where editors might have said, "You know, he's Mitch Albom, he sells papers, let him say what he wants." This was a column about an event that hadn't happened yet. The editors would have done themselves and Albom a big favor if they had said you just can't do this.

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Sports Columnists: With all the ESPN opportunities presented to the likes of Albom, Ryan, Kornheiser and Wilbon, can newspaper editors really exert much control?

All of these personalities must triple their salary in electronic media?

After all, Skip Bayless doesn't write for a paper anymore and Woody Paige no longer lives in Denver even though he sometimes writes for the Denver Post.

Howard Kurtz: Sure. Editors are responsible for what goes in the paper. The only thing a sports editor at the Freep had to do was say, "Mitch, this doesn't meet our standards. You can't write about something that hasn't happened yet. We're not publishing this unless you rewrite it." At that moment, the best-selling books or TV and radio contracts don't mean anything. The editors just fell down on the job, as the Free Press's public editor acknowledged to me. I do give the paper credit for announcing an investigation in a front-page piece by the publisher.

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Toms River, N.J.: While reporting the story over the potential elimination of the filibuster doesn't the media have an obligation to report the extremely high percentage of judges who have been confirmed? Also, aren't Democrats being foolish for not making this point more?

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me I've read reporters pointing that out and Democrats making that point as well, along with stories noting that Republicans blocked some Clinton nominees without so much as a hearing (remember what Jesse Helms did to Bill Weld when Clinton tried to make the former Massachusetts governor an ambassador?). But I'm sure all of this often gets lost in the back and forth over nuclear options, partisan maneuvering and the like.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I am struck by the way the press portrays Hillary Clinton's speeches on abortion, national security and her increasing talk of her faith as moving to the center in order to run for president. Could it be possible that she is merely expressing views that she's had for many years? How does the press know that she isn't speaking out of conviction? After all, Senator Clinton spoke about reducing abortions when she was first lady. She also grew up in a religious home.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, it is certainly possible that she is speaking from conviction. Journalists regularly ascribe political motives to politicians, especially those who are considering a presidential run. The reality is probably somewhere in between -- politicians often act more on principle than the media acknowledge, and they also act more for short-term expediency than they will admit.

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Katy, Tex.: I've noticed a difference among newspapers in how they describe anonymous sources. The Post and New York Times often provide information on the source, such as whether they work for a government agency. The Wall Street, in contrast, almost always uses the phrase "people familiar with the matter." I'm a journalist, so maybe that's why I notice. Does this distinction matter? Do readers care?

Howard Kurtz: The distinction does matter, as news organizations have an obligation to tell you as much as we can about a source's viewpoint and motivation without compromising a promise of anonymity. To be fair to the Journal, that formulation is often used on stories about impending business deals or actions, when ideology may be far less of a factor than in politics. But it would still be nice to know more of the sources' motivations.

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Arlington, Va.: It's interesting that all of these stories about Tom DeLay's corruption are just getting published now. These trips were years ago. Did it just take that long to uncover these things?

Howard Kurtz: Short answer: yes. It's also true that once DeLay was admonished three times by the House ethics committee, news organizations began spending more time poring over his records and digging for stories about the majority leader.

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Northridge, Calif.: Can President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld go on any talk show any time they want to?

Howard Kurtz: Pretty much. Any talk show can say no, of course, but since these guests (specially POTUS and VPOTUS) are hard to get, it's hard to imagine a producer turning them down.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Howie: Thanks for your work and candor.

I have been watching for several weeks the controversies stemming from stories which have headlines seemingly much more sensational than the factual content within.

Can you explain for us how wire editors (who, I believe write the headlines) are held accountable by the organizations for whom they work?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Headlines are written by copy editors and are supposed to fairly reflect the content of a story. If a copy editor consistently goes beyond the facts of a story, that person would be talked to by his bosses. In egregious cases, the paper might run a correction of a misleading headline and the ombudsman might mention it.

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Arlington, Va.: I am afraid I might be a little naive -- or actually maybe more jaded, come to think of it. I don't quite see why everyone is so shocked about the "Martinez" memo. Clearly the Schiavo case HAD become a political issue -- I am sure talking points are circulated in Hill offices on lots of sensitive ethical and moral subjects. To me it is just hypocrisy to think this doesn't go on.

Howard Kurtz: The substance of the memo -- that the Schiavo case was a good political issue -- is the kind of calculation that goes on every hour on Capitol Hill, and in any state legislature. But ordinarily senators' staffs aren't dumb enough to put it in writing. Also, with all the moral outrage that some Republicans were voicing about the courts handling of Terri Schiavo, it was mildly embarrassing to have a Republican staffer write that crass political considerations (such as beating Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson) were also at work.

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Iowa: The person who chided you for your satire on the papal elections is lucky to have missed the opening skit on Saturday Night Live this past weekend. Tim Russert (as played by Daryl Hammond) was conducting a debate among the cardinal "candidates" for the office and for some reason Al Sharpton was there, too. Some of the candidates were somnambulant or senile, and two were simply offensive. I was curious how they got it past the NBC censors.

Howard Kurtz: I guess Saturday Night Live doesn't worry that much about offending people in the pursuit of humor.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you provide a link to the pope column? I can't find it.

washingtonpost.com: Media Notes The Washington Post, April 11)

Howard Kurtz: Here it is.

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Kansas City, Mo.: I'm not a Jim Gray fan (nor a Pete Rose fan) but I thought Mark Cuban was out of bounds with his criticism of Gray, especially based on the transcript. Was Gray's paraphrasing of Cuban's comment wrong? Did you read Cuban the transcript?

Howard Kurtz: I thought what Jim Gray reported was hardly a terrible sin, but the point is not what I think. The point is that a billionaire basketball team owner now has the power, through blogs, to publicly spank sportswriters or others who offend him. Mark Cuban was mad at Jim Gray and took a whack at him. That, to me, is a fascinating development.

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Anonymous: I realize this isn't what happened with Albom, but newspapers must have all sorts of stories sitting around on computers about things that haven't happened yet. Obituaries of famous people, obviously. And I'm sure "X has just been elected pope" stories are being written about a dozen different people even as we chat.

I'm just curious. What mechanisms are in place at a paper like the Post to make sure a story of that sort doesn't slip out before its time (especially online)? Are they kept under password in a separate computer or something?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the precise security procedures, but especially in the case of aging famous people, of course there are obits in the can, which then have to updated when the person actually dies. There have been a few instances over the years, especially at wire services, when such pieces have become public because somebody hit the wrong button, which is embarrassing for everyone.

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The Conclave Column: I enjoyed the column on selection of the pope very much and thought that the column was clearly about how the press would attempt to cover the selection and put the meetings in terms that they are familiar with. I didn't believe you reduced the papacy into "free room and board" contrary to your previous chatters comments.

Just because a column contains witticism and religion does not mean that the thrust of the column is to poke fun at religion. If any one was being made fun of, I thought it was the press.

Howard Kurtz: Ah -- someone who gets it! Yes, I confess my sins, I was making fun of the press. Which apparently is not against anyone's religion.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: At the end of last week's chat you tried to defend calling The New Republic a liberal magazine because it, most of the time, endorses Democratic candidates. You are making the mistake of using Democrat and liberal as synonyms. Is Joe Lieberman a liberal, what about Bill Clinton, it would be a reach to classify either as a liberal. If The New Republic backed Arnold or Rudy Guiliani would it cease to become a liberal magazine because they are Republicans?

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair point. Maybe it's more accurate to say it's a left of center magazine that has certainly broken with liberal orthodoxy, especially on Iraq, over the years.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,
just wanted to put in a good word for newspaper reporters: today, 4/8, there were articles in both the WSJ and NYT about AIG and an investigation that's ongoing. These articles reminded me of why I bother to read papers: both had original, interesting, informative, detailed reporting that made it worthwhile to read both accounts. I actually like the Post better than my hometown NYT, which too often sounds stilted. But just felt like some positive venting since we're always seeing the negative. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: A rare positive word. Thanks. With all the media criticism that goes on (including from me), I fear many folks have lost sight of the fact that there are legions of careful and hardworking reporters out there doing unglamorous work who don't appear on TV but often break new ground in their subject areas.

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Washington, D.C.: Since reporters give athletes such a hard time about personal off the field mistakes, I am surprised that athletes don't organize research into the 'skeletons in the closet' of reporters and hold them to the same standards that reporters hold athletes to. Now that would make an interesting blog, find out about the shady secrets and dealings of reporters. Have you heard of anything like this?

Howard Kurtz: Not yet, but you've probably given someone an idea.

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Fairfax, Va.: Any thoughts on Larry King's question to Jim Caviezel the other night as to whether he thought the late pope was with Jesus?

Howard Kurtz: The exact question, to the actor who starred in "The Passion of the Christ," was: "Jim, you think he's with Jesus now? We only have 30 seconds."
Okay, maybe he should have given him a minute.

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Washington, D.C.: What are the odds that Albom loses his job? Would I be correct in thinking that if this had happened with a lower-profile columnist, he'd already be out the door?

Howard Kurtz: If I were to set odds on Albom losing his job, I'd be doing just what he did--predicting a future event that hasn't happened yet. I guess it depends on what the Free Press inquiry finds both about his role and that of his editors.

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Pope Coverage: Mr. Kurtz,

As one who is not overly impacted or surprised by the passing of the pope, I do think coverage got away from us. You see, it's news that the pope is sick, but that's the news. It's not news to have a minute-by-minute description of his "condition", etc. Also, it's news that the pope died, and I'll even say it's news-worthy to show his funeral. But over the course of this week, why did I have to hear 18 billion different people observe that the pope was strong on international/poverty issues, but was strictly conservative on social issues? Meanwhile, there is real news to report -- or was there no news happening last week at home, or abroad?

Thanks for allowing me to comment.

Howard Kurtz: Look, Pope John Paul was one of the most famous people on the planet, the spiritual leader of a billion Catholics. Of course his passing is going to be a huge story. What I think some people object to is the wall-to-wall coverage on cable, even on days when nothing is happening, rehashing and interviewing every possible guest and expert and barely taking note of, say, the presidential commission that found "dead wrong" intelligence on WMD. It was the same with Schiavo before that, one emotional story virtually round the clock. We'll see if the selection of a new Pope gets similar treatment.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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