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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2004; 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.


Potomac Md.: I also found it disconcerting that Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly used the Dems convention as a backdrop for their continuation of an unwaivering partisan Republican line (added to the interviews of Bill Bennett, Newt Gingrich, and Ann Couter). In premepting the actual speechs for their political commentary attacking the Dems, it was as though they didn't even want to risk exposing their audience to the Democrat's point of view. Fair and balanced now would mean that Al Franken and Michael Moore should replace them at the Republican convention.

But, I do want to say that I did find conservatives covering the convention who were balanced and informative. Pat Buchanan and Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, and Bill Kristol on Fox each put aside their known personal views to give a fair and meaningful analysis of the convention.

Howard Kurtz: Well, in fairness to Fox, O'Reilly, Hannity & Co. did have lots of Democrats on. O'Reilly even had Michael Moore as a guest. But I just question why, after spending hundreds of hours talking about Al Gore in the last few years, Fox wouldn't devote a few of its precious minutes to carrying Gore's speech and then have its hosts and guests say whatever they want.


San Francisco, Calif.: Thank heavens for C-SPAN. How else would an American interested in politics get any convention coverage? Media types interviewing each other is a complete waste of time. Convention speeches are entertaining, informative, and fun! Most of us aren't on the trail with the candidates, we haven't heard those speeches before (unlike those bored reporters). They tell us a lot about the candidate and party. Turn off the talking heads and tune in to C-SPAN, the only thing on television worth watching. Even PBS disappointed.

Howard Kurtz: C-SPAN is a great service, no question about it. Brian Lamb's outfit also has the luxury of not having to worry about ratings or advertising. But there's plenty of room for coverage that would challenge and analyze what the speakers at a convention are saying while still letting viewers see the major speeches for themselves.


Gibsonia, Pa.: Howard,

Enjoyed your NPR interview.

What's the protocol in the media of prior access to speeches? Who has access and how closely do they adhere to it? Larry King was reminded of this "embargo" when he started to comment on Teresa's speech before she delivered it yet O'Reilly questioned Gov. Richardson on points of his prior to his time.


Howard Kurtz: When the speeches are sent out in advance--primarily to help with early newspaper deadlines--no one is supposed to report them before the speech is delivered. But this is widely flouted and nobody seems to enforce it. I was sitting in the Post tent in Boston when I noticed that the NYT and AP had John Edwards's speech up an hour before his appearance. We decided to go with it as well, since the embargo had obviously been shattered, but otherwise we would have held back. The campaigns sometimes put out excerpts that TV talking heads are allowed to use to set the stage for a major speech.


Alexandria, Va.: Nice job on the Daily Show. They didn't make you look too bad.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I actually had a funny line right after what was shown, but that got cut. I guess the point was that Rob Corddry was supposed to be funny and I was there as a mere straight man.


Carlsbad, Calif.: I usually watch Fox News, and I agree with Bill O'Reillys decision to run his program from a different slant. I do not really understand the point of your article, if I wanted to listen to whom was speaking, I changed over with an instant click to MSNBC, or CNN. I am sure almost everyone else had this same option. Is your article just another way to ridicule Fox? Really!

Howard Kurtz: The point of my article is that Fox's slogan is that "we report, you decide." By skipping Gore's speech and most of Carter's, Kennedy's and Sharpton's, the network sort of skipped the "we report" part. And there are people inside Fox who agree with me on this point.


Silver Sprung, Md.: Howard, great to see you on the Daily Show. Do you think they (and other "alternative" media outlets) can have a significant impact on the election this year, specifically in terms of the under-30 crowd turning out to vote?

Howard Kurtz: Boy, I never get a reaction like this for my other TV stuff.
I spent a breakfast with Jon Stewart in Boston listening to him insist that he and the Daily Show have no particular influence, it's just a funny program, etc. But he's being modest. It's not so much that his (somewhat younger) audience gets its news from Stewart, Colbert and company--you wouldn't get the jokes if you didn't at least follow the headlines--but the Daily Show very effectively uses ridicule of politicians (and the media) to communicate information. Little wonder, then, that Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel both interviewed Jon at the convention.


Oxford, Miss.: What do you think about the prevalence of pseduo-reporters such as satirists and comedians (Daily Show, Dave Barry) and bloggers who openly admit that they're mostly interested gossip and poking fun (Wonkette) at the convention?

For me it was refreshing to get my convention news with a dose of humor but is there any other value to having fake news outlets covering a staged political event?

Howard Kurtz: See my previous answer. Plus, conventions are supposed to be fun. I sometimes think we treat politics so seriously that we bore the hell out of the audience. Focusing on the lighter side can be a way of getting people into the tent. That's why I devoted a story from Boston last week to the coverage of MTV, BET, WWE, ESPN, Comedy Central, etc.


New York City, N.Y.: From today's column: "Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), speaking on the same program, said no one 'in their right mind would think the President or the secretary of homeland security would raise an alert level and scare people for political reasons. That's outrageous.'" . I live in NY and I'm in my right mind and I'm sick of having my city used as a pawn in the Bush re-election effort. I don't believe this terror threat any more than the last politically convenient one. Sen. Joe must be drinking with Zell Miller.

Howard Kurtz: You're entitled to your opinion. But if the closing of the Holland Tunnel to trucks is any indication, New York officials seem to be taking it seriously.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kurtz,

It appears that the media have begun to press Kerry and his reluctance to outline specific plans for Iraq. How do you think this will play out -- press keep after him until he provides a plan?

Howard Kurtz: I think journalists SHOULD press Kerry on his plans for Iraq. He tried to say yesterday that he was not going to tip his hand before he was president, but if the Democratic presidential nominee is going to proclaim that he can ease the difficulties in Iraq and bring some American troops home, he has a responsibility to say more about how he'd accomplish that. As for whether the press will stick with that line of inquiry, I imagine reporters will be distracted for the next few days by the latest terror alert.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard, just wanted to compliment you on your story this morning. One element was missing though: Jon Stewart absolutely skewered the pooh-bahs of punditry about their reaction to the Al Sharpton speech. That had to be one of the funniest segments of the Daily Show, an already priceless treasure of American political humor.

Howard Kurtz: I could spend every day writing about Jon Stewart but there are some other media outlets in the world.


New York, N.Y.: Greetings,

Yikes! Another terror alert, again timed just by chance of course to coincide with and distract from bad political news for Mr. Bush. I tell you it's getting more and more difficult to believe this stuff or take it seriously, given the timing, quality, and usefulness of these alerts.

Aside form Howard Dean, are you seeing any other qualified skepticism with regard to this latest alert? Do you sense that it might be more credible than, say, Ashcroft's last bit about the guys we had been tailing for years?


Howard Kurtz: Dean seems to be the only one, for the moment, who is questioning the timing of this alert. But at least it's based on an actual discovery of al-Qaeda computer files and deals with specific potential targets, as opposed to some of the more generalized alerts of the past.


Arlington, Va.: With Tom Ridge announcing what sounds like a very serious and specific terror warning wrapped in political rhetoric about Bush's leadership and the help of America's allies, do you think the media will portray this as a political move?

Howard Kurtz: So far, that hasn't been the case. I think most journalists accept the administration's word that this was based on newly discovered Qaeda files. Of course, the files don't indicate that any attack is imminent or still planned, just that terrorist agents were casing the joints.


Madison, Wis.: Paul Krugman's recent editorial on the triviality of news coverage was an excellent commentary on the sad state of ratings-driven news coverage. The media supplies what the public demands -- yet the public (or segments thereof) also seems to complain about the lack of substance in politics and the media.

So, my question to you is this: What are these "ratings" that are driving our media (and politicians) to utter banality in lieu of substance? Are they scientifically validated for selection bias? Is it only losers with nothing else better to do than fill out Nielsen diaries or attend $40 focus groups (free lunch included -- well, there's no free lunch, but I digress)? Are the media executives getting flawed data about what the public wants?

Howard Kurtz: There's plenty of controversy about Nielsen methods, but it's basically a statistical sample of families who either keep diaries about their viewing or have their TV's metered (I've never understood why the latter wouldn't be more accurate than relying on someone's memory). And the ratings are huge, obviously, because they determine advertising dollars.


Washington, D.C.: Is there a chance the networks will carry more than 3 hours of the Republican convention and if they do, what repercussions would that invoke being that the Democrats only got 3 hours?

Howard Kurtz: No chance. They've already committed to the same three hours. And there's no way the networks could give more time to one party's convention than another.


St. Louis, Mo.: I watched some of the convention. It was awful. Just a big infomercial largely at tax payer expense. And some people want the networks to cover MORE of it? What a waste. The nominee and the veep speeches all that need really be covered. I don't plan to watch any of the Republican convention for the same reasons.

Howard Kurtz: Well, you always have the option of turning it off. And yes, it's a big infomercial. But I would argue it's an important event in a campaign, giving reporters a chance to interview delegates and party officials and convey a sense of where the Democrats (and later the Republicans) are at this point in the season. The surprisingly strong speech by Obama, the strikingly offbeat appearance by Teresa, the refusing-to-get-off-the-stage oration by Sharpton--these are all interesting bits of political theater for those who care about such things.


Washington, D.C.: Howard -- Fine, if the press intends to press Kerry on his plans for Iraq, when will it finally insist that President Bush also divulge his plans for Iraq? For example, when will he bring the troops home? How much more is he calling for in the budget? Overall, the press with few exceptions has given Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld a pass when it's come to detail on Iraq.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it's because of a lack of asking questions. And obviously Bush has to deal with Iraq every day, while Kerry is asking us to project how he would handle the problem once in office.


Falls Church, Va.: It's not skepticism, it's cynicism (or partisanship) that is prompting these people to say the terror warnings are all about politics. Since last year, President Bush's approval ratings have not significantly improved when these warnings have come out. My guess is that some of these folks would be screaming, 'Why didn't you tell us?' if they had learned of this terrorist chatter in other ways.

Howard Kurtz: Everyone is aware of the "why didn't you tell us?" factor that would come into play if something did happen.


Mclean, Va. Howard, one report that upset me was a story on Anderson Cooper's show about all the press time that Michael Moore was commanding by being at the convention. He made it sound as if it were Moore's fault that he was getting a lot of air time. Whether you like him or not, Moore is going to do what it takes to push his movie and his views. How can the media slam him for his presence and cover him at the same time. They can't have it both ways, can they?

Howard Kurtz: Of course he'll do what he can to promote his movie. The more relevant question is why the press was treating him like a rock star in Boston.


Tysons Corner, Va.: I was reading your response about Fox News, and it hit me: Is it possible that "We Report, You Decide," is the best-known slogan of the 21st Century? It's usually mentioned by Fox's detractors in pointing out the network's supposed failings, but the network itself has never shied away from it, and for good reason. Everybody knows it, and everybody has an opinion on it. The more I think about it, the more the slogan seems like a huge coup for the Fox people.

Howard Kurtz: I thought it was "Dude, you're getting a Dell."


Arlington, Va.: How much reliance can we put in these post-convention polls and the "bounce" analysis? USA Today is trumpeting that Kerry fell 5 points in the poll after the election, and is the first candidate not to get a bounce in over 30 years. But other polls are showing a modest "bounce" for the Dems (3-5 points). There's an 11 point difference between the USA Today poll and the Newsweek poll. What do you make of all this - has polling become so ubiquitous that it's lost any reliability?

Howard Kurtz: I'm a big critic of the media's bounce obsession, as I wrote last Friday. It may be that Kerry has so consolidated the Democratic base that he didn't have much room to bounce. It may be that the convention fell flat. It may be that a couple of quickie polls after his speech don't provide a clear picture. I happen to think it takes time for the convention coverage -- the replayed sound bites, local news chatter, columns and editorials -- to sink in and form an impression. We'll see if tomorrow's Washington Post poll clarifies things at all or just muddies the picture.


Anonymous: Are the conventions really largely at taxpayer's expense? I thought public money started flowing to the candidates after the election.

Howard Kurtz: There's a separate allocation, I believe $14 million, to put on the party conventions.


San Jose, Calif.: As a student of the media I tend to switch channels frequently. (And yes, it does annoy the hell out of my wife.) One thing I noticed during Kerry's speach was the volume was lower and the audience applause was muffled on the Fox News Channel. It was very noticeable.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure it wasn't a plot.


Falls Chuch, Va.: According to USA Today this morning, Kerry did not get a post-convention bounce in the polls. Instead, Bush went from one point behind to four points ahead. Do other polls show this type of result? Presumably, there are not enough undecided voters to register much of a post-convention bounce. Of course, polling patterns in the swing states could be different.

Howard Kurtz: So far there's only been a quickie Newsweek poll that showed Kerry/Edwards leading Bush/Cheney by 7 points. But I'm sure we'll be flooded with more surveys this week.


San Antonio, Tex.: If we accept Mike Scheuer's argument in "Imperial Hubris" that al Qaeda attacks us, the U.S., not for what we think, but what we have done in the Muslim world, then why would al Qaeda have picked the five financial institution mentioned in yesterday's terrorist alert?

More importantly, why has the press not explained the choice of these five targets from the al Qaeda point of view? The investment of Saudis in Citicorp is well documented in Craig Unger's book and elesewhere. Was Prudential picked because the Saudi Pak took over Pakistani banking after a Prudential enterprise failed in Pakistan? Certainly, al Qaeda's choice of these five financial targets must be based on more than their "iconic" stature?

The Washington Post and NYT have given us lots of maps of these targets but no explanatory material. Why?

Howard Kurtz: Three words: We don't know. It's always a matter of piecing together the Mosaic. What we do know is that al-Qaeda likes to attack high-profile symbols of America's financial power.


Kansas City, Mo.: Howard,

In light of your coverage of FOX's coverage of the Democratic convention I've wondered if you changed your view of the network. In the past you've said the news was pretty balanced but the commentators were conservative. However the slogan for the ENTIRE network is "Fair and Balance," not just "Fair and Balanced News." Also, based on your reviews of their coverage, their other slogan -- "we report, you decide" is laughable.

I understand that commentators and editorial pages take stands, but I believe they can take stands and at least attempt to be "fair and balanced."

Howard Kurtz: I continue to say that you have to separate the reporters from the commentators in evaluating any network. But during the convention, you had news happening at night (speakers like Gore and Carter) while the opinionated shows (O'Reilly and Hannity) were on. They don't have to be balanced -- they're entitled to their opinions, that's why people watch them -- but I believe it would have been fairer, and more consistent with Fox's self-proclaimed mission, to show some of those speeches.


Washington, D.C.: This weekend there was another report on the rising U.S. deficit ("White House Predicts 2004 Deficit of $445 Billion -- the Biggest Ever"; Washington Post, July 31). I wish that some reporter would explain just how the deficit can affect us. It's a more abstract concept than, say inflatio or taxes. Some peole obviously feel it's important, and others (e.g., Bill O'Reilly, according to today's media column) downplay it.

Howard Kurtz: I agree that we've allowed the deficit to become an abstract number and have stopped reporting its effect on interest rates, long-term debt, limiting new government initiatives, etc. Perot helped make the deficit a major issue in '92 but the administration is betting that it's lost its political potency.


Arlington, Va.: I for one am sick of people like Dean saying every terror alert is for some political agenda. If Bush/admin. put's one out any time between now and Nov. someone's going to say it's politically motivated. Dems want it both ways - they say we're wasting resources in the war on terror by being in Iraq and then when security is tightened at home they say it's too much.

Howard Kurtz: The Democrats aren't objecting to the tightening of security at home. In fact, Kerry said in his speech we aren't doing enough on the homefront, citing ports as an example. It's the ratcheting up of color-coded alerts that has been drawing criticism.


Damascus, Md. We just had a memo come in detailing exactly what a federal government employee is and is not allowed to do for a political campaign under the Hatch Act.

I watched Tom Ridge's announcement last night. Whether or not you think the timing was political, the last half of his speech was an undisguised campaign commercial for George Bush.

Is he allowed to do that under the provisions of the Hatch Act? We've been told "Employees are also prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty, in a government office, wearing an official uniform, or using a government vehicle." I would think he was on duty yesterday, yes?

Howard Kurtz: Any member of an administration, and especially a political appointee like Ridge, is well within his rights in saying they are doing a good job, even though that obviously boosts the stock of the incumbent.


Washington, D.C.: The reports I've read don't indicate that the targets are under any more danger today than they were weeks ago. The files discovered began before 9/11 and ceased months ago. The intelligence is deatiled but not strong. For example, any company that distributes handbills knows the mid-day pedestrian traffic on a street (and that's just the type of work al Qaeda terrorists would have performed prior to 9/11).

The source that discovered the files is the Pakistani government, which just discovered its own nuclear program was the source of most proliferation efforts worldwide. It's a bit like the yellow cake uranium claim from the State of Union.

We've known al Qaeda has wanted to blow up buildings with trucks since August 1998. So where's the compelling intelligence to justify the alarm now?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it would probably be irresponsible not to put out that terrorists had targeted such buildings as the stock exchange and Citicorp tower. But I agree, as I noted earlier, that there is no sense of timing attached to this information, or even whether these plots are still in the "active" file.


Springfield, Va. The media whining about the lack of convention coverage on the networks is too much. The DNC and this month's RNC are nothing but a four day info-mercial. The only thing newsworthy (if you're a fan of Access Hollywood) was the shove-it comment. No new proposals, no policy details, and the nominee had been selected by Iowa and New Hampshire -- the other states be damned. More network coverage would have only translated into bigger ratings for A&E and the history channels.

Howard Kurtz: In fact, though, more people watched than tuned in for the Democratic convention in 2000. It's just that more of them went to CNN, Fox, MSNBC and PBS while abandoning the Big Three networks, which made clear with their three-hour allotment that they no longer care much about the conventions.


Charlotte, Vt. What is your take on the unity of the Democratic party? On Wolf Blitzer CNN show yesterday, Sen. Lieberman said of Gov. Howard Dean's comment on the politics of raising the terrorist level... that basically Dean was an idiot. "Anyone who would say that has to be an idiot."

Howard Kurtz: Lieberman didn't say that. He said the suggestion was outrageous. Obviously he and Dean represent different wings of the party, and not just on this issue.


Connecticut: Howard,

Thanks for the chat! I think that the whole terorist threat timing debate(real or political?) goes to the lack of credibility that this administration has earned for itself. If one examines Bush's stances on issues in the past and compares them to his current stances, you can see many, many "flip-flops". When are the Dems going to lay that out for those who refer to Kerry as the "flip-flopper"? Seems to me the Dems aren't being as effective in their message/defense and the Republicans are being in their attacks? Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I'll leave that to the Democrats to figure out. I do think it's fair for the press to point out that a) the Bush administration originally opposed creating a 9/11 commission, and b) initially balked at creating a national intelligence director's post, which Bush endorsed this morning.


Arlington, Va.: I just want to say thanks for reading/excerpting Andrew Sullivan. I find his blog to be very informative and for someone who is fiscally conservative, socially liberal and believes the war on terrorists is a priority, it's nice to see there are others out there who share my views and eschew the rhetoric of both Michael Moore and Bill O'Reilly.

Howard Kurtz: Well, you'll have to get along without his insights for awhile. Sullivan just announced that he's taking August off.


Washington Crossing, Pa.: I, too, am discouraged and disappointed by the lack of convention coverage by the broadcast networks... but... Shouldn't it be pointed out when citing the increase in the cable news networks' convention coverage ratings over their 2000 numbers that the subscriber base of those networks has grown considerably in the last four years?

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair point. But Fox's increase, for example (from 400,000 four years ago to over 2 million last week) far outstrips any growth in its subscriber base. People who care about news are gradually deciding that the cable news networks are a more consistent place to get that news than big broadcast networks that are primarily in the entertainment business.


Detroit, Mich.: Howard,
It's been said that Powell and Ridge might not be back in the Bush Administration if he is elected this year. Will the media focus more attention to the turnover of the Bush Administration if he is elected to his second term? Also, will the public know why these notable figures would not serve in a second Bush Administration? I know a lot of people like Powell, but he has said before that he would not serve under Bush again, when will these sort of things be explained to the public?

Howard Kurtz: If Bush wins on Nov. 2, the media focus will immediately turn to who will serve in a second term. I don't know what Ridge might do, but there has been plenty of reporting making clear that Powell has no plans to stick around. I assume this has in part to deal with his various frustrations at how foreign policy is run, but it's also not unusual for a secretary of state to want to step down after an arduous four-year term.


New York, N.Y.: More of a comment, but....

I'd have to say my favorite televised moment of convention coverage was when Brokaw and Russert interviewed Jon Stewart...and painfully attempted to be just as funny as him!

Seems like a lot of press people like the Daily Show, eventhough it skewers them, sometimes mercilessly (MSNBC for example).

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure they failed. I tried myself when I interviewed Stewart, but the man is pretty quick. When I made a comment at this breakfast in Boston about the media hordes, he insisted on hearing it as "media whores."
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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