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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2005; 12:00 PM

Consumers used to get their news from newspapers, magazines and evening broadcasts from the three television networks. Now, with the Internet, cable TV and 24-hour news networks, the news cycle is faster and more constant, with every minute carrying a new deadline. But clearly more news and more news outlets are not necessarily better. And just because the press has the ability to cover a story doesn't always mean they should -- or that they'll do it well.

Howard Kurtz has been The Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Howard Kurtz (washingtonpost.com)

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Boring, Md.: Hello Howard,
I am about to go out and brave the elements (shoveling snow from around my car) so I thought I'd get a question in early.... on your CNN program on Sunday you had on Andrew Sullivan and some other bloggers talking about the whole "blogger" deal... I see blogs like people who had CB radios way back when... voices spouting off at their whim, some are clever and interesting, but does anyone really think they are replacing MSM? (main stream media)

(By the way: I love your blog, Howie, and I never miss reading Andrew Sullivan, Jeff Jarvis, Iraq the Model, and Memeorandum, among others.)

Howard Kurtz: REPLACING the mainstream media? I don't think even the most ardent blogger would claim that. (The guests by the way were Andrew, Dan Kennedy and Wonkette.) Bloggers very much feed off the MSM; if it wasn't there, who would some of them rail against? But I think the best of them are providing a terrific alternative for those who want different voices and different points of view, and that their role has been revolutionary in eroding the dominant role of big media corporations.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Howard,

Is what Fenton says in his book about CBS' foreign news coverage really all that surprising? Even today, it seems like network coverage of foreign news is mostly centered on Iraq. Afghanistan, which isn't all that better off than Iraq, gets scant coverage, and the rest of the world only seems to get a mention when something completely extraordinary happens.

Howard Kurtz: What's surprising, in my view, is that a man who spent decades at CBS News would deliver such an indictment. Whether you agree with Fenton's arguments or not--and they were certainly more true pre-9/11, when most TV execs subscribed to the "foreign news doesn't sell" philosophy--he is able to draw on a wealth of personal experiences and observations in making his case.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Thanks for your columns; they add to the public body of knowledge (and my own.)

During the hight of the Bush -- Texas Air National Guard story, didn't the Boston Globe (no Bushies, they!) state that in February 2004 they'd been offered access to something like Burnett's documents, but didn't pursue, since: 1. Burkett was a known partisan, and 2. the Globe couldn't find any independent corroboration ? The Globe clearly was on the same hunt -- had some copy in February, and again in September -- but decided not to 'run with the copy' as CBS did. I haven't seen any comment on the Globe -- both skewing liberal AND naturally thrilled with any scoop -- simply figuring that the facts weren't there and doing the right thing by publishing only what they had and could rely on?

Thanks so much for any thoughts you'd have.

Howard Kurtz: Bill Burkett is the CBS source's name, and yes, a number of news organizations, including Newsweek, passed on pursuing his claims, in part because he was such an obvious anti-Bush zealot. I don't recall if the Globe was among them. But by all accounts he hadn't yet gotten his hands on the memos that turned into such a fiasco for CBS.


Louisville, Colo.: It strikes me as very strange that CBS announced the resignation of three people in the Rather/Mapes/TANG affair without having their resignations in hand. Last week it became public knowledge that none of the three have resigned yet. What's going on? Wouldn't Heyward and Moonves (or CBS attorneys) have talked to the three before going public with the offical report?

Howard Kurtz: The people who lost their jobs did not find out until the morning the report was released, I am told. Obviously CBS wanted to make the announcement and not have it leak, and just as obviously the network retains the option of firing them. The question is whether their refusal to resign signals some sort of legal battle or is just a dispute over severance and the terms of their departure.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Howard,

Thanks for the chats -- they're always interesting.

Every news source that I found -- local and national, television, internet, and print -- all devoted significant resources to Donald Trump's third wedding.

My question, and it is a serious one, is why? Why is this a significant event to Americans? Why was this "event" covered by every news outlet when there are so many other ongoing issues? Between the weather and Mr. Trump, I was pretty much unable to find much other news available to me from any source - frusterating.

I thought that your column this morning summarized some of my feelings quite nicely. Where are all of these news resources going? Just repackaging press releases? And what's the point of having access to so many different news outlets if they all report the same story?

Howard Kurtz: Celebrity news has become a very big deal in the news business. Having written about Trump in the late '80s when I was based in New York, he has always been more of a genius at drawing attention to himself than at real estate and casinos. (I covered his affair with Marla Maples, who became Wife No. 2, in the midst of the biggest tabloid frenzy I'd ever seen.) Trump is big again because of the success of The Apprentice, so it's hardly surprising that his wedding to another supermodel would get a tsuanmi of media coverage. I guess we can ask Chris Matthews for a first-hand report, since he was one of the guests.


Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.: I have been surprised how little media attention the outgoing Secretary od Education Paige has received. First it was revealed that Houston school miracle was based mostly on faulty accounting about drop-out numbers, and then that his department paid Armstrong Williams to promote No Child Left Behind.
Do you think the media did a good job holding him accountable?

Howard Kurtz: No, because the Education Department, like many federal agencies, is treated like a backwater by big media organizations. The Armstrong Williams flap is probably the most attention Paige has gotten in a long time. He once called the teachers' union "terrorists" and it was still a one-day story.


Vancouver, Canada: Did you see Ari Fleischer with the CNN broadcast team during the Presidential Inauguration? I was surprised by his response to Christine Amapour's account of the troubling situation in Iraq. He debated the believability of her report by suggesting that journalists are out of touch with the more positive reality reported by the military. Fleischer seemed disingenuous and transparently manipulative. He reminded me of another famous former official spokesman; the Iraqi Information Minister, Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf.

Fleischer's style of message control was probably effective in 2003, but I suspect viewers are looking for more reality and less rhetoric from the Bush administration in 2005. Do you think they will get it?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the administration's spin is that things in Iraq are better than they're being portrayed by the media. So I can't say I'm shocked that Ari, who is very loyal to the White House, used that argument.


Fairfax, Va.: I work with the media a lot for my job. Here is an anecdote that supports the Fenton's assertions that international news was really given little value in the late 90s. On September 11, 2001 there was a meeting in Atlanta with CNN international bureau chiefs in which CNN management was announcing the closure of many international bureaus. It was forestalled by the attack that happened as the meeting was convening, and the subsequent international focus of the "war on terror".

Howard Kurtz: Everyone's got budgetary pressures, but CNN has more international bureaus than just about anyone else (with the possible exception of the BBC). These bureaus cost a lot of money to maintain, but they pay off when you have a tsunami or some other big global event where you not only need a lot of troops but need people who understand the region.


Columbia, Md.: RE: Fenton. Right or wrong, Fenton showed no class or courage in piling up on CBS when the going got bad. He had to wait to finish his 25 years despite all his problems with CBS News? I presume his pension is secure, too. I am disappointed in him...

Howard Kurtz: I suppose, based on his book, he would argue that he fought plenty of internal battles to try to get more foreign news on the air.


Long Island, N.Y.: Howard,

Love the column. I do have on question regarding your comment on the critics of the inaugural from Thursday:

"Funny, I don't remember liberal pundits making an issue of this during Clinton's first inaugural, when American soldiers were fighting and dying in Somalia."

Is it really fair to compare Somalia in Jan 1993 (when a total of 2 Americans had been killed at the time of Clinton's inaugural) to the situation currently in Iraq?

Given the fact that some troops lack some needed protective armor, asking if spending $40M on a second Bush inaugural is at least legitimate question.

Howard Kurtz: Except that since the $40 million was all private donations, even canceling the thing wouldn't have produced any more body armor for the troops. I should have written that U.S. soldiers were fighting in Somalia when Clinton was sworn in, since most of the dying came later, but there were also troops dealing with the aftermath of Bosnia during his second inauguration.


Seattle, Wash.: If we had today's media 140 years ago, do you think they would have complained that Lincoln's 2nd inaugural address was filled with platitudes, didn't really say anything new, etc? Not to put Bush's address in that category, but it was ABOUT something, and I suspect that five years from now (for good or bad) we will remember what it was about, even if we can't quote a signature line (unlike those of his recent predecessors, as you noted in your column).

Howard Kurtz: Lincoln would have been both praised and denounced on shows like Hardball, Crossfire and Hannity & Colmes. Not to mention the fashion critics who would have said, "Abe, what's up with the top hat? It's SO 1860."
If Bush's goal was to produce a speech that would be heavily debated rather than instantly forgotten, he certainly succeeded.


Biddeford, Maine: Did you catch Meet the Press yesterday? A few gems, including a Freudian slip on the part of Iraq ambassador John Negroponte where he inadvertantly declared that the atrocities of Saddam Hussein paled in comparison to what's happened the last couple of months. At least I hope it was a slip.

But what really caught my attention was Rep. Bill Thomas's statement that the social security crisis was no longer a crisis because Bush was now calling it a problem, and Thomas made a point of saying Bush said problem 27 times in his last speech. This ties in with your outtakes of the Post/Bush conversation over privitization and personal savings accounts.

I know we're just parsing language, but part of Bush's success is his ability to control language (when scripted.) If he changes the script, how indignant can the press be? Russert let Thomas go because it wasn't worth arguing about, but I'd hate to think that he now believes the "crisis" of language is solved because it's been downgraded to a "problem."

Howard Kurtz: The battle over language is always crucial to politicians and political parties. "Affirmative action" was a brilliant label for those who support such efforts, as opposed to, say, "racial preferences." Those who are opposed to abortion much prefer the appellation "pro-life." And we've already been through a budget debate (Medicare in 1995) where Republicans tried mightily to browbeat journalists into replacing "cuts" with "slowing the rate of increase."


Kansas City, Mo.: Regarding the Post's dispute with the RNC over whether to call the Social Security proposals private accounts or personal accounts.

Since labels seem to matter so much in defining an issue (death tax vs. estate tax) and seeing that the RNC is apparently trying to get the Post to adopt their language, who determines which phrase is used?

I've heard some suggest the Pro-Life movement be called Pro-Birth and wondered if the Post would adopt that language?

Howard Kurtz: Who determines? Journalists generally try to use neutral terms that fairly describe a politician's or group's aims without falling into sloganeering or propaganda. The Post has never adopted "death tax," to cite your example, but has certainly quoted estate-tax opponents as using it many times.


NW Washington, D.C.: When you say that all the $40 million was from private donations, does that include the incremental amounts necessary to fund the District's services (e.g., Police OT, fire fighter OT, etc.)? From my (admittedly poor) memory, the White House seemed to stick the District with a good portion of the inaugural cost even though the White House said the District could use their Homeland Security money to cover some of the costs. What's the real story?

Howard Kurtz: You're right. The 40 mil was just for the parties and festivities. And the Bush administration did in fact force the District of Columbia to cover $12 million in security costs that could have been used for other things for the city's taxpayers.


Wheaton, Md.: Mr. Kurtz,

Love your column and love the show. Was a bit disppointed with this sentence in your response to a question about Donald Trump.

"...so it's hardly surprising that his wedding to another supermodel would get a tsuanmi of media coverage."

I've felt over the last couple weeks, the media (including the sports guys) have been a little to fond of the use of the word Tsuanmi. Much in the same way the phrase "shock and awe" was so hip to use. Maybe it is just one of those days and I am overly sensitive to the issue, but it seems as though the word is being abused, and it just seems slightly disrespectful to me. Sort of if someone said that Dean's campaign collapsed like the twin towers. Granted tsunami is a dictionary word and you used it correctly, I just don't know that you would have used it before Christmas.

Howard Kurtz: I certainly wasn't trying to be insensitive to the victims of this horrible tragedy. I was actually trying to subtly draw the contrast between the tsunami coverage (a hugely important story) and the Trump wedding (a hugely unimportant story but much easier to cover than massive death in Asia and Africa). Too subtly, perhaps.


Re- Johnny Carson: Would Floyd R. Turbo have his own cable TV talk show on if he was real and around nowadays?

Howard Kurtz: With that stupid cap, he'd probably do better on radio.


Germantown, Md.: I don't understand all of the hand-wringing over the cost of the inaugural festivities. However, it seemed like there was almost no fuss over the fact that the District got stuck with the bill for security. What's the deal?

Howard Kurtz: It was on the front page of The Washington Post, so there was some fuss.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: About name calling: why does the press insist on calling pro-life demonstrators and activists "anti-abortion", but not call people on the other side "pro-abortion"? The pro-abortion people are given the respect of being called "pro-choice" because they prefer that moniker. Those who support 'right-to-life' issues, such as myself, prefer to be called "pro-life". Why no respect for that CHOICE?

Howard Kurtz: Pro-abortion is not accurate. It suggests that people who want abortion to remain legal are in favor of women having them. Pro-abortion rights is closer to the mark. Pro-life, although it's become quite common, suggests that those who are in favor of abortion rights are anti-life.


Washington, D.C.: Re: Today's print column, etc.
Another long lead item on CBS News and Dan Rather! Are you adding CBS/Dan Rather to your NEW YORK TIMES obsession?
Why so few words on the Bush-Cheney-Rove administration lock-out of working journalist? Also, why no reporting-opinion about V-P Cheney's bizarre, impolitic comments Thursday, on the Don Imus radio program?

Howard Kurtz: It wasn't about Dan Rather, it was about foreign news coverage. I guess you read it too quickly. The Cheney-Imus interview, which I agree was newsworthy, was covered in a Post news story last week.


Washington, D.C.: While obviously chagrined that CBS didn't find a report on Osama bin Laden "sexy" enough, how many other media outlets gave time to this latent problem?

As a fairly intelligent consumer of the news, I can remember the 24 hour news networks (CNN, MSNBC, FOX) devoting plenty of time to the murder case du jour but zero time to bin Laden. In fact, I had never heard of al Queda until 9/11.

For that matter, did the Washington Post run (m)any stories on the emerging threat?

Howard Kurtz: There were 52 references to al Qaeda in The Post from Jan. 1, 1998 until 9/11/01. The paper did an awful lot of reporting on terrorism in those years, especially after the African embassy and USS Cole bombings, but clearly we and the rest of the press could have done a better job in calling attention to bin Laden's terrorist organization.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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