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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 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.

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)

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.


Riverside, Calif.: Tom DeLay is getting a lot of negatively flavored news coverage in the liberal media.

That "news" has the all "signs" of another left-wing conspiracy.

Why do you suppose Mr. DeLay has become the target at this particular time?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I don't blame a left-wing conspiracy. The majority leader has become part of an investigation by a Texas prosecutor of some of his fundraising associates, and stories are being written about the evidence coming out. In addition, The Washington Post the other day reported problems with the free trip that DeLay and his wife accepted to Korea (along with other lawmakers of both parties). In addition, the House GOP passed, and then rescinded, a rule that would have protected DeLay's leadership post if he were indicted, and there's still an impasse at the House ethics committee that has barred action on complaints against DeLay (or anyone else). All that would seem to me to fall in the category of news, although obviously Democrats are making Tom DeLay a high-profile target.


Cubicle City, Washington, D.C.: Re: CNN's "objectivity" -- Just watch Lou Dobb's show. It's an entire hour of the world according to Lou. That's just one example, but how the Project for Excellence In Journalism could miss that? Or is the Project really just interested in a campaign to discredit Fox?

Howard Kurtz: The Project is a well-balanced research group that is not on a campaign to get anyone. As I described in today's column, the study looked at three different parts of the cable day: the 11 am to noon newscasts; the shows anchored by Keith Olbermann, Brit Hume and Aaron Brown; and the highest rated prime time shows--O'Reilly, Matthews and Larry King. Had the researchers included the Lou Dobbs hour, I'm sure they would have found plenty of Lou's opinions, on exporting jobs and lots of other topics. CNN even seems to be promoting Dobbs as having strong views. But that wasn't part of the study.


Washington, D.C.: You may have answered this before. In countless stories, we see references to a source that wishes to remain anonymous, the stories state, because, for example, "an official statement has not been made" or because discussions are being "held in private." The basic question is why journalists do this, but I would find more interesting your answer to the following: why do journalists trust sources like these? These sources are basically saying, "despite the fact that the body I represent has not yet decided to make a decision official, I will take it upon myself to release the information." The fact that the source makes this decision should shed a very bright light on their credibility, shouldn't it? In other, rawer words, should you and we believe these "rats?" Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I don't quite get why you think they're rats. In any administration, for example, the sources generally include the top presidential aides and policy staffers. Many of these people are authorized to speak to the press on a "background" basis; some are not but are not willing to have their names used if they deviate from the company line by just a few percent. I happen to think we grant anonymity way too often for routine political and policy stories. The reason for the explanations is a new policy at The Post and some other papers to explain why such-and-such an official could not speak on the record. Sometimes, I have to say, the explanations seem a bit strained.


Washington, D.C.: Good afternoon!

Does the report you write about today surprise you, at all? I'm really not surprised. As someone who finds most of those so-called news programs useless, I'm not surprised and shall continue as per usual. Do you think it will change the viewers who truly consider the Fox news to be fair and balanced, and UN spun?


Howard Kurtz: Well, the value of a report like this is that it attempts to quantify opinion, as opposed to relying on either anecdotal evidence or subjective impressions (people who don't like Fox would be more likely to find it too opinionated). I'm certainly not surprised that 97 percent of the stories and segments on Bill O'Reilly's show contain opinion (except I thought it would be 99.9 percent). But Fox has long maintained that its regular reporting is balanced and straightforward. This can be undercut, however, when you have anchors making loaded remarks after a news report.


Wooster, Ohio: So -- is CNN going to get any props for having the least amount of editorializing, or is Ailes going to figure out a way to make unbiased reporting a "liberal" activity?

Howard Kurtz: That's up to the viewers. Fox is beating CNN and MSNBC in the ratings, so it's clearly found a way to build a loyal audience. People say they want "straight" news, which can be a little on the bland side, but many gravitate toward news outlets and commentators who validate their view of the world. CNN seems to be the cable channel people often turn to when there's a big breaking news event but has had trouble sustaining those numbers when there's not much going on.


Arlington, Va.: I hope you're like me. Don't you get extremely glazed-over when the Sunday morning show hosts pester people in March 2005 about running for president in 2008? And why can't people like Tim Russert take ten no's for an answer?

Howard Kurtz: I did think Russert's are-you-absolutely-positively-under-all-circumstances-ruling-it-out grilling of Condi went on for quite awhile. One reason, though, is that politicians (not necessarily Rice, who's never run for office) routinely try to finesse such questions when they know full well they're plotting a presidential campaign but feel it's premature to acknowledge it.


Alexandria, Virginia: Did you see the big N.Y. times piece today on video news releases? I have to admit I'm puzzled why this is a huge news story now, but it wasn't when the Clinton administration was doing it. Every one of these stories seems to suggest in paragraph 19 that "well, yes, they did this in the Clinton era, too." Doesn't it look like all the well-timed fuss over this "covert propaganda" is only offensive when a GOP administration is in power?

Howard Kurtz: One reason is that the Bush administration is spending far more on such efforts than the Clinton administration did, and the GAO has twice said that the covert nature of the Bush video releases violated federal law against covert propaganda. But I agree that every story should make clear that the Bushies didn't invent the practice.


Boston, Mass.: Love your chats and your daily Media Notes! I have a hypothetical question:
If a MSM reporter started a personal, opinionated blog about the news, outside of his/her job of reporting the news, would he/she get vilified for as not being able to write unbiased articles (and potentially get fired)?

Likewise, if a young blogger kept a personal, opinionated blog, do you think he or she would ever be allowed into the MSM reporting establishment since a public history of opinion was published on the web?

Howard Kurtz: The first question is not hypothetical. The Hartford Courant forced a columnist to give up a personal blog, and there have been one or two other such cases (and one in which a journalist was fired for slamming his news organization in his anonymous blog). This also came up when the Boston Globe admonished a tech reporter who had a minor role in campaign coverage for posting anti-Kerry diatribes on other blogs.
As for whether a young blogger would be disqualified from MSM employment, it would depend on the nature of the opinions expressed, how much time had passed and so on.


New York, N.Y.: It was interesting to watch the way the media covered two similar stories this past weekend. (The Atlanta courthouse shootings vs. the Wisconsin hotel/church shootings). The Atlanta incident garnered wall-to-wall, minute by minute coverage. The Wisconsin incident was mentioned but no where near the media saturation. Why the disparity? More people were killed in Wisconsin. Do you think it was because a judge and deputy were involved?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, in short. Sadly and tragically, these cases where someone goes nuts and shoots a bunch of people are not as rare as they used to be. But the idea of a judge being gunned down in a courthouse, possibly by someone with a grievance, is so chilling, and represents such an assault on the justice system, and raises so many questions about courthouse security, that it's more newsworthy.


Georgia: I noted in the article about Tom Delay in today's Post, the lead paragraph cites a political consultant and then notes that the consultant doesn't want his identity revealed in the article because being anonymous allows him to be candid. Question: Even though he's anonymous in the article, isn't it likely that the folks "on the inside" know who is (if he weren't well connected, The Post wouldn't be talking to him)? Therefore, his anonymity doesn't seem to do him any good and certainly doesn't do the reader much good.

washingtonpost.com: DeLay Ethics Allegations Now Cause of GOP Concern" (Post, March 14)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know that his identity would be apparent to "insiders." There are a lot of Republican political consultants out there.


Arlington, Va.: Regarding anchors comments. Isn't this fairly common, even in the local broadcasts? The reporter makes their report, then the anchor comments on the fire being put out, the child saved, the community damaged by the tornado?

Howard Kurtz: Anchors comment all the time. And I suppose you could say that a comment like "gee, it's great that the child was saved" is opinion. But with national networks we're usually talking about politics, war, social policy, court cases, etc.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Howard,
Like the chats.
Okay, who, when, why is it decided that there is no other news going on in the world and all time must be devoted to one single issue? I am, of course, picking on CNN's coverage of the Courthouse Killer last Friday. How much coverage is needed on a topic before it is no longer news? And one must feel sorry for the reporters just repeating over and over again something they know nothing new about.

Howard Kurtz: Had you been watching MSNBC or Fox that day, you would have seen pretty much the same thing. (Maybe CNN was in better position to cover the shootings because it's based in Atlanta). This is what the cable networks do now. They seize on some crime, missing young girl or celebrity trial and go haywire for hours at a time, as if there's nothing else going on in the world. When Jacko was late for his trial last week and the judge threatened to jail him, the cable networks treated it like the O.J. car chase (MSNBC even had a countdown clock). When Martha Stewart was released at midnight, all the cables went live, and MSNBC had a producer in a car phoning in as he followed Stewart's car (till the connection was quickly lost).


Alexandria, Va.: Following up on this morning's Media Backtalk -- why do you think personal opinions are more accepted at Fox than other news stations?
Personally, I hold Fox to a lower news standard. I acknowledge the conservative spin, enjoy it and accept that everyone -- from the stories they cover to the desk jockies will be less 'news professional.' I hold CNN to a much higher standard. Do you think others hold this view?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. Obviously Fox News is number one in the cable ratings, so the network's approach is working, though other people who are not Fox fans are turned off.
Here's the explanation that Fox gave me:

In an interview, Fox's executive daytime producer, Jerry Burke, says: "I encourage the anchors to be themselves. I'm certainly not going to step in and censor an anchor on any issue . . . You don't want to look at a cookie-cutter, force-feeding of the same items hour after hour. I think that's part of the success of the channel, not treating our anchors like drones. They're number one, Americans, and number two, human beings, as well as journalists."


Washington, D.C.: I always find it funny to hear some news outlets -- and TV is the worst offender -- say things like station XYZ had discovered. What exactly are they discovering? The press release? The publicly available report? They make it sound like they're having meetings in the garage with DT and they're not! Comments?

Howard Kurtz: Well, "WXYZ has discovered" is usually meant to describe some bit of enterprise reporting that other news outlets don't have. It's a way of patting yourself on the back. Whether the story is that big a deal or much of an exclusive depends on the specifics.


Norfolk, Va.: Howie -- Always enjoy your articles, chats, TV, etc. This is more a comment than a question, I guess, but it seems to me that a large industry has developed aimed at convincing people that any news that conflicts with their worldview is, by definition, biased, usually by the "liberal media." The reaction by Fox and the rest of the "talk show right" to the report is a clear example: Since it shows that Fox is so incredibly unbalanced, it must be incorrect. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know that Fox has reacted to the report other than in the comments to me. But the phenomenon you describe unfolds on both sides of the political spectrum. There are plenty of liberals out there who believe the media are too conservative, too corporate, too soft on Bush, and they constantly critique the coverage from that perspective.


Oak Forest, Ill.: Re: New York, N.Y., question on coverage of Atlanta/Wisconsin shooting coverage. Would the difference in Friday and Saturday timing be a factor at least as large as the people involved?

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps. But if the Atlanta court had been in session on a Saturday and the shooting had taken place then, it still would have been a huge cable story.


Silver Spring, Md.:
I enjoy your work and follow almost all of your columns and chats. I was not at all surprised to see the results of the study this morning.

What I am surprised by is the approach of so many news/opinion markets to ignore each other. The networks are under constant attack from the right-wing radio and from Fox-TV, and are now also under attack from progressive radio and the web, yet they barely acknowledge the existence of these attacks. I would think that it is clear that the "ignore them and they will go away" theory has been proven false. Bill O'Reilly crafts an entire segment and worldview based on a misquotation of Barbara Boxer and you would only hear about it if you listen to Al Franken, etc. As you have said, the networks have no-one but themselves to blame for their drop in stature, but you would think that they would take some interest in doing something about it.

I especially appreciated your comments last wee about the need for a real one-hour prime-time news show. Yes, Survivor will beat it in the ratings, but the world would be a better place!

Howard Kurtz: I think media organizations are less likely to ignore such criticism than they were a decade ago, in part because of the rise of bloggers, talk radio and other outlets that trumpet such criticism. It's certainly not ignored by newspapers that have ombudsmen or aggressive media reporters. Opinion magazines and talk show hosts like to go at it. I would say the broadcast networks are the least likely to acknowledge such criticism, though when a story is big enough, such as in the CBS/National Guard fiasco, they too have to deal with outside attacks on their journalism.


Hoops land: Howard,

Tell us who you are picking to go all the way in the NCAA tourney!!

Howard Kurtz: Try Kornheiser or Wilbon. I'd just throw up an airball.


Arlington, Va.: One big difference between the two shootings stories was that the guy in Atlanta was on the loose and armed and dangerous, while the shooter in Wisconsin killed himself after shooting all those people. I wonder in that case though why all the news stories say he stalked out of church a couple of weeks ago during a sermon but no one will say what the sermon was about. That might help give an explanation for his actions.

Howard Kurtz: Excellent point. The initial shock of the Atlanta shootings, and the disbelief that he could escape, was followed by what might be called manhunt coverage.


Portland, Maine: Regarding the Martha Stewart coverage, I was sickened. This hero worship of criminals has no place in the media. Imagine the shame of being one of the reporters assigned to camp out in her driveway. Once upon a time, back in college, I considered a career in journalism. However, after hearing the horror story of a former student assigned this type of drudgery, I balked. Stories like this are killing recruits. What say you?

Howard Kurtz: In the rush to chronicle Martha Stewart as a "comeback" story, the media, especially television, were saying less and less about her original conviction in an insider trading case, or the fact that she still faces an SEC civil probe, or that the fact that her company's stock tanked after her conviction. Some of the coverage was downright gushing. Plus, a large part of Stewart's "comeback" (she's still under house arrest, remember) has to do with NBC signing her to do a reality show and an Apprentice spinoff. So the media helped create the comeback they were covering.


Washington, D.C.: I have to say that I don't get it. Those little throw-away comments the anchors may make after a news report are so obviously just, well, little throw-away comments that end (or start) a news segment. I can't believe that anybody is actually confused by them or feels misled. They're obviously NOT news, but fluff, which helps give Fox News its unique personality. And frankly, that personality is part of the reason why I, a life-long registered Democrat, now watch Fox News in preference to the ohe-so-bland CNN.

Howard Kurtz: Fair enough. But it's not just anchor comments. The study found reporters making opinionated remarks too at Fox, and to a lesser extent at MSNBC.


DeKalb, Ill.: Dear Howard,
I have read quite a few news stories and opinions over the last few weeks that have implied the Bush Administration has contributed to the marginalization of the media. However, how can I as a serious news connoisseur take the media seriously when: "Hostage: We Talked God and Pancakes" has been the lead on CNN.com all morning? Whereas stories discussing the huge demonstrations in Lebanon have been given less emphasis? Don't you think it is possible that the shift in news emphasis to sensationalism has done much more harm to these organizations than the relatively benign actions of an elected Administration? And yes, I know these stories get huge ratings, but shouldn't news organizations like CNN take the high road?

Howard Kurtz: I agree generally that there's been a shift toward tabloid and sensational topics, but I don't think your example fits the bill. An account of a person who'd been held hostage by a man who killed others strikes me as legitimate news, and the demonstrations in Lebanon have received plenty of coverage on CNN and other cable networks in recent weeks. It's a mistake to pick out one morning and say a network is covering X and not Y and therefore is totally out of whack. Unless, of course, it involves Jacko.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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