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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 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.


Charlotte, N.C.: I am just amazed at the gullibility and incompetence demonstrated by CBS news on the Killian memos. Anyone over the age of forty who had spent one day in front of a typewriter should have been immediate suspicious over the formatting of those documents. I am by no means a Bush supporter but as soon as I looked at the documents on the day they were posted on the CBS Web site, I told my wife they were forgeries. I guess I should not be surprised remembering the Tailwind debacle at CNN. Heads should roll at CBS.

Howard Kurtz: Not clear at this point whether heads will roll or not. But I think it's fair to say that CBS took quite a bit of time to conclude what many other news organizations, including The Washington Post, had demonstrated--that these memos were bogus.


Washington, D.C.: Howard,
I have been ASTONISHED by how much print the Post has given the flap over the CBS documents. The media may think this is Very Important Stuff, but I think it's fair to say that the rest of us don't really care how Dan Rather came by the memos, how he had them vetted, and how he decided to go forward with using them. All we really care about is the truth -- and in this case, it's obvious to most of us that George W. Bush was given special treatment. Why keep focusing on this minor controversy?

Howard Kurtz: Because it's not a minor controversy. I happen to believe, and have written, that most people care far more about the problems of the next four years than what Bush and Kerry did during Vietnam. But when you have a major anchor and the most respected television magazine accuse the president of the United States in the middle of his reelection campaign based on memos that turn out to be forgeries, that is a huge development for both politics and the press.


Cambridge, Mass.: Do you think that the questions about Bush's National Guard service will now never be fully addressed because of the discreditation of the memos?

Howard Kurtz: I think it will continue to be a story, but will be totally overshadowed by the mess at CBS.


Washington, D.C.: I understand the reluctance of journalists to release the names of sources. However, in the case of the Killian memos do CBS have a responsibility to release the name of the person who provided them with the apparently false documents?

Don't the public have a right to know who it is that is attempting to manipulate the political process in this way?

Howard Kurtz: BREAKING NEWS: Dan Rather has just issued the following statement:
Last week, amid increasing questions about the authenticity of documents used in support of a 60 MINUTES WEDNESDAY story about President Bush's time
in the Texas Air National Guard, CBS News vowed to re-examine the documents in question-and their source-vigorously. And we promised that we would let
the American public know what this examination turned up, whatever the

Now, after extensive additional interviews, I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically. I find we have been misled on the key question of how our
source for the documents came into possession of these papers. That, combined with some of the questions that have been raised in public and in
the press, leads me to a point where-if I knew then what I know now-I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question.

But we did use the documents. We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the
spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting without fear or favoritism.

Please know that nothing is more important to us than people's trust in our ability and our commitment to report fairly and truthfully.


Tysons Corner, Va.: The recent case of apparently faked Bush Guard documents is a natural result of the Democrats' obsession with demonizing the President. It goes hand-in-hand with all the books and the so-called documentary film by Michael Moore. This has been a relentless multi-media and now a faked media attack--an aspect that seems to go beyond previous Presidential campaigns--do you agree? I am wondering if there is any evidence of centralized political orchestration of this multi-media blitz against Bush--the Post should investigate this. The Democrats and their allies can now be unfavorably compared to the "dirty tricks" campaigns of Richard Nixon.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know how in the world you can tie the Democrats to CBS's botch of the Guard story. It's certainly fair to say that Terry McAuliffe and other big-time Dems have been trying to make the president's Guard record an issue. But no one has suggested that they had anything to do with getting these bogus documents to Dan Rather and CBS. If anything, the two weeks of controversy have probably overshadowed Kerry's message, and the CBS mea culpa will be competing with Kerry's big Iraq speech in tomorrow's papers.


Toledo, Ohio: Your column this morning was called "The Bloggers' Moment." I'd suggest the real bloggers moment was the Howard Dean campaign which elevated the Internet as a political tool for fundraising and organizing.

The blogs that you cite are partisan political blogs, and many of the citizen journalists are partisans who delight in nothing more than hearing their echo on partisan cable TV programs or reading it reported in the column margins of newspapers like The Post.

The guy who led the authenticity sunami, Buckhead, was clearly a partisan. His political credentials far exceed his expertise in typography.

And you asked "Were the bloggers politically motivated?" and cited Charles Johnson, a lifelong Democrat who plans to vote for Bush. Do you have anything to prove or disprove this fellow's commitment to the Democratic party? Or are you just echoing the pseudo credibility of the pajama brigade?

washingtonpost.com: The Bloggers' Moment (Post, Sept. 20)

Howard Kurtz: Dean's campaign was a huge moment for online fundraising, but here wee're talking about bloggers - online, opinionated people - and their impact on the establishment media. Many have partisan motivations, but many do not. And if the bloggers (and their readers and the experts who weighed in) hadn't had the goods on why these supposedly 30-year-old memos seemed so Microsoft Word-ish, their complaints wouldn't have gotten picked up or made much of an impact.


Springfield, Va.: I didn't see the CBS statement as an apology, just a continuaiton of the "phony but accurate" line. Do you think this will quiet the storm for CBS and Rather?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. It depends in part on what they say in interviews and what else we learn about how they were snookered. But it was a pretty unambiguous apology from Rather.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Kurtz,
Does the media intend to seriously challenge or at least question the patently absurd assertions by leading Republicans that "al Qaeda wants John Kerry to win." They seem quite comfortable saying it and they are not being seriously questioned... or are they?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't seen the Bush-Cheney campaign put it quite that way. The vice president certainly suggested that a terrorist attack would be more likely in a Kerry administration, but the media pounced on that so quickly that he ended up softening his statement.


Arlington, Va.: You missed answering DC's question -- is CBS still obligated to protect the source that gave phony documents and misled them?

Howard Kurtz: Hey, I'm trying to give you the breaking news as fast as it comes in.
If a source lies to you, a journalist is under no obligation to continue to protect that source's identity. But what if the source believed the documents to be true and was himself misled? Then it gets murkier. The question is what CBS knew about how the source came into possession of these documents.


Anonymous: The poster from Tysons Corner would compare CBS's botched stories with the Swift Boat ad attacks on Kerry-- most definitely tied to a Republican supporter, and since attracting donations from many Republicans (as reported in "The Los Angeles Times," at least)-- which were rebutted by the Department of Defense but which received weeks of media coverage? What about Republican attacks on Clinton for avoiding the draft? Bush and Cheney both avoided the draft and get NO criticism from conservative sources (e.g., Fox).

Howard Kurtz: Sure the Swifties drew funding from Republicans and Bush supporters, but that doesn't mean the Bush campaign can be held responsible for the attack, any more than Kerry can be held responsible for some of the harsher MoveOn ads. Clinton's active avoidance of the draft was a legitimate political issue, as is Cheney's (though he got pretty standard college and parental deferments). In the case of Bush, despite the fact that he obviously had some help getting into the Guard and benefited from being a congressman's son, he did serve and flew airplanes, which is not like pushing paper.


Rockville, Md.: so CBS messed up, they feel sorry but no one will lose thier job or resign?

I don't mean to be cynical (alright, maybe I do) but isn't this EXACTLY what Rumsfeld said after the prisoner abuse scandal, and what Reno said after all those children burned at Waco, Tex.? What gives? Why in politics and journalism do you get to keep your job if you mess up big time?

Howard Kurtz: Since the CBS apology came exactly 30 minutes ago, it may be a little early to conclude that no one will lose his or her job.


Austin, Tex.: Beyond perhaps overshadowing a speech tomorrow, does the CBS business indirectly hurt Kerry?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see how. It may or may not have been a tactical error for Kerry and the DNC to fire back on Vietnam -- it was Kerry who chided Cheney for his deferments in that midnight speech on the last night of the GOP convention -- but until someone comes up with new evidence, I see no link whatsoever to those now-discredited documents.


Syracuse, N.Y.: First off, your reporting -- along with Michael Dobbs -- has been superior with regards to the CBS memos flap.

The arrogance of Dan Rather and CBS News is stunning. Rather initally blamed politically partisan ideologues for even raising questions with the story, when even reputable liberal bloggers (like Josh Marshall) were also raising questions. The most unforgivable offense, though, was how Rather kept vouching for the authenticity of the memos, when in fact they had no reputable, credentialed experts to support him. He said they had experts, when they really didn't. (The handwriting expert hardly counts when the question was about the typed memos.) Then they trotted out non-experts to validate how superscript was possible in 1972, deliberately sidestepping the -kind- of superscript that was in question. CBS News needs to fire Dan Rather. He willfully tried to ignore evidence debunking his story for too long.

My question: do you think Rather should be fired?

Howard Kurtz: That's up to CBS, though I doubt it will happen. But it's clear in retrospect that Rather and CBS erred by digging in and staunchly defending the story for days in the face of legitimate questions being raised by other journalists, not partisan critics.


New York, N.Y.: Can you please help me understand why reporters on the periphery of the investigation into the release of the CIA agent's name have been forced to testify but Bob Novak, the releaser of the name, has not? Haven't the courts ruled that, in cases involving violations of the law, reporters do not have a right to withhold their sources?

Howard Kurtz: We don't even know whether Novak has been subpoenaed, because he won't say. It is distressing, from a First Amendment point of view, to see other journalists who didn't out Valerie Plame as a CIA operative dragged into this, but we seem to have an activist prosecutor who is not taking a last-resort approach to demanding reporters' testimony with the threat of jail if they don't comply.


New York, N.Y.: FINALLY it looks like the media is starting to pay attention to the mess that is Iraq. As that country was spiraling out of control this summer most of your brethen were discussing how deep Kerry's wound were and IBM font types from the 70s. I hope the media will now take a good look at the REAL issues and where the candidates stand so we can make an informed decision!

Howard Kurtz: I agree that the media's focus should be on Iraq, not Vietnam. But I've read an awful lot of stories and seen a lot of pieces on the air about the continuing violence there. At the same time, Iraq was partially overshadowed in the last couple of months by hurricanes, two conventions, Swift Boat, the Olympics and the Russian school massacre.


Anonymous: Why did the White House originally say that they had no problems with those documents?

Howard Kurtz: As White House communications director Dan Bartlett told me for a story published yesterday, "How am I supposed to verify something that came from a dead man in three hours?" That's how long he had the memos before he was interviewed by "60 Minutes."


Southern Maryland: I'm a political independent, and I had long believed that conservatives were being hysterical in their silly vendetta against CBS. But after seeing the questionable memos reproduced in Sunday's Post, I think the conservatives may have a point about the network's bias.

I'm not a document expert, but I didn't have to read the captions to know that the memos were fishy. What clinched it for me was seeing the spaces between the numbers and the "th"s to prevent superscripting in MS Word--something I used to do in my daily work until I figured out how to turn off that feature.

What astounds me is how amateur these forgeries are. Not even a basic precaution like using the Courier font to mimic a '70s typewriter. So either CBS was incredibly eager to smear Bush or it was incredibly obtuse. Either way, it's a sad indictment of the network's news division. And as you wrote on Sunday, it distracts from the still-unanswered questions about Bush's National Guard service.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. You'd have to say, in retrospect, that these weren't very sophisticated forgeries. If whoever did this had actually gone and bought an old typewriter, at least it would have looked more realistic.


Fort Worth, Tex.: I'm posting early, since I'm on the clock when you're online. My question to you is simply: How does Dan Rather survive this? Not to mention his producer. Total amateurs would not have been taken in so easily and these guys are not amateurs. Whether it was partisan or personal or ego-driven, these people had an agenda that blinded them to whatever they didn't want to hear or see. As others have said, if CBS News were a government dept. that was accused now, any journalist worth his credentials would demand accountability all the way to the top. By the way, I think you went too far trying to be fair in covering this mess (you can take this rebuke; I'm a real fan!).

Howard Kurtz: I'm happy to be accused of being too fair. Anytime.


Alexandria, Va.: Howard, I read your columns regularly and enjoy your insight. Would you please address how media watchdog organizations (eg, Media Research Center, Lichter's group) are dealing with the Dan Rather/Bush military records forgery fiasco. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: The Media Research Center, an avowedly conservative group, has been ripping CBS regularly and calling for Rather to step down. Other groups, like Bob Lichter's Center for Media and Public Affairs, analyze media coverage but don't take a stand on what's good and bad. I can tell you right now what their next study will say (if indeed they look at this topic): 99 percent of the coverage of CBS's handling of this has been negative.


Boston, Mass.: Mr. Kurtz,

A question about the media & the polls. Do the media outlets have contracts to report certain polls? I.e.-- CNN with Gallup, MSNBC with Mason-Dixon & Fox with Opinion Dymanics. With the polls being all over the place from a 14 pt Bush to lead to a 1 pt Kerry lead, shouldn't the media start reporting multiple polls, or at least an average of the polls?

Howard Kurtz: The better media organizations are doing that - mentioning other polls as well as their own. A reasonble precaution, I would say, since in recent surveys Bush's lead has ranged from 13 points to zero. But to answer your question, news organizations pay a hefty sum for their polls and naturally trumpet them as big deal, front-page, top-of-the-newscast news. Which doesn't necessarily make them right.


Lake Ridge, Va.: I have been following the CBS story/Bush memo story and am fascinated. My question has to do with the allegations that Bush received preferrential treatment. Is this any different than people who work their contacts or call on a family friend to help get ahead in the business world? Have a drink with the right person to secure a promotion, etc? My father (retired military) used his contacts to help my brother (West Point graduate) pull an assignment close to home so he could be with his fiance. Should we condemn all who use this type of networking?

Perhaps we should think of the old adage, people in glass houses should not throw stones.

Howard Kurtz: Look, anybody who wanted to get into the Guard in those days used whatever connections they could muster. The only difference here is that Bush is now president and is portraying Kerry, a Vietnam War hero, as untrustworthy on defense and national security, so naturally the question of Bush's own lack of active-duty service comes up.


Bethesda, Md.: It seems to me that the media is much more interested in itself than any actual news, and this whole saga is a perfect example of that self-absorbed quality. Get back to work reporting actual news!

Howard Kurtz: The media ARE self-absorbed, but, much as I hate to disagree with your premise, having the most prestigious newsmagazine on the air make charges against the president of the United States and later have to admit it did so on the basis of bogus documents is a very large and important story.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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