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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 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.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hi Howie!

I'm a big fan! I read your Media notes the other day, and I was wondering about something.

You said that the bloggers who found information on the public areas of the internet about JD Guckert was going beyond the pale of investigative journalism. Yet, in the same Media Notes you discuss the dating habits of some semi-famous people.

Why is it not OK to re-publish something on the Net, but it is OK to discuss who had dinner with whom at which trendy restaurant?

It seems that there is a double standard here, or am I mistaken?

Thanks and keep up the good work!

-- Joshua
Brooklyn, NY

Howard Kurtz: Big Fan, I have never said that the digging up of Jeff Gannon's X-rated past was beyond the pale. I've certainly raised questions about whether these tactics should be used by people who don't like someone's politics. In Gannon's case, his hidden past got tied up with the question of how he got security clearances to the White House since he wasn't using his real name publicly. As for the semi-famous celebrities, one of the things I do in the online edition of Media Notes is to give you a sense of what's out there in the press, good, bad and ugly. Personally, I don't care all that much about the dating habits of even very famous celebrities, but breathlessly following the exploits of Brad & Jen etc. seems to be a growing part of our media culture.


Washington, D.C.: Please help me put this Gannon/Talon News story in perspective: A conservative journalist asks a loaded question from the right and gets berated by the mainstream press until he resigns. But the same media elites reward Helen Thomas for a lifetime of loaded questions from the left by annointing her dean of the White House press corps. Isn't this the definition of a double standard?

Howard Kurtz: I don't care if Jeff Gannon asks loaded questions from the conservative perspective. I do care if he asks the president an inaccurate question in which he just made something up about Harry Reid. As for Helen Thomas, no one's "anointed" her anything; if she's the dean, it's because she's been there since the days of JFK. When she was with UPI, Thomas had a reputation of asking tough, sometimes annoying questions of presidents of both parties. Now that she's a columnist -- and doesn't get called on any more, at least by Bush -- she's being quite open about her liberal views.


Bethesda, Md.: What are you hearing about Imus's move to Secacus? Is he unhappy?

Howard Kurtz: He's grumbled about it but if he didn't want to go to a fancy new studio built just for him, I'm sure he would have told MSNBC to get lost, or words to that effect.


Washington, D.C.: If you were president of CNN, what would you do to boost ratings to a level that rivals Fox News?

Howard Kurtz: Jello wrestling.


Washington, D. C.: Your article Monday on the blogosphere listed specific examples of individuals who did things to damage the credibility of the media; but curiously you gave no specific examples of what is really the main thrust of the bloggers'complaint, i.e., how mainstream media news editors frame their stories-what they leave out and what they emphasize.

In the case of the Post, as your ombudsman pointed out Sunday, stories about memos warning of Al Qaeda strikes on the homeland were not frontpaged. Why weren't they? Moreover, why hasn't the Post investigated over the last three years the degree to which the Administration was responsible for failing to prevent the 9-11 attacks instead of dismissing that possibility out of hand? Why hasn't the Post followed up on the promise made but not kept by the Senate to investigate how the intelligence provided to the President was used (or ignored)?

These are the kinds of issues the blogosphere looks at all the time. It is more than a shame that the formidable resources of the Post are not focused on these kinds of issues.

In a related matter, the blogosphere often refers to the fact that we are living under "one party rule.' Why doesn't the Post ever use that term to describe the state of our democracy?

Howard Kurtz: So you believe we're living under one-party rule (was that term used in 1993 and 1994, when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress?) and that the Bush administration, in eight months in office, didn't do enough to prevent 9/11. Could it be that your problem is that The Post doesn't espouse your political views? On 9/11, the paper has published hundreds of stories about the shortcomings and missteps, under both Bush and Clinton, that failed to detect the terrorist attacks.


Anonymous: I've certainly raised questions about whether these tactics should be used by people who don't like someone's politics.

But, Mr. Kurtz, you didn't seem to mind when it was being done to Clinton! The writer is right. There IS a double standard. (I'm sorry, it's just my feeling--I don't want to offend.)

Howard Kurtz: I'm sorry, but how exactly did you conclude that I "don't seem to mind" what was done to Clinton? Have you gone back and read the dozens and dozens of stories I did about the way Clinton's scandals and impeachment were covered, sometimes unfairly, by the press?


Leonardtown, Md.: The Washington Post came into possession of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pictures depicting torture and abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison several months ago. The Post published a few of the pics, but sat quietly and obediently on the rest. The explanation given by the Post was that this was done so as not to interfere with the future prosecutions of individuals in the pictures. I believe it had more to do with helping out the Bush campaign, which was reeling from the disclosures of this scandal.

Since it seems that most of the soldiers have been prosecuted for whatever crimes occurred there, when will the Post publish more of the pictures, or make them available to some of us who really want to find out what happened there? Doesn't the Post have any obligation to readers who want to get to the truth? I think it was an appalling decision to hide this information from the public

Howard Kurtz: I don't know whether more of the pictures will be published, but given The Post's very aggressive role in covering that story, I don't quite know how you conclude that the paper's goal was "helping out the Bush campaign." Wouldn't it be a bigger help to the Bush campaign not to publish the photos or jump on the story at all?


Hamilton, Va.: Jeff Gannon complained that people were after him because he was a Christian with some problems in his past. What nonsense.
I am amazed that conservative Christians who have for years decried the victimhood they ascribe to minorities now claim it as their own. How can a religious belief that is in some manner adhered to by at least 80 percent of the U.S. population feel they are an oppressed people?
Hypocrisy, especially in sexual matters, is not a tenet of any faith.

Howard Kurtz: I personally haven't read anything where people are criticizing Gannon/Guckert for his religious beliefs (though he did in one posting describe himself as a "two-holiday" Christian). I guess my feeing is that if you post naked pictures of yourself on various gay escort sites, you can't be SHOCKED if that comes out while you're stirring up controversy at the White House.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Kurtz -- please reply,

In previous columns you seem to be quite pleased with the current "Blogger 'Journalism'" phenomenon; stating that it's more or less healthy for American journalism, making reporters more accountable to their facts and information. I would agree with this if most blogger reporters strived for objective reporting or at least fair observation/study of the general media. Instead, from what I've read on their respective sites (on both sides of the political spectrum), they appear to be untrained, biased writers engaged in amateur reporting with the political agenda of drawing blood from the other side. If we don't tolerate amateur physicians, amateur architects, and amateur engineers - why should we tolerate amateur reporters who are just as capable of destroying a person's life (by rapidly looping and misconstruing statements) as amateurs in other professions. Journalism is a professional trade, isn't it?

Howard Kurtz: You don't need a license. Anyone, in the digital age, can practice journalism. Sure, many bloggers are fierce partisans out to draw blood, but many others are thoughtful writers, lawyers and thinkers, some of whom have some experience in the dreaded MSM. My point is that in the recent blogger-driven controversies -- involving Dan Rather, Eason Jordan and Jeff Gannon -- the best online critics scored points by digging up facts, ranging from typography to X-rated pictures. I also think it's a healthy development that anyone can use this new technology to try to hold the mainstream media accountable. People are smart -- they can separate the cyber-wheat from the chaff.


Washington, D.C.: It's really irritating me that so many people on the right are insisting on framing the Gannon story as being about a journalist who's getting bashed by the media elite because he's a conservative, instead of how someone using a false name and questionable credentials ever got inside the White House briefing room. If a journalist had asked Gannon-esque softball questions of Clinton, and had later been discovered as a fake who had lurid photos of him all over the web, don't you think the same people defending Gannon would have been screaming bloody murder?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, I do. And ultimately, Gannon has no one to blame but himself. But I think it's fair to observe that just as conservative bloggers went after Rather and CBS, it was liberal bloggers who did the full-body-cavity search of Gannon because they didn't like his conservative politics. One of the bloggers leading the charge, John Aravosis of Americablog.org, told me he objected to the hypocrisy of Gannon's antigay writing. Gannon insists he was not antigay, but he did use some loaded phrases in his writing on gay-related issues.


Denver, Colo.: Why isn't the James Guckert situation not being investigated for White House security reasons?

Howard Kurtz: Some Democrats have called for an investigation, but in a Republican-controlled Congress, those calls have gone nowhere. The White House has been discussing the subject of security clearances with the correspondents association, but no real investigation there either. The truth is, when you get a WH day pass (as opposed to a permanent "hard" pass), you give your DOB and SS number and there's a quick check of whether you're a known criminal. That's what Gannon had, which may help explain why his colorful past, which took bloggers a couple of days to discover, wasn't found by the Secret Service.


Laguna Beach, Calif.: I've been following your approach to covering the Gannon story and note that you have attempted to frame it as a question of whether bloggers should be digging into people's personal lives, rather than addressing the rather blantant security lapses that seem to have occurred here. I might add that publishing naked pictures of yourself all over the Internet hardly qualifies as "personal", and his activities were clearly illegal.

I wonder, however, how you can justify your indignation at the bloggers when you were at the forefront of reporting all the juicy details of the Dick Morris toe-sucking affair several years ago?

Howard Kurtz: I was at the "forefront"? Here's what I wrote on Aug. 30, 1996:
The subject was sordid: a cash-for-trash tale of sex and a political operative.

The timing was devastating: the day of President Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention.

The delivery route was familiar: from the Star supermarket tabloid to the front page of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, the same scandalous path that launched the Gennifer Flowers saga into the mainstream media 4 1/2 years ago.

Yesterday's bombshell about presidential adviser Dick Morris's alleged relationship with a $ 200-an-hour prostitute, who dished her dirt in graphic detail to the Star, did more than force the resignation of Clinton's longtime political guru. It exploded into the headlines, leading the news last night on CBS, NBC and ABC just as the president was about to bask in the televised limelight of accepting his party's renomination.

The Star, whose "White House Call Girl Scandal" edition officially hits the streets Monday, would not disclose how much it paid the prostitute, Sherry Rowlands, for the story, but Star reporter Richard Gooding told ABC's "Nightline" last night it was less than $ 50,000.

A few days later, I wrote about the fact that the call girl had sold an interview to the tabloid show "Hard Copy." That was about it.

Again, if there were "security lapses" involved in Gannon's day passes, I'm happy to write more about it.


Dupont, Washington, D.C.: Maybe it's that easy to get a day pass, but according to Maureen Dowd, she had a hard time getting a day pass from the White House. Doesn't the White House staff have to check out whether the reporter really works for a legitimate news organization? Then I could claim to be a working reporter because I write articles for my association's newsletter! After all, Gannon/Guckert didn't even start out as a "Talon News" reporter.

Howard Kurtz: That's wrong. Maureen Dowd said she had a difficult time getting her HARD pass renewed. I've gotten day passes to go over to the White House maybe 100 times, and believe me, it doesn't involve an FBI background check.


Portland, Maine: A final comment from me today. It seems to me that you take the most heat of any reporter who does these forums. I really believe it's not personal. It isn't for me. I admire your work, I've even bought a book. It's just the topic you cover inflames great passions and the frustrations with the media in general can boil over in these chats. Thank you for continuing to do these sessions. They are appreciated.

Howard Kurtz: Anyone who buys my books is welcome to offer up whatever criticism he or she wants in these forums. Thanks.


Louisville, Ky.: Unfortunately, for people interested like myself, the Guckert story has seem to hit its apex on the opinion pages of the NY Times and lesser-watched cable news shows. There's no sense in asking how this issue would be played under a Clinton White House, so I won't.

However, are you content in letting the story die? Do you feel that the press/blogosphere have a responsibility in answering some glaring questions about how he was able to get such frequent access, his knowledge of Valerie Plame, and closing the loophole that makes it seem like a permanent (and difficult to get) White House press pass isn't even necessary when daily passes are easy to acquire?

Howard Kurtz: I've now written five stories about Jeff Gannon in two weeks. I began before the X-rated stuff came out by questioning his question to Bush; was the first reporter at a major news organization to write about his escort sites and my most recent piece, on Saturday, was based on the first interview with him since his extracurricular activities hit the Net. So we haven't exactly been lackadaisical about this story.


Bethesda, Md.: The number of people that have gotten to ask Bush questions at a press conference is very limited. The number of people that aren't associated with major news organizations that have asked Bush questions at a press conference is even smaller. I am supposed to believe that Bush called on Jeff Gannon of Talon News without knowing who he was or having it suggested he call on him? Doesn't this fail to hold up as a coincidence?

Howard Kurtz: That's what Scott McClellan told me; I can't disprove it. But having watched that news conference, Bush was calling on a number of obscure reporters in the back rows of the briefing rooms whose names he obviously didn't know (he would say things like "yes sir?"). So it's not like the president went directly from David Gregory, John Roberts and Terry Moran to Jeff Gannon.


Washington, D.C.: Hiya Howard
Thanks for having the chat. I think journalism lost a gem Sunday with the passing of Hunter S. Thompson. His acerbic wit and no holds barred manner of writing made his prose race across the page. You couldn't devour his articles and stories fast enough. Do you see a place for someone of his tenor in today's magazines or features? I am afraid with his passing we may not see the likes of him again. There does not appear to be anyone on the horizon to speak as he spoke. Whaddya think?

Howard Kurtz: We're not allowed to do drugs anymore. One of those annoying corporate media rules.


Princeton, N.J.: White House briefing room day pass - I understand that the security clearance only require DOB and SS number, but why was a "day" pass provided to Gannon routinely over a two year period, as opposed to requiring a hard pass for credentials over an extended period of time? Who makes the decision regarding requests for day passes? How many other news organizations have obtained day passes for an extended period of time, acting in lieu of a hard pass?

Howard Kurtz: Those are good questions. It's obviously a way around the fact that you don't have a hard pass. Of course, some journalists have to do that simply because their organizations have reached their limit for hard passes allowed by the White House.


Detroit, Mich.: Let's suppose that someone from a left-wing web site with no media credentials asked for a day pass from the White House while trying to to pass himself off under an alias. Would he or she get the pass, much less have it renewed on a daily basis?

Howard Kurtz: Based on what McClellan has said, I believe that person would -- if, of course, the person gave his real name to the Secret Service. There are a couple of certified lefties from tiny outfits who attend the White House briefings, although I don't know whether they have day passes or hard passes.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: The White House gives a two year daily press pass to a "journalist" who couldn't get a permanent pass because he was using a fake name (and a fake occupation, given that he wasn't a journalist). This person is given access to top level information, including the timing of the Iraq invasion and facts surrounding the Valerie Plame case.

Why is this being reported in the Style section? Why is it not in the A section?

Howard Kurtz: I'm the media reporter and most of my stuff runs in Style. Don't fall into the trap of believing that Style doesn't deal with "important" news. I originally broke the Jayson Blair story in Style.


Lewisburg, Pa.: I would like to combine your column today on the rarity of women pundits with the subject of this discussion on "does more news mean better news?" I tend to read the NYTimes paper edition more often than the Washington Post (though I read both on the Web), and not only is the editorial page overwhelmingly male, so is the book review section. Reviews overwhelmingly address books written by white Anglo-Saxon men. As a media specialist, how do you explain the perpetual focus on a narrow minority of the media public? Do editors consider this a problem? It seems such an out-dated blindness.

Howard Kurtz: Sure it's a problem. On the literary front, it may reflect a judgment by editors that most "important" books are written by men, just like most important political positions are written by men. (The editor of The Post's Book World, by the way, is a woman.) On the punditry front, it might reflect the biases of good old boy editors (although the NYT editorial page editor is a woman). But for some reason I've never managed to figure out, fewer women seem to gravitate into writing columns than their male counterparts. Maybe I'll ask Larry Summers why this is so.


Richmond, Va.: What is your take on the Doug Wead tapes? The White House seems to answer all questions by ignoring the questions and stating that this is old news. Sounds to me like Wead has more goods on the president -- 90 percent of the tapes weren't released and may contain more damaging material. Do you think this story will get more play?

Howard Kurtz: My educated guess, given that Wead is trying to peddle a book, is that the 10 percent he released is the best (as in, most newsworthy) stuff. The story hasn't gotten huge play because, I believe, with the possible exception of a couple of comments, the Bush we hear on those tapes is pretty much the same as the public George W. Bush. So there's nothing for critics to rip him over, which is why most of the attention has focused on his former friend.


Princeton, N.J.: You've been given 100 day passes. I believe that -- you're a "celebrity" media reporter for one of the big three. Jeff Gannon was given a day pass before Talon News was even created, while it was still GOPUSA. Come on, why are you and the MSM swallowing these flimsy explanations from the White House press office?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I got day passes years before anyone outside my immediate family knew who I was. I take your point - The Washington Post is a pretty big institution, compared to, say, Talon News. But the press corps also includes people like gadfly Lester Kinsolving, who are not exactly charter members of the MSM.


Washington, D.C.: So, if you're not a reporter, but are willing to cough up your SSN and DOB, you can get a day pass to a White House press briefing? Why isn't this stop #1 on the Washington tourist itinerary? Better yet, can I just take a long lunch break today to pop by and ask McLellan a thing or two?

Howard Kurtz: No, according to the WH, you have to write for some regularly published organization that reaches an actual audience.


Herndon, Va.: on the whole Gannon/Hard pass issue. The post's own WH correspondent Dan Balz has stated (in an interview at Kos, the recursion is getting dizzying) that he personally saw GJ with a hard pass at the White House. Further still photos of the televised press briefings appear to show him with a Hard pass around his neck even BEFORE talon news existed.

Howard Kurtz: I've talked to several reporters who THINK they saw Gannon with a hard pass, but they can't be certain, and he isn't definitively wearing one in the photos we've been able to get. I asked him in the interview published Saturday about how he got a day pass a month or two before Talon was launched. He said he was then working for GOPUSA (both are owned by a Texas Republican activist) and that Talon News was then spun off in a "marketing" move to create a separate news division from the obviously partisan GOPUSA. Although when I've clicked on Talon stories it has taken me to GOPUSA, so any distinction between them is paper-thin.


Burke, Va.: For your info, I do think the Washington Post puts what the editors consider less important information in Style. Otherwise why not put the information on A1 above the fold where someone walking past the machine will see it.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sorry, you're just wrong. First of all, only six stories a day usually make the front page. Beyond that, Style obviously specializes in the areas of the arts, television, movies, celebrities, music, theater, etc. Some of the stories you see on the front page are Style stories that the editors have grabbed for Page 1, but a story that gets good display on the Style front can easily attract more readers than a story that runs on page A-8. Take my word for it, as someone who writes for both sections.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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