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Media Backtalk

With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2003; 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."

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.


Baltimore, Md.: Hi Howard. Love Media Notes, but I wonder why you give so much "air time' to such marginal media types, editorialists, I'll call them, such as Alex Knapp and especially Andrew Sullivan. If I start a blog, will you quote me as well?

Howard Kurtz: I look for people who are consistently interesting and have provocative things to say, regardless of political persuasion. If you start a blog, take a number and maybe I'll quote you one day.


Washington, D.C.: Will Scott McClellan just glide along in the White House Briefing Room, or are there going to be moments that Bush misses Fleischer? McClellan seemed nervous in some previous subbing assignments.

Howard Kurtz: You might want to look at my profile of McClellan last week.
There's no question that Scott is a less polished briefer than Ari, but of course it takes time to learn how to deal with the White House press corps. On the other hand, the low-key McClellan is a Texan who has known Bush for a long time and has a strong relationship with him. So far, at least, reporters are giving him high marks.


Alexandria, Va.: This weekend, the Post hyped a new poll showing 52 percent of those surveyed found the casualty level "unacceptable." But 72 percent said we should stick it out in Iraq. Couldn't readers assume that hyping the 52 percent number could mean that 52 percent want us to leave Iraq? Because if 72 percent want us to stay, the casualty level apparently isn't THAT unacceptable, is it?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see that as hyping at all. That's what the survey found. The fact that a majority finds the casualty levels unacceptable doesn't necessarily mean that they want a pullout from Iraq. I'm sure the Pentagon considers the current casualty levels unacceptable as well. Besides, polls often find that Americans hold contradictory views, such as wanting a balanced budget but not wanting their favorite programs cut.


Louisville, Ky.: During the 2002 elections, the Dems took some knocks for circumventing the process with last minute candidate changes. Should the media and for that matter the rest of us be looking at the California recall and the Colorado and Texas redistricting in that light?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. Substituting Frank Lautenberg for Bob Torricelli in New Jersey because Torricelli was headed for defeat was a highly questionable move, though the Dems got away with it. At least, in the case of California, people will have a chance to vote. And California law does allow for recalls if you get the required 900,000 signatures. But the idea that a small minority can force a reelected governor into another election that will cost the state $30 million -- well, it's a crazy way to run a state.


Bowie, Md.: What's a "blog?”

I keep seeing this term and don't know what it means. (And I've been using the WWW since its inception; it's not like I don't know what LOL means.)

Howard Kurtz: Short for Weblog, which are one-person sites on which the authors spews all manner of opinion on just about anything.


Rockville, Md.: Don't you think there is something wrong with a gossip columnist who won't print his own departure in his paper first? It seems like a double standard to me.

Howard Kurtz: You're referring here to The Post's Lloyd Grove. I don't know whether he plans a farewell note or not now that he's heading to the New York Daily News. But we don't usually announce in the paper the comings and goings of reporters. Maybe we should, particularly for higher-profile columnists.


New York, N.Y.: This might be more for Lisa or Paul, but Rush joining ESPN?! No more NFL Countdown for me ... what the hell were they thinking? Honestly, this is a worse idea than Dennis Miller on MNF, because at least Miller wasn't known for being a polarizing pseudo-political figure. And I don't think it'll be a ratings boon, either, since it's gonna turn off more people than it draws.

Really, I can't even stomach the thought of having to watch that.

Howard Kurtz: But obviously, a lot of people will want to check out ESPN to see how Rush does. He does know sports (having once worked for the Kansas City Royals) and could bring a pretty big fan base with him. And I don't think they'll be mixing in his view of Bill & Hillary while discussing nickel defenses and quarterback rankings.


Nokesville, Va.: Mr. Kurtz, the Democratic candidates are all welcomed to the Human Rights Campaign today, the nation's most aggressive backers of gay marriage. Their leader said they were all great friends of her organization. How much pressure will they be under to support the HRC positions, and will they succumb?

Howard Kurtz: They will be under a bit of pressure, but most of them will resist it for the simple reason that it would be a very controversial stance in a fall election.


Springfield, Mo.: How big a miscalculation was it for the administration to say the Yellowcake matter is "closed" and the "President is ready to move on?" Isn't that a gaffe similar to Gary Hart's challenge to reporters to follow him in the day's after Monkey Business?

Howard Kurtz: Actually, that's typical rhetoric for a White House, not a Hart-like dare. Nixon wanted to move on from Watergate, Reagan from Iran-contra, Clinton from the Lewinsky affair. It's extremely common for a White House spokesman to say that the American people don't care about the scandal at hand, only the press is obsessed with it, blah blah blah. It's usually not a very effective tactic.


Re: McClellan's High Marks: When you say "so far, the press is giving him -- McClellan -- high marks." Isn't that a bit like Mr. Smithers praising Monty Burns? I mean, there's not exactly much incentive to criticize the guy when he can further reduce your meager press access, now is there?

Howard Kurtz: I talk to White House reporters all the time, and not all the conversations are on the record. If there was unhappiness with McClellan, believe me, I would know, and I would reflect that in my reporting. Of course, all this could change in short order with Scott moving today from a deputy post to top-dog spokesman.


New York, N.Y.: Is the appearance of some fangs from the WH press corps in the last week a sign of things to come, or is it just gas?

Howard Kurtz: The press does seem to be showing a new aggressiveness in pursuing Uraniumgate. I see two factors. One, the war is over (at least the major fighting part), which makes it easier to criticize the commander-in-chief. Two, the controversy rests on specific facts -- what the Brits said, what the CIA told the White House, etc. -- which is more comfortable turf for reporters than raising more generalized questions about the president's veracity.


Washington, D.C.: I read that the White House was upset by recent leaks from the CIA and this was part of the reason they put the blame back on Tenet in the most recent episode on intelligence. Is this true? If so, what leaks do they feel were planted by the CIA against the White House?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure the administration wasn't thrilled by those stories that popped up about the CIA having disputed the uranium allegation and having tried to warn the WH not to include it in the president's speech. But it's also an age-old tradition for a Cabinet member or top aide to fall on his sword to spare the boss further embarrassment. That's clearly what Tenet is doing here.


Bethesda, Md.: Recently there've been several contradictory things coming out of the White House. There's an article in the Post today about Bush said this and that contradicts what Rice said which is at odds with what Tenet said which is at odds with what everyone said last week. An example is Bush's statement that the CIA didn't raise objections with the yellow cake story until after the SOTU. That is a demonstrably false statement. Is there a point where a reasonable person must conclude that someone is lying and not just mispeaking or making mistakes?

Howard Kurtz: That's up to readers. Our job is to dig out the facts as aggressively as we can and let folks make up their own minds.


Dover, N.H.: Why did the announcement from the Pentagon last week that over 1,000 Americans have been wounded in Iraq get buried in the press? I only saw it because it made the sixth paragraph in a John Kerry story.

Howard Kurtz: Don't know. That's an eye-catching figure. I suspect that we've reported injury totals from time to time as they have mounted, but failed to step back and say, hey, folks, this is really getting out of hand.


One, the war is over (at least the major fighting part),: Yeah, Right! Tell that to the families of soldiers dying everyday.

Howard Kurtz: I was just trying to draw a distinction in which U.S. troops were conducting an all-out assault on a hostile regime and the current situation, where soldiers are unfortunately getting killed as part of an occupying force but there is no daily bombing, etc.


Washington, D.C.: As a fellow journalist, was Charlie Rose obligated to give Howell Raines the soft landing he did on last Friday's program?

Howard Kurtz: Charlie said up front that he and Howell are friends. I didn't expect him to be Tim Russert, but I thought he let Howell ramble on at great length and failed to ask follow-up questions about his responsibility for Jayson Blair. And there was not one question about the resignation of Rick Bragg. But every TV interviewer has his own style.


Washington, D.C.: Why do you think the Bush team is having so many problems coming up with a unified message regarding the 'pretty good' intelligence? It seems that if they were being truthful about it, there would be one clearly stated stand.

Howard Kurtz: It does seem that there have been a number of shifting explanations. But that's in part because reporters keep digging out new details that administration officials have to react to.


Baltimore, Md. As the Bushies continue to rely on their "technically accurate" defense and Britain continues to stand by its intelligence on Niger, why does it seem like the media and pols are missing the key fact: the documents on which the entire claims of British intel are premised WERE FORGED! Given this (I think) clearly proven fact, the whole house of cards has to fall.

Howard Kurtz: There's no dispute the documents were forged. But the question is whether the White House was reasonably in a position to know that, or at least suspect it, at the time.


Ney York City: Howard,

I love your column and that you do these chats every week -- I wish more writers would do regular chats!

I really don't understand why so many writers are calling the Iraq situation a "quagmire" that threatens to be like "Vietnam." Don't these people know that in at the height of Vietnam we were losing 200 soldiers a WEEK; in Iraq, on the other hand, we've lost 200 soldiers TOTAL. The current rate of three or four soldiers being killed a week, while not good, doesn't seem to me to be anything at all like Vietnam. Yet that is now the conventional wisdom? Why?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. Obviously it's not an exact parallel to Vietnam, and I wouldn't say the Q-word is conventional wisdom yet. But the meaning of the Vietnam metaphor is that we could be bogged down for years as an unpopular occupying force fighting a low-grade guerilla resistance. I don't know whether that will happen, but I do know the White House didn't expect that and certainly didn't prepare the American people for the possibility.


Oakland, Calif.: Howard,

I was stunned that the Rove administration (aka the Mayberry Machiavellians) would admit that the uranium story was faked. Obviously they would have been much better off arguing that it was good intelligence and letting the media report "both sides" of the issue, thus leaving the American public with the impression that reasonable people could see it either way. Why did the administration make this mistake? Does it show a problem with the media or the public that only a failure of the admin's propaganda machine, rather than the underlying facts, made this an issue?

Howard Kurtz: The uranium claim had been totally exposed by the media as bogus. This is not a new story. The White House really didn't have any choice but to eventually fess up. To cling to a discredited story would have created even greater credibility problems for Bush and company.


Baltimore, Md.: Re: Rush on ESPN. Under the same standard that he and every other conservative held the Dixie Chicks and celebrities who criticized the war, Rush should not be surprised if there are "consequences" to the daily espousal of his own views.

Howard Kurtz: Well, people are free to slam Rush if they disagree with his forceful views. But I don't see how his talking about football on ESPN changes that situation very much.


New York, N.Y.: Howard,

If you were in the shoes of the new Executive Editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, what would be your first and most important message that you would convey to your "troops?" How about to the reading public?

Howard Kurtz: I think Keller has already delivered it. To the troops, he's made clear that he's going to run a very different newsroom than Howell Raines, one in which reporters aren't driven as hard and can spend more time with their families and lower-level editors are given more authority than under Raines's top-heavy structure. To the public, he's said he will put safeguards in place to try to prevent another Jayson Blair scandal from occurring.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Mr. Kurtz,
I have a love/hate feeling about California. Since I have never lived anywhere but here on the Right Coast, I have at times daydreamed about living in sunny California. Then I read about things like the current recall movement to oust Gov. Davis, and I think about the politically incorrect joke by melon-smashing comedian, Gallagher:
"California is like a bowl of granola; full of fruits, nuts, and flakes", and I am glad I live in a more sane political climate. Not that Maryland is without its own problems, but nothing as extreme as the Left Coast.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, it's not as much of a weird political culture as you might think. Gray Davis got elected because he was a moderate Democrat, not a loony liberal, just as his predecessors, Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, were moderate Republicans. And the ability to put initiatives on the ballot has given people a greater say in government, from Prop 13 on down. Besides, the weather is fabulous.


Niger or not: One of the Saturday TV talk shows came up with the interesting point that Bush Sr. might never have allowed the African uranium/British intel point to come to light. He had the experience to know what type of intel not to use. It's a little like the CBO director using a budget estimate from the UK budget authority -- would never be done unless the CBO's own guys had laid their own mitts on it. Are we seeing Bush Jr.'s own limitations come to trip him up?

Howard Kurtz: Whether that's true or not, W. has a pretty experienced foreign policy team around him -- Colin, Rummy, Condi. And they have to bear part of the responsibility here.


Washington, D.C.: How could the White House NOT expect the possibility that we would have to have troops in Iraq for a long time? Changing the fundamental nature of a country's political system is a long-term task; Bush and his crew had to know. In that respect, they definitely lied to the public.
On a similar note, they have not committed the necessary resources to Afghanistan and that country is on the quick road back to chaos (if it was ever truly on a road out).
Thanks for the good work.

Howard Kurtz: You're quite welcome. Obviously, the administration knew that the postwar occupation wouldn't be a piece of cake, but clearly underestimated the cost, the chaos and the resentment toward American troops. And was trying to paint the best possible picture while making the case for war. Tom Friedman, among others, warned constantly that winning the peace would be far more difficult than winning the war, and he was obviously right.


Washington, D.C.: Will the New York Times continue with its "flood the zone" strategy on coverage of big stories? That seems to be consistent with the trend in news coverage, with so many cable services ready to go live anywhere and anytime something happens.

Howard Kurtz: Bill Keller says no. He told me that while flooding the zone (a football term picked up by Howell) might be necessary on huge stories like a war, he doesn't want to overdo it and is equally interested in more reflective and analytic journalism.

Newsroom Favorite Bill Keller Named Times's Top Editor (Post, July 15)


Point of Rocks, Md.: Since when is Rush Limbaugh a "pseudo-political" figure? He has 20 million Americans every week eating out of his audio hand. He's a real force. I could understand it if Mr. Rush-Boycott objected that these appearances will "humanize" the left's hate object, show him to be a regular guy. But I'm with you. He could be a boon to ESPN.

Howard Kurtz: People either love or hate Limbaugh, but he's got a radio following that dwarfs anyone else's.


Altoona, Pa.: Those wounded figures are eye popping. I did a Google search and found that more than 700 of them were combat injuries. Do you think the Pentagon is able to bury this because most journalists don't have military experience and thus aren't aware that these numbers are a very significant part of the casualty total? I mean, some of these kids will be coming back without limbs and extremities.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, many more reporters do have combat experience now as a result of the war, when 700 embedded journalists, including the likes of John Roberts and Ted Koppel, traveled with the troops. I don't think that's the explanation. I do think the media lost interest in Iraq for awhile once that statue came down and cable news got obsessed with Laci Peterson. But I think the continuing bad news there has made it an important story once again.


Richmond, Va.: George Bush promised to "change the tone" in Washington. Sounds very much the same to me:

"I must take complete responsibility for all my actions, both public and private. And that is why I am speaking to you tonight.

"As you know, in a deposition in January, I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While, technically, my answers were legally accurate, I was not entirely truthful with my information."

- William Jefferson Clinton (August 1998)

"It didn't rise to the standard of a presidential speech, but it's not known, for example, that it was inaccurate. In fact, people think it was technically accurate."

- Donald Rumsfeld (July 2003)

The difference is that the one situation caused an impeachment, the other will cause nothing. Has there been any talk on Capitol Hill of initiating impeachment proceedings?

Howard Kurtz: No serious talk at all. Clinton, you may recall, was accused of lying to a grand jury, albeit about something far less serious than war. The question with Bush is whether he or his top aides knew or should have known that the evidence supporting that one State of the Union sentence was false, or whether they simply made an error in judgment. But don't hold your breath waiting for a Republican Congress to hold impeachment hearings.


Cincinnati, Ohio: I thought it was quite sad that, on the Sunday talk shows, even the top brass like Rumsfeld and Rice were sticking to prefabricated talking points. Can't anyone speak for themselves anymore?

And, just as one's interpretation of events once depended on one's definition of "is", it now all seems to hinge on whether the President was inaccurately portraying the facts or, instead, was accurately portraying the "fact" that he had been supplied inaccurate facts by the British (or something like that!).

Howard Kurtz: That line -- that the Brits said it, therefore Bush's statement was technically true -- seems to me to be by far the weakest of the arguments the administration has trotted out. (The press certainly can't get away with saying, oh yeah, we printed a complete falsehood, but that's because Joe Blow told us it was true.) But administration officials always stick to their talking points on the Sunday shows. They rehearse them in advance. That's because ultimately they're not speaking for themselves but for their maximum leader.


Alexandria, Va.: 1. Can you define and/or describe the origin of the term "oppo"? I understand it from the context of your column, but hadn't heard or read it previously.

2. Is there anyone at the Post who does NOT have a TV deal? (Congrats to Ms. Priest, she has done well so far on the appearances I've seen.)

Howard Kurtz: Oppo is just short for opposition research.
And the truth is, 99 percent of the hard-working reporters here don't have TV deals. But those that do obviously tend to get more attention.


Erie, Pa.: What do you make of the big correction in today's NYT re profile of Mr. Gottlieb and TVT Records? Is there more to the story than simply sloppy reporting?

Howard Kurtz: A 2,100-word correction is VERY sloppy reporting, and an editing failure as well. I don't know how such a flawed piece of journalism got in the paper. But it was not a Blair-style fabrication, if that's what you're implying.


Philadelphia, Pa.: The Philly Inquirer ran a story this weekend that basically implied that the only reason Time had put a book about Benjamin Franklin on its cover was because of the author's previous relationship with the magazine, is there any truth to this?

Howard Kurtz: Well, sure. Walter Isaacson, who wrote the Franklin book, is a former Time managing editor and a pal of the current managing editor. That was obviously a factor in getting cover-story treatment (though I must add the book has gotten good reviews). But lots of publications do that. Bob Woodward's books, for example, get a very big ride in The Washington Post.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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