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Media Backtalk

With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 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."

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.


Fairfax, Va.: Howard,
The question of fairness in re Rush Limbaugh: I guess the counter to that would be, would Rush attack someone under similar circumstances? And the answer to that is, fair or not, you bet he would. Has. So where does that leave us?

Howard Kurtz: That leaves you in the situation of deciding whether to employ the same tactics you see as unfair when Limbaugh uses them. I'm certainly not saying Rush should be beyond criticism here. He kept this secret while lecturing others on morality. But a certain gleefulness in kicking a man when he's down is not an attractive quality.


Alexandria, Va.: Didn't you think the Newsweek cover story on Rush that you cited today has glee between the lines? Calling him a "clowning...schlub"? I doubt this is the way they greeted the news when the Enquirer found Jesse Jackson paying off the mistress. Doesn't it suggest which "team" Newsweek is rooting for?

Howard Kurtz: I did think it was surprisingly harsh - that they could have made the same points without some of the loaded language.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Now that the California recall is finally over, do you think that the national press will move on to the presidential campaign or will they be so fascinated by Schwarzenegger's celebrity that they'll cover how he govern's? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the sense that the media was ecstatic that Schwarzeneggar ran not only because he's a great story but that the media was bored with the presidential candidates. I'm sure journalists will never say so out loud, but I bet you that when they're alone amongst themselves, journalists are thinking, "Aw man, we actually have to cover these uninspiring, story-line lacking presidential candidates."

Howard Kurtz: Well, there are a lot of reporters out there, so I think we can cover the White House race as well as the Terminator in Sacramento. And I don't think political scribes are as bored by the presidential race as you might imagine. I think they're frustrated by having to cover debates with nine candidates. But Howard Dean has been a great story, and Wes Clark is a very interesting story. Not that either of them would be mistaken for movie stars.


More Science, Please: Why is it that a major paper like the Washington Post, which services a market replete with scientists and researchers who are doing some amazing work, doesn't devote more space and resources to science reporting? (That is, except when there is a big story, like the Columbia disaster.) Does the Post even have a full-time science reporter these days? The New York Times seems to have several.

Howard Kurtz: The Post has several as well, and very good ones, in my view. There's a science story on the front page today ("Monkeys Control Robotic Arm with Brain Implants"). There's a dedicated science page every Monday, and the Health section on Tuesdays has a lot of medical news. What we don't have is anything as prominent or elaborate as the NYT's excellent Science Times section.


Glen Burnie, Md.: I don't know if this has come up before, but weeks before the story about his wife took hold in the rest of the media, Joe Wilson was on The Daily Show complaining about how his wife had been accused about working for the CIA. I think Jon Stewart asked him if it's true, to which Wilson replied, "Oh, I can't get into that." So, the fake news show was ahead of the pack on the real news. I'm sure Stewart would feel insulted.

Howard Kurtz: Well, John Edwards also formally announced for president on Stewart's show. So he's on a roll.


Yaounde, Cameroon: Having followed media coverage of the war within and outside the US, I think US journalism lacks and international perspective. With the US self appointed role of nation builder, willing to topple governments around the world, then US citizens, especially its journalists and Presidents, must undergo courses in foreign history, customs and cultures. to educate them about life elsewhere, in order for their mission to be successful. Listen to Novak, Blitzer, Tucker, how shallow they all are about life outside the US!
Ignorance, Ignorance, Ignorance, runs through the US media and its current Whitehouse occupant

Howard Kurtz: Well, if you think President Bush is ignorant and that the administration is "willing to topple goverments around the world," I'm not surprised that you don't like media coverage that doesn't match your strong point of view. Also, you're making the mistake of seeing TV pundits as representative of Washington journalists, which they're not. The foreign correspondents who spend time abroad -- one of ours, Anthony Shadid in Baghdad, is an Arabic speaker -- tend to know an awful lot about the politics and culture of the places they're covering.


New York, N.Y.: Howard,

In the last few days every talking-head who agrees with the Administration's post-war policies has been invoking the mantra of "good news only" from Iraq. They apparently expect the responsible journalists there to neglect their objective reporting and to just write about the "good things" which are now happening in that liberatd country.

Isn't this analgous to asking reporters to lead with "Dog Bites Man" stories?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the administration is entitled to try to get its message out. Unfortunately for the White House, 18 people were killed in Iraq a day or so after this initiative was launched, and that was hardly underplayed by the press. So if there continues to be a gap between what the administration says and the facts on the ground, you can bet that journalists will not ignore the latter. Political spin only gets you so far.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Your on-line column was interesting today and more eloquent for its brevity. It is certainly desirable that compassion and understanding be offered to anyone suffering from a disease like drug addiction. It would also be hypocritical to excoriate a Bennet or a Limbaugh for their own personal failings simply because they delight in doing the same to their own opponents.

The issue is not so simple, however, when one considers that the credibility of commentators is their stock in trade. Since commentators (liberal and conservative) are selling an interpretation of facts then they are ultimately trading on their own credibility. Therefore, hypocrisy becomes fair game since it impacts whether commentators are seen as a credible source of information.

Howard Kurtz: Sure it's fair game. And I don't think there's any question that Limbaugh has been tarnished by these revelations, especially given his fondness for smacking his opponents around. If people find him less credible as a result, so be it. I'm just saying that people who never thought he was credible in the first place should be careful about applying a different standard to him than they would to some left-wing hero who turned out to be addicted to painkillers or worse.


Limbaugh: One of the things which hasn't been covered much is his hearing loss. The hearing loss started in 2000. According to his statement, he has been addicted to painkillers for 5 or 6 years.

Since one of the known side affects of abuse of painkillers is hearing damage, I'm curious as to why there hasn't been more coverage of his characterization of his illness as a mysterious auto-immune condition, rather than the predictable side effect of drug abuse and addiction.

Howard Kurtz: Because we don't know for a fact what caused Limbaugh's deafness. I mentioned that possible drug connection in my story Saturday, but tried to be cautious since I don't know whether that is really the cause or not.


Sevierville, Tenn.: Why is CNN allowing Robert Novak to keep his position on both Crossfire and the Capital Gang when he is a part of the main story. So far on Capital Gang the "Leak" story has not even been given a full discussion and howe can you with Novak sitting there on the panel.

Howard Kurtz: I saw a Capital Gang segment devoted to the leak and Novak's role the week that the story broke.


Glover Park, Washington, D.C.: Hello Mr Kurtz,

As I'm sure you know, the BBC plans to make all its programs available online for free. The beeb's admirable rationale for this policy is that, as a tax-supported corporation, the people own the material.

NPR is also funded by the people. What are the chances NPR will follow suit?

Howard Kurtz: Don't know. But unlike the Beeb, NPR gets only a portion of its money from the government and the rest through private fundraising. So National Public Radio is under more pressure to at least break even.


Washington, D.C.: Can you explain why it's only after the election in California that the Post is actually going into depth on the actual issues? Too busy being star struck?

Howard Kurtz: I think there's been a huge amount of star-struck coverage of the recall, but having read many long pieces in this paper about the issues and Arnold's avoidance of them, I wouldn't put the Post in that category. Though we ran plenty of fluffy features about the guy, just like everyone else.


New York, N.Y.: You suggest that Cameroon mistakes pundits for reporters, but if (s)he sees it that way, then most of the world probably does, too. Our newsmedia tends to either completely over-editorialize or completely under-editorialize and as a result, it's confusing to the rest of the world, not to mention most of the country. Ask any of the 20 million Limbaugh dittoheads where they get their news, they'll tell you from Limbaugh. We're generally a bright nation, but we're oblivious and naive when it comes to filtering news and news-related materials. How else can anyone explain why 70 percent of Americans thought Saddam funded Al-Qaeda or 75 percent thought we found WMD Cameroon is right -- ignorance IS running rampant.

Howard Kurtz: People can get their news wherever they want, but to think that Bob Novak, Tucker Carlson etc. are "the media," when there are so many good newspapers, magazines and network shows available, is a short-sighted view. Some of these shouting heads don't even pretend to be journalists.


McLean, Va.: Howard, I just read the Newsweek article on Limbaugh and was surprised at how they took details of his personal life all the way back to high school to prove their point. What point were they trying to prove? That he is a loser? What does that have to do with his drug problem?

Also, is this the right tense to be using about a guy who is still breathing: "He was a lonely object of mass adulation, socially ill at ease, at least occasionally depressed and, for the past several years, living in a private hell of pain and compulsion. . . . " It sounds like an obituary -- a really nasty one.

Howard Kurtz: A profile of anyone in the news usually goes back to whether he cheated on a math test in the sixth grade and that sort of thing. So that was hardly unusual. But the tone seemed to me to be clearly unfriendly.


San Anselmo, Calif.: But hypocrisy is the issue, from Rush to Bennett to Gingrich to Schwarzenegger to Bush.

The New-Cons now 'believe' that gambling, drug addiction, breaking the 10 Commandments, groping women, lying about reasons for war, is OK as long as you still hate liberals.

Howard Kurtz: I don't buy that argument. Certainly, many conservatives cut the Terminator the kind of slack that they doggedly refused in Bill Clinton's case. But Limbaugh certainly wasn't defending illegal drug use, and Bill Bennett didn't defend gambling, in fact said he had a problem and would kick the habit. The fact that people don't always live up to high ideals doesn't mean the ideals themselves are discredited.


Rush Deserves It: Hey, if he was just a public scold and a phony, you would be correct in being defensive of him. But the guy is on record (and on the air) declaring that all drug addicts should be hauled off to prison, and insulting non-criminal rehab stuff as being wimpy liberals positions.

Ergo, unless he's over at the his local prosectutors office, insisting he deserves jail time, he's hypocritical scum and deserves what he gets.

Howard Kurtz: To slam Limbaugh on that issue - that he had no sympathy for the treatment side of the drug question and called for jail time -- is absolutely, positively fair criticism. Everyone needs to be held accountable for what they say, particularly if new information comes to light that makes them appear hypocritical. I'm just saying there's a difference between that and rejoicing about the fact that Rush Limbaugh is an addict and demanding he be marched off to jail.


Greenbelt, Md.: There is talk about the flaws of the Diebold voting systems (lack of backup, easy to change votes). I always liked exit polling becouse it served as an additional back up. Do you think the new 'ban' on releasing exit poll results before the official end of polling will negate the back up system? For example -- exit polls put candidate A at 55-45 percent over candidate B, but official results have B leading A 10 percent. Will the media just not announce the exit poll results thinking they are flawed?

Howard Kurtz: There is no "ban" on releasing exit polling. News organizations voluntarily withhold the information until the polls close because they are sensitive to criticism that they could be influencing the outcome -- that is, deterring supporters of the trailing candidate from showing up at the polls. Especially when exit polls, as we saw so dramatically in Florida three years ago, sometimes turn out to be wrong.


New York, N.Y.: Unfortunately, I think the issue of "being the bigger person" really doesn't fly in today's world. Remember, as ugly as attack ads are, they're effective, and that goes for both political campaigns and public figures.

Rush has made a career out of lambasting and humiliating people, and while he may be struggling with his drug addiction, it's a problem he brought upon himself. He chose to buy black market drugs, got hooked, and now he's paying the price. He bullies people, and now he's getting bullied. I have zero sympathy for him because I know that if the tables were turned, he would feel zero sympathy for the person in his situation.

To use a bunch of cliches in rapid succession, fair is fair, and it's not about sinking to his level, it's about fighting fire with fire, because that's how it has to be done. Whoever yells the loudest, gets heard.

Howard Kurtz: If fighting fire with fire is your preferred method, feel free. But keep in mind that when both candidates in a race go harshly negative, voters tend to be turned off to both sides.


Little Rock, Ark.: "Limbaugh should be hammered the way he hammers others -- but for his political views, not his drug problem"

I think the premise of your admonition is that the way Mr. Limbaugh hammers others has always been about their political views and I would submit that is not really true. That said I hope when he comes back (and I hope he does although I rarely agree with anything he has to say) he will heed those words above when it comes to his own hammering of others. As an African-American I fear that we have come to a place in our country that we are afraid of speech and that a voice like Mr. Limbaugh does not need to be silenced but needs to be challenged. He should not have been fired by ESPN but he should have been made to come back on and defend what he said and offer proof (something he never has to do on his radio show).

Howard Kurtz: Look, Limbaugh would not be as popular as he is if his message didn't resonate with millions of listeners. He's said a number of times that he's an entertainer, and part of his shtick was making fun of libs, Dems, feminists, etc. He can hardly be surprised if some of his detractors use the same tactics against him. But people who vehemently disagree with him ought to take him on, a la Al Franken, rather than trying to silence him.


Concord, N.H.: Mr. Kurtz:

In today's editorial, the Post's editors point out the potentially awkward position they have in pressing the Administration to reveal the identity of the leaker. Nevertheless, that limited factual inquiry remains the focus of most reporting on this issue. Why can't media organizations jump out of the box and focus on some of the ancillary questions here that do not create conflicts for them -- e.g., what does this story (and the related story that Rove said Wilson's wife was "fair game") say about (1) this Administration's willingness to put politics ahead of national security, and (2) the lack of a moral compass among some of the President's advisers that leads them to attack their enemies' families to gain political advantage (the same impetus that was behind the attacks on Senator McCain during the 2000 South Carolina primary campaign based on the race of his child )?

washingtonpost.com: The Wrong Message (Post, Oct. 13)

Howard Kurtz: Gee, it seems to me that has been precisely the focus of most of the coverage -- what the leak says about the hardball tactics of those trying to sell Bush's Iraq policy. But I wouldn't ignore the role of complicit reporters in passing on such damaging information, or failing to blow the whistle on the sources who provide it. Journalists have not come out looking good in this episode because too many people believe we are passive conduits for those who use smear tactics.


RE: Exit polls: But what if the voting system is wrong? If you take an electronic system with no paper backup (like a Diebold) and change the vote count the only way to tell is by the exit polls.

Howard Kurtz: Exit polls are an inexact science - not everyone wants to be interviewed after voting, for example, -- and an exit poll could never be used to certify an election. They're more useful for understanding demographic trends and voters' motivation.


Burtonsville, Md.: Is it fair to attack Rush Limbaugh? I have to consider the bias of anyone who would even ask that question.

Of course it's fair to attack someone who has carefully crafted his career out of attacking others. There should be zero sympathy for a man who has engaged in race-baiting misogynist hate speech for years on the radio. No mercy for a man who would have absolutely pilloried ANY Democrat or left-leaning public figure for something like this. He should get the same treatment he has always reserved for drug abusers on his program - ridicule, innuendo and ostracism. "Weakness" "Evidence of a lack of morality" "I wonder what else we would find if we looked deeper" "Pill-Nazi!"

This is the equivalent of televangelists getting caught with their pants down, and Bill Bennett in the casinos. It's the exposure of hypocrisy that makes it enjoyable, and instead of defending him the public should use his example to question the validity of all the other "morality police". Didn't Shakespeare say something about people protesting too much?

Howard Kurtz: You're free to pursue your "no mercy" approach. And again, I'm certainly not saying the guy shouldn't be criticized. Far from it. He should be held accountable for what he's done, both morally and legally. But it seems to me that those who revel in kicking the guy are exhibiting some of the very excesses they criticize in ideological warriors like Limbaugh.


Tampa, Fla.: Why are journalists compelled to read into the California election as some cosmic shift in the political stratsophere. If Tom Cruise were to run in Florida, he too would probably beat Jeb Bush in a recall.

It seems people, and especially the Fourth Estate, are always spinning this stuff to make way for their wacky theories on new phenomenon. Dude, It's not a "seismic shift," it's no a no-brainer!

Howard Kurtz: "Cosmic shifts" are what we do. That's the fun of covering elections - to spew all kinds of analysis on What It All Means.
Look, obviously the first recall of a governor since 1921, and the election of a movie star with minimal political experience, are stunning developments that cry out for smart commentary. Do we go too far in declaring "trends" that may in fact be one-time events? Probably. Already, some are saying this means the GOP is moving to the center; others are saying that's nonsense; some are saying this is good for Bush in '04, others that the Republicans will now be blamed for the state's fiscal problems, and on and on.


Dallas, Tex.: I'm truly amazed by the sureness of people talking about how Limbaugh has addressed or might address issues of personal failing. I'm a bit embarassed to admit I listen to the man's show nearly every day, but honestly, as attack-oriented as he is, what we're hearing about him now is not what I hear on a regular basis. I think there's a lot of criticizing going on by people who've not taken the time to actually listen to his show.

Howard Kurtz: You may be right. Limbaugh has said some outrageous things over the years, but much of what he does is plain old political criticism.


Tampa, Fla.: Why do certain pundits contend that the first two big primaries will be make-it-or break it for Wes? It has never been necessary to win these both, and it seems that even if Howard Dean did win the first two, there would be a converging force withing the party to fight him in the South--putting all of the talent, money, and support for a candidate like Wes (the so-called lefty vs. New Dem scenario).

Howard Kurtz: Because the press is a bunch of Know-It-Alls. Obviously it is theoretically possible to lose Iowa and N.H., then score well in several primaries the following week and go on to win the nomination. (Dole and Bush both lost New Hampshire, as you may recall.) But it almost never happens. The media go so wild over the Iowa and N.H. results that fundraising tends to dry up for those who do poorly there, making it difficult for them to recover, especially in the accelerated primary schedule we have now. It used to be that these nomination fights went on until June; now it's all over but the shouting by early March.


Exit Polling?: Are people seriously suggesting that exit polling be used even as a backup system for counting votes? Are these people doing so with a straight face? Geez, why hold an election at all? Let's just have it determined by polling the day before the election would have taken place.

Howard Kurtz: Hey, that'd make my life easier.


Austin, Tex.: "But it seems to me that those who revel in kicking the guy are exhibiting some of the very excesses they criticize in ideological warriors like Limbaugh."

What, then, Mr. Kurtz, would you have those who oppose this man's message do? Sadly, the high road you suggest taking is all too empty these days. "Political" discourse has been largely reduced to angry, self-righteous shouting from the right and preening, self-righteous tut-tutting from the left. And is seems it is the right who is winning this ugly war. Much has been made -- by you yourself, in some cases -- of the power of talking cable heads, shouting radio ranters, etc. It seems this is what America wants to hear, alas. Can you really fault the anti-Rush crowd for picking up the one weapon that Rush himself has proven to all is effective -- attack, attack, attack?

Howard Kurtz: I would suggest that those who disagree with Limbaugh slam him with the same ferocity that he uses against his political opponents. Monitor what he says, do some fact-checking and find ways to challenge and take him on. (You don't have to be a big shot to do this; in the mid-90s, before the rise of the Web, a guy named Brian Kelliher used to tape all of Limbaugh's shows and publicize some of his more extreme statements with a home-made "Flush Rush" newsletter.) I'm just saying that attacking him for being an addict is going to sound hard-hearted to a lot of folks, especially when they've said nothing about the likes of Rob Lowe, Aaron Sorkin and every celeb who's ever been in rehab.


Nokesville, Va.: What do you think of the spin coming out of the righties that this Plamegate thing is a perfect liberal-media scandal. Denounce the White House for leaking to reporters, and then reporters fail to produce their sources, leaving a scandal that self-lubricates itself for months, leaving us with nothing but point-scoring for Democratic presidential candidates?

Howard Kurtz: The reason I don't believe it's a perfect media scandal is, as I said before, journalists don't come out looking very good as they struggle to explain why it's a crime for a federal official to intentionally out a CIA agent but perfectly okay for a reporter to publish such information.


Riverdale Park, Md.: Hello Howie,

I'm troubled by the use of the term "pro-Saddam loyalists." How do we know that the people attacking US forces and their Iraqi allies are indeed loyal to Saddam? All we know for sure is that the attackers are anti-American.

No doubt the White House prefers the term "pro-Saddam loyalists," but why has the US media adopted it so uncritically?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure how much we know about the motivations of some of these attackers. But the careful calculation and firepower involved in some of these attacks suggests to me that they come from remnants of the Baathist regime, not from ordinary Iraqis who happen to be teed off about the American occupation.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Im 22 years old, and plan to run for the House of Representatives someday. Are the media so scrappy and hungry for news that what I was like in high school, might be dredged up?

Howard Kurtz: Dude, anything you've done could come back to haunt you, especially if you left behind some angry folks who'd likely blab to reporters. That's politics. But I'll tell you what -- if you wait long enough before running, you can always brush it off as youthful indiscretions.


I would suggest that those who disagree: Sorkin, Lowe et al are apples to kumquats. If any of them went on the air in front of 20 million listeners and exorted a bunch of dittoheads on jailing drug addicts, this would be an appropriate response. But they haven't, ergo, you're just whitewashing.

Howard Kurtz: Or perhaps you're not inclined to criticize other drug addicts whose political views you agree with. Look, there's a straw man being set up here -- that somehow Limbaugh shouldn't be criticized for this. He can, he should and he is. I just think people who can't stand the guy ought to be careful about their tone toward a guy who stupidly got himself addicted to painkillers.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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