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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 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)

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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.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Looks like the Bush campaign is already using President Reagan's death as a campaign tool. Doesn't this strategy have a huge potential to backfire? Especially, given what we saw with the Wellstone senate race in 2002?

Howard Kurtz: Depends on how hard the president pushes it, I suppose. It was certainly reasonable, during a weeklong tribute to Reagan, for his people to point out some similarities (tax cuts, aggressive foreign policy). But if Bush continues to harp on this theme, critics will undoubtedly note the ways in which he's no Reagan, from huge spending increases to his shortcomings as a Great Communicator.

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Houston, Tex.: I recently saw a John Kerry ad that showed a picture of Kerry and John McCain, with the announcer saying, "Kerry worked with John McCain to help veterans...etc." The implication is, of course, "if you like John McCain, you'll like John Kerry." But while McCain has been adamant about not being Kerry's running mate because "I'm a George Bush Republican", he apparently doesn't have a problem with Kerry using his name and likeness in this manner in his campaign ads. Could he stop Kerry from doing this if he wanted to?

Howard Kurtz: Not really (though he could call a news conference and denounce the ad). But it's factually accurate. Kerry and McCain worked together on an effort to find remaining POWs, if any, in Vietnam. And they're friends. McCain's popularity is such that Kerry isn't the only Democrat trying to invoke him. The Arizona Republican popped up in other primary ads, including those of Joe Lieberman.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I keep hearing that the nonstop Reagan coverage will be a benefit to Bush. Here's one benefit nobody has mentioned: total non-coverage of the Ashcroft hearing last week. If you watched CNN or Fox or the major nightly news or the morning shows, absolutely nothing. In fact the only show to cover it at all was...The Daily Show? Is Jon Stewart the only one paying attention anymore?

Howard Kurtz: It might seem that way. All other news, both favorable to Bush (the G-8 summit) and unfavorable (continued violence in Iraq) got buried by the Reagan wave. Kerry was forced to suspend his campaign because he knew he couldn't buy a headline during this media onslaught. And it wasn't just cable -- The Post devoted lots of front-page acreage, along with four special sections, to the Reagan farewell. And Newsweek has its second straight Reagan cover today.

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Washington, D.C.: ref the Reagan ceremonies-- Was I the only one disturbed by the cicada-like photographer's clicking and whirring during silent moments? Specifically in the Rotunda and at the Library, when Nancy was alone at the casket-- the camera clicking was incessant and very bothersome on TV. (I can understand the noise at acongressional hearing.) But at this intensely private moment? I only hope Nancy and her family could tune out the intrusinve noise.

Which leads to a second question-- why are there a couple dozen photogs at a congressional hearing, or in this case, at least 3 or 4 at the funeral. They're all getting the same shot....

Howard Kurtz: Yes, that bothered me too. Those folks are just doing their job - every news organization wants its own shots - but it was so quiet at that moment that the shutters became a distraction. I'm surprised that the planners didn't insist on pool photographers, meaning two or three whose pictures would have to be shared with all media outlets.

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Shawnee, Kan.: Howard, your 6-11 column "anatomy of a non story" brought to mind the taped words of Bill Clinton to Jennifer Flowers to just lie.She told the truth and the liberal media and the dems trashed her. Maybe Alexandra learned the lesson

washingtonpost.com: Anatomy of a Non-Story (Post, June 11)

Howard Kurtz: One of the reasons that Gennifer (don't forget the G) got some unfavorable press was that she made her allegations by selling them to the tabloid Star, raising questions about whether she was just trying to make a buck. But Bill Clinton got far more negative press, was forced to admit on 60 Minutes that he was a less than sterling husband, and sank like a stone in the New Hampshire polls until he battled back to a second-place finish.

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Speaking of Jon Stewart: Is his show becoming obviously biased for the Left? I mean I agree 100% with his politics, but 90% of his show is an attack on Bush. Is Bush just an easy target, or his Stewart letting his own feelings show?

Howard Kurtz: I think Stewart has been more critical of Bush lately on Iraq and the prison scandal. But during the Democratic primaries, he was pretty merciless in making fun of the candidates. And he's certainly had his share of Republicans on lately, including Karen Hughes, Bill Kristol and Ed Gillespie.

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Wexford, Pa.: Howard, a few weeks back you said the newsfolk at Fox News Channel very much believe they're "fair and balanced." How "fair and balanced" can Brit Hume be when he joins the Bushes in Bush 41's birthday celebrations and jumps out of a plane, too? FNC also carried Bush 41's jump live. Yes, LIVE!;!;!; (What exactly is newsworthy about that?) And later, during a round-table discussion, Chris Wallace asks a Washington Times talking-head to opine on Kerry. (What, RNC's flak was unavailable?) It's clear that FNC is the propagandist for the RNC and what's appalling is that media pundits are too wary about calling Faux on it.

Howard Kurtz: The reason that that Brit jumped out of the plane (as I noted in this morning's column) was to get an interview with Bush 41 (and perhaps generate a little publicity for himself). I don't see any problem with that. In fact, it was CNN's Larry King who announced while interviewing George & Barbara that he would be the emcee at the former president's 80th birthday party.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Last week, in reply to a question about journalists letting patriotism fog their reporting, you replied, "I think there's a significant difference between the pressures on journalists as a president is taking the country to war and the remembrances of someone who left office 16 years ago?"

Are you saying that because the president is taking the nation to war, journalists should concern themselves more with being honest-to-goodness Americans than search out the truth and question, criticize and be skeptical of the government's aims? Do these "pressures" include tossing out all sense of objectivity to join the rah-rah, flag-waving jingoists? (Isn't that the sole reason for having the Faux News Channel, anyway?)

Howard Kurtz: No, I'm not saying that at all. I'm just telling you that journalists don't operate in a vacuum. They have profit pressures, ratings pressures and, in wartime, many become cautious about taking on the commander-in-chief. I don't agree with that approach - the runup to the Iraq war was when we needed courageous journalism more than ever - but I'm analyzing the state of affairs.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I think that the Democrats mentioned in Jim VandeHei's article who have misgivings about John Kerry's campaign are selling him short. Kerry just spent the last two weeks giving a series of speeches on national security. He has a corporate tax cut plan and a health care plan. Therefore I don't think it's fair to say that Kerry doesn't have a positive message. What else could these Democrats be looking for? Maybe he hasn't repeated it enough so that people associate him with a cause.

Howard Kurtz: But when you say it's not "fair," you're just saying that you don't agree with the Democrats quoted in the piece. They may be flat wrong, but clearly there remains some anxiety about Kerry in party circles, as there was about Clinton at this stage in '92. Lots of people say in polls they still don't know much about John Kerry - which is a frustrating reality for Kerry but also an opportunity for him as the Democratic convention approaches.

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Washington, D.C.: The Post's editorial page came out fairly strongly in favor of the Iraq invasion. They weren't alone, but I wonder how much they and other papers that took this stand feel some responsiblity for the way things have gone. You just can't walk away from a postition you've taken. Look at the way politicians are taken to task on their records.

Howard Kurtz: Fair enough. And the Post editorial page has written a lot on the subject during the difficult postwar period, and has sharply criticized the Bush administration for the way it's handled this period and over the prison abuse scandal.

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Ocean City, NJ: What is your guess as to what a 2nd Bush
administration would look like? More of the same or
major change?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think we'll see Colin Powell as secretary of state. And I wonder how much longer Rummy would remain at the Pentagon.

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Washington, DC: Not having been around this weekend to look at the papers, I was wondering if anyone reported on the speeches given by the Reagan children in California. Specifically Ron Reagan's comments on his father not wearing his religous beliefs on his sleeve, feeling it was his duty, not a political mandate!; I for one, was quite shocked!;

Howard Kurtz: I found the family members' speeches to be more moving than many of the politicians'. It was mentioned but not highlighted in the next day's stories, in part because it was such a long day with ceremonies in both Washington and California.

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To be fair to Newsweek...: Their story package seems to focus more on Alzheimer's disease, the stem-cell debate and how caregivers can tap resources that won't leave them isolated. It at least goes beyond Reagan's death to focus additional attention on this issue...

Howard Kurtz: Fair enough.

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Arlington, Va.: I was interested in the Post cover story about the Nader campaign's inappropriate/unethical use of office space. I have to admit that my first thought was, oh sure, they want to go after him to discredit him, so he won't hurt the election like last time.... Am I being too conspiratorial?

Howard Kurtz: In a word: yes. Why do people assume that because a newspaper does a tough story on someone they're trying to "get" him? That story raised legitimate questions about some of Nader's campaign practices. Post reporters do investigative pieces on everyone who runs for president. That doesn't mean they're pulling for a particular outcome.

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Raleigh NC: About The Daily Show...I've pondered that same question, is he biased against Bush. Well, what I think is that his show isn't a political satire, it's a TV news (specifically the 24 hour networks) satire. And I think you could make a convincing case that up until about 3 months ago, those outlets had a pro-Bush bias, which Stewart and co. are satirizing. (I mean, when CNN is the lefty alternative, and Wolf Blitzer is their star, of COURSE there's a serious righty bias on the 3 all-news networks.)

Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Lot of Daily Show fans here. Possibly all of them. Look, I've interviewed Jon Stewart, and he loves to skewer everyone - the networks, the candidates, etc. He even had the temerity to poke fun at me! That's what he does for a living. At the moment, Bush is in the news far more than Kerry.

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Carrboro, N.C.: Shouldn't there be significantly more press coverage (and outrage) concerning the Justice Department memo, Ashcroft's refusal to give it to Congress based on not much more than "I don't want to." and the President's evasive response in the press conference last week that he told people to "follow the law"? A cynical reading of all of this is that the White House authorized torture because they felt it justified in the war on terror, but now find it inconvenient to defend that position in an election year. I remember when we went through impeachment proceedings over testimony in civil lawsuit.

washingtonpost.com: Justice Dept. Memo Says Torture 'May Be Justified' (Post, June 13)

Howard Kurtz: I think it's a major issue. The question is whether Congress will demand to see it, thus creating a political controversy. I understand that a president, as the administration argues, has the right to receive confidential advice, but this memo would seem to lie at the center of a very important inquiry into U.S. policy.

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Washington, D.C.: Re the cameras during the private moments of the Reagan funeral(s). I hate to sound cynical, but don't you think this is what the Reagan family (at least Nancy Reagan) wanted? Certainly they could have chosen to have at least one of the funerals (I counted 4) private. But they didn't. My heart goes out to Nancy for the suffering she's been through, of course. But let's not kid ourselves. She is protecting his legacy to the very end, including making sure there were plenty of public moments that couldn't be missed by many Americans.

Howard Kurtz: Sure. This was designed by Nancy Reagan for public consumption from beginning to end. She wanted the pictures out there. I'm just saying that perhaps there was a quieter way for some of the photography to take place.

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New York, NY: Howard, why can't a week after a former President dies be used as a tribute to the man, whether you agreed with his politics or not. To make an analogy, today President Bush praised and spoke well of President Clinton during the unveiling of his and Senator Clinton's portraits. It was neither the time, nor the place to fight a political fight. Those fights aren't going anywhere and their are certain things to be said for general civility.

A second quick question, on your television program yesterday you discussed the lack of negative articles about the Reagan legacy this past week. However, several of your guests had written negative articles on Reagan. My question is, was this a fair representation of columnists/reporters nationwide or did you specifically search out the few that wrote negative things?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. Ninety-five percent of what was published, and 98 percent of what was on TV, was positive. Reagan deserves credit for his accomplishments and a nice sendoff. But when the coverage mushrooms into a weeklong orgy, then journalists have a responsibility to provide something resembling a balanced portrait. If he's going to be hailed for his optimism and standing up to the Soviets and all of that, it's not unreasonable to point out, as I did, that his administration racked up huge deficits, was beset by numerous scandals, including Iran-contra, did little on civil rights, and that Reagan waited years before saying anything about the carnage caused by AIDS.

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washingtonpost.com: Nader Had Campaign Office at Charity (Post, June 13)

Doubts Linger as Kerry Advances (Post, June 13) Howard Kurtz: Here are links to two of the Post stories we've been discussing.

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New York, NY: Howard, if Senators state, in no uncertain terms, to the Attorney General of the United States that his refusal to give a reason for withholding documents may be putting him in contempt of Congress, is that not news? Suppose a newspaper article about the AG's appearance before the Senators eliminates any mention of the phrase "contempt of Congress," though it was used several times by several Senators. Isn't that a failure of the article to report the news accurately? Why would that fact be ommitted? Are the readers of the newspaper being ill-served by this article, or might one say that Senators calling the AG of another party in contempt of Congress is just not newsworthy, so no harm was done by the ommission?

Howard Kurtz: Not sure what article you're referring to, but Justice's torture memo was widely covered (before disappearing into the Reagan wave). But if senators want to do more than just talk, they have the ability to subpoena the memo (if a Republican-controlled committee can be persuaded to do that). If the White House refuses on executive privilege grounds, the matter would go to court. This has happened before on documents of great national importance. (Of course, we already know what the memo says because news organizations have published the contents.)

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Washington, DC: I really think that the whining over "Faux" News needs to stop. Almost weekly, there are posts to this chat (probably by one person) complaining about the supposed unbalance of Fox and deeming it "Faux" News.

I'm not a conservative and I watch CNN and Fox about equally, and I really think that these people touting Fox News as the "conservative" network are just not watching it regularly. The news coverage is as balanced as any of the networks' or CNN's, and while they have some big-name conservative hosts for their nightly programming, it isn't reflective of the coverage as a whole. Really, people should watch and evaluate with an open mind, rather than jumping to assign catchy nicknames and cast the network as part of a greater right-wing conspiracy.

Howard Kurtz: Posted here in the fair & balanced spirit.

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Parkville, Md.: Brit Hume, fair and balanced? You can't be serious! I challenge anyone to look over a couple of week's worth of "Special Report With Brit Hume" (available at www.foxnews.com) and not come away with the impression that Hume's little emore than a Republican Party propagandist.

Howard Kurtz: Also posted here in the F&B spirit.

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Anonymous: Reagan not a big spender? Remember his pushing of Star Wars? Like Bush, he could push a big spending project and rather than paying for it with taxes let future generations pay with deficits. Bush does to it more. The media often mention deficits but seldom go into what effects that have. Just too complicated? Tax cuts and hikes are more concrete.

Howard Kurtz: Reagan spent a lot on the Pentagon, no question about it, but forced cuts in many domestic programs, particularly in his first term. That, however, did not prevent record deficits. Bush has also passed big tax cuts that led to huge deficits, but even conservatives complain about the fact that there's been little spending restraint by this Republican Congress, and that spending has increased at a far greater rate than under Clinton.

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New York, NY: Would you expect the coverage we saw last week top be the same for the next President who passes away?

Howard Kurtz: No. I'd predict that Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford would not receive a week's worth of coverage at that level of intensity. Of course, they occupied the White House for a shorter period of time, and neither was a movie star who was famous long before turning to politics.

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Jacksonville, N.C.: I know it may be a tad early, but what will party convention coverage look like this summer? Do you see the networks broadcasting anything outside of the nominees' speeches?

Howard Kurtz: The broadcast networks will probably do an hour or two a night, as they did last time. It will mostly be a cable affair.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Dear Mr. Kurtz-
This morning on the Imus in the Morning program, Howard Fineman of Newsweek appeared. He posited that last week's media deification of Ronald Reagan was the (I paraphrase): "liberal...media making up for the conservative revolution begun 20 years before (Reagan's election) that they missed the depth of scope of..." I couldn't believe it! It seems to me that the media was couldn't have been more cooperative in promoting the Reagan image for 8 years. Please comment.

Howard Kurtz: Whether Fineman's right or not, the media were anything but cooperative when Reagan was president. He had a testy relationship with the press, which used to run articles about all the factual errors he made at news conferences. The press dug into the EPA and HUD scandals, the Iran-contra mess, the big budget deficits, the storm over Reagan's visit to a Nazi cemetary, and on and on. As I wrote last week, Reagan was a far more controversial and in some ways divisive president than he has been depicted in the last week. It may also be true that some of his policies, such as his aggressive posture toward the evil empire, look better with the passage of time than they did in the 1980s.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Yesterday, the NYT carried a story by their critic, Mr. Rich suggesting that President Bush's speech at the Reagan funeral was designed to make him appear as a Reagan clone. The article seemed particularly mean-spirited in Mr. Rich's shrill, partisan tone. Did you feel his comments were valid?

Howard Kurtz: That's for readers to decide. Frank Rich is a decidedly liberal opinion columnist, and he can be tough. But there are also some very tough commentators of the conservative stripe, as I'm sure you've noticed.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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