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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2004; 12:00 PM

Consumers used to get their news from newspapers, magazines and evening broadcasts from the three television networks. Now, with the Internet, cable TV and 24-hour news networks, the news cycle is faster and more constant, with every minute carrying a new deadline. But clearly more news and more news outlets are not necessarily better. And just because the press has the ability to cover a story doesn't always mean they should -- or that they'll do it well.

Howard Kurtz has been The Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Howard Kurtz (washingtonpost.com)

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Washington, D. C.: In David Broder's Sunday column he joins the likes of Zell Miller in attacking Maureen Dowd. In doing so he argues that keeping Andrew Card, a "moderate" and appointing Alberto Gonzales clearly debunk Ms. Dowd's claims that "forces of darkness" will continue under Bush's second term. In taking this position Mr. Broder reveals his political perspective to be at least to the right of center.

Shouldn't the Post, an "Independent" newspaper, restore some balance to its op ed page by adding someone like Dowd since there are so few liberal voices left at the Post? At least the Post's readership, many of us who are Blue staters, would rather read courageous people like Dowd than Bush apologists like Broder.

washingtonpost.com: 'Darkness'? Hardly. (Post, Nov. 14)

Howard Kurtz: You're free to agree or disagree with what David Broder writes, but to call him a "Bush apologist" is just absurd. His is one of the few columns that can't really be characterized as conservative or liberal. As for the overall balance of the page, it seems to me there are quite a few liberal voices: Richard Cohen. E.J. Dionne. Harold Meyerson, who was hired when Mary McGrory fell ill. Michael Kinsley. And, of course, the editorial page, while not anywhere near as liberal as the New York Times, did endorse Kerry.


Alexandria, Va: This is more a comment than a question. I feel very conflicted about today's article on the behind-the-scenes personal problems of the Kerrys: On the one hand, I know they are relevant if it turns out they really did contribute to the relative ineffectiveness and ultimate defeat of the campaign, but on the other, it comes awfully close to mere gossip, unseemly and gross. Plus, I have no idea how any married couple with any spark and life could hold up under such intense scrutiny as a political campaign. (You may say, well the Bushes did, but personally I am suspicious of the Stepford-like quality of most political marriages and am not troubled at the thought that the Kerrys had spats or that Teresa is moody.) Regarding campaign people relaying their personal gripes to the Press, unfortunately I have been expecting these attacks on Kerry from various factions of his former "supporters". Though I myself am a Democrat, I am disgusted that we Democrats show such disloyalty, immaturity and lack of integrity when we talk trash about the men and women we championed only weeks before. If anybody at this time could have done it better than Kerry, that person would have been nominated to run instead. If anybody disagrees with that, they should step up or shut up! OK, I've said my peace, with love. (. . . Democrats, grow up!)

Howard Kurtz: My point was not so much about Teresa -- and I agree, it's difficult to live in the fishbowl of a presidential campaign -- as about whether daily journalists can capture the dysfunctions of a modern campaign while more or less embedded in the belly of the beast. You can say that battling among advisers or difficulties with the candidate's wife are just inside baseball, but as we learned after the fact about the Dean campaign, they have a lot to do with a candidate's success or lack thereof. We now have reports of (unnamed) Kerry advisers admitting they felt their guy had no clear message.


Miami, Fla.: Dear Mr. Kurtz:
Having read the Newsweek piece about BOTH campaigns, I am aware that a fairly critical look was taken at the Bush campaign, also. Unfortunately, in your column today, you chose not to mention one word about Bush,and lead with the candidates wife, no less. As the "media critic", don't you think this is an example of how self-absorbed the press is? (it's all about access, stupid).

You consistently fail democracy, so I now get my news from other sources. I don't always agree with everything I hear and read, but at least I know I am learning the truth. With respect, I await your answer telling me how mis-informed I am, that your column was only about Kerry, and why he lost "is a story". A story, yes, but your claims of objectivity ring false because of your obsession with the horse race and collective fawning over Karl Rove. (it's Alice-in Wonderland: Let's defer to the guys who cheat and lie best, then claim the honored mantle of doing the people's bidding). Last you'll see of me, and, hopefully, 51 million others. (p.s. want to get relevant? How about the blogsphere forcing the Gray Lady to editorialize on voter fraud last Sunday? Note the examples they raised: NOT the easily dismissed ones).
Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: The fact is, the Newsweek piece had very little news about the Bush campaign, in part, as the magazine acknowledges, because it had less access to the Bush team. I have no doubt that the Bush campaign, like any campaign, had its share of internal fights and struggles, but you don't get that by reading Newsweek. Which may just go to show that Republicans are better than Democrats at keeping these things under wraps.


Concord, N.H.: I don't understand why the President did not ask, in public, every Cabinet member to resign so that the White House could avoid the intermittent news items it now must deal with every time one or two does resign.

washingtonpost.com: Secretary of State Powell Expected to Resign (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 15)

Howard Kurtz: I don't see anything wrong with the news coming out in dribs and drabs. After all, the Cabinet members have to decide whether they want to stay, and the president has to decide who he wants to keep on. I don't see what he gains by going through the motions of asking everyone to resign.


Centreville, Va.: Geez Louise, how long is the press going to pick over the corpse of the Kerry campaign and the Democratic party? Now that the Republicans are running the show, why doesn't the press turn its attention to things that really matter, like what the Bush administration "plan" is to halve the deficit in five years. geez.

washingtonpost.com: Kerry's Troubled Campaign (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 15)

Howard Kurtz: Of course the press should, and is, focusing on the challenges facing Bush for the next four years. But we've just been through two seemingly endless years of a close, hard-fought election that engaged the country like few in recent decades and produced record turnout. Why wouldn't journalists want to do further reporting on what went wrong for Kerry, right for Bush and what all this reveals about the American electorate? Maybe some reporters aren't quite ready to move on, but the election, after all, was only two weeks ago, so I don't have any problem with some period of interpretation and reflection.


Peterson Trial: I saw you on CNN the other night discussing why the Peterson trial, among others, has become such a media darling. You mentioned young, white, pretty women and some level of mystery, etc. Isn't part of it also timing?

JonBenet, Laci, Chandra -- these all happened during typically slow news periods (winter holidays and summer) when the media is looking for something to fill time and potentially attract new viewers.

It seems to me that the time is as important in the equation as to who the victim is. Do you agree?

Howard Kurtz: I think the phenomenon now goes well beyond timing. The Peterson murder, for example, took place during the traditionally slow Christmas week -- but that was in 2002! Nearly two years later, the media (especially cable and the network morning shows) are still buzzing about it. Even in the final days of the presidential campaign, some cable and morning shows were still doing plenty of Laci. So such stories now thrive even in busy news periods.


Falls Church, Va.: Why is the Wall Street Journal routinely left out of the list of major newspapers?

To answer my own question, because it doesn't fit with the conservative view that all print media is liberal. Yet it has strong national distribution, has good to great reporting and its editorial page is consistently conservative.

Moreover, opinion leaders from all over the spectrum consider it must-reading.

Why is this never pointed out by anybody?

Howard Kurtz: I would argue with your premise. The Journal is the second-best-selling paper in America. Of course it's on everyone's list of major papers. The only thing that separates it (and USA Today) from most newspapers is that it's published five days a week and, as a national paper, has no metro coverage of any city or region.


Wheaton, Md.: Teresa Heinz Kerry was disliked by many for being outspoken and, of course, for being born outside of this country and -- horrors -- having an accent (one local new piece led off with the question of whether Americans were accepting of a First Lady who didn't sound like an American). Laura Bush is more demure, quieter and less threatening. When she said that she wasn't critical of the Swift Boat ads and other ads against Kerry because her husband had been unfairly attacked, there was no outcry. And Heinz-Kerry "complained" of migraines at the Grand Canyon? The line was just sort of thrown into the article. The implication was that she was faking it.

Howard Kurtz: Look, some people liked Teresa and some didn't. Some liked her convention speech and some thought it was too much about her. The important point of the Newsweek piece was that she was a disruptive force in her husband's campaign. I liked the fact that she spoke candidly about Botox and other things. But I did kind of wonder after all the incidents -- "shove it" and Bush would produce "four years of hell" and saying Laura Bush never had a job -- whether she could fairly be described as a major distraction.


Washington, D.C.: Is it typical for an administration to lose so many high-level and cabinet members at the beginning of a 2nd term? Thanks!;

Howard Kurtz: Yup. Absolutely typical. Nothing different here so far. Keep in mind that the average tenure of a Cabinet officer is 2-1/2 years. If anything, the Bush team was a little atypical in that almost everyone stayed on for the whole first term.


New York, N.Y.: Howard,

In last week's "New Republic" Ryan Lizza recounted the changing scene around the Kerry camp during the ups-and-downs of election night. In describing late-to-the-campaign, ex-Clinton spokesmen Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart he wrote, "Their timing was impeccable. They joined the campaign late enough not to be blamed if Kerry lost, but early enough to have been credited had he won."

Would you consider such "timing" a journalistic (or, even, a political) "Pyrrhic victory"?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. Lockhart and McCurry were short-timers, but they left their lucrative jobs and poured two months of their lives into trying to help John Kerry win the election. I don't think they are primarily worrying about whether they shared the "blame" for his defeat. Both men have been White House press secretaries, so it wasn't like either one needed the campaign job.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kurtz,

Your column today said that the press held back on reporting negative stories about Teresa Heinz Kerry, yet Newsweek broke an agreement and published off-the-record information from a Bush campaign event.

Is there any wonder why Republicans think the media is biased against them?

Howard Kurtz: Actually, I didn't say either. I didn't say the press deliberately held back info on the Kerry campaign; I questioned whether some of these stories could have been ferreted out earlier. And I didn't say Newsweek broke any agreement; the Bush campaign was ticked off because the magazine mentioned some details of a party that the Bushies presumed to be off the record. No one has told me there was any agreement.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: A local politican last night criticized the ownership of major media centers for allegedly telling reporters not to pursue stories on election mishaps. This strikes me as very suspicious: I would assume the media would hunger for any news about problems in our electoral system. Do you believe there is any truth to the reports that reporters looking into election day difficulties have been threatened by their supervisors or by management?

Howard Kurtz: None. Zero. Nada. Those who say that owners "order" reporters to do something or not do something don't understand how the news business works. And in fact, several news organizations, including the NYT, WP and MSNBC, have taken a look at the allegations of election fraud and concluded that while there are glitches and mistakes in every election, this year's version did not rise to the level of a major problem that could have changed the outcome of the race.


Bethesda, Md.: Looking back on Powell's time in State two things seem to stick out. One is that he was a mature, moderating influence in an otherwise rash and surprisingly thoughtless administration. The other, unfortunately, is that he sold out that considerable credibility for a bag of nothing in one spectacularly disingenuous day in front of the world. In retrospect, all of the WMD claims were at best falsely represented and at worst fabricated. My question for you is: why did the American press take it so well that they were made fools of? Recall that editorials the following day were filled with gushing language and endorsement of pre-emptive war. Oops.

Howard Kurtz: At the time, it is true, Powell generally got positive reviews for his performance. But news organizations were greatly concerned that they were misled after no WMD were found in Iraq -- witness the NYT editor's note, a New Republic editorial and a lengthy front-page piece I wrote in August, all questioning whether the publications in question had allowed themselves to be bamboozled by the administration. I don't think it's fair, however, to accuse Powell of selling out, since he believed he was relying on solid information from U.S. intelligence and, according to Woodward's book, refused to include claims he considered shaky.


Tampa, Fla.: Interpretation and reflection is one thing. Indulging in unseemly gossip to make a deadline or sell papers is quite the story.

Howard Kurtz: How is reporting that Kerry was indecisive, needed speech counseling, grew unhappy with his advisers and had a strong-minded wife who campaign officials considered a liability--how does all that amount to "unseemly gossip"? This wasn't about whether the Kerrys had a happy or unhappy marriage (that would be the unseemly gossip about the Clintons). It was about how the Democratic nominee managed or failed to manage a campaign that fell just short of making him president.


Medford, Ore.: Howard -- I know if you ansewer this you can't go into specifics at this time but is the press at the Post or anywhere else you may have heard about getting any info about the whole outing of Valerie Plain the undercover CIA operative? It seems as if that's just been swept away, I would like to be able to find out where that issue is at?

Howard Kurtz: Far from being swept away, the special prosecutor investigating the case is actively threatening to jail at least two journalists -- Matt Cooper of Time and Judith Miller of the NYT -- for refusing to testify about confidential sources. No word on whether Bob Novak could be in similar jeopardy.


Norfolk, Va.: Howard -- Always enjoy the chats and columns. On "Reliable Sources" yesterday, Tom Brokaw ended by saying the evening network news remains relevant, has huge viewership, will be around for a long long time. Does that strike you as a bit disingenuous, in that the network broadcasts are in steep decline as other sources are rapidly gaining? He sounded like the village blacksmith touting his career as more and more cars roll by. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Brokaw acknowledged the shrinking audience in his interview with me, but he was also right--for all their dimunition, the three network newscasts remain more important than any other outlet, delivered a combined audience of 25 to 30 million a night. I'm still not sure about their long-term future in an age of 24/7 news, especially with their aging audiences. But not everyone has cable TV or talk radio on all day or is constantly surfing the net, so they may appreciate a tight 22-minute summary of the day's top stories.


Wit's End: You mentioned in your online column about some problems at the Miami Herald. Might this have some bearing on Dave Barry's decision to take a leave of absence? (Or should I ask Weingarten instead?)

Howard Kurtz: Weingarten would be the expert, but since Dave Barry is an empire unto himself, and widely syndicated, I don't see why any budgetary or journalistic difficulties at the Herald would affect his decision. He says he's spent his whole life meeting weekly deadlines and wants a year off--and since he doesn't need the paycheck, it's not hard to understand how he could feel that way.


Sims, N.C.: How long are you and your buddies going to tear into the Democrats and praise all things Republican. This is almost as bad as when you guys fell in love with the swift boaters. Well I guess the cult of Bush has returned to Washington.

Howard Kurtz: It's not the cult of Bush as much as the cult of the winner. I went back and reviewed the coverage after the Clinton victories of '92 and '96, and there were endless whither-the-Republicans pieces that examined what went wrong and questioned what the GOP had to do to get back into presidential contention (especially in '92, when the Democrats, like the Republicans now, also controlled both houses of Congress). And if Kerry had managed to win Ohio, you'd be reading plenty of stories about the brilliance of his campaign and how Bush blew it.


Falls Chuch, Va.: On Election Day, I was a victim of "blue bias." Living in the DC Metro area, I thought sure Kerry was going to win based on all the negative stories about Bush published in the Post, which also trumpeted all the anti-Bush sentiment among voters. There was very little talk about religious and moral values and the big get-out-the-vote effort by Republicans going on across the country. My point is that the liberal editorial slant of the big-city blue-state media does affect the scope of factual reporting despite assertions to the contrary. What the liberal media doesn't like, it doesn't cover. Do you agree? Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: No. Anyone reading The Washington Post would have known that Bush had a pretty good chance of being reelected. There were a number of stories about the Republican get-out-the-vote effort (along with some on the Democratic effort). The Post's tracking poll gave Bush a slight lead going into Election Day. There was also plenty of reporting on Kerry's difficulties connecting with red-state voters--not quite as much focus on "moral issues" as we're seeing now because of that one exit poll question, but certainly reporting on the difficulties facing a Massachusetts Democrat and his stances on abortion, gay rights, gun control, etc. So if you had the impression that Kerry was clearly going to win, it must have come from somewhere else.


Washington, D.C.: Is mainstream media's desire to be objective tanatmount to evenhandedness? As a person who does a lot of reading on political issues, it troubles me that during the campaign rarely do pols or spinsters get challenged by tv hosts -- really challenged. It seems as though each side (especially Bush & Co.) are entitled to their own set of facts. And it's not just Fox news -- it's CNN, your column, PBS, everyone that is "objective". It's no wonder that more narrowly focused online sources are so popular.

Howard Kurtz: On television, some interviewers (Russert and Koppel come to mind) are better than others at trying to trying to cut through a politician's spin. When I interviewed Brokaw this weekend, I played a clip of him pressing the president on WMDs and Bush trying to dismiss him as a "Monday-morning quarterback." (Brokaw said it is indeed hard to get candidates off their talking points.) Other folks, including many on cable, are happy to have partisans on each side yell at each other. As for print, some newspapers, including this one, devote considerable energy to truth-squad claims made by both sides in a campaign. (My role, for instance, was to write fact-checking pieces on the ads.) Overall, journalists could do a better job on this front, but in many cases it's not for lack of trying.


Nicholasville, Ky.: The Washington Post seems to have become enamored with the CIA. Just today, the Post ran a sympathetic story about Goss's shakeup of the CIA bueracracy. While I understand, that disloyal CIA agents were useful to the Post in its attempts to unseat President Bush, don't you think it is dangerous to give to much credence to unamed CIA personnel? There was a time when the CIA was viewed by those on the left, with contempt, now they appear to be the "darlings of the media". I view the CIA as being the institution that should be held most suspect given their huge power, their vast resources and their clandestine nature. The Washington Post should disabuse itself of its "love affair" with unamed sources at the CIA, regardless of your desire to undermine President Bush. Our President's are accountable to the voters, the spooks at the CIA are not.

Howard Kurtz: But it's The Post that broke the story a few days ago that there has been great resistance to the brief reign of Director Porter Goss, prompting resignations and threatened resignations. So today's piece was simply a follow-up. I'd add that the CIA is one of the most difficult agencies to report on, given the inherent secrecy that surrounds it, making reliance on unnamed sources more necessary than in covering, say, the Energy Department.


Orlando, Fla.: In reference to "Wit's End" --- Your remark that if Kerry had won you would be touting his campaign. Does that mean the press would have probably ignored all that stuff about Teresa, the in-fighting, tec.?

Howard Kurtz: Not ignored it, no, but would have portrayed it as Kerry winning despite the difficulties of his campaign.


Arlington, Va.: Which is harder to believe, that a resigning Cabinet officer wants to spend more time with his family or that he wants to make more money to support his family, which would mean having a job he just gave up? I think these exits are forced, and saying they are not is laughable and sad.

Howard Kurtz: Some of these people were probably nudged and some weren't. It's hardly unusual for folks to go into government for a few years and then want to make more money on the outside. But it's also true that these are high-burnout jobs, so some of the departees, I suspect, didn't have to be pushed.


West Virginia: So, inferring from your response to Sims, NC, about the 'cult of the winners', you've verified that objectivity is basically dead in the "free" press. I'm not taking either the Dem or the GOP side here, I'm just saying, if what we read is determined by who wins, what a sad statement for the Fourth Estate.

Howard Kurtz: It's not a question of objectivity. Political reporters tend to be like sportswriters, giving better reviews to a winning manager on a winning team. That's a problem, in my view, but it doesn't mean they've abandoned objectivity. It's human nature that journalists and campaign operatives alike are going to conduct autopsies of what went wrong with a losing campaign. Some of these pieces have said that Kerry ran a pretty good campaign, excelled in the debates, exceeded expectations in turning out the vote and just got beat by a GOP campaign that boosted its turnout even more.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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