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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2005; 12:00 PM

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

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

Howard Kurtz (washingtonpost.com)

The transcript follows.

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


Falls Church, Va.: I might quibble with your choice of words, are the Dems "milking" the payola issue or "mining" it. I grew up a "country boy" in Western Pennsylvania where we knew how to both squeeze a tit and wield a pick. Those on the take are really the "milkers" and the Dems are mining for political gold. I say got for it! Bush and Company provide a target rich environment for pundits and pols alike and a future election will provide no cover so lets get it on! All we have to lose is our freedom.

Howard Kurtz: Having never worked on a farm, I'm reluctant to tangle with you on the nature of milking. But it seems to this city guy you can "milk" an issue even if the mother's milk of cash isn't being squirted your way.


Arlington, Va.: Howie --
What happened to Tim Russert yesterday? It was almost 3/4 of the way through the interview before he challenged anything Kerry said. It was the Washington equivalent of batting practice -- slow and right down the middle. Where was the Russert brush back? I would have settled for a curve ball. Very disappointing.

Howard Kurtz: Obviously there's a different tone when you're interviewing a defeated presidential candidate. But Russert strongly challenged Kerry on his defense posture, the $87-billion blunder, why he lost the election, and whether (as some of the Swifties charged) he had actually been in Cambodia one Christmas. Plus, Russert played an anti-Kerry ad from the campaign. Plus, Russert asked Kerry about a poll in which 59 percent (I believe) of Massachusetts voters said they didn't want him to run for president again. So it wasn't quite a softball interview.


Boston, Mass.: The media seem to have completed missed the story of Iraqi progress and the people's desire to risk their lives to vote. Why did we get nothing but bombs and body counts until their election?

Howard Kurtz: I've read lots of stories (before Sunday) about Iraqis who want to vote, but I'd agree that the dominant media impression has been of a country riven by violence. That's in part because (as I reported last week) it's very difficult for correspondents to interview ordinary Iraqis or travel beyond Baghdad in light of the security situation (journalists have been killed, kidnapped and shot at with chilling regularity). It's also because bombs and attacks that kill American soldiers, as well as Iraqis, tend to get big play (there's usually video of the attack or the aftermath) and is regarded by the media as more dramatic than the opening of new schools or an increase in electricity. Those are among the reasons that yesterday's voting may have come as something of a surprise.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Does it seem to you that, compared to the Republicans, the Democrats just don't seem to produce great public personalities these days? Even the right wing blogs are more uniformly interesting than their opposition in my opinion.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Howard Dean is a pretty colorful fellow, and Barack Obama seems to have an interesting story. The main thing that's happening is that the Democrats have no power these days, in the White House or on the Hill, and so they get far less media attention. You don't have the profiles that might be lavished on a powerful committee chairman or White House aide or strategist with the president's ear. And the Dems have picked a somewhat low-key Senate leader in Harry Reid. If the Democrats gain control of some part of the government, you'd probably see more memorable characters that you just don't hear about now.


West End, New York, N.Y.: Maggie Gallagher says she is an "expert" who just happens to write opinion pieces. It is possible to be "expert" -- who is allowed to be paid by the government -- and a "journalist" -- who isn't supposed to be working for the government -- at the same time? Are there other examples of experts/journalists?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, there are plenty of examples. And a lot of people who have expertise in a field and also write syndicated columns or articles or appear as pundits on television don't consider themselves "journalists," but they are certainly commentators. The issue is not whether they're "allowed" to get government contracts, but whether those contracts influence their writing and commentary on the subject involved and whether they disclose the government payments to their readers and viewers.


Wheaton, Md.: There was certainly coverage of Bush's inaugural speech, and subsequent backpedaling of the agressive message on its worldwide revolution, I mean spreading of democracy worldwide, message, but virtually no analysis of what message was actually being sent, and how it compares with that of previous U.S. Presidents (e.g., McKinley, Kennedy, Johnson). This is not the first time the U.S. had seen itself as spreading democracy worldwide, sometimes militarily, and occasionally by stressing human rights diplomatically (though when Carter tried this approach, I remember him being portrayed as weak).

Howard Kurtz: Virtually no analysis? I must be living in a parallel universe. There was a solid week of analysis of what he said, what he meant, whether foreign policy would change, how the speech was like JFK's, etc., right on through Bush's news conference, which was cast by many media outlets as a further attempt to clarify just what the president said and what he meant on Jan. 20.


Island Lake, Ill.: Should Congress make it illegal for government to pay reporters to produce stories that support a specific government proposal?

Howard Kurtz: That would be a violation of the First Amendment. And in fairness, no one in the cases that have come to light--Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher--was paid to produce favorable stories or commentary. Williams was paid for Education Department advertising on his syndicated TV show and to promote Rod Paige to other programs, and Gallagher was paid for her work at HHS on Bush's marriage initiative. Both have apologized for not disclosing their government contracts, thereby raising questions about the independence of their commentary, but they were not paid to take a certain position. In fact, both were strong Bush supporters before the contracts came along.


Maggie Gallagher's expertise: Hey, I'm a "marriage expert" too--just ask my five ex-wives.

Howard Kurtz: Ba-da-boom.


Washington, D.C.: Was visiting the in-laws in Raleigh this weekend and noted that Ribin Givhan's story on VP Cheney's attire at Auschwitz got a mention in the A Section of the News & Observer. It was also discussed vigorously in Dan Froomkin's chat last week. Did anyone else pick up Parkagate?

washingtonpost.com: Dick Cheney, Dressing Down (Post, Jan. 28)

Howard Kurtz: It was all over cable the day the article appeared. The whole thing was a bit overplayed, in my view. The guy is a heart patient and it was freezing cold there. Seems to me there are better things to criticize Cheney about.


Teresa in '08!: It wasn't too hard to tell that Newsweek wanted Kerry to win... so is this Teresa-bashing (in your view) a way to blame someone other than the candidate for Kerry's loss? I voted Bush, but of the candidates and their spouses, Teresa is the one I would most like to meet over dinner.

Howard Kurtz: Without accepting your premise, Newsweek did what news organizations always do--go out and interview everyone connected with the campaign and see who blames who for the outcome. And there was obviously a lot of finger-pointing at the candidate's wife. It wasn't like some editor put out a get-Teresa memo.


Kansas City, Mo.: A question and a comment on Meet the Press;
1. Why would Tim Russert scheduled John Kerry on the Iraqi election day or why would John Kerry go on that day? Seems like the election would overshadow the program.
2. I thought the questions were pretty good -- they seemed to be the ones people wanted asked (the military form 180 or whatever), Cambodia, and so forth. It did seem with Kerry and Howard Dean that Russert wasn't as confrontational now that neither were a candidate.

Howard Kurtz: The last part may be true, but I thought Tim asked a lot of hard questions. As for why Jan. 30, I thought the timing was odd, but obviously "Meet the Press" wanted the bragging rights of landing Kerry's first post-election interview, and maybe that's the first time Kerry could do it. Had it been up to me, I would have delayed it a week. On the other hand, Kerry's comments about the Iraqi voting made news.


Fairfax, Va.: Howard,
I guess there are folks out there that think an interview is "softball" if the interviewer doesn't stand up with a baseball bat and beat the interviewee senseless.
My own take was that a lot of it was your basic assault on a dead equine. The election is over. The man lost, for crying out loud. And -- although I was one of the crushed and dispirited, maybe it's a good thing. Let Mr. Bush try to clean up his own mess, if he can. Since he seems to be getting us into stuff that our grandchildren will end up dealing with, maybe responsibility will go where it belongs?

Howard Kurtz: Well, but John Kerry is still a United States senator, and has been very critical of the administration lately, and hasn't ruled out running again in '08. So it's not like interviewing, say, Walter Mondale or Bob Dole, who ran for president but are out of elective politics.


Arlington, Va.: Howard,
Condi Rice was called a liar by several Senators last week,and my question is:
Why does the Senate dictionary contain a word that The Washington Post refuses to use?
I am very curious about this strange disconnect!
Thanks from Arlington

Howard Kurtz: At the risk of sounding disconnected, The Post certainly reported that some senators accused Rice of lying. If you're asking why The Washington Post doesn't accuse the new secretary of state of having lied about Iraq, the answer is that the editorial page (news reporters don't call people liars, though they do point out when their rhetoric is at odds with the truth) doesn't see it that way. Without taking sides here, if a public official says that based on available intelligence, she (or he) believes Iraq has WMDs, and it turns out Iraq has no WMDs, is that a lie? Or was the official misled, or too optimistic, or did the official exaggerate for political purposes?


Lifelong Democrat: With regard to Kerry on Meet the Press, I thought Russert did his usual great job in the interview. Time and time again, Russert asked questions that begged Kerry to further distinguish himself from Bush and also to distinguish the Democrats from the Republicans. Time and time again, Kerry failed to draw any meaningful differences. His response to the abortion question at the Democrats' gathering was what was wrong with his campaign in a microcosm. Kerry seems to want to change the core beliefs in order to get a candidate elected rather than have a candidate who can articulate a vision of America that a plurality can embrace. No wonder the voters in Massachusetts don't want him to run for president again.

Howard Kurtz: Boy, Russert must have a lot of viewers! There are more questions today on his sitdown with Kerry than on the Iraqi elections.


McLean, Va.: So, Howie, will the advent of caffeinated beer enhance the newsroom experience for the hard boiled hard bitten hard drinking reporters in the nation's newsrooms?

Howard Kurtz: I'm naturally high on the news, so I don't need artificial stimulants.


Annandale, Va: Howard,

Here is a USA Today article for the folks who think "The Media" is not publishing enough information and analysis of news: 36 percent of high school students think newspapers should get government approval of stories before being allowed to publish them.

It will bring new meaning to the phrase "I'm George W. Bush and I approved this message."

U.S. students say press freedoms go too far (USA Today, Jan. 30)

Howard Kurtz: That is an extremely depressing statistics. I wonder what other part of the Bill of Rights they don't agree with.


Frederick, Md.: It's always been my understanding that the 50's era reforms that prevent, for example, VOA broadcasting in this country also prohibit federal agencies from engaging in propaganda or public relations. Of course, this is often honored in the breech (for instance, naming press offices "public information" offices), but don't you think the Williams and Gallagher cases cross the line?

Howard Kurtz: Well, they've both apologized, so even they say they crossed the line. President Bush also says there should be an "independent" relationship between the administration and the press. But as for the legalities, the Democrats contend that so-called covert propaganda is against government rules, but they are pushing legislation to bar the practice.


Chicago, Ill.: A couple weeks back you railed against lazy journalists who use terms like "Social Security reform," in essence taking government claims without challenging them. I noticed last week at least in Newsweek they were putting reform in quotation marks. Said quotation marks even appeared in conservative George Will's column -- "Social Security 'transformation'" (though I am a liberal, I have enjoyed Will's columns for years).

Might this be a movement within journalism to take up the good fight?

Howard Kurtz: Transformation isn't a word I would use, but at least it's a little more value-neutral than reform, which is a good-government kind of word. After all, you can transform something in a very bad way.


Bethesda, Md.: What are your thoughts on the press chaperones at the innagural parties? Seems a little Old Soviet to me.

Howard Kurtz: Overkill and downright dumb. What on earth were they afraid of? That one of the guests, in a crowd of pro-Bush partisans, might say something to a reporter that was insufficiently worshipful of the president? It was a PARTY, for cryin' out loud.


Alexandria, Va.: I think ink-stained fingers are going to be one of those images that resonate like the fall of the wall. This is the power of democracy -- ordinary Iraqis changing their country with their fingers, not with guns or bombs. This is Bush's legacy.

Funny how stains will figure prominently in the legacies of two Presidents in a row.

Howard Kurtz: The one-liners are coming hot and heavy today.


Washington, D.C.: How about Social Security restructuring?

Howard Kurtz: That seems eminently fair. You are now an honorary journalist.


Alexandria, Va.: Howard Kurtz: "...I must be living in a parallel universe."
Yes indeed, Howard, your Universe seems to not contain the words "lie" or "liar" in it, so how do you describe a statement that is known to be false by the person making the statement? Sure sounds like a lie to me, but I'm not a member of the 4th Estate. Can you explain this to us ordinary folk?
Just plain dumb in Alexandria

Howard Kurtz: Here's a sentence that I as a news reporter would write: President Bush has accused John Kerry of pushing a "big-government" health care plan, but in fact Kerry's plan does not increase the government's role and relies on the current system of private insurance.
Here's a sentence that I as a news reporter would not write: President Bush is a liar.
You seem to want journalists to be crusaders, preferably for your point of view. There are lots of columnists and commentators and editorial writers who are free to throw the L-word around. I believe reporters should make clear when public figures make statements that are wrong or at odds with reality or their own record, and readers can make up their own minds.


Washington, D.C.: Howard -- What aids or guides, if any, are provided to on-air TV and radio journalists for properly pronouncing the names of foreign places and people? I ask because of the recent butchering by numerous U.S. broadcasters of the name of the late Chinese leader and dissident Zhao Ziyang, including even by Scott Simon on NPR Saturday. Chinese is an ancient culture and rising 21st century power and more people speak Mandarin around the world than any other language. It's so amateurish and arrogant when journalists don't bother to learn the proper pronounciations before they get on the air.

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair point. I always try to check when I have to pronounce a foreign name (or even an unfamiliar western one) on the air. But of course sometimes there can be more than one pronunciation, as in Uh-RACK and Uh-ROCK.


Annapolis, Md.: Hi-

In your opinion, how many government agencies are paying journalists?

We already know that the Department of Education paid one journalist (Armstrong Williams at $240,000).

And the Department of Health and Human Services paid two journalists (Maggie Gallagher and Mike McManus each got $10,000).

How many agencies are paying journalists?

And can we blame the soaring national goverment debt on the fact that the Bush administation needs to dole out money to so many greedy journalists?

Howard Kurtz: It's not easy to find out. The recipients of such contracts are not lining up to tell me about them (though the Democrats have demanded that the administration make public all such payments to journalists and commentators). We do know that the administration spent $88 million on outside public relations last year. That's a lot of money, and a 128 percent jump over the last year of the Clinton administration, but not quite enough to impact the deficit.


Anonymous: The one complaint I had on Tim Russert was the Massachusetts poll. I saw it was taken about two weeks after the election and thought that was way too soon to be asking that question. How long of a shelf life will that poll have?

Howard Kurtz: A poll about whether someone should run four years from now is fairly silly no matter what month it came out. How seriously would Vermont voters have taken the prospect of a Howard Dean presidential candidacy four years ago?


Students and press freedom...: Wow! Not just depressing, but truly scary!

Also makes me wonder what these kids are learning in school. I mean, I'm sure they are learning about the Bill of Rights and all the rest, but I wonder why the deeper meaning of these freedoms aren't hitting home with them.

Howard Kurtz: Some of these students must have an uncommon degree of confidence in the government, or an amazingly low opinion of the press, to say that authorities should be able to approve stories in advance. Bad idea when the Constitution was written in 1787, and bad idea in 2005.


Washington, D.C.: While I don't think it rises to the level of impeachment or anything, I thought Parka-gate was underplayed. And I'd still like to hear an explanation.

We KNOW the man has a heart problem, but for goodness sake, nowadays they actually DO make warm coats that aren't olive drab and trimmed with fake fur and hats that aren't synthetic and don't have writing on them. Yeesh.

Howard Kurtz: A story that is stripped across the top of the Style section, with a color photo, is not in my view underplayed. Perhaps you'd like congressional hearings?


Washington, D.C.: Why do you choose not to report, and comment on, the fact that Armstrong Williams has
publicly stated his refusal to return the money he was payed illegally by the U.S. Department of Education?

Howard Kurtz: Why would it be surprising that he doesn't want to give the money back? Plus, there is no evidence that the payments were illegal (most of the money went to buy ads on Armstrong's show). They may have been a spectacularly bad idea, and he showed spectacularly bad judgment in not disclosing the contract, but that doesn't make it against the law.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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