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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 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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Los Angeles, Calif,.: You wrote, "It's time for the masses to rebel, to file complaints, blah blah..." But you are in a unique position to actually do something about it. You could have named the offending companies! Tsk, tsk.

washingtonpost.com: Customer Runaround Demands a Revolt (Post, July 10)

Howard Kurtz: Actually, that was quite deliberate. If I start naming the companies that have been giving me the bureaucratic runaround, I need to call them for comment, which in turn makes it look like I'm asking for special help with my personal disputes. I thought it was more important to get the issue out there, since everyone, based on my e-mail, knows what I'm talking about.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: On Reliable Sources yesterday you asked your guests what they thought the selection of John Edwards means to Hillary Clinton's future. Why do people automatically assume the Hillary Clinton has national ambitions? She has said nothing to indicate that she's eyeing the presidency anytime in the future. Is it possible that the media has heard commentators say that Mrs. Clinton is a power-hungry woman for so long that they have subconciously started to believe it?

Howard Kurtz: That was EXACTLY my point. I didn't ask what the Edwards pick meant for Hillary -- I asked why journalists keep obsessing on the question. I'm one of maybe a handful of reporters who think there's at least a possibility that she may not run for president. All the speculative stories and punditry fail to even consider that as an option. It's just part of the general media fixation with the Clintons.

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Clifton, Va.: If I was incharge of TV spots for the Republicans I could make a lot hay with Kerry's and Edward's comments on how they have the best hair. take Kerry's statements about how bad Bush is doing running the country and then end with his statements that we are the cnadidates with the best hair. Some of Regan's old operatives would have a great time with the comment.

Howard Kurtz: Maybe they'll take your advice. But it seems to me there has to be a little room in politics for an occasional joke.

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Fairbanks, Alaska: OK, The "Kerry Edwards Summer of Love" is underway. What do they do between the All Star break and the Demo convention? Just more of the same? Shmooze for the camera?

Any different kind of appearances in the works? Anything like the Dean-Nader dustup coming?

The Dean-Nader debate was good because it was a freestyle event, none if little scripting. Only problem was most had to catch it after the fact since C-SPAN doesn't publish their schedules forward-looking and that NPR program that featured it is not one of their most sought after. I streamed it from the NPR website.

So that's it. Anything new and different coming from the Bouffant Brothers?

Say Brie...

Howard Kurtz: They'll be keeping busy over the next two weeks. At this point they split up and campaign separately, but I'm sure there are more media interviews in the works. The Sunday shows will all be trying to get Edwards, along with every cable program on the planet. And since Edwards is a novelty at the moment, he'll have his own planeload of reporters following him around.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, both parties seem to have canned responses ready for any occasion and quite a few use buzz words such as liberal and conservative. I doubt that these things influence anyone since the people who are susceptible to these cues have already made up their minds. And it seems to me that the press accepts these responses as being useful for framing the debate.

Howard Kurtz: I think what we do is analyze the words and phrases that both sides use -- the latest have been optimism and values -- and try to report on what the candidates and their campaigns are trying to accomplish. But we also have a responsibility to report what each side is saying, even if those messages are carefully scripted, poll-tested and focus-grouped.

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Woodhaven, Queens, N.Y.: Howard,

Any word yet on your invitation to Michael Moore to appear on "Reliable Sources?"

Howard Kurtz: It's only been a day, but no word yet from his camp. I'm sure he's a busy man.

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Cleveland, Ohio: How much of left-leaning media bias (and I accept there is some, though not nearly as much as press critics allege) is a result of economics?

Most reporters starting out in the business need to be willing to work for $20,000, give or take a few thousand either way. It's a generalization, but I suspect that many people with a conservative viewpoint never get into the news business because they can make a lot more money in other industries.

Howard Kurtz: There may be something to that. My first newspaper job paid $10,000 a year (granted, this was a long time ago). I often tell people that going into journalism is not the best way to make a lot of money, that your motivation has to be something more than financial. Some younger journalists, whatever their political views, are less inclined these days to labor in smaller markets for a few years and work their way up the ladder.

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Rochester, N.Y.: I hope you are ashamed by the Post's treatment of the Wilson/Plame/Yellowcake story. After how many front page stories about Wilson, Plame, and the famous 16 words, the refutation appears on page 9 on a Saturday. If the story deserves a page 1 article "White House Faulted on Uranium Claim" how about a page 1 follow-up, "Wilson Faulted on Uranium Investigation".

washingtonpost.com: Plame's Input Is Cited on Niger Mission (Post, July 10)

Howard Kurtz: I would have given it bigger play. The Saturday placement, though, reflects the fact that the story broke on a Friday. Still, whatever questions it raises about Joe Wilson's credibility - an important subject, given his very public role in criticizing the administration, writing a book, etc. - it doesn't change the fact that two senior administration officials outed a CIA operative (his wife) to Robert Novak.

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Atlanta, Ga.: To what extent are reporters limited to reporting "facts" versus "truths". For example, a reporter can say "Senator X today said that the sky is green". That sentence can be literally true, and if the assertions are not questioned by the reporter a viewer is left with the opinion that the sky is actually green. I ask only because it's incredibly rare to see a report that actually challenges the statements made by Important People. Are reporters today afraid to question the answers they receive?

Howard Kurtz: No one has a monopoly on the "truth," and certainly not journalists. What we try to do is report facts, and then point out if the statements that public figures or others make are at odds with factal reality, as best as we can determine it. That's what's been going on over the last year with Bush and Cheney and their rationales for the Iraq war. So the story you have in mind should read something like this: Despite the nearly unanimous opinion of scientific experts to the contrary, Senator X insisted yesterday that the sky is green.

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Davis, Calif.: I'm always a little leery of bad news being released on a Friday. That's always a code to me that someone is trying to sweep the stroy under the rug as quickly as possible.

The report on the CIA's conduct seems incredibly, almost unthinkably bad. Is this story going to survive a couple of news cycles. And in the end, where will the buck stop?

Howard Kurtz: I think the story is going to resonate for a long time to come, Friday release or not. It's hard to think of a more important topic. And with a new head of the CIA coming, under either Bush or Kerry, the post-Tenet agency will have its work cut out in trying to both restore its credibility and do a better job on gatheirng intelligence.

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Arlington, Va.: I hate to admit it, but I once spent over 3 hours on hold. 12 hours total to contact my former credit card company about a dispute. I started the call, I had never been on hold longer than 5 minutes prior to that, time passed I realized that it had been a half hour at which point it was no longer about getting my question answered but about just talking to someone. They are now of course an ex credit card company, but they did handle the dispute once I finally got through.

On the political spin game, is part of the July/August Osama capture speculation an attempt to create expectations? So that if Osama isn't caught by the end of the month, the administration has failed and if he is captured closer to the election, the reaction is more of an "about time" rather than "way to go."

Howard Kurtz: Three hours! You are a trooper. And far more patient than I am.
The Osama speculation intensified after a New Republic piece last week quoting sources as saying that the Bush administration was pressing Pakistani officials to step up efforts to capture bin Laden, preferably by the Democratic convention.

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Laurel, Md.: I think the main reason for alledge liberal bias is that reporters spend most of their time talking to persons with complaints about society.

People who go to work every day, come home to raise their families and are happy with what America has provided for them don't make very interesting news.

Howard Kurtz: Well, but we also spend considerable time every day talking to government officials and others whose job it is to defend how society is handling things.
I happen to agree with your second point. Ordinary, hard-working citizens are not in the news very much, since journalism tends to focus on the unusual, the sensational and the tragic. And that sometimes presents a distorted picture.

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Boring, Md.: I understand that the Democratic fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall had a lot of over the top commentary in it by the musicians and comedians (Whoopie Goldberg) who were performing on stage, any chance of "Reliable Sources" getting to show some of that footage?
I would be interested in seeing it. Kerry came out later saying he didn't agree with what was being said on stage, but he was shown playing guitar in a short clip I did see on the news.

Howard Kurtz: I don't have access to the footage, and the Kerry campaign has insisted that it will not release a videotape. There were plenty of reporters there, however, so it looks like we'll have to rely on their accounts, without pictures.

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Hartford, Conn.: Why have this year's congressional races been downplayed in the media? In 2000, even with a very tight presidential race, news outlets were constantly monitoring the balance of power in the House and Senate and focusing on a few important races at the state and district level. This year, with the exception of the Jack Ryan scandal, there's been a blackout. Do you agree and if so to what do you attribute the lack of coverage?

Howard Kurtz: Basically, the Hill races have been totally overshadowed by the presidential. (The Post does have a piece today on the N.C. Senate race.) Also, until recently, the journalistic consensus (and we know how infallible that is) was that there was no serious threat to Republican control of both houses. That has changed a bit, with the Dems now given an outside shot of retaking the Senate. In any event, congressional races have never tended to get much national attention until the fall, so I imagine we'll see at least a few stories in September and October.

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Houston, Tex.: Howard, I must say I found it a little strange that many in the conservative leaning media who were so quick to defend VP Cheney after he made a profane comment to Senator Leahy, have suddenly become outraged that celebrities made profane comments about President Bush at a Kerry fundraiser. Isn't that just hypocrisy or is the situation somehow different?

Howard Kurtz: It does seem that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. I often think that politicians would have the opposite reaction if the situation was reversed. That is, if Vice President Gore had tossed the F-bomb at a Republican senator, GOPers would have been outraged and Dems would have said it's no big deal.

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Washington, D.C.: Is Theresa a real liability for Kerry? I found her odd and distracting on yesterday's 60 minutes interview. And the whole "holding hands" bit of uncomfortableness was just plain weird.

Howard Kurtz: I can't quarrel with your last observation. Look, many people find Teresa refreshing, a woman with opinions who speaks her mind and doesn't hide behind safe political bromides. Others find her candor and outspokenness somewhat off-putting. I'm not sure in the end it will affect the presidential race much, but it certainly provides plenty of fodder for the press.

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Washington, D.C.: If you won't name the companies who provided you with shoddy service how can others of us -- who are eager to identify especially bad companies -- persuade the Post to print stories about our experiences? Saying "customers shouldn't take this" will not accomplish anything; perhaps being publicly shamedin a national newspaper will be effective.

Howard Kurtz: News stories should deal with that. It's not my role to lead a crusade against certain corporations (besides, these are big, well-known companies and most people have either dealt with them or can guess who they are). I was trying to reflect the utter frustration of spending half your life on hold and getting bounced around because I figured that almost everyone could relate to that experience. I certainly think newspapers might publish a monthly box of the number of complaints against major companies in each industry, just as they sometimes list which airlines had the most late flights.

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McLean, Va.: Howard, Great article about the press' effect on the election. Which candidate do you think the last-minute-zinger story will be about this year?

Howard Kurtz: Do I look like Karnac the Magnificent? We'll have to wait and see. It's possible that we'll know so much about both candidates by the end of October that there will be no possible zingers left.

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Boring, Md.: Your article on "Outfoxed" was great!
I have had so many debates about whether Michael Moore's films are documentaries or not, and your "fisking" (fact checking) of "Outfoxed" points to the editorial liberites many film makers take, so my question is: are there jouralistic codes for making documentaries or not? I think Political Polemics are opinion pieces, but not necessarily documentaries. I give documentaries a gravitas due to the idea I have that they be truthful and factual and not manipulative, like other films. Set me straight. Are Michael Moore's films documentaries or not?

Howard Kurtz: There are no "rules" for making documentaries (who would enforce them?) and I suppose the definition of the word is in the eye of the beholder. There's also nothing wrong with making movies with a strong point of view, akin to an op-ed piece. But playing fast and loose with the facts, in my view at least, undermines the credibility of the argument.

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Convention news: If the media is so liberal, why isn't more being made of the GOP's convention plans to keep hard conservatives off the television?

Howard Kurtz: The Republican convention doesn't start until Aug. 30. You'll be hearing plenty more about the lineup and stage-managing. I don't think it's fair to say that all conservatives will be kept off the stage -- after all, Bush and Cheney will be giving speeches -- because we don't have the final lineup. But the starring roles of Rudy, Arnold and McCain certainly suggests that the planners are trying to put a moderate face on the party.

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Orange, Va.: That was quite a spirited defense you wrote on FoxNews' behalf in yesterday's paper in wake of the release of "OutFoxed". Were you being disingenuous or do you really think that a network claiming to be "fair and balanced" and a documentary filmmaker who by the nature of the profession brings a point of view to his or work should be subject to the same standard of review?

Howard Kurtz: This is not that complicated. Of course a television network should be held to a high standard of credibility. So should a filmmaker making a movie about fairness and balance. "Outfoxed" absolutely scores some points against Fox News, but also engages in some misleading editing, as I described in yesterday's piece.

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Gambrills, Md.: Last week, on the same day Ken Lay was indicted, Tom Ridge gave a briefing warning of terrorist threats this summer (without mentioning specifics, and without raising the threat level). Is it possible that the briefing was conducted with the hope of altering the headlines and with the hope of diverting attention away from Enron? Considering this Administration's links to Enron, and without any specific information on threats and without raising the threat level, it appears that the briefing and Ridge's general warnings were politically motivated and not based on an actual and imminent danger.

Howard Kurtz: I doubt it. Lay's indictment was going to get big play in the media -- it was on most front pages -- regardless of what Tom Ridge said or did.

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Memphis, Tenn.: I read with interest your statement that your first job paid only $10,000. A recent Merrill-Lynch/CapGemini report states that about 1 in 125 Americans have a net worth of $1million or more . My guess is that almost all the TV talking head journalists are part of the 1 and not the other 124. Do you think that this fact colors the coverage of political races in that few are in touch with the real life challenges of most Americans?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, but you're making the mistake of seeing TV talking heads as representative of the profession. They're actually a small minority of a business that includes thousands and thousands of print reporters, copy editors, photographers, assistant producers, bookers, fact-checkers and others, many of whom work in smaller markets and don't make big bucks. It's certainly true that the top reporters for major national news organizations make more than the average American, and I think this does create a gap that is sometimes reflected in what they say and write, especially on certain issues.

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Rules for documentaries [fixed quotation]: According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

"An eligible documentary film is defined as a theatrically released non-fiction motion picture dealing creatively with cultural, artistic, historical, social, scientific, economic or other subjects. It may be photographed in actual occurrence, or may employ partial re-enactment, stock footage, stills, animation, stop-motion or other techniques, as long as the emphasis is on fact and not on fiction."

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the free research.

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Boston, Mass.: There is a lot of squabbling over the appointment of new CIA director as many news organizations are running conflicting stories, some only mention Porter Gross and Lehman as the only two main candidates, but others are saying neither of those two have a prayer of being confirmed and that Richard Armitage is the only person that has bipartisan support in the Senate. What is the real story?

Howard Kurtz: The real story is that we don't know what's going to happen and are probably relying on different sources, which is why there are conflicting versions. With less than four months to go before the election and no Senate confirmation likely, I'm not sure it matters all that much except at the symbolic level.

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San Antonio, Tex.: I don't understand the headlines in some of today's dailies that the Senate is eager for Bush to select a new head for the CIA fairly rapidly. I watched the Sunday talk shows and Sens. Diane Feinstein and Jay Rockefeller said just the opposite--that the selection should proceed slowly and with great deliberation. Analyze this please, Howard?

Howard Kurtz: The stories are based mainly on the Sunday-show comments of Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller, the ranking members of the Senate Intelligence committee.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kurtz,

Was curious if you saw Daniel Okrent's piece yesterday regarding the author of "Father Joe" and allegations made by his daughter of sexual abuse. Mr. Okrent raised the issue of the public's need to know versus the public's right to know. Is there really a difference between the two?

Many thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Sure. The public has a right to know just about anything that touches on public figures. Does that mean we should print every scrap we get our hands on -- divorce records, for instance? (I'm not so sure the Chicago Tribune should have gone to court to get Jack Ryan's divorce records, even if it did contain titillating stuff about sex clubs. I'd have a different view, though, if there had been any abuse allegations.) And like Okrent, I'm somewhat conflicted about whether the allegations of the author's daughter should have been published, since they can't be proven or disproven and the author is hardly a household name.

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Colonial Heights, Va.: I just read " it doesn't change the fact that two senior administration officials outed a CIA operative (his wife) to Robert Novak.". I do NOT recall previously seeing that "TWO" administration officials were responsible for outing Plame. Why shouldn't that Justice Departmant be interviewing YOU? The same thing happened MONTHS ago when the story first broke. Chris Matthews as an aside during a discussion stated that someone(s) "in the White House" outed Plame. At the time there was speculation as to the location of the sources of the outing. Any comments?

Howard Kurtz: It was Bob Novak's original 2003 column that attributed the information about Plame to "two senior administration officials." That's been mentioned in a zillion news stories.

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Potomac, Md.: were you shocked to find that the news director at Fox actually gave the on-air staff talking points on how to spin the news? Is that common with the big three networks?

Also, can you comment on the following phenomenon I notice -- a "debate" on a topic is introduced where one side is supported by an representative of the Republican party (such as a re-elect Bush official) and the other side is represented by a member of the media (an MSMBC analysit). That seems hardly fair and balanced for any network -- particulary since it is not the job of the analyist to take a particularly partisan position.

Howard Kurtz: I think party operatives ought to be paired against each other, not journalists, in debates. As for Outfoxed, Fox executive John Moody denies that he was telling people to "spin the news," but some of his memos, which I published yesterday, can certainly be read as encouraging a certain line.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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