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Monday, Jan. 5, Noon

Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 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.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Will Cheney be stepping aside as VP for 2004? Given his poor health, and a number of potential indictments, SHOULD he step aside?

The Plamegate scandal, French investigation of Haliburton in Nigeria, and illegal Iraq contracting all have to be covered in the press leading up to the election, right?

Howard Kurtz: I've seen no indication whatsoever that Dick Cheney won't be on the 2004 ticket, barring some new health problem. Bush is extremely loyal to the guy and there's been none of that what-if speculating from people in or close to the administration. Besides, since Cheney led the vice-presidential search last time, he'd probably end up as the nominee again if he tried to look for someone else.

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El Paso, Tex.: Why do newspapers have editorial pages? Does anybody really read editorials?

I understand op-ed columns and letters to the editor. But, has research or polling been done to see how many people really read or care about the paper's -- any paper's -- opinions?

I grew up into young adulthood with The Washington Post, and still read it online now that I live outside the D.C. area. I do not mean to be negative about The Post. I am concerned that editorial pages may influence or discredit news content, particuarly in papers that do not maintain a sacred separation of editorial and news divisions.

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't say that editorials are as well read as, say, the sports pages, but they serve an important role. They are read, for instance, by people who really care about politics and policy, and their arguments seep into the public debate. Maybe it's a coincidence that when a Washington Post editorial late last year chided Bush for not holding more news conferences, the president held one the next day. But people notice these things.

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Essex, Md.: A Quinnipiac poll last month showed that only 5 percent of Democrats say they "hate" President Bush. Yet, reporters still write that liberal Democrats (and particularly Dean supporters) are consumed with a personal hatred of Bush at least as fierce as that which conservatives displayed toward Bill Clinton. (By the way, the same poll showed that 10 percent of Republicans "hate" Hillary Clinton. No figures, alas, for Bill Clinton, Tom Daschle, Howard Dean, etc.) Do you think there's any chance that the punditocracy will adjust their analysis of the electorate in accordance with these poll numbers? Or has it become a principle of journalism to never let facts get in the way of a good story?

Howard Kurtz: I've followed this topic pretty closely, and I don't know anyone who says that all "liberal Democrats" hate Bush. Those who use the H word are clearly a minority, though a loud minority. But it may be fair to say that Democrats who strongly dislike Bush or his policies are a disproportionate force among primary voters, because they're the most passionate in their beliefs, which most of the candidates are catering to in some degree.

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Baltimore, Md.: Here is the lead to today's AP story by one Calvin Woodward about yesterday's Iowa Democratic Presidential debate:

"For a brief time in their debate Sunday, Democrats seemed to be hewing to a New Year's resolution to stick more carefully to the facts on taxes, the budget and more. But old habits die hard."

The story goes on to state:

"Dean repeated his frequent claim that middle-income Americans have not seen their taxes go down under Bush: "There was no middle-class tax cut," he declared.

"In fact, their taxes did go down. But Dean went on to explain what he really meant -- that most people are worse off because college tuition, health care premiums, property taxes and other state and local taxes or fees have gone up by more than Americans have saved under the Bush tax cuts.

"But the head scratching did not end there."

Would you by any chance be able to point out a news account published in an American newspaper within the last five years, or even 25 years, that was as biased against Republicans as this one was against Democrats? If not, then could we please retire once and for all the myth of liberal media bias?

washingtonpost.com: Democrats Drift on Taxes, Trade in Debate (AP, Jan. 5)

Howard Kurtz: I don't see that as biased at all. It's old-fashioned truth squadding - what Dean said, what the facts are, what Dean's explanation is. The press does this all the time, during Republican debates as well, not to mention Republican presidents. Think of all the reporting, to take one example, on Bush's 16 words on uranium in the State of the Union and how the White House was ultimately forced to acknowledge that including that sentence was a mistake.

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Towson, Md.: Last week The Washington Buzz column ran an interesting article about the pressure that the administration applied on your colleague Thomas Ricks to tailor his reporting to be more in line with the official version of events. The story reports that Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita even paid a visit to the Post's newsroom to make the Administration's concerns known. Two questions: 1. How could you let someone from another publication scoop this story right out from under your nose? 2. Can you recall any other instances during your tenure with The Post when an administration went to these lengths to attempt to influence the paper's reporting?

Howard Kurtz: It's a nice gossip item, but I don't see it as any great scoop. Do you know how often administration officials, members of Congress, corporations etc. complain about reporters' work? It happens all the time. It might have been news if the paper had conceded any problem with Ricks's reporting (the guy is rightly considered one of the premier Pentagon correspondents) or the Defense Department had taken some action against him, like barring him from trips or something. What's telling, according to that item, is that the press office is concerned that Ricks is contacting sources directly without getting official clearance. That's also known as good reporting.

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Amarillo, Tex.: CBS claims that airing the Michael Jackson special didn't constitute a quid pro quo for the "60 Minutes" interview with him. What does that tell us about the network's honesty and integrity? And the network's opinion about its viewers' gullibility?

washingtonpost.com: CBS Denies $1 Million Payday to Michael Jackson for Interview (Post, Jan. 1)

Howard Kurtz: A CBS exec told me that the situation was made clear to Jacko's representatives: No interview, no special. In other words, unless Jackson granted the network an interview, it would continue to deep-six a music special that would bring him millions of dollars and for which Jackson was executive producer. I don't blame "60 Minutes" for this, since there's no evidence its folks were involved with this demand, but this is a classic example of checkbook journalism.

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Arlington, Va.: The increased terror alert level has brought another rash of "reporting" that makes me crazy. Either the press engages in useless idle speculation about what might or could happen (eg what would happen IF big IF a dirty bomb went off in downtown DC) or they pass on stories with little or no explanation (for example, what actually prompted all those cancelled flights.) I know that highly sensitive iformation (such as the intelligence the government actually has about possible terrorist attacks) may not be shared with journalists but sometimes I feel like journalists just make the situation worse. Can you please share what your colleagues are going through and how they decide what to go with?

Howard Kurtz: I agree that the speculation has been way out of control. I don't have much problem with the reporting on canceled flights, an unavoidable story even if government officials aren't revealing much about the reasons. But the avalanche of pre-Christmas and pre-New Year's stories, especially with all those reporters standing at Times Square talking about all the terrible things that could happen, struck me as what I'll call orange journalism. And the effect of such nonstop reports is to spread a sense of fear and anxiety.

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RE: Democrats Drift on Taxes, Trade in Debate: I'd like to ask the person who commented on this article a question. Should we not be relying on the media to point out when a candidate (regardless of party) is being creative with the facts?

Howard Kurtz: My point exactly.

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RE: Baltimore:
"For a brief time in their debate Sunday, Democrats seemed to be hewing to a New Year's resolution to stick more carefully to the facts on taxes, the budget and more. But old habits die hard."

[snip]

Howard Kurtz: I don't see that as biased at all. It's old-fashioned truth squadding -- what Dean said, what the facts are, what Dean's explanation is.

'But old habits die hard.' -- The message here is that Democrats are liars. That's not normal truth-squadding. That's buying into Republican spin about their opponents.

Howard Kurtz: Forgive me for not seeing the spin. Fact: Dean says there was no middle-class tax cut. Fact: Millions of middle-class families did get a tax cut (the "average" figures are in dispute and depend on income, size of family, etc.). Fact: Dean says he means when you factor in tuition and property tax hikes -- which may or may not be blamed on the Bush administration, depending on your point of view -- middle-class families suffered a net loss. What's wrong with helping people understand this?

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Del Ray, Va.: Dubya may not read your paper Howard, but somebody at 1600 Pa. Ave sure does. A few days before Christmas, the Washington Post ran a Metro piece on interessting alternatives to shopping at the mall. Three areas were named, including Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray. Within a few days of the article, Laura Bush was here. My only regret is that Governor Warner's sales tax increase is not yet in effect.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the First Lady does say that she reads the papers, unlike her husband.

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Concord, N.H.: Mr. Kurtz:

I am interested in how the media deal with attempts by politicians or governmenat officials to "bury" stories by releasing information at traditionally slow news times (I've heard this called "putting out the trash" late on a Friday in the hopes that the news cycle will begin and end with the little-read Saturday papers). It appears that Attorney Generalk Ashcroft's decision to recuse himself from the CIA leak investigation falls into this category. However, that story seems to be surviving beyond last week's slow news cycle. That made me wonder whether trying to bury a story in this way can actually back-fire because the media will latch on to it, at least in part as a reaction to the attempt to bury the story in the first place. Do you see this dynamic at all?

Howard Kurtz: Actually, the Ashcroft recusal was announced last Tuesday. Had they really wanted to bury it, they would have announced it Wednesday, since the next day was New Year's Day and many papers don't even publish. But there's a long history of late-in-the-day and Friday-afternoon releases of bad news; the Clinton White House did it as well. And there isn't all that much the media can do about it other than report the stories as thoroughly as they can.

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Mechanicsburg, Pa.: To my dismay, I'm now seeing, repeatedly, the kind of disconnect between the Post editorial and news pages that I'm used to seeing in the WSJ. The latest: an editorial decries Democratic partisanship in criticizing the administration for not taking steps to prevent the Mad Cow mess. Meanwhile, a news article explains that a mix of Democrats and moderate Republicans have been after Bush to tighten controls on 'downer cows' for quite some time, without success, apparently due to industry lobbying.

Do your editorial writers ever actually read the paper? This is an important health issue and it seems the administration is due some criticism.

Howard Kurtz: It just proves the point that the editorial page is totally separate, and often reaches different conclusions, from the news side. I happen to think the press in general really fell down on the mad cow story by giving short shrift earlier to weaknesses in the system and the recent failure of Congress and the administration to exclude disabled cows from the food supply-- until, of course, a single mad cow is discovered and the political pressure becomes too great to ignore.

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Washington, D.C.: Why has that not been more reaction to Alain Hertoghe's book in France criticizing the French media coverage of the War In Iraq? He was fired from his job for writing that the French journalist were blinded by patriotism and were all to eager to call the war a modern day Stalingrad. This book shows that the media can distort the news on both sides of the Atlantic and maybe Europe does not hate Bush as much as some report.
This seems to be censorship at the highest level. Any reactions? Why isn't there a Howard Kurtz in France to fight for justice?

washingtonpost.com: Journalist Lambasts French War Coverage (AP, Dec. 30)

Howard Kurtz: Sacre bleu - I've often asked myself that very question.

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Sandusky, Ohio: Do you think voters and the media give the Democratic candidates a "pass" (and chalk it up to tedious "loyalty") when these candidates all claim that they sincerely believe that the country would be better off if ANY OF THEM were elected in preference to Bush (including Al Sharpton and li'l Dennis, who is the most radical Democrat to run for the Presidency since Henry Wallace, maybe even more radical than Wallace). If Howard Dean (and the others) really believe that, doesn't that create a significant credibility gap?

Howard Kurtz: I think everyone knows it's something that politicians are more or less required to say when they're running for their party's nomination. Otherwise, they would have little moral claim in asking for the support of vanquished rivals if they become the nominee.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Why have we not seen one retaction or apology from any major pundit over the way they hammered Gov. Howard Dean after his comments that arresting Saddam would not reduce the threats of continuing terrorism? Now that we enter the second week of "Code Orange" and we are told it will last at least until the end of January -- it is shameful how the press can't bring themselves to say they were wrong. You demand perfection out of Gov. Dean and jump on any minor mis-speak yet when Bush was caught lying repeatedly about the Thanksgiving trip to Bagdad (British Airways-Plastic Turkey-Fox News reporter calling his office) silence is the order of the day.

Howard Kurtz: I think that's a fair point. The rival Democrats who ganged up on Dean over that statement have also failed to apologize. Of course, just because we're in an orange alert doesn't necessarily mean that the capture of Saddam hasn't made Americans, or at least American troops, somewhat safer. After all, Saddam in the spider hole was playing some role in the continuing attacks inside Iraq. But Dean was obviously trying to make a point about the broader war on terror.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it me, or is Fox making a concerted effort to really appear more "fair and balanced" these days. The rah rah patrotism so prevalent during during the War and even its commentary shows all seemed more toned these days. Have they tapped out ratings wise with the old strategy? Is CNN gaining ground with its new more personality driven strategy (e.g. promoting Zahn, Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, more than specific shows)?

Howard Kurtz: Not necessarily. Maybe it's the fact that a full-blast war is not raging. But Fox has also taken such steps as hiring Chris Wallace as its Sunday morning host and political anchor, bringing into the fold a straight newsman as opposed to someone with a Republican or conservative background.

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Orange, Va.: Do you think the media is tying itself into knots trying to portray the Democratic candidates as left of center. For example, the story you quoted today from the L.A. Times debate coverage cited as examples of such a leftward tilt as some of the candidates' stances on the No Child Left Behind Act and free trade. Demanding that a law you voted for be funded as initially promised sure doesn't seem like a lefty philosophy to me nor have I heard before that favoring protectionist legislation is a left only issue. Surely, many on the right are just as known for advocating trade barriers when politically expedient.

Howard Kurtz: I think it's beyond dispute that most of the Democratic candidates are running more to the left than, say, Bill Clinton on such issues as trade, health care and taxes. After all, the major candidates are all promising to raise taxes (cast as a full or partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts). This may or may not prove to be a winning argument when such repeal is tied to the financing of new programs such as comprehensive health insurance. But it's an evolution from where the party was in '92, '96 and 2000.

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Oakland, Calif.: Re: Tax Cuts.

Dear Howard, You have bought the Republican line. Warren Buffett says that it shouldn't be called a tax cut if we borrow to pay for it. If you go out and charge ten grand to your credit card, do you call that a $10,000 bonus? The Republicans have fooled the media and the majority of Americans into thinking this a tax cut. It is not, it is borrowed money that must be repaid with interest. The media doesn't get it, and I'm sure a fairly-stated poll would prove that the majority of Americans do not understand the connection between borrowing and the so-called "tax cuts." Is Warren Buffett right or wrong?

Howard Kurtz: This strikes me as a semantic argument. If someone has to pay less in taxes than the year before, that person has received a tax cut. Now if the tax cut is financed by borrowing, that may be criticized as unwise policy that takes money from tomorrow's generations and balloons the deficit. But it's still a tax cut.

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Portland, Maine: Howard:

It's pretty common for political journalists to write about the South as prohibitively difficult terrain for Democrats to compete on at the national level. No problem with that analysis; just look at the last four or five elections and it's borne out. But why does the national press not pick up on how prohibitively difficult it is for Republicans to compete in the Northeast? It's become clear that Northeastern voters are as reflexively anti-Republican, at the national level, as Southern voters are skittish about voting for a Democrat. And there are 16 more electoral votes in the eight states of the Northeast (12 if you want to discount New Hampshire) as there are in the six states of the Deep South, so why the inordinate fixation on the South?

Howard Kurtz: In part because the South represents a newer development -- Democrats used to be more competitive there - and in part because the Democratic lock on the Northeast is not quite as solid (note Reagan's 49-state landslide). But I've read plenty of pieces pointing out that some blue states (such as New Jersey and California) have gotten more solidly Democratic in recent years (though the Golden State did just recall a Democratic governor and install a Republican one).

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Baltimore, Md.: Why is Joe Lieberman getting a pass from the press on running such a negative campaign? His strategy of hurt Dean at all costs, assuming Dean gets the nomination, is incredibly destructive to Dems' chances of winning in November. And yet, Joe just gets to toss out verbal bombs without having to be held accountable for his words.

Howard Kurtz: Politics ain't beanbag, and Lieberman, who's running behind, has clearly sharpened his criticism of Dean (though on policy, not personal grounds). But I don't see him as being harsher than Kerry or Gephardt toward Dean, or harsher than Dean's own criticism of members of Congress as cockroaches, moderate Dems as Republicans, and so on. I think in Lieberman's case it stands out more because he usually takes a nice-guy approach to politics.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, do you have any comment on the Post buyout and what the paper may be losing in institutional memory and in other areas? David Broder had a very graceful piece about Mary McGrory in the paper yesterday.

washingtonpost.com: Missing Mary McGrory (Post, Jan. 4)

Howard Kurtz: I think it's a shame that the paper is losing such a wide range of talented veterans, and there's no question it will hurt our coverage in certain areas. But at least the departures are voluntary, in contrast to a whole lot of papers that have resorted to layoffs in recent years, and the packages for those taking the buyout are very generous, which is why more than 50 newsroom people took the deal. I'm also glad that some of them will continue as part-time contract writers.

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Ellicott City, Md.: But if my state taxes go up beyond the tax cut that the federal government gives me, can it still be called a reduction?

Howard Kurtz: That's the Howard Dean argument, whether most people suffered a net loss. It depends on where you live (a few states don't even have income taxes) and whether you believe the state tax moves are a direct result of federal policies.

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Washington, D.C.: Why has Colin Powell's cancer largely been neglected by the media? I was myself shocked to learn that he had been diagnosed with cancer, but we were not told until the day he went under the knife. The health of officials in high positions is something that the public has a right to know.

Howard Kurtz: You were not told until he was about to go under the knife because we were not told until then. One reason it hasn't become a bigger story is that there's a very high success rate for the kind of prostate cancer for which Powell was treated if it is detected early enough.

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College Park, Md.: What's with the belief that a northerner can't be elected president? Are people in the South and West really that biased? I don't care where they are from, as long as they do the job.

Howard Kurtz: It's not a question of voters in that region being biased. It's a question of whether someone from the northeast - which is shorthand for a more liberal and secular candidate - can appeal to enough of the country to win a majority of electoral votes. It's no coincidence that the last three Democratic presidents were from Texas, Georgia and Arkansas, respectively, and the last Democratic nominee to win the popular vote was from Tennessee. Of course, if that nominee had won Tennessee, he'd be in the White House today, which sort of underscores the point.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: re: the Bloomberg story about Reuters Bank.

Since so much of a news outlets revenue depends on advertising how much pressure is there to go easy on advertising customers? Which would you say has a greater impact on editorial content over all, fear of upsetting a corporate parent or fear of upsetting advertising?

Howard Kurtz: You mean Deutsche Bank (this is covered in my column today). Basically, big news organizations with a broad base of advertising are more insulated from the pressure applied if a single company pulls or threatens to pull its ads. The instances I've covered where editors have caved or been cowed have tended to involve newspapers pressured by local car dealers, supermarkets or department stores, which can provide a significant chunk of revenue.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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