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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2004; 12:00 PM

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

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

Howard Kurtz (washingtonpost.com)

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The transcript follows.

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

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Is the reason that the broadcast networks are cutting back on convention coverage is because they really don't like to cover what are effectively free campaign advertisements? If that's the case, couldn't this be the downside of these networks being owned by large cooporations more concerned about the bottom line than about civics?

Howard Kurtz: The bottom line is that conventions are ratings losers for the broadcast networks. They make far more money by sticking with their lucrative sitcoms and reality shows. Yes, the conventions have become more controlled and more scripted, but there are ways of cutting through that with sharp reporting and analysis.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Is it legitimate or just mean spirited for Bush administration officials and Bush campaign provocateurs to characterize protest marchers in NYC yesterday as Democrats? Note: The NY Times reported this morning an estimate for the crowd of 500k.

After all, legions of thinking men and women in the U.S.A. don't support the goals and policies of the G.W. Bush administration. And they can't all be Democrats otherwise the Speaker of the House of Representatives would be named Pelosi!

So your take please on the official Republican hard party line characterization of citizens who don't swim with the Bushies as Democrats or worse.. traitors.

Thanks much. Independent Voter and Vietnam Era Draftee

Howard Kurtz: The issue is not whether the protestors are Democrats--I'm sure many are independents, vegetarians and anarchists. It's whether the Republicans can tie them to the Democratic Party, as Ed Gillespie tried by noting that Kerry's sister was among the marchers (in an abortion rights demonstration). The issue may be moot, though, now that the protests seem to be coming off with arrests or major disruptions.

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Winthrop, Mass.: Why has there been so little coverage of the loss of overtime by millions of Americans due to Bush Adminstration rule changes. This is a major factor effecting the lives of the middle class, and it gets almost no coverage. What is more amazing is the fact reporters will make up a large group of those that won't be required to get overtime any more if assigned more than 40 hours. This is a big deal for a major group of swing voters, why hasn't it been covered in detail?

Howard Kurtz: The major newspapers have done separate stories, but not much on TV. The Kerry campaign did a quick pop on it and then dropped the issue. There was a lot of coverage when the administration proposal first surfaced, so some editors may consider this "old" news. I don't. I think we've got to break out of this box of only covering what the campaigns are talking about.

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Chicago, Ill.: Dear Howard,
I believe generally that the media as a whole tries to be fair and balanced. In that vein of fairness, was Teresa Heinz Kerry asked a similar question by any media representative as was Mrs. Bush recently by Time, "Do you think these swift boat ads are unfair to John Kerry?" A reporter's bias in the questions asked (and the language of the question) is a much better illustration of any potential bias than writing style.

Howard Kurtz: She was interviewed just before the Democratic convention, when her husband was granting lots of interviews, and the Laura interviews have obviously come in conjunction with the Republican convention here in New York, where I'm typing these words. At the time, in late July, the swift boat ads hadn't materialized yet.

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Rosslyn, Va.: So, it seems like the swift boat controversy is finally dying off yet the Abu Grahib reports barely made it into one day of news. Why hasn't this been given more attention since it says that the horrible actions were not excluded to just the soliders, but that the higher ups have responsibility in this situation. Why has this issue just been a blip on the radar and something that records PROVE is untrue covered the news more than it ever deserved!?!

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me the Abu Ghraib reports got a whole lot of coverage. The Post, in just one example, has run several news and analysis pieces about the findings. Network news also covered it, at least the first day. At the moment, though, just about everything is getting shoved aside for the show at Madison Square Garden.

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New York, N.Y.: I feel the media is to blame for Bush's few point rise in the polls. You fall right into Karl Rove's trap and spend weeks debating Kerry's purple hearts. I woke up one morning last week and turned on the news expecting to hear about the recently released poverty numbers, and instead there is a man on claiming Kerry's wounds from 35 years ago were not as "deep" as he claimed. Come on! The media is becoming a joke. I now go to overseas websites to get some fair and balanced news.

Howard Kurtz: When you say the media is "to blame" for Bush's rise in the polls, that suggests you believe our job is to keep him from rising in the polls. I think cable TV drove the swift boat controversy (those ads aired in a measly three states) without having any idea whether the charges were true, and several newspapers - WP, NYT, LAT, the Globe, the Trib -- poked lots of holes and inconsistencies in the allegations. It should have faded then, except for two reasons. The press loves debating Vietnam. And the Kerry camp decided to keep the issue in the news through a counterattack that includes sending Max Cleland to the Crawford ranch.

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Arlington, VA: Howard: The local Fox news anchor just announced that the presidential race is TIED while showing a graphic that put Kerry at 44 percent, Bush at 43 percent, and Nader at 3 percent. "Tied", she said. Not "almost tied" of "practically tied" or "all but tied". What gives?

Howard Kurtz: Anhy poll where the findiings are within the margin of error, which is always a minimum of 2 or 3 points, is essentially tied. Meaning either guy could be ahead.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hi Howard,

Submitting early while I'm thinking about. I have a question about how things work at the Associated Press. Does someone create a general article that the other writers can then modify and send to the news outlets?

This morning I read two AP reviews of last night's MTV Video Music Awards show-one was in the Washington Post (by Nekesa Mumbi Moody), the other was on Comcast's site (by ADRIAN SAINZ). The articles are nearly identical, with just a few minor differences.

For example, the following was from the Washington Post:

OutKast's vivid "Hey Ya!" -- perhaps best described as the old "Ed Sullivan Show" on acid -- won four awards, including video of the year. Jay-Z's "99 Problems," the most nominated video with six, also won four. The gritty black-and-white "99 Problems" depicts his own killing as a metaphor for his much-ballyhooed retirement, which has yet to happen.

And this is from Comcast:

OutKast's vivid "Hey Ya!" _ perhaps best described as the old Ed Sullivan show on acid _ won four awards, including video of the year. Jay-Z's "99 Problems," the most nominated video with six, also won four. That gritty black-and-white video depicts the singer's own killing as a metaphor for his much-ballyhooed retirement.

What gives?

Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: Newspapers often cut AP reports for space, but do not fiddle with the content, although compression obviously can change the scope and detail of a story.

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Dallas, Tex.: I am baffled why the mainstream media continues to focus on the 527s. Even with all the money they have spent the left is almost completely drowned out, yet one small group on the right dominates weeks of media coverage.
The right wing media amplified the Swift boat liars message to an extent that no 527 could come close to matching.
The right wing media diseminates anti-Democrat, anti-progressive and Pro-Republican propaganda 24/7 to millions of viewers and listeners. None of this fall under any sort of campaign finance rules or regulations.
It is ludicrous to worry about 527s when these right wing channels exist and are not subject to any standards for truth or fairness.
That is why we rely on you guys in the mainstream media and quite honestly you guys have been lacking.

Howard Kurtz: The swift boat ads have gotten far more media coverage than they probably deserve, but there have been lots and lots of stories about the liberal 527s--MoveOn and the rest. The liberal groups have spent more than $60 million bashing Bush, and they're important. One reason Kerry has been able to stay off the air in August as a cost-cutting move--except for a couple of responses to the swift boat attacks--is that he knows his liberal allies are matching or exceeding the Bush campaign's ad spending.

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Derwood, Md.: Howard,

You just said that "The press loves debating Vietnam."

Isn't that a job for historians? I thought the press was supposed to cover current events!

Howard Kurtz: But the press also covers cultural issues, of which what you did in the '60s and how you coped with Vietnam has long been a leading theme. The baby boomer generation of journalists probably cares about this more than others, and they fill a lot of key positions these days. At the same time, John Kerry has put his Vietnam service at the emotional heart of his candidacy, as we saw in Boston, so it's hardly surprising that his detractors would fire back at that record.

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Arlington, Va.: Since the Swift Boat ads have come out, has Kerry submitted to an interview by any major media source? I'm troubled by the ads, but am also troubled by his refusal to directly answer the charges.

Howard Kurtz: He's talked about the issue repeatedly on the campaign trail, but has not given a major interview in recent weeks with one exception: Jon Stewart.

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St. Louis, Mo.: Mr. Kurtz, these chats make my Mondays.

I was really surprised to see so little coverage of the Bush twins being roundly booed on the MTV Video Music Awards last night. The Kerry and Bush daughters all talked about the importance of young people being involved in the process. And the Outkast's performance mocked a political convention.

I remember being heavily influenced by MTV back in 1992 but it seems this year the Choose or Lose campaign is being largely ignored.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the awards show, but is it really such a big deal that the Bush twins got booed? It was probably a fairly liberal audience.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard,

I watched a bit of "This Week," on Sunday morning and the discussion among the Georges and Cokie seemed to suggest that Bush is pulling ahead and all the Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief. However, I've only been aware of one poll showing Bush ahead, and I believe that one was within the standard error margin. Have I somehow missed a big story here?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: It's just where the Beltway chatter is right now, given the poll-obsessed nature of the media. There have been two or possibly three polls showing Bush ticking up a few points, and an LAT survey showing Bush ahead by a few points in three batttleground states. There also may be the expectation that the president will get a bump out of the convention, although Kerry didn't get much of one.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Kurtz,
I am wondering why there is not more mass media coverage of the problems -- actual and potential -- of voting machines. The machines are imperfectly secure, but a substantial proportion of the electorate will vote with them. Further, they are made and programmed by private, for-profit companies, some of whom have political ties to the Republican Party. Perhaps they can be fully trusted, but this question should be carefully explored, not ignored. What is your opinion?

Howard Kurtz: Check in on Nov. 3--you'll see lots of coverage. Seriously, while there have been a few stories, this is one of those disaster-in-the-making subjects at which the press does not excel.

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MTV : It was the Kerry daughters that were booed.

Howard Kurtz: As I said, I didn't see it. But it reminds me that politicians of all stripes are routinely booed at places like Yankee Stadium. Not sure it means a whole lot.

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New York, N.Y.: "I think cable TV drove the swift boat controversy (those ads aired in a measly three states) without having any idea whether the charges were true..."

Isn't that an extremely significant problem? As you said, the print media only got involved in factchecking these guys weeks after the claims started circling, with cable news making no effort to explain the truth. The media's job isn't to keep Bush down, but it is to at least make some effort not to waste airtime on baseless allegations, which in this case seem to have helped Bush's poll numbers, isn't it?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, it's an extremely serious problem. But much of the media, with a few exceptions, seems to publicize ads by the campaigns and interest groups with a he said/she said approach that makes little attempt to get at the facts. I spend a fair amount of my time on The Post's ad watches, but they are a drop in the bucket when these spots are running constantly and talking heads are talking about them constantly.

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Anonymous: Mr. Kurtz, with schools such as the Columbia School of Journalism and Medill in Chicago/Northwestern U., why can't more TV stations present both sides of an issue without getting "talking heads." Isn't that skill taught in schools such as these? When we speak of "balance," isn't that the way to really explore issues?

Howard Kurtz: Some journalists do "reality check" features that try to get at the facts. And talking heads are not necessarily a bad thing--to bring in different points of view--if they're interviewed properly. It is television, after all. What I object to are the talking-points officials and surrogates who just hurl charges at each other on cable shout shows in predictable fashion.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

Looking for a little clarity in your analysis... on one hand you say:

"Any poll where the findiings are within the margin of error, which is always a minimum of 2 or 3 points, is essentially tied. Meaning either guy could be ahead."

On the other, you say:

"There have been two or possibly three polls showing Bush ticking up a few points, and an LAT survey showing Bush ahead by a few points in three batttleground states."

Isn't Bush within the margin of error, and therefore, not really ahead in the battleground states?

Howard Kurtz: In a couple of those states, I don't have the figures in front of me, Bush was up by 4 or 5. But the face is so close, and these polls are such fleeing snapshots, that the media shouldn't invest them with such cosmic significance. Remember Democratic nominee Howard Dean?

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Speaking of "The Daily Show," I'm willing to bet W won't agree to be a guest on that show -- because he knows it's probably the one place where he'd be asked real questions, not floated soft balls. Sad, isn't it, that the only person brave enough to ask tough questions works for a so-called fake news show. Though, I don't actually consider what the Daily Show does as fake; it's just actually skeptical and doesn't take everything at face value like all the other networks do.

Howard Kurtz: I'm a big Daily Show fan, but Jon Stewart wasn't exactly throwing high inside fastballs at Kerry last week. Who knows--maybe Bush will conclude he has to compete for the Comedy Central vote.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you correct the record: MoveOn is a PAC and is covered under the rules of Political Action Committees.

It is NOT a 527.

Why has the press swallowed the GOP story line linking that the lefty 527s are running ads.

I know MoveOn has run advertisements, but what 527s from the left have run ads?

Howard Kurtz: MoveOn PAC is a 527, which is only a section of the tax code governing independent political ads.

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Re: MTV VMAs: The Kerry twins got booed, not the Bush twins. Alexandra had to hush the audience so that she and her sister could read their witty lines off the teleprompter. The Bush girls appeared in a videotaped bit and the boos (if there were any) were inaudible. Kind of a bizarre reversal there.

Howard Kurtz: Shows you the value of videotape, I guess. No one can throw tomatoes.

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Twin Bridges, Mont.: During the DNC, each of the major networks carried 60 minutes of coverage for 3 of the 4 nights speechs, skipping speeches by Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Theresa Heinz-Kerry. They did not broadcast the opening night speeches. All 3 networks initially said that they would follow the same format for the RNC. But I see today that ABC will now broadcast coverage of the RNC, during half-time of Monday Night Football, of the opening night speeches, those to include the 2 moderate Republicans, McCain amd Guiliani.

Why is that?

Howard Kurtz: I'm glad that ABC is finding some daylight for extra coverage, since tonight's speakers are definitely newsworthy. But it does raise a balance question. Obviously Monday Night Football hadn't started yet during the Dems' July convention.

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Spartanburg, S.C.: How long after the election is over (if Kerry loses) do you think it will take the media to start writing stories about how they should have been more criitical from the outset about the Swiftboat Ads and that if they had presented them as the lies they are from the get go, maybe Kerrry would have won?

Howard Kurtz: Hey, I've already started to write those stories, regardless of who wins.

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Munich, Germany: Why is it that Bush's pre-political life has been left relatively unscathed by journalistic scrutiny? Is this manner of attacked considered below the belt by the Democrats?

In comparison, the Swift Boat affair has been quite lucrative for the Republicans.

Howard Kurtz: Bush was "vetted" by the press in 2000. His early drinking, his sweetheart business deals, his National Guard service. At one point there was a media frenzy over whether he'd ever used cocaine, and when Bush refused to say, it just generated more stories. Four years later, the stories don't get resurrected much except in long profiles and if new information emerges. Was the same thing with Clinton in '96.

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Albany, N.Y.: Most people scan articles, maybe reading the first paragraph or two. Because I'm pressed for time, I can't always read an entire article, but cynic that I am, I have discovered that I get the real information by reading the last two paragraphs rather than the first two. If there is any real information in an article (often there isn't), that's where you find it, like news about Langhofer and Lambert coming forward to support Kerry. Lambert has not been mentioned by the Post at all, and Langhofer only slightly. In view of these two examples, can you convince me that my cynicism is misplaced?

Howard Kurtz: I'm a big fan of reading the whole article. But maybe I'll start putting little nuggets at the bottom for people like you.

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Atlanta, Ga.: What's the deal with Kerry being ahead in 14 of 16 battleground/swing/pick your metaphor states? I keep seeing these electoral vote projections on TV. Who's doing these? And is anyone paying attention to them, like the campaign generals.

Howard Kurtz: They're just compilations of various state polls. And they're more important than the national numbers, given that it's all about electoral votes.

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Rockville, Md.: Why do you think the radio talk shows are so dominated by right wing comentators such as Laura Ingraham?

Howard Kurtz: About 15 years ago, Rush Limbaugh and others filled a vacuum with conservative shows that appealed to listeners who believed the major newspapers, networks and magazines were tilted to the left. Conservatives hungry for an alternative flocked to these shows, while liberal hosts tended to flop, at least nationally. So those on the right set up a beachhead that continues today in the Hannity/O'Reilly era, with only a few libs like Al Franken making inroads.

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Pittsburgh, P.: "I'm a big Daily Show fan, but Jon Stewart wasn't exactly throwing high inside fastballs at Kerry last week."
You're right. I'm a huge fan, too, and as a liberal I would've liked Jon Stewart to ask Kerry some tough questions. That disappointed me a bit. But, in fairness to Stewart, during his regular broadcasts, he takes aim at both candidates and parties equally, eg. calling John Edwards "Kerry's ward," for instance, and often making fun of Kerry's speeches.

Howard Kurtz: He definitely makes fun of Kerry and Democrats, but he's been so focused on the war in the past year that I'd say he's been harder on the administration. Jon has, however, made an effort to get more conservative guests.

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Washington, D.C. Metro Area: So what's with the big networks snubbing the Republican convention now? If the Democrats whined about only getting an hour, at least they got that. Can there be any more blatant bias amongst the networks? Fear Factor and repeats of Still Standing couldn't wait until next week?

Howard Kurtz: Both the RNC and the DNC are getting exactly the same amount of pathetically inadequate time: three hours for the week. (With the exception of ABC squeezing a little extra coverage into tonight's football halftime show.)

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Washington, D.C.: Why hasn't the Israel-Espionage story been bigger in the press, since it involves the office of the Pentagon of Neo-Cons that were responsible for trying to tie Iraq to Al Queda, and much of its intelligence proved to be faulty.

This is potentially a massive story and the press seems to be avoiding it at all costs. When the Hansen story broke, it was front page of every paper for weeks.

Howard Kurtz: It was on the front page of most major newspapers and all over the TV news when it broke, which was on the CBS Evening News Friday night. But we don't have much new information. And by the weekend, some reporters said the initial accounts may have been overstated and that no one may ultimately be charged. So we'll have to wait and see.

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Baltimore, Md.: Is John Kerry setting a record for a presidential candidate's refusal to submit to objective interviews and perhaps probing questions? Even George Bush, who is hardly setting a record for press conferences, is more open to questions than Kerry has been. Even Hillary opened herself to less than doting interviewers yesterday. Why doesn't the media demand more of Kerry?

Howard Kurtz: Kerry did a lot of interviews around the time of his convention. This week he's laying low. Reporters routinely complain, but every presidential candidate decided when and whether he wants to expose himself to press questioning.

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Chicago, Ill.: In your profile of Laura Ingrahm, I was struck by the reference to Condaleeza Rice being such a frequent guest on talk radio programs (you cited her calling into Sean Hannity four times in recent months). Not being a big listener of the genre, this was news to me. However, I did know that Dr. Rice was a frequent guest on TV, esp. the morning news shows. Which makes me wonder-- what is Dr. Rice's top priority: is it simply to be yet another administration spokesperson? I would think that someone who is the National Security Advisor (at a time when the U.S., we are told, is far from secure), should be on the phone getting the latest overseas intelligence reports rather than on the phone doing radio interviews, especially those that are probably very partisan in nature. Your thoughts? With the exception of Kissinger-- who had a double portfolio-- did any of Dr. Rice's predocessors (Berger, Scowcroft, Burzynski, etc.) engage in this degree of media-focused work?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see any conflict between doing an important job and appearing on TV and radio to defend the administration. Colin Powell does a lot of interviews too.

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Chicago, Ill.: People need to realize that the Daily Show on Comedy Central is not simply the funniest show on TV-- it is also the most insightful.

Last week, the program provided the most succinct and accurate critique of modern political journalism that I have heard-- with all due respect-- in a long time.

During a "faux" report on the Swift Boat Veterans and subsequent cross talk between host Jon Stewart and "sr. poliitical correspondent" Rob Chourdry (reporting from "Vietnam"), Stewart asked him to simply tell the viewers what the facts show-- who was right? The Swift Boat veterans or Kerry? Whose side is supported by the facts?

The response-- which I hope I recall accurately-- was perfect:

"Jon, that's not my job. I am a reporter. That means I spend fifty percent of my time telling you exactly what one side says, and the other fifty percent of the time telling you exactly what the other side says. It's a little thing called 'ob-ject-ivity."

To me, that is the perfect synthesis of the lack of analysis in journalism today, coupled with-- I think-- a real fear of taking a stand that could be interpreted as playing favorites.

Tell me what you think.

Howard Kurtz: It was a direct hit. A bullseye. And from interviewing Jon Stewart at the Democratic convention, I know he strongly believes that this is the major problem in the media today. So naturally we're among his fattest targets.
Gotta go cover the convention. Thanks for the chat.

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