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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 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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Arlington, Va.: I find the Pew study interesting because not only does it show once again that reporters disproportionately self-identify as liberals, but also that they let their political views influence their reporting. 55 percent of the national media think that they need to be harder on President Bush, and nearly half admit that ideological views influence reporting. Modern media have the power to decide elections in a country as evenly divided as the United States is at this moment. This study should be treated as one of the biggest political news stories of the year. You do a great job, Mr. Kurtz, but does it seem odd to you that few other mainstream reporters treat bias in the news as a worthy topic for conversation?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the media don't scrutinize themselves the way they do politicians, businessmen, athletes and just about everyone else.
I think the nearly half of national journalists who told Pew that ideological views influence coverage is a fairly damning indictment, and reflects the growing public criticism on this score. But let's be clear: These folks didn't say that THEIR political views colored their coverage. They said that was their opinion of the profession as a whole. I think most journalists work pretty hard to keep their views out of their reporting, with mixed success. But these findings are going to give critics a fresh round of ammunition.

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Albany, N.Y.: After Bush fell on his face, a spokesman said that it had been raining "a lot". Yet reports from the nearest weather center (McGregor, Tex.) showed that there had been no rain at all for the previous week. Has anyone reported on this?

Howard Kurtz: Ah, so now we have Bikegate? I don't know that any investigative reporters have looked into the climate conditions that preceded the president's spill.

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Boring, Md.: Howard, I notice that in print you refer to the defense secretary as Rummy, would you address him in such a chummy way on your TV show? And if not, why do you use that nickname for him in print?

Howard Kurtz: I do it only in my online column, where I also refer to prez, Kerry as JFK, etc. It's just a breezier style.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Howard, great article and interview on Russert. You should have your own interview show!

The world is truly ending. A die-hard Republican friend (pro-life, anti-tax, pro-Iraq war) is questioning if he will vote for Bush come November. And he lives in a swing-state!
I have read the articles claiming that the boarderline Republicans are swaying from Bush. Is there evidence that other hard-core Republicans are being disenchanted by their Commander-in-Chief? Enough to vote Dem, libertarian or not at all?

Howard Kurtz: Um, actually I do have my own interview show, and had Russert on yesterday. But thanks.
Polls show the vast majority of Republicans are supporting Bush. Obviously, there are some - and reporters have had no trouble finding them - who are disenchanted with the president, usually over Iraq. Some conservative activists are disaffected because spending increases under Bush have been greater than those under Clinton. But I wouldn't make too much of all this. Bush will likely have very solid GOP support in November, just as Kerry seems to have most Democrats strongly behind him.

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Alexandria, Va.: In these chats you are often asked whether the Post is biased toward liberal or conservative points of view. I was reading the Washington Post Express last week and came to the conclusion that if the Post were a politician, it would be a log-cabin Republican. Conservative on defense and economic issues, liberal on social issues, and very pro-gay. This is a generalization of a large organization, but I think I nailed it. Do you disagree?

Howard Kurtz: I'll leave that up to readers. But keep in mind there's a very thick wall between the editorial page, which is generally liberal on social issues but supported the war in Iraq, and the newsroom.

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Columbia, Md.: The Pew Center just released a report yesterday that showed that when it comes to journalists, liberals outnumber conservatives by an almost 5 to 1 margin. I am sure there is an effort by the editors of major news organizations to have racial diversity and gender diversity to reflect to public at large to the greatest extent possible and that is surely a worthwhile goal. But are these editors making the same concerted effort to get some sort of ideological diversity that reflects the public at large as well? We always hear that this nation is divided 50-50, shouldn't the newsrooms also be divided 50-50?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it should certainly be more balanced than apparently it is today. The exact figures, as I reported this morning, are that 34 percent of journalists at national news outfits describe themselves as liberal, 54 percent as moderate and 7 percent as conservative. At local news organizations, the survey found 23 percent self-identified liberals, 61 percent moderates and 12 percent conservatives.

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washingtonpost.com: Survey Finds Angst-Strained Wretches in the Fourth Estate (Post, May 24)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard -- Am I the only one who's become altogether resentful of the local TV news programs constantly hawking the primetime entertainment shows of their network? The worst has become Fox Channel 5 with its incessant, night-after-night "coverage" of the "American Idol." It makes me want to scream!

Have you ever chatted with any of the local TV news folks? Are they at all embarassed by all the plugging they do? Thanks, Don

Howard Kurtz: Some of them are. But it's not just local TV. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Dateline NBC has turned into a real billboard for NBC entertainment shows, having done two programs on Trump & The Apprentice, one on the farewell of Friends and one on the finale of Frasier. They all play this game to some degree -- CBS's Early Show regularly debriefs guests from Survivor - and don't seem to lose much sleep over it. I guess viewers who find this cheesy self-promotion are outnumbered by those who want to see soft interviews with Jennifer Anniston and Kelsey Grammer.

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Alexandria, Va.: Re the first answer in today's chat, I think the press should always be harder on the incumbent--president, school board head, dogcatcher--than on any challenger. The incumbent is the one doing the job and creating the record.

Howard Kurtz: But that would automatically create an imbalance in the coverage. The incumbent has a record to defend, sure, but the press has to be just as aggressive with the challenger who may be the next president.

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Arnold effect?: Polls show that despite the bad news, Kerry is only up on Bush by one point in California and New Jersey.

Why can't Kerry open up a a bigger leader in these 'BLUE' states?

Howard Kurtz: That has some political pros stumped. Right now, I suspect the polls are mainly about Bush, pro and con. Iraq has so dominated the news for the last two months that Kerry's message has been all but drowned out. As I've reported last week, there hasn't been a single story on the NBC, ABC or CBS evening news since April 1 on what Kerry has been saying about the economy, health care, education, the environment, you name it. And the cable channels have carried three times as many Bush live events as Kerry live events, which cable execs say is Iraq-related.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Kurtz: Last week, the Post printed new pictures of torture and abuse. The Post's managing editor took questions online, and, in response to a question about why the Post printed these new pictures but not graphic pictures of Nicholas Berg's beheading, said that the Post didn't print photos of Berg due to requirements of taste. You said something similar last week in your chat. With all due respect to you both, I don't buy it. The pictures the Post printed of Iraqis being tortured and abused are tasteful? Please! The pictures the Post printed were every bit as disgusting as the Berg video. (And don't tell me that we need to see those pictures to "appreciate" what happened at Abu Ghraib -- we can appreciate it just fine without graphic photos, just like we can appreciate just fine what happened to Berg without seeing graphic pictures of a bloody head.) So my question is: do you really think that the photos the Post printed were tasteful in some way that the Berg video wasn't?

washingtonpost.com: Discussion Transcript: Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. (May 21)

Howard Kurtz: Of course the abuse photos aren't tasteful. They're painful to look at. (By the way, The Post says it has held back many abuse pictures as well, in part because it's not clear what it happening on some of them.) But I would imagine that most readers, especially those with kids, don't want to see pictures in the paper of someone's head being chopped off. That doesn't mean the story isn't of equal importance, and the Berg murder was certainly covered aggressively. But there are some lines that a family newspaper will not cross.

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Dryden, N.Y.: Re: "Bikegate." The point of this story is that the White House is appearing to lie even on the most stupidest issues. We all have fallen off bikes. What is the point in twisting the truth on such a trivial issue.
It's the character stupid.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not prepared to call it a lie at this point. Spinning? Yes. All administrations spin pretty much nonstop.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What's with all the attention to Tim Russert's book? Does anyone outside the incestuous media/pundit circle even care about "Big Russ"? There are so many important (and interesting) things to talk about -- doesn't the media have better things to do than interview one of their own?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the book is on the best-seller list, so somebody much care. It's the first book written by NBC's Washington bureau chief and the host of the top-rated Sunday talk show, which draws an audience of 5 million and which recently scored an Oval Office interview with Bush. And it's not really about Big Russ (though Father's Day is approaching). It's about the younger Russ's upbringing in Buffalo, his work for Moynihan and Cuomo, his jump to NBC, his handling of Meet the Press and so on. I'm not surprised that would get a lot of publicity.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I read recently that a Fox News Channel executive demanded the NY Times print a correction after a staff writer called the channel a "conservative cable network." How stupid can Fox be? First, they sued Al Franken, now this? Do you think Fox execs and reporters actually believe they aren't conservative and their reporting is "fair and balanced?" Rupert Murdoch openly admits he's supporting Dubya, Brit Hume's show is an hour-long Dubya-worship session, the reportage all is slanted toward praising this administration - for all intents and purposes, FNC is the propaganda arm of the RNC, which is why Faux News Channel is appropriate.

Howard Kurtz: I'm the one who wrote that item. And despite your obviously strong views on the subject, most of Fox's reporters (a few of whom have previously worked for CNN, MSNBC and, in the case of Sunday host Chris Wallace, ABC News) see themselves as straightforward correspondents without an agenda. Democratic officials told me a few weeks ago that they find Fox's chief political correspondent, Carl Cameron, to be extremely fair. I'm not saying that Fox doesn't have its own biases, but its conservative image comes largely from its high-decibel opinion-mongers (Hannity, O'Reilly) and fondness for Republican guests, such as Fox News analyst Newt Gingrich.

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Potomac, Md.: The Washington Post regularly reports the results of polls surveying about 1000 individuals (or voters), which the Post uses for its horse-race coverage of the election in November. But a national popularity poll may not be very predictive of the actual election result in the Electoral College. The overall results may be skewed if Bush is doing very well in the Southern states he won last time, but poorly in the swing states he needs to keep. For example, does the poll tell us how well Bush and Kery are doing in Ohio and Wisconsin? Why doesn't the Post regularly commission polls on a state-by-state basis to see which way they are teetering.

Howard Kurtz: A very good idea. Also expensive. But we have mentioned some of the state-by-state polls that local news organizations are doing, and in some ways those may be more revealing in terms of the battleground states, since everyone knows Kerry is not going to win states like Texas and Bush is not going to win states like New York.

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Damascus, Md.: In your piece today, you talk about how reporters answered questions as compared to the general population.

But reporters aren't the general population. They tend to be better educated, I would think, and I assume that the ones who answered this survey all have jobs.

I was particularly struck by the contention that reporters tend to be more liberal because they are more tolerant of gays and lesbians. I seem to recall that there are statistics out there showing that people with better education tend to be much more gay-friendly than the general population.

Did the survey contain any of that sort of demographic information?

Howard Kurtz: It has some demographic details, yes. I happen to think a growing problem for national journalists in places like NY, DC and LA is that they've become firmly entrenched in the upper middle class and are somewhat out of touch with many readers and viewers who are not as well off. I like the idea of journalists being well compensated, but to the extent that more and more are Ivy League types or making six figures or sending kids to private schools, they are living a life that is more removed from Joe and Jane Sixpack.

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Washington, D.C.: Given all the handwringing over the admittedly liberal media, why does it seem like the conservative voices have set the agenda?

Howard Kurtz: The rise of Fox News, and the continued popularity of such radio talkers as Rush and Hannity, has created the impression that conservatives are really shaping the media agenda. And I happen to think such diversity is a good thing. But when you stack these conservative voices against CBS, NBC, ABC, Time, Newsweek, NYT, NPR etc., you'll see that they still represent a minority of the media business.

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College Park, Md.: Will a President of the US ever again have a closed-door meeting with reporters like FDR used to do? Or at least a tete-a-tete with one reporter, on a rotating basis.

Howard Kurtz: Sure. Bush and Clinton, for example, regularly have had off-the-record sessions with network heavies before the State of the Union. Both had off-the-record barbecues for the press. Clinton's White House made a concerted effort to bring in groups of WH correspondents and columnists for OTR chats. Bush has not done much of that. But such events are not a relic of Roosevelt's time.

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Huh?, Maryland: Howard, most Fox reporters may see themselves as unbiased. They may also "see" themselves as martians. It doesn't matter. What matters is the product that is put on the air. From 7am through until midnight, their editors and producers send them to cover stories in the most positive light to Republicans and in the most negative towards Democrats. There is also no charge against a Democrat that is beneath Fox to run. To suggest that O'Reilly and Hannity are the only reasons Fox is a right-wing network is patently absurd. You're not serious, are you?

Howard Kurtz: It sounds like you are a liberal turned off by all things Fox. Hillary Clinton went on Fox News Sunday yesterday, and Howard Dean was recently on Hannity & Colmes, so they, at least, must have thought they'd get an even shake.

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Virginia: Howard -- Always enjoy the columns and chats. As a reporter, I've never found it to be that big a surprise (or a problem, frankly) that journalists consider themselves "liberal": It's a "fight the-power," afflict-the-comfortable industry, which naturally steers it away from conservative, traditional values. That doesn't mean reporters can't do their jobs objectively. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: The truth is, most people who become reporters don't have strong political views or they would probably pursue a more activist career. Most thrive in taking on authority, which is one reason that the press so aggressively pursued the Clinton scandals even though many probably agreed with Clinton's policies. But some of the bias in reporting on social issues, for example, is subconscious, such as not fully realizing that much of the country has different views from the liberal intelligentsia on religion, abortion, homosexuality, etc.

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Cambria, Calif.: It seems outrageous to me that the media have given Bob Novak a "pass" after he revealed the name of Valerie Plame and destroyed her career and damaged American ability to fight the war on terror. If this had been done by a "liberal" columnist from a source in a Democrat White House the media outrage would be uncontainable. Is it that you folks have a "club" and he is a charter member that he gets away with it? Or is there a more reasonable explanation? Thanks for answering.

Howard Kurtz: Though the story has since died down, Novak got a lot of criticism for what he did when the Plame revelations came out. The press was slow to pick up on his initial column last summer, but he's hardly gotten a free ride on the controversy.

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Pomona, N.Y.: Howard, just want to tell you I've been watching your Sunday show and reading your daily columns for a very long time and I was very proud of the tough questions you asked Russert Sunday. Nobody else has, and while I like him I think you did Russert and the rest of us a service. Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: In the Hot Seat (Post Magazine, May 23)

Howard Kurtz: Many thanks. I figured that Tim Russert, of all people, would understand that an interview with a major public figure is supposed to be tough.

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Re: prison photos: Howard --

I've been wondering why newspapers don't blur out the faces of the prisoners in the abuse photos. If this were taking place in the U.S., I feel sure some efforts would be made to protect the victims' anonymity. It's almost as though the Post and others are violating them again by disseminating these photos.

Howard Kurtz: I think that's a good point. People would be going haywire if the faces of American prisoners were shown in such photos.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there any off-the-record entertainment expenses from the campaigns for the media? White House reporters aren't the only journalists involved in the election coverage. And reporters like yourself tend to span a lot of topics, including campaign coverage.

Howard Kurtz: News organizations reimburse the campaigns for traveling, hotel, food and other expenses. On the other hand, if the White House throws a Christmas party for the press, that comes out of its entertainment budget and news outlets don't pay anything for the shrimp-and-lamb-chops buffet.

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Fort Worth, Tex.: Regarding the idea that it's okay for reporters to be more liberal than the general population because "they're more educated."

Excuse me? Was this masterful insight posted by a reporter? Most demographic studies find that, in general, conservative/Republican support climbs with the amount of education a person has. Notwithstanding the enlightened views of professors. And reporters.

Howard Kurtz: I certainly think people of all education levels can have liberal or conservative views.

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Washington, D.C.: How can you 'spin' the weather? Either it was raining or it wasn't.

Howard Kurtz: I think this is a job for a special prosecutor. He could be given a mandate to investigate all bike accidents, snowboarding accidents and jogging mishaps involving presidential candidates.

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Washigton, D.C.: Will Air America ever get to DC? I hear Al Franken is very funny on the radio.

Howard Kurtz: That's one of their goals, but not at the present rate. They're having trouble staying on in the half-dozen cities that already carry Air America.

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Columbia, Md.: In an earlier repsonse you said:

These folks didn't say that THEIR political views colored their coverage. They said that was their opinion of the profession as a whole.

Isn't that exactly the problem? Of course every reporter is going to say that they are balanced and don't let their opinions affect their reporting. The main problem is that the heads of news network and newspaper refuse to even acknowledge that their orgainzations lean left. When someone like Bernard Goldberg details this, he is immediately shouted down as a hack.

We've had afirmative action for race and gender to get a proportional representation in the workplace. when will will get affirmative action for ideological grounds?

Howard Kurtz: This is a tricky question. I don't think reporters should be hired according to some political litmus test -- so many from column A, so many from column B. But there is something in the applicant pool, or some sort of comfort level in the interviewing process, that seems to lead to newsrooms that are heavy with left-leaning correspondents (although moderates are by far the largest group, according to Pew). I think that casting a broader net - in terms of colleges attended, geography, income level, perhaps hiring some folks who previously had other kinds of jobs -- would give us better balance, not just in ideological terms but in terms of being in touch with a greater range of people and communities.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Mr. Kurtz, a comment, on your comment,

"NY, DC and LA is that they've become firmly entrenched in the upper middle class and are somewhat out of touch"

I have found this very true. I lived in DC are for almost 30 years, once you leave you realize that inside the beltway talk about stuff like NAFTA, closing military bases, outsorcing to India/China, minimun wage are very real issues for towns all across the country. DC area doesn't really feel the effects of any of these things.

Howard Kurtz: Washington is often immune from the economic pressures that affect much of the country, but that's not what I'm talking about here. There is a whole other D.C. where people work hard, struggle with rent payments, send their kids to decaying public schools, go to church and don't sit around talking about NAFTA. But that is not the Washington that most reporters (or pols or lawyers or lobbyists) are part of.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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