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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 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.


Iowa: I thought it was a sad commentary on our collective priorities that the first six news headlines I saw about Bill Clinton's 957-page book were "Clinton slept on couch for months" after the Lewinsky situation. Eight years as leader of the free world were reduced to this "newsworthy" "revelation"?

Howard Kurtz: I was surprised that so much of the 60 Minutes broadcast was Lewinsky-related. But Monica and impeachment and Ken Starr are the subjects that Clinton hasn't wanted to talk much about in the past, so it's hardly surprising that the press would jump on any new revelations in that area.


South Bend, Ind.: The Dan Rather inyerview of Bill Clinton:

A triumpth for Clinton, a disaster for Rather, who looked and sounded like an interrogator at the Salem witch trials.

Clinton was poised, courteous, funny, convincing and graceful. Rather's repeated questions about Monica wasted far too much time on a single issue, to the lack of inquiry on such important questions about his centrist philosophy, the defeat of Al Gore, his apparent equivocation about the war in Iraq, and his continuing religious faith in light of all that has happened to him.

Your view?

Howard Kurtz: I actually think Rather struck the right tone - probing without sounding prosecutorial. But your "too much on Monica" critique is actually an editing decision. CBS has as much as four hours of tape it didn't use that I'm sure includes Clinton holding forth on all kinds of foreign and domestic issues. Rather told me, for example, that they talked about Kosovo, but I don't recall seeing that on the program. So CBS made a decision that the Monica material was either the most newsworthy or the most likely to boost ratings.


Washington, D.C.: Let me get this straight: Clinton won't get the respectful treatment Reagan did because conservative pundits are "mean and nasty people"? Seems to me the main reason is that whereas Clinton wrote a book, Reagan DIED. A little perspective might be in order here.

Howard Kurtz: That was a comment by Joe Lockhart. Obviously, as I wrote, publishing a book less than four years out of office is very different from the situation when a president passes away. But my point was this: Will conservatives grant that there was anything good about the Clinton presidency, as liberals were willing to give Reagan his due?


Arlington, Va.: In your column today, you make this comparison: "Reagan, despite the Iran-contra scandal, left office a popular figure; Clinton's departure came two years after he was impeached and was clouded by his wave of last-minute pardons."

It seems you're implying that Reagan was popular and Clinton wasn't, but Clinton left office with a higher approval rating than Reagan. What's up with that?

Howard Kurtz: That approval rating immediately sank because of the controversy over the pardons. There was a huge firestorm that reinforced, at least for some people, the negative feelings aroused by what Clinton now calls his moral error. So the larger point is that Clinton left office much as he began his '92 campaign, on a wave of controversy, whereas Reagan was not only a popular figure but had not been heard from in the past decade because of the illness that ultimately claimed his life.


Monroe, La.: In "My Life" did Bill Clinton discuss and judge what he did right and wrong in dealing with Al Queda during his eight years leading up to 911?

Howard Kurtz: I have not read the book, which goes on sale tomorrow, but on 60 Minutes Clinton defended his record on terrorism and denied that he missed an opportunity to have bin Laden handed over by the Sudanese.


New York, N.Y.: Yesterday's front page book review is yet another example of the NYT's annoying habit of playing political counterpoint through their reviewers. It's turned the Sunday Book Review section into an unreadable joke. In tandem with their rightward leaning campaign coverage and the stenographic stylings of their war reporting -- has the Time's jumped the shark?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't noticed the NYT's "rightward leaning campaign coverage," which apparently is quite clear to you. But it seems to me that Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani could have loved or hated Clinton's book. That's not something the paper can control. With book reviewers, you're paying them for their opinions, and Kakutani certainly delivered plenty of hers.


Falls Chuch, Va.: How is the upcoming media focus on Bill Clinton going to affect Kerry's media image? I am thinking that Kerry will look bad relative to Clinton because of the latter's natural charisma and more sociable personality. The comparison may also focus attention on the Democrats' deficits in the national security arena (as well as remind the Republicans why they hate the Democrats so much---a counterweight to all the Bush-bashing by the latter).

Howard Kurtz: This is the subject of much political buzz right now. In the end I suspect it may not matter much. For this week, at least, Clintonmania will overshadow Kerry (who's been off on vacation anyway). The positive view is that Clinton will energize Democratic voters and remind them of the economic boom of his tenure, which Kerry has touted in his advertising. The negative view is that the contrast will highlight Kerry's charisma deficit. In the end, though, people are going to have to decide between Bush and Kerry, not Clinton and Reagan.


Washington, D.C.: Maybe a silly question but did Clinton really have to sleep on the couch? Isn't there a spare bedroom there at the White House where he could have slept?

Howard Kurtz: I asked the exact same question. Maybe he was speaking figuratively (I don't think he was actually "in the doghouse," for example). But the White House certainly has extra bedrooms.


Crystal City, Va.: Clinton last night defended his pardon of Rich, saying that no one has shown him to be wrong on the merits of his decision, only the timing and appearance. Surely Dan Rather could have easily challenged him on this point. Instead he just accepted this falsehood as fact and went on to more Monica questions. The interview was all about promoting WJC and not about doing your homework and asking the tough questions.

Howard Kurtz: You can only press on so many issues, given the time constraints. I did find it revealing that Clinton would say in retrospect he should not have pardoned Marc Rich, but only because of the "grief" he took over the decision.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I think that John Kerry made a mistake by keeping the John McCain-running mate thing alive for so long. Won't it seem kind of anticlimatic when Kerry makes his eventual choice? McCain would have generated the maximum media buzz. Now whoever Kerry picks, he's not going to get as much buzz as McCain would have.

Howard Kurtz: By the time Kerry picks someone, the McCain business will have largely been forgotten (unless the running mate is viewed as a flop). But I confess I don't quite understand why the Kerry camp allowed the speculation to rage for as long as it did, unless Kerry was convinced he could convince his friend to cross party lines and run with him. There's also a theory, which I don't necessarily buy, that Kerry was burnishing a centrist image by showing he'd consider a Republican, even if that Republican was never very likely to do it.


Alexandria, Va.: I will admit that I have a level of admiration for President Clinton. I have an almost equal amount of disappointment in him for the lost opportunities. But his enemies never cease to amaze me. After reading the John Adams bio I came to understand that politics in America has been rough from the very beginning but it seems to me the rhetoric has gotten even worst. When I read this however
"Fox commentator Oliver North scoffed at "the idea of infidelity being something you just dismiss, and that his lying before a grand jury isn't worthy of impeachment or a resignation."

When he was convicted of lying to Congres there seems to be an over the topness to what people can say and get away with that never ceases to amaze me. Sorry for the rambling, but I guess my point and my question is do you think enough is done to call people on statements like Mr North's?

Howard Kurtz: It's pretty well known that North was conviced in the Iran-contra affair, and that the conviction was overturned on appeal. Ironically, the notoreity surrounding his role is what enabled him to a) make a credible run for the Senate from Virginia in '94 and b) launch a successful career as a commentator. The point he's making about Clinton is the one that many conservatives have been making for years: that the Lewinsky scandal wasn't about sex, it was about lying (albeit about sex) in a judicial process.


Washington, D.C.: Hello Howard -- How come the Enron tapes haven't gotten more attention. They strike me as rather inflamatory. The Washington Post relegated them to the gossip column. What's up with that?

Howard Kurtz: The Post ran a story in the business section on June 15, but it didn't run on the section front. In my view, given the spectacular collapse of Enron and the ongoing investigations, the paper has badly underplayed the story, even if it can't print all the expletives that Enron officials used in bragging about how they were screwing the country.


Forestville, Md.: "But my point was this: Will conservatives grant that there was anything good about the Clinton presidency, as liberals were willing to give Reagan his due?"

Call me when he dies. I'll say something nice.

Howard Kurtz: I'll be sure to ring you up, unless Clinton outlives us all.


Potomac, Ms.: A few weeks ago, there was a lot of talk (again) about the relatively high number of people in the news business who identify themselves as liberal. The discussion often seemed to assume that liberal reporters got to slant their reporting in a liberal direction. But, I had always understood that reporters (at least on the major papers) seek to be objective, and editors do edit reporters' work. In your experience, has a reporter's liberal politics leached into his professional work. Would a reporter be able to get an obviously biased piece published in the Post? If not, what is the fuss about?

Howard Kurtz: This was prompted by a Pew survey in which 34 percent of the journalists from national outlets who were questioned said they were liberal, 54 percent moderate and 7 percent conservative. Yes, the great majority of journalists, I believe, try hard to keep their opinions out of their reports, perhaps not always successfully. But in the Pew survey, nearly half of those questioned said they believe that journalists let their ideology color their reporting. Not exactly a vote of confidence.


Little Rock, Ark.: I'm having a hard time figuring out McCain's game -- he swears up and down that he's a George Bush Republican, and campaigns with Bush. But he doesn't protest when Kerry uses his name an likeness in a positive way in his ads. Is he positioning himself for '08 or what?

Howard Kurtz: No. McCain believes he would be too old (mid 70s) to run in 2008. The fact is, McCain likes Kerry, the fellow Vietnam vets are friends, and McCain can hardly complain if Kerry mentions in an ad that they worked together on POW issues. At the same time, McCain bears considerable resentment toward Bush over some 2000 campaign tactics, even though he's decided to be a loyal Republican soldier and appeared with the president last week.


Arlington, Va.: Why can't the media get it right? Bush never said their was a 9-11 connection between Iraq and Alqueda. Juan Williams repeated this media misquote this morning on NPR. What the administration said was that their were connections and we wanted to stop them before they attacked us -- that's what makes the war "PRE-emptive." Bush has made lots of mistakes, and lots of the US may mistakenly think there is a 9-11 connection, but it is the major media (including your paper) that keep getting this one wrong!

Howard Kurtz: This remains the subject of considerable dispute (except for the fact that the Bush administration never tried to tie Saddam to 9/11, although some critics think officials dropped hints). The president and vice president directly took on the 9/11 commission last week for its findings on whether there were any meaningful Iraq/al-Qaeda links. The press accurately reported the commission's findings, along with the administration's denials. That doesn't seem like irresponsible media behavior to me.


Glendale, Calif.: Saddam-Al Qaeda 'link' -- OK I will take my President at his word and 'accept' that Saddam had a 'link' with Al Qaeda. Let's take that to its logical next phase and let's invade the house of Saud and trash Musharef and his Taliban/Al Qaeda loving Pakistanis. We will have our hands full for the next two decaades destroying any country that had any 'link' with Al Qaeda! Is it me or this 'link' thing is a joke that Bush is insulting us with? How come the media is letting him insult our intelligence like this? Enough already!

Howard Kurtz: How come the media is "letting him"? Since when can mere journalists control what the president of the United States says? The mainstream press has certainly given prominent play to both its own reporting failing to establish significant links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and to the findings of the 9/11 commission on this point. If George W. Bush and Dick Cheney want to take issue with that, that's their right, and we also have a responsibility to report their views.


Washington, D.C.: To change the subject...

Did you see Michael Moore on NBC this morning. He got very confrontative with Katie Couric. He said that the media did not live up to their responsibilites and let Bush go off to war without questioning him.

I found him alternating between shrill and smug, and I worry that he is more likely to turn people off to his causes than anything else.

How do you feel about the point he was trying to make, and how he delivers it?

Howard Kurtz: I did not see the interview. Moore is Clinton-like in the sense that some people idolize him and many can't stand him. His point of view on this is obviously one of an anti-Bush partisan who wants to see the president defeated, so I'd take his views of the press with a grain of salt.


Poll Reader: The Pew surveys most meaningful statistic was not that reporters self-identified as Liberal/Moderate/Conservative, but that they did not feel that the media had been tough enough on Bush. They felt that the news reports had been too accepting of Bush administration statements.

The recent New York Times mea culpa on Iraq coverage gives credence to the Pew findings.

Howard Kurtz: I think you're linking two separate issues. There's a great debate in the press (the New Republic is now reexamining this issue, as I reported Saturday) about whether we collectively should have been more skeptical and more aggressive toward the administration's prewar claims on WMD. That's an important debate to have. A separate question is whether the many journalists who believe the press has been too easy on Bush (Iraq was not specifically mentioned but is obviously a big chunk of the coverage) feel that way because of their liberal views.


New Orleans, La.: The lastest Harris poll has Bush up 51-41 over Kerry among likely voters. If Bush is leading like this now, after all the hits he's taken from the 9/11 Commission, Roger Moore and Kerry et al, what will the polls look like in November if the economy keeps growing and the Iraquis take over their own country?

Howard Kurtz: That's at variance with a couple of recent polls that have Kerry ahead. But there's no question that Bush has hung in there, apparently because of a very loyal base of voters, after the worst couple of months that any president has had in a long, long time.


Washington, D.C.: Howard,

You wrote that the press accurately reported the findings of the 9-11 Commission. Did you see the New York Times headline that blared out "No Connection Between Al Qaeda-Iraq"? That is blatantly wrong.

Howard Kurtz: We can argue about this endlessly, but the WP, LAT and USA Today, among others, ran similar headlines that day.


Tampa, Fla.: Do you believe that Clinton's book will influence people to vote for Kerry?

Howard Kurtz: If it does, it would have to be among people who were inclined to vote for Kerry anyway.


Woodbridge, Va.: "But my point was this: Will conservatives grant that there was anything good about the Clinton presidency, as liberals were willing to give Reagan his due?" -- As a VERY conservative Republican, yes Clinton did a number of good things. His "Reinvenitng Government" initiative actually made substanial improvements in government management and he did advance the cause of free trade. Nevertheless, he lied as easily as he breathed. More importantly, he often claimed credit for initiatives that passed over his strong objections (two vetos of welfare reform) and blamed Congress/Republicans for the results of his decisions (government shutdown due to HIS veto of continuing resolution.) Politics is not beanbag but Clinton took lying and duplicity to a level previously unheard of even in Washington and the Dems in Congress went along. If only a few of them had shown the charater of a Howard Baker, Clinton would have been convicted.

Howard Kurtz: I see you have strong opinions on this. But welfare reform is a perfect example of how this often depends on the eye of the beholder. Clinton RAN on welfare reform as one of the issues that would make him a different kind of Democrat. Yes, he vetoed two versions passed by the Republican Congress and compromised over a third version, angering his liberal base. But that is not the same as saying he was somehow forced to sign the bill. It's an issue that Bill Clinton put in play.
The debate, I see, goes on...
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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