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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 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.


Northern Virginia: If anybody should go the jail for not revealing source of info, it is Novak, not Cooper. Why isn't Novak threatened with jail?

washingtonpost.com: In the Matt Cooper Case, Chilling Implications (Post, Aug. 16)

Howard Kurtz: We don't know whether Robert Novak, as opposed to Time's Matt Cooper, has been or not. Novak has declined to say whether the special prosecutor in the case has subpoenaed him.


Concord, N.H.: Thanks for the critique of the Post's WMD coverage. It still bothers me, though, that there seems to be an assumption that IF WMD existed, then the invasion was warranted. Under international law and normative concepts of morality there are two separate questions -- (1) were there WMD and (2) did Iraq pose a clear and present danger to the United States? I did not see this articulated by anyone in your piece.

washingtonpost.com: The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story (Post, Aug. 12)

Transcript: Kurtz on The Post's Pre-War WMD Coverage (washingtonpost.com, Aug. 12)

Howard Kurtz: The purpose of my piece was not to relitigate why the U.S. went to war and whether we should have gone to war. It was designed to focus on the narrower question of how The Post performed during the runup to war.


New York, N.Y.: Howard,

What is your take on journalists applauding when a President or Presidential candidate addresses a group of them at a (journalists') convention?

Should newspeople always sit on their hands or is there a line of demarcation beyond which there is not even a whiff of conflict of interest? If so, is that "line" always evident?

Howard Kurtz: As a journalist, I don't applaud (or boo) politicians. I suppose I wouldn't have any great problem with a little polite applause when a politician you have invited appears before your organization. But three-quarters of the Unity convention gave John Kerry a standing ovation, but was much more tepid toward President Bush. I think that's way out of line and opens the minority organizations involved to accusations of political bias.


New York, N.Y.: I am reading Ken Auletta's "Backstory" and am SHOCKED the publisher of the New York Times doesn't read any other paper or magazine! I kid you not. I used to read the Times until I realized what they didn't cover was more important than what they did. This might explain why they were wrong on Iraq and their other problems.

Also what's with all these columns about the reporters liking Kerry better than Bush at the Unity convention? Listening to both their speeches makes it clear why. One hates the press and speaks down to them and one engages them with intelligent answers. I see nothing wrong with the reaction the press gave Kerry considering after 9/11, Bush walked on water according to these same reporters.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I disagree, as I just said. Especially during a campaign, it's important for journalists not to appear to take sides.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kurtz,

Is there anything that you read into Bush's approval rating exceeding 50 percent in the most recent Gallup poll?


Howard Kurtz: Polls blip up and down. I think the media in general obsess over them too much, especially minor changes that could well be within the margin of error. Remember, a lot of journalistic geniuses read the polls and declared that Howard Dean was the all but inevitable Democratic nominee.


San Mateo, Calif.: Why is the media still giving Mr. Bush a pass on questions about his truthfullness (his lack of it is more to the point); his professed outrage at leaks of classified information, and his administration's refusal to prosecute when the 'leakers' are Republicans; etc. etc. Everytime he opens his mouth he lies about something. Why does the media continue to publish his statements without questions (and without any outrage)? I'm outraged. By Mr. Bush,and by the media. The only possiblity for an informed electorate is a free and unbiased press. What ever happened to the press?

Howard Kurtz: If your view is that "every time he opens his mouth he lies about something," you're not likely to be satisifed with straightforward press coverage that doesn't reflect that view. Many forests have been wiped out by media stories questioning the president's credibility on Iraq, on budget deficits, on all kinds of issues. But we also have a responsibility to report what the president says, along with analysis and scrutiny.


Icebegville, Minn.: Nice job on handling the questions from your Washington Post/WMD last week.

Really, very impressive.

Howard Kurtz: Many thanks, Minnesota.


Chicago, Ill.: I agree entirely with you that the imprisonment of Matt Cooper would have a chilling effect on the medias ability to hold our government to account. However I am extremely concerned that journalists would seek to occupy a special legal status in terms of free speech. Expansive freedoms should apply to all of us. After all, who qualifies as a journalist? Does a NYT or WP reporter have greater rights than a high school reporter or someone who writes a blog or an academic working on a book? Especially today I cannot remotely see that such distinctions are fair. Let Matt Cooper preserve his freedom and his conscience in a way that would apply to ALL of us.

I hope very much that you can respond to this comment. I am very curious as to what a Washington Post journalist thinks of free speech rights as they apply to the rest of us.

Howard Kurtz: Any journalist, not just at the NYT/WP level, would be afforded the legal privileges designed to protect the First Amendment (though as the Matt Cooper case shows, those rights are far from absolute). The reason journalists get certain protections that others don't is that we are, at least presumably, operating on behalf of the public. We promise sources confidentially (too often, in my view, but sometimes vitally) because it is the only way to get certain kinds of information that we then publish. A doctor or lawyer or plumber doesn't face the same kind of circumstance.


Los Angeles, Calif.: The thought of a journalist going to prison for not revealing sources is terrifying, indeed. Any sense of how this will ultimately play out if Mr. Cooper refuses to cooperate? Can you please cite some significant historical examples of this type of situation? How has the Supreme Court decided on this issue in the past? Thank you so much for taking questions.

Howard Kurtz: It could easily happen, and Cooper would remain behind bars either until the grand jury's term had expired or the prosecutor concluded there was no further point in keeping him jailed. A number of journalists have gone to jail in source cases, usually state cases involving murder or other serious crimes. In one recent case, a Texas writer named Vanessa Leggett (and there was some dispute over whether she was a bona fide journalists; she said she was writing a book) was jailed for more than 100 days for refusing to name a source in a murder case.


New York, N.Y.: Hate to be nit picky, but you wrote:

"Well, I disagree, as I just said. Especially during a campaign, it's important for journalists not to appear to take sides."

Shouldn't a journalists do more than not "appear" to take sides? A reporter should report and not take any sides. Leave the side taking to columnists.

Howard Kurtz: By "appear" I meant not do anything publicly--applaud, make contributions, etc.--that would show the world that the journalist favors one candidate or political party.


Texas: I think many neutral observers would say that the press treated President Bush with a quite a bit of deference for a long time after 9/11. Some people would say too much so. (The Post and New York Times have both said as much, to varying degrees, at least regarding WMDs.)

Do you think the tide has turned, and Bush now is going to be getting coverage that is more-aggressive-if-not-bordering-on-hostile? If so, do you think the press is leading or following public opinion here?

Howard Kurtz: I think the president is getting more or less normal coverage now, though the continuing problems in Iraq, combined with the slings and arrows of a campaign, may make him appear to be under siege at times. There was certainly a period after 9/11 and the ensuing Afghan war where the country rallied around Bush, he was extremely popular and his coverage by the media was unusually gentle.


Cary, N.C.: If a journalist witnesses a crime while working on a story, and reporting that crime or testifying about it would reveal a confidential source, should the journalist be exempt from any obligation to report or testify?

Howard Kurtz: That's the question. But it's not usually a case of witnessing a crime. It's almost always the reporting of information based on an interview with someone to whom the journalist has promised confidentiality.


Rockville, Md.: Do radio talk show hosts consider themselves "not the media?" I ask this because when ever you listen to some of these hosts, they constantly bash the "liberal media" and make a point of saying that they are not the media. What's the deal?

Howard Kurtz: Of course they're part of the media, but they see themselves as lone rangers riding outside the system and use their microphones, rather effectively, to complain about the media and about liberal bias. Except, of course, for the relative handful of liberal hosts.


Washington, D.C.: Why does Novak claim he is a journalist? He's actually a columnist, a person who writes his own opinions. His work for CNN is also as a commentator on Crossfire and Capitol Gang, and he is occasionally interviewed by journalists for his opinion.

Howard Kurtz: Because his column, while obviously opinionated, is based on reporting, as it was during the decades when he wrote it with the late Rowland Evans.


Tuckahoe, N.Y.: I have refused to watch the Olympics because NBC has made essentially nothing available live and they edit everything. A friend in Europe is watching multiple feeds online, live, and without annoying commentators. We should at least be allowed to PAY for the same thing.

Howard Kurtz: The whole tape-delay thing has always bothered me, since NBC is showing events in prime time that anyone who is online already knows the outcome of. But NBC paid a lot for the Olympics and is obviously trying to reap the greatest possible ratings.


Towanda, Pa.: A friend who attended a recent conference tells me that the speaker, an academic expert, said that the White House press corps submits its questions in advance at a presidential news conference. Is that so?

Howard Kurtz: Completely and totally false. Utterly. Without qualification. No news organization would stand for that. There was an Irish Tv reporter who interviewed Bush recently (and gave him a hard time) who said she submitted questions in advance. I don't think she should have, and I've never heard of an American news outlet doing that.


Washington, D.C.: Its become pretty clear - to me at least - that the media has blown the recent terror alert story.

First, the administration HAD to release this information. Imagine if Citigroup employees learn that Al Queda had been casing their building and the government kept it under wraps. Secondly, these plans are years in the making, so the old story arguement isn't that strong.

Now, another story is emerging that the DHS had to get this information out, but didn't want to make it so current that it comprimsed ongoing investigations by tipping people of that we know about what they are doing right now. (e.g., hearing that we've got old data from a computer might not send of the alarm bells).

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure what else journalists could have done. When Tom Ridge goes on television on a Sunday to warn against possible attacks against these buildings, it's news. The next day the NYT and WP reported that the information was three or four years old, and followup reports pointed out that there may have been more current updates, etc. And, of course, with Howard Dean accusing the administration of political timing, that became part of the story too. We in the press may make too much of these alerts, but when the administration jumps up and down it's hard not to.


Virginia: I'm torn on this whole issue of Cooper and confidentiality. On the one hand I agree about the chilling affect of jailing journalists, but on the other hand, how do you then avoid allowing people to use journalists to break (or circumvent) the law for whatever their own personal agenda is?

Where do you draw the line? I just don't think it's as clearly cut and dried as saying journalists should have complete immunity from disclosing sources at all times. Now you have someone who has committed a felony (if I recall correctly) and is hiding behind the confidentiality of journalists. If I were the journalist I'd be angry about being used.

Howard Kurtz: That's what makes this case unusual. Usually, the sources being protected are whistleblowers of some kind who are trying to bring waste or corruption to light. But in this case, the sources are the ones who may have broken the law against intentionally outing an undercover intelligence operative. There is a strong feeling in journalism that you can blow a source's cover if that person turns out to have lied to you. I don't know if that would apply if the sources were just using you to get out derogatory information. Clearly Novak, who's said he doesn't see this as an intentional outing of Valerie Plame, doesn't think so.


Washington, D.C.: Howard, I think you're way off base on the Unity thing. People don't attend conventions like Unity as working journalists. No one was "covering" the speech. They were there as private citizens who happen to be journalists. And being part of an organization based on ethnicity is in itself a "political" statement on the state of race/ethnic relations in America and the newsroom.

Howard Kurtz: There's no such thing as being a private citizen who happens to be a journalist. You're a journalist, period. There was a time some years back when some journalists, on their days off, just acting as plain old citizens, marched in abortion rights demonstrations. They were criticized, and rightly so. When you become a journalist--and no one puts a gun to your head--you give up certain rights that other people have.


Washington, D.C.:
Mr. Kurtz,

I may have submitted this earlier, but what is the Gang of 500 as it was reported and why are members of the Press meeting together at Lauriol Plaza Restaurant to decide how to cover issues? Also were any Post reporters in attendance? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I can categorically declare that no Post reporters were there. That's because there was no such meeting. This was from a satirical piece in ABC's The Note about all these journalists supposedly getting together to plot the line of the day. Yeah, right. Rush Limbaugh picked it up and trumpeted it as a media conspiracy, even while wondering whether it was some kind of joke. It was.


Washington, D.C.: Howard,

What do you think would happen if the Washington Post started refusing to use anonymous sources? Would The Post lose the major stories?

If the major newspapers agreed to do this, could they force a change? The administration WANTS to get the story out, they just don't want a name attached. But if the papers refused to run it without a name, they'd have a tough choice.

It seems as if this administration has used the "anonymous" source more often than any administration I can remember. How about some accountability?

Howard Kurtz: I happen to think that anonymous sources are way overused, especially in routine political stories (one Bush adviser said the Kerry strategy was stupid, etc.). But in difficult investigative stories, there is often no other way to get the information. You can't expect a corporate auditor or intelligence analyst who would lose his job if he went public to take that kind of risk. Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and many other important stories could not have been reported without unnamed sources, leaving the press and the public only with the official version of events.
By the way, the Bush White House doesn't leak on a background basis any more than the Clinton White House or other administrations have.


Advance Questions: Doesn't the President have a list of people to call on for questions? Who makes up that list and how?

Howard Kurtz: The president can call on anybody he wants. He has a seating chart in front of him and usually calls on the wire service reporters, then the network reporters, then some of the newspaper people. At one 2003 news conference, Bush said he had a preordained list of who he was going to call on. That, of course, is up to him. All the reporters can do is wave their hands.


NBC paid a lot for the Olympics: Why? I haven't seen one event that wasn't continually interrupted either by other non-events like women's downhill lacrosse or.. endless commercials. So I stopped watching.

Not a fan of Ulysses but I need stream of continuity in my sports feeds.


Howard Kurtz: Regardless of whether you and I like it, the Olympics usually draws a big audience, enabling NBC to charge advertisers lots of money. This time around the network is also airing some events on CNBC and MSNBC.


Charlestown, Mass.: Do you think the administration/pentagon did a good job of getting the media on the side of the War in Iraq before it started? I remember listening to an interview on NPR two months before the war started; the guest was a pentagon official describing the embedding process and both he and the host seemed to assume, and not reluctantly, that war was inevitable. Were the media duped into thinking this was going to be a "splendid little war" which would boost sales and allow some of their reporters an escape from their hum-drum lives?

Howard Kurtz: Listen, some reporters were killed during that war, and I don't think anyone found it a splendid experience. The embedding policy, which I frequently wrote about, was a big plus for both the Pentagon adn the media. Journalists got an in-the-trenches view of the war that clearly benefited the public. The Pentagon was able to humanize the war effort through all the features on soldiers and units. And yes, some of the reporters who were sleeping in the sand with soldiers whose job was to protect them wound up reporting on them sympathetically, although there was also some negative stories filed by such embedded journalists.


Bastrop, La.: Is there anything that can be done by the press to get the President to hold more formal press conferences? I read the comments of Helen Thomas in a Post column this morning and I agree with her that the press conference is an institution that has been lost recently.

Howard Kurtz: George W. Bush has held far fewer news conferences than any modern president, including his father. There's nothing in the Constitution that requires such news conferences, but I think the press ought to make more of an issue of the president's refusal to more regularly expose himself to sustained questioning. The irony is that Bush usually does pretty well when he meets the press, but he clearly doesn't enjoy the experience.


Seattle, Wash.: Since when has the ability to look-good in shirt sleeves, as your John Harris reports, matter? Especially when you compare the fawning coverage given to President Bush's wardrobe compared to Al Gore four years ago. If Gore appeared in shirt-sleeves it was a sign of desperation, now somehow its a sign of being "down-to-earth". If I want fashions, I will read GQ not the Post!

Howard Kurtz: Harris's piece dealt with far more than Bush's wardrobe. But in a campaign where Kerry has boasted that his team has better hair, I don't think a little campaign color is a federal offense.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


washingtonpost.com: Shirtsleeves Style Is a Strong Suit for Bush (Post, Aug. 16)


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