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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2005; 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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Dallas, Tex.: I absolutely HATE the new "non-professional" way Bob Schieffer does the nightly news. I used to be a faithful viewer of CBS but switched to either of the other networks (usually switching back and forth) for my nightly news. I want newscasters to act like professionals -- not neighbors or friends!

Howard Kurtz: You're entitled to hate the way Schieffer delivers the news. You're entitled to switch him off or move to other newscasts. But you're not entitled to call him "non-professional." Like him or not, Bob Schieffer is a consummate newsman with four decades of experience. What he's doing on the "CBS Evening News" is to try a folksier, more conversational approach. What's wrong with a little experimentation, as opposed to every network doing things the same way year after year?

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Northridge, Calif.: Do you think Cheney approaches an appearance on Fox News Sunday differently than he approaches an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press? If so, would you attribute this to the moderators or the format of the show? The Reputation maybe?

Howard Kurtz: I have no way of knowing, obviously, how Cheney approaches his interviews. But I think that politicians generally prepare for a Russert sitdwon more intensively, for two reasons. One, the interviews on "Meet the Press" tend to be longer--as much as half an hour to an hour for the most newsworthy figures--and so more ground is going to be covered. That's far more challenging than an 8- or 10-minute interview. Second, Russert's trademark style is to video or graphics of what the guest has said in the past and try to highlight inconsistencies. If you aren't prepared, you can look pretty bad.

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Arlington, Va.: I think the most interesting thing about the new CBS news is the introductory portions which feature reporters in the field saying what they will report about. This is an obvious attempt to eliminate the cult of personality of the anchor and to introduce us to a stable of excellent reporters.

Howard Kurtz: There's no question it's an attempt to play up CBS's corps of correspondents, and it's an interesting switch from the omniscience of the anchor. Maybe if Schieffer was 48 instead of 68, he'd be more worried about promoting himself as the new anchor, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

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Germantown, Md.: Howie-Love the column, show, chats etc. Can you comment on how Terri Schiavo's case became such a mega-story? There are thousands of cases of similiar circumstances across the nation, so how did this become a national story? Without the national coverage, I doubt the politicians would have bothered to try to pass a bill for her, let alone reconvene from break, which means that the decision to give stories play time has huge ramifications. Do editors take this into account? Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: I agree that the heavy media coverage of the Schiavo case --and particlarly television replaying the hospital video over and over -- created the climate for Congress, George, Jeb and the Florida legislature to intervene (which, in turn, made it an even bigger story). As I wrote last week, there have been many, many cases like this (including, we now know, that of Tom DeLay's father), that didn't rate a paragraph in the paper. I know that the press likes to personalize these issues, but journalists provided a forum for Schiavo's feuding relatives to turn her condition into a national melodrama that, not so coincidentally, was a ratings boost.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

The panel on yesterday's edition of CNN's "Reliable Sources," seemed to agree that the press is overplaying the Terri Schiavo story and that in such situations the fringe players who show up at hospitals and other locales are just too irresistible not to be put on television.

Isn't it incumbent on the various media to try to balance their coverage by showing their viewers and readers that these handful of people represent a small portion of the public's opinion?

An analogy might be all of the wacky folks with painted faces at sporting events who are supposed to represent the "average fan,' when, in reality, they are in the small, obnoxious minority.

Howard Kurtz: We in the media succumb to this temptation over and over -- allowing a handful of colorful protestors or self-appointed spokesmen to loom larger in a controversial story than they deserve. You can understand the attraction -- they make good television, they give good quote -- but they are not representative. In the Schiavo case, the majority opinion, at least according to recent polls, is in favor of the court decisions upholding the husband's insistence that his wife would not have wanted to live like this, but you don't see people who hold this view waving signs and screaming outside the hospital in Florida.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you have any idea why Richard Leiby is leaving? Not sure we'll notice, as he seemed to "eschew the salacious" as I once said about the late Lloyd Grove. Goodbye.

Howard Kurtz: He's not leaving The Post, just giving up the gossip column. It's a demanding job and was never a great fit, as he sees it, and Rich wants to return to reporting and writing longer pieces.

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Lexington Park, Md.: I think the new CBS News is much better than the Dan days. I'm a twenty something who watched Dan a few times and just got turned off by his, "Here's the news, it's important because we're preaching it to you, if we don't mention it, it's not important" style. But the new Shaffer way seems much more in tune with what news should be. Get the facts from the reporter first, then ask some questions that the reporter may not be ready for. It makes it feel like they're not just reading copy, but instead trying to understand everything along with the audience. It really is a change and I like it.

Howard Kurtz: Okay, Schieffer is 1 for 2 on this chat. You know, while there are still plenty of traditional stories on the newscast, it strikes me that we're talking here about the difference between scripted and unscripted news. In a taped standup, correspondent X says something like, "As the death toll here continues to rise, even the most optimistic military officials are wondering if the United States needs an exit strategy. Dan?" But Schieffer is trying to make things more informal and personal, such as asking Byron Pitts how he feels about being in Iraq, to which Pitts replies that he prays all the time--i.e., it's scary. Not necessarily everyone's cup of tea, but a different approach.

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Evansville, Ind.: You said, "As I wrote last week, there have been many, many cases like this (including, we now know, that of Tom DeLay's father), that didn't rate a paragraph in the paper." But DeLay's father's had a brain hemorrhage and broken ribs; he needed a tracheotomy and ventilator to assist his breathing; and his body was full of infections. Terri Schiavo's vital functions are working perfectly well; she simply needs a feeding tube because she cannot swallow on her own.

Unlike Terri Schiavo, he was in a state of steady deterioration and at death's imminent doorstep within days of his accident. Unlike the Schiavo case, there was a family consensus among the DeLays and no dispute over what the father would have wanted. Moreover, DeLay was not the primary decision-maker in the family's choice to withhold heroic treatment. That role fell to his mother and another brother and sister.

Why say they're similar?

Howard Kurtz: Similar in this respect: The family had to make a decision on whether to end the life of a seriously ill person with no realistic hope of recovery. Obviously the medical details of every case are different, and in some cases family members are in agreement and in others they're not. But the question, which the Schiavo case has underscored, is whether family members, in consultation with doctors, get to make the decision, or whether government gets to intervene.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Howard, I thought your discussion on "Reliable Sources" about the media's coverage (or lack thereof) of religion was quite interesting. But I'd like to expand on a point that was raised. I don't think that the mainstream media ignores religion, but it covers it in a limited and somewhat skewed way, especially as it pertains to politics. It seems that almost every time Republicans or conservatives win an election, the press puts out a lot of puff pieces about the effect of "evangelical" Christians (of the Falwell/Robertson/Dobson variety) claiming credit for the result, but the press seldom says much about the views of more moderate and liberal faiths and denominations. Many causes viewed as liberal, such as peace, helping the poor, and racial/gender equality are advocated by many churches, but the media's coverage of religion and politics seems mostly confined to endlessly quoting the same few right-wingers, which I think gives a distorted picture of Christianity and religion in general. Do you agree?

Howard Kurtz: Steve Roberts did make that point on the show, talking about the liberal wing of church movements (he mentioned Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson) getting short shrift in the media coverage. While I don't necessarily agree that we're always quoting "the same few right-wingers," it's certainly true that evangelical, conservative Christianity gets the lion's share of the political coverage. That's in part because it's a big and important movement, and maybe there's a sense of the press having neglected it in years past, but it's not the whole story when it comes to the impact of religion on politics.

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Hartford, Conn.: I'd have to disagree with the earlier commenter. I find the Schieffer newscast immensely watchable, and above all, intelligently delivered. The linchpin for me was that on the day that both the Scott Peterson sentence and Robert Blake verdict were handed down, he gave them a cursory mention seven minutes into the newscast and led instead with Iraq. To me, that's respecting your audience and bolstering your credibility as a serious news organization.

Howard Kurtz: Okay, Bob is up 2 to 1. The network evening newscasts have almost never led with Peterson, Blake, Michael Jackson and other tabloid and celebrity cases, while cable has covered them constantly. But the network morning shows are a different story. Apparently playing to a different audience, they have been much more likely to start off their programs with the celebrity cases. Obviously, Peter, Brian and Bob can't ignore these stories, but I agree that they've done a better job of not letting them swallow the newscast.

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Juneau, Alaska: Submitting early (Saturday morning), so this may be moot
by the time you read it.

If the pope and Terry Schiavo were to die at roughly the same time, who in your professional judgement gets more headlines in the U.S. media? I've been a newspaper editor and reporter for 15 years and I'm still not certain on this one (and I'm withholding my personal thoughts on the whole thing).

Howard Kurtz: For all the coverage the Schiavo case has gotten, that is not even close. The Pope is the religious leader of millions around the world, and his death would be an event of global importance, as opposed to the now-expected death of a woman who is newsworthy mainly as a symbol of the right-to-die battles in this country.

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New York, N.Y.: It is my opinion that the media CREATED the circus atmosphere surrounding the Schiavo story as opposed to REPORTING on the story. If this is the case, it means the media is controlling what "values" debates the country is having as opposed to being a neutral observer and reporiting the debate to listeners and readers. Care to comment?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the media don't "control" anything, but I agree that the media played a big role in pumping up this story to the point where it became irresistible for Bill Frist, Tom DeLay, George Bush and Jeb Bush to get involved. It reminds me, in that respect, of the Elian Gonzalez case, which also drew nonstop coverage in which the country got to choose sides and argue about various wacky relatives. We seem to have a fatal weakness for dramas that serve as a stand-in for some national debate, even though the individual people involved are quite ordinary.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

After reading the Post's interview with VP Cheney last week, I was hard pressed to see what in it was front page news. When a person like the President or Vice President gives an interview with a paper like the Post, do they automatically get put on the front page, even if they say nothing new?

Howard Kurtz: Good question. News organizations love to trumpet their exclusive interviews with top officials or newsmakers. I would agree that Cheney didn't have anything sufficiently new to say to warrant a top-of-the-front-page headline, although the nuances of what he was saying about various administration policies made for an interesting story. Condoleezza Rice didn't have anything dramatically new to say in Saturday's front-page story, based on a sitdown with Post editors and reporters, but I thought her interview was more newsworthy than Cheney's.

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Charlotte, N.C.: There's a disturbing trend among younger cable news correspondents to call news principals such as Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson by their first names. It's one thing if that is necessary to distinguish the subject among a family, such as the Petersons (Scott, Laci, Connor). But do you agree that to refer to news subjects by their first name as a matter of course is unprofessional and inappropriately casual? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: "Inappropriately casual" is a good phrase. It's all designed to foster an intimate sense that we know these people, they're our friends -- How will Martha adjust to life with a monitoring bracelet? Can Michael's career survive the porn revelations? -- when in fact most of the journalists and commentators have never met the people they're talking about.

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Bowie, Md.: Can you add anything to the obvious perception that part of the reason the media likes court cases is that they have 'exactly 2.0 sides,' as Michael Kinsley said about the problem with Crossfire?

Howard Kurtz: It's a good line, but I think they have more than two sides, in that lawyers make multiple arguments, especially on appeal. Journalists like court cases because they have the feel of official news; all the participants gather in one place; there's a natural narrative (opening argument, testimony, closing argument, deliberation, verdict, sentencing, appeal); and there's a final outcome that produces winners and losers. Plus, it's easy to round up a bunch of lawyers and get them to pop off about the case on TV.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is it that last week you hyped up a study showing Fox News to be "opinionated," but didn't mention another study from a very reputable organization that showed the coverage of the presidential election to be skewed in Kerry's favor?

Howard Kurtz: Hyped? Me?
First of all, I wrote on story about the 600-page annual report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. If that's hyping, I need to take a remedial class. Second, the finding about Kerry and Bush was in the SAME REPORT -- and received all of one paragraph. Why? Because the authors felt they had a very small sample. Third, it was old news that I had reported on last year from various studies, including one by the SAME GROUP. Here's an excerpt from last October:
"A new study says that 59 percent of the stories mainly about Bush during the two-week debate season were clearly negative, meaning that they contained statements at least 2 to 1 critical of the president, who scowled his way through the first face-off with John Kerry. That mirrored the 56 percent negative coverage that Gore got four years ago, when his sighing performance was later mocked on 'Saturday Night Live.'
"By contrast, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, just 25 percent of the stories about Kerry were decidedly negative, which is better than Bush, as the perceived winner, did during the 2000 debates. Just over a third of the Kerry stories from Oct. 1 through 14 were clearly positive, compared with 14 percent for Bush."
I rest my case.

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Washington, D.C.: I have one word for all you in the media surrounding the reporting on the Terry Schiavo affair: SHAME.

Howard Kurtz: The only phrase that bothers me is "all of you in the media" (not the SHAME part), because everyone in the news biz hasn't reported on this in the same way or with the same degree of excess. I hope people will resist the urge to lump everyone in the news media together rather than single out who is doing a bad job and a good job (or at least a less bad job).

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Salt Lake City, Utah: Howard, Your response to New York, NY on CNN's Reliable Sources.
You write... "allow a handful of colorful protesters or self appointed spokesmen... they make good television, give good quote, but are not representative."
Doesn't the media have some responsibility here or are many of them just lazy and inexperienced.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, that was my point exactly. But part of what I try to do on these chats is explain to you how reporters and editors and producers think, and why the media do some of the things they do. I'm not defending what they do in many cases, but I am trying to illuminate it.

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Lexington Park, Md.: I agree with your poster about "innappropriately casual" and add this to it too. I hate it when papers and TV refer to President Bush as just Bush. Like him or not, he earned his title. Just as if anyone mentions Bill Clinton I expect to hear President Clinton. There are very few who acheived the title, let's let them have it.

Howard Kurtz: I'd agree on first reference. After that, I see no problem with just using last names, as we do in The Post and many other papers and magazines and broadcasts. My appropriate title, of course, should be Media Czar.

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Washington, D.C.: It would take a day-after-Easter tsunami to knock the Schiavo story out of the news.

Howard Kurtz: When I got to your question, one of Schiavo's relatives, I believe her father, was being carried live on CNN, speaking to the mob of reporters in Florida about Terri's condition. So the nonstop coverage continues.

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Newark, Del.: A C-SPAN junky here. I was wondering if you had looked into or had any thoughts on some of the more recent C-SPAN controversies. I've been reading your media notes columns regularly for the past couple months and haven't heard any mention.

The most recent(and I apologize on lack of detail since I heard this on Washington Journal and the memory is faint) is that C-SPAN invited an individual who professes that the Holocaust never happened. They were going to give him an hour on Book TV and also give an hour to a woman who once prosecuted him as rebuttal. But she refused to appear on C-SPAN because she felt it was insulting to even allow the man an hour of air time. That's lead to the question of how accomodating must C-SPAN be to be inclusive of differing views. Even those blatantly false or racist. (They do get quite a few racist phone calls. And where do you draw the line at someone like Ann Coulter.)

There have also been other changes. Like how the new Afterwords and it's more antagonistic guest moderators compare to the much beloved Booknotes. If you have any comments or insights I'd like to hear them.

Howard Kurtz: You summarized it reasonably well. I don't see why C-SPAN felt the need to put a Holocaust denier on to "balance" the views of an author, and I understand why she pulled out. We don't put on people who say the earth is flat to balance the views of those who "argue" that it's round. C-SPAN is great at airing all kinds of opinions, but someone whose whole argument is at odds with clearly established facts doesn't necessarily deserve a forum.

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Re: Charlotte, N.C.: Maybe they're taking their cue from the President. He seems to refer to world leader by their first names. I remember him stepping up to a podium and calling the Secretary General of the UN "Kofi." I was floored.

Howard Kurtz: Well, but Bush (excuse me, President Bush) can do that because he knows these people. He's met them. He has a relationship with them and can assume first-name familiarity if he wants. Not so some blow-dried anchor who's never been in the same room as a person.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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