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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 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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Gaithersburg, Md.: The positive to negative media coverage advantage held by Bush over Gore in the 2000 race has been fairly well documented. Given the results of the study you cite today, do you think the common denominator might be a certain level of skepticism regarding the candidate perceived as the incumbent, toward the status quo?

All studies aside, I find it remarkable how much of a free pass Bush was given on Iraq until very recently, when it suddenly "became" an issue because Kerry was raising in a more aggressive way.

Howard Kurtz: I find it hard to understand how anyone can say Bush has had a "free pass" on Iraq for the past year. It's been one of the most intensely reported and debated issues in modern history. We've been through the 16 words in the State of the Union, no WMD and wave after wave of escalating violence there. It's true that Iraq coverage slipped a bit during the summer, when we had the Olympics, both conventions, the Russian school massacre and a bunch of hurricanes. It's also true that if Kerry slams Bush's handling of Iraq every day, which he was not doing earlier, that generates additional coverage. That's why we have campaigns.

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Jon Stewart "media lite"?!;: If that is the case, then you might as well refer to the cable news nets like CNN and Faux as "non-media".

Howard Kurtz: Hey, I'm a big Jon Stewart fan and have interviewed him a number of times. But he prides himself on being a purveyor of fake news. Extremely funny fake news, fake news that makes important satirical points about politics, the media and the general human condition, but still fake...

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Crystal City, Arlington, Va.: I'm hoping to win a bet with my brother on this one. Although both CBS and Dan Rather apoligized for using documents they can no longer vouch for, did they retract their story? I think CNN retracted their story about TAILWIND, but I can't recall any network news show ever issuing a retraction.

Howard Kurtz: CBS has not issued a retraction. Dateline retracted and apologized for the story of the exploding truck in 1993, and CNN retracted and apologized for Tailwind in 1998.

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Vienna, Va.: Howard, yesterday's Meet the Press roundtable consisted of two very conservative columnists, Robert Novak and William Safire; one centrist, David Broder; and one nonideological historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Where is the balance? Were EJ Dionne, Paul Krugman, Molly Ivins, Michael Kinsley, Joe Conason, Eric Alterman, Paul Begala, Mark Crispin Miller, and dozens more left wing media folk all unavailable? Or does MTP simply have no interest in appearing balanced?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's fair to say Goodwin is left of center, but you're certainly right that there was no fire-breathing liberal on. So that's a fair point. Russert achieves perfect balance, of course, when he has Carville and Matalin arguing with each other.

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Seattle, Wash.: Howie, a question about media coverage...

Michael Isikoff's dystopian "Terror Watch" column in Newsweek ran this story last week: "The Story that Didn't Run... Here's the Piece that '60 Minutes' Killed for its Report on the Bush Guard Documents."

If this is an important news story, why did Newsweek not run with it as a full-on news story? Since 60 Minutes decided to hold it until after the election, obviously they feel it's not a vital story to the nation and has some "shelf-life". Most Americans have already decided where they stand on WMDs, and a new yellow cake story isn't likely to transform their perspective. On top of it all, many already have a negative view of CBS News... why should the mainstream media like CBS take any more risks in a highly charged election cycle?

Was Newsweek simply playing serving as yet another turkey vulture, keeping its own journalists out of harms way, while nosing in on CBS roadkill? Has the Post ever thought to publish a news headline like ... "Here's the Story You're Not Going to Read in the Times Because They Chose to Run Something Else?"

Howard Kurtz: You're assuming that Newsweek had the script of the spiked CBS story. I don't know what else the magazine could have done. Given the intensive coverage of Iraq, I doubt the 60 Minutes piece contained shocking new revelations. Still, it's interesting that CBS felt gun-shy enough to deep-six it.

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Boston, Mass.: Is there a chance that the debate this week could be cancelled? What would be the reason?

Howard Kurtz: I see no chance, other than a Category 5 hurricane hitting Coral Gables in the next couple of days.

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Greenbelt, Md.: I'm a big Daily Show fan, but I just find it incredibly sad that the only way one can speak the truth in politics today is to wrap it up in comedy.

I don't know if it's a case of the corporate media being intimidated or just lazy, but it is a serious indictment either way.

Howard Kurtz: I don't feel intimidated. There are some good journalists out there, you know. It sounds like what's being reported doesn't agree with your point of view.

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Morgantown, W.Va.: You listed NPR as a member of the liberal media and I know the conservatives portray it that way, but I think it's the most balanced news outlet we have. The news is straightforward and the pundits have opinions without shouting or demeaning the other side. Is it the producers' choice of coverage--poverty, points of view from other countries--that make it "liberal"?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not saying NPR is unbalanced. It has a huge audience. But the fact of the matter is it attracts many liberals, in the way that Fox attracts many conservatives, and thus is part of the cultural split I was writing about this morning.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Pres. Bush was recently interviewed by an Irish journalist who challenged him when he avoided answering her questions. Bush and other political figures stage events and photo opportunities and the media seem to be willing participants. The media values the visual event more than being manipulated by public figures. The classic example of that was Pres. Bush landing on a carrier in a flight suit and the (in)famous banner in the background. The media went for it hook, line and sinker. And then repeated it over and over as if this was a "real" event as opposed to staged bit of media exploitation.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't think that day was the media's finest hour, by any means. But reporters aren't shying away from tough questions. At last week's Bush event with Ayad Allawi, seven of the nine questions (as quoted by the New Republic, in my online column today) were skeptical inquiries about Iraq and whether things there weren't worse than the president and the interim prime minister were describing.

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Arlington, Va.: Where in the political spectrum does the evaluating group you cited (Center for Media and Public Affairs) fall? I'm sure they think they are middle of the road and non-partisan -- so do Fox and the New York Times.

Howard Kurtz: I've been covering this outfit for years and I think they have a very good track record and are not partisans for one side or the other.

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London, U.K.: As we see it here, Kerry is gifting the election in the same manner as Gore did four years ago.

Clinton's advice, to concentrate on the economy, and let Bush take the flack on Iraq, makes more sense than anything else I've seen.

Do you think there is still time for Kertry to pull it round?

Howard Kurtz: I have no idea what will happen in the remaining five weeks. But after an internal battle in the Kerry camp, the senator has decided to pound Bush daily on Iraq and terrorism rather than try to shift the conversation to the slowly improving economy and ignoring the political elephant in the room.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: Hi Howard

You wrote that "Brit Hume, Fox's Washington managing editor, whose 'Special Report' was examined by the study, says he's surprised by the anti-Kerry findings."

After the 2002 elections, didn't Brit Hume say that the GOP should give FOX credit for taking both houses?

Doesn't he also switch between being an anchor and an analyst?

Does anyone still believe he has any credibility?

Howard Kurtz: I've never heard Hume say anything resembling that. He is basically an anchor, although he does function as an analyst of sorts at political events and on Sunday mornings. Which is no longer unusual for a TV person. Sam Donaldson used to cover the White House and then offer his usually liberal opinions on "This Week."

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Anonymous: Howard Kurtz: "I find it hard to understand how anyone can say Bush has had a "free pass" on Iraq for the past year."

So I take it you wouldn't consider the press's tacit endorsement of the president's incessant mantra that Iraq has something to do with a War on Terror as indicative of a "free pass"? The media just swallows that ridiculous assertion hook line and sinker, like they did the WMD stuff, despite countless evidence contradicting it. Keep up the great work, guys.

Howard Kurtz: I don't see the "tacit endorsement." I've read many, many articles about whether the war in Iraq was a distraction from the battle against terrorism, knocking down the administration's attempt to tie Saddam to 9/11, etc. The press performance in this area has hardly been perfect -- and, as I've written about The Post and other news organizations, was badly flawed in the runup to war -- but those who are most strongly opposed to Bush seem to be blaming the media for not making everyone else feel that way.

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Fort Worth, Tex.: Howard, I love you, but when I "accused" you last week of being "too fair" to CBS, I was saying you were slow to come down on them and confirm what everybody already knew: the documents were fake.

Howard Kurtz: I refused to make the same mistake that CBS made: jumping to conclusions I couldn't prove. My articles, step by step, left any reader with a pulse with the impression that these documents were extremely suspect and CBS had utterly failed to prove their authenticity. But even now I can't write, with 100 percent certainty, that they are fakes, though everyone assumes that to be the case.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Y'know Mr Kurtz, that's a cheap shot.

Being unhappy with the lack of substantive coverage in the corporate media doesn't mean that there's a partisan agenda. That comes across as a cop-out on your part to avoid looking at the press. Isn't the press supposed to be unbiased in reporting the entire story? Is it partsian to ask that the press, as a public interest, do this?

Even your own paper has admitted to missing the story in the leadup to the war on Iraq. I think that any honest American who wants the chance to make informed decisions would be unhappy with the state of reporting in the US, and would mourn the passing of the torch to comedy shows.

Howard Kurtz: The reason my paper admitted these problems is that I questioned those involved here and wrote a lengthy front-page story about it. Look, these news organizations are owned by very large companies, but critics toss around the phrase "corporate media" as if the journalists employed herein had no editorial independence. I've been here for 23 years and no one in the paper's corporate hierarchy has ever tried to influence a word I've written.

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Houston, Tex.: On the subject of reporters who "double" as analysts, like Brit Hume, Donaldson, David Broder, Juan Williams. When they make their "leanings" clear in their analysis, won't the audience look for that point of view or "bias" in their reporting, whether it's there or not?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. Any savvy person would take that into account. (Juan Williams, by the way, is basically a commentator, not a straight reporter.)

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Vienna, Va.: Did the Bush camp ask that CBS's Bob Schieffer not moderate one of the debates, as punishment for the news division's scandalous "reporting"? I thought I saw something about such a request, but I've not seen any follow up.

Howard Kurtz: No. A few conservatives said Schieffer should be bounced, though he had nothing to do with the 60 Minutes story, in retaliation against CBS. But the Bush campaign (as well as Kerry's) had already approved Schieffer and raised no objection to my knowledge.

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Anchorage, Alaska: If the Democrats tank again in November with no White House, no Rep House, and no Senate -- will the media start focusing FINALLY on the failure of two party politics?

Time to call it a monarchy and be done with it.

Howard Kurtz: I don't recall many people complaining about the failure of two-party politics during the Kennedy-Johnson administration, or the Carter administration, or the first two years of the Clinton administration, when the Democrats had total control. If the Republicans win a majority of voters, that may reflect a failure of the Democratic Party, but I don't see where it is an indictment of the system.

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Maine: Howard,
Will the audience be allowed to cheer or react at all in the first debate? Cheers, boos, these can influence TV audience.

Howard Kurtz: The audience is usually admonished not to cheer or boo, but doesn't always follow orders.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard

Why has Bush's release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve has gotten so little coverage? In 2000 it was front page news when the Clinton administration released oil, Bush called Gore a flip-flopper and a waffler for having an election eve conversion on this issue. I see Bush doing what Clinton/Gore did in 2000 with an added pinch of hypocrisy. Isn't that news?

Howard Kurtz: Bush says he's doing it because of disruptions from the series of hurricanes. Clinton did it in an effort to get oil prices down with the election approaching, and I think his was a bigger release of oil. But you're right that both moves came in the heat of the fall campaign.

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Daily Show: Frankly, I was disappointed that they didn't do more about C-B.S. finally becoming part of the Fake News movement.

Howard Kurtz: I'll send a note to Jon's writers.

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Washington, D.C.: Instead of a retraction of the story, hasn't CBS consistently asserted the major point that Bush received favorable treatment to enter the Texas ANG and then did not fulfill his commitment? In a sense, the documents controversy has caused the essential aspects of the story to be repeated more times than it would have been otherwise. The controversy remains unresolved becuase the documents have not been proved inauthentic, although many disorganized experts and many well organized conservatives say they are forgeries.

Howard Kurtz: We already knew the general outines of the problems with Bush's Guard service. The controversy remains unresolved because CBS made charges based on documents that the network now says it can't vouch for. So we know no more than we did before about whether Bush received favorable treatment. We did learn, post-CBS, that a commander in his unit wrote a letter praising W's early performance to then-congressman George H.W. Bush. Which tells you that the young pilot was seen as a member of a VIP family.

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Arlington, Va.: Prime Minister Allawi suggested last week that good news about the Iraqi reconstruction was not being reported. I remember hearing more of the same claim last year, but it seems to have died down. Recently, I have seen nothing but negative reports on the Iraqi reconstruction.

Normally, people talk about certain news being "under-reported," but it's usually not the case that certain news is not being reported at all.

Is there some positive news out there, but it's getting buried? If so, how is that possible given how helpful that news would be to the Bush campaign?

Howard Kurtz: Is there some progress in rebuilding Iraq? Of course. But given the escalating violence of the last two months, the fact that the so-called insurgents now control some parts of the country and that some of the newly trained Iraqis aren't fighting, it's become harder to make the case that our perceptions are based on media bias. Allawi may have said this, but Bush and his campaign seem to have dropped that argument. Indeed, Colin Powell acknowledged yesterday that things in Iraq are getting worse.

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Wayzata, Minn.: I keep reading that the two parties -- GOP and DNC -- have been staffing up with lawyers in preparation for the election recount. How bout the news organizations? Are they gearing up for a Florida battle?

Howard Kurtz: The press has certainly been aggressive in writing about potential problems with voting, touch screens, etc. But it's hard for news organizations to gear up for the aftermath until we see what happens. Unlike political parties, we don't go out and hire a bunch of lawyers for these things.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Howard-

I've heard you make the point that journalists, good ones anyway, try to present the facts in such a way as to let readers/viewers reach their own, well-informed conclusions. I wholeheartedly agree. But for that very reason, I am really disturbed by the term 'Fair and Balanced' when it comes to journalism. After all, if a journalist, editor, or a news organization takes this as a value, aren't they obliged to ignore, downplay or emphasize facts that support one side more than the other, in some nuerotic attempt to avoid being labeled as biased?

Howard Kurtz: Not necessarily. If one candidate tells a lie and the other candidate tells 10 lies, you can be fair and balanced by reporting those facts. But let's face it, it's a marketing slogan for Fox as much as anything else.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is the media all over CBS now when it is caught not doing a good job verifying sources, but seems to be very little concerned about the inaccuracies and lies spread during the build-up to the Iraq War, and during that war. Just think about WMD, Jessica Lynch story, Pentagon claims that France sold weapons to Iraq in January 2003. Shouldn't media like the Post be more concerned about what is written in the Post itself, rather than pontificating about the stupidity of CBS News?

Howard Kurtz: I refer you to my front-page story of Aug. 12 on all the problems with The Post's reporting during the runup to war. And our ombudsman, Mike Getler, was very aggressive in criticizing the paper for its early and erroneous coverage of the Jessica Lynch saga.

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Washington, D.C.: Given the format of the 'debate', aren't we stretching the definition of 'debate' a little? This seems more like a Q&A session. As I also look to politics for entertainment (apologies to some of you in Washington who take politics oh-so-serious), I find this format lacking in that regard. Any hope the candidates will ignore the rules?

Howard Kurtz: You're right. They are more like parallel news conferences. 60 seconds, 30 second rebuttal, with little or no opportunity to interrupt or engage in an actual discussion. That's the way the candidates want it, because it reduces the possibiity of a big blunder, so they will undoubtedly play by the rules they agreed to.

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Miami, Fla.: The "controversy" today over whether Bush actually said "Mission Accomplished" as claimed by Kerry is case study in deception being played out in real-time. Is there any real dispute about this? As the blogs hae already noted, Bush did say those words the following month, and he stood in front of a giant banner on the USS Lincoln when he declared major combat operations to be over. So must there really be "balance" when covering this fake story?

Howard Kurtz: Whether he said it or not, that big fat banner on the aircraft carrier for the White House-staged photo op said it loud and clear. And the idea that the administration had nothing to say about the banner some soldiers chose to put up has never been terribly convincing.

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Bethesda, Md.: Perhaps part of the reason people are ditrustful of certain media outlets is the lack of accountability, even arrogance. I have written several times recently to the Post ombudsman and one of your reporters, Dana Milbank, about what I consider to be fairly obvious journalistic lapses and have not had the courtesy of a response. Know what? I tune them out as a result.

Is there no obligation to respond to readers?

Howard Kurtz: The ombudsman gets so much mail that it would be impossible to respond to every single person. But he has criticized Milbank a number of times, while recognizing good reporting on his part at other times.

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Arlington, Va.: Although Bob Schieffer is a fair minded and moderate individual and there should be no problem in his moderating a debate, you should note that his brother is Bush's appointed Ambassador to New Zealand.

Howard Kurtz: That is absolutely true. And I have asked him in a previous interview whether he is influenced by that, and he has said no, for what it's worth.

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Charleston, S.C.: I read the article appearing in Sunday's Post, I forget the author, comparing Kerry's versus Bush's debating style. To me it seemed that Kerry has an encyclopedic knowledge of issues and concepts that he has at the ready to assail his opponent with, and speaks like the highly educated person he is. According to the article, Bush's strongest debating skills seem to lie in his ability to not act too smart, to make funny faces, and appeal to the humorous side of the audience by ridiculing his opponent. Am I right in thinking that he is expected to do better because he keeps the debate at such a pedantic level that most of America will respond to? If this is true, I weep for the future.
It would be like debating with a brick wall from Texas.

Howard Kurtz: I think the main point (and I've read a number of these, so forgive me) is that Bush's strength is that he speaks in simple declarative sentences and has a knack for connecting with the average guy, while Kerry has a tendency to be verbose. But everyone in America can watch, beginning Thursday, and reach their own conclusions.

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St. Louis, Mo.: Jon Stewart calls his show "fake news", but it really covers true stories in a satirical way. Keith Oberman's countdown is a watered down version of this theme. Is this a problem? Will all news channels have a funny show on? Isn't there some kinda line being blurred here?

Howard Kurtz: Olbermann's show is sometimes funny and snarky, but it is basically a news show in which guests are interviewed about the issues of the day. I don't see anything wrong with taking a lighter approach to the news, especially on a 24-hour network that has plenty of time for the heavier stuff. CNBC is prime time now features Dennis Miller and John McEnroe, after all.

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Reston, Va.: Do you think there's any real news value to having a reporter doing a live report from the middle of a hurricane? I kind of assumed that hurricanes are really windy and rainy.

Howard Kurtz: You know, I've always made the exact same assumption. And wondered exactly what information these drenched, windblown journalists are providing.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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