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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 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.


Yonkers, N.Y.: Mr Kurtz

Your reports are great and have become must reading for this New Yorker.

In today's Media Notes, discussing the new CBS news series that attempts to deal with issues in "depth," you cite:
"The challenge for us is finding these compelling stories and telling them in a fair and balanced way," Kaledin explains.

Are there not poltical postions that defy a fair and balanced presentation from anyone who is not a lobbyist? Hasn't the mainstream media gone too far in letting the politcal parties frame the issues even using the names/terms they use, no matter how misleading they are?

Howard Kurtz: Probably. Presenting an issue - child care, unemployment, trade, etc. - and asking where Bush and Kerry stand is a perfectly reasonable way for CBS or any other news organization to proceed. But it's also true that the media tend to downplay or ignore issues that the parties are downplaying or ignoring -- a classic example being the burgeoning S&L cricis in the '88 campaign. This time around, who is really talking about the eventual bankruptcy of Medicare once the boomer generation retires? Racial discrimination? Lack of affordable housing? The press has seemed disinclined to push any issue that isn't on the parties' agenda.


Washington, D.C.: Is it wrong that even though I am a complete politics and news junkie, I still find The Daily Show to be one of the most intellegent and informative shows out there? For example, last week's segment detailing how the media lets politicos get away with just reading their talking points over and over again was great.

Howard Kurtz: Wrong? No way! It's one of the most incisive shows on television because so much of its humor is aimed at exposing -- and ridiculing -- the conventions of both politicians and the media.


Houston, Tex.: I was recently surprised to learn that, during the 2000 Presidential campaign, FOX News journalist Carl Cameron was covering George W. Bush at the same time that his wife was actively campaigning for governor Bush.

What do you think about this? To the best of your recollection, have you ever mentioned this connection in your colum?

Howard Kurtz: I wrote a long piece on July 11 about the movie "Outfoxed," which contains the footage of Cameron telling Bush this. I also quoted Cameron as saying that while his wife had considered becoming a Republican volunteer in Maryland, she never did and did not wind up working for the Bush campaign.


Evanston, Ill.: Howard,
I try to read your column online every morning, and I have to say, it's incredible the kinds of veepstakes stories that continue to float around out there, between the McCain stories and the Dump Cheney stories. How long do you figure it takes before rumors start flying that Ditka turned down the IL Senate race for a shot at the VP slot? Let's get this story on the road!

Howard Kurtz: You mean he didn't?


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: The 9/11 Commission hasn't officially released its magnum opus yet, true? So where are all the unofficial parts and pieces posted online and shown on TV coming from?

Isn't this an illegal outing? Should we call the Justice Department or a Special Prosecutor? And why is outing of official documents or classified material treated so cavalierly in Washington, D.C. nowadays?

Haven't you heard? There's a war on.

At least a rumor of war.

Thanks much.

Howard Kurtz: They're coming from the usual unnamed sources -- in this case, committee staff members who for one reason or another have seen fit to leak pieces of the report. It does seem that so much of it has dribbled out that I wonder if there's anything left to learn when the report is officially released this week.


Washington, D.C.: Howard: Since you browse so many periodicals and blogs on a regular basis for your online column, what are your personal favorites for most consistently informative? Most consistently entertaining?

Howard Kurtz: I don't want to give these folks any free advertising. You can certainly figure out which ones I find the most provocative and informative by looking at who I mention in my online column.


McLean, Va.: Thanks for a good laugh this morning. I enjoyed your column about CBS News' new feature, "What will my candidate do for me?" I am going to have to watch CBS News just to see this. My question is, is this how the news people see us? Only interested in ourselves and not able to understand the real issues facing the country?

Howard Kurtz: Well, but in fairness of CBS, these are the real issues: health care, education, trade, child care and so on. I don't see anything wrong in trying to translate political rhetoric into kitchen-table terms. Would you rather have more stories about polls, strategy and the nonexistent dump-Cheney movement?


McLean, Va.: I liked how, on Sunday, you said to Ted Koppel "It's a just-in-case story" (or something like that) in response to him saying how he would only hang outside of the convention and not go in because there is a story about the potential terrorist attack. Then he responded by saying that really the story is about the security measures, and not really about the potential of an attack. Come on! Give me a break. All of these guys, including the older more responsible ones like Ted, are salivating over the possibility of a terrorist attack. I know they would like nothing better than for that to happen. I bet they even have stationary cameras mounted on buildings aimed at the convention building so they will get the explosion when -- whoops, I mean if -- it happens.

Howard Kurtz: It's certainly fair to ask why Koppel, as he explained to me on Reliable Sources, isn't going to cover the convention from the inside (Nightline's Chris Bury will handle that). It's totally unfair to suggest that Ted Koppel or any other journalist wants to see a terrorist attack because it would be a "good" story to cover. Want to see innocent Americans slaughtered for the sake of journalistic excitement? I don't think so.


Boston, Mass.: With a small portion of the electorate undecided, and more people engaged in the election, at what point do the state and overall polls begin to be significant?

Howard Kurtz: I'd say they're significant now, as we head into convention season. But the polls have been so tight that it's hard to draw any conclusion from them other than that this is one heckuva close race. I do think people overlook that the election is a series of state-by-state races and that it's more important whether Bush or Kerry is ahead in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida than whether one has a 2- or 3-point edge nationally. As we were recently reminded, this is not about who gets the most votes overall.


Silver Spring, Md.: I saw Shattered Glass over the weekend. Is it really this easy to full fact checkers in the reporting business? I know the movie was based on Jason Blair but in his case it was more stealing stories and quotes than just making them up. Are a reporters notes really the bible of fact checking?

Howard Kurtz: As a matter of fact-checking, it is my duty to inform you that the movie was about Stephen Glass (of the New Republic), not Jayson Blair (of the New York Times). Magazines like the New Yorker have fact-checkers; newspapers do not (although editors are certainly supposed to ask tough questions about their reporters' work). In both cases, we should recall that the news biz runs on trust. If a reporter says he interviewed people and has notes of those interviews, the natural reaction of editors and fact-checkers is not to assume that he's lying. That said, both TNR and the NYT have acknowledged that they fell down on the job when it came to Glass and Blair (and as USA Today did in the Jack Kelley case).


Virginia: Howard -- His skills and credibility aside, is Koppel a little... prickly? He seemed a little put out at having to answer your excellent, reasonable questions. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, I had the opposite reaction -- that he was unusually candid and forthcoming for someone at the anchor-monster level. He has occasionally been testy over the years, but not, in my view, in Sunday's interview.


Washington, D.C.: How many journalists share Ted Koppel's view that the political conventions are far too scripted to risk life and limb in a terror attack by venturing into the convention hall? Where will the real news be happening while the delegates are performing their service as audience "extras" in the production?

Howard Kurtz: Journalists have been debating whether conventions are worth covering for 25 years, long before we worried much about terrorist attacks. The problem, quite simply, is that we know everything in advance--the nominee, the running mate, who's going to speak, etc. There was a time when at least the VP choice was unveiled at the convention--as Quayle was in '88--but now even that is deemed too risky.


Fairfax, Va.: The two political parties are going to spend hundreds of millions on paid advertising before November. Most of the money will be spent to buy ad time on TV and in newspapers in key states. Do you believe this fact has any impact on the news coverage at major networks and newspapers?

Howard Kurtz: Huge. Very large. Extremely sizable. For one thing, ads get a lot of coverage. Watch cable TV on any day when a spot is released and you'll see excerpts played over and over, and often stories in the next day's papers (some written by me). Plus, these ads run many, many times and is the main way that presidential candidates hammer home their message to viewers without the "filter" of press coverage. That's why the Bush and Kerry campaigns have spent $150 million between them on television advertising, and it's only July.


Washington, D.C.: How is the media reacting to efforts to label John Edwards an "evil trial lawyer?"

Howard Kurtz: By reporting both sides of the trial-lawyer issue. On one hand, journalists have covered the GOP attacks that Edwards got rich by exploiting a flawed system and convincing gullible juries to issue excessive awards against corporations. On the other, they have reported the view of Edwards and the trial-lawyer lobby that the tort system is a way of holding negligent companies accountable for the pain and suffering their actions sometimes inflict on the poor and powerless. Polls so far suggest that more people are sympathetic to Edwards's view of his former job as a champion of the little guy, but it's early.


Damascus, Md.: I enjoy the conventions precisely because of their scripted spectacles, rather than in spite of them. But then, I tune in to the Super Bowl for the commercials.

Is there some value in analyzing who creates a better movie popcorn atmosphere? Or do you think that conventions will become more and more irrelevant as time goes on.

And is there any point whatsoever in a party platform, any more?

Howard Kurtz: A lot of the coverage does amount to theater criticism--who staged the best tableaux, delivered the best speeches, marketed their message in the most compelling fashion. That's fine -- it is a TV show, and has been for decades -- but there used to be more substance to conventions that are now largely sizzle. And no, I don't think party platforms mean a thing, since they're immediately forgotten after the conventions. Also, party factions that used to go to war over the wording on this or that issue no longer do so because they realize they're just projecting an image of divisiveness.


Convention Watcher: Given the time constraints, are the networks going to show any of the roll call of the states during the convention -- or is that even going to occur when they can just nominate by acclimation? That's always been my favorite part -- when each state party chairperson gets to bloviate about how wonderful that state is, and then when they engineer it so the candidate's home state gets to put the vote count over the top, etc.

Howard Kurtz: My recollection from last time is that the networks didn't make it much past Alabama and Arkansas. Not with the broadcast networks devoting a mere three hours to the four nights. Cable will probably take a little more of it, but the talking heads will start talking long before we get to West Virginia and Wyoming.


Icebergville, Minn.: Hello,

You column seems a wittier slightly more sharp of late.

Am I imagining this? Or is Jon Stewart having more effect than we realize?
Or did a few days vacation do wonders for the sense of humor?

Or did a few days vacation do wonders for my sense of humor?

Howard Kurtz: Probably the latter. I have maintained a consistent standard of wittiness, stunning in its sharpness and longevity.


Anchor Monster really?: Is Ted Koppel really that big anymore? I remember the days when we only had 5 channels and I could see how back then he was big bannanas. But now? With the 24-hour news channels and Internet at work, there is rarely anything new to see once I get home -- I already know everything. I'm bored and so I watch the stupid sitcoms and hope there will be something new by 11:00. How important is his 11:30 show today really?

Howard Kurtz: More important than you seem to realize. Nightline draws an audience of several million viewers. That means a single show usually reaches more people than the three cable news networks combined. Sure, the days when Nightline was unique because it was on nightly and conducted satellite interviews are long gone. Nightline has dealt with this by moving more to taped pieces and investigations, sometimes from around the world, as opposed to Koppel just interviewing three guests.


San Diego, Calif.: Fox "News"... I certainly enjoyed watching Fox "News" over the weekend: On their Saturday morning business shows they flash "NEWS" across the screen while their business pundits comment on pro-Bush politics, then on Sunday morning's Chris Wallace show, they flash "EXCLUSIVE" across the screen during their interview with the Acting Director of the CIA, who was on virtually every news program this weekend.

My question: How are people who work at Fox "News" viewed by the rest of the industry, especially those who are trying to get jobs elsewhere? Is there a big backlash against those who work there?

Howard Kurtz: In a recent survey, 69 percent of national journalists said they viewed Fox as an "especially conservative" news organization. But that doesn't mean the network doesn't have some talented reporters and anchors. (Greta Van Susteren, to take one example, was a mainstay at CNN before jumping to Fox.) As for labeling "exclusive" interviews with people who pop up on multiple channels, if that was a felony, executives from all the cable networks would be doing time.


Washington, D.C.: Do you use "media" as a plural noun? The media include newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies, etc. Each one is a medium. Right?

Howard Kurtz: Right. The media are...fill in the blank. That's the grammatically correct approach.


San Antonio, Tex.: What will be the media's reaction to the release of the 9/11 Commission report on Thursday? If the commission intends on Thursday to have the report printed and for sale in bookstores across the country, and to have the report posted online, how secret are the report's contents to the media? Or is there some sort of gag order that the media can't discuss the report's contents until Thursday? Will the report be meaningful if 20 percent of it is blackened out?

Howard Kurtz: As I mentioned earlier, much of the contents have already leaked out, which I think will minimize the report's impact a bit. So there's hardly a gag order. I don't think we'll see much "blacking out" because the commission will have decided in advance what intelligence methods or other sensitive data must remain secret and simply not include it.


Kansas City, Mo.: Howard,

I see a lot of campaign shots with the candidates makingclaims about the other candidate. To what extent should the media report those claims if they know they are not true or stretch the truth without becoming seen as advocates of the other campaign? If the media didn't report the claims would the candidates stop making them, or is that too naive?

Howard Kurtz: Not reporting the claims is not an option, as far as I'm concerned. Who are we to suppress what one candidate or the other wants to say? What we should do is examine the charges and countercharges and try to give readers and viewers some background, some context and, if something is flatly wrong, to say so. It's part of our truth-squadding function. My problem with a lot of campaign coverage is that it passively conveys the he said/she said exchanges with little serious attempt to examine what's true, what's exaggerated and what's misleading.


Ellicott City, Md.: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Girlie Men" line is stolen straight from Saturday Night Live. If he should be apologizing to anyone it is SNL for stealing their bit to use it for political gain.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think he was trying to be funny, though.


Allegany, N.Y.: How come there's been so little coverage of Dennis Miller's remarks about Kerry and Edwards at the Wisconsin rally have gotten so little coverage in comaprison to Whoopi Goldberg's? The only mainstream news coverage I found was the Post's gossip piece.

Is the reason that there's been no call for a boycott of Miller's show is that it would be redundant when one considers the ratings?

Howard Kurtz: While Dennis Miller makes no bones about being a Republican partisan, my sense is that his jokes were not quite as crude as those in which Whoopi Goldberg did a riff on Bush's last name. But people who are offended by Miller's partisanship or his language always have the option of switching off his CNBC show.


Midwest Swing State: Howard,

I'm aware that the Washington Post's ethics policy prohibits employees from campaigning for politicians or participating in their campaigns. Do other media outlets have such policies? I recently heard about a party for a politician being hosted by a journalist. This seems highly inappropriate. What's your take?

Howard Kurtz: Every news organization worth the name has policies against its journalists taking sides or lending support in a political campaign. (The rules seem to be different for clear-cut TV commentators, such as Dennis Miller, and some talk-radio people, but not for newspaper and magazine columnists or editorial writers.) If a journalists hosts a dinner at which a politician answers questions or even discusses the campaign on background, that's one thing. If the dinner is to raise money or support for the politician, that should be verboten.


Pulaski, Tenn.: Why do the so called, White House "reporters" let Scott McClellan repeat the same mantra over and over again and not call him on it? Why will no reporter stand up to McClellan except Helen Thomas? Why do "reporters" not report "flat out" that they are being lied to by the Bush press secretary? At the very least, the "reporters could say that McClellan refused to answer Helen's question! Scott McClellan serves no purpose, the W.H briefings serve no purpose! "Reporters" who don't ask the hard questions, and DEMAND ANSWERS, serve no purpose!

Howard Kurtz: Leaving aside your apparent convinction that McClellan is "lying," White House correspondents challenge him all the time, especially when he's giving non-responsive answers or evading the question. The same was also true when Dee Dee Myers, Mike McCurry, Joe Lockhart and Ari Fleischer were at the podium. But press secretaries these days are as determined to stay on message as the reporters are to try to knock them off their script. Keep in mind, too, that McClellan and his predecessors are answering (or not answering) questions based on guidance they've received from the boss and his top lieutenants.


Outside the beltway: More comments than question:

I think the media's obligation is to examine and challenge the labels the parties place on people and policies. Ask, so what? And then, so what? again. Until the hacks learn that they can't propagate their messages for free.

As for CBS's efforts, rather than simple "how does it affect me" I'd like a broader "how does it affect everyone and how will it affect us all ten years from now" examination. More research based. Call in real academics or academic translators to explain things rather than predictable hacks.

Howard Kurtz: Fair enough. But "personalizing" a story through someone or several people with problems is an age-old journalistic technique, hardly invented by CBS.


Bored and doing laundry, Va.: What kind of person likes the cable news staple of having two B-list party flacks be snarky to each other in a "sound off" segment. I'm a political junkie, and it makes me lunge for the remote. Yet the format is so popular.

Who likes that stuff (beyond bookers)?

Howard Kurtz: Not me. And I think people are growing increasingly tired of segments where each guests sticks to the talking points and never utters an independent thought. At least if they're not A-LIST guests!
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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