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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 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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Alexandria, Va.: The Bush administration is condemning all 527 ads as being placed by "shadowy groups". To me, there is a significant difference between a million-member organization like MoveOn.org and a small group of wealthy Texans funding 35-year-old slanderous attacks. One is a legitimate democractic (small d) movement and the other is a glaring example of the loopholes created by McCain-Feingold.

Do you agree that all 527 ads should be condemned? Can you recall a campaign that has become this nasty? As an aside, do you think it's a coincidence that the Bush family has been involved in the nastiest politics (Willy Horton, 2000 South Carolina primary, etc.) at the national level since Nixon?

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree that all 527s should be condemned. What they're doing is perfectly legal, and an outgrowth of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation. They're also a little less shadowy than they used to be, thanks to disclosure requirements. Why should any group -- environmentalists, unions, corporations, swift boat veterans -- be prevented from buying air time to get their point of view across?

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Virginia Beach, Va.: Howard,
After all the uproar over Sandy Berger, what has happened to him? Has he been exonerated?

Howard Kurtz: There has been no development, publicly at least, in the investigation.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, what level of proof should the media request of groups that allege something in the historic record is incorrect? Or is the oral assertion that seven of us say what Kerry was said to do enough? It strikes me that them mainstream media has gone the way of Drudge and the NY Post in that any allegation, no matter how specious, is ripe for a "got you" for the victim.

Howard Kurtz: I do think the media, particularly television, gave the anti-Kerry veterans pretty much of a free ride initially when they made their charges. Since then, there have been detailed accounts in the New York Times and Washington Post, among other places, pointing out inconsistencies in these accounts and noting the group's ties to Bush advisers (just as Kerry has ties to some of these liberal 527s, as I note in this morning's ad watch on the Kerry response ad). The Chicago Tribune also had a piece yesterday by an assistant city editor who commanded one of the other swift boats and is siding with Kerry's version of what happened in the incident when he saved Jim Rassmann's life.

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Chicago, Ill.: I'm a little surprised that the Tribune's Rood story didn't get more play nationally. It strikes me as pretty devastating to the Swift Boat side of the story.

Was the relatively limited play a matter of media jealousy? Did the Post's trumpeting of its own investigation, which did not have the benefit of Rood's statement (and might have reached a different conclusion if it had), cause it to downplay the Rood statement?

Howard Kurtz: I would have given it far more prominence in The Post since it was a first-hand account. The New York Times put it on the front page, above the fold. We had our own detailed examination ready to go, and stripped it across the top of Page 1, but the Rood account in the Tribune deserved more than a couple of paragraphs.

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Gaithersburg: I enjoy your writing immensely. You are one of the few people who seem to really try to be even-handed.

Given the furor over Kerry's RVN service, what is the responsibility of the WaPo to attempt a campaign to get Kerry's military records released?

This is not like the situation with Bush, where his records were lost. We know where Kerry's records are (Brinkley's got them). I'm personally surprised there hasn't been more of a call in the national new media for full discosure of Kerry's military records and diaries. The WaPo editorial page certainly has the clout to mount a strong effort in this regard.

What do you think?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I think The Post should try to get Kerry's military records, just as it filed a FOIA request for the records of one of the veterans accusing him of lying. I don't think the campaign should be in the position of saying we've given it to author Doug Brinkley but won't make it public. Journalists, however, don't have subpoena power, so we may or may not be able to get these records.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Why does no one interview Robert Novak on his role in the Plame affair?

Howard Kurtz: He hasn't been giving interviews on the subject. Won't even say whether he's been subpoenaed by the prosecutor in the case.

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Boston, Mass.: Howard,

Isn't the media primarily responsible for the Swift Boat Vets ad getting out? I mean you can't turn on any vcable channel without the news reporters airing it.

Howard Kurtz: There's no question that the media have taken a modest, $500,000 ad buy in just three states and turned it into a controversy that has basically swallowed the presidential campaign. It wasn't much of a newspaper story at first, but television loved to play the video and cable talk shows loved to book opposing guests ripping or defending Kerry's Vietnam record. I think this reflects not just the media's age-old appetite for controversy but a continuing obsession with Vietnam. Had the attack ad said Kerry was, for example, a lousy lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, no one in the press would have cared.

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Baltimore, Md.: You mentioned earlier you thought the media had given the Swift Boat Vets "a free ride" early, then began investigating their claims in earnest. What I don't understand is why there has been such media focus on their financial source -- a Texan who has given $200,000 to keep Kerry out of the White House and a virtual free pass has been given to the likes of George Soros, who has committed $15 million to getting Bush out of Washington. Is this example of a double standard?

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't say a virtual pass has been given to Soros. His financial role has been reported many, many times. I would say that if Bush is going to be held accountable for what an independent group does (as in the various demands that he denounce the swift boat ad), the same standard should apply to Kerry and MoveOn, America Coming Together and the other liberal 527s.

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Baltimore, Md.: A lot of people have come forward to say I served with Senator Kerry in Vietnam and here's what happened. It's up to the readers to gauge what's a lie and what's the truth.

I'm curious, has anyone come forward to say I served with George W. Bush in Alabama and here's what happened? I haven't seen anyone come forward to say they saw Bush report for duty as he's claimed.

Howard Kurtz: The White House, to my knowledge, has not produced anyone with a first hand recollection of having seen Bush on duty during the disputed period.

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Washington, D.C.:
Mr. Kurtz,

I am very dissappointed in how the media in general has chosen to portray these Swiftboat veterans as out to smear Kerry. I believe these guys have raised legitimate questions and have a real anger toward John Kerry for the way he behaved during and after his tour in Vietnam. All I'm saying is that these guys should have their say and the press should treat these decorated vets seriously. Politics aside, funding aside, if Kerry lied, or wrote his own reports to make himself look like a hero, which he already did with that jungle footage of him walking with the M16, then these guys may have a devasting argument against Kerry's integrity and his medals. That's news and it should be followed up on. All the press has to do is make Kerry answer a straightforward question as yes or no and release his war records. That'll clear this all up and the truth will win out. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: There is no question these guys are having their say. But having tossed their charges into the political arena, they have to expect a high degree of media scrutiny, and news organizations have found some notable inconsistencies in what some of the vets have said over the years. One of them retracted his charges in an interview with the Boston Globe, and then retracted the retraction. I don't know if the release of Kerry's records would clear this up, but the campaign must be thinking about it. We do, of course, have the military citations for the various Kerry medals.

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Washington, D.C.: I thought the Dobbs article yesterday was excellent. In these times of suspicion toward the press from both sides, I thought he wrote an article that came out straight down the middle: Factual, neautral, and thorough. The headline writer seemed to take a stronger point of view than the article itself, though. Headlines at the Post are written by someone other than the reporter, correct? Does the reporter have input into the final headline?

Howard Kurtz: Reporters don't usually see the headlines, which are generally written late at night after they have gone home.

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Greenwich, Conn.: Howard,

What impact do you think the protesters during the Republican Covention will have on the electorate? Do you think the Republican strategy of blaming the protesters on the Democrats and calling them disloyal to Bush will convince the general population (and swing voters)? How do you think the media will portray the events, which I think will be unlike anything we've seen since Chicago '68?

Howard Kurtz: The honest answer is, I don't know. It depends in part on how the protests go and whether they get out of hand. But if there is trouble, can the Republicans convince the country that the Democrats are somehow to blame for what a bunch of demonstrators do? That could be a tough sell.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Why hasn't the Post used the Freedom of Information Act to get to the bottom of the Swiftboat Vets claims about Kerry? If Kerry is the only person who can have all of the records released, why don't your reporters ask him why he is not releasing them. I have read only one chapter of Unfit for Command and my reaction is ... Kerry ought to release the records and put the whole thing to rest. It really is starting to look like the candidate has something to hide since he is simply pushing the blame for the commercial and the book on Bush and his supporters, and of course, the Post is investigating the accusers rather than the accused ... but I guess I've come to expect that from you all.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know why the burden should be on Kerry to "prove" that he deserved medals that the United States Defense Department, through its usual procedures, decided to award him. But anything can happen in a presidential campaign. Again, I'm not sure that Kerry's records will clear up anything, since they're likely to mirror the DOD documents on why he got the Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. But I'd sure like to see them.

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Virginia: Howard - This is going to sound far more partisan than I mean it, but I'm baffled. Kerry did go to Vietnam (however briefly) and did receive medals (for whatever reason). President Bush did neither, yet is somehow able to spin the issue to question Kerry's patriotism. Is the public really this gullible and disengaged? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: If you had asked me a few weeks ago whether Kerry, and not Bush, would be thrown on the defensive over his Vietnam service, I'd have been very skeptical (with the exception of his antiwar activism after he returned, which I always figured was a sleeper issue). But strange things happen at campaign time -- witness war hero John McCain having to play defense over his record four years ago.

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Bahama, N.C.: Recently the WP, the New York Times, and other mainstram media have published critiques of their coverage of the administration's rush to war, concluding that they basically failed their readers by accepting much information without questioning it, being cheeleaders rather than journalists.
Is the press covering the Swift Boat distortions and lies or are they just cheerleading, ala Iraq? Will we hear long after the election that the media failed to be critical in questioning the accuracy of these anti-Kerry campaign ads?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see any cheerleading going on, but I do think the press was slow to move into truth-squadding mode when the ad first surfaced. Since then, though, there has been a substantial journalistic effort to penetrate the fog of a 35-year-old war and confirm what happened or didn't happen.

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Charlotte, N.C.: You said, "Why should any group -- environmentalists, unions, corporations, swift boat veterans -- be prevented from buying air time to get their point of view across?" Fine, if it were a point of view they were peddling. But they're peddling lies masquerading as fact.

Howard Kurtz: But who exactly is going to be the judge of that? Every group puts its own spin on its advocacy. There's no official censor that says, yes, this ad by MoveOn is acceptable but this one by the Swift Boat Veterans is not. Both have to compete in the marketplace of ideas, just as the conflicting Bush and Kerry ad claims do.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Is MoveOn a 527 or a PAC? What's the difference? It's just bundling money or other forms of support to your guy.

Thanks much.

Howard Kurtz: MoveOn PAC, an affiliate of the group, is the one putting on these anti-Bush ads.

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Boston, Mass.: First let me note, I started reading Media Notes four years ago to the month. Since then I've looked to you almost daily for insight and perspective on the latest happenings. And there's been no shortage of happenings in those four years - Bush v. Gore, Florida, Sept 11, Anthrax, Afghanistan, Iraq. Thanks for your trail-blazing column. I've enjoyed it immensely.

With that said, I'd like to add one party to the current list of alleged culprits responsible for the situation in Iraq - the American voter. In GWB's defense, he was very up front about his plans in August and September of 2002. Voters responded by strengthening his majorities in both houses. After those elections, Bush had all the permission he needed. And I don't think the Washington Post swayed too many swing voters in Minnesota or Georgia back then. So, for better or worse, we went to War in Iraq because the people approved of it. And that's the way its supposed to work in this country.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. Well, polls did show that a majority of Americans approved of the Iraq invasion at the time. But it would be oversimplifying things a tad to say that Bush was totally up front in August and September of 2002. At the time, he was simply demanding that Saddam prove he had no WMDs and asking the U.N. to send in weapons inspectors, when we now know that the plans for war were at a far more advanced stage than was being publicly acknowledged.

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Fairfax, Va.: I don't know who's telling the truth about what happened one day on the Mekong River decades ago, and I really don't care. Wasn't even alive then. There's a whole lot going wrong in this country that the candidates should be talking about, but don't. What really bothers me about all of this is the media coverage over the controversy -- tons of coverage about how this anti-Kerry Swift Boat group is a 527 with "ties" to the GOP. Well, DUH. Why no mention about the dozen or so Democratic 527 groups that have been running ads against Bush for a YEAR (Moveon.org, etc.)? Why no mention of their organizers' "ties" to the Democratic National Committee and big Democratic donors? All of a sudden these groups are controversial, and only the GOP group gets the treatment?

Howard Kurtz: Plenty has been written about the liberal 527s, but I agree that there have been no comparable demand that Kerry disavow any of their ads compared to the questions being hurled at Bush. (Kerry did say he found a MoveOn ad attacking Bush over his National Guard record "inappropriate" last week.)

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Washington, D.C.: On a recent airing of Lou Dobbs' show on CNN, the host berated a pair of media firm executives for producing campaign commercials devoid of the issues. He complained loudly that such ads do little to inform the viewers -- and voters. It all culminated with Dobbs asking the two men, rhetorically, "What in the world are you doing?"

I have the same question for Dobbs, and every other media figure and outlet that has covered the ads of this campaign ad nauseum. These candidates criss-cross this country speaking for hours at a time about issues such as education, jobs, the environment, national security, etc. But TV news was saturated last week with coverage of the back and forth on these new "Swift Boat" ads.

What do you feel the media's responsibility is, especially the broadcast media, when it comes to reporting on campaigns? More important, what can be done to fix any problems that may exist?

Howard Kurtz: I think John Kerry's Vietnam record is fair game for journalists because he's placed it at the heart of his candidacy and convention. But I also agree that what both candidates have had to say lately about health care, the economy, the environment etc. has been almost totally overshadowed by this flap over what did or did not happen 35 years ago, and that is a problem for both journalists and voters.
Gotta deal with some deadline problems. Thanks for the chat.

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