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."
A 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.
I'm conducting a research project analyzing the Bush administration's role on the Sunday shows. After having charted the number of appearances on MTP,FOX,LE, TW, FTN, I found that appearances by administration. officials peaked at three distinctive points during Bush 43's time in office: Sept. 11, March '03 (War with Iraq), and Jan/Feb '05 (SOTU, Iraq Elections). Is there an explanation to this? Do you think it's more the demand by the shows to book administration guests, or the administration guest's desire to be on the show? Thanks.
Howard Kurtz: There's a Kabuki dance that goes on every week between the administration and the Sunday shows. At certain times, with war and terrorism obvious examples, the show's producers let it be known that they'd like to get Rumsfeld, Condi, Card, etc. The White House decides whether it's in the president's interest to "put someone out" that weekend. If they decide no, administration guests are unavailable. If they decide yes, they may offer a Rummy or Condi to three or four or five programs at once, which the shows naturally hate. So ultimately the administration controls how its people are booked.
The Boston Globe harp seal hunt fake story would have been one thing if it had just been about the controversy and nature of the hunt, but the florid, dramatic "retelling" of the bloodied waters and panicked animals just boggles my mind. I'm glad that the authorities in charge of the event caught the story's release in time to point out the utter falseness of it. One wonders if the actual event really would meet the dramatic standard that the freelancer set, or if PETA's gorehounds would be disappointed in the relative lack of drama that is more likely going to be the case.
Howard Kurtz: Well, I'm sure there is a lot of blood in the water when seals are getting clubbed. But painting that scene before any hunt has taken place is obviously a big journalistic mistake, as both the Globe and the reporter involved have acknowledged. But she stresses that she never told the Globe she was on the scene and was not trying to deceive anyone.
Howard, I appreciate your reporting and these great interactive chats. You mentioned Mr. Kristoff's comments about the declining credibility of the press. Many conservatives believe the press helped prevent President Clinton from being thrown out of office. Correctly or not, some on the right see one set of standards for a Democratic president and another set for President Nixon. Personally, I think the press would have been a lot tougher on a Republican president over the FBI files scandal. I am not sure a Republican would have survived. The press would have been very angry that many prominent liberal Democrats (friends?) would have received that kind of treatment. What do you think?
Howard Kurtz: The idea that the press helped keep President Clinton in office is simply at odds with reality. The press was at war with the White House for most of those years, over Whitewater (broken by the NYT), travel office, Paula Jones (put on P. 1 by the WP), fundraising scandal (driven by the LAT and other papers), etc. After the WP broke the Monica story, it utterly dominated press coverage for the next 14 months. Something like 140 papers called on Clinton to resign, and others were harsh but stopped short of that. A major theme of the coverage as impeachment efforts began was why, despite this avalanche of negative coverage, the president's poll ratings stayed around 60 percent. Many people came to resent the media for battering Clinton, just as many conservatives today believe the press is too hard on Bush and many liberals believe it's too soft.
St.. Louis, Mo.:
I just want to commend you on doing a great job with your daily columns, live chats and your TV show. I respect and appreciate how you take the time to do these live chats. I have noticed an upswing in the amount of caustic questions (either from the left or right) that are asked each week. I hope this will never deter you from doing these live chats with us normal folk, LOL. Keep up the good work and love your sense of humor.
Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I am undeterred. I enjoy constructive criticism; what's less fun is being denounced (by the left or the right) by people who are angry that you haven't adopted their partisan view of whatever the story is. I quote a number of journalists on this subject in this morning's column.
I thought your column today was interesting. It reminded me of something that happened a few years ago while I was working for my college newspaper, when a conservative web site posted one of my columns (on the 2000 Florida recounts), savagely ripped it to shreds, lobbed some colorful personal insults at me, and strongly encouraged me to kill myself. At first it stung, but then I thought about how pathetic someone must be that instead of engaging in a reasoned debate, they resort to encouraging college-age writers to commit suicide.
I think these people have always been around, and the difference now is that they have an easy way to reach an audience. Luckily, they probably only have credibility with other people who thrive on mindless insults.
Howard Kurtz: I am glad you resisted the advice to kill yourself. Look, I think it's great that anyone in America can go online and post opinions about the media, which have been shielded from sustained criticism for too long. I think readers are smart enough to figure out when the criticism has merit or when it's partisan, personal or just plain nasty. The bloggers and commentators who build a reputation for incisive criticism are the ones who will thrive in the long run.
I have been following the recent feeding frenzy in the press in regard to Mr. Delay and his family (jobs and travel)
Is the press going to investigate similar ethical issues and how the relate to so many in the House and Senate, or is Mr. Delay a convenient target? Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid have very similar travel and employment improprieties, but the press is ignoring them.
There are allegations that Mr. Reid has sponsored legislation that had a direct financial benefit to his sons and sons in law.
There is also the little issue of Ms. Pelosi being fined $21,000 for funneling $100,000 in illegal contributions to other campaigns in 2002.
Why doesn't the press cover these and other transgressions with the same zeal that they cover Mr. Delay?
Howard Kurtz: How do you know about these allegations if they haven't been covered in the press?
Seriously, I thought the NYT story on DeLay's wife and daughter receiving 500K on his political payrolls was overplayed (on P. 1) because so many lawmakers do it, as the LAT and others have pointed out since. But DeLay is a target for the press because of these foreign trips secretly financed by lobbyists and their clients, including the lobbyist under investigation Jack Abramoff. Because three of his associates are under indictment in Texas. Because he was admonished by the House ethics committee three times last year. And because he made controversial comments about judges in the Terri Schiavo case for which he later apologized. Sure, the press can go overboard during these frenzies, but it's not just an anti-Republican frenzy, as recent anti-DeLay editorials in the conservative Wall Street Journal and Richmond Times Dispatch make clear.
Howard - I've been hearing of late an awful lot of wailing from journalists who feel they no longer are respected or trusted. Here's one example why that may be. When I was in school back in the 1960s, my history teacher had a huge bulletin board on which every week he'd tack up the cover of each new TIME Magazine. In that era, TIME's covers always were a single portrait of a national or world leader who had been in the news. My class would actually devote a lesson to that leader and his country. Fast forward to the 21st century and this week's TIME cover story - of all people, the ring-wing gadfly and propagandist Ann Coulter who has become famous not for a serious achievement or contribution to society but for invective and slander. Of all the world's pressing problems, Ann Coulter is the most important story that TIME could find? Howard, do you and you colleagues understand that news judgment like this is what is eroding journalism's credibility?
Howard Kurtz: I haven't read the piece yet--it seems to me she was hotter about two years ago than she is now--but the media world has changed vastly since your school days. The newsmags are as likely to put health or trend stories or a new movie on their cover as anything having to do with world leaders. This week, for example, Newsweek's cover is "Your Family & Your Health" and U.S. News goes with "The CSI Effect." Coulter may or may not be a smart cover subject, but the media as a whole are far more into soft news, celebrities and sensationalism.
I was wondering about your opinion on something. The History Channel presentation on FDR touched on the complicity the press had in not revealing the extent of his polio. With the overwhelming crush of the press we have today, this obviously couldn't have happened. It is a little disheartening to think that the greatest American President of the past 100 years would be entirely unelectable today. Do you think ultimately the overwhelming scrutiny has swung so far that is it discouraging very qualified people from running for office?
Howard Kurtz: Probably, yes. How many people want to run for high office knowing that every mistake they've ever made, including in their personal life, will be publicly dissected? (And it's not just the media--opposition campaigns shovel the dirt too.) I've never been able to figure out how FDR was able to keep this secret during more than 12 years as president. A compliant press corps, sure, but didn't other politicians, people at hotels, etc. see over the years that he couldn't walk? How could it not have leaked out? Even in the pre-television age it still seems incredible.
I don't quite understand the DeLay proponents argument that other people of a different party engage in activities similar to Delay's. He is in trouble because he has stretched what other people do to a new level, including running charitable events though foundations that his relatives and former aides run. I happen to believe that the news people have no politics and, if they go overboard in creating scandals, they go overboard on both parties equally.
Howard Kurtz: Most journalists love a juicy story more than anything else. As I wrote last week, The Post and other newspapers played a key role in pushing the allegations that toppled Jim Wright and Tony Coelho, both Democrats, from their House leadership positions. If some of Nancy Pelosi's fundraisers were indicted tomorrow and she was found to have some of her foreign travel secretly financed by lobbyists, I think you'd see a major press uproar. The one area where coverage of DeLay may be influenced by his politics, consciously or otherwise, is his role in the Schiavo case, denunciation of judges, etc. But obviously DeLay sees the chance to score points by blaming his troubles on the "liberal media."
Don't forget the sex appeal of Ms. Coulter. Good looking, blond, and in a short skirt sells magazines.
Howard Kurtz: D'oh! I almost forgot.
In today's column, you wrote that many journalists are complaining "that their honesty and motivation are being trashed along with their work." Isn't this essentially the same complaint that one often tends to hear from anyone who has been the target of tough reporting in the press? I.e., isn't there a bit of a shoe-on-the-other-foot aspect to these complaints?
Howard Kurtz: Maybe. And it's certainly true that most journalists are unaccustomed to this sort of constant scrutiny. But what I'm hearing from the people I interview is not that they object to criticism of their work, but to the personal assaults that describe them as a "tool" of one side or another, a "lapdog" and similar assaults that seem to paint them as the enemy. Or emails, like the one sent to Adam Nagourney of the NYT, that say "I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war."
Miami Shores, Fla.:
Howie, thanks for taking the time to conduct these chats.
The Time cover story on Ann Coulter was revolting. Though I concede some of her more outrageously offensive statements are tongue-in-cheek, the "steak" behind that sizzle is just as hostile, mean-spirited, offensive, and just plain loopy. She should be vilified by the elite media, not celebrated, and this has everything to do with her linguistic style and irresponsible commentary, and nothing to do with her politics (which appear to be a put-on and strike me as totally insincere anyway). What say you?
Howard Kurtz: Well, I'm going to wait until I read the story. While splashing her on the cover is obviously an editorial statement (and marketing decision), cover stories can also be tough on their subjects. And since Coulter is very popular with what might be called her "base" and reviled by people on the other side, she carries the requisite degree of controversy. (She's also gotten into fights with conservatives, as I recall, such as when National Review dropped her as a contributing editor and she called Editor Rich Lowry and his deputies "girly boys."
Yesterday on CNN's "Reliable Source" Michelle Cottle made the point that the media should perhaps not be "shocked...shocked" at the usual doings of a Congressperson such as Tom DeLay, but, rather should focus primarily on his extraordinary missteps.
It is a given that we have gotten to such a point in Washington politics today, but is it also a given that it is not at all newsworthy to expose the every day corruptions, as well?
Howard Kurtz: Of course we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that what's accepted business in Washington might appear seamy to the rest of the world. But if lots of lawmakers are putting relatives on their political payrolls, that should be the story, rather than singling out DeLay on the front page. I wonder how many political donors realize that part of their contributions are going to pay for the candidates' spouses and kids?
Bob Schieffer gave a talk Saturday at an Annapolis Book event, which was rebroadcast on C-Span Radio yesterday. Schieffer made the observation that most news consumers today get their news from newspapers, the internet, and radio, and that by 6:30 p.m., the networks have to adjust their coverage accordingly. In other words, in a 24 hour news cycle, a lot of people already know the news for the day by the time the major networks air their evening broadcasts. (I know on my part by the time I get home from work every day, I've been so bombarded with news that all I want to watch are sports or cooking/home improvement shows).
What's your take on Schieffer's observations?
Howard Kurtz: That he's obviously right, the network newscasts are no longer bringing people fresh headlines as in the Cronkite era. Schieffer, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, is trying to adjust by making the CBS Evening News more conversational, asking reporters unscripted questions and injecting a bit of his own analysis. It's really the first change in the evening news format in about two decades.
"Chimney Cam" on all three news networks? I'm not
Catholic; I don't care. Will cable news devote this much
attention the next time my religion chooses a new leader?
Doubt it. Same with the flags at half-staff. We aren't all
Howard Kurtz: The selection of the next Pope is a major story, but these chimney cams, as you call them, are such a gimmick. As if they all couldn't switch live to the Vatican the moment there's a bit of white smoke.
If Howard Stern had used the same sexually explicit phrase on his show as Rush Limbaugh used on his the other day, how many Limbaugh listeners do you think would right now be complaining to the FCC to get Stern off the air?
Howard Kurtz: I guess that would depend on what the phrase was. I am sadly ignorant on this one.
In a recent online column, you opened with the statement that the reader was reading the column for free. Given the pop up ads and side bar ads I was subjected to in order to get to the column, my first reaction was "huh"?
Now, maybe you meant that the online advertising isn't enough to support all the excellent reporting at the Washington Post, but shouldn't the market take care of that when more people get tired of killing trees and ink-stained fingers and switch over? Somehow, I think journalism will survive the loss of the paper copy.
Howard Kurtz: Well, I did mean that online advertising isn't enough to support the huge journalistic structures at The Post, the New York Times, the LAT, USA Today etc. But pop-up ads (which I find as annoying as anyone and wish advertisers would realize they're just ticking people off) don't cost you a cent. They're just a momentary inconvenience. The Web site remains free. If people were willing to pay, say, a dime a day to read such a fine site as washingtonpost.com, that would provide a potentially large revenue stream for newspapers to provide online content. But everyone is so accustomed to free sites that I bet most people would balk at even a modest charge.
It is interesting you mention Whitewater "broken by the NY Times", without acknowledging the Clintons' ultimate exoneration by the indisputably partisan independent counsel's office. Would "manufactured' be a better term than broken?
Howard Kurtz: Look, I've written a lot about how Whitewater was overplayed by the press. And there's no question the Clintons lost money on the land deal and were ultimately exonerated. But a bunch of other people, including a former Arkansas governor, went to jail in that investigation. In any event, I say "broken," whether the story ultimately raised fair questions or not, to remind people that the MSM didn't exactly roll over for Bill Clinton in the '90s.
Howard, it's live television. They're not looking for white smoke. They're looking for ANY smoke.
Howard Kurtz: Smoke and mirrors, more likely.
Regarding your column last week addressing the dilemma newspapers face in offering their product for free over the internet: As a news junkie, I feel like I am living in a golden age. But I do worry that all these give aways will harm the product. Have the additional readers from the Internet increased ad revenue for most papers enough to outweigh the loss in subscriber fees? If it has, then who cares if nobody is buying the dead tree edition?
Howard Kurtz: But it hasn't. Not even close. The Post's site, for example, lost money for years and I believe is now only modestly in the black. Without the dead-tree version, the journalism you read on this site could not exist. Plus, as I've said before, there are plenty of people, including me, who feel like they haven't really read a newspaper until they've turned the pages, delved into some of the longer features, plowed through the sports section, and so on, as opposed to cherry-picking a few stories online and then moving on to a bunch of other sites.
I don't want to beat the Boston Globe story to death, but if the reporter's "story" is that she wasn't trying to "deceive" anybody, then why would she write about a hunt that never happened? Sorry, this really rings false. I don't think the blogosphere caught this deception (and that's exactly what it is), but things like this is why I'm glad the bloggers are out there, helping to keep the MSM honest and on their toes. For all their flaws, they serve a very important role.
Howard Kurtz: I'm not defending what Barbara Stewart did. She was wrong, and so were the Globe editors. But she wrote on Tuesday, the day the seal hunt was supposed to have begun. One of the hunters said it was on the verge of starting. And then it was postponed by the Canadian government because of bad weather.
Here's what Stewart says in my column today:
"The whole situation, while resulting from an egregious, massive, stupid [screwup] on my part, unbelievable carelessness, was nevertheless not malicious fabrication as in: pretending I was there and deliberately making up a whole scene and attempting to pass it off," Stewart says by e-mail.
"It was stupider and more boring and more flat-out dumb on my part. Quite dumb. Remarkably dumb. But not vicious and not really a scandal, for heaven's sake."
" It's really the first change in the evening news format in about two decades."
It's also the first anchor change in about that time. Didn't Rather, Brokaw and Jennings all start and retire about the same time.
Do you think Evening News fell behind, ins some sense, because there was no new blood making anyone change?
Howard Kurtz: I'm sure that was a factor, but the evening newscasts just got frozen into a certain way of doing things (with some exceptions, obviously, like "Eye on America" type features) and their audience was comfortable with that. Problem is, the audience kept getting older and younger folks weren't, and aren't, tuning in.
Thanks for the chat, folks.