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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 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)

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.


Manassas, Va.: What do you think about all of this weather hysteria the weathermen cause? We've had school closed for 3 school days in a row for no reason. I think the weathermen should be fined for lost revenue. Maybe if they used their own eyes and logic to predict the weather (such as if it is 30+ degrees the snow will melt on the roads) instead of relying solely on computers, then we wouldn't have such way off forecasts. Even then, 2 inches of snow should not shut down the entire area. It is ridiculous.

Howard Kurtz: Washington is the most incompetent snow city on the planet, and local TV can turn a few flakes into a paralyzing storm. The one forecast last weekend never, um, materialized. I'll withhold judgment on this one until I see how evening rush hour goes.


Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.: Howard,

Since the administration noticed that Social Security "private accounts" polled poorly, they changed the lingo to personal accounts. Now, if a journalist uses the term private accounts, he might be accused of anti-administration bias, and s/he talks of personal accounts, that is seen as pandering to the President. What should the media do in a case like this?

Howard Kurtz: Not worry about the reaction and use whatever term seems appropriate. I'm a private accounts man myself. If it was good enough for George Bush before, it's good enough for me.


Parkville, Md.: Howard,

Call me a tinfoil-hat conspiracist but I've got to wonder about the presidential "secret audiotapes." The president comes off pretty positively: no hard evidence to support cocaine use, a tolerant attitude toward gays, sure he admits to "trying pot" but then there's this long explanation about how he's not revealing the fact for the sake of the nation's kids... in other words, he's in the same situation as 99 percent of his peers. So is there any chance the White House knew about and helped engineer the "unwelcomed release" of these tapes?

Howard Kurtz: I really doubt it. I agree, as I've written, that not only did the tapes not hurt Bush, they probably helped him. Maybe that's why Doug (History in More Important Than Friendship, Especially When I've Got a Book to Promote) Wead felt it was all right to release them. But there were a few things in there, such as the marijuana business, that I'm sure Bush would just as soon have remained private. My shorthand is that the story became about chiding Wead, not smoking weed.


Fairfax, Va.: Not trying to sound like a grumpy old man, but TV coverage of the Oscars seems to grow every year. All the people who actually care watched the show last night, and all of the rest of us who don't care would like to see some of the other news that's happening around the world.

Howard Kurtz: There are places that you can find news other than that about Jamie Foxx and Hilary Swank. But more and more of the media business is devoted to the coverage of showbiz and celebrities, and it sure reaches critical mass at Oscars time.


New York, N.Y.: When Bush gave his speech with Putin on the importance of a maintaining a "free press" in Russia, I almost did a Danny Thomas spit-take with my coffee. There is an eerie silence coming from the so-called "free press" here in the US as Bush manipulates the press to the point of being propoganda. Do you think this is OK? Or does the media need to get out from under its rock and see they are being used in this way?

Howard Kurtz: I regret to inform you that every president manipulates the press. But the last time I checked, the administration didn't have any control over what is actually published and broadcast, as in Russia, or the power to fire anchors on television networks or imprison journalists who report negative news. (Except maybe in the Valerie Plame case.)


Washington, D.C.: I agree that 6" of snow shouldn't shut the schools or the city down. However, there are two things to consider. School districts have been sued by parents for endangering their children by opening schools when snow was predicted. The other thing to consider are the area drivers, many of whom never have driven in snow or never were properly educated how to drive in snow.

Howard Kurtz: Well, maybe it's about time they learned. My sources say that it will snow here EVERY YEAR for decades, at least until global warming gets worse.


Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Howard,

I read with some dismay Frank Ahrens' article about dwindling newspaper readership in a substantial amount of demographics. My question is, do you think that some papers and media outlets encourage this? To my way of thinking, the Express, Sunday Source and the new DC paper (whatever it's called) all kind of subtly encourage this not reading a newspaper/magazine. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Free papers like the Post's Express and the new Examiner don't encourage not reading papers, they offer a different model (quicker read, free price). The biggest impact (along with newspapers that don't offer compelling enough content to lure readers, especially younger ones) is the Internet, where anyone with a computer can access whatever they want for free. I think The Post's Web site has been great in expanding our audience far beyond the D.C. area, but it would be crazy to think it doesn't have some impact on circulation here at home.


Philadephia, Pa.: Does it seem to you that the press is assuming that Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2008? After all, she has only said that she's running for re-election in 2006. I kind of wish that journalists would just admit that they want her to seek the presidency. Why else are they speculating about her candidacy?

Howard Kurtz: As I write this morning, political reporters are Hillary-obsessed and seemingly can't help themselves. Yes, they all assume she's running (influenced in part by the many politicians who refuse to comment on a future presidential race even as they're plotting one) and seem to discount the notion that Clinton might not want to subject herself to two years of political and personal attacks. I believe the press wants her to run because reporters think her campaign would be a great story (number of previous serious female challengers for the White House: none). Still, the '08 elections are awfully far away.


Alexandria, Va.: Any update on the four at CBS who were refusing to resign over the memogate story? If they are still at CBS are they actually working, or just collecting a paycheck until their contracts run out?

Howard Kurtz: There were three -- Mary Mapes, Rather's producer, was fired -- and they haven't worked at CBS since the report on the National Guard story was released last month. Two of them, Mary Murphy and Betsy West, resigned late last week, presumably after working out severance arrangements with the network.


New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Regarding Walter Cronkite's dissing of Dan Rather: My feeling is that Uncle Walter was never really a Rather fan. And that incident a number of years ago when Rather refused to anchor the "Evening News" because a tennis touranament was running late, sealed Cronkite's opinion of Kenneth... er, I mean, Dan.

Do you agree?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the reasons, but Cronkite certainly didn't go out of his way to praise his successor in this New Yorker article. But he has said, to me and others, many times over the years that he is distressed by the evolution of the CBS Evening News and the other network newscasts into what he sees as a soft-news direction, so his remarks are not exactly shocking.


College Park, Md.: I am a freak, since I prefer hardcopy. It's how I learned to read the paper. I visit washingtonpost.com for the discussions, but I read the daily too.

Howard Kurtz: Bless you. We need many more like you.
The one thing you miss in reading newspapers online, IMHO, is the serendipity factor. On a Web site, you click on the headlines that interest you. But when you flip the pages of the dead-tree version, you often come across stories and subjects that you wouldn't have expected to be interested in, but a quick glance draws you in and you end up learning something. Particularly if it's a well-written feature story. Also, it's a bit tiring to read lengthy stories on a computer screen.


Washington, D.C.: Do you really think that the Express contributes to readers' knowledge and understanding of events? My take is that it is a Cliffs Note's version of the news--people who read it may know that Moby Dick was about a whale, but won't know who Ishmael is or much else of the story. The pages are not large enough to wrap fish, either.

Howard Kurtz: It is what it is--a quickie read of mostly short stories for commuters. No, I don't think it comes close to being what I would consider a real newspaper. Then again, you can't argue with the price.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Howard,
Three newspapers here in Boston (the two dailys and a weekly) are entangled in libel suits where large judgments have been awarded ($.9 - $2 million). I have always considered our libel laws to be pretty fair and not unduly restrictive. But I wonder if these three judgments will hinder the news coverage up here. Do you think high value judgments in libel cases usually lead to more careful and responsible journalism or do they suppress the coverage? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: There have been much bigger awards than that, and obviously people who feel wronged by what they view as inaccurate stories should have the right to sue. But the history of these big libel judgments is that they often get overturned on appeal, or the damages are knocked down to far smaller levels.


Minot, N.D.: Mr Kurtz, I throughly enjoy reading your column every weekday. A question from this Midwesterner regarding Doug Wead. In the little bit of reading of his history, I discovered quite an Amway connection as well as some trouble with authorities in France. It seems that some of this was glossed over in MSM. I was also suprised to discover the extent of Amway in the Republican polictical machine. Is this something that is looked at from time to time or is it just accepted knowledge that people need to discover on their own.
Thanks again for enlightenment each day.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't know it, having not conducted a background check on the guy. Seems to me that whether he worked for Amway is irrelevant. He was an evagelical Christian leader who worked closely with Bush's father. The more important point is that he was a friend of W's who apparently felt it was okay to secretly tape their conversations and then release some of the tapes to hype his book.


Washington, D.C.: I know Social Security is important, but did the Post really need to run (at least) six stories in the dead tree edition yesterday? First Sunday paper I haven't bothered to read in months.

Howard Kurtz: The beauty of a Sunday paper is that we can cut down a lot of trees on any one topic and you can still read about politics, Iraq, sports, movies, local news, business, son-of-a-legend Georgetown basketball coach (in the magazine), a restaurant review and the comics. Not bad for a buck and a half.


Dallas, Tex.: Howard,

Bless me, too, please. I'd happily pay a paper subscription rate to continue reading The Post online everyday. Has this been considered seriously by your organization?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure it has, but the problem is that people have come to expect news on the Internet to be free. Charging a fee therefore would drive lots of readers to other sites, and therefore hurt ad revenue on the site. Eventually, news organizations may have to bite this bullet, but for now no major newspaper except the Wall Street Journal has gone to the subscription-only model. The LA Times blocks access to its Calendar section except for daily subscribers.


Print vs. Online: Living far from a major market, I don't subscribe to any print papers, though I do pay for the Wall Street Journal.

On the other hand, I feel far more informed now that I read papers from all over. When I moved away from DC in the mid-90's, I would sometimes buy the Sunday Post on Tuesday at one of those out-of-town newsstands--for about $3!;

The main difference isn't that you can't be surprised by a headline. It's that you don't have to fish through a bunch of pages for the things you are interested in reading.

Howard Kurtz: I used to go nuts when I was traveling and couldn't get the WP or NYT. The Internet has certainly changed that.


Oliver Springs, Tenn.: Do you think that Dan Rather actually will continue as a reporter for 60 Minutes Wednesday or will he disappear into oblivion as Walter Cronkite did after retirement? Cronkite expected to remain a frequent contributor to CBS, but it just did not happen.

Howard Kurtz: I think Rather will continue as a correspondent -- although it's not 100 percent clear what would happen if "60 Minutes Wednesday" gets canned. He might move to the original Sunday show, but I know there's some resistance to that.


Washington, D.C.: I love to read the newspaper in hard copy, but really no longer have the time to read it daily, and they tend to pile up. So we have stopped getting the daily paper. However, I DO have time to read it on the weekends--but the Post ONLY offers a Sunday-only alternative to daily. Why can't we get the paper delivered on Saturday AND Sunday? I would think that we aren't the only ones in this boat, in fact I have heard others say the same thing.

Who should I write to (and tell my friends to write to) to make the suggestion?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't know that was the case. I dunno, write to Don Graham. I hear he has a lot of influence around here.


Washington, D.C.: Re: Serendipity---Today's A-11-- I started to read the moving story about the sisters in N. Ireland trying to rout out rogue IRA members and got lured into reading about Mexican pro wrestling.

One of the most eclectic World News pages in a long time. Kudos to Glenn Frankel and Kevin Sullivan!;

Howard Kurtz: My point exactly. I might not gravitate toward a story on Mexican pro wrestling either, but sometimes you glance at the headline and first paragraph and something hooks you. It's harder to have that experience online. On the plus side, I sometimes find myself exploring new Web sites because someone linked to a story that caught my eye.


Chadds Ford, Pa.: After living in the D.C. area for over 7 years, I moved to PA for a job. If the Post were a national newspaper, I'd gladly subscribe to it. Fortunately there is a Super G grocery store in Delaware that is 10 miles from my house and I drive there on Sunday mornings to purchase the Sunday Post. Charge is $3 and worth every penny. Even people who live outside of the D.C. area would gladly pay for the paper version. Reading the stories online, especially on a Sunday morning, just isn't the same as holding the actual newspaper.

Howard Kurtz: We all wish it was a national paper, but the Graham family decided years ago that it did not want to compete financially with the three other national papers by publishing in the other 48 states. You need a lot of national advertising to sustain that model, for one thing. The Internet provided an inexpensive way to do it without having to pay for printing plants, distribution, etc.


Washington, D.C.: As a media industry worker, I look on with dismay at the degree to which the MSM has lost almost total control over the dialogue about the way it works.

It seems like only a few years ago that the media was more or less left to handle its own affairs -- reporter goes rogue, we take him down, problem solved and no fuss from the populace.

Nowadays the policing is done by bloggers and political operatives, and while the scrutiny might be healthy it also hints at massive forfeit of institutional power.

And you know who loves it? The goverment. (And I won't just say the current administration, because I'd bet the Democrats would enjoy this dynamic too if they were in power, and will exploit it should they eventually regain it.) Don't like your coverage? Have an operative take out the writer!;

It's a sad comeuppance for an organization that's supposed to fill a needed gadfly role in society. The Constitution practically begs it. It's failing.

I guess that isn't a question.

Howard Kurtz: The problem, though, is that journalistic felons sometimes didn't get caught, and that big news organizations proved arrogant and reluctant to admit mistakes. Now everyone gets to be a media critic, and I think that's a healthy thing (as long as I get to hang onto my job). News organizations also contributed to public frustration by not explaining very well what they do--why they ran, or didn't run, a controversial story, for example. To this day, only about 30 U.S. newspapers (The Post was one of the first) employ an ombudsman to field reader complaints and criticize the paper in its own columns.


Iowa: I don't worry so much about whether people read newspapers on-line or in print--I worry that we have raised a generation of kids who regard newspapers as irrelevant. My kids grew up with two daily newspapers in the house but now that they've gone to college they don't even bother to read the campus newspaper which is supposedly aimed at them.

Howard Kurtz: That worries me too, and online surfing may not be much of a substitute.


Re: Luchadores: Can you provide a link to that Mexican wrestlers story?

washingtonpost.com: Who Are Those Masked Men? (Post, Feb. 28)

Howard Kurtz: Here it is.


Philadelphia, Pa.: What is wrong with conservative or liberal political commentators advising politicians, such as Charles Kraumather advising the president on the State of the Union or Paul Begala working for the Kerry campaign? It's not as though they are claiming to be objective journalists. They express their opinions every time they're on camera. The same goes for editorial columnists.

Howard Kurtz: It's a slippery slope, in my view, but one way to deal with it is through disclosure. If columnists or talk show hosts are giving politicians private advice, they should mention that, on the air or in print, and then readers and viewers can make up their own minds whether the commentators are acting as shills or simply offering the same kind of opinions they dispense publicly.


Canal Fulton, Ohio: I remember you being all over Dick Morris when he was caught with a hooker back in 1996 or thereabouts, why aren't you also all over the Gannon/Guckert story? Is hypocrisy a word that you understand?

Howard Kurtz: I have written six stories involving Jeff Gannon, including one before he resigned. Perhaps you neglected to do your homework.
On Morris, I basically covered the media coverage. Here's what I wrote on Aug. 30, 1996:

The subject was sordid: a cash-for-trash tale of sex and a political operative.

The timing was devastating: the day of President Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention.

The delivery route was familiar: from the Star supermarket tabloid to the front page of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, the same scandalous path that launched the Gennifer Flowers saga into the mainstream media 4 1/2 years ago.

Yesterday's bombshell about presidential adviser Dick Morris's alleged relationship with a $ 200-an-hour prostitute, who dished her dirt in graphic detail to the Star, did more than force the resignation of Clinton's longtime political guru. It exploded into the headlines, leading the news last night on CBS, NBC and ABC just as the president was about to bask in the televised limelight of accepting his party's renomination.

The Star, whose "White House Call Girl Scandal" edition officially hits the streets Monday, would not disclose how much it paid the prostitute, Sherry Rowlands, for the story, but Star reporter Richard Gooding told ABC's "Nightline" last night it was less than $ 50,000.


El Segundo, Calif.: Sorry to change the subject here, but you stated:
"Also, it's a bit tiring to read lengthy stories on a computer screen."

As a company librarian who uses many many of the same online sources for researching needs that you and your colleagues use, you've stated the one thing we've all said many times to management: people still find the hard copy of anything easier to read.

Now, let's go back to talking about politics...

Howard Kurtz: That's why God invented printouts.


Washington, D.C.: I was skeptical at first, but I personally like the Express. It's easy to read standing on the train and points me to articles to look for in the on-line Post.

Howard Kurtz: Well, that's a socially redeeming value.


Toronto, Canada: The early edition of the Sunday Post makes it to a few newsstands up here, but is it worth it?

It's aggrivating enough that the drop-dead news deadline for the National Sunday Times appears to be about noon on Saturday.

Howard Kurtz: It all depends on what you're looking for. It's got 95 percent of the content of the regular paper, but obviously not the news stories that break on Saturday. I buy it when I'm heading out of town on Saturday and see it at the airport.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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