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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 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.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Do you think it's ego or vanity on the part of some these pundits to conclude that viewers can't decide who they preferred in the debates unless or until some talking head on retainer tells us who won?

When Bush won the debates last year it wasn't spin that convienced me--what I saw convencied me.

So why now is it being said that the liberal media bias of these self appointed experts are influencing polls.

Also if same talking heads are so worried about spin influencing the outcome why don't they just NOT go on TV after the debate. Personally, I sure wouldn't miss them. BUT the talking heads themselves just MIGHT miss the paycheck they get for showing up. Please comment..

Howard Kurtz: NOT go on TV after the debate? Just zip their lips and remain silent about a Major Political Event? Pundits live to inflict their opinions on everyone else. And you are free to ignore them, or just turn off the set (or turn the newspaper page, as the case may be).


Oliver Springs, Tenn.: Is there any indication whether the team studying the fabricated document situation at CBS will release their report before or after the election?

Howard Kurtz: There's no indication. The timing is entirely up to Dick Thornburgh and Lou Boccardi. If I had to guess, given the time it takes not only to do a complete investigation but also to write a report, I'd say after the election, but that's just a hunch.


Burlington, Iowa: I'm hoping the Republicans underestimate John Edwards as much as the Washington Post's staff writers did today in their lackluster piece on the vice presidential debate coming up.

Describing Edwards as a newcomer with news-anchor hair and a "...political reputation made by theatrical attacks against powerful interests in the courtroom..." shows a bias straight from pages of the Republican playbook.

If balding and gruff somehow signifies toughness in the boardroom then somebody out to tell Donald Trump!; I'm hoping the voters will tell Dick Cheney, "You're fired!;" after Tuesday's showdown.

Howard Kurtz: I don't quite see the problem with noting that Edwards's reputation (not to mention his personal wealth) comes from his skills as a litigator in the courtroom. If anything, that would seem to give him an advantage over a vice president who's not exactly known as a stirring speaker. As for physical attributes, wasn't it Kerry who bragged that he and his running mate had better hair than the opposition?


Schaumburg, Ill.: It was amazing to me that the "chief political" correspondent of a major news organization -- Fox News -- could foolishly post an article lampooning Kerry on the network's web site and not be pulled off the beat. Why hasn't this been more of an issue?

Howard Kurtz: My understanding is that Cameron didn't "post" the satirical piece, but that someone else mistakenly put it on the Web site. Why would a journalist post a story with obviously fake quotes from a presidential candidate, knowing that it would be exposed within nanoseconds? Still, just having this in the Fox computer system was a very dumb thing for Cameron to do, and his Fox bosses are understandably angry about it. The episode comes in the wake of a Center for Media and Public Affairs study, which I noted last week, that finds the coverage of Kerry 5-1 negative on Brit Hume's 6 p.m. newscast.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: What led Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings to defend Dan Rather during a panel discussion in New York this weekend?

Howard Kurtz: Hard to assess their motivation, but these guys, while competitors, are also friends. I think Brokaw and Jennings also understand that anchors are incredibly busy and overtaxed and must often rely on the reporting of others at the network, so perhaps they sympathize with Rather on that score.



Grafton, Wis.: The late decision by MSNBC to not use the services of GOP pollster Frank Luntz to run their post-debate focus groups underscores how conflicted those groups of "independent" voters can be. Networks don't screen the pollsters, and some blog fact checking revealed that at least two participants in focus groups who identified themselves as "independent" voters were in fact in leadership positions in college Republican groups. It's one thing if they had evenly divided groups the way say PBS does. Proper identification is key, not some mythical power ascribed to "undecided" voters.

Howard Kurtz: I sometimes wonder whether "undecided" means disengaged, at least in this election. But without conducting a full private-eye investigation, it can be difficult to be 100 percent sure that someone who says he or she is undecided is actually a political activist. This is an art, not a science. Even if everyone is truly undecided, what are the odds that 6 or 10 or 12 people in some town will perfectly reflect the views of all Americans who haven't made up their minds?


Herndon, Va.: The big headlines shouldn't be "Kerry Wins Debate!". They should be "Democrats (Finally) Win Post-Debate". Right?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe. I've certainly argued that the post-debate spin wars are at least as important as the debate itself. But it helps when a majority of those watching already think your guy won.


Alexandria, Va.: The media really circled the wagons around Kerry after the debate! No hard-hitting stories about the 'global test,' no questions about providing nuclear fuel to Iran, nothing about Kerry's senatorial record conflicting with his views. What happened to you guys?

Howard Kurtz: The Washington Post, the networks and others ran pieces that fact-checked questionable assertions by both candidates. And every news outlet that I saw quoted Bush and other Republicans questioning Kerry's "global test" comment. But it's not our job to take sides on who has the better geopolitical policy.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Is there any explanation for the scheduling of the second Presidential debate on Friday night?
It hardly seems possible to have chosen a more obscure date and time. How great will the audience be for this debate?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure some people will find better things to do Friday night, but given the unusually high tune-in (60 million) for the first debate, I think Kerry and Bush will draw a big audience again. One difficulty in scheduling has been an effort to work around the baseball playoffs.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Jimmy Breslin from yesterday's Newsday: "If you can't get Bush to show himself as a dangerous dolt, you've done nothing. These are only two (Brokaw, Russert) of an industry full of abject failures."

Your industry is full of abject failures? How come that hasn't come out before? Seems like a major news lead to me!

Thanks much.

Howard Kurtz: Good thing we have Breslin as a shining example of a non-abject failure.


Tyson's Corner, Va.: Thanks for mentioning the "Mallard Fillmore" comic strip in your column today. Why has the Post filched "Baby Blues" and "Foxtrot" from its cross-town competitor, but not "Mallard Fillmore"? Are the comics editors so narrow-minded that they think "Doonesbury" is still funny?

Howard Kurtz: Comics decisions are made way above my pay grade. And I learned a long time ago that more readers care about that than some of the more serious stuff we churn out.


Bentonville, Ark.: What is the purpose of the "spin room?" Isn't the purpose for the campaigns to essentially "use" the media?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, but having been there in Coral Gables, the media use the spinners as well. By which I mean, there's a huge appetite, particularly in television and radio, for dueling sound bites from each side. Cable needs guests to keep its live coverage going. So the mob scene reflected the fact that both sides believe they get something out of the post-debate ritual. I happen to think there's little point in such predictable posturing (though John McCain was refreshingly candid in saying he thought Kerry did well). Some of my colleagues, though, found significant the fact that the Kerry spinners were ecstatic while the Bush spinners criticized Kerry but did not attempt the usual claims that their man had carried the night.


New York, N.Y.: "One difficulty in scheduling has been an effort to work around the baseball playoffs." THAT is truly sad.

Howard Kurtz: But actually it makes sense, because you don't want to dilute the audience. And the networks that carry the playoffs are contractually obligated to do so.


Re: Carl Cameron: You are missing the point on Mr Cameron...it is not whether he posted it or not. The issue is that a reporter holding such views as expressed in this satirical piece is unbelievable and if he were from one of the major networks coverning Mr Bush there would be calls for congressional hearings.

Howard Kurtz: I'm certainly not going to defend Carl Cameron on this. But do you really think that reporters don't privately make fun of all the candidates they cover, regardless of political persuasion?


Arlington, Va.: Is it newsworthy, or does it at least merit a passing disclaimer, that the third presidential debate is to be moderated by Bob Schieffer, whose brother Tom was President of the Texas Rangers baseball team during George W. Bush's tenure as owner?

I'm not asking whether Schieffer is biased... the Kerry people presumably agreed to his assignment. I'm just asking whether it is or isn't something that a reporter might fairly mention.

If not, why not?

Howard Kurtz: Sure it's worth a mention. I've mentioned it in the past. But I think Schieffer has established a reputation for fairness over the years, which is why both sides were comfortable with him as moderator.


Herndon ,Va.: If you didn't watch the debate and only read about it in the media, you'd think it was a slam-dunk win for Kerry. I watched. It wasn't. I thought it was pretty even. Do you think the glowing coverage of Kerry is because (a) he defied expectations by being short and to-the-point, (b) the media needs a horserace and is just pumping him up to get it, (c) the media is biased in favor of Kerry?

Howard Kurtz: I've raised all those possibilities. I happened to think the debate was closer than many people did. But the biggest single reason, as I explore in my column today, is polls. The somewhat suspect network quickie polls had Kerry besting Bush by as much as 18 points. Subsequent polls by Newsweek, the L.A. Times and CNN/USA Today had Kerry the victor by in some cases a larger margin. Polls drive political coverage to a remarkable degree, which is why the new Newsweek cover declares Kerry to be "Off the Ropes." If the polls had shown a tie or Bush winning, the story line would have changed instantly into a missed opportunity for Kerry, no matter whether journalists personally thought he had a better performance or not.


Oliver Springs, Tenn.: Most of the media outlets ran stories about Crawford's newspaper endorsing Kerry, but I have not read anywhere (except on Andrew Sullivan's site) or heard mentioned by the pundits that the newspaper in Lowell, Mass. where Kerry got his start is supporting Bush. Is there a reason?

Howard Kurtz: The Lowell editorial was just published yesterday, so it may take another day for it to get much pickup.


Raleigh, N.C.: Howard Kurtz: I'm certainly not going to defend Carl Cameron on this. But do you really think that reporters don't privately make fun of all the candidates they cover, regardless of political persuasion?

Sure I do, but I don't think Cameron makes fun of Bush. And I doubt he would take the time to write a satirical piece about Bush. Especially at "Fair and Balanced" Fox News. I don't think your adoring fans (i.e. me) will be happy until you admit that Carl Cameron is biased.

Howard Kurtz: Again, what Carl Cameron did with this satire was really dumb. And he did not look good in the anti-Fox movie "Outfoxed" when he was telling Bush before an interview how much his wife supported the president.
But last April, I asked some of the Democratic campaigns whether they thought Camerson was unfair in his coverage. This is what they said:
Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter: He's incredibly fair to both sides of the aisle. Instead of that right-wing spin, he steps back, looks at the issues and does it in a fair way."
Dean spokesman Jay Carson: "One of the straightest shooters out there. He's never burned me on anything."
I report, you decide.


Vienna, Va.: Howard,

I'm again baffled by the Meet the Press panel. This Sunday we had Kate O'Beirne, a far-right ideologue, along with Roger Simon and Ron Brownstein, two non-ideological reporters. Where is the balance? These sort of panels give the impression that Tim cannot abide viewpoints outside of a center-right/far-right continuum, and reflects very poorly on him. Your thoughts? Can you suggest some good panelists Tim could have on to balance the likes of O'Beirne, Novak and Safire?

Howard Kurtz: I've always felt it is unfair to have working reporters fill the "liberal" slots on a panel against a conservative commentator. The reporters may or may not be left of center, but it's not their role, nor would they be comfortable, taking the liberal side of every argument. I don't think we should judge "Meet the Press" or any show by one particular program, but there should be a rough balance over time.


RE: somewhat suspect network quickie polls: Howie,

When did these polls become suspect?

Howard Kurtz: Look, all polls are suspect these days. But polls that purport to provide a result at 11 p.m. for a debate that ended at 10:30? I just don't put much stock in them.


Kansas City, Mo: It seemed like everyone in the print and broadcase media had a "fact-check" squad this year. Is this new and in a reaction to the 2000 debates, just as the ad fact check sprung up following the 1988 election?

Howard Kurtz: No, this sort of fact-checking after debates has been going on for many years. How much impact it has is another question, but it's definitely worth doing.


Boston, Mass.: Are we gonna see a "You are no Jack Kennedy" moment at the VP debate tomorrow? Senator Edwards is electric, but with the format of the debate it's going to look like Grampa invited little Johnny to the "Grown-Ups" table.

Howard Kurtz: Not sure why you think the format favors Cheney. But both men will be trying to score points for their bosses as much as themselves. In any event, "you're no Jack Kennedy" moments are very rare in debates at this level.


Boston, Mass.: Do you think the media is trying to make the Presidential Election seem like more of a "horserace" than it actually is? It would seem to be in the best interest of ratings and such. News is a business just like any other, so it wouldn't surprise me.

Howard Kurtz: Maybe a bit. Reporters hate blowouts because they're not very interesting to cover. But they can't conjure up a close race where it doesn't exit. It was probably inevitable that this race would tighten, given the divisions in the country and the fact that Bush's post-convention bounce wasn't going to last forever. The fact that the polls are again neck and neck gives the press an opening for a new story line. But as I wrote this morning, poll swings -- especially of just a few points, some of which could be within the margin of error -- play too big a role in much of today's campaign coverage.


Washington, D.C.: You really think the polls were the deciding factor? When Karl Rove claimed "this is one of the president's finest hours and one of Kerry's worst" Even a reporter for the New York Post (no friend to Democrats) said ( I paraphrase),

"You can say that with a straight face?"

Howard Kurtz: Kerry was going to get good next-day coverage no matter what. But if the weekend polls showed Bush holding onto a 7- or 8-point lead, the stories today would all be about how Kerry had failed to close the gap, he should have done this, he should have done that. Exhibit A: The Democratic convention. Kerry and the Dems got great press for the Boston gathering. But when he failed to get a bounce, the media's conventional wisdom became that he talked too much about Vietnam, didn't offer an agenda, etc. What had been a success was eventually portrayed as a failure.


Chantilly, Va.: Howard: This morning's column began by talking about polls. Shouldn't you note that four years ago every political poll predicted that Bush would beat Gore by between three and 13 points? Also, that all polls only call land-line users and skip the 168 million cell phone owners? Also, that it is now much harder to reach anyone because of caller ID and answering machines? So why is the latest poll often the lead story in a newspaper (like today's USA Today) when they're so bogus?

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't say they're "bogus," but polls have enough problems that experienced journalists ought to be wary of relying on them too heavily. That's why Roger Simon calls them "voodoo news." When news organizations pay big bucks for these polls, however, they invariably trumpet them as front-page or top-of-the-newscast developments.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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