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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 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)

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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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Arlington, Va.: In your article co-written with Dana Milbank today, you use Joe Lockhart as a spokesman for the Democratic reaction to the CBS story. But of course, Lockhart is a player in this CBS story. Why would you or Milbank report his remarks on the report and not his remarks on what he did to help the CBS story along?

washingtonpost.com: A Setback for a Network, And the Mainstream Media (Post, Jan. 11)

Howard Kurtz: My other story in today's paper deals with the Mary Mapes call to Joe Lockhart, which we of course had reported on before, and the panel's finding that it was a conflict of interest for Mapes to have tried to get a Kerry aide to talk to her source. But I didn't see anything that contradicted the account that Lockhart has already given.

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Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.: I propose that from now on, media commentators be asked to abide by the Armstrong Williams Rule: When opining, the commentators must disclose whether anyone is paying them for their opinions. This is just the latest example of why the public trusts the media less than it trusts used car salesmen.

washingtonpost.com: Transcript: Armstrong Williams (washingtonpost.com, Jan. 10)

Howard Kurtz: That would be one solution. But of course, no commentator wants to admit that he's bought and paid for. If Armstrong had said I really believe in the No Child Left Behind law, and by the way I'm getting $240K from the government to promote it, how much credibility would he have? About as much as he has now that this has come out.

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Ashington, Washington, D.C.: How can CBS think that the image problem is solved, when they're moving Rather to full-time service at "60 minutes," where the mess began?

Howard Kurtz: Nobody at CBS thinks the image problem is solved. CBS President Les Moonves told me he thinks the entire episode is a "black eye" for the network. And Rather's continued role is a fair question. Moonves said he didn't feel he needed to take further action because Rather had already agreed to give up the anchor chair and because he relied in large measure on his producer, Mary Mapes.

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Alxandria, Va.: I was pleased by the amount of newspaper coverage that CBS received today, but the morning TV shows were pretty skimpy (except CBS). Why is that?

Howard Kurtz: Beats me. It got heavy play on the evening news last night (CBS, to its credit, led with it) and was all over cable. I know the morning shows were planning segments based on calls that I got, so maybe you just tuned it at the wrong time.

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Montpelier, Vt.: While I object just as much as anyone to the Bush Administration paying Armstrong Williams, other celebrity journalists regularly take speaking engagements before large interest groups. While there is never likely to be "smoking gun" evidence of impropriety in any of these cases, it certainly creates the appearance of it - if, that is, it were disclosed. Is it hypocritical for some in the media to criticize this? And do you think that this latest hit to journalistic credibility may eventually lead to better public disclosure by journalists (like James Fallows has advocated), or will it force them to keep this practice even further from the public light?

p.s. Do you agree with Williams' assessment that a TV pundit gives opinion, while a print journalist has a greater obligation to objectivity? And should it be?

Howard Kurtz: I did extensive reporting in the '90s on the problems raised by journalists making big-money speeches to corporations and trade associations. Some news organizations, such as Time and ABC, responded to criticism by me and others by banning such speeches for their newsroom people.
TV pundits are selling their opinions, of course, but they have the same responsibility as anyone else in the media biz to disclose whether they have a financial interest in the subject they're talking about. This became an issue during the stock market boom, when Wall Street analysts and even some commentators would pop off about stocks they owned without disclosing their positions.

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Anonymous: You have to admit there's something kind of funny about conservative radio commentators such as Rush Limbaugh being shocked-- shocked!;-- at subjective, politically-motivated journalists. If they had been CBS execs, the story on Bush wouldn't have run, but, then, no story critical of Bush would have run.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but in fairness, CBS News presents itself to the public as a fair and balanced news organization, while commentators like Rush don't make any bones about the fact that they paid to be opinionated.

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Takoma Park, Md.: What more can we expect the Post to do with the Armstrong Williams' story?

I appreciated your front page story on Jan 8, but you covered it primarily from a media angle. I'm faulting you for that, but there's clearly also a story here about government misconduct re: the ban on "covert propaganda." Since the administration is clearly a repeat offender, can we expect the Post to investigate this practice via FOIA's or other means?

Howard Kurtz: The Post had already run a number of pieces on these bogus video news releases that various federal agencies have put out (I've never been able to understand why any TV station would run this packaged propaganda as if it were news). And we've reported on GAO investigations concluding that the practice in some cases is illegal. So the paper has done more than just write about the Armstrong situation.

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Warrenton, Va.: I am glad to see Mary Mapes and others (mostly women) at CBS fired over the partisan Bush documents episode. I disagree with the commission that Mapes did not have a liberal, anti-Republican agenda in producing her fake news segment, because she has previously been aggressive in pursuing other anti-Bush, pro-Democrat stories. I am sure she was eager to influence the 2004 Presidential campaign and thus did not wish to carefully scrutinze the documents she was using.

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps, but such things are difficult to prove. Mapes also helped break the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse story, which, while not exactly a gift to the Bush administration, was a very strong piece of reporting on an important subject.

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Manassas, Va.: How much does Armstrong's blackness play into this story? Don't liberals in the newsroom have a special hatred of black conservatives? Why on earth is this Page One news? I just don't believe that never before in the history of Washington, a pundit hasn't gotten a government grant through a PR firm.

Someone on the Armstrong chat yesterday noted that Al Sharpton was paid by the Kerry campaign for his expenses. I know the ethics are different. But nobody put that scooplet on Page One.

Howard Kurtz: That's the biggest apples-and-oranges comparison I've ever heard. Sharpton is a pol, and his payment by the Kerry camp was written about. Armstrong is a commentator who had not disclosed his Education Department contract, and his race has absolutely nothing to do with what a big story that was. It's his prominence- as a syndicated columnist, TV host, radio host and frequent cable commentator -- that drove the story. Plus, as he now admits, he used spectacularly bad judgment and crossed an ethical line.

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Chicago, Ill.: We are living in a shim-sham age of media. Armstrong Williams, CBS and Sinclair Broadcasting have made attempts to commit fraud on the public through the use of the "media". Do you believe other pundits are part of this payola scheme and do you think this should be illegal? What precautions can the public make to make sure this doesn't happen again? I am utterly disgusted with you so called journalist.

Howard Kurtz: As a so-called journalist, I suspect a lot of people are feeling that way. But I want to make some distinctions here. Armstrong Williams knowingly did something he now admits was wrong - taking Bush administration money to talk about Bush administration policies without disclosing it to his readers and viewers. (And by the way, on the race question, the National Association of Black Journalists put out a very tough statement about his conduct.) CBS News screwed up in many ways on the National Guard story, but the people who put that on the air believed at the time that it was true. They missed lots of warning flags, rushed it to air, ignored their own experts, etc., but they were not intentionally broadcasting fiction.

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Washington, D.C.: The CBS panel found that the network rushed the story to air with "myopic zeal" but said that they could not prove political bias. However, don't you think that it's hard to have this level of enthusiasm unless it's someone else's ox that is about to get gored? There is no doubt in my mind that a lack of political diversity in the newsroom led to this story being rushed to air. It is unfortunate that the report didn't highlight this problem so that CBS could work to address it.

Howard Kurtz: I think it's a fair question. The panel took a lawyerly approach and said it could not show any evidence of political bias. But the investigators laid out plenty of evidence that people can seize upon in making a determination whether the CBS people would have had the same enthusiasm for pursuing allegations based on questionable documents against a Democratic president.

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Bethesda, Md.: I don't understand how political motivation could be ruled out simply by Rather and other CBS employees saying that political motivation was "not in their hearts and minds". I voted for Kerry, but this was obviously a hit piece that came out a week after a sitting POTUS was renominated by his political party and soaring in the polls! Is it true Maples was talking to the Kerry campaign about the story before it aired? How is the public suppose to believe that BIG MEDIA organization like CBS News, which has to decide on a daily basis what information is public and what is trustworthy, etc. how they could have sooo many outrageous journalistic mistakes happen on the one story, that could have changed the campaign if it were handeled properly. My GOP friend told me that this is the gift that keeps on giving, SIGH... I guess he was right.

Howard Kurtz: Political motivation wasn't "ruled out"; the panel simply said it could not find evidence to support that argument. But you can see Mapes's zealousness in some of her e-mails, in her willingness to talk about promoting a book deal or even making a consulting payment to her source Bill Burkett, and in calling Joe Lockhart of the Kerry campaign and asking him to speak to Burkett (as part of a deal she made with Burkett to get him to hand over these highly suspect papers).

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Wrong on Race: Actually, Armstrong Williams race is a part of the story. The eduction department was trying to reach black voters and sway black opinion through Mr. Williams.

Howard Kurtz: That is correct.

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New York: I was disappointed by your answer regarding full disclosure by journalists, especially as you wrote such a good book about the conflicts in financial journalism. Stock analysts now disclose their financial interests because these conflicts have real effects on behavior and on appearances.

I think journalists don't want to do this because the conflicts found in journalism are as bad as in the various people and organizations they write about.

Would required disclosure of significant conflicts be an intolerable burden for journalists?

Howard Kurtz: You must have misread something I wrote. I'm a huge advocate of full disclosure, which enables people to make up their own minds. And it's not just about money. When Paul Begala and James Carville became unpaid advisers to the Kerry campaign, it was absolutely a legitimate issue as to how they could remain as Crossfire co-hosts and CNN commentators (and one that I grilled Carville about on my CNN show). Whether it's stock, speaking fees, contracts or anything else, journalists should lay it out there and allow readers and viewers to make up their minds.

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Annapolis, Md.: Would it now be appropriate for CBS News to apologize to President Bush for the botched National Guard story and to issue a retraction?

Howard Kurtz: Les Moonves told me he believes the story has been retracted, and Dan Rather apologized on the air on Sept. 20. No one has directly apologized to Bush, as far as I know.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Howard, Thanks for the great reporting on the CBS Memogate report. Dan Rather has always come across to me in his words, actions, and attitudes as a "the buck stops here" guy. You reported that Andrew Heyward approved the broadcast. Yet, Mr. Heyward and Mr. Rather have not resigned or been fired. Where exactly, then, does the buck stop? How can others bare the responsibility and the persons who made the decision to broadcast story not face a similar consequence?

Howard Kurtz: Fair question. Dan Rather basically preempted the report by announcing in November that he is giving up the anchor job; otherwise there would have been enormous pressure on CBS to pull him out of the chair. Andrew Heyward did approve the piece before air and strongly defended it afterward, but his boss, Les Moonves, told me that Heyward had done the right thing in pressing his deputies to check every syllable of the story, and that this wasn't done.

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Re: CBS: Many in the blogosphere have pointed out that the panel was unwilling to ascribe political motivation to the CBS staffers without better proof, but the panel did not have similar reservations about ascribing a "political agenda" to the bloggers who criticized CBS. I wonder if you think this is a valid complaint about the report.

Howard Kurtz: I don't recall seeing that phrase, but some of the bloggers beating up on CBS are self-identified conservatives (and Web sites with names like RatherBiased.com). That doesn't mean their criticism isn't valid, of course.

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Washington, D.C.: The panel report cites competitive pressures as the reason why CBS News decided to air the story before the documents were fully authenticated. However, the only other news organization working on the story appears to have been USA Today. CBS still had the Barnes and Knox interviews and this Bush Guard issue has been around for many, many years. They had more than just memos. So why September 8 and not September 29?

Howard Kurtz: According to Mapes, other news organizations were also chasing the story. But the biggest single mistake that CBS made - the one that led to all the other blunders - was to rush this half-baked piece of reporting on the air in five days. Everyone from Heyward and Rather on down should have said let's hold this thing up and investigate further before we hurl these kinds of charges at a president of the United States.

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Des Moines, Iowa: I am not a right-wing idealogue. In fact, I admire Dan Rather. But there's no way you can convince me that he should not be fired over this. He's the managing editor of CBS News. He's the public face of the entire news organization. He may have relied too much on his producer, but it was HIS producer. This was not Jayson Blair cooking up facts. This was a major news organization attemping to influence the results of an election (how can we believe otherwise when they call the Kerry campaign? when they ignore their own experts' caution?). In Rather's bag of colorful phrases, there's got to be one about where the buck stops. He should resign, and if he won't do that, they should fire him, and the news president. This three-month-long farewell tour is a joke. They're putting Rather's image and ego above the network's credibility.

Howard Kurtz: But in effect he fired himself as anchor before this report came out. Some are certainly criticizing CBS, though, for allowing Rather to remain a 60 Minutes correspondent.

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McLean, Va.: Howard, you have arrived! Howard Stern played a clip of you (from your CNN show) on his radio show this morning. It was regarding the CBS debacle.

Howard Kurtz: Really? Now my life is complete.
I had the rare opportunity to interview Stern a few weeks ago when he announced he was going to satellite radio. More fun than most of the interviews I've done over the years.

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Deming, N.M.: I watched some of the discussions on the CBS News report on the Bush military records story, and I heard several reporters and commentators mention how the story on Bush was wrong. I realize the memos were faked and CBS did not properly ascertain that they had authentic firsthand memos. Yet, did the report conclude that the basis of the story was false? It is my recollection that the secretary who typed the original memos confirmed the memos were fake because they were not written in the style language her boss used, but I thought she agreed that the basic facts of the memos were correct. It seemed to me as if someone who had seen the original memos had made a feeble attempt to recreate them, and perhaps he did sofor a political agenda. Yet, does the report make any conclusion that the allegation that Bush shirked his military duty was in fact fabricated, or is the original story still a possibility that Bush did fail to perform his full military obligation?

Howard Kurtz: The report offered no conclusion on whether the underlying accusations about Bush having received favorable treatment in the Guard was true or not. The panel said it could not prove the documents were fakes but that CBS had "failed miserably" in trying to authenticate them and should not have aired the story.

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Rockville, Md.: Howard, I just listened to you on the Laura Ingraham Show. I was amazed at how you kept your temper despite her constantly baiting you. I understand her media bias and I certainly think that CBS and it's employees got what they deserved, but isn't enough enough? It seems that when she doesn't get the response she's looking for; i.e., people who agree with her no matter what, she cuts them off. I admire the fact that you continue to "appear" on her show, despite the way in which she acts towards her guests and to the topic at hand. I guess she really is on for entertainment value only.

Howard Kurtz: Look, Laura is a commentator and she has some pretty strong views. I don't mind the give and take. I try to limit my analysis to what I can prove, but commentators -- and Laura spoke on behalf of the Bush campaign and makes no secret of her views -- have a very different approach.

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Ashland, Mo.: In Mike Allen's column, and others, it is asserted that the House Republican leadership
is punishing the House ethics chair ("in apparent retribution"). Although the parliamentarian's ruling that the chair is term limited is mentioned, it is always stated as though this is an excuse rather than the true reason. Doesn't the media have an obligation to state facts showing the parliamentarian is incorrect merely than assert the leadership is "apparently" out to get the chair? Apparent to whom? People wanting falsely to discredit the House leadership?

Here is the complete paragraph from Mr. Allen's story:

But in apparent retribution for the admonitions of DeLay, Hastert has begun looking for a replacement for Hefley, who was viewed as too independent. Republicans assert that the change is occurring only because, according to the House parliamentarian, Hefley has served the maximum number of terms on the committee that rules allow.

washingtonpost.com: GOP Leaders Tighten Their Grip on House (Post, Jan. 9)

Howard Kurtz: I think previous reporting, and comments by Congressman Hefley himself, make pretty clear that the Republican leadership is unhappy with him over his stewardship of the ethics committee. The term-limit question may be a factor, but no one is issuing hard denials that the leadership just doesn't like this guy whose tenure has led to three admonishments of Tom DeLay.

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"Not Intentionally Broadcasting Fiction": Maybe for the original report, but what about all the follow-ups? What about Rather calling Burkett "unimpeachable"? What about labeling those who were bringing up questions (including the WaPo and their own experts!;) as "politcal partisan operatives"?

Howard Kurtz: I reported that story every day during this period, and I had trouble understanding why CBS was so vociferous in defending what was obviously a flawed story and kept digging the hole deeper. The report is very tough on that two-week period after the broadcast, and criticizes Rather more for his post-show defense that for the more limited role he had in putting together the segment.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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