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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 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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Baltimore, Md.: Okay, now we have perhaps the most preposterous example of "media bias" allegation:

Someone over the past weekend who was attempting to make the case for the more subtle, understated media biases that lurk in the media (you know, the type that point out the studies saying 90 percent of reporters are registered Democrats and the other 10 percent are Green or Socialist) pointed out that a "hugely disproportionate" number of the people whose obituaries run in the Post fall into "left-wing" categories--social activists, artists, government career bureaucrats, and the like. I glanced over the past two weeks, and sure enough, he had a point. Admittedly the DC area is full of dying ex-bureaucrats, but might this yet be another genteel, subtle example of "bias", or is the Post dependent solely on what obituaries get submitted to its editors?

Howard Kurtz: And here I thought I'd heard everything.
Unlike some big-city papers, The Post provides an obituary for every area resident who dies and whose family contacts the paper. Whether you were a Cabinet secretary or a schoolteacher, you get at least a few inches of copy. So there's no editorial judgment or litmus test involved. Beyond that, families can choose to purchase larger death notices.

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Centreville, Va.: Howard: I watched President Bush praise his new HHS nominee, Mike Leavitt, on cable this morning and noticed he took no questions from the press. A decade ago, you would have had Sam Donaldson, or others yelling, "Was Bernie Kerik a mistake?" or some such question but not this WH press corps. Are they so afraid of retaliation by this administration that they're now effectively neutered?

Howard Kurtz: Of course, Sam didn't get answers to many of his shouted questions. And Bush over the weekend did the Reaganesque thing of cupping his hand to his ear and pretending he couldn't hear shouted questions.
Look, the White House press corps can't force the president and his nominees to answer questions. And they have made a practice of not taking queries at these here's-the-nominee ceremonies. So I'm not exactly sure what yelling a question as the two men are walking away would accomplish.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Due to the GOP's increasing control of the House and Senate, will the news media consider the Democrats irrelevant and not newsworthy? Will it be possible for the Democrats to create news?

Howard Kurtz: The opposition party can always create news. But it's also true that the Democrats at the moment lack the bigger megaphones in town -- control of the White House or either chamber of Commerce. But the Republicans faced the same situation in 1993-94 and were still able to make headlines.

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Washington, D.C.: Funny how bad news from the White House seems to leak out late on Friday when the staff figures no one is watching. Kerik's withdrawal was just one more example. The White House even waited until 10 p.m. With all of the suspicions about Kerik's past behavior, it's rather crass of the White House to suggest they hadn't thought long and hard about deep-sixing this guy. We'll just blame it on a nanny and hold it till late Friday night!

Howard Kurtz: Friday night specials often take place at government agencies as well as the White House. And the Clinton administration was hardly unfamiliar with the practice. It doesn't really work, though, because if the story's big enough everyone comes back with Sunday pieces and Monday analyses.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

The moment Bernie Kerik's withdrawal was made official by the White House on Friday evening, all sorts of news outlets were scrambling to get on the air their particular allegation, innuendo, rumor, etc. about him.

Were the media waiting for the confirmation hearings to let the public know? And were they "forced" to spill everything they had, due to fierce competition?

Also, it was said today by a morning show correspondent that the M.O. of the White House's vetting process is to announce apppointments before they are completely investigated so as to minimize the possibility of a leak beforehand. You even suggested that one possibility for the White House's asking Treasury Secretary Snow to remain was to spite the press for announcing Snow's imminent removal.

Is the White House that paranoid?

Howard Kurtz: Actually, here's a situation where the press did a far better job than the White House and FBI in uncovering significant questions about Kerik's past. There were several important stories, including some in The Post, about the nominee's financial and legal dealings--all of it before the nanny issue that apparently prompted the ex-commish's withdrawal. So while other allegations that were in the process of being reported came out after the withdrawal, this is a case where some reporters did a very solid job.

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Paris, France: Howard,
Love your show which I've only just seen. Up to now I've only known you through your columns. Why is CNN US political coverage quasi-nonexistant in Europe?
Also, in/re the voting irregularities flap: Isn't saying that the fact of not having been enough to change the election justifies the lack of coverage tantamount to saying, 'attempted murder' isn't enough of a crime to report because it wasn't successful?
Thanks! See you soon in Paris?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. Europe and the rest of the world get CNN International, which is run out of London and definitely includes far less U.S. news than the domestic channel, which was a frustration to me on my last overseas trip.
There seems to be a myth that the press isn't covering the charges of election irregularities. I've read a number of such stories and seen a few on television. Of course it doesn't matter whether this would reverse the election results, but what does matter is whether the problems were widespread and significant. No election is perfect. But there is more reporting to be done, particularly on the problems in Ohio and Florida.

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Baltimore, Md.: Okay, paid death notices I understand. But I highly doubt the Post runs EVERY full-length obituary it receives; otherwise you've just opened the door to everyone running a death notice to submit a long obituary instead. So somebody is definitely choosing not only which obituaries to run, but probably editing their content for space and style as well. And in a few cases, it appears, the editors pick a personality to write at length upon themselves. And it always seems to be that selfless library volunteer, the philanthropist, or person who hiked in every continent, not the president of a corporation or the founder of a store chain. Are you really saying that no "corporate big shots" ever submit their obituaries to the Post? If so, maybe THAT should bear some introspection or analysis, I dunno.

Howard Kurtz: Clarification: The families don't write the obits. They are interviewed by Post reporters who write the obits.

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Wayzata, Minn.: Howard:

Have you considered taking your weekend show onto Satellite Radio? An expanded one hour version would be welcome relief, given your rolodex of guests.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, I've just discovered that CNN is carried 24 hours a day (along with some other cable news channels) by both Sirius and XM satellite radio. So all the programs are on for those who can tear themselves away from the commercial-free music stations.

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Howie's Freudian Slip: "control of the White House or either chamber of Commerce. "

Ha!; Ain't that the truth!;

Howard Kurtz: Discerning readers know I meant Congress. I hope.

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So I'm not exactly sure what yelling a question as the two men are walking away would accomplish.: Uh... it would visually demonstrate that this Admin doesn't answer questions... at a historic level. It might even cause enough public discomort at the constant stobewalling that the Admin might feel pressure to start answering.

Or you can just continue to shrug and walk away. The press corps is getting really good at lap dogging like that.

Howard Kurtz: I'LL TELL THE WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS TO START TRYING THAT!!

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Rolla, Mo.: Last week you implied, or stated directly to the effect that the most significant aspect of the Rumsfeld questioning by the troops in Kuwait was that it was a plant by a journalist. Who cares? Isn't the issue of lack of armor, and Rumsfeld's dismissive response? You hear all the time from readers of their frustration with the media focus on side issues, intrigue. The content of this question one was paramount, yet put on the back burner by your opening paragraph.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't say it was the most significant aspect. We had a front-page story on the most significant aspect, which is whether the troops are getting adequate equipment, the strong feelings among soldiers on the issue and a response by Rumsfeld that many considered inadequate. But the fact that the emotional reaction to one soldier's question was orchestrated by the Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter who not only planted the question but ferried the soldier to the meeting was, and is, an interesting journalistic issue. Which is why I wrote the follow-up piece.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Howard -- question for you about syndication. I'm wondering if syndication of talking-head columnists (Washington Post writers group, Knight-Ridder, etc) is being jeopardized by bloggers and their ilk -- i.e. free web-based distribution -- in the same way that comic strip syndication is? Why would newspapers pay for content, and then republish it, when readers can get for free on the web? Are newspapers cutting back on syndicated columns or revolting against syndication fees?
Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: If the market for syndicated columns is drying up, I'm not aware of it. Newspapers still need good material to put in their dead-tree editions. The larger question is whether papers' circulation is being hurt by the fact that you can read all the material for free online on sites like washingtonpost.com. I suspect it is cutting into sales, but it would also be crazy for newspapers not to try to establish themselves on the Web as they struggle with how to make money from their online sites.

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Iowa: Mr. Kurtz: I considered it worrisome when radio behemoth Clear Channel purchased most of the radio stations in my area. My local station then abandoned its low-key format to air right-wing screamers like Neil Bortz, Glenn Beck, and Dr. Laura. Now comes word that they will drop their ABC newscasts because Clear Channel has signed a deal to have Fox News provide all their coverage. Aside from the fact that surveys have shown that Fox News does not provide balanced, accurate coverage to its audience, this would seem to be a most unhealthy example of media concentration. I see that we cannot look to the FCC (Michael Powell and company) for any recourse. I can listen to NPR, but there are many other listeners in my state who do not have that option, and are stuck with only Clear Channel stations. I fear there are no good solutions to this troubling situation.

Howard Kurtz: Lots of critics believe that the FCC (under a deregulation law passed by Congress) has allowed radio companies to get too big and too dominant in markets across the country (Washington, for example, has eight Clear Channel stations). I'm also worried about independent stations (and their news operations) being swallowed up by chains. But you certainly don't want the government telling Clear Channel that it can't contract with Fox or any other company for its newscasts.

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Ellicott City, Md.: I do not see why it matters if a reporter helped fashion a question to be asked. Is it not the same when our leaders have someone else write their speeches? It seems that the sentiment in the question was something that the audience agreed with and was not a question that they would not have thought of asking.

To me the whole issue of the question is covering up the fact that Mr. Rumsfeld answered it with untruths, the factories are not at full capacity.

Howard Kurtz: Well, some people think it doesn't matter very much. There's a real split of opinion in the media biz. And obviously no one forced the soldier to ask the question. But even the Chattanooga paper has acnowledged that it was a mistake not to mention the reporter's role in the story he wrote. That was an emotional moment, endlessly replayed on television, because it appeared to be a spontaneous outburst by a frustrated Tennessee guardsman. But it wouldn't have happened without some stage-managing by reporter Edward Lee Pitts. Once people have that information, they can draw their own conclusions as to whether the journalist's role was important or irrelevant.

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Washington, D.C.: I am curious to know what are the limits of the journalist's privilege to protect a source. Surely it is not absolute? The privilege that protects communications made in private to an attorney has limits. In the case of Valerie Plame, an attorney would likely not be able to shield this information under the attorney/client privilege because an attorney may not shield communciations that constitute the commission of a felony.

Howard Kurtz: No way is the reporter's privilege absolute, otherwise Matt Cooper and Judith Miller wouldn't be facing the possibility of going to jail. Forty-nine states and D.C. have shield laws that help protect reporters (though not absolutely) against being forced to divulge confidential sources. At the federal level there is no such legal protection, but a longstanding practice in which prosecutors try to avoid demanding reporters' sources except as a last resort. What you have here is a classic collision of rights--the right of the government to find out who might have committed a crime versus the journalists' right to protect confidential informants who help them gather news.

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Clarkston, Mich.: Hi Howard,

Tim Russert had four former generals and on his show and all of them had significant criticism of the way the Iraq War is being handled. Do you think Rumsfeld cares or even acknowledges that these career generals and General Staff memebers have serious doubts about the way he is handling the situation?

Howard Kurtz: I certainly wouldn't say that Rumsfeld or the Pentagon doesn't care about outside criticism, but they seem determined to stay on the course they're on. After all, some critics have been saying for more than a year that the Pentagon didn't send enough troops to Iraq to keep the peace, and only recently did the administration order a small boost of 12,000 soldiers, to 150,000.

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Columbia, Md.: Tell me what you think about this idea:

When a source gives a reporter bad information that turns out to be phony (like the sources who claimed John Snow was resigning), the reporter should "out the source so that in the future, other reporters think twice about trusting this source. It might even help cut down on growing epidemic of anonymous sources in the past few years where these anonymous sources would have the threat of being outed if they are lying.

Howard Kurtz: Sure, but only if the reporter believes the source was deliberately lying. In the case of the Snow nomination, I'm sure the administration sources who said Snow was toast believed what they were saying. The problem is they didn't know what they were talking about, and were playing the speculation game (with full cooperation and probably encouragement from the press) when the president hadn't made a final decision. In this case it's the journalists who erred by publishing what amounted to speculation -- much as some did by saying the Transportation secretary, Norm Mineta, would also be gone.

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Alameda, Calif.: Howard,

I've seen lots in the media about election intimidation and fraud in the Ukraine, including Colin Powell and President Bush's refusal to recognize the disputed results (now thrown out by the Ukrainian Supreme Court). I've also hear lots about the upcoming elections in Iraq, where worries abound with regard to voter registration posts getting bombed and records destroyed, and certain areas of the country perhaps being too dangerous to hold the elections at all.

Oddly, no one in the media seems to be linking these two stories. How do the White House and State Dept (a) condemn voter intimidation in the Ukraine, and (b) proclaim that elections in Iraq will go forward despite the obvious intimidation going on there?

Howard Kurtz: The difference is the Iraq election hasn't taken place yet, so we don't know how successful or flawed it will be. And the problem in Ukraine was not just intimidation but outright fraud, as certified by that country's Supreme Court.

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Washington, D.C.: Given the fallout from the Q&A Rumsfeld had with the soldiers in Iraq last week, do you think we've seen the last of soldiers being allowed to pose frank questions with the cameras running?

Howard Kurtz: I hope not. It would be a sad state of affairs if the secretary of defense were afraid to take questions from the military men and women he is leading for fear of bad publicity.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Is Air America Radio doing reasonably well in the ratings? Even though they're on 40 stations, aren't most of them weak stations with low ratings and low power, including the one in Washington, D.C? If so, that could cast doubt on the strength of that network.

Howard Kurtz: Some of the stations were weak before but are doing much better under Air America. Certain shows, like Al Franken's, are putting up respectable numbers, even in competitive markets like New York. Air America still has a long way to go, but considering its early brush with death, making it to 40 cities in six months is not a bad track record.

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Virginia: Re: Shouting questions. Howard, I think you're being disingenuous when you suggest that shouting questions wouldn't do much. It is clear, at least to me, that the White House press corps has been totally cowed by this administration. I assume the reporters all have book deals, which would be jeopardized if they lost their access, so they're willing to be spoon-fed the administration's line. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know of a single member of the White House press corps who has a book deal, and there isn't much access to jeopardize, since the correspondents say they have trouble getting anyone in the administration to leak anything or even depart from the day's talking points.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Howard, On behalf of several of your readers, I wanted to let you know that we missed you on your recent vacation, but we'll hold off for now on the urge to be the Bill Murray character in the movie, "What About Bob." I have to submit this question beforehand, because I have a meeting at lunch time: Who pays Karl Rove's salary?

Howard Kurtz: I'm happy to be back. The answer is...the American taxpayers. Karl Rove is a senior member of the White House staff. Some political advisers over the years (Karen Hughes is a recent example after she returned to Texas) have been paid by the RNC (or DNC), but Rove is a West Wing guy.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What has happenend to the Bush twins? During the election, they were everywhere but have not seen them at any Holiday White House functions. Any word on them?

Howard Kurtz: They haven't checked in with me lately. But it's perfectly natural that they would more or less return to civilian status after the campaign. And since they're both 21, they're spared coverage for any more underage drinking incidents.

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Cary, N.C.: Parts of the media have been beating an "Oh, woe, without a shield law there shall be no freedom of the press" drum for some time now, and often make reference to shield laws for other professions.

However, the other professions also have strong statutory exceptions, and I have yet to hear anything from Journalists other than "Well, we can tell if the source lied, sometimes".

So, if there is to be this Journalistic priviledge, what would be the exceptions to it, and equally importantly, what qualifies as a journalist?

It seems to me that any classification that includes everyone with a weblog is so broad as to grant freedom from testimony to everyone in the United States, and any narrow classification runs the risk of running afoul of the first ammendment by creating "official media" and "unofficial media", with different rights.

Howard Kurtz: I don't take the position that journalists should be immune from ever having to testify under any circumstance. I do think that these leak investigations often go nowhere and that sending reporters who refuse to divulge sources to jail doesn't accomplish a heckuva lot. Time's Matt Cooper told me in an interview that aired yesterday that the reason he wrote a story about Valerie Plame (which ran three days after Novak's) was to highlight the fact that administration leakers were trying to smear her husband Joe Wilson. Now he's facing jail. So is Judith Miller, who didn't even write a story.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard,

I'm getting very tired of the media's largely uncritical support of Judith Miller, Matt Cooper and other journalists facing punishment for failing to reveal their sources. These journalists are criminals, because as much as they may want some sort of federal sheild law, it does not exist. Your "interview" of Matt Cooper yesterday was a disgraceful attempt to garner sympathy for him. Why else would you ask how his six year old son is taking the news that he may be going away?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not trying to garner sympathy for anybody. I asked Cooper whether he was trying to out Valerie Plame, and why he is protecting sources who may have committed a crime. I also want to show the human side of these dramas: What does a journalist who thinks he did nothing wrong tell his son if he has to go off to jail for an undetermined period of time? Let's get one thing straight--the journalists in this case are not criminals. It is a crime for a federal official to knowingly leak the name of an intelligence operative; it is not a crime to receive such information. You could argue that the reporters were abetting a crime, or that they should not publish information from people with questionable motives, but they did not commit a crime. They are facing jail for refusing a prosecutor's demand that they disclose sources to whom they have promised confidentiality.

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Washington, D.C.: I disagree with the other commenters on shouting questions when Bush is walking away. If anything, it makes the press look like a bunch of jerks who are out to play gotcha for either ideological or publicity-related reasons and makes it harder, not easier, to raise legitimate questions and get real answers.

Howard Kurtz: I'd add this point: The real test of reporters is not who asks (or shouts) tough questions at the president. It's doing the hard work of developing sources inside and outside the administration, examining documents and developing stories that the president doesn't want to talk about. In other words, doing the unglamorous work of reporting away from the cameras.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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