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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 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.


Louisville, Ky.: Is there actual video of the Cheney Bleep, and if so does it stand any chance being replayed as often as the Dean Scream?

Howard Kurtz: There is, alas, no video of the veep's X-rated insult. Otherwise you would have heard the (bleeped) version thousands of times by now.


Chicago, Ill.: I am not a supporter of the Administration at all-- and I think that one of the most dangerous members of this cabal is Paul Wolfowitz. However, even I had trouble believeing what he said last week re: the media being too afraid to travel in Iraq and therefore staying in their hotel rooms publishing mere rumors? He couldn't possibly been taking journalists to task -- could he? Wasn't he just sympathizing with them?

Howard Kurtz: No, Wolfowitz was most definitely slamming the press. By saying that a) reporters in Iraq are afraid to travel, and b) they publish rumors, he was insulting the many courageous correspondents who have ventured into dangerous areas, in a number of cases barely escaping death. (Reporters are being more careful these days in traveling around the country, and given the security situation, who wouldn't be?) Wolfowitz eventually realized his error and delivered a full-throated apology that recognized the bravery of the reporters who are risking their lives in Iraq.


Iowa: The sureptitious early "transfer of power" in Iraq and the departure of CPA administrator Paul Bremer under the cover of darkness certainly left the media (esp. those broadcast anchors) in the lurch. Was the lack of fanfare warranted, or appropriate given that this is merely a sympbolic gesture?

Howard Kurtz: Well, you can't have fanfare when something takes place in the middle of the night (U.S. time) that you didn't know was coming. Look, this is an important day in the violent history of Iraq, but whether it turns out to be merely a symbolic gesture depends on what unfolds over the coming months. Will the new interim government be seen as truly independent, or will it be viewed as a front for the Pentagon, whose 136,000 troops will remain in the country? Will the new prime minister be able to get control of the security situation? All this is impossible to predict at the moment.


Miami, Fla.: How in the world did the CPA keep this early transfer under wraps? One minute all the media is blaring "Countdown to Transfer" and then -- poof! What countdown? It's a done deal and Bremer is leaving Iraqi airspace!

Howard Kurtz: One word: secrecy.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Howard,
I must say that I am quite tired of people blaming the "liberal" media for the coverage of Iraq. The reason the news coming out of Iraq is not all good is because the situation there is not all good. Those journalists in Iraq are risking their lives by being there, and I think they deserve respect for that, not criticism that they are hiding in Baghdad publishing rumors.

Howard Kurtz: Well, they certainly deserve respect. That doesn't mean their coverage should be above criticism. It's certainly true that the murders, bombings and attacks have gotten a huge amount of coverage, understandably, and that this has overshadowed some of the quieter signs of progress, such as building schools or or extending electricity. It's hard to strike the right balance when people are being killed every day and when journalists themselves have become targets.


Washington, D.C.: Why was the Post so late in reviewing Clinton's book? Didn't you get an advanced copy? I believe the New York Times had a review the day it came out....

Howard Kurtz: Well...ahem...we didn't obtain an advance copy, and the NYT did. The Post has run a number of stories analyzing and fact-checking the book, but you can't write those until you actually have the book, which was supposed to have been embargoed until last Tuesday. Beyond that, the New York Times has a tradition of rushing reviews of particularly newsworthy books into the daily paper (though not usually on the front page, as in this case) and running a Book Review piece later on. The Post tends to wait and put such reviews in Sunday's Book World section.


Arlington, Va.: A candidate for the Senate in Illinois had to drop out due to the exposure of divorce proceedings that are under judicial seal. Now people are trying to get John Kerry's sealed divorce documents. Having been through a divorce and having to say things that may not be true to get it, I wonder if there is a zone of privacy that we need not impinge upon.

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair question. I was a little uneasy about a judge ordering Jack Ryan's records released. I doubt Kerry's records are anywhere near as interesting, but I can also see why he wouldn't want them made public. The zone of privacy afforded to people who run for public office seems to get smaller and smaller each year.


Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Kurtz - Do you think that some of the 'old news' that Michael Moore resurrects in "Fahrenheit 9/11" will find its way back into the media? For example, do you see journalists taking another look at the Bush family's ties to the Saudis or bin Ladens, or are these topics dead as far as the mainstream press is concerned?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. But the movie itself is getting such a huge amount of publicity that some of these issues -- or just video, like Bush playing golf after issuing a statement on terrorism, which was widely aired at the time -- are getting more attention. Even when reporters and critics try to knock down some of the film's claims.


Boston, Mass.: Howard, re: that Pew Research Poll that showed the percentages of liberal, moderate, and conservative journalists a few weeks back. Do you think that a large amount of liberal journalists declared themselves as moderates to dispel the liberal media charges, or do they have no qualms about throwing fuel onto the fire and declaring themselves liberal?

Howard Kurtz: I have no way of knowing, since the survey was confidential and respondent were left to supply their own definitions of liberal, moderate and conservative.


Cambria, Calif.: Good morning Mr. Kurtz. What is the "inside" perspective on the investigation of the Valerie Plame leak? Any guess who leaked the story and whether it went as high as Dick Cheney? Are we likely to get a report or an indictment fromthe Chicago Prosecutor before the election in November?
Thanks for your response.

Howard Kurtz: I don't do guesses, at least not about such a serious matter. The fact that Bush was interviewed last week suggests to me that the probe is moving toward a conclusion, but there's no way to know for sure.


Lawrence, Kans.: How will Micheal Moore's new hit movie affect the election?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if it will or not. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the people flocking to Farenheit 911 already agree with Moore, or are at least already determined to vote against Bush. I suppose it could have an impact on some folks who are on the fence, if it continues to remain hot at the box office.


Chicago, Ill.: At least Jack Ryan's sex scandal involved his own wife. In today's environment, you'd think he'd get a few points for that...

Howard Kurtz: Right. There's no allegation of adultery. But dragging your wife to sex clubs is probably not an ideal election platform.


Martinsville, Va.: Why hasn't the media covered the fact that gas prices are now falling?

Howard Kurtz: I've seen that mentioned in several news stories. But they haven't come down that much, at least judging by the $2-plus signs in my area.


Philadelphia, Pa.: It's been reported that John Kerry wants to keep his running mate search private because of what happened to him in 2000. What was wrong with the way Gore handled that situation back then? I don't remember pundits criticizing Gore for releasing the names of his finalists. Was Kerry bitter that he was actually passed over after having high hopes of getting picked?

Howard Kurtz: Kerry felt the process was all too public, in the sense that he and John Edwards were left high and dry after being more or less publicly paraded as the finalists who lost out to Joe Lieberman. The press didn't really criticize Gore much because that is often how the leak-filled process works. But it left Kerry determined to do things differently, and there have been fewer leaks this time (though no shortage of groundless media speculation). One advantage to the Kerry approach would be to maintain the element of surprise if he picks someone outside the Edwards-Gephardt-Vilsack sphere.


Re secrecy: Hi Howard. Miami's question got me thinking. Was there NO leak about this (the early handover) at all? Did certain reporters/editors know and were asked to keep mum?

Howard Kurtz: From my early soundings, the press was totally taken by surprise. It wasn't like Bush was secretly flying there and had to round up White House correspondents to make the trip. If word had leaked, the anchors would have been in place at 3 am, and they weren't.


Boston, Mass.: Living here in Boston, its hard to gauge how much the trials and tribulations surrounding the Democratic Convention are being followed elsewhere. Do think the skirmishes between our mayor and the police union will have any national impact on Kerry?

Howard Kurtz: Probably not. It's getting a little coverage, but by the time Kerry and his veep pick make their acceptance speeches no one will care much about the difficult labor relations there. Might make Boston a tougher sell for a future party convention, though.


Westcliffe, Colo.: In all the hype and hooey about Bill Clinton's new book, I haven't read or heard anything about his contrition where lying to the American public or to a federal grand jury is concerned. Was this hidden in a footnote in his book or was it just left out by a nodding editor?

As I remember it, he lied to us repeatedly and he was impeached for the lies to a a federal judge and grand jury. Surely that, and the lifting of his license to practice law, should have been covered in great detail in a book that treats us to a sunrise in Grand Canyon!

Howard Kurtz: Clinton writes about that, and has been asked about it in virtually every interview, and has conceded his moral error not just in fooling with Lewinsky but in misleading the country about it. He has variously said that if there was no Ken Starr investigation he might have come clean from the start AND that he doesn't know if he would have, and that his presidency might not have survived if he did fess up early on. So the issue hasn't exactly been ducked. Most of the book, though, is about growing up, his years as governor and the policy side of being president.


New York City, N.Y.: The most frustrating thing about the news coverage concerning the daily explosions, killings, etc in Iraq is that we never get any perspective as to whether any of the perpetrators are caught. Imagine public opinion if crime in this country was reported in full detail every day but arrests, trials and convictions were never reported. Crime would quickly become the most important issue. With no coverage of Iraqi arrests, retaliation, etc., it is no wonder the situation there is regarded by many Americans to be hopeless. Maybe it is; maybe it isn't. We are not given the facts needed to know, one way or the other.

Howard Kurtz: I would imagine that if more of the perpetrators were being caught, you'd be seeing and reading more about it. But you're right in that it doesn't seem to be a major focus of the coverage.


Clifton, Va.: Excuse me Michael Moore's new flick is not a hit. Lets see what it amkes in its second and third weeks after all the Bush haters have seen it. The movie has no staying power! Who would want to see it twice. Sure isn't a date flick unless you are two interns on the hill with sugar daddies.

Howard Kurtz: I agree that a film can fizzle after a big opening weekend. But it has already set a record as the most popular documentary ever, which is something even if it isn't in the league of Hollywood blockbusters.


Knoxville, Tenn.: Why do you think all of the weekend shows chose to ignore the Jack Ryan story in Chicago?
If the media (WLS-TV and the Tribune) had not pursued the issue -- the public would probably have not found out till after the elections that Jack Ryan had lied to both the public and his own party.

Howard Kurtz: It got a fair amount of cable coverage, but with Iraq dominating the news, and even with the sex angle, you have to keep in mind that the vast majority of the coverage has never heard of Jack Ryan. (More have probably seen his wife on Star Trek, though.) In newsworthiness terms, he's no Kobe Bryant. So the sudden fall of a relatively obscure candidate did not catch on, though it might have if things in Iraq were quiet and Dick Cheney wasn't tossing the F-bomb.


Scranton, Pa.: Hi Howard,

Last night I went to see Mike Moore's new movie at a theatre here in Scranton. I was expecting a half full auditorium. Turned out the place was packed and I had to hunt with my friends to find a seat (this was one of those big stadium type theatres, too). Now Scranton isn't exactly conservarive, but it isn't exaclty liberal either. I would say a lot of people around here are probably undecided between Kerry and Bush. To me it seemed like there are a lot of things in this movie that no amount of PR can fix for the President. Do you think this film's going to help determine the outcome of the election in Novemeber? Will it just go away?

Howard Kurtz: As I said earlier, it's hard for me to see the movie being a significant factor by the time November 2 rolls around. But it's certainly drawing crowds in places beyond the Upper West Side, Georgetown and Santa Monica.


Gainesivlle, Fla.: What happened there during the CBS Morning Show interview with Michael Moore? After Moore had critized CBS news as "propoganda," the interviewer tried to change the subject and then started with "have you been receiving death threats?" She then went on to say that she saw a lot of bodyguards enter with Moore and continued the question. Is this a normal interviewer question or something out of line? Also, if Moore has been getting death threats why has no other media outlet covered it? Thanks Kurtz!

Howard Kurtz: Didn't see the interview but I don't imagine that whoever conducted it wanted the whole thing to be about allegations of propaganda at CBS. And if Moore is walking around with a contingent of bodyguards, that seems like a fair point to question.


Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I couldn't help but notice that the networks were not carrying the installation ceremony for the new Iraqi government this morning. CNN and Fox News had it, but whey didn't NBC/CBS/ABC carry this momentous event?

Howard Kurtz: Probably fair to conclude they didn't consider it all that momentous. It was a ceremony, after all. Had it happened, say, at 10 a.m. eastern time, instead of unexpectedly in the middle of the night, I suppose the broadcast networks might have dipped into it. But remember, they're not primarily in the breaking news business and make large amounts of money from airing entertainment shows.


Evansville, Ind.: In a recent interview with the BBC, President Clinton made some remarks about the media not caring about the lives of people they write about. In every single discussion of this interview I have heard, the reporters ignore the real point Clinton is making and instead deal with his remarks strictly in terms of his anger. WHY? Why won't you address his point? DOES the media hurt people? DOES the media care? Answer: no, obviously not, which is why you won't discuss the SUBSTANCE of what he said.

Howard Kurtz: Well, in fairness, the substance of his and his administration's charges against Ken Starr's investigations were debated over and over again for a year and a half. Does media coverage hurt people? Sure, all the time. Anyone who comes under investigation by aggressive prosecutors gets a lot of coverage at a time when journalists don't know if they're innocent or not (witness the stories about the Oregon lawyer charged with being involved in the Madrid bombing until it turned out the fingerprint evidence was false). Some journalists rely too heavily, or one-sidedly, on law enforcement leaks. Clinton is right that a lot of people were dragged into the Whitewater/Lewinsky investigation and were hurt by the media coverage, but some of them were guilty, and in any event the press has little choice but to cover an investigation of the president.


Rochester, NY: The "media" seems to be a convenient scapegoat for both the right and left who believe that their points of view and/or accomplishments have been unfairly covered. In our modern society, isn't making both political and cutural extremes unhappy an indication that the sum of the coverage in American media is "fair and balanced" according to today's cultural standards? By that I mean, since Watergate, we seem to be a nation that cynically tears down public figures rather than builds positive images of them. The other possibility is that public figures now actually have worse characters than public figures pre-Watergate and that the media is only reporting what they see. What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: My sense is that politics is cleaner than in the pre-Watergate era, when it was legal for corporations and other special interests to give suitcases full of cash to campaigns. All the disclosure requirements we now have makes it easier to write stories about possible influence peddling, conflict of interest and so on. That may make it appear that there are more shady dealings than before.


Re: Moore Bodyguards: You notice we didn't hear whether Moore actually answered the question about the bodyguards and death threats (watch closely -- Moore almost never answers an interviewer's question; he instead answers the question he wishes he had been asked). It's more likely Moore is pulling yet another publicity gimmick to get sympathy and support from his fans, much as he milked the rejection by Miramax as "censorship" for the same reasons -- free publicity.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the answer to the bodyguard question. But if Moore answers the questions he wished he'd been asked, he joins a very long list of politicians who do the same thing.


Sterling, Va.: I beleive Madonna still has you beat on number of times the F word was bleeped but you gave her a run for the money.

Howard Kurtz: This is undoubtedly a reference to my bleep-filled, tongue in cheek CNN report on the F matter. And I'm happy to cede the crown to Madonna.


Bethesda, Md.: Mr. Kurtz,

Regarding the Plame/Robert Novak story, recently in this chat you said "Though the story has since died down, Novak got a lot of criticism for what he did when the Plame revelations came out. The press was slow to pick up on his initial column last summer, but he's hardly gotten a free ride on the controversy."

My question has been and remains: How has Novak suffered? Your newspaper still carries his columns, and he's on TV all the time. Why won't you come clean and admit he really HAS gotten a free ride?

Howard Kurtz: Your definition seems to be that if someone hasn't "suffered," he's gotten a free ride. As I said, he's gotten plenty of criticism, both in print and on television, for his role in the Plame outing. But on what grounds should newspapers and networks drop him? He accurately reported what two senior administration officials told him (as a relatively minor point in the July 2003 column) and has said he didn't fully realize her non-public status. Where the press fell down is in waiting two months to make an issue of the column that eventually triggered a leak investigation.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Howard,
I agree that coverage from Iraq should be balanced and focus on the successes, but the examples you point out (schools and electricity) seem odd choices, and coincidentally taken straight from the CPA talking points.

The latest reports are that the entire country is generating about 4500MW of electricity per day, only negligably higher than the pre-war levels of 4000MW and far below prior CPA estimates of 6000MW by June 30. People report getting it for 3-4 hours a day. So this doesn't sound like much of a success story.

And if Michael Moore travels with bodyguards makes asking about his security fair-game, then doesn't the daily bombings and death in Iraq make that story fair game as well?

Howard Kurtz: I don't get the CPA talking points. I was just throwing out a couple of random examples. Helping Iraq establish a court system or repair damaged buildings would be examples as well. Nor am I saying that there are all these great successes that have been overshadowed. I just say it's a legitimate debate whether the coverage has been overly dominated by the violence.


In reply to Clifton, Va.'s question: "Who would want to see (Moore's film) twice?" Me and a lot of other people I know. If Bush's minions are so upset about this film, why don't they go ahead and make their own film and get it distributed? What a bunch of whiners?!

Howard Kurtz: Well, if all of Moore's fans see the movie twice, I guess it will have a big second weekend as well.


DeKalb, Ill.: Dear Howard,
I see that the Washington Post's website is running many ads for the Kerry campaign and many more against the Bush campaign ("one click and he could be gone; contribute $50 now to bring change to the White House"). What are the Washington Post's current guidelines regarding political advertisements and what should they be in your opinion? I know that the Post is not endorsing John Kerry by running his ads (at least not yet), but am I the only one that is a little uneasy with political ads running within the pages of non-partisan newspapers?

Howard Kurtz: My educated guess is that The Post accepts ads from any qualified advertiser who is not making false or libelous claims. So the Bush campaign or the RNC or Mel Gibson or Michael Moore is welcome to buy ads if they deem it an effective investment. The Bush camp has, by the way, bought online ads on newspapers sites in about 15 swing states as a way of reaching key voters. The Washington Post, alas, does not circulate in any battleground state.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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