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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 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.


Middleton, Wisc.: Howard, thank you for a great column and for taking time each week to answer questions.

My question is about the media coverage of both conventions. With the drastic cutback of convention coverage on the national networks, most people rely on the analysis of newscasters and 'talking heads'. These folks, it seems to me, have summed up the DNC as being too nice, with almost no 'attacks' on President Bush, and the RNC as a nasty, mean convention that relentlessly put down Sen. Kerry. I watched a lot of both conventions, and thought neither of them went over the line. Both sides seemed to have some fun at the other's expense, but (Zell's speech not withstanding) nothing I thought was over the edge.

Do you think this was an issue of the national media feeding into the stereotype reinforced by Evan Thomas' comment a couple of months back, or did you also feel like the RNC was a lot nastier than the Dems?

Howard Kurtz: It simply reflects reality to report that the Democratic convention, with some mild exceptions, included no harsh attacks on Bush and that the Republican convention slammed Kerry every night. You don't have to characterize the tactics as "mean," etc., but the fact remains that the two campaigns had very different goals with the message they wanted to send. You don't need talking heads to tell you that. Anyone watching the coverage would have noticed this.


Washington, D.C.: Aren't polls misleading when it comes to winning a presendential election b/c of the electoral votes that each state has? There are only a few battleground states where polls should matter like Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Penn. When these news organizations say Bush is leading by 11 points over Kerry, are they are taking a poll from all over the country or just these battleground states? Because it doesn't matter how Bush is doing in Texas and Kerry in California.

Howard Kurtz: I couldn't agree more. National polls mean little, except as an overall barometer of how the race is going. State by state polls mean everything (if they're accurate, that is). We've already had an election in which the guy who got the most votes didn't win. Keep your eye on Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.


Arlington, Va.: Some in the media have taken to using the phrase "so-called" as in "so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth." While an op-ed piece might be able to get away with this, could a phrase like this ever make it past the news editors at a major paper?

Howard Kurtz: I doubt it. It's fine to report on inconsistencies and discrepancies in the group's allegations, but "so-called" certainly sounds dismissive and opinionated.


Hamilton, Va.: In your column this morning you ask if old drunken driving incidents could hurt Bush or Cheney. Utterly fabricated Viet Nam allegations have done a number on Kerry so it may worth a shot.
I have wondered if, and if not, why not, the White House was asked about alcohol after the choking on a pretzel incident. I think it would have been a fair question at the time whether or not a BAC test was administered.

Howard Kurtz: Gosh, I haven't thought about Pretzelgate in a long time.
The question I was really raising -- since we already know about the long-ago DUI incidents -- is whether it made sense as a campaign tactic for Kerry to be talking about his opponents' past, as opposed to what he plans to do for the country over the next four years.


washingtonpost.com: Kicking Kerry Around (Media Notes, Sept. 7)


Atlanta, Ga.: What is the purpose of news organizations like Time, Newsweek, and USA Today conducting quickie polls after the recent convention and then running big headlines? Are their editors into the horse race aspect too (along with reporters)? USA Today's poll question on who to vote for had a +/- 6 percentage points margin of error. To me, this is not a reliable enough poll. Is the Washington Post preparing a more reliable poll for release in the near future?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure the Post is working on a poll. CNN/USA Today has just put one out that is probably a better snapshot than one taken DURING the convention.
But the fact is, polls are a media racket. The news outlets pay for the poll and trumpet the findings as "news," whether they show significant movement or clear leads or not. Rival polls are sometimes mentioned, but they are not front-page news the way your own poll is. And it's a lot easier than flying to battleground states and interviewing dozens of voters and presenting the race as more than a horse-race number. Overreliance on polls also distorts coverage because whoever is a few points up is depicted as "surging" while the opponent is portrayed as "struggling."


Rockville, Md.: Do you think that the Bush bounce in the polls after the Republican Convention reflects once again the idea that people talk about hating negative campaigning but repond to it by changing the votes toward the attacker? It seems the Democrats policy of a positive convention work agains them.

Howard Kurtz: Negative campaigning often works, but the convention may have helped Bush by pushing the terrorism issue to the forefront, with speaker after speaker praising Bush's wartime leadership while portraying Kerry as a weak waffler. The convention also came on the heels of nearly a month of media coverage of the swift boat business that more or less drowned out whatever Kerry wanted to say, and that may be a factor in these polls.


Stanton Park, Washington, D.C.: This really is shaping up to be one of the meanest elections in decades. Given that, wouldn't it make sense for the Washington Post and other large media outlets to create a 'rapid response team' to look at various claims (especially from the newly famous 527 groups) to detail the truth and the fabrications? Since the media (especially television) is the medium for spreading this information, I can't help but feel like the media isn't doing a good enough job of dissecting these claims. Of course, some claims are simply viewpoints, but when it comes to actual facts (everything from Vietnam to economic facts), I feel like the media has empowered the attackers on both sides without doing their duty to examine the charges.

Howard Kurtz: I critique every ad from the campaigns and some of the 527s. But there are very few news organizations that see this as part of their responsibility. It's usually along the lines of "In a blistering new ad, so-and-so charges X" and "Y denounced the ad as a malicious falsehood." None of which helps readers and viewers figure out whether the allegations are factual, exaggerated or false.


Los Angeles, Calif.: It's been reported that Clinton had a long chat with Kerry this weekend and there has been a staff shake-up. Who has joined, left or been diminished?

Howard Kurtz: No one has left. Joe Lockhart and his former Clinton White House colleague Joel Johnson have been given big roles, along with John Sasso, former Dukakis campaign manager. Kerry's style is to add new layers of advisers rather than dump anyone (with the notable exception of his firing of his first campaign manager last November).


Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard,
Love your chats. Do you think Kerry will eventually turn to ads that ask "Where's Bin Laden?" For Bush to call the al Qaeda leader marginalized, as he did over a year ago, is a HUGE disservice to the victims of 9/11, in my opinion, and a political vulnerability. Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I'm skeptical. Because that would require Kerry to explain how he would catch bin Laden when Bush has failed to do so, and there's no easy answer to that question.


Washington, D.C.: I read in the Post last week that an incumbent usually receives either a 27 or 16 point bounce in the polls after their convention. Twenty-seven points goes to those who go on to win reelection (or to win for the first time as would be Bush's case) and 16 points goes to those who do not get re-elected. So, can we just call the presidential race over and Bush II is another lame duck like his father?

Howard Kurtz: Don't know where you got those numbers. The incumbent "bounce" is usually between 5 and 10 points. 27 would be off the charts.


Phoenix, Ariz.: A couple of weeks ago, you pooh-poohed a question to this forum about the ethics of news programs repeatedly broadcasting paid political commercials, especially the Swift Boat ads, saying esentially that everybody does it. In yesterday's Times, Frank Rich commented that the Swifties spent only $500,000 to buy time for their ads in seven medium-sized markets. The network and cable news shows took it from there -- for free. I, for one, have seen the Swift Boat ads ONLY on news programs. So again, how can this be ethical? And if it's such common practice, why haven't I ever seen a MoveOn ad on the news?

Howard Kurtz: You're mischaracterizing what I said. I have made the point over and over that the swifties had a tiny buy and that cable news (and eventually the rest of the media) covered the charges and showed the ads so relentlessly -- without knowing whether they were true -- that the issue took over the presidential campaign. The same thing happened, according to this morning's Post, with the independent group that aired the Willie Horton ad to help Bush's dad in '88.


Alexandria, Va.: I noticed that the GOP speakers on nights they had the networks started speaking at 10:00:30 and ended at about 10:57. This left the talking heads no time for "analysis." Over on the cable side, some of the reporters (Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC) were complaining about this. But when the networks only give an hour a night, is it any surprise that the GOP takes every single second?

Also, why was NBC's foreign affairs coorespondent covering the conventions for MSNBC anyway? Although foreign affairs will be important in this election, she isn't a political reporter.

Howard Kurtz: First, the anchors and reporters were openly frustrated about this (I discussed it with Tom Brokaw, whom I wrote about last week). But the networks essentially boxed themselves in by offering just one hour a night, and obviously any competent political party would try to fill that time. Andrea Mitchell has been a reporter in Washington for a long time and knows about more than just diplomacy.


Centreville, Va.: Arguably Gore lost the debate battle with Bush four years ago, even though going in he was the heavy favorite. Given that Kerry's no Gore and certainly no Clinton, does he have any chance against Bush in the upcoming debates? What about Edwards (litigator and all) vs. Cheney?

Howard Kurtz: Kerry proved himself to be a very skilled debater in a series of sessions against Bill Weld in his '96 Senate race. So the idea that he has "no chance" is ridiculous. Both sides are busy lowering expectations for their man in advance of these debates, the dates of which have not even been settled yet.


Potomac, Md.: The Washington Post ombudsman pointed out this weekend that the Post is making no effort whatsoever to reign in the use of anonymous quotes. What things have you seen working at The Washington Post to force reporters to curb their use of anonymous quotes? Based on what I have seen lately, there appears to be no effort at all.

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't say there is NO effort - editors constantly raise the issue, question why someone can't be on the record, demand better attribution - but we obviously have a ways to go. That's according to my very confidential newsroom sources.


Crystal City, Va.: For Phoenix, the same thing happened in the 1984 primary -- Mondale ran a "where's the Beef? ad against Hart and got oodles of free publicity. That commercial + some monkey business was the end of Gary Hart.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, that was no ad. Mondale said it in a debate.


St. Louis, Mo.: Pretzelgate? You don't think all the Bush mishaps that have been reported during his term or his incessant trips back to the "ranch" have any bearing on the fact that this president is a recovering alcoholic? I use the term "recovering" lightly as there is no evidence to date that Bush has gone through any 12-step recovery program or sought any professional counseling or treatment for his repeated alcohol and drug abuses. So it's fair game to bash Kerry on his 30-year-old war record because Kerry brought up his honorable service as a Vietnam Vet but unfair to question anything on Bush's past record because Bush hasn't brought it up? Yeah, right, Howard.

Howard Kurtz: You seem to have a strong point of view. It's fine to bring up Bush's past drinking -- he's talked openly about it -- but I doubt that's going to move any votes regarding someone who has been president for the last four years. I also think that journalists shouldn't suggest that Bush has somehow fallen off the wagon without evidence.


Galena, Ill.: You can bet that President Bush will make a pre-emptive strike on John Kerry by reducing the number of debates from three down to one or two come this time around.

His defense will be that Bill Clinton did it and we know how fond the repugs are of bringing up Bill Clinton in their defense.

Howard Kurtz: I have no idea, but I am starting to wonder whether Bush will go for the full three debates. It doesn't even seem like there's an active negotiation going on.


Washington Post home delivery zone: Howard,

Maybe you can help here. As the political ad truth squad guy at The Post you may have some insight.

I am continually surprised and disheartened by the way the Bush/Cheney team makes statements that are contradicted by the facts. The reporters are getting better at reporting that the assertions are not supported by fact, but this takes up lots of the space that should be devoted to news. (Kessler's story last week was noteworthy for the fact-checking and the fact that it ran on the front-page.)

One of the latest example of "just not so" statements was given in Mike Allen's Monday piece:

"In a new twist on his argument that Kerry is set on raising taxes, the president said the Democrat's plan to eliminate the Bush tax cuts on those making more than $200,000 would "stifle job creation."

"This Labor Day weekend, it is important for America's workers to know that my opponent wants to tax your jobs," Bush said. "His plan to raise taxes on those at the top end of the income tax scale will raise taxes for the 900,000 small businesses and entrepreneurs who pay at the individual rate and who are creating most of the new jobs in our changing economy."

However, Internal Revenue Service data show that the majority of small businesses report much less than $200,000 in annual income."

I recognize that the press doesn't want to become adversarial by labeling someone as a liar or a statement as a lie. But is it possible to come up with an acceptable short-hand to identify things that are just not so, without assigning motive to the speaker?

Could you support a "Not So" short-hand to quickly let the reader know that the immediately preceding assertion was just not accurate and does not comport to the known facts?

Howard Kurtz: I think the example you just cited is a perfect example of how to do it. Report what the candidate says and then report any conflicting data that would cast the assertions in a different light.


Fullerton, Calif.: Hi Howard,

I love your show "Reliable Sources." You're one of the few objective journalists. What I would like to know is why the major TV news outlets like CNN give so much time and spread the lies about Kerry without fact-checking them? It's totally irresponsible and reprehensible. Not one of the CNN anchors, besides Carville and Begala asks the tough questions, thereby helping these people to make the lies seem true.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. If you're talking about the swift boat charges, I think all the cable networks gave way too much play to a little-aired commercial while making only minimal efforts at fact-checking. (The NYT, WP, LAT, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune did eventually help set the record straight.) They love Vietnam and they love heated arguments ("Was John Kerry really a war hero? That story, next"). Obviously such charges need to be covered, but there is little doubt in my mind that they swallowed the presidential campaign. (At a certain point, of course, the Kerry camp helped keep the story alive by sending Max Cleland to Crawford, etc.).


995 and counting ...: Sometime this week the American death toll in Iraq will pass 1000. How do you expect most media to cover this? Does the Post have any plans?

Howard Kurtz: I believe we did a major story on the rising toll of injuries recently, and obviously the 1,000 mark will get a lot of attention.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Howard,

Love your online column. I saw quite a bit that you wrote during the Democratic National Convention on the way that Fox News covered the proceedings (i.e., cutting away from speeches for discussion, calling it the "reinvention convention").

Did Fox News treat the Republican National Convention in the same manner? Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: Fox blew off a lot of the Republican speeches for its talking heads in the same way it did in Boston. The network wound up devoting more time to GOP speeches, but that was in part because Rudy Giuliani ran really long on Monday rather than signing off at 11 (which he didn't need to do because there was no ABC, CBS and MBC coverage that night).


Portland, Ore.: As Dana Milbank reported, the president came out with a new policy position yesterday. Bush declared, "We've got an issue in America. Too many good docs are getting out of business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country." Why isn't this position getting picked up by other media outlets?

Howard Kurtz: They're afraid the FCC might object to such a lurid image.


Kerry the debater: For Centreville, Va., the Atlantic ran a recent feature sizing up the respective strengths and weaknesses of Bush and Kerry as debaters. As Howard said, Kerry's credited with outstanding perforance against Weld. He was also evidently a dominating force at Yale.

Howard Kurtz: Right. But as we learned with the sighing Al Gore, being quicker on your feet doesn't always mean you "win" a presidential debate.


Atlanta, Ga.: So if the Kerry staff "shake-up" is merely high-powered people being added, why is it reported as such versus it being a bolstering of his team? Seems like another example of perceptions being fed by relentless reporting only on campaign tactics, which has been the ad nauseum journalism of 2004.

Howard Kurtz: Journalists love shakeup stories. Love them! They suggest intrigue, anxiety and disarray. Obviously Kerry is bolstering his team for the final two months, but this doesn't strike me as a capital-S shakeup.


San Francisco, Calif.: Howard --

Thanks for your great coverage both in The Post and on CNN. On CNN yesterday you criticized Kerry's ad highlighting the inconsistency between Bush's convention speech on "honoring our seniors" and the accurate (as you acknowledged) point that the day after convention, a 17 percent increase in Medicare was announced. You said that President Bush didn't raise those premiums, rather CMS Administrator Mark McClellan did. Surely you are not suggesting that the Presidential appointee who heads CMS acts without White House direction, either substantively in that the increase would certainly have to have been approved in advance by OMB (in the White House), and surely you have no information indicating definitively that the miraculous timing of the announcement, out of the ordinary annual schedule, just after the Republican convention and a far as possible in advance of the election, was not at the direction of Karl Rove or others in the political staff at the White House. Isn't the question of who decided to announce it at this time exactly the kind of thing that you're a master at ferreting out, and isn't that something that the American people should know? Please keep up the good work. Thanks again.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I don't have any information on the timing, and obviously President Bush should be held responsible for the policies of the department and agency heads he's appointed. The topic is certainly fair game for a Kerry ad. But when the ad says "George Bush imposes," that's not accurate. The decision is made by the Medicare administrator not according to his whims and preferences, but based on a legal formula that must take into account rising health costs and increased services for patients.


New York City: I wonder if you'd comment on the fact that Kerry said in his "Midnight Madness" speech that Cheney had called him unfit for office, when, in fact, Cheney didn't say that at all ... it was just a bad headline in the Post (as your ombudsman admitted). If we're talking about the candidates' lies, this has surely got to rank up there, no?

Howard Kurtz: Cheney didn't use the word "unfit," and our headlines shouldn't have either, but the vice president certainly challenged Kerry's suitability for the role of commander in chief.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think the Big Three news networks are doing a disservice to Americans by refusing to cover more than three lousy hours of the conventions? They may think it's not news but many of us don't agree. It only happens every four years and with them not covering more, Americans lose out. Not everybody has cable and other choices.

Howard Kurtz: But everyone can watch on PBS. Yes, I think the networks could rouse themselves to donate more than three hours of their lucrative airtime every four years to national political conventions, scripted or otherwise. But since they're clearly not going to do that, it may be time to move on and follow the proceedings elsewhere.


New York, N.Y.: I was wondering why in the past few weeks we have heard nothing else about the 9/11 Commission Report. I only realized this was true when I saw it on display at the bookstore in the mall. Why is this not something that remains in the news for weeks, and gets constant tracking?

Howard Kurtz: I think the 9/11 commission got an enormous amount of coverage, especially when Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton announced that they would raise money to keep their office going and lobby for intelligence reforms. What happened is that Congress went home for August, so there were no further hearings or debates. I think we'll hear more about the commission and the overall issue when the Hill resumes the debate.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think if "W" is re-elected, Hillary will run in 2008.(I know you journalists love this question.)

Howard Kurtz: Maybe. But I seem to be one of the few journalists in America who believe it's a possibility that she might not run. Much will obviously depend on the political situation at the time.


Jeffersonville, Pa.: Not only does the Republican Convention outdraw the Dems for TV ratings, Fox News outdraws the the broadcast stations. Isn't it time for the people with the dwindling ratings and shrinking circulation to come to the conclusion that many Americans are getting tired of their always slanted viewpoint and starting to watch something they believe is fair? Can you imagine if Bush wins reelection? The media will begin to portray him as evil incarnate. We would get to hear the Dems complaining for the next four years that Bush won because he went negative, but there would be nary a mention (much like now) about how they went after Bush for over a year.

Howard Kurtz: Fox News deserves congratulations for its accomplishment, but the fact that its Rerpublican convention ratings were so much higher than its Democratic convention ratings suggests, as past polls have indicated, that an awful lot of Republicans watch Fox. I also believe that many people are abandoning the broadcast networks for convention coverage because they've obviously signalled, with their lousy three hours, that they don't think it's important. If you're watching the proceedings on a cable network, you may just stay tuned rather than remembering it's 10:00 and you can now switch to the big boys.


South Riding, Va.: I am so sick of hearing about the supposed "liberal media." Last week on your discussion a reader had the temerity to ask you, "So what's with the big networks snubbing the Republican convention now? If the Democrats whined about only getting an hour, at least they got that."

This despite the exact same coverage for the RNC as the DNC. Oh, wait! Except that ABC granted additional coverage to the RNC during halftime of Monday Night Football. Oh, yeah, and all the networks carried Bush as he droned on past 11 p.m.! Remember how Kerry had to rush to finish on time?

If these people were really interested in "fair coverage" then they should have expected Bush's speech to be cut off promptly at 11 p.m. How long do you think we'll have to suffer with those on the hard-right complaining that largely unbiased media sources are "liberal."

Howard Kurtz: The fact is, no network would cut away from a presidential candidate who goes past 11. It just wouldn't happen. Kerry told Tom Brokaw, who told me, that he didn't rush through his speech to finish by 11 but because he thought it would be better for his rhythm and presentation not to slow down every time the audience started applauding.
Okay, thanks for the chat, folks.


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