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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 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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Washington, D.C.: Howard,
I must say I was incredibly disturbed that a station owner has decided that he knows best in terms of what news programs viewers are allowed to watch on Sinclair owned stations. What's next? Editing the nightly news to remove any "bad" news about Iraq?

Howard Kurtz: Interesting you should say that, because Sinclair Broadcasting, which chose not to air the "Nightline" with Ted Koppel reading the names of Americans killed in Iraq, says it has sent reporters there to find the "positive" stories that are ignored by the "liberal media." Television station owners are free to air whatever they want, but the Sinclair boycott had the reverse effect of greatly boosting the publicity for Koppel's program.

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Edwardsburg, Mich.: Anyone with Internet access can read virtually any newspaper online for free. Mr. Kurtz, I was wondering what you thought about the future of newspapers in the printed form. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Call me a troglodyte, but I think they will be around for a long time. It's still easier to read paper on the subway or at the breakfast table. Hard to curl up in bed with a laptop. But the online growth of news sites will continue to be tremendous, which I think is a great thing for papers like mine.

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Tucson, Ariz.: With the departure of several editors after the Jack Kelley debacle at USA Today, what is the status of his wife, a VP of that newspaper?

Howard Kurtz: My understanding is that she still works at USA Today.

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DeKalb, Ill.: Dear Howard,
After watching you interview that pseudo-journalist yesterday (I don't recall her name) and following the rise of The Daily Show, I am concerned that the general public has completed the move from BBC-style news reporting to fake news shows with more entertainment value than actual news. Jon Stewart can state that his show is a fake-news show during every broadcast, but that doesn't mean that the average viewer will watch BBC America every night as a supplement. I know I am probably being a little too dramatic, but should Jon Stewart be considered the Walter Cronkite for the 18-35 demographic? That's truly a frightening thought. Will the news shows continue their slide towards entertainment until E! News rules, or is there some point when society will turn back to serious, in-depth reporting?

Howard Kurtz: You can resume breathing. Neither Jon Stewart nor Ana Marie Cox (who writes at wonkette.com) is shoving traditional anchors and reporters aside. I happen to think there's nothing wrong with making news entertaining if you're a self-proclaimed satirist--after all, news junkies are a big part of their audience because otherwise they wouldn't get much of the humor. What's worrisome is when entertainment values so infect regular news organizations that serious reporting is no longer considered enough to attract and hold an audience.

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Allegany, N.Y.: Enjoyed today's column. The blind piece from Brit Hume grabbed my interest most. Did he claim to have specific sources on his assertion about Gov. Richardson or was he putting forward idle gossip, engaing in speculation or just making something up?

washingtonpost.com: Toss-Up Time (washingtonpost.com. May 3)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. It certainly sounded like he knows something that he feels he can't, possibly because it's unconfirmed, repeat on the air. So he's doing it without quite doing it.

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Summerfield, N.C.: I cannot believe how the Iraqi prisoner mistreatment story is being handled -- it does not seem to be getting enough attention. Even on NPR this morning Cokie Roberts only saw it in terms of what it means for the Presidential Election! This is a horrifying story and it is more important than just what affect it will have on the upcoming election -- can I only expect for the next six months to have stories studies for only their election impact?

Howard Kurtz: I would have agreed with you until a couple of days ago, and think much of the press was a step slow here. The story was on the front page of the Sunday WP and NYT, and today it's on Page 1 of those papers and the LAT, USA Today and Washington Times. Wolf Blitzer just led off his noon show with it. The reporting is turning from these specific and quite horrifying incidents to broader questions of whether this sort of abuse was encouraged or authorized by military intelligence officials as a way of extracting information. I keep reading that five soldiers have been "reprimanded," though, which sounds like an awfully mild penalty.

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Winston-Salem, N.C.: I must have missed your take on the Bob Edwards situation. Any hope NPR might change its mind and restore Bob Edwards to the show and ditch their latest contribution to Newsak (their new homogeneous news stylings (or non))?

Also, enjoyed today's article about new voices on the campaign trail. Off the campaign trail, Dahlia Lithwick who covers the law and the Supreme Court for Slate, and had a nice piece in the NYT Book Review on Sunday, is a witty and wonderful writer with a distinctive voice.

washingtonpost.com: Fresh on The Page And Hot On the Trail (Post, May 3)

Howard Kurtz: I haven't weighed in on the subject. But Friday was Edwards's last day and there is no chance of NPr backing off, despite the fact that its executives have been unable to explain the decision involving a man who has doubled the morning show's ratings.
There are a lot of great up-and-coming journalists out there; I just chose to spotlight three who are doing really nice work on the campaign.

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Springfield, Va.: Howard,

Why does the media -- yes, yes, I know "the media is not one thing, it is a bunch of individuals making individual decisions. But its individuals are like a lone bison in a herd moving towards the summer feeding grounds. One might stop to scratch itself on a tree, but eventually the whole herd gets where its going.

Anyway, why does the media refer to items brought to their attention by rival polical parties as "leaks". An example from today's on-line column,

"By leaking 1971 tapes of John Kerry speaking about his Vietnam War medals to the press, the Republican National Committee and the Bush administration are not simply trying to create a fake 'character controversy' about the preciseness of Kerry's speech; they are seeking to link him with a bygone world and the losing side of the debates of 30 years ago"

How is this a leak? And it was refered to as a leak almost universally, in opinion pieces like this one and news reports as well. A leak is something that was supposed to be confidential or secret. This is just some info resulting from good research, or is anything from Kerry's past that may be damaging supposed to be kept secret by "the media"?

Calling it a leak implies some wrong doing on someone's part. This, and other items like this, would be better described as "information provided by ...". This would allow the reader to make their own judgement without the baggage of calling it a leak.

I ask you to take the lead in getting the media to start being more careful in choosing what words they use so as not to appear to have a bias. Maybe, just maybe, you can get the herd going in a new direction. (But I doubt it, reporters, much like bison, are dim-witted and resistant to change. At least it seems that why to me. I might be wrong, it could be that bison are smarter than I think.)

Howard Kurtz: This WAS a leak precisely because it was supposed to be confidential and secret. As I disclosed last week, ABC News and the New York Times got that '71 Kerry videotape from the RNC under the condition that the source not be identified. That fits the classic definition of a leak. If officials from either campaign hold a news conference, grant on-the-record interviews or send out e-mails with derogatory information about the other side, that is most definitely not a leak but just the usual partisan warfare.

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Washington, D.C.: I really value your columns and these chats. You do a great job covering the media. I continue to be shocked by the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame case. I caught Joe Wilson on the Today show today talking about his new book and seems justifyibly outrage at what the Bush administration has done and their seeming reluctance to take any responsibilty for it. How is this story playing these days?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I would say the story has faded quite a bit from the radar screen because the investigation of which senior administration officials leaked the information about Wilson's CIA wife to Robert Novak is proceeding in secret. But obviously the publication of Wilson's book will give it a second wind, especially on the TV talk circuit.

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Pittsburgh, Pa: Re. The "Nightline" furor. Since when is it the media's duty to boost morale, the troops or the nation's? When every news channel was doing multiple pieces of the late Pat Tillman, I didn't hear a peep about how THOSE stories were undermining troop morale. I've no problem with those stories and, let's face it, come fall sweeps, you know there'll be a TV movie about him. Friday's "Nightline" was tastefully done. (Now, if only the U.S. media would read or publish all the names of the innocent Iraqis who've died in the war. But, I forgot, they're Muslims, and we all know how we feel about them.) Why do people think the American media's priority is to wrap itself in the flag? That Fox News Channel does it obscenely every day with its flag lapel pins and waving-flag graphic only proves what someone once said -- "Love makes fools, marriage cuckolds and patriotism malevolent imbeciles."

Howard Kurtz: Tillman was obviously a legitimate and very moving story about the death of a soldier who was widely known from his football career. Nightline was just as legitimate, in my view, and the reading of the 700-plus names was done in as neutral a fashion as possible--without comment or elaboration. Those who say Koppel was taking an antiwar stand by focusing 40 precious minutes of TV time on the casualties of war may be pushing their own agenda--and weren't quite so critical when Koppel risked his own life to report from the desert during the major combat a year ago.

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St Peters, Pa.: On the subject of revisionism in the media: I noticed that the post has updated the mugshot that runs at the top of your column. While this on its own is fine, I also noticed that the picture has been changed even on all of the archived columns too! What's going on here!? Is the Post afraid for readers to know that you were in fact once younger?

Howard Kurtz: The photo department took a new picture of me, I liked it better than the old one and they made the switch about 2 weeks ago. Nobody went back and plastered the new mug shot on any previous columns. As for this scurrilous "younger" charge, the picture that was replaced was taken only three years ago. I don't look THAT much worse for wear, I hope.

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Winthrop, Mass.: Is the suppression, for 1 year, of the video of the abuse of the Iraqi prisoners(a clear war crime) the worst media abuse by both the White House and the Editors and reporters invovled the worst Media Abuse in recent history? I believe that suppressing evidence of a war crime by those under your command is a war crime in itself. It maybe crminal in the case of the editors invovled as well. Another related question is why is the investigation just getting under way now? A year is about 6 times the maximum amount of time needed to bring these men to trial if they started a year ago. So the Adminstration apparently was aided and abbetted in the commission of a war crime by the news media.

Howard Kurtz: But that presumes the media have been sitting on these pictures for a year, and I haven't seen any evidence of that.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, I keep seeing the word "allegedly" used to describe the photos taken of the Iraqi prisoners (like this: "CBS' "60 Minutes II" broadcast images allegedly showing Iraqis stripped naked, hooded and being tormented by their U.S. captors").

What's "alleged" about these photos? Who doubts that they are legit? Does anyone suspect they were doctored or fabricated?
The nakedness and the hoods are real; the tormet is obvious. Reprimands and court martials have been issued.

At what point does the media feel secure enough in its facts to stop using "alleged"? Are they using "alleged" because the issue is damaging to the military? What are the rules?

Howard Kurtz: There's nothing "alleged" about the pictures, and I haven't seen anyone say they are in any way doctored. So that would be a totally inappropriate use of the A-word.

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Alexandria, Va.: With all the fuss about Friday's Nightline, no one seems to have noticed that ABC has been doing essentially the same thing all along -- listing the names of the soldiers killed during each week on This Week with George S.

Howard Kurtz: I guess it draws more attention when you read the names of the fallen for 40 straight minutes, as opposed to a few at a time. And by the way, both USA Today and The Washington Post published many photos and lists of those killed on Friday. So it's not like Koppel was the first to come up with the idea, which he says was inspired by a similar depiction by Life magazine back in 1969.

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Boring, Md.: Howard, I enjoyed seeing Wonkette on your CNN program "Reliable Sources" (CNN, Sundays at 11:30 am eastern)... but you seemed awfully harsh in your interview of her and her blog! Wonkette is a delightful little snack, whereas the Washington Post is a steak dinner, there is room for both! But it just ins't right to think a little snack should have 100 percent of the nutrients of a full meal, Wonkette is Cheetos!

Howard Kurtz: Gee, I didn't think I was harsh at all, and she didn't either. We were just sparring and I was trying to keep her on her toes and have her explain the mix of gossip and satire she writes on her Web site. If I didn't think she had a following, I wouldn't have put her on.

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Alexandria, Va.: Speaking of Pat Tillman, I don't know how much ESPN you have time for in your news-channel surfing... but for a couple of days there he was the top story on every show from PTI to SportsCenter. It was like they suddenly noticed there was a war going on.

Howard Kurtz: That's sort of like when a soldier from Outer Suburbia, Mo. dies and it becomes the biggest local story in town. The media tend to become more involved when someone from "their" world is involved.

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Norfolk, Va.: The Note the other day said there are only three things that matter in the November election:

"One, which candidate does the national political press like more?

Two, who does the national political press think will win in November?

And, three, who does the national political press think is running the more competent campaign?"

Give me a break. Isn't the media suppose to be unbaised? And yes of course there are opinions and undercurrents, but I think there is a little more that matters than what the media thinks.

Who is The Note speaking for?

And do you think that is as silly a statement as I do?

Howard Kurtz: I think it was somewhat tongue in cheek. Lots of candidates have prevailed, at all levels of government, who weren't particularly well liked by reporters. I do think the point about who the press thinks is running a more competent campaign is a valid one. When political journalists conclude that so-and-so is running a lousy campaign--which, surprise, is often tied to that person's standing in the polls--we tend to get deluged with "what's wrong with Jones's campaign?" pieces, or those that say "in a desperate attempt to change the subject" or "jump-start his campaign" or whatever. Just think about how thoroughly Kerry's campaign got trashed when it seemed to be going nowhere last fall in the face of the Dean surge.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard, I truly enjoy your column but was wondering: Since your beat IS the media, how do you choose what you read on a daily basis for your column, and about how large is that list? Many thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I try to read, skim or surf as much as I possibly can, from a wide range of sources, both in print and online. The rise of lots of talented bloggers has made this both more challenging but also more rewarding, since it opens up the process to more voices. But folks are free to send me anything they think I'm missing.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Dear Howard

How would you compare the professional committment of your colleagues to professional excellence in accuracy and objectivity with yourself and the most immediate past generation of same prior to the explosion of cable?

I ask this because I find you to be one of the most professional journalists working today. Yet, I find most in the mainstream press appear to be more concerned with their own particular political agenda and simply report facts consistent with same. If it were not for Fox News Channel and talk radio, I would consider myself ignorant.

Dittohead Mike

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the kind words. I criticize the media all the time--hey, it's a living--but I continue to believe that most reporters (not columnists, commentators and talking heads) try their best to be fair. There is sometimes unconscious bias, as I've written, particularly on social issues, when journalists don't realize their views are influencing the way they shape stories (recent example: largely upbeat coverage of gay marriage). But most reporters went into the biz because they didn't want to be activists with one party or cause.

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Shame about Bob Edwards: Hello. I just wanted to let it be known that, if the NPR VP who chose to replace Bob Edwards on the grounds that NPR needs to go in a different direction, well, perhaps it's time for me to find a different direction in my radio morning, too. Good luck to Mr. Edwards in his future endeavors, and good luck to NPR in finding that audience they're looking for. Monday through Friday mornings, it will not include me.

Howard Kurtz: That's the great thing about the media world--people like you get to vote every day with their radio buttons, remote controls and quarters. I suppose NPR would ask you to wait and see who Edwards's replacement is. But it's doubly odd that they axed the popular morning host without having a successor lined up.

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Alexandria, Va.: Nearly every local or national news program I watched yesterday, including the talk shows, led off with "We have good news to report!" about the hostage who escaped. One might think that there was a media conspiracy in being desperate to actually find some good news to report -- but really it's just odd that they all started the same way.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it was the newest element coming out of Iraq and an obvious human interest story. But perhaps there was also a sigh of relief in being able to report something encouraging, even involving one person, at a time when the news out of Iraq has been consistently depressing. As with Jessica Lynch, one person comes to symbolize something larger.

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Gambrills, Md.: You know it's spring in D.C. when everyone starts talking about the pandas again...

Howard Kurtz: And when we read the inevitable stories about how they failed to successfully Do It.

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New York, N.Y.: On the subway, maybe, but curl up in bed with a newspaper and get ink everywhere? Yuck!

Howard Kurtz: I make great sacrifices in pursuit of news.

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Arlington, Va.: A campaign ad you profiled last week by Moveon.org compared President Bush and Senator Kerry, discussed their service records, and mentioned the upcoming election. I realize you are not a lawyer, but can you comment on how an ad like this is regulated by current campaign finance laws? I was under the impression that ads by 527 groups could only address "issues" rather than the qualities of specific candidates. Am I right about this? Thanks for your input!

Howard Kurtz: There are legions of lawyers trying to untangle this. The only firm restriction, other than those governing the kinds of funding and disclosure for such ads, is that you can't explicitly say "vote for so-and-so." Which is a pretty big loophole for these openly partisan ads.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't have a partisan ax to grind, but I still feel the Nightline show was biased. By duly reciting the names and pictures of dead soldiers, everyone with a heart is going to ache for their families. There's nothing wrong with that. But by failing to include some sense of context and showing or mentioning what the soldiers died for -- then you have a one-sided anti-war presentation.

Howard Kurtz: But you have to weigh that one program against all the others Nightline has done that report on the war, in which administration officials and others on both sides of the Iraq debate have gotten a continuing platform. If Koppel was going to read all the names, obviously time constraints prevented him from providing any detail. If you really wanted to do an antiwar program, you'd do something called "The Cost of War," interview tearful relatives who have lost loved ones and recount their life stories in stirring fashion.

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"So he's doing it without quite doing it. ": What Brit Hume has managed to do, in my opinion, is to smear Gov. Richardson without being brave enough to actually say so. Faux News, indeed.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I don't know what he was referring to. It reminds me of some of the early '92 whispering that went on about Clinton having a zipper problem -- about which we later learned a lot more. We'll have to see whether anything comes out about Richardson, who insists he wants to remain as governor.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Can you dissuade me from the opinion that the type of gray-area "journalism" espoused by your "Reliable Sources" guest yesterday, gossip-mongering Ana Marie Cox (a.k.a. "Wonkette"), is the epitome of the absolute worst of the "Fourth Estate"?

And how can anyone equate her -- as she does herself -- with the obvious fake news aspects of "The Daily Show" and SNL's "Weekend Update"?

It's the blurring of the lines which is the problem, not her alleged humor (of which she is apparently -- and wrongly, in my opinion -- so proud).

I can only hope that her discussion group in this space, at this time tomorrow, will help her see the light, journalistically or, at least, comedically.

Howard Kurtz: If you look at her Web site, she tries to be funny and sometimes pokes fun at herself for the mix of gossip and satire she serves up. Either people like that kind of stuff or they don't. But since she told me she's now a pretend journalist, I don't think it's fair to pummel her for not being a female Edward R. Murrow. On her site this morning, she has started stamping all items actually gathered by her with the logo "Real Reporting."

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Ellicott City, Md.: Howard-

It amazes me how the trivial can become a major point in this election. Did he throw away ribbons or medals. Does it matter? No. Why is the media running with this story when it has no reason to be? I mean he tossed something 30 odd years ago and MAY have misstated what he tossed. So what? The fact he deserved those medals is getting lost in blather. Your take?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure most Americans don't care whether John Kerry threw away his military ribbons or his military medals at a Vietnam protest in 1971. The media justification for this story is that it's part of a larger narrative about whether the senator keeps shifting his positions, since he has long maintained it was ribbons but was found in that tape leaked by the RNC to have said medals in a TV interview at the time. He says he uses the terms interchangeably. The more amazing point is that a guy with a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts was put on the defensive by the campaign of a president whose own National Guard service has been questioned.

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Nightline: I love the criticism that the names without "context" is biased. What context is missing exactly?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it would be nice to know more about the lives of those who died. But I don't think the absence of that proves bias.

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Wonkette: Well, if she is not real news -- why interview her? Do you plan to interview Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, and Jon Stewart?

Howard Kurtz: I have interviewed Jon Stewart! I plead guilty! Hey, I interviewed Drudge when he first became a controversial figure. My show is not unrelentingly serious. The Wonkette chat followed a long discussion with three journalists about the media's handling of Kerry/Vietnam and Bush/National Guard. After that I did a report on Nightline and on the 20/20 let's-have-five-families-compete-to-adopt-one-baby-and-call-it-news. Nothing wrong with a little lighter fare as well.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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