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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 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, Colo.: What is the status of the Thornburgh-Boccardi report? On 9/22, you reported: "CBS News President Andrew Heyward said Monday that he hopes the panel, which he has not yet named, will report in "weeks, not months."

It is now officially months.

washingtonpost.com: CBS, Sitting Between Fiasco And Fallout (Post, Sept. 22)

Howard Kurtz: The outside panel is still investigating. CBS promises to make the report public when it's completed, but at this point the network has no control over the timing.


Washington D.C.: Does Tim Russert have a beef w/ Chris Matthews? I noticed on yesterday's Meet the Press Russert went out of his way not to mention Matthews' name even though he used a quote from "Hardball" and put the q-and-a up on the screen. But instead of crediting Matthews, Russert just said "Question..." I thought the whole point of NBC/MSNBC/CNBC, etc. was to build multiple cross-promotional platforms.

Howard Kurtz: Maybe he thinks Chris is overexposed! Actually, I have no reason to think there's any tension between them.


Pensacola, Fla.: Good morning,

Many of us who supported John Kerry had to rely on alternative sources of news -mostly on the Internet-because the mainline media were too compliant with the story lines being pushed by Bush. For example, Bush wants to go to war with Iraq though that country is not a serious threat to the U.S.? The media seemed to say little more than, "OK, if that's what they want." Bush says global warming is not based on proven science? "OK, there may be some scientists who disagree but Bush has a right to his opinion." Population growth is a major (maybe THE major) environmental problem facing the world today but Bush wants to restrict birth control counseling? "OK, that's just part of his Christian conservatism." And so on and so on. This is the strong impression I and many of us get. The media seems entirely too reluctant to put the President's positions in the context of competing facts, which I believe have often been far more convincing that Bush's facts.

I know you have addressed this question before, but would you be willing to do so once again? If the media can't do more to probe and question the President, maybe we need a parliamentary system where he would be grilled by the opposition party in public session.

Howard Kurtz: You seem to want the media to serve as an opposition political force, and that's not our job. While the press (including The Post) were not aggressive enough during the runup to the Iraq war, there has since been an avalanche of reporting on no WMDs, the botched postwar planning, etc. Bush's position on global warming and birth control has also been reported. My sense is that you think it's the media's fault the election turned out the way it did, but it would be hard to argue that the voters didn't have ample information about the records and positions of both Bush and Kerry.


Arlington, Va.: One of the Post's CIA articles last week reported that a particular new CIA official had been arrested for shoplifting years ago. It seems entirely apparent that the Post got this incident through someone at the CIA leaking information from that official's personnel file. Leaking confidential personnel information is, of course, a violation of the law, and so I'm curious why the Post believes that the publication of this illegally-revealed information is different in some way from Robert Novak's publication of illegally-revealed information about Valerie Plame?

Howard Kurtz: As far as I can tell, that information did not come from anyone's personnel file. Arrests are public record. All you would need is a tip about the old arrest and it wouldn't be difficult to run it down.


New York, NY: Travis County DA Ronnie Earle may (or may not) indict Tom Delay, so the House Republicans changed their ethics rules for him. I've seen a lot of articles with quotes from Republicans about what a partisan hack Earle is. If a reporter is going to quote someone making such an accusation, shouldn't that reporter also state that Earle has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans. In the stories I've read, the accusation is left completely unchallenged, and the reader is left not knowing its validity or lack thereof.

Howard Kurtz: I would agree on this point. Let's have a couple of reporters go to Texas and look at the man's record. In fact, the whole Republican defense of "there are a lot of out of control prosecutors out there, let's not let them influence the selection of our leaders" is bothersome. If the Republicans (who cheered on Ken Starr) think prosecutorial misconduct is a serious problem, why not hold some hearings and really illuminate the issue rather than just protecting one of their own against a possible indictment?


Houston, Tex.: I was dismayed by The Post's management's directive for reporters to write "shorter articles." Depth of reporting and analysis are the main reason I read The Post. It isn't the Houston Chronicle, after all.

Have lost ad revenues from declining circulation been offset by ad revenues from online?

washingtonpost.com: Post Discusses Circulation, Diversity (Post, Nov. 19)

Howard Kurtz: I don't think The Post will ever become a tight-and-bright paper. It's a newspaper that prides itself on in-depth projects and investigations, among other things. But the truth is many routine stories are too long, making it harder for busy people who have other things to do to get through the paper. A suggestion that many stories could be trimmed by 10 percent might impose some needed discipline, but it's not going to be a hard and fast rule for every single article.


Curious in Maryland: Now that the election is over, here are some questions about the Post that the ombudsman hasn't answered for me. I've lived here 10 years, but I don't understand these features of the paper:

Can you explain why the Post has two letters-to-the-editor columns on Saturdays? And what determines whether a letter goes into "Free for All" or the regular letters page?

Also, why two movie reviewers covering the same movie? And what is up with the creampuff profiles in the real estate section? And does the Post earn money from featuring a show on the cover of the TV supplement? If so, is this journalistically ethical, especially if it's not disclosed? Seems to me that the Post should have one journalistic standard, not many.

Howard Kurtz: The "Free for All" page was designed to air reader opinions at a little greater length than the letters column allows. The Weekend section has its own reviewers, apart from the Style section, and while that might be a little duplicative, why complain? You can read, or not read, the critics you like. And no, The Post doesn't earn a dime from featuring any story in the TV supplement or anywhere else.


Washington, D.C.: Although I completely agree with the views expressed in Tom Shales piece yesterday in the Arts Section, and think it was about time someone spoke up about how Michael Powell is perhaps the biggest threat to decency these days (if one is willing to define "decency" with a little more sophistication then the risk of exposure to the horror of the errant women's breast), I was suprised that the peice was not moved to Outlook. What is the Post's policy about placement of such pieces.

washingtonpost.com: Michael Powell Exposed! The FCC Chairman Has No Clothes (Post, Nov. 21)

Howard Kurtz: Tom Shales is a critic and columnist. So even though his pieces run in Style, what you're getting is pure, 100 percent opinion, as opposed to news stories or features.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Howard,

I must say I'm surprised at the venemous response NBC News got from some of the more conservative media outlets to its story last week about what could be a soldier shooting an unarmed man. They suggested that NBC was somehow anti-American for running it. Did NBC do anything wrong here?

Howard Kurtz: Not in my view. The whole point of journalists being embedded with military units is to show the good, bad and ugly sides of war. To withhold that tape because it may have cast a Marine in a negative light would have been irresponsible. Those who are criticizing Kevin Sites (who has his own blog, by the way) seem to believe that the role of war correspondents is to report only the good news that the military wants reported.


Madison, Wis.: Howard--Great column! In my mind, one great investigative journalist like Seymour Hersh or one great journalist like Dana Priest is worth about 1000 of the "run of the mill" reporters that overpopulate the news, especially cable news (and not just FOX!). What do you think has happened to real journalism, especially investigative journalism? We, the people, rely on it so much (and rightfully so) and yet there is so little of it that is both really incisive and really trustworthy--so little of it that does not have the smell of "politics" and "political agenda"permeating it! It may seem different inside the Beltway, but here in America it's one very troubling sign of the decline of our democracy

washingtonpost.com: Recent column: At NPR, Ombudded With the Troops (Post, Nov. 22)

Howard Kurtz: I think there are lots of excellent investigative reporters around, but most people don't know their names because they're not sounding off on television. They are doing the unglamorous work of digging into government agencies, police records and the like. But with the exception of a few people like ABC's Brian Ross, there are fewer top-rank investigative reporters in television these days, and that's where most people get their impressions about journalism.


Gales Ferry, Conn.: Hi Mr. Kurtz- Why has reporting on the recent Dan Rather/Bush Memo story died down, and what impact do you believe this and other similar incidents (ie Stephen Glass, Patricia Smith, etc) have on the journalism profession as a whole?

Howard Kurtz: It's died down, after a very intense period, for one reason: Two outside investigators named by CBS (former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and ex-AP president Lou Boccardi) are looking into the matter. When they deliver their report, the story will be back on page one.


Laurel, Md.: Any follow-up on Sharon Read?

Howard Kurtz: Here's a Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist on the Cleveland anchor Sharon Reed, who took off her clothes to join a nude photography shoot and pronounced it art. As I noted on my show yesterday, Cleveland viewers must be very artistic-minded, because the heavily promoted segment on WOIO made that the highest-rated newscast in the station's history.


Wheaton, Md.: One would have thought that the brawl towards the end of the Pistons-Pacers game was the most important story of the decade (Harry Smith of "The Early Show" on CBS today said that they would have as a Pistons season ticket holder who was in one of the front rows, adding this bit of hyperbole: "Talk about an eyewitness to history!"). The vote on raising the Federal deficit limit received relatively little notice. It was buried in the middle of the "Post's" front section, with an innocuous headline. The deficit is a dry, complicated topic that even failed to raise much interest during the election. I haven't yet seen the "Post" do a "What this means to you" bit on the deficit, though I realize that much print space must be devoted to multiple articles on the Redskins and other vitally important topics.

Howard Kurtz: I happened to be watching the Detroit game where the brawl took place and it was the most incredible and disturbing thing I've seen in decades of sports watching. As for the deficit, I was surprised that it didn't become more of a campaign issue, as it was in '92--possibly because neither candidate wanted to promote the painful steps necessary to eliminate it. But raising the debt ceiling has become a routine, if unpleasant, part of congressional duties. Considering that the alternative is a U.S. government default, Congress really doesn't have any choice but to allow more borrowing after making the tax and spending decisions that produce these huge deficits.


Jacksonville, Fla.: I don't think ESPN has pointed out that the next Pistons-Pacers game will be on their network X-Mas day nearly enough.

Howard Kurtz: That was news to me. Thanks.


Jim, Georgetown, Washington, D.C.:
In your interview today with NPR Ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, he refers to, "…those who felt NPR is there to reinforce their own ideas about the world. That's not journalism. We're not in the informational comfort-food business."

And yet, listen to NPR regularly and it's hard not to get a feeling that they are indeed appealing to a certain sensibility. Here, for example, are the feature stories having to do with public affairs that aired today on Morning Edition:

• How the Vioxx recall could hamper GOP efforts at tort
• A federal program to provide matching funds for low-
income people with savings accounts.
• A new California initiative to simplify jury instructions.
• Disparities in access to pre-kindergarten programs.

It's hard to put a finger on it, but aren't these the kinds of topics that "reinforce the ideas" of the Volvo, Vemont, Boomer, progressive set? What's your assessment of NPR's leanings?

washingtonpost.com: At NPR, Ombudded With the Troops (Post, Nov. 22)

Howard Kurtz: I haven't done enough of a content analysis to give you a good answer. Certainly the network has a liberal reputation, but it's been trying hard to overcome that, and I've listened to certain stories that were very careful to get the conservative view of the controversy in question.


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Hi Mr Kurtz,

Can you provide some insite regarding the lack of news on Chief Justice Rhenquist's health? I cannot imagine the lack of coverage anywhere if this was Bush or Hastert. Has the media forgotten he is the head of a co-equal branch of gov't?

If the Court stonewalls the media, why not report that?

Howard Kurtz: That has dropped off the radar screen, and I think we need to keep pressing for answers. The initial reports on Rehnquist's health turned out to be too optimistic, considering that he hasn't returned to the bench.


Tulsa, Okla.: Concerning the NBC tape of the Marine shooting - would that have had to go through military censors? How much control does the military exert over the footage that the embeds shoot?

Howard Kurtz: None. There is no military censorship. Journalists agree not to report on troop movements or other strategic information that could endanger lives, but that is on a voluntary basis. And the NBC tape involved a shooting that had already taken place, so there was no question of endangering anything but the reputation of U.S. forces.


The (Non) Fuss over Condi: Hi Howard,

I have to wonder about all the Republicans making a fuss over the Democrats' (and "liberal" media's) failure to make a fuss over Condi being both black and female. Leaving aside idiot remarks like Andrew Sullivan's (Clinton had black cabinet members, and female ones; the fact that none happened to be both is meaningless), the larger point Bush supporters seem to be making is "look at us!; look at us!; we're diverse in spite of the fact that 99% of us are white!;" under the guise of "frustration" at the other side.

I was sure Condi got her job primarily because she's a qualified Bush yes-woman (i.e., on the merits), not to shore up diversity numbers, but this whining makes me wonder if I'm wrong.

Howard Kurtz: The main themes of the coverage of Rice's appointment has been her closeness and loyalty to the president, as opposed to the perceived independence of the man she's replacing, and past criticism of her record as national security adviser, especially by the 9/11 commision. Some profiles, of course, have noted Condi's remarkable rise from humble origins as the daughter of an Alabama cotton farmer. There's probably been less of the "first black woman" reaction because 1) she's been a familiar figure in the administration for four years; 2) is replacing the first black secretary of state; and 3) the media argument over whether Bush will use Rice to rein in the State Department has overshadowed everything else.


Columbus, Ohio: How can you be surprised that the deficit wasn't a bigger campaign issue when many people in suburbia are living in $400,000-plus houses, have two new vehicles and their credit cards are maxed out? How can they be worried about the deficit -- they personify the deficit!;

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but people can choose to in effect borrow from their children. The government is financing our current level of services by borrowing from everyone's children, who will have to pay it all back with interest.


Wilmette, Ill.: Howard, in today's (11/19) comments you ask what Clinton had that other Democratic candidates didn't have, implying his outstanding political powers. Yet, during his tenure Dems lost both houses of Congress and the presidency. What power is that?

Howard Kurtz: The power to win eight years in the White House, a feat that has eluded the Democrats in every other election since 1980. It was widely noted at the time that Clinton contributed to the Dems' loss of Congress in '94 and had no coattails in '96. People forget now that Clinton was often at odds with his own party on issues like welfare reform, which may help explain why he was successful but its congressional wing was not.


New York, N.Y.: One small left-over from the campaign - Did Walter Cronkite really say that Karl Rove was likely responsible for the last minute Bin Laden tape and, if so, why so little coverage?

Howard Kurtz: He said it on Larry King in what sounded to me very much like a joke.


Chelmsford, Mass.: The tape that Kevin Sites produced has been widely used in the Arab press to undercut the US.
By distributing this tape didn't Sites and NBC give aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war? Isn't this the classic definition of treason?

Howard Kurtz: Treason? Honest reporting on problems in the U.S. military is treason? I guess the My Lai and Abu Ghraib stories, the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy and other military mistakes and mishaps would also qualify, then.


Small correction: Condi Rice isn't the daughter of a cotton farmer. Her parents are college educated music teachers. Her grandfather was a cotton farmer.

Howard Kurtz: I stand corrected.


Arlington, VA: To correct non-fuss, at least Hazel O'Leary and Alexis Herman were Clinton Cabinet appointees who were both black and female.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think anyone was saying Rice was the first black female Cabinet member, but State is a much higher-profile posting, obviously, than Labor and Energy.


Alexandria, Va.: Several exit and post-election polls showed that when many voters gave incorrect answers when asked what the candidates had done or planned on doing.

Is it the fault of the media? Or are so many voters so set in their party ways that they will ignore any unfavorable information? Or is the country just ignorant?

Howard Kurtz: Some of those post-election polls were on such basic questions--the candidates' position on abortion, for example--that it's hard for me to see how anyone can blame the media. We work hard at putting this stuff out there, but you can't force-feed people information.


Detroit, Mich.: The Pacers-Detroit fight was nothing compared to a typical Detroit-Colorado hockey matchup. There are reasons these teams are rivals. Do you think the Redskins fans are any nicer to the Cowboys or Cowboy fans when they come to town? I'm not saying that the actions were by any means acceptable. But, we live in a society today where we use violence to solve our problems. It's simply amazing this sort of violence hasn't happened before during an NBA game. We've had fans die during championship celebrations, rioting, fires, I can only say- I'm not surprised that this sort of violence finally erupted in the NBA.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but the difference here is multimillion-dollar athletes charging off into the stands to punch the fans. That's way different from fights on the court or on the field or on the ice. Of course, some of the fans' behavior was both appalling and potentially criminal as well. What kind of bozo throws a chair at a basketball player?


Kansas City, Mo.: In trying to understand red America last week I tuned into Red Radio to see what they were talking about. Maybe I missed it, but Tom Delay's troubles didn't seem to be mentioned. Surprising? Also as the CJR Campaign Desk pointed out, the media has let the GOP paint the Texas DA as an out of control crackpot. Why basically no discussion of if this is true or whether the GOP is trying to spin this?

Howard Kurtz: Most of the reporting and nearly all of the commentary I've seen on this issue has been unfavorable to the Republicans, especially since they adopted a no-indicted-leaders-should-serve rule a decade ago when the Dems ran the Hill, only to--how you say?--flip-flop when DeLay might be threatened with having to step down. Even some conservative columnists (David Brooks comes to mind) have taken the GOP to task.


Los Angeles, Calif.: If the bin Laden tape had specifically stated that a vote for Bush is a vote for more attacks from al Qaeda, would the White House have had the power to withhold it from the major press outlets?
What are the pros and cons of that?

Howard Kurtz: Under the First Amendment, the White House has no power to withhold anything (remember, it came from Al Jazeera). All the administration could do is ask the networks not to run it.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: What was Clinton's big beef with Peter Jennings and ABC? To what other media did his complaint apply as well? And is there any truth in what the former president said?

Howard Kurtz: In an otherwise friendly interview about his new library last week, Clinton scolded Jennings over ABC's coverage of the Whitewater/Lewinsky investigation and what Clinton sees as uncritical acceptance of leaks from Ken Starr's office. The ex-president believes many media outlets were complicit but was particularly steamed at ABC and a few others.


Lanham, Md.: The Philadelphia Inquirer is reporting that Sharon Reed's story, "Body of Art," is going to be appearing on KYW-TV's 11-o'clock news program tonight. Apparently both she and a KYW anchor used to work together at a rival Philly station and stayed on friendly terms.

Howard Kurtz: No Philly angle, but I'm sure that won't stop people from watching.


Toronto, Canada: Hello Howard,

GWB's first post election trip abroad to the meeting of APEC leaders and the headlines are about wrestling security guards - in your opinion did anything of importance happen down there?

Howard Kurtz: Not really -- the security incidents, and the ridiculous-looking ponchos the leaders all had to wear were perhaps the most newsworthy items to emerge. These summits are often as much ceremonial as substantive, as you may have noticed.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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