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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 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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Sterling, Va.: Why did the Post bury the Iraqi bloggers story in the Style Section. It was an excellent opportunity for the Post readers to read an honest appraisal of Iraq, rather the baloney the media and the Post attempts to paint.

An honest appraisal should be front page and headline information as honest appraisals are few and far apart in the Post.

Howard Kurtz: While I'm always in favor of bigger play for my stories, my regular Media Notes column always runs in the Style section, and people seem to find it there. It was at the top of the page, so it didn't quite fit my definition of "burial" (and believe me, I've had stories that needed a scavenger hunt to track down).

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I really enjoy my daily fix of your online column. Will you be continuing to produce it over the coming holiday weeks?

Howard Kurtz: Short answer: no. Even hard-working media critics need to take a break now and then. I'll be back in action in early January. But appreciate your continuing online patronage.

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Chicago, Ill.: Does anyone know why Novak hasn't gotten in trouble with the Plame investigation while Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper face jail time? I knew Miller's case, but I didn't realize that Cooper's story was about the reason Plame's name was leaked.

Howard Kurtz: There's been speculation but no one really knows. Novak has refused to discuss the situation, even to say whether he's been subpoenaed, and the special prosecutor in the case has been mum as well. Meaning, no leaks from his office on this particular point (which, according to his logic, would then require another prosecutor to investigate).

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Do you think that the report that CBS is looking at Katie Couric as a possible replacement for Dan Rather is legit?

I mean, I just got over the rumor of Matt Lauer's being considered.

Aren't there any adults in charge anywhere who will put their foot down and say, "O.K., folks, let's get serious now?" Or, are we at the point-of-no-return when news readers are concerned?

Just askin'.

Howard Kurtz: I'd be, shall we say, quite surprised if Katie Couric got the job. Not that she wouldn't be a great choice, but she's already making $15 million a year at NBC and I presume has some loyalty to that network. I've never made $15 million a year, but once you're making $15 million a year, what's another $5 million (as CBS is said to be offering)? Plus, the morning shows have become increasingly popular and lucrative while the evening newscasts are struggling. The only conceivable reason I could see Couric giving up the morning gig is to sleep late.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Good afternoon and thanks for your daily on-line column. This week we saw Donald Rumsfeld taken to task by critics from the right, most notably by John McCain, who said he no longer had any confidence in Rummy. The media seems pretty happy to wallop the Secretary over the head with these comments -- and rightly so -- but why isn't anyone taking any of these GOP critics to task for only speaking up after the election?

Howard Kurtz: McCain, to his credit, criticized Rumsfeld before the election as well. But I thought Bill Kristol would have had more impact had he published his Washington Post op-ed a few weeks earlier, and I'm sure it occurred to him that he didn't want to damage Bush's reelection chances. Ultimately, though, the country's defense policy is set by Bush, not Rumsfeld, so I'm not sure more pre-election carping at Rummy would have had a huge impact.

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Anonymous: In response to Chicago, it's because Miller and Cooper have been critical of this Administration. Novak is a big backer and a friend of Bush's. Like Ken Lay who will never be jailed, all friends of Bush's have automatic immunity from prosecution.

Howard Kurtz: But Ken Lay has been indicted and could face jail, so his immunity hasn't protected him. Plus, you're ignoring the fact that the decisions on Novak, Miller and Cooper in the Valerie Plame case aren't being made by the Ashcroft Justice Department but by a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, named for the sole purpose of investigating the leaks.

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Bethesda, Md.: So often when horrible things happen, reporters rush to get interviews with the grieving families. In the latest example, Campbell Brown on the Sunday "Today" show did a stunningly awful interview with the father and grandmother of that young murdered Missouri woman. What in the world is the point of asking people who are numb with grief how they felt when they heard about the murder? And even if the networks want to have the sensationalism of this, why don't the reporters understand that it just makes them look heartless and clueless?

Howard Kurtz: I guess not. I've never been a big fan of the how-did-it-feel-when-you-heard-your-relative-was-murdered questioning. But it particularly upsets me when the horde goes to someone's front lawn and starts sticking microphones in people's faces. It's different, I can tell you from having to do this myself in my younger days, when people want to talk. Sometimes it's cathartic for them to help the world remember a loved one. As long as no one hounds them or pressures them to talk, I have no problem with that.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Howard, great story today on the Iraqi bloggers. How did you get the scoop of their invite to the White House? Did you interview them in town or by e-mail? Just curious.

Howard Kurtz: I interviewed Omar and Mohammed live and in person, and the funny thing is, there was no prospect of a White House visit at the time. A few hours later, there they were in the Oval Office, which I only found out about after the fact but before I wrote the column.

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New York, N.Y.: Today you wrote an article about two blogging brothers who tell us how great things are in Iraq. Fine. But in a 17 paragraph article, you could only fit two sentences about other Iraqis who disagree?

washingtonpost.com: Iraqi Bloggers, In the News And Critiquing It (Post, Dec. 20)

Howard Kurtz: This was a profile of these three brothers and the online impact they're having, not a broad survey of everyone in Iraq who is now declaring their opinions on the Net.

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New York, N.Y.: Hello Howie,

When did Post switch Mike Allen to the "Reliable Source" column? Is this really from a White House beat writer? First he wrote about a baseless rumor. Then he wrote about change of chief of staff of Laura Bush. For goodness sake, how many people in the world knows she has a staff and a chief of staff. Who cares? Then he wrote about a Crawford high school football game? What's going on here? Did not he have anything else better to write? How low a White House beat job has sunk? Next time, he will write out Spot's pooping habit?

It is a sad state of journalism. Isn't it?

washingtonpost.com: Kristol Scotches Rumor on Rumsfeld Bashing (Post, Dec. 20)

Howard Kurtz: Hey, it's Christmas time and things are kind of slow. Believe it or not, some readers in D.C. do care about the first lady's chief of staff. Besides, Mike Allen has written plenty of important stories, including a scoop on Bush planning to revamp his economic team (which did admittedly include the anonymous prediction that John Snow was on his way out). He's also covered the implosion of the Kerik nomination, the reappointment of Rumsfeld and the resignation of Tommy Thompson. So cut the guy a little slack.

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San Diego, Calif.: Re: The White House Press Corps.

Does Scott McClennan give Bush a list of whom to call on ahead of time and does he know, a lot of the time, what the question from that reporter will be? Basically, how much is a "set-up?"

Howard Kurtz: None. No one at the White House has any idea in advance what a reporter will ask. (They obviously try to predict the general topics and have practice sessions.) Bush has a sequence he goes through (wire reporters first, then the "TV personalities," as he put it this morning, then scribes from major newspapers, and then he hops around as he sees fit.

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Chantilly, Va.: Greetings -- what are your thoughts on Times naming of "Powerline" as Blog of the year? Was it a requirement that it had to be a conservative blog because of all the accurate reporting done like the outing of Kerry’s affair with a staffer? (oops!)

Howard Kurtz: I confess I don't know who bestowed this honor, but Powerline deserves plaudits for being out front on the apparently bogus National Guard documents used by CBS. I'd say that was more important than the political leanings.

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Washington, D.C.: Am I the only one disturbed that the press corps laughs with President Bush? It's not just that what Bush says and laughs at is not funny, it is that the press seems to be abdicating its duty and sycophantic laughter is just one example of how the press has abandoned its responsibility.

Howard Kurtz: You would impose a no-laughter policy on the White House press corps? Is there a form of laughter that might be deemed genuine and not sycophantic? And who shall judge what category said laughs fall into?

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Cincinnati, Ohio: While exit polls have been discredited somewhat, why not do an exit poll for US troops leaving Iraq (for this tour at least)and ask them if they think there are sufficient troops, if missing Iraq armaments and munitions are insignificant, and if they have confidence that the civilian chain of command has done "all that is possible" to provide armor and equipment to help insure their safe return.

I doubt Bush would win re-election with those numbers.

Let's see if Pres. Bush has the courage to comment on the Washington Post Sunday article on Pfc. Alan Babin and the Hardball special on Walter Reed hospital in today's "press conference". I think not.

Howard Kurtz: I think a survey of attitudes among soldiers serving in Iraq is a fine idea, but there's no one place where we can get to them, like a polling station on Election Day. The Pentagon is not about to let Gallup and its rivals infiltrate the ranks of those who are completing their tours of duty. And even if you could do that, you would only get the views of particular units, while a scientific poll must involve random telephone sampling.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard

After the arsons in southern Maryland, the media was quick to single out eco-terrorism as a likely reason behind the fires. In the last year the Washington area has had a series of high profile arsons in none of those cases did the media speculate on who had motive to set them. Why were environmentalist singled out in this case? Why did the media fall in love with the most unlikely and sensational of the possibilities of who set the fires?

Howard Kurtz: You're right about that, but it wasn't exactly a far-fetched notion, given the opposition to the project, and I didn't see anyone report that it was more than a theory. Other than the deeply disgruntled security guard, I still don't think we know why those who have been arrested in the case did what they are alleged to have done.

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Rosslyn, Va.: I had to re-read a sentence in one of the articles in the Washington Post's Express this morning. Page 3 -- the center article -- 'Senators Back Rumsfeld', 2nd paragraph, last sentence, refers to Saddam Hussein as "Iraqi President Sudan Hussein". It made me laugh the fact that this huge international figure and his name is wrong.

Howard Kurtz: Fifty lashes for whatever copy editor let that one through.

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Mill Creek, Wash.: With CBS mired in third place in the nightly news ratings, and with Dan Rather's departure, why don't they consider a bold choice -- someone younger and female with strong journalistic credentials -- like Andrea Koppel, Judy Woodruff, or Gwen Ifill?

Howard Kurtz: A bold choice would not be a bad idea. And it's too bad that most of the names on these "lists" of potential candidates happen to be white males. On the other hand, as we saw with the naming of Rather, Jennings, Brokaw and Williams, networks like to promote from within, in part to reward some of those who have spent years laboring in the vineyards.

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Arlington, Va.: Sure, more news is not necessarily better. But that's not the mainstream papers' problem; it's self-censorship. Journalists are now such a part of the establishment they cover that they've become stenographers for administration announcements, pr stunts, and self-serving leaks. The servile cowardice of the big papers in the run-up to the Iraq war is non-debatable. Now, if I want to learn about Iraq rather than administration propaganda about Iraq, I turn to the better British papers. And many of the blogs on Iraq, such as Juan Cole's, are more cogent and accurate than mainstream reporting. If you folks don't shape up -- and I mean writing about important news, and the motivations of the people who rule our destinies, rather than stories about sandwich shops -- you're going the way of 8-track tapes and steam locomotives. Agree/disagree?

Howard Kurtz: No offense, but it sounds like you don't find the political point of view you agree with as far as the Bush administration and the war in the so-called mainstream media, so you seek it on blogs and in the notably partisan British press. Which is fine. But I wonder if you felt this way during the Clinton administration. Media outlets get used all the time, especially by those in power, but it's a bipartisan phenomenon. Or at least used to be, when the Democrats held some semblance of political power.

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Chicago, Ill.: Just to chime in on the "how do you feel about your relative being killed" interviews, I too had to do my share as a young reporter, and while your initial reaction is to think the relatives will be appalled at your ghoulish intrusion into their private life, I found as you did -- people wanted to talk about their family member and appreciated the fact that someone was asking and interested. I never had a single person hang up on me, and sometimes I'd spend upwards of a half hour just listening. Then they'd thank me for calling. Seems counterintuitive, but that's exactly how it went.
Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I agree. But not everyone feels that way. I had to call families right after the Pan Am plane crash, and many reacted exactly as you say. Others were too overcome by grief and said they couldn't talk. As long as you approach them delicately and respectfully, things tend to work out. It's the media mob mentality that makes us look bad.

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Norfolk, Va.: Howie -- More a comment than a question, I guess. Bill Moyer's last NOW program, which reran over the weekend, advances the theory that the "talk radio right" and right-leaning TV and newspapers have basically become the propaganda arm of the Republican National Committee, up to and including using the RNC's talking points for program content. I guess I had known this somewhat intuitively, but to see it presented was pretty shocking.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Moyers is a talented guy who can be very persuasive. He's also a liberal journalist who worked for Lyndon Johnson's White House. So you need to take that into account in evaluating his work.

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Arlington, Va.: What is the latest estimate for when CBS will finally release its report on Dan Rather's forged memos? Several months ago CBS promised to release its reports in a matter of weeks, not months, but they certainly seem to be taking their time.

Howard Kurtz: No one quite knows. But in fairness, it's not up to CBS at this point. Network officials are waiting for the report from the two-man investigative panel they named -- former AG Dick Thornburgh and former AP chief Lou Boccardi. And they are setting their own timetable.

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Arlington, Va.: Speaking of Bill Moyers, Washington Post's TV columnist Tom Shales states that "His is one of the few liberal voices left in broadcasting." Is he willfully ignorant of Dan Rather's willingness to present obvious forgeries to undermine Bush's re-election efforts; has he not heard Andy Rooney's rants on Sunday nights; or Morley Safer's statement that "history has no reason to be kind to" Reagan? And these statement come from the broadcasters on just ONE show on CBS.

Of course, why should anyone expect unbiased commentary from a man who wrote with all seriousness that "[Ted] Kennedy looked great, like he was ready to take his place next to Jefferson on Mount Rushmore."

washingtonpost.com: Bill Moyers Gets In the Last Word (Post, Dec. 18)

Howard Kurtz: Shales can speak for himself, but there's clearly a distinction to be made between commentators like Moyers and Rooney and at-least-trying-to-be-straight journalists like Rather and Safer. You can criticize Rather and Safer and their work all you want, but they don't get on a soapbox and proclaim "here's what I think."

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Baltimore, Md.: Re laughter and the White House press corps: Anyone who saw the Presidential debates and heard the audience response when Bush attempted a joke -- utter silence -- would know that this is the unfunniest president since Franklin Pierce. Which is why the correspondent deemed the press corps' response "sycophantic." (Have you ever had to laugh at a boss's joke, Mr. Kurtz? I think too many of the corps regard Bush as the boss.)

Howard Kurtz: I didn't realize Franklin Pierce was humor-challenged. I don't remember Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon being a barrel of laughs either. But again, it seems that some of you are blaming White House reporters for not openly sharing your distaste for Bush.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm disappointed that the media are not holding CBS's feet to the fire on the forged documents investigation. CBS said the investigation would be concluded in a matter of weeks rather than months, but that has proven not to be true. It seems to me that if a private company or government agency had missed a deadline for an internal investigation, we would see articles raising that issue with the public. Why the silence?

Howard Kurtz: As I've already explained, CBS doesn't control the timing and the panel is still interviewing people. CBS has promised to release the report within a day or so of receiving it.

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Springfield, Va.: While I appreciate and enjoy the Post's Ombudsman column, how much influence do his column and internal memo's have on the Washington Post staff?

Howard Kurtz: That's hard to quantify. (It also depends on the om.) By definition, an ombudsman doesn't make editorial decisions, but he can hold up to public scrutiny and criticism questionable practices by reporters and editors, as well as field complaints by readers. I think Mike Getler, who is about to complete his term, has had more impact than most. I also think Dan Okrent has been very aggressive as the first ombudsman in NYT history, named in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal.

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St. Louis, Mo.: How did the word "insurgency" come to be used in American media? Perhaps my memory is shaky but this seems to be the first time I've seen this word used as synonym for rebels, guerrilas, resistance, etc. I have seen the word 'guerrila' used in Canadian papers to describe the problems in Iraq but not so in the states.

Howard Kurtz: I'm getting tired of reading the word "insurgents" applied to car bombers and others who deliberately kill innocent civilians. We should call them what they are, which is terrorists. You might be an insurgent if you attacked U.S. troops who in your view are occupying your country, but to attack men, women and children (Iraqi as well as American) in an attempt to run up the death toll seems to me to require a word stronger than insurgents.

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Colfax, Wash.: Dear Howard,
How come the media isn't making a bigger deal out Billy Tauzin announcing that he is taking a job as a lobbyist for a big drug company. He isn't even officially out of office. I am predicting that sometime in the next few weeks John Braux and Zell Miller will be making similar announcements.

washingtonpost.com: Tauzin to Head Drug Trade Group (Post, Dec. 16)

Howard Kurtz: I think it is a big deal. It is not, however, unusual, except in its brazenness, timing and level of compensation. Many departing members of Congress become lobbyists who specialize in putting the arm on their former colleagues in the areas in which they once specialized. Zell Miller, meanwhile, the Democrat who based his party from the podium at the Republican convention, has announced one bit of post-Senate employment. He'll be a Fox News commentator.

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New York, N.Y.: Dear Howard,

Can you comment on the trend in which some newspapers (like Le Monde) are elevating reader blogs to that of its regular columnists?

Do you think blogs will push the traditional media to become more openly partisan--or at least host more point, counter-point type shows?

Will we see more "citizen journalism" newspapers like Korea's OhmyNews, especially here stateside?

Thanks

Howard Kurtz: I'm a big fan of blogs, and they're obviously changing the nature of online newspapers, but I don't think they'll push ink-on-paper publications to become more partisan. A collection of reporters and editors trying to gather facts for a daily publication is always going to be a different animal than individual opinion-mongers with no check on their writing.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Arlington was not so far off. I also like getting my information from the foreign press. Some do really have a fair and really balanced approach. And not a dang gone thing mentioned about the Scott Peterson trial!

By the way, do you know why Dish Network cancelled CNN International and now leaves me with no foreign coverage at all?

Howard Kurtz: No idea on Dish. But a Peterson-free zone sounds very enticing (though I should mention that most newspapers and magazines gave that case a tiny fraction of the saturation coverage lavished on it by cable and the network morning shows). Of course, the foreign media have their own tabloid scandals, like the affair with an editor of London's Spectator that just brought down a prominent married British politician.

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Anonymous: A bold choice for CBS. In a word, or two, CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR. Where is she nowadays?

Howard Kurtz: Based in London for CNN, as far as I know.

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Washington, D.C.: The conservative right are all ready to light a fire under CBS when it comes to obvious gaps in Bush's service. However, when it comes to the Swift boat controversy, an OBVIOUS and blatant lie and personal attack, the media just lets that run wild. It's a double standard here, when something is attacking Dubya trying to get to the bottom of his lies and proven to be false -- let's send out the witch hunters! Yet, when something is a blatant lie and demeaning to the character of his political opponent then it's no big deal.

Howard Kurtz: Allow me to make a distinction. Cable television went wild with the Swift boat charges, but it was the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times that aggressively investigated and found holes and contradictions in some of the anti-Kerry allegations. The big papers were a bit slow in getting started, responding once that little ad buy in three states had morphed into a cable phenomenon, but they did do their job.

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Chicago, Ill.: What are your thoughts on the "Christmas Under Attack" stories going around? I noticed and thought it was a little ridiculous before reading Frank Rich's piece in the Times over the weekend. How can "responsible" journalists keep this story alive? Is anyone in America really worried about this? It just feels like a story being fought in the pundit shows.

Howard Kurtz: I guess my view is that Christmas is as huge as ever, and while there are some isolated instances of local authorities being overly PC, the holiday continues to dominate American life and commerce at this time of year. But it is in some people's interest to exaggerate the anti-Christmas threat as a way of continuing the culture war.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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