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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2005; 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.: Mr. Kurtz,

I read John Dean's piece about "Deep Throat" (thanks for the link) and have two questions about this:

"The source who informed me that Woodward leaked the news of Throat's illness to the executive editor of the Post gave me that information either on "deep background" or "off the record" (I never could get the distinction of those rules straightened out). So I apologize to my source if this information was never meant to be public, but it is a tidbit too hot to keep sitting on."

What is the difference? Did Dean violate any implied agreement with his source?

Howard Kurtz: I have no way of knowing. Many people do use them interchangeably and get them confused. Off the record means the information cannot be published, period, but the reporter can try to get other people to confirm it. Background means the information can be used but cannot be attributed to the source by name. Ultimately, these things come down to the understanding between the writer and the source as opposed to the semantics.

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Washington DC: Re: the rumor of Deep Throat's impending demise, you wrote: "the current executive editor, Len Downie, tells me he hasn't had any such conversation with Woodward."

Could that be a "non-denial denial"? John Dean said Woodward "advised" Downie; he didn't say Woodward and Downie had a conversation. So: does Downie deny receiving any communication whatsoever from Woodward concerning a Throat illness?

Howard Kurtz: Len Downie told me he had no information about Deep Throat being ill, not from Woodward or anyone else. That doesn't mean Throat isn't ill (Downie, unlike Ben Bradlee, doesn't know the source's identity). Presumably he's of advanced age and is not going to live forever. But I was trying to check the one fact in Dean's column that could possibly be verified, and did not get what I consider to be a non-denial denial. I'm told Dean is going to be on MSNBC's Countdown tonight, where presumably he will talk about this very subject.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Howard,

I had read that the Today Show was hiring Martha Stewart to do segments for it once her prison/house arrest time is up. Now I realize that show is largely non-news these days, but it is run under the auspices of NBC News. I just don't see how a news organization can justify, other than for ratings, hiring a convicted felon as on-air talent.

Howard Kurtz: Well, if that's the standard, a lot of people are going to have to explain why they're hiring a convicted felon. NBC also plans a reality show with Martha and she'll star with Trump in an upcoming edition of The Apprentice. Another way to look at it is that Martha Stewart will have paid her debt to society by having served out her term. But look, we all know that television is more interested in celebrity than rap sheets, and she's now more famous than ever. By the way, John Dean (the subject of the last couple of posts) and G. Gordon Liddy (who hosts a popular radio show) are also convicted felons who did well after going to jail.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Do you see the mainstream media continuing to accept the Administration's line on the war in Iraq, as long as there is a time-table for the so-called "democratization" of the country?

Does that trump all inquiries about how the war was planned, sold and, ultimately, mismanaged?

Howard Kurtz: I don't buy into the notion that the press is "accepting" the administration's line. Our military involvement in Iraq has been debated, and continues to be debated, more intensely than in any military conflict since Vietnam. Two years after the war began, the focus is naturally shifting to whether Iraq can make the transition to some form of democracy and when and if U.S. troops might be able to come home. That is, even if you believe the war was a terrible mistake based on a bogus WMD premise, the reality is that we're there and the question now is whether we can disengage without Iraq plunging into civil war.

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New York, N.Y.: Is it standard practice for editors to know the identities of their reporters' confidential sources, or is Deep Throat an exceptional case?

Howard Kurtz: It's supposed to be standard practice at The Post and many other news organizations. That rule hasn't always been followed over the years, but it's hard to see how an editor could make an informed judgment on a controversial story without knowing the nature of the source or sources and whether they have solid information or axes to grind. The Post recently reminded its staff that at least one editor must know the identity of an unnamed source.

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Alexandria, Va.: Howard, about "Jeff Gannon." Do you think it's the role of White House reporters to get together like a big bullying brigade and ask 23 versions of the same question, and if you break the "link," you're a traitor to the journalistic profession? Or is the public served better when the White House press secretary has to respond to a bevy of questions on different subjects in the news? It seems to me like liberals are saying no one's allowed to ask conservative questions in the briefing room.

Howard Kurtz: I'm going to quarrel with your premise. (This, for those who missed my column this morning, is about a self-described conservative reporter for the Web sites Talon News and GOPUSA who asked the president last month how he could deal with such Senate Democratic leaders as Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton "who seem to have divorced themslves from reality?" No one is objecting to having conservatives ask questions, or to having reporters ask questions that stray from what the pack is asking. The question is whether ideological journalists, and those who write only for Web sites, should be called upon at White House news conferences. To take one example, when Helen Thomas worked for UPI, she was always called on, but now that she is a liberal columnist and strongly anti-Bush, I don't believe the president has called on her. Anyway, you can see what "Gannon" (he uses a pseudonym) has to say about all this in my column.

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Baltimore, Md.: "The Post recently reminded its staff that at least one editor must know the identity of an unnamed source."

So, some editor knows who leaked Plame's covert identity?

Howard Kurtz: Wrong. Robert Novak does not work for The Washington Post, although the paper carries his column. In fact, his home paper is the Chicago Sun-Times. So Novak was under no obligation to tell anyone at The Post who his sources were.

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Bristow, Va.: Howie, why is it so bad that our political debates on TV are partisan? Can't the American people handle two different visions of how the country should be governed? Do people really think we had 200 years of bipartisanship in government until now? Personally, I'm probably a typical "winger" in thinking that it's more offensive when the network bookers find two "partisans" who both agree that Bush's war is a disaster. That's a fake debate.

Howard Kurtz: Of COURSE there should be different points of view in TV debates. But my beef is that there are MORE than two points of view on many subjects, yet television has a tendency to reduce every debate to pro and con, black and white, pro-Bush and anti-Bush. Why don't we see more Republicans who occasionally disagree with Bush, or more Democrats who disagree with their party's leadership? Is that a violation of some unwritten rule? Aren't you a little tired of pundits, TV and otherwise, whose stance is predictable on virtually every issue? Who supported Republican opposition to Clinton but dismisses Democratic opposition to Bush as obstructionism, and vice versa?

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Newark, Del.: I was reading your notes column today. One thing that stood out to me was the comments by Scott McClellan that, "I don't think it's the role of the press secretary to get into the business of being a media critic or picking and choosing who gets credentials." Yet obviously, the administration does exactly that in determining who gets access. The current administration has a dislike of the New York Times and it shows in how they treat that paper.

My question is, why hasn't the press been fighting back against this? There have been a lot of grumblings and articles about the problem but no action by the press corp. Is this due to the lack of a sense of unity among the press. Could the increased partisanship in opinion journalism be effecting regular non-partisan journalists trying to work together in their own and the publics interests. Reporters are always in competition for a story, but it seems they're hurting each other now.

Howard Kurtz: Reporters always complain about lack of access, but I can never recall one news organization being barred from a vice president's plane, as is the case with Dick Cheney and the New York Times. I've written about it; the Times has written about it. But certainly the media have not mounted a crusade over it. I think in part there is concern that it will be viewed as special-interest whining. Presidents and their aides can grant interviews to whomever they like, but they should not be able to bar particular news organizations from official travel (which, by the way, the news organizations pay for). The same issue arises in the Baltimore Sun's suit against Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich for barring state employees from speaking to two Sun journalists whose reporting Ehrlich has challenged. Ehrlich is free to blow them off, but to prevent taxpayer-paid state officials from answering their questions is in a whole other zone.

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Huntington, W.Va.: Mr. Kurtz:

If you had to characterize it, what would you say is the target audience of the Washington Examiner? It doesn't appear to be as youth-oriented as the Post's Express or the Metro newspapers in Boston and NYC. Can a newspaper with a legacy of paid readership survive as a free distribution daily?

Howard Kurtz: The answers are: I don't know who the target audience is, and I don't know if a free paper can succeed. I've pieced together that the Examiner is targeting a more upscale audience, based on where they give it away, and obviously if you can attract enough advertising, you can forego the 35 or 50 cents that other papers charge. People like free stuff, but I don't know whether this will turn out to be a solid business model. The same question, by the way, arises for all the newspapers and magazines that give away their content online.

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New York City, N.Y.: With the story concerning the possible illness of Deep Throat, is it now safe to assume that Deep Throat is actually one person, rather than multiple sources as had been hypothesized by some in the past?

Also, I vaguely recall having heard Ben Bradlee say that he could/would reveal Deep Throat's identity upon their death. Is that true? Can we assume that when Deep Throat dies, we will know their identity? Or may we never know?

Howard Kurtz: Woodward and Bernstein have always insisted that Deep Throat was one man, despite some critics who have floated the composite theory. Bob and Carl have also said for decades that they would reveal Throat's identity after his death, and have made arrangements for it to be revealed in case they die before he does. I wonder if there will be as much interest, except among the junkies, in this 33-year-old mystery once we finally know the name. If it's someone who is widely known, sure. But what if it's a relatively obscure bureucrat or FBI official? In some ways, it's the mystery and the guessing game that have kept this going for so long.

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Washington, D.C.: Is Deep Throat still an active source for news about Watergate, the Nixon administration, or any other topic?

Howard Kurtz: I have no way of knowing, since I don't know who it is. But I would gather, just from his likely age, that he is long since retired. I suppose it's possible that this person is helping other journalists who are writing books or other historical examinations of the Nixon years, but a much better source on that score is the gradual release of the White House tapes.

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Deep Throat: All the President's Men was on the other day, and after watching it again, we're (me and the missus) are even more convinced that DP was an invention Woodstein used to get away with writing to-be-verifiable-later stories on spec--a huge gamble that paid off with a lifetime of fame and fortune.

Or, you know, 'twas Bush 41.

Howard Kurtz: Sheer speculation on your part (especially after watching a movie that, while accurate, cut out for dramatic purposes many of the key people involved, including Katharine Graham and then-Post managing editor Howard Simons). If Deep Throat was in fact a composite of several people, why on earth would Woodward and Bernstein put themselves in a box by promising to out him after his death? The easier course would simply be to say that they made a promise of confidentiality and don't feel it should ever be broken.

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Fair Lawn, N.J.: Did you know that when the Democrats booed the president during the State of the Union, that it was unprecedented? I know this because several dozen horrified cable commentators told me this. Unfortunately, it's not true. Republicans booed Clinton several times. Do hosts have an obligation to point out when their guests are wrong? None of them did.

Howard Kurtz: It's hard to have all the historical precedents at your fingertips when you're doing live television. I don't know whether Clinton was booed or not. I don't recall any boos even when he gave the State of Union a week after the Lewinsky story broke.

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Arlington, Va.: Isn't the Oil for Food scandal another victory of bloggers over the mainstream media? The Washington Post didn't even have an article on the story until after the UN belatedly began a formal investigation. Now we see that the head of the program was corrupt, and the Secretary General himself may be guilty of malfeasance. It looks again like the mainstream media are too clouded by a liberal worldview to hold their own sacred institutions accountable.

Howard Kurtz: You're operating under the assumption that a) mainstream news organizations didn't report on problems with the Oil for Food program, and b) whatever they did or didn't do was motivated by a liberal worldview. I don't want to take away credit from the bloggers, but I can recall reading stories over the years that questioned the program and whether Saddam was abusing it. Should journalists have done more? Probably, but it was a hard story to get at because extracting information from Saddam-era Iraq was difficult. The findings of the Volcker panel are certainly getting a lot of media attention now, despite what you seem to view as some deep ideological loyalty by journalists to the United Nations.

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Maryland: I'm not a Watergate junkie, and in fact, I was barely alive during the scandal (I was born in '73), but I really want to know who Deep Throat is. Even if it's someone obscure, that doesn't really matter -- it will just be neat to know.

Howard Kurtz: Very interesting to me that even people who didn't live through Watergate are fascinated by this. The Redford/Hoffman movie (with Hal Holbrook as Throat) must have a heckuva lot to do with this.

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Staunton, Va.: Today's Post editorial remind us that several Bush administration appointments are still under Senate review. Questions have been voiced on one score or another over several nominees, and generally not on issues of mere ideological differences hurled by political opponents, but the actual record of a candidate that raised "serious concerns." In each instance, editorials, pundits and articles note that effectively the candidate "will be confirmed anyway."

What then actually disqualifies a candidate for Senate confirmation? Is it only a past sex indiscretion or hiring an illegal alien maid? Why are those issues inflated to political liability, and things like policy formation the proves destructive or a record of professional misjudgements considered so much fluff when it comes to investing persons with influential positions of leadership?

Howard Kurtz: The truth is, anyone who can get 50-plus-1 votes can be confirmed. There have been nominees blocked on ideological grounds (Robert Bork comes to mind), for excessive drinking (John Tower), nannies (Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood and Bernard Kerik, though he had lots of other problems) and every other reason in between. Was former Massachusetts governor William Weld not qualified to be an ambassador? Jesse Helms blocked a vote on the Clinton nominee. That's the way the world's greatest deliberative body works, or fails to work.

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Las Vegas, Nev.: So is there a betting pool at the Post as to who Deep Throat is?

Obviously Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein would not be allowed to play. Who would be your guess?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know of any pool, and while I have my theories, they're probably no better than anyone else's theories. I'd rather guess on something where I have at least a 50 percent chance of being right, which is why I picked the Patriots to win yesterday.

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Watergate: Okay, here's your theoretical question of the day: how long do you think it would have taken to complete the Watergate saga if Deep Throat could have just used an anonymous email address? Would have been a lot easier than moving that flower pot, or whatever.

Howard Kurtz: Yeah, but it would have ruined some of the best scenes in the movie if he was just Throat327@yahoo.com.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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