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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 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 media have 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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Iowa: With the departures of Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather (and acknowledging the tapping of Brian Williams as heir apparent), wouldn't this be a good time for the networks to consider trying out an evening newscast anchor who wasn't a middle-aged white male?

Howard Kurtz: It would indeed. I've heard Diane Sawyer and Lester Holt batted around. But networks prefer to promote from within for these coveted spots, to reward people who have worked so hard for them, as with Williams at NBC. So if CBS doesn't go outside for a bigger name, it's likely to be John Roberts succeeding Dan. Which is big news in Canada, where he grew up (I was interviewed on the subject the other day by the Toronto Globe & Mail).


Alexandria, Va.: Was yesterday's Reliable Sources a "very special" (sweeps?) one-hour episode due to all the anchors being lifted?

Actually, my real questtion is, can't CNN find some space overnight to repeat the broadcast, as they do with most other shows? There's too much competition for my time Sunday morning among all the other talk shows, sports, church/family and the Sunday Post. I used to watch you more often when you were on Saturdays first.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. A great idea. The hourlong special yesterday had nothing to do with sweeps (which is more of a broadcast network phenomenon; hence that Cleveland anchor taking off her clothes) and everything to do with two of the Big Three anchors packing it in. As for Reliable Sources, until we get a repeat time, allow me to suggest the VCR option.


Washington, D.C.: Howard --

There have been a string of stories, including in this morning's Post, about reporters going to jail for refusing to divulge their sources. It seems all of these stories are full of high-minded rhetoric about how our precious first amendment is in mortal danger. What comes through, however, is how insulated and self-occupied the media is. In every case that I'm aware of, the anonymous source committed a criminal act, and the reporter was an accessory to that criminal act. Pundits love to talk about a "chilling effect" on whistleblowing, but as long as the whistleblowing is not against the law there is no effect. What we are really looking at is a "chilling effect" on lawbreaking. This also goes by the name of law enforcement. What's wrong with that?

washingtonpost.com: Editorial: Jailing Reporters (Post, Nov. 27)

Howard Kurtz: Well, today's front-page news story wasn't full of high-minded rhetoric; it was a balanced look at both sides of the issue. When you use the word "accessory," keep in mind that journalists are also accessories in helping confidential whistle-blowers bring forth important information that otherwise might never be reported. But the whole "source" business has been way overused by journalists, which is why there's less public sympathy on this subject. And in the Valerie Plame case, the information conveyed was not some sort of government corruption but what very much looks like score-settling by the administration against Plame's husband, Joe Wilson. Still, if I can add one further point, neither Judith Miller nor Matt Cooper published a story that outed Plame, unlike Novak, and yet they're both looking at possible jail time.


Washington, D.C.: Hey Howard, a question about the US Attorney's ongoing investigation of the Valerie Plame leak. How come Mr. Fitzgerald is threatening some reports with jail time, but he is not applying the screws to White House staff? I understand reports may have had off the record conversations -- and the sources may have committed a crime -- and that Fitzgerald is trying to compel the reporters to spill the beans so that he can investigate the crime. But why, oh why, are White House staff not being threatened? What am I missing here?

Howard Kurtz: He may well be applying the screws to the White House staff; we don't know everything Fitzgerald is doing. He's interviewed a number of top officials, from the president on down. But it's difficult for a prosecutor to prove that an official spoke confidentially to a journalist without the journalist's cooperation. Even phone records don't prove, for example, that Plame's CIA role was discussed.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Do you think Dan Rather's fake memo scandal forced him out sooner than he would have wanted?

washingtonpost.com: Dan Rather to Step Down at CBS (Post, Nov. 24)

Howard Kurtz: Rather says no, that he was planning to step down by the spring anyway. He told me last week that the 60 Minutes controversy certainly affected the timing of the announcement, in that he was trying to get it out before the outside investigative panel submits its findings, probably in December. Others believe that if the scandal had not erupted, Rather might have remained glued to the anchor chair for some time to come.


Boca Raton, Fla.: Why doesn't the print media discuss the ongoing vote recounts in Ohio and Florida? It certainly looks like fraud was committed in these states during the recent election.

Howard Kurtz: There have been significant stories in the Washington Post, New York Times and other papers. But the story has remained a back-burner issue because few believe that any investigation or recount would change the outcome in either state, a far cry, obviously, from four years ago in Florida.


Spring, Tex.: Any ideas,about how Robert Novak, has managed to avoid being ask about his participation in the Plame story. I have not heard one comment by him or one question ask to him, by any news journalist, since it first happen. I think he obviously had to know it was a crime to do what he did, regardless of how he became aware of her position in the CIA. I personally do not agree with onesided opionaters like Novak, passing themselves off as journalist. Too many people write opinion pieces, usually one-sided liberal or conservative, and they appear to be journalistic, not op-ed, as they should. Hell I can sit down and write my views. Does that make me a journalist?

Howard Kurtz: Novak was asked about his role in the Fitzgerald probe for today's Washington Post news story, and both he and his lawyer declined to comment. I don't understand why someone in the news business apparently feels no obligation to talk about the case. But whatever one thinks of Novak, I don't think it's fair to say he's not a journalist. Unlike many of his thumb-sucking colleagues, his admittedly conservative columns are based largely on reporting.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Mr. Kurtz, I think the media hasgone along with the hysteria in reporting the indecency issue. When the Monday Football incident was reported Wolf Blitzer of CNN started his coverage by saying to a guest pundit, "ABC has really gone over the line this time." Does he really believe that. The whole thing wouldn't have even been a story a year ago before the insane indecency witch hunt that began with the Janet Jackson incident. Do you really believe the Monday night Football promo was "way over the line?"

washingtonpost.com: FCC Chairman Rebukes ABC For 'MNF' Clip (Post, Nov. 18)

Howard Kurtz: Had it run as part of some entertainment show -- say, Desperate Housewives - I doubt there would have been many eyebrows raised. But to put it on at the beginning of a football game watched by millions of kids - at 6 pm on the West Coast, by the way - I'm sure made many parents cringe. Which is why ABC and the NFL didn't waste any time apologizing.


Washington, D.C.: Most major media companies are located, unsurprisingly, in large cities on the east or west coasts (New York, Washington, L.A.). Given this, how do producers, editors, and the like attempt to ensure a balanced approach to the reporting of news. Particularly, when reporting on national-level politics, is much of rural or midwestern America subject to under-reporting by the media?

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair point. Obviously news organizations have bureaus (and reporters often hit the road), but even those tend to be in major cities. When I was The Post's New York bureau chief, I was often amazed at how local crimes or political controversies would become national news in a way that simply wouldn't have been the case had they happened in Tulsa or Tampa or Green Bay.


Madison, Wis.: Clinton's criticism of ABC's reporting on his administration was trenchant when interviewed recently by Peter Jennings. Who in the media has reviewed this interview ?

Howard Kurtz: I talked about it on my media show, and Salon did a piece about it. It was a remarkable television moment.


Limerick, Ireland: Why is the American media the laughing stock of the western world? Is it craven self-interest, incompetence?

Howard Kurtz: It's actually craven self-interest, incompetence AND malevolent, greed-driven self-loathing.


Delhi, N.Y.: Mr. Kurtz,
I am concerned that opinion on the talk shows has replaced actual political discourse. My greatest concern is that any and all opinions appear to be equally valid. Has the twenty four news cycle made people more lazy in the acquisition of information or am I missing its purpose?

Howard Kurtz: There's more to political discourse than what takes place on cable chat shows. Newspaper columns, editorials, magazine cover stories, talk radio monologues and blogs are all part of political discourse. Do a lot of people who are either loud or not particularly insightful or simply reciting partisan talking points get air time in a medium that's on 24 hours a day? Sure.


Arlington, Va.: I'm tired of journalists crying in their beer about having to testify about thier sources. When will they realize that they may have been WITNESSES TO A CRIME? It's simple: Protecting a source has a limit -- it's when the line between lawful and criminal conduct is crossed.

washingtonpost.com: In Leak Case, Reporters Lack Shield For Sources (Post, Nov. 29)

Howard Kurtz: I'd argue it's a little more complicated than that -- a classic conflict of two sets of rights, one favoring law enforcement, the other the media's disclosure of important information -- but I wouldn't want you to think I was crying in my beer. Or Diet Coke, as it turns out.


Washington, D.C.: Internet-based news sources have brought to light some extremely newsworthy stories that might not have been covered otherwise (or, perhaps, would have been covered much later), such as the CBS National Guard papers story and, of course, the Lewinski scandal. Why do national media outlets, with all of their reporters and other assets, still sometime get "scooped" by the bloggers?

Howard Kurtz: I give bloggers credit on the National Guard story, although that CBS story would have quickly collapsed of its own weight. In the Lewinsky case, it was Newsweek that did the reporting, elements of which were siphoned off by Drudge, and The Washington Post that published the definitive story breaking the scandal. But to the extent that bloggers are increasingly influencing the media discourse, it's because they're smart, fast and have the ability to channel the wisdom of very savvy readers out there in real time -- readers who in the pre-Net age would have had no way of making public their conclusions that, for example, the 30-year-old Guard memos appeared typographically phony.


Syracuse, N.Y.: I'd love to hear your repsonse to this theory I have.

I don't think it's any coinsidence that the prominence of the right wing agenda and the emergence of right wing media (Fox, Limbaugh etc) have arrived at the same time. Perhaps a worn out point but, don't you think that there are people out there, maybe more than we like to think, that rather than think for themselves, do their due diligence in gathering different pieces of news from different sources and so forth, are now just tuning in to the echo chamber of their own ideas and leaving the thinking up to Fox, Limbaugh etc?

Howard Kurtz: I think to suggest that those who follow Rush or Fox or any conservative news or opinion outlet don't think for themselves is downright insulting. There's a tendency of folks on both the left and right to gravitate toward folks who view the world the way they do. And keep in mind that conservative politicians (Nixon and Reagan come to mind) were successful well before the rise of conservative media outlets.


Reston, Va.: Now that we're between elections, wouldn't it be a good time for an authoratitive report on media bias by someone like the Washington Post with real credibility. I don't think this can be addressed in the middle of a campaign because there are too many people for whom truth is not as important as supporting their side.

By the way, I also hate the to hear the claim (which I've even heard you make) that since the media get complaints from both the right and the left, you must be doing it right. By analogy, Bush gets criticised by people to the right and left of him politically. Does that mean his positions are moderate mainstream ones?

Howard Kurtz: I try to report on media bias all year long, not just on the campaign but on other subjects as well, aided by surveys and reports from groups like the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Center for Media and Public Affairs. So I don't feel the need for one grand, long and probably unreadable summary of all that. I agree that you can be criticized by both the left and right and still be biased, superficial or wrong. What's noteworthy is when the same story, or series of stories, is blasted by both red- and blue-staters because it doesn't perfectly reflect their point of view.


Nicholasville, Ky.: I would like to get your thoughts, on my suggestion that journalists become true professionals by voluntarily self regulating your industry, in the same way that lawyers and doctors self regulate. Included would be testing to become a licensed journalist, and an enforceable code of ethics.

The system would be voluntary, and there could be no government involvement. I think it would be a tremendous way for true professional journalists to separate themselves from hobbyists (read bloggers)and others, and help restore credibility to the profession.

Howard Kurtz: But the beauty of journalism is that it's not a licensed profession. Anyone (especially in the age of blogs) can just go out there and do it and prove himself or herself in the marketplace. Who exactly would enforce this code of ethics? Whose judgment is so lofty, objective and unassailable that they can pass judgment on the rest of the industry? Who would appoint them? The marketplace (and other media reporting on their brethren) seems to work fairly well. When I reported on both the Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley fabrications, for example, I set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the top editors of the New York Times and USA Today resigning. Would such outcomes have been as widely accepted if they were ordered up by some commission? I don't think so.


Germantown, Md.: Mr. Kurtz,

I've read that Karl Rove has retailiated against media personnel that reported unfavorable against him. Have you seen any evidence of this?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I'd accuse him of not returning reporters' phone calls, but he doesn't return phone calls anyway. Except in the weeks before the election, when he was suddely available and I even stood next to him as he worked as a Bush spinner after the first debate in Coral Gables.


Silver Spring, Md.: It seems that major newspapers like the Washington Post pay some attention to the ethnic backgrounds of its staff to make sure it is reasonably diverse. Is consideration also given to diversity of religious backgrounds?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe not on a case by case basis, but certainly no news organization would want a staff that was all Protestant, all Catholic or all Jewish. Diversity of views and of backgrounds and of education is also as important as racial and ethnic diversity.


Greenville, S.C.: As a lawyer, I know where to look in my rule book to decide when the attorney-client privilege applies and when it does not. The same applies for doctors. I have yet to see a journalist describe the protection of a source as being less than absolute. Are there limits? If not, why does the profession not develop clear rules as others have done?

Howard Kurtz: One example is that journalists generally believe they no longer have an obligation to protect a confidential source if they discover that source has lied to them. And one person who has invoked that very reasoning in disclosing a source is Bob Novak.


San Francisco, Calif.: Mr Kurtz,

Why do some have the im/perception that Mr. Bush got off easy with the press in his first administration?


Howard Kurtz: That's a view usually held by people who don't like the president and don't understand why the press can't make everyone else share that view. It also grows out of the period, after 9/11 through the runup to the Iraq war, when the press was more deferential than usual to the president in what was perceived, at least until the war, as a time of national unity. Since then, I think it's hard to argue that news organizations haven't been aggressive in reporting on the Bush White House, not least on Iraq and including questions that should have been pursued more vigorously before the war.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Two of the Sunday talk shows (This Week and Meet the Press) had Christian clergy on discussing issues associated with the election. What concerned me was the narrow Christian perspective of the the issue. We are a rich nation with many religions beyond Christianity including many sects in several different religions, including Judaism, Islam, Buhdism, Unitarianism, Hinduism, just to mention a few. What can be done to present a broader picture to the people on religious moral values? To put it differently not all religious moral values come from the bible, and the moral values that come from the new testament do not include a ban on gay marriage or a definition that life begins at conception.

Howard Kurtz: I think that's a fair point. Of course, there has been so much post-election punditry and blather about the role of Christian conservatives in Bush's reelection that the Sunday bookings don't surprise me. Had Bush gotten a bigger jump than he actually did in the Jewish vote, for example, you might have seen a couple of rabbis on. But I think religion generally is undercovered by television.


Chicago, Ill.: In the MNF "controversy", wasn't ABC's only real mistake in not properly managing expectations? People tune into MNF with a certain set of expectations (which includes scantily-clad cheerleaders) and their intro piece was outside of that. The content itself wasn't any different from what you'd see elsewhere up and down the dial at that hour, but when expectations are properly managed parents are able to avoid content they object to their kids viewing.

Howard Kurtz: I think that's the key point. Although little skin was actually shown, it was very suggestive for a mass-market sporting event. There were also complaints, particularly on black talk radio, about the stereotype of a white woman seducing an African-American athlete to the point where he decides to miss work. But I think there would have been a big fuss even if the player involved had been white.


Portland, Maine: Howard,

Mike Allen's piece today on Bush's changes to his economic team does not contain a single attributed quote. They're all aides, officials, Republican officials, friends, etc. For all I know, it's just two sources corraborating each other who happen to fit under all those descriptions. Why even bother running this piece if no one is willing to stand behind it? Why not just wait until Bush actually announces his team?


washingtonpost.com: Bush to Change Economic Team (Post, Nov. 29)

Howard Kurtz: I think in generally the press, including The Post, uses too many anonymous sources. But if all we do is wait for the official announcement, then we're merely in the press-release business. Mike Allen's piece could not have been written without unnamed sources because people working for a president don't get out there talking about who he might appoint, at least not with their names attached. The tone of it suggested that many of these leaks were authorized, that is, that the White House wanted this story out. So you can take it or leave it for what it is, including the clearly speculative parts, but Bush planning to replace 4/5ths of his economic team does strike me as news.


Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: regarding the alleged priviliege protecting sources:

Define "journalist." Is Drudge a journalist? Glenn Reynolds? What about me, since I have a blog that is much less read?

The impossibility of drawing an adequate line in these situations demonstrates that the first amendment belongs to all of us, not just to the big media. "Journalists" continued assertion that they are somehow specially privileged by the first amendment is a symptiom of how self-absorbed and self-important the media has become.

Howard Kurtz: Drudge has told me he doesn't consider himself a journalist. Most bloggers don't, either, since they are mostly engaged in dishing opinions and analysis. And yes, the First Amendment belongs to all of us. But it's especially important to those of us who write or broadcast to a wide audience.


Rochester Hills, Mich.: To the reader stating that there is no coverage of the so called voting fraud charges, here is a Miami Herald piece stating there was no fraud in the Democratic Counties where Bush won by a 3-1 margin. Kerry lost, get over it and move on.


No Flaw Is Found in Bush's State Win
Some critics have alleged that Florida's majority vote for President Bush was flawed. The Herald counted the votes in three North Florida counties and found little discrepancy.

Howard Kurtz: "Move on." Where have I heard that phrase before?


Blue/Red: Here's a good example of oversimplification by the media…the whole Blue/Red state thing. I actually took the time to look at how the vote fell in almost all of the states, and the split varied from huge margins to tiny. Some are Blue or Red by virtue of LESS than a 10 percent difference -- yet they are labeled "either-or". That's a problem -- especially states that gave the nod to Bush yet went Democrat on almost all other slots. So, why simplify what's actually going on with the populace by claiming vast areas all think one way while other areas go the other? It's very misrepresentative. In fact, it's a sloppy and lazy way of doing "analysis".

Howard Kurtz: I agree. Journalists love shorthand, and that can be intellectually sloppy. I certainly think it's fair to use the "red" shorthand if, for example, a state has gone Republican in the last several presidential elections. But there are obviously blue voters and blue regions even within the most crimson of the red states. And the other way around as well.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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