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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 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.


Washington, D.C.: Howard,

Thanks for pointing out the irony of having Republicans who a few weeks ago were glad to feed the fire when it came to questioning John Kerry's Vietnam service all of the sudden declaring that questions about National Guard Service are "old news".

Howard Kurtz: Well, there has been ample hypocrisy on both sides. Some Democrats (and liberal commentators) who were complaining that the Swift boat attacks on Kerry were unfair and irrelevant are all too happy to jump on the Guard issue, and some Republicans (and conservative commentators) have also switched sides depending on whether the target is their man or the other guy.


Knoxville, Tenn.: Why has the Post apparently held on to the Paula Span story on Randi Rhodes for a few months ? Her story reads as though it were written over 4 or 5 months ago why was it held for so long ? It seems interesting that a story about a liberal talk show host that regularly beat Limbaugh in his own hometown would have gotten more coverage from a media that always whines that no one can oppose the right wing on radio?

washingtonpost.com: Radio Waves (Post Magazine, Sept. 12)

Howard Kurtz: As someone who covered the launch of Air America, I can tell you that a magazine narrative obviously takes more time. But my speculation is that they also had to wait for some twists and turns to play out -- would Air America even be able to remain on the air? -- before deciding to publish. On top of that, the magazine has a 3-week lead time.


Ottawa, Canada: From your column this morning, 'MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines says the network had no problem with Scarborough attending a Bush event because he "hosts an opinion show and is not a news anchor."'.

Excuse me, I didn't know Begala and Carville were "news anchors!" Poor me, I always thought they also hosted an opinion show...

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me they're both opinion shows, with one difference: Crossfire always has the left and the right represented. Which is why there's so much yelling.


Arlington, Va.: Last week I was surpised to learn the the number of attacks against American troops in Iraq was three times higher in August than in March of this year. I watch the nightly news and read several newspapers, the lack of coverage in August left me with the impression Iraq had at least stablized. Why didn't the mainstream media do its job? How much was the lack of coverage a function of ratings?

Howard Kurtz: I think newspapers, and some networks, have continued to give Iraq plenty of attention. But you had a number of other big stories in August that overshadowed Iraq: the Swift boat controversy, Hurricane Frances, the Russian hostage fiasco, the Olympics and the Republican convention. But there's also this: When a few Americans (and Iraqis) are killed week after week after week, the news starts to seem more routine. There was a spike in coverage when the 1,000th American was killed, and yesterday's attacks, with 80 killed, will probably bring Iraq back onto the front burner, at least for awhile.


The Big Apple, N.Y.: In your column, a professor says that Ms. Kelly's new book "should be isolated in an infectious disease ward. Where's the proof?" Give me a break! Where's the proof that Kerry didn't deserve the purple hearts he received? In fact, the proof has gone in the other direction but that has not stopped this angry Swift Boat group, nor stopped every cable and news outfit from running the ads over and over and over. If "proof" were the standard, FOX and MSNBC would probably go out of business.

Howard Kurtz: But the media have tried, in their halting and inconsistent manner, to evaluate whether the Swift boat charges (and now the National Guard charges and CBS's are-they-real? documents) are accurate. The same should apply to the very personal allegations in Kitty Kelley's book. I must say, Matt Lauer was quite aggressive with her in this morning's Today interview (the first of three), but of course it will probably just help her sell more copies. "The Family" is already No. 2 on Amazon -- behind the anti-Kerry attack by Swift boat guy John O'Neill.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kurtz,

In your column in today's Post, you describe cable TV as "a giant echo chamber." It is true that the media are guilty of providing free media to controversial subjects, but do you think accusations that categorize the media as biased one way or the other are fair because of this free media? The media ought to publicize the controversies of the day, but is it ethical to perpetuate what you call "holes and inconsistencies" in various political debates by way of free media coverage of such issues?


Howard Kurtz: Is it ethical? Obviously the media have an obligation to interview people on both sides in any campaign controversy, in addition to doing their own independent digging. But the fact that journalists poked all those holes in the Swift boat charges didn't seem to matter in the sense that the echo chamber allowed the furor to just dominated the campaign coverage in August. Was what happened in 1969 really the most important campaign issue for voters getting ready to cast their ballots in 2004?


Arlington, Va.: In the past week, we have seen CBS used forged documents to attack President Bush and NBC put on an interview with Kitty Kelley, whose book is filled with anti-Bush gossip that has no substantiation whatsoever. In your career analyzing the media, have you ever seen it as one-sided against a candidate as it seems to be against Bush?

Howard Kurtz: You're making two big leaps there. It has not been proven that the CBS documents are forged, though serious questions have certainly been raised, and it has not been proven that everything in the Kelley book--which I suspect you haven't read since it's not out yet--has no substantiation. I have read part of the book and I have problems with some of what's in there--I've already reported on the Sharon Bush denial of the drug allegations--but I don't engage in such sweeping generalizations until I've done the reporting.
Interestingly, Kelley acknowledged on Today that Sharon Bush didn't claim to have seen any past drug use by the president, leaving her with one unnamed source who says this Camp David drug use happened a decade ago.


San Francisco, Calif.: With all of the reputable news organizations with in-depth research that show serous inconsistencies with GWB's service record (Boston Globe, AP, WP, US News), should the unproven allegation of forgery for the CBS memos be allowed to end the questions on Bush's service record?

Howard Kurtz: Serious questions remain about Bush's Guard service whether CBS was had or not. But these questions also surfaced in the 2000 campaign. I think most Americans have concluded that Bush did not particularly want to go to Vietnam, was at the very least lucky to get into the Guard, and that there came a point where he tried to do the minimim to fulfill his obligations. Whether that should be a major issue 30 years later, along with Kerry's service record, is another question.


Wayzata, Minn.: If the National Guard documents prove to be fake, should CBS be expected to reveal their sources given that it could be described as a political smear of the highest order? Would you expect CBS to terminate Dan Rather?

Howard Kurtz: If CBS execs concludes that the source lied to them, there would be no reason for them to cling to the promise of confidentiality. But I don't know what CBS would do if the conclusion was that the source acted in good faith but was misled by someone else. This is all assuming that the memos are proven to be bogus.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Pardon me if this sounds silly, but with all the US bombing lately in Iraq, I've seen numerous news stories stating that our bombs fell on insurgent strongholds and killed several insurgents. But we're bombing whole neighborhoods here, as the footage clearly shows, and isn't it likely a ton of innocent civilians are also being massacred? Yet, the US media seem quite content to run with the military/Bush administration line that only insurgents are being killed.

Howard Kurtz: Today's lead story in the Post begins by saying that U.S. and Iraqi security forces "killed at least 80 civilians across the country." The third paragraph said that "a U.S. military helicopter fired into a crowd of civilians who had surrounded a burning Army armored vehicle in the capital."


Rockville, Md.: How come the media has been letting Bush get away with claiming credit for the rising home ownership rates? Since home onership rates have been generally rising since 1965 (with the exception of the Reagan/Bush 41 years) isn't this is a bit like his administration taking credit for the sun coming up in the morning?

Howard Kurtz: Look, every president claims credit for things that are improving and tries to deflect blame for things that aren't going well. There's a strong case to be made that presidents don't "create" jobs - I believe that's the province of the private sector - and yet Clinton claimed credit for the adding of 22 million jobs and Kerry is hammering Bush for presiding over a net loss of about 1 million jobs. That's politics.


Falls Church, Va.: Did those Crossfire people say anything to you after your criticism of them on Sunday? Do any of the journalists you talk about call you up and yell at you later?

Howard Kurtz: Haven't heard a word. Not that Carville ever hesitates to make high-decibel phone calls when he's ticked off about something.


Falls Church, Va.: I'm a little stunned at CBS's reaction to the forged memo flap. Forget the fonts, it's the laughable spin coming out of the CBS flacks -- a spokesperson tells the Post that Hodge corroborated the memos, then Hodge says he thinks they're phoney. When it turns out Staudt had retired, CBS says Staudt was still some kind of "mythic figure." Do these kinds of explanations make reporters for other news organizations uncomfortable?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's fair to say that in recent days the questions have been mounting, and that CBS needs to address them. I was particularly struck by the Dallas Morning News discovery that this fellow Staudt, who was cited in one of the memos as applying pressure on the handling of Lt. Bush's situation, had retired a year and a half before the memo was supposed to have been written.


Washington, D.C.: In the battle of the document experts, shouldn't CBS News have a bit more credibilty than some internet bloggers or Bush campaign workers? After all, 60 Minutes has to prove the authenticity of everything they air, while the bloggers and political campaigns are notorious for leaping to their own self-serving conclusions.

Howard Kurtz: In some cases, sure. There are a lot of bloggers out there. But I've been struck by the serious and well-researched objections that some of these bloggers have raised to the authenticity of the documents. And they in turn have been able to feed off information supplied by their readers, some of whom know a lot about fonts or Selectric typewriters or whatever. We can all filter out opinions, but some of these Web folks have brought some important facts to the table.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Howard, did you write the headline ("Old News, Long Overdo") for your column this morning, or was that an editor's work? As a pun and a succinct statement of the relentless flogging the Vietnam "issue" has been getting, it was a brilliant line.

And thank you for continuing to chant your mantra of "people, there are -real- issues we should be talking about."

Howard Kurtz: You're welcome. No, I didn't write the headline. I do the headlines on my online column, but I'm not nearly as good as the copy editors who write the heads for the paper. They produce a clunker every once in awhile, but some of the headlines really sparkle.


Atlanta, Ga.: The bloggers were awfully quick with their suspicions and detailed analysis of the disputed Bush guard documents that CBS aired last week. Are reporters looking at the possibility that this was (an admittedly elaborate) right wing set up? Or am I just paranoid?

Howard Kurtz: Even paranoids have enemies. Look, if it turns out to be a hoax - and we don't know that at this point - the question of who tried to peddle bogus papers to CBS News will loom very large.


Washington, D.C.:
Mr. Kurtz,

I was listening to Rush Limbaugh on Friday just hammer Dan Rather and 60 minutes for supposedly being in the tank for John Kerry. Now, I think Rush is biased but it does seem to me that CBS is protecting itself by not investigating charges of document fraud further. If CBS claims that Selectric typwriters capable of pruducing superscripts were purchased by the Army prior to Bush's guard service, then they should look into a PO or an RO for Selectrics for Bush's guard unit. But they haven't or won't do this. Why? Also they won't comment further on the Times Roman spacing issue. It seems they are shamefully hiding from this story. Its also worth noticing that they really investigated the Swift Boat Guys really hard but won't apply the same scrutiny to the Bush accusers. It really makes me believe guys like Limbaugh when he says there is liberal bias out there. Your comments would be appreciated. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: CBS says it did lots of careful checking and interviewing before airing the story, but clearly has plenty of explaining to do. I don't think it's fair at this point to say it was ideologically motivated. After all, some of the news organizations that Rush sees as liberal, including the WP and NYT, have jumped very hard on whether these memos are fake, which would discredit a story that has put the Bush campaign on the defensive.


Washington, D.C.: The problem with the Swift Boat attacks was not that they were "unfair and irrelevant." It was that they were false and plainly contradicted by the available evidence, yet received tons of coverage on cable news. The attacks on Bush's Guard duty, on the other hand, are not so easily disproved.

Howard Kurtz: But not so easily proved, either, as the 60 Minutes story underscores. Look, you can never definitively prove or disprove something that happened 30 or 35 years ago. Documents are lost, witnesses have died, memories have faded. That's why all this has made for interesting media fodder and debate but I doubt will be conclusively resolved, or move that many votes in the end.


Rockville, Md.: Hi,

This Dan Rather episode has me wondering what punishment will CBS deliver if these documents are in fact false?

I believe Dan Rather should be susupended until the campaign is over. What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: How about tarred and feathered? Jailed? Sent to Guantanamo? So much for the presumption of innocence.


Ellicott City, Md.: What is the Post's standard method on deciding whether or not to list the party affilliation of elected officials? For instance the San Diego bankrupcy story doesn't list any party affilliations.

washingtonpost.com: San Diego Snarled in Web of Financial Woes (Post, Sept. 13)

Howard Kurtz: I don't think there's a standard "policy," but it's a good idea to include party affiliation as often as possible, especially when writing about state or local issues where the average reader would have no idea.


Ellicott City, Md.: With this whole CBS flap over the memos, what about the man who states that he did a favor to let Bush into the AF reserve unit. He is alive, he is there on record, what about this part of the story? It seems that the stratagy is to find one part that is refutable and then claim everything is wrong.

Howard Kurtz: The account of Ben Barnes has been lost in all this. Of course, Barnes doesn't say the Bush family asked him for any favors, he cites a Texas oilman who was a friend of Bush 41. He also says he did this for others, so on some level it's an indictment of the system that made it far easier for affluent or connected applicants to get into the Guard. But even this has been controversial: Barnes's daughter has been quoted as saying she believes her father is lying for political purposes because he supports Kerry.


Wayzata, Minn.: Have you noticed that there has been less coverage of the Lacy Peterson trial? Yeah...

Howard Kurtz: We should thank our lucky stars. I think the Laci story is the default option for some cable networks, the go-to saga when nothing else is going on. But so much has been going on in recent weeks, from the campaign to Iraq to hurricanes, that they haven't had to play the Laci card much.


To Be Fair...:

If Rather is wrong, then lock him in a room with Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

If Dobbs is wrong, then lock him in a room with James Carville and Michael Moore.

Howard Kurtz: Now it's getting personal.


Front Royal, Va.: I read an interesting theory on National Review today -- that the perceived "liberal bias" of network news, CNN and most major newspapers (whether real or not) has driven many conservatives away from those media towards the Internet, talk radio, Fox News, etc. This also would mean that the audience for networks and big papers gets correspondingly more liberal. They further extrapolate that this shift in ideological demographics is a reason why CBS is extra-keen not to back off the documents story -- because their core audience would feel more "let down" than median opinion. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: This is not a new theory -- it's been obvious for 15 years that conservatives were flocking to talk radio because they were fed up with what they see as the MainstreamLiberalMedia. Same with much of Fox's audience. But I'm not sure I'd connect that to the 60 Minutes controversy. Even if we lived in a world with no accusations of liberal bias, no news organization relishes the idea of admitting that it screwed up on a major story involving the president of the United States.


Iowa: Any updates on the debate negotiations between the two campaign teams? These are very important--hate to hear that Bush will duck the third one.

Howard Kurtz: I also had assumed there would be three, but now recall that both Reagan and Clinton granted their challengers only two. They, of course, were ahead, while Bush 41 was locked in a tight race when he agreed to the three debates back in '92. What amazes me is that each side has just appointed its full debate negotiation team, given that the first one was supposed to be held in just over two weeks, on Sept. 30. Get ready for a round of excruciatingly boring Debate over Debates stories.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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