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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 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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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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Kansas City, Mo.: After reading your article about both candidates' ads focusing on Senator Kerry (and not about President Bush), don't you think the moveon.org-style groups are doing enough negative ads about President Bush that Senator Kerry can avoid negative ads himself, seeming to take the high road, even though he actually uses the phrase "misleader" as the "move on" ads do?

washingtonpost.com: Media Notes, (May 10)

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure what the impact will be of the negative ads by MoveOn and other liberal groups. But it seems to me that Kerry would be running more negative ads against the president, which would have more impact coming from the candidate, if he thought they would be effective. The Kerry team has obviously concluded that it's more important for the senator to define himself in the face of all the anti-Kerry ads from the Bush folks. So you have this unusual circumstance in which both sides' ads are largely about Kerry.

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Bethesda, Md.: I have a Journalism 101 question: Last week, in reporting the President's expression of remorse to the Arab world, CBS Radio's top-of-the-hour report began with the phrase "A frank and heartfelt message from President Bush to the Arab world." Isn't it a basic no-no to "mind read" rather than simply report or describe? I'd have no problem if the report had stated "Sounding frank and heartfelt, Pres. Bush...". I think electronic journalism is hurting the profession by taking short-cuts that suggest bias. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: It's shorthand, I guess, but you're right, we don't know how "heartfelt" it was. For all journalists know, Bush was just doing what he felt he had to do. So it's better to stay away from such descriptions.

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Real Texan (which Shrub isn't): So, since Bush is getting bad press now he's aiming at the Democratic convention?

from talkingpointsmemo.com:

Just to pass on some added information, about which we'll be saying more. There is chatter in Pakistani intelligence circles that the US has let the Pakistanis know that the optimal time for bagging 'high value' al Qaida suspects in the untamed Afghan-Pakistani border lands is the last ten days of July, 2004.

-- Josh Marshall

Howard Kurtz: Guess we'll have to see what else Josh has on this subject to determine whether it's just, to use an intelligence term, chatter.

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New York, N.Y.: Greetings,

Funny you should run that column on Kerry coverage and perception today -- I was just remarking to myself how awful the coverage of Kerry's campaign has been. I am beginning to see him as being 'Gored' -- getting gratuitously bad press while his opponent is given the usual pass. Not that I consider Kerry to be the best candidate that the Dems could have put forward. (For reference, I supported Dean for his straightforwardness, and had imagined that a Kerry candidacy would end up in exactly the shape it seems to be assuming.)

Why is it, though, that Democratic candidates just can't catch a break with the press, while "conservatives" always seem to be the darlings of media coverage?

Howard Kurtz: Anyone who's followed the coverage that Bush has gotten over the last two months would certainly not call him a media darling. Lots of other words come to mind.
The press hasn't so much savaged Kerry as reported on the doubts of some Democrats about his candidacy. It's been somewhat overblown, in my view, given how early it is, but some Dems simply can't believe that Kerry hasn't opened up some kind of lead in light of the unrelenting bad news from Iraq. Kerry sort of sailed through the primaries without much media interference, so he's been getting the kind of scrutiny through that all challengers must eventually face.

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Anonymous: While good at covering the events in Iraq, I have found the media in general nearly as good on covering the background. Numerous remarks from friends/family of those accused of abuse of Iraqi prisoners along the line of "He/she is innocent. They were just following orders" cry out for a discussion of whether this is a defense (does no one remember Nuremberg?). What about the military's Uniform Code of Conduct?

Bush's remarks on changing the nature of governments around the world make me think of past American leaders who have called for the same (e.g., William McKinley; his ambition to civilize countries and make them more like America led to the colonization of the Philippines, where we also fought an insurgency).

Howard Kurtz: The "following orders" question is going to turn out to be at the heart of this story. If the soldiers who engaged in this degrading behavior weren't following orders, then it's a case of some bad apples doing unspeakable things. If they were following orders, then stripping prisoners, putting dog leashes on them, etc. becomes the policy of the United States military -- or at least that portion of the military that encouraged such conduct. That's why there may be many more shoes to drop.

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Oakland, Calif.: Mr. Kurtz,
In there interviews and one appearance, Bush called the treatment of prisoners "abhorrent." Does this strike you as a Bush word, or did Karl Rove or others tell Bush to use this term and only this term to criticize the treatment? It seems to me that somebody must have told Bush that this word would translate well into Arabic but would not make an impact on American voters since to most Americans "abhorrent" is a highly unusual term. As usual, Rumsfeld was far more blunt and uncoached, calling it terms like "sadistic" and "cruel." It seemed to me that Rumsfeld used various terms that regular Americans understand; while Bush stuck to a well researched talking point -- do you agree?

Howard Kurtz: I have no way of knowing who came up with the word, though obviously presidential comments, especially on so sensitive a subject, are generally vetted by his staff. But Bush has used other language in recent days suggesting that he is genuinely bothered by what happened and is not playing some kind of word game. Whether these are his heartfelt feelings or a calculated effort at damage control is for others to judge.

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Rockville, Md.: Apparently one of the parents of the solders involved in this scandal contacted 15 members of Congress about his concerns since the New Year. I don't know what political party they were, but do you think that the New York Times and other institutions that have called on Rumsfeld to resign will also ask ALL 15 members of Congress (for all we know one of them was Kerry) to resign? That would seem fair. Unless of course The New York Times is just exercising its First Amendment right to attack and drum up public opinion against a President they decided it does not like.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the Times has plenty of company on this point, but of course the editorial page is the place for a newspaper to express its opinions, as the NYT has done in this case. As for the 15 members of Congress, if true, the question would be how much they knew. Were they told only that some prisoners were being abused, without any substantiation, or did they know about the photographs and the full range of horrors involved?

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Boston, Mass.: Is this really un-American?
I bet there is more rape going on in Texas prisons (which G.W. used to run) than in the whole of Iraq. The fact that it is prisoner on prisoner doesn't change anything, the safety of detainees is the responsibility of the detainer. So when is the media going to report on that? Would it take lurid pictures of an 18-year-old kid being held down in the showers by three big guys with tatoos?

Howard Kurtz: I would argue there is a huge, fundamental and moral difference between prisoner-on-prisoner violence and humiliation inflicted by military guards in time of war, especially if that was part of a larger Pentagon policy rather than isolated incidents of misconduct. Imagine how much more intense the reaction would be if these pictures showed Iraqis abusing American captives.

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Austin, Tex.: 1. Do you think the administration's idea that the Iraq prison issue is basically an "inside-the-Beltway" story (and thus probably won't cost Rumsfeld his job) is true?

2. Do you expect, as some say, literally hundreds more photos, some clearly showing instances of torture, will be appearing in newspapers? If so, when do you think it would happen? What will be the reaction?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the administration believes this is an inside the Beltway story. That doesn't seem a rational conclusion. White House and Pentagon officials realize they've got a full-scale disaster on their hands.
As for the other photos -- and I don't know how many there are -- they will be published as soon as news organizations get their hands on them or they are officially released. And if what Rumsfeld and others are saying is accurate about the abuses depicted in these photos -- like the latest New Yorker one of dogs being used to threaten a prisoner -- being worse than what we've seen, the reaction is likely to be explosive.

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Real Texan: Has anybody in the press picked up on the fact that while Bush and Condi have apologized to the Arab world they refuse to apologize to the 9/11 families?

That seems to be a pretty stunning statement of the Administration's priorities.

Howard Kurtz: I'm afraid your analogy is pretty badly flawed. We were attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11. Whether the government was so deficient in preparing for this unimagined attack that an apology is warranted is a fair subject for debate, but the mass murder was inflicted by others. The abuses at Saddam's former torture jail, by contrast, were committed by American soldiers, which is why the apologies were issued.

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Damascus, Md.: When I read your article this morning about the "doubts expressed about Kerry campaign," I was distressed to see that you did not identify the political leanings of many of those doubters. John Fund and the New York Post, among others -- sources that I hardly consider unbiased.

You might as well write that Molly Ivins and James Carville have been saying negative things about the Bush campaign.

Duh.

I have read rumblings of discontent, wishes that Kerry would come out and fight harder, from more lefty sources. But all of them have ended with the phrase "ABB -- Anybody But Bush", and concluded that they'd stick with Kerry.

Howard Kurtz: Not only do my readers know that John Fund of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post lean conservative, but they were not the only ones trumpeting this line. The others included the New York Times, the New York Observer, the Village Voice, Time and Newsweek, none of which is generally regarded as champions of conservative thought.

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15 Members of Congress: I don't think your response to Rockville was proper. Why should 15 members of Congress resign over information given to them by parents of soldiers about military conduct? Donald Rumsfeld is the Secretary of Defense. He is the one ultimately responsible for the actions of the military.

If it turned out that a Congressional Leader was found to be in dereliction of duty, you wouldn't ask Rumsfeld to resign just because that Congressman's family member wrote a letter to the Defense Department about it. That's just absurd.

Howard Kurtz: I wasn't really addressing whether they should resign. I was simply suggesting that they could come in for some criticism if they had detailed information about prisoner abuses and, like the Pentagon, chose not to make it public.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Kurtz,

Thanks for taking our questions. I am curious how you see the extent of the Abu Ghraib coverage. My New York Times today has six stories about the prison scandal, and only two stories about the rest of Iraq. Is the Abu Ghraib (almost two weeks after the "60 Minutes II" story was aired) really three times as important as everything else that's happening in Iraq combined?

Howard Kurtz: At the moment, I would say yes. The reaction in this country and around the world continues to be intense. More pictures continue to emerge, including yesterday with Sy Hersh's New Yorker piece. Rumsfeld spent all day Friday testifying on the Hill, and Bush moments ago gave a speech expressing his support for Rummy. The Pentagon has multiple investigations going and will soon begin the first court-martial. These images, carried repeatedly on television, probably represent the biggest American setback of the war, and possibly the biggest blow to the country's image in many years. In a larger sense, the war is more important, but not much has changed on that front in the last two weeks while this prisoner story has exploded.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I love these chats and your column. Keep up the good work!

I read this morning that the Army Times (plus three other military papers owned by Gannett) had an editorial this morning calling for the resignations of Mr. Rumsfeld and other top civilians at the Pentagon. Do you think that Bush's public statements of confidence in Rumsfeld will not be able to stand up against the rising tide of public criticism of these guys (not to mention the private grumblings of top Army people, such as those written about in the excellent piece in yesterday's Washington Post)?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Bush, who just called Rumsfeld a "superb" DOD chief, is the only one whose opinion matters, and he's not likely to be swayed by an editorial in Army Times (or the New York Times or anywhere else, for that matter). If the criticism becomes so intense that the president concludes he must throw Rummy overboard, he will make that decision, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Bush prizes loyalty above all and also knows that dumping his defense secretary would be seen as an admission that the war effort is not going well.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: I know media ownership is not a hot-button item for the '04 campaign, but I would like to know (in a nutshell) what your thoughts are on the Telecom Act of 1996 and the chances of it being repealed if Kerry gets elected.

Howard Kurtz: Not high if the Senate and House remain in Republican hands.

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New York, N.Y.: Interesting story today about doubts about Kerry. Bush has had bad news for about two months straight. How can it possibly not be affecting him in the polls? I can't believe it's all advertising -- heck, Kerry's in the midst of a big advertising buy and Moveon.org and other groups have also spent a lot of money.

Howard Kurtz: That's a question a lot of smart political people are scratching their heads over. First, it suggest that in a polarized country, Bush has a very solid base of support. Kerry may be seen as not offering a clear alternative on Iraq (or not seen much at all, since the prisoner scandal in particular is overshadowing his campaign). Or there may be a rally-round-the-president effect from the continued attacks on American soldiers.

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Austin, Tex.: A follow-up, if I may, to the question about the additional photos. Apparently the administration is debating whether to release them.

You know more than we readers about news-gathering, leaks, etc. Is keeping them secret really a possibility? Aren't they going to be all over the Internet (and newspapers) within a week or two, one way or the other?

Howard Kurtz: Keeping the pictures secret is not an option. One way or another, they will come out, just as the original 60 Minutes II photos were followed by those published by the New Yorker, Washington Post and New York Times. Some accounts suggest that the administration is delaying as a way of preparing the public for how much worse this next round of photos is going to look, as a way of cushioning the impact when we actually get to see them.

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Bethesda, Md.: You make a good point in your online article that people with misconceptions regarding Iraq may be choosing Fox News rather than Fox spawning the misconceptions. However, to go one step further it seems Fox is not doing a good job of informing those people to disabuse them of their misconceptions. That is assuming that a goal of a news program is to inform and not just get ratings. One would hope that the those two goals would go hand in hand.

Howard Kurtz: Fair point. But I'd have to see specific Fox stories that could be fostering a misleading impression about Saddam and 9/11 to make that case.

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Anonymous: Am I missing something, or do we see journalists "apologizing" for "missing" things more and more these days, more than in the past? For example, I read this week about journalists fretting over not having uncovered the abuse of Iraqi prisoners sooner. Now, I realize that story might have been hard to uncover, but are journalists too myopic these days?

Howard Kurtz: It's a healthy sign, in my view, when journalists admit to screwing up, or at least to being fallible. Some of these stories are obviously hard to uncover. But the Pentagon announced in January that it was investigating possible mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners -- an announcement that wasn't even covered by The Post. Some Pentagon reporters have told me they should have pursued the story harder since they knew there was something there, even if they had no way of knowing the magnitude.

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Orono, Maine: Your article on the Kerry doubters was interesting, partciularly since The Post also reported that conservatives appear to be increasingly concerned about the President's politics.

It seems to me that we are looking at an election in which both sides are going to have to swallow hard and vote for a man they are considerably less than enthralled with, while trying to maintain a good face to sway non-committed voters.

I'm not sure we've seen anything like this in a long time. Any thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: On that point I'd disagree. In a number of elections, including Carter-Reagan in 1980, Dukakis-Bush in 1988 and Gore-Bush in 2000, there was lots of commentary to the effect of, can't we do better than these two guys? Such sentiments fueled support for alternative candidates like John Anderson, Perot and Nader. What makes this election different, I think, is how few undecideds there are, a direct consequence of a highly polarized electorate.

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Rally around the president: People did it re: Jimmy Carter in 1980, but come the end of the process voted to replace him.

Howard Kurtz: The Iran hostage crisis certainly helped Carter against Ted Kennedy during the primaries, but that and double-digit inflation ultimately made people feel that the president was being overwhelmed by events.

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San Anselmo, Calif.: The view from the Bay Area is that the press is trying to help the Bush administration hide as much as it can, possibly to help protect the troops. Why is it that you would say something like "like the latest New Yorker one of dogs being used to threaten a prisoner--" when the article says that the same prisoner was lying in a pool of blood from what appeared to be dog bites.

washingtonpost.com: Chain of Command, (The New Yorker, May 9)

Howard Kurtz: I was just giving you my description of the photograph. I can't tell from the picture whether there were dog bites or not.

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Chicago, Ill.: Aside from the underlying issue and subject matter (which is disgusting and shameful) I am disturbed by another element of the Iraqi prison scandal -- namely, the fact that it took photographs in order for it to have an impact. To me, it's another sign of the power of visual images -- in some ways, not far different than the Rodney King beatings. The reason it scares me so much is that there is such an arbitrary nature to it... in other words, what if there had not been photographs... just as, what if someone had not been videotaping the LAPD cops? How much other terrible stuff happens but we ignore it simply because nobody has a camera trained on the incident? In fact, weren't there published (printed/no viualss) reports alleging such abuse several monts ago but they went largey ignored? Is this another example of what TV has done to us and our ability, willingness to be compelled by the printed or spoken word?

Howard Kurtz: In an age of 24-hour cable and Internet, images are more powerful, and more quickly distributed, than ever. That's just human nature. If a journalist had written an incredibly detailed report about the prisoner abuses -- describing how they were stripped naked, forced to simulate sex acts, led around by a dog collar -- it would have been a big story. But it would have lacked the emotional punch of seeing the horrifying misconduct, in a way that can't be denied. Which makes it all the more incredible, from a self-interest standpoint, that the soldiers involved would not only do such things but photograph themselves in action, taunting the prisoners, and so on. They provided the strongest possible evidence against themselves.

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Takoma Park, Md.: I read the Linda Chavez article you linked to this morning. She said the pregnancy rate in Operation Desert Storm it reached 15 percent and was the single largest cause of evacuation from Bosnia during U.S. deployments there.

I also found out that Lynndie England is pregnant by one of her fellow officers from the same unit who is also accused.

Is there a change on the horizon for women in the military?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think you can effectively outlaw sexual relations in a co-ed military, but whatever the complications, I don't think women are going to be excluded at this late date.

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Washington, D.C.: Who is taking all these pictures -- and the hundreds more reportedly in existence -- of the abused prisoners, and more to the point, why?

Do you think the photographers took them because they thought it was "funny" or did they mean to leak them to the press?

Howard Kurtz: As best I can tell, the pictures were taken by the soldiers themsevles and their compatriots -- not to be leaked, certainly, but either as twisted souvenirs for themselves or as a scare tactic to show incoming prisoners what could happen to them if they didn't cooperate.

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Arlington, Va.: I was a bit surprised by The Post's decision to run the photo of the naked, leashed, groveling Iraqi man without at least obscuring his face in some way. This strikes me as very similar to printing a picture of a rape victim.

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair point. I would have voted to obscure the face.

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Fly-over-land, Wis.: Howard,

Let me put on my tin-foil hat for a moment and ask a question that has been bothering me ever since I saw the photos of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners: has anyone investigated whether those Iraqi newspapers that were recently shut down by the U.S. authorities reporting on the prisoner abuse story? I think this is a legitimate question given the efforts by the some government officials to keep this quiet since January.

I'd really appreciate some enterprising reporter looking into this.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't heard anyone suggest that. The official line is that they were inciting anti-American violence. But it looked for all the world like the U.S. couldn't tolerate criticism.

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Boston, Mass.: The only news of consequence since last Thursday is about Iraq prisoner abuse and you choose to lead with inside the Beltway babble on the likely Democratic nominee?! How about the stories that your paper, the WSJ and others have been running that the abuse is widespread, its policies were approved at the highest levels of the Pentagon, the generals are facing off with different views of the situation (a few bad apples vs. pressure to find WMD, insurgent leaders, etc.), the military chooses to start the very public courtmartials with the guy who took the pictures (prosecuting the reporter vs. the perpetrator of the abuse)? There is so much more of relevance than Kerry's struggle, updates on who is for/against Rummy's resignation, etc. Kudos for reminding us of who reported the initial abuse reports over the last six months, but don't bury this midway through and please get to the meatier and more relevant stuff mentioned above.

Howard Kurtz: I wrote about the Iraqi prisoner scandal several times last week.

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Wilson, N.C. : Why nothing on Rumsfield in your column? Couldn't you go one week without slamming Kerry. Give the guy a chance!

Howard Kurtz: If you look at Media Notes last week, you will see several columns on the prisoner scandal, Rumsfeld, Bush's role and the rest of it. More important, I am not "slamming" Kerry in this column. If anything, I'm saying that the media's reporting on how some Democrats say he's in trouble is overblown (some of it brought to you by the same media geniuses who practically wrote off Kerry late last year). People who don't understand media analysis sometimes make the mistake of thinking the author is adopting the criticism he is reporting from the rest of the press. Earlier, I reported that the three cable networks were giving three times as much coverage to Bush's live events as to Kerry's. I wasn't endorsing that approach--I was actually criticizing it and asking network executives for an explanation.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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