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Transcript

Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 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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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I read the Washington Post's interview with Dubya and, frankly, I'm shocked the reporter didn't delve deeper and ask the president about his favorite color, whether he shared his father's distaste for broccoli and his opinion on the biggest crisis facing the world -- the Brad-Jennifer split.
The Post gets a chance to interview the president and doesn't keep hitting him with tough questions and follow-ups?
How come whenever Dubya says we removed a brutal dictator from power in Iraq, no reporter (not even the Post's apparently) asks him why he never mentions that when Saddam gassed the Kurds, Reagan was president and his dad was VP, about to become president and they did nothing about it?
How Dubya calls for spreading freedom and democracy, but backs a dictator in Pakistan and shows no interest in what's happening in Burma?
No questions about our soldiers possibly committing war crimes and whether giving a six-month sentence to a soldier who ordered his men to throw two Iraqis off a bridge is the right message to send to the world?
I'm sure in 18 months, the Post will issue another apology for not being tough enough and all you pundits will fall over each other in praising the paper for being "courageous."

washingtonpost.com: Transcript of Bush Interview (Jan. 16)

Howard Kurtz: Sounds to me like you weren't interested in an interview but in having someone debate a president you obviously dislike. The questions were reasonably aggressive, considering that the reporters had 35 minutes aboard Air Force One. I'll include just one as an example:
"The Post: In Iraq, there's been a steady stream of surprises. We weren't welcomed as liberators, as Vice President Cheney had talked about. We haven't found the weapons of mass destruction as predicted. The postwar process hasn't gone as well as some had hoped. Why hasn't anyone been held accountable, either through firings or demotions, for what some people see as mistakes or misjudgments?"
That doesn't fit my definition of puffball.

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El Paso, Tex.: Ref: Washington Post Co. contribution to inauguration

The contribution doesn't really bother me. It was business. The WP Co. has many businesses besides the Washington Post. Apparently it is good business to give big advertisers treats now and then, such as inaugural parade seats. For myself, I accept the Company's assurance that this business contribution is kept separate from the newsroom, just like I accept the assurance, from you and other Post reporters, that the editorial section is kept from the news-gathering sections.

The proliferation of editorial sections -- not op-ed, but sections where papers give their opinions -- are a more serious threat to news-gathering independence. I also think editorial sections are a combination of hubris and irrelevancy. Has serious polling ever been done to estimate how many newspaper readers read their paper's editorials? In my current "local" paper, the editorials usually just opine about news items that appeared one or two days before.

washingtonpost.com: Influence Being Peddled! (Post, Jan. 14)

Howard Kurtz: If you have no problem with The Washington Post Co. kicking in $100,000 to the inauguration, fine. I think it's unseemly and creates an appearance problem, as I wrote on Friday. But people are free to make up their own minds.
Not sure what you mean by a proliferation of editorial sections. The Post has the same number it's had for decades, the editorial/op-ed pages and the Sunday Outlook section (mostly written by outside contributors). I don't see either of these as an example of hubris, but as an attempt to engage in a serious debate about issues. And those who don't care are free to move on to Style, Metro, Sports, Food or whatever.

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Too soft on Smiley?: Hello Howie,

The sixth paragraph of your column about Tavis Smiley leaving NPR portrays Smiley's demands as utterly unreasonable. Yet the basic story of the column seemed to be of two sides failing to agree. When one side is unreasonable and intrasigent, shouldn't the story reflect that imbalance more explicitly?

washingtonpost.com: Broadcast All Over (Post, Jan. 17)

Howard Kurtz: My job is to put the information out there. NPR says Tavis Smiley would not negotiate, he says there was no reason to after his initial demands were rejected and made a number of racially charged remarks. I think readers are smart enough to read such a column and draw their own conclusions, which may or may not be the same as mine.

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Toronto, Canada: The CBS story was the subject of much discussion in the blogosphere. Various right-wing types kept repeating the notion that the entire Sixty minutes segment was based on the forged documents. Well, I had taped that segment. And I added up how many seconds of screen-time arose from the forged documents. Less than half.

Well, there is a tendency in the American right to score points, at any price, rather than to seek out the truth. But I expected more from you.

The documents were forged -- a black eye for Rather & friends -- but didn't the rest of the American media fail by failing to follow up on the substantive 60 percent of the segment?

What if CBS had broadcast a segment about the evidence of favoritism, fraud, dereliction of duty in Bush's National Guard service, without reference to the forged documents? How much attention does the rest of the evidence deserve? In my opinion it deserves less attention than Nixon's Watergate, and more than Clinton's sexual escapades.

Howard Kurtz: It doesn't matter whether the documents got 10 seconds -- for a news organization to use 30-year-old memos that everyone now agrees cannot be authenticated against a president of the United States is an extremely serious ethical breach (as CBS now acknowledges). As for the other allegations involving Bush and the Guard, there had already been a lot of reporting on how Bush got in and whether he was treated favorably there and whether he failed to report for duty after missing a flight physical. We don't have definitive answers to some of these questions, but CBS was not exactly raising new questions back on Sept. 8.

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Charles Town, W.Va.: Howard, what are conservative pundits saying about Bush's backtracking on the gay marriage amendment? Are they mad or still backing him up?

Howard Kurtz: My sense is that there's been a little bit of an uproar, because the White House has been backtracking since Bush made those remarks to The Post. (The president still supports the amendment, he just thinks political reality in the Senate will not allow it to be approved, etc. That, of course, is a very different tone than he struck during the campaign.)

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Arlington, Va.: The Post's obituary for Marjorie Williams was one of the best articles of its kind that I have seen, a true blending of biographical material and apppreciation. She must have been an amazing person.

washingtonpost.com: Post Columnist Marjorie Williams Dies (Post, Jan. 17)

Howard Kurtz: It's all true. She was a remarkable journalist and an incredibly nice person.

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St. Louis, Mo.: Michele Norris was quoted in your column saying that there are indeed people at National Public Radio waiting to take the diversity baton. Who are these people? If I remember correctly from last year's UNITY: Journalists of Color convention, NPR was an organization with one of the worst records for hiring people of color.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what the overall statistics are. I do know that in hiring Michele, Juan Williams and now Ed Gordon, NPR has some African-Americans in prominent on-air positions.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Interesting column today. So does this kind of backtracking, or more precisely a failure to follow through on issues key to Bush's base change that relationship---his support from evangelicals and other religious folk? Or is it forgiven, does it go unnoticed in the grand scheme of things?

Howard Kurtz: Clearly it hasn't gone unnoticed. I guess it will depend on whether Bush is seen as backtracking on other issues besides a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage. And whether his religious supporters realized at the time that such an amendment was unlikely to be adopted but liked the fact that the president was taking what they viewed as a strong moral stand on the issue.

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Winnipeg, Canada: I really enjoy the give and take of the on-line sessions. You get a chance to understand the broad perspectives people have on the issues much better than you do on talk radio or other live forums. For the most part the discussion is also much more polite.
I cannot help but wonder, though, just how broad the perspective is for these forums: in terms of ideology, it seems to cover the bases, but how much cherry picking does the Washington Post need to do to represent all viewpoints?

As a followup, just how popular are these forums? Does the Washington Post track how many people log on or submit questions?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the answer to the last question, but a lot of these sessions attract many, many questions, and I try to respond to queries from across the political spectrum.

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Ballston, Arlington, Va.: How commonplace is it for a president of a news network to have a sit down with the White House Communications director to discuss the fairness (or lack thereof) of his network's coverage of a sitting president? With Heyward asking for a 'fresh start', isn't this an admission that CBS wronged the president, despite their lack of a substantive apology?

Howard Kurtz: I would quarrel with the last part. When a news organization commissions an outside report and fires four people as a result, and when its ultimate boss (CBS President Les Moonves) says the story was a "black mark" against the news division, and the anchor steps down after personally apologizing on the air, it's fair to say that news organization is admitting it screwed up royally. It's not that unusual for top editors or executives that have had difficult relations with the White House or one political party to pay such a visit, and in this case it's pretty clear why Andrew Heyward feels the need to ask for a "fresh start."

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Arlington, Va.: Why does the media keep repeating the Administration's preferred title of Social Security "reform"? And why everything the White House does get labeled "reform"?

It's straight out of the Frank Luntz wordplay manipulation book. Reform = good, opposing reform = bad. And the media picks it up and repeat it without question, advancing the Bush Administration's agenda (even washingtonpost.com hosted a chat on Social Security "reform" last week).

Destroying Social Security becomes "reform". Gutting the Clean Air Act becomes "reform". And so on...

Howard Kurtz: I agree with that no matter what the issue. It's a lazy term that journalists shouldn't adopt. "Reform" always has a white-hat connotation, and one man's reform is another's reckless experiment and benefit cut.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Does it seem to you that other than the Washington Post, the mainstream media has accepted the premise that there is a major Social Security crisis? It does to me. For example, Judy Woodruff interviewed Ron Brownstein on Inside Politics a couple of weeks ago. They talked about the ramifications of Bush's plan for the most part. It wasn't until the end of the interview that Judy Woodruff said in effect, 'then there's the question of whether there is a Social Security crisis but that's another topic for another show.' Shouldn't she have asked that at the beginning of the interview?

Howard Kurtz: Hard to answer without having seen the segment, but just about every story and discussion should touch on the central question here, whether Social Security is in such bad shape that it needs an immediate and far-ranging fix.

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Martinsville, Va.: What is the general consensus on the performance of Brian Williams in the NBC anchor's chair to date?

Howard Kurtz: That he's done pretty well, especially with his tsunami trip to Indonesia, but that is hardly a surprise. NBC was smart to announce the transition from Brokaw to Williams 2-1/2 years ago, and to nurture Brian as the principal substitute on NBC Nightly News and as a hotshot correspondent, so he was hardly a strange presence when he took over. CBS, by contrast, seems to entertaining all kinds of ideas about who should succeed Rather and what form the broadcast should take, which will increase pressure on whoever ultimately gets the job.

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Washington D.C.: Hello Howard - Geez, that Tavis Smiley is quite a character. Doesn't he realize that in business you just can't make demands and expect that they will be met? And those comments about chains and 'doing it for all the little black and brown babies being born' were just too much. Doesn't he realize the relevant color is green? What are the chances he'll land somewhere else with all of his demands granted intact?

Howard Kurtz: Well, Smiley already as a PBS show and a thriving career, so I don't think this will be that big a setback for him. It's just surprising that the two sides worked reasonably well together for the three years of Tavis's NPR show and that the relationship ended with a fair amount of acrimony.

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Arlington, Va.: Re: The Alex Beam item in your online column today. Was there any element of professional courtesy involved? Would Beam have held off on reporting the remarks if the company where these executives worked was not a newspaper?

Howard Kurtz: That'a a hypothetical, but I don't think so. I was just trying to illustrate the point that journalists often have almost enough evidence to publish something, it's a very close call, and sometimes decide to hold off, which may or may not turn out to be the right decision. It certainly would have been the right decision for 60 Minutes on Sept. 8.

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Iowa: RE the rumors that CBS has approached Katie Couric to replace Dan Rather as anchor (presumably after her NBC contract expires in 2006), would this reflect a significant shift in CBS news values? (The network of Murrow and Cronkite combined with InStyle?) Ms. Couric may be a good at interviewing, but what credible journalistic background does she bring to the job?

Howard Kurtz: Given the long experience Couric has had interviewing leaders and politicians on the Today show (as well as the fluffier interviews that the morning-show genre requires), she would be a real catch for CBS. But it's very unlikely to happen, and the media are starting to engage in the sort of promiscuous speculation that often permeates the veepstakes process.

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Arlington, Va.: Last week ABC broadcast transcripts of grand jury testimony in the Michael Jackson case. While it was not illegal for ABC to broadcast that information, it was certainly illegal for ABC's source to release the transcripts, since they were sealed by court order.

So why is it that Robert Novak is vilified for publishing illegally-released secret information that hurt Valerie Plame's career, but there is no outrage when ABC publishes illegally-released secret information that hurts Michael Jackson's career?

Howard Kurtz: Journalists are often criticized for publishing grand-jury information, which as you note is illegal to leak. The difference is that Novak is widely seen as being complicit in an administration effort to hurt Valerie Plame because of her husband's criticism of Bush. A story that shed light on whether one of the world's most famous entertainers engaged in sexual conduct with children, as has been alleged, has nothing to do with any partisan agenda. Perhaps a better example is the San Francisco Chronicle's recent publication of grand-jury information on steroids, relating to Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. That, arguably, was a real public service that has already prompted baseball to tighten its drug testing rules, and undoubtedly hurt the careers of the two players. But in the case of Giambi, it showed that he had lied publicly in long denying steroid use.

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Baton Rouge, La.: "Accepting the premise of a Social Security Crisis".

If that needs to be a central part in every story/article, shouldn't it include all the Clinton-era rhetoric of "Save Social Security First", "Lockbox", and the like? I've been having a lot of fun going back and looking at statements from the "There's no crisis" crowd back when their guy was in power.

Howard Kurtz: Clinton didn't contend that Social Security was in a grave crisis. He argued that some of the budget surplus should be devoted to shoring up the retirement system over the long term. Everyone knows Social Security will eventually be rocked by the demographic bomb of retiring baby boomers. The question is whether the situation is so dire now that it requires a dramatic solution like private accounts, or can be fixed over time with less drastic measures.

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Annandale, Va.: Mr. Kurtz,
There has been much complaining about spending so lavishly on the inauguration and associated balls while we are at war, while there is suffering in se asia.

In your opinion, how much of the complaining is legit and how much is it sour grapes from Kerry supporters? Would there be as much complaining if it were John Kerry spending as much or probably more on his inauguration?

Howard Kurtz: I've always felt it was something of a non-issue. Obviously the tone of the celebrations should take into account not only the tsunami disaster but the fact that we're at war. But Bush won, he's entitled to celebrate and the festivities are mostly being financed by private donations.

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Annapolis, Md.: Hi-

Armstrong Williams has stated in recent interviews that he believes other members of the press are getting money from the Bush administration.

What is your estimate of the number of journalists who are being paid by the Bush administration?

And should the Bush administration increase funding for this effort in order to balance the inherent bias of the liberal media?

Howard Kurtz: I hope it's zero. I don't know if there are others, as Armstrong says. But the notion that this is a way to "balance" the media's liberal bias is ludicrous. Armstrong Williams, as he has acknowledged to me and others, made an incredibly bad judgment by not disclosing the fact that the was support Bush's education policy while getting $240K from the Education Department to support the policy. If the administration has to pay off commentators to get a favorable hearing for its policies, it's in deep trouble.

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Washington, D.C.: CBS could hire Couric into the Evening News anchor chair and then kick her down to mornings on CBS after she fails. That would be a great way to reshuffle mornings, and there would likely be some support at the other evening newscasts for such a plan. Besides, as the war terror enters its second term, there's increasingly less interest in the Rockefeller Plaza gig.

Howard Kurtz: Today is the top-rated show in morning television, and morning shows are far more lucrative for the networks than evening newscasts. Katie Couric is already being paid more than $60 million over 4-1/2 years for her labors at NBC. So I'm not exactly sure why she'd want to jump.

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Anonymous: Pittsburgh isn't the only one who thinks the media goes soft on Bush. Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update showed part of Barbara Walter's tough questioning (what three words describe you). It is very frustrating for people to watch the press question Bush and know that they could come up with better questions.

Howard Kurtz: So now we are to critique the media's coverage of President Bush based on a Saturday Night Live skit?

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Washington, D.C.: Do all employees of the Washington Post receive free admittance to inaugural events, or only those covering the event as reporters?

Howard Kurtz: The latter. The rest of us don't get to go.

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Re: the relative color is green: I understand the "shackles and chains" comment from Tavis Smiley. What the poster does not understand is that organizations often treat journalists of color as if they should just be happy to be there: that they should simply cave to whatever the organization wants. I believe Tavis walked away because of this sentiment.

Howard Kurtz: Well, in fairness to NPR, it paid him a reasonably good salary (Tavis did not ask for a raise), spent millions of dollars on the show and devoted 80 percent of its marketing budget to promoting the Smiley program. That doesn't sound like shackles to me.

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Re: Michael Jackson grand jury: Actually, there has been a lot of discussion as to whether the prosecutor in the Michael Jackson case has been pursuing the case for improperly-motivated reasons -- out of a personal agenda or a desire for political advancement. If someone in the prosecutor's office was the source of ABC's leak, harming Jackson in order to suit the prosecutor's personal interests, I don't see why that's any less offensive a misuse of power than what's alleged as to Novak.

Of course, we'll never know who the leak was or what their agenda was, because ABC wouldn't want to admit to being duped for someone else's political gain, and no one has any interest in defending Jackson in the way that Bush critics took up Plame's cause.

Howard Kurtz: You make a good point that some prosecutors are politically motivated. But ABC cannot reveal its source for reasons having nothing to do with feeling "duped" (the information, as far as I know, was accurate). It's the same reason Novak feels he cannot reveal his source--that no one would trust either the columnist or the network again if they get into the business of betraying sources to whom they've promised anonymity.

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Springfield, N.Y.: I watched the Tim Russert show Sat. evening and it was a joy. Reasoned discussion with no interruptions, talk overs or shouting. With Crossfire going off the air to you see an end to the contentious shows that pass for debate?

Howard Kurtz: NO. NOT GONNA HAPPEN! (Sorry, I didn't mean to yell.)

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Vienna, Va.: The CBS memogate report places the blame on "competitive pressure".

1. Isn't this corporate environment even more the responsibility to senior management at CBS than bias on the part of a few reporters. The integrity of the organization starts at the top and and seems to me that regardless of what Heyward and Rather did on this story, they are fundamentally responsible for the culture, professionalism, and ethics of the organization.

2. Is CBS now going to identify and review all those stories produced under "competitive pressure"? Shouldn't they? Other news organizations have reacted to the discovery of systemic flaws by checking all affected stories themselves, rather than relying on bloggers to do their job for them!

Howard Kurtz: We agree that Heyward and Rather were ultimately responsible, and I don't think they would argue with that.
As for reviewing all stories produced under competitive pressure, that would be thousands of stories, at any news organization. We all live under competitive pressure, and that can sometimes be a good thing, keeping you on your toes. What's most decidedly not a good thing is recklessly airing charges you can't prove or documents you can't authenticate.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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