Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 27, 2005; 12:00 PM

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 was online Monday, June 27, at Noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

This week: Downplaying Durbin, Jumping on Rove.

A transcript follows.

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Washington, D.C.: I really don't think the mainstream press understand the anger that liberals feel toward Rove about his comments. That was the last straw, and now it's time to take up sides. We just sat through 8 years of you hyping every right wing conceived Clinton scandal and now an administration has lied to get us into a war and is in the process of dismantling free speech and the people inside the Bubble in Washington thinks is business as usual. Either the main stream press start doing some real investigative reporting or step aside and make room for people who are actually willing to do the job.

Howard Kurtz: I understand completely the anger many liberals feel toward the mainstream media's coverage of the Bush administration. I get it every day in my in-box. I've written plenty of pieces and columns about it. (Not that conservatives have any great love for us these days either.) Just this morning, I mentioned a figure from a Pew poll: 54 percent of Democrats say media coverage is too soft on the Bush administration, up from 39 percent last year.

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Palm Springs, Calif.: I agree with Andrew Sullivan's characterization of what a misdirected generalization of a statement made by Rove.

But, I believe this matter is much more deeper and uglier and scarier than that. And, it's doubly frightening that it could occur and get dismissed so lightly.

Doesn't anyone out there get what 'that kind of behavior' really means for the long (or, short) run of this nation?

Howard Kurtz: Dismissed so lightly? It was front-page news in a number of major papers and made the NBC and ABC nightly news and was a hot topic on cable. The question I raised this morning is whether the Dick Durbin flap deserved a comparable level of coverage.

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Ellicott City, Md.: Doesn't Karl Rove realize that when he spoke out so soon after the Durbin flap, that the media which can only seem to hold onto one such story at a time, that he pushed the other story out of the spotlight? Was this his plan?

Howard Kurtz: I can't read his mind, but it's hard to believe that he didn't realize his remarks would cause a bit of an uproar. This was in a speech, after all, not an offhand remark to a reporter, so it's a fair assumption that it was premeditated.

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Wexford, Pa.: Howard, what's with The Washington Post running a story today about meetings between U.S. officials and Iraqi insurgents? Since the story was broken by the Sunday Times of London only this past weekend, shouldn't The Post wait at least several weeks before picking it up? After all, that seemed to be the paper's policy with the Downing Street Memos. Why break with policy now?

Howard Kurtz: We're trying to speed things up around here.

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Parkville, Md.: Howard,

I've got to say that I'm very upset by the media's approach to the Mark Felt / Deep Throat revelations. For some reason the print and television media seem to be falling over themselves to interview former Nixon administration officials (Today The Post does FBI chief L. Patrick Gray) about their reaction to Felt's acts. And yet the scope of the criminality of the Nixon White House, as well as the interviewed individuals' role in the affair is barely touched upon. The end result is that, overall, we're getting a very negative portrayal of Felt with occasional asides noting --in an almost passing manner-- that the person painting the picture was indicted, or had his career destroyed thanks to Felt's revelations. In today's Post story, for instance, we're told that Gray helped destroy documents related to the Watergate investigation, but no attempt is made to underscore the seriousness of the threat to our Democracy that is posed by the head of the FBI destroying documents that point to a criminal conspiracy being run out of the White House. It's treated as no more serious an offense than shoplifting a candy bar. And a recent New York Times story on Gray was just as bad. This sort of reporting is one big lie-by-omission.

Howard Kurtz: I think the avalanche of coverage that followed Felt going public made clear that the Nixon administration was engaged in a massive level of domestic spying and criminality. Today's Gray story is based on an interview aired yesterday on ABC's "This Week." It's fine for Gray to have his say, but I agree that what he did during Watergate--destroying evidence and briefing the White House on interviews in an investigation aimed at the White House--was disgraceful and should not be brushed off in a sentence or two.

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Northern Va.: Howard,

I'll stay away from the liberal-conservative wars. Why do newscasts (especially local news) now give us 911 calls? What value added do they give especially since most of them appear to be unintelligible?

Howard Kurtz: They sound dramatic, and newscasts love drama.

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British Media vs. American Media: Is it just me or does it appear that lately, the British press covering the Iraq war differently than the U.S.? They broke the DSM issue and now comes the revelation about the U.S. "talking" to insurgency forces. I got the feeling that the U.S. press had no idea of our talks with them. Why is that?

Howard Kurtz: Because the Bush administration was keeping it secret, perhaps? Look, some of the British press is very aggressive and often scores scoops in this area. (You'd expect a London newspaper to beat the American media on the Downing Street minutes of a meeting involving Blair and his top advisers, of course). But it's also true that the British press is more openly partisan, and operates in a country where opposition to the war in Iraq is more overwhelming than it is here.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kurtz,

The Supreme Court refused to hear the case of the two reporters in the Plame case, and some say they may go to jail immediately.

How do you read this from the NY Times's story (just posted)?

"He ordered them held for 18 months or until the grand jury completes its inquiry, whichever comes sooner...

...In court filings this spring, Mr. Fitzgerald disclosed that, except for his efforts to compel the reporters' testimony, his investigation has been 'for all practical purposes complete' since October."

So, maybe they won't go to jail since the case "ended" ?

Howard Kurtz: That, in fact, is an argument that Time Inc. is trying to make. But I don't see much chance of that happening. Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, could at any point have said his investigation is essentially over and he is withdrawing his requests for Matt Cooper and Judith Miller to testify, thus mooting the contempt citation. He hasn't done that, and so the likelihood is very high that the two journalists will wind up behind bars.

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Columbia, Md.: You've been covering this beat for quite a while. Have you ever seen the national mood, as reflected by media coverage and the comments generated by same, so polarized, particularly in a non-Presidential election cycle?

Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: No. Not even close. Not since the Vietnam era, in my experience, when you had a draft, huge antiwar demonstrations and far higher American casualties than we're experiencing now in Iraq.

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Washington, D.C.: I found a quote in your Durbin article really intriguing:

"My job is not to investigate the president," she says. "That's actually the media's job, and they weren't doing their job."

I'm torn about this. Do you agree?

Howard Kurtz: That was from a woman who started the DowningStreetMemo.com site and favors Bush's impeachment. I wouldn't phrase it quite that way. I'd say the media job is to hold every president accountable, and obviously that involves investigative reporting. To say "investigate the president" suggests that he is a target from the moment he takes the oath of office.

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Rolla, Mo.: Please, please, please answer a DSM question. The only Post contributor who agrees this may be newsworthy is Jefferson Morley, reflecting what is going on in the foreign press. Last week Dana Priest, intelligence/national security reporter answered not a single DSM question in her chat, very strange. Dan Froomkin seems willing to keep covering it, but then you have Dana Milbank condescendingly dismissing Rep. Conyers' efforts to get at the truth.

The line by the MSM that this is old news, nothing new is revisionist history. No reporter has said, then or now, that the administration was deliberately fixing the intelligence.

Old news = bad intel

New news = (maybe) conjured/altered intel

Howard Kurtz: I believe the American press was too dismissive of the Downing Street memo. Here's the top of a piece I did on June 16:

For many liberals already frustrated with the media's coverage of President Bush, it has become a rallying cry over the past six weeks: What about the Downing Street memo?

Their anger, amplified by left-wing advocacy groups, columnists, bloggers and some Democrats in Congress, has gradually forced the mainstream media to take a second look at a document that received spotty coverage after it was reported May 1 by London's Sunday Times.

Journalists offered various explanations for the scant attention paid to the July 2002 British memo, which, in recounting a meeting of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top aides, said that the Bush administration had "fixed" the intelligence on Iraq and that war was inevitable. They said the memo was old, that the U.S. mobilization for war was widely reported at the time, that there was an initial distrust of a British press report. Some maintained that the memo didn't prove anything.

But Peter Hart of the liberal group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which sent out several "action alerts" urging members to contact news organizations, said, "Any story that reminds readers that the political and journalistic establishments spectacularly failed on Iraq is a difficult story for the media to report." Now, he said, in conjunction with groups such as MoveOn.org, "activists have pushed this into the media, much to the chagrin of reporters, who have no love for getting e-mails constantly telling them to do the story."

For the past 15 years, conservatives have used their outlets -- in talk radio, right-leaning news operations, editorial pages and, more recently, blogs -- to pressure mainstream journalists into covering stories that might otherwise be ignored. And they have had striking success, from allegations about President Bill Clinton's personal life to CBS's questionable documents on President Bush's National Guard service to the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks on Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in last year's presidential campaign. Now the left can claim a similar success.

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Annapolis, Md.: If you want a textbook example of liberal media bias, this is it:

When The WASHINGTON POST covers the controversy over the remarks of liberal Democratic Senator Dick Durbin comparing the treatment at Gitmo Bay of imprisoned terrorist suspects to that in Nazi and Soviet death camps, the stories are never run on the front page.

However, when The POST covers the controversy over the remarks of Karl Rove, conservative Republican presidential advisor, over his remarks claiming that "liberals" are less gung-ho in the war against terrorists than are "conservatives" the stories are run on the front page from the beginning.

Howard Kurtz: I do think the disparity in the way the two stories were covered, in The Post and elsewhere, was a problem. Here's the link to my column this morning on the subject:

Media Notes

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Long Island, N.Y.: Maybe its just the times, but it doesn't really surprise me that Rove really thinks that if you are not in 100% lock-step with the Bush Doctrine, you might as well sign up as an al Qaeda sympathizer.

To try to tie in a Vietnam analogy, did the Nixon White House going after critics of that war as hard as the Bush admin goes after the critics of Iraq, even the ones from its own party, i.e. Hagel (I'm 37 so a little to young to recall)?

Howard Kurtz: Well, let's see. The Bush administration sometimes criticizes those who don't agree with its Iraq policy. The Nixon administration's approach to Vietnam War critics included burglaries, wiretapping and punitive tax audits.

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Hampton, Va.: Regarding your earlier columns of news that focuses on Michael Jackson or other gossip/sensationalism type news, did you see the "Opus" cartoon strip Sunday,with the "Newsroom Scruples Boy?" A way funnier treatment than yours.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see it, but cartoon strips are often way funnier than me.

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Virginia: Howard,

I think that the press gave the right attention to Karl Rove's speech because the heightened sensitivity to hyperbolic remarks by public officials in the wake of Dick Durbin's speech.

I see the difference in coverage between Durbin and Rove as an example of how the MSM is sensitive to commentators and bloggers. The MSM devoted more attention to Karl Rove's speech because they were attempting to respond to the criticism that they had not given sufficient coverage to Dick Durbin's remarks.

Howard Kurtz: Maybe, but some news organizations started to provide more coverage of the Durbin affair, before Rove lobbed his verbal grenade, because of the denunciations from radio talk show hosts, columnists, bloggers and others on the right. In fact, you could argue that this fueled the pressure that prompted Durbin to make a tearful apology on the Senate floor, which in turn boosted the level of coverage.

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Washington, D.C.: I agree that people like Durbin and Amnesty International have gone too far in some of the language they have used to describe various abuses, but it really distresses me that more attention seems to be paid to that then to what they were actually criticizing in the first place.

Howard Kurtz: Really? Do you think that, going back to the original Abu Ghraib stories and photographs and all the coverage of abusive techniques at Gitmo, that this is a subject that hasn't drawn much media attention?

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Point Pleasant, N.J.: Is the reason all these Dick Durbin/Karl Rove type stories so popular because of cable news? It seems like this is great for cable news because its an easy story to cover. They run the clip and than have two people argue about the appropriateness of it and start calling for apologies. When you think about it, both Durbin's comments and Rove's comments are far less important than some other stories.

Howard Kurtz: Cable news drives a lot of coverage, especially on subjects like missing white women, but didn't devote all that much time to Dick Durbin's original remarks. By contrast, cable and the rest of the media pounced on the Rove comments almost immediately. This is in part because leading Democrats held a press conference the next day to demand that Rove apologize, while it took a few days for Republicans such as Bill Frist to demand an apology from Durbin.

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Anonymous: On another front of the media covering or not stories, it seems like the Republicans efforts regarding PBS don't get a lot of attention but to me seem like a bigger deal than the Jeff Gannon story.

Gannon was a individual pushing partisan questions but the PBS situation involves a whole network yet outside the NY Times it doesn't seem like it's getting that much play.

Howard Kurtz: Television doesn't seem all that interested in the story, but it's gotten substantial coverage in the NYT and WP, to name a couple of media outlets. Bill Moyers, the biggest target of the conservative critique, hasn't done many TV interviews on the subject, but he did turn up with Jon Stewart last week.

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Cleveland, Ohio: I believe very strongly in press freedom, and consider this one of the U.S.' greatest strengths, but I'm not upset that the Supreme Court would not support the two "CIA leak" reporters today -- probably for political reasons.

I wonder if you could speculate about how Robert Novak managed to avoid being threatened with jail? Is he very clever in some way, did he just tell the prosecutor who leaked to him, was the leaker very clever?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I try to avoid uninformed speculation, and the truth is we just don't know whether Novak did or did not testify or was even asked to testify. And I'm mystified that such a high-profile columnist refuses to talk about it.

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Portland, Ore.: I was interested in seeing L. Patrick Grey, former FBI boss of Mark Felt, trash his "Deep Throat" subordinate in the news.

Was there anything non-predictable about what he said? Did he say anything sooner, when more folks might of listened?

Howard Kurtz: I found it rather predictable, but he wasn't in a position to say anything sooner because for a long time--33 years, in fact--no one knew for sure that his former deputy, Mark Felt, was Deep Throat.

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Boston, Mass.: The Rove/Durbin stories are nothing but noise. Anyone who echoes or amplifies either would better spend their time rooting for the Red Sox or Yankees (or Nats for that matter).

Meanwhile, serious debate about pressing issues is drowned out. For example, did anyone anywhere pick up on the NYT's weekend story about an Italian prosecutor indicting six CIA agents for kidnapping a known terrorist organizer and shipping him to Egypt for likely torturous interrogations, without any apparent permission from the Italian government? Is this acceptable behavior? I don't know, but I do know that discussion is more important than whether Dick Durbin should be drawn and quartered or Karl Rove should be burned at the stake.

Howard Kurtz: Lots of people picked up on the CIA/Italy story. It was on our front page as well. But I disagree that the Durbin and Rove controversies aren't "serious" news. The No. 2 Senate Democratic leader likens treatment of Gitmo prisoners to Nazi Germany and Soviet gulags, and the White House deputy chief of staff says liberals wanted to give terrorists "therapy and understanding" after 9/11. Are there two more important subjects out there? Obviously there is partisan sniping and a noise machine that surrounds both episodes, but the underlying debate is anything but frivolous.

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Longmont, Colo.: Hi Howie,

Love your chats. I seem to remember Bush being asked in a previous press conference about whether he had any idea as to why Washington is so polarized. In response, he said he was saddened by it, but couldn't explain it. Do you think any reporter will remember this and ask why the administration now stands by the comments of Rove?

With regards to the lack of coverage on the Durbin comment: it seems his statement was meant to highlight the problems at Gitmo--not a statement intended to divide the country.

Howard Kurtz: I guess the uniter-not-divider didn't see Rove's attack as a divisive statement. As for Durbin, I would agree that he was not trying to start a firestorm, or he wouldn't have made his comments to an empty Senate chamber at 7:15 at night. But what he said was still offensive to many people.

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College Park, Md.: What is fascinating about Durbin and Rove's remarks were that they weren't all-together inaccurate. In fact, to a degree both were quite accurate portrayals. Colorful, yes, but very accurate. Yet both sides are so tempered to suggest the other is 'crazy' for making such analogies that we now know that Durbin is the devil incarnate as is Rove. Ridiculous if you ask me. They're politicians that made astute and somewhat factually based statements to audiences that would agree with them, I'm missing the real story besides the conservatives and liberals at each other's necks like usual.

Howard Kurtz: The real story is whether it's perfectly appropriate, or way out of bounds, to use Nazi analogies to describe the horrible conduct of some U.S. prison guards, and to describe liberals as laughably soft on terrorists after the most devastating attack ever against this country.

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Springfield, Va.: I had to laugh this morning when I heard an attack add from a conservative group complaining about the attack adds they expect from liberal groups when a new member to the Supreme Court is nominated. This is the first attack add I heard.

Don't the conservatives understand how silly this makes them look?

Howard Kurtz: Hey, why wait for the actual event? Just unleash your attack ad now before the other side can get ITS attack ads on the air. It's the era of the preemptive strike.

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Re. Bush's speech tomorrow: Are all the broadcast networks covering this? I figure they would, though I can tell you now pretty much what the President will say - stay the course, progress is being made, the world is better off without Saddam (though there won't be mention of the dictator once being our ally), the insurgency is a small minority that hates freedom, we're doing a great job, the world is safer today because of our actions.

All this in front of a cheering crowd. If the President really had guts, he'd toss up that "Mission Accomplished" sign again.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think there's been a final decision on whether the broadcast nets are taking it or not, but you can bet the rent it will be on all the cable news channels.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

What do you think of a media powerhouse, such as Oprah Winfrey, using her clout to appease a perceived personal slight?

She will -- apparently -- upbraid (or worse) the chic establishment Hermes in an upcoming program. My feeling is that she will try to put the offense in a broader, racial context and not refer to her privileged attitude which obtained during the incident.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not in the business of criticizing a show before it airs, but if being turned away from a previously booked store is one of the worst slights Oprah has ever experienced, I guess she's led a pretty charmed life.

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Mexico City, Mexico: Howard: The Supreme Court term ended and no retirements were announced! What is the media going to do now?

Howard Kurtz: Pray for someone to call it quits real soon.

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Austin, Tex.: Vice President Cheney said the Iraqi opposition was in its "last throes." Gen. Abizaid (who should know) was pretty blunt in saying "no, it isn't."

There is real cognitive dissonance coming from the administration. It's as if they aren't all watching the same movie.

How are they going to change this? Is it going to catch up with them? How does Bush's speech tomorrow fit in?

Howard Kurtz: The president is obviously trying to reframe the debate about Iraq, but I don't think that can paper over the mixed messages coming from the administration itself about the degree of progress there. Doyle McManus of the LAT has a good piece about Bush being wounded by friendly fire, which I excerpt in today's column.

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Re. Bush's speech tomorrow:: Maybe the networks can screen it first, then air it if Bush actually says something new...

Howard Kurtz: Doesn't work that way, my friend, not when you've got a lucrative lineup of entertainment shows. instead, we'll have the usual kabuki dance in which the White House tries to convince the networks the president will be saying something new without tipping too much of its hand.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard, Your comment that the underlying debate regarding Guantanamo etc. not being frivolous is right on the mark. However, with media attention focused on Rove and Durbin instead of on the underlying debate, their chatter is just more noise that the viewing/reading/listening public must wade through to get to the meat of the issues. Attention should be focused on the issues themselves and not whether a Democrat or Republican spouted off in an inappropriate manner. Report the issues, and people will pay attention.

Howard Kurtz: I was under the impression that we had been reporting on both those issues.

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Anonymous: Good afternoon.

Regarding the questioner's comments about the Plame case, I would like to add a question...why hasn't Bob Novak been charged? He was the one that published the column after all. Is it because he has too cozy of a relationship with the White House? Are they helping to cover his tail?

Also, I'm sorry, I like The Washington Post, I really do. But it irritates me that The Post retains Novak as an employee when it's quite possible he might have broken the law...Thank you for allowing my say...

Howard Kurtz: Whether Novak had to testify and possibly face contempt charges was a decision made by the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, and not the White House. As for The Post, Novak is not an employee. His home paper is the Chicago Sun-Times. The Post buys and runs his syndicated column, as it does with a number of other regular columnists.

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Burke, Va.: In this article "Poll: Optimism on Iraq Is Premature" it says:

"As with virtually every facet of the Iraq issue, deep partisan divisions were reflected in views of the current state of the insurgency. More than a third of all Republicans -- 35 percent -- said the insurgents were growing weaker in Iraq, compared to 13 percent of all Democrats and 19 percent of all political independents."

How is this reflective of a partisan divide? 65% of Republicans, 87% of Democrats and 81% of Independents believe the same thing. It looks like pretty close to a consensus to me.

Howard Kurtz: A 22-point polling difference between Ds and Rs is generally considered pretty significant.

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Ashland, Mo.: Last week you suggested the Sunday morning programs were significant because of their affect on the "establishment." Isn't the influence of that group diminishing also? After all, Mr. Bush won reelection, which may be much like the French establishment's inability to secure approval of the EU constitution.

Howard Kurtz: Sure the establishment's influence is waning, but your question seems to assume that all of its members were opposed to Bush's reelection, which is not the case. Kerry was endorsed by more newspapers, as I recall, but not by a huge margin.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'd be curious to know what you thought of Matt Lauer's performance opposite Tom Cruise Friday morning. I don't watch morning TV so I don't know much about Lauer, but I've seen him described in the past as more of a pretty-boy airhead host; yet it sounds to me as if he justifiably gave Cruise a bit of a hard time in his interview, which would be a-typical of your average celebrity suck-up "journalist". From what I read, Cruise was truly beyond the pale and in over his head, stumbling into a china shop like a rhetorical ass saying, in essence, "I'm right and you're wrong! And furthermore, you don't know what you are talking about, but I do!" Oh, and, "I've studied this!" -Revealing to the world that Cruise clearly doesn't know what it means to really study anything. Meanwhile, Lauer was trying to argue reasonably, saying he has known people who have been helped with their mental illnesses by drugs and therapy, but not making any sweeping statements about something about which he himself is not an expert. (Unlike Dr. Cruise, who would do away with the profession of psychiatry and apparently would treat paranoid schizophrenics and suicidal depressives with the "E-meter" and vitamins.) Ugghhh. Any chance you yourself might be getting a crack at this character on your show? If I admired him I'd be very worried about him. He is the worst possible advertisement against psychotropic medication, as he himself appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Howard Kurtz: Tom Cruise is welcome to come on my show any time he wants. Especially if he brings Katie.

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Augusta, Ga.: You'd think reasonable people (generally) would cool it with the "X is just like Hitler" comparisons. Such comparisons are never reasonable and almost always draw an uproar that drowns out the original message. Plus, it's cliched.

Howard Kurtz: You would think. But otherwise smart folks keep going for the swastika analogy. Not since Hitler have I seen behavior this self-destructive.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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