Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 5, 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, July 5, at Noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

This week: Cover Story: Bubble Bath of Doom!

A transcript follows.

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Richmond, Va.: Imagine my surprise when I popped in my new Daily Show DVD and saw my dear Mr. Kurtz!

What are your thoughts on the Karl Rove leak accusations? Do you think he might have done it? Or are the blogs just hyping this and stretching this even more than the DSM?

Howard Kurtz: I made the DVD? Now that is the best news I've had all week--except for the fact that, as I recall, they made me look like a dork. All my funny lines were cut out! I guess you just can't trust fake journalists.

I'm not sure what to make of the Newsweek&WashPost stories on Rove. On the one hand he turns up as a source for Matt Cooper, on the other he flatly denies through his lawyer having leaked Plame's CIA role to Cooper or any other reporter. So I guess the allegation remain unproven.

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Somerdale, N.J.: Do you think that the clueless networks will ever learn about trusting the Bush administration? They were conned into covering the speech last Thursday and got burned once again, but this time there was nobody watching, so do you think now they will think twice before covering the Bush Propaganda machine?

Howard Kurtz: I think the networks more or less knew there wouldn't be a whole lot of new news from the Bush speech. On the other hand, it's hard for them to say no to the president, any president, when the subject is war and so many American troops are in Iraq. Clearly they'd rather put on their lucrative entertainment shows but feel a certain degree of pressure to carry this kind of Bush speech. Interesting that it was the lowest-rated televised address of his presidency.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard,

Since the Court guessing game is already in full swing, I was wondering why more hasn't been made of a Gonzalez item I read somewhere (Salon, maybe?). It said something along the lines that as a justice, he would have to recuse himself from any cases that might involve the Justice department when he was employed by them. This seems like a pretty big stumbling block, and I'm wondering why I haven't heard more about it since I keep hearing his name. Any thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I carried that in my column and am surprised it hasn't been more of an issue. I guess covering the ideological split on the right over Gonzales is more fun for the press than analyzing the practical difficulties he might face as a justice.

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Washingtonian Profile: I thought the Washingtonian profile was interesting but they seemed to be making a mountain out of a molehill regarding your CNN "conflict of interest". The point is that you serve the role of ombudsman for all media, including The Washington Post and CNN, and I, for one, have never thought you pulled any punches for either organization. Reporters are always drumming it into our heads that 1. there's a wall between editorial and the newsroom and that 2. the ombudsman (where they exist) are there to criticize their own organization. So if those two things can be managed, why can't a newspaper have a media critic that is objective?

Did they actually interview you for the article or was it more taking your quotes from previous interviews? Seemed more of the latter, but it wasn't explicitly said.

Finally, will you link to the article in your online column? Seems like that could be interesting... link to your profile, which links to the online column, round and round you go!

Howard Kurtz: I was interviewed extensively for the piece and thought the treatment of my career was quite fair. I would not be so blatantly self-promotional as to link to a profile of me--well, unless I was really craving attention one day--but I believe it's easily accessible at Washingtonian.com.

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Arlington, Va.: Don't mean to be a pest, but the question is more of an indication of how much I enjoy reading your Media Notes each morning.

However, you don't seem to indicate when you are taking time off and not posting, is this a Post policy or am I not reading to the end of all your "Notes"?

Howard Kurtz: Sorry. I usually mention when I have a scheduled vacation but had to rush out of town last week on a personal matter, so you haven't missed anything. I'll be back in action tomorrow morning.

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New York, N.Y.: The administration promised that there will be news made in the President's primetime address. In reality, the speech was essentially the same one he's been giving for two years. This isn't the first time the administration has deceived the networks into covering his pep rallys. I no longer fault the President for this lying. I fault the networks for being suckered in.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twelve times...

Howard Kurtz: Of course, you always have the option not to watch. I think the White House would have had a stronger case if it had been a formal Oval Office address.

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Washingtonian: Your desk looks like mine. But by now The Post ought to get you a computer from this century -- one with a flat-screen monitor, if not a laptop -- so you'll have more room for stuff around it.

I enjoyed the article... how does it feel being on the other end? (Maybe you and Woodward can compare notes...)

Howard Kurtz: I'll pass your note on to management so they can upgrade my equipment.

It's a fascinating experience to be the subject of an article and one that every reporter should go through. You worry that the writer will oversimplify, ignore your most cogent points, give carte blanche to your worst enemies, blow one incident our of proportion, dig into personal stuff--in other words, the kind of things that journalists do to other people all the time. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be profiled by Garrett Graff, a young writer who put a lot of effort into the piece and really did his homework.

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Ponce, Puerto Rico: Hi Howard,

Is the main media ignoring Karl Rove and his troubles with the CIA leak? I didn't see anything today in any major news outlets. I though this would be considered a big story.

Howard Kurtz: It was for a couple of days, but may have gotten lost in breaking over a holiday weekend. I wonder if the story will have more legs now that everyone (or at least lots of people) are back at work.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Why are certain people making such a big deal of Rehnquist retiring and who might become chief justice? The chief justice is only one vote after all isn't it? So does it matter who the chief justice is if the balance of the court is the same?

Howard Kurtz: The chief is just one vote, true, but exerts a lot of subtle behind-the-scenes influence, in part because he assigns the writing of opinions.

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Washington, D.C.: Each year on July 4th, the Boston Globe publishes the Declaration of Independence as its editorial. I like that, although I think a Philadelphia or Virginia paper might have a better claim to do it. Do you know of any other papers that do the same? Or, for that matter, how long the Globe has been doing this?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I confess I was unaware of the practice, but it's a pretty good idea. Some documents just get better with age.

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Re: Rove: Howard-now I will run out to get that DVD!

But seriously, remember that Rove is quoted as saying that Valerie Plume was "fair game" to Chris Matthews (? I think) so doesn't that add weight to which way you come down on the validity of the allegation?

Howard Kurtz: Interesting point. The source for that alleged comment by Rove was Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame's husband, whose criticism of Bush on WMD undoubtedly led what Novak calls two "senior administration officials" to try to discredit him through his wife. I'm not sure that Chris Matthews has ever confirmed it.

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Ellicott City, Md.: Do you think that the fact so few people watched this last Bush address might make the networks more inclined to not gut their schedule to show future addresses, or at least get transcripts in advance to see if there is news or not?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. From a commercial point of view, it's irrelevant, since the networks aren't selling advertising during that time. But obviously it shows that much of the audience reached a different conclusion about the newsworthiness of the president's speech.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Since it was a holiday weekend, I indulged in some television watching that I might otherwise have skipped. I find the coverage of the Idaho kidnapping rather appalling. I suppose it was necessary to publicize the child's name and likeness in order to find her. However, now that she's safe, shouldn't she and her father just be left alone? Children of this age (and certainly anyone who's been so clearly traumatized) just can't give informed consent. I'm not entirely sure that a parent facing such an ordeal is really giving informed consent to the media. Would the country be worse off with a little discretion? Beyond reporting the bare facts of the case--that citizens helped rescue her, that she's safe and with her father--it's blatant exploitation of a genuine tragedy, don't you think? It's a particularly nasty example of the noise that keeps us from having serious discussions.

Howard Kurtz: Television long ago decided that it was going to exploit these tragedies to the hilt, and I don't get the sense that producers are spending a lot of time wringing their hands about the affect on the kids or their families.

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Anonymous: I can't believe (if what Lawrence O'Donnell is saying is true) that members of the press is willing to go to jail to protect Karl Rove.

Also I think its appalling that press was so co-opted by the Bushies that this isn't coming out until AFTER the election. The White House must be laughing at how well the press puppet strings work.

Howard Kurtz: First, if a reporter makes a promise of confidentiality to an administration official, he or she is morally bound to keep that promise, whether it's Karl Rove (of whom you obviously don't approve) or George Stephanopoulos or anyone else.

Second, this is "coming out" now because Time Inc. complied with a Supreme Court order to turn over Matt Cooper's notes and emails. This is not a decision that should be made based on whether it will help or hurt a president running for reelection, not if journalists believe in the principle of protecting confidential sources.

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Washington, D.C.: Just wanted to let you know that the other Washington paper (the Times) also printed the Declaration of Independence on the 4th.

Howard Kurtz: A good way to observe the holiday.

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Rockville, Md.: In the case of the New York Times reporter and the Time magazine reporter who had access to a CIA covert agent's identity, why isn't Robert Novak being prosecuted too, when he revealed her name and role in his column? How does he stay clean in all this?

Howard Kurtz: No one knows at this point. No one knows whether he was subpoenaed by the prosecutor or agreed to cooperate. Novak told CNN last week that he is keeping quiet on advice from his lawyer, although there's nothing in my view stopping him as a journalist from saying something about his degree of cooperation or non-cooperation. He says he will write a column about it when the case is over.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there a reason that The Post hasn't reported more extensively on the claim made this weekend that Karl Rove leaked Valerie Plame's name to Matt Cooper? The story I read only had Rove's lawyer saying that he didn't do it and was buried on A7.

Howard Kurtz: My sense is that the paper did the best it could to report what it knows about this, and there are still lots of unanswered questions. We haven't seen the emails between Matt Cooper and Rove that Time has turned over to the special prosecutor.

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Baltimore, Md.: When I saw Bush on all the major networks and news stations last week, here's the first thought that popped into my mind: "I wonder what Emeril is cooking tonight?"

Howard Kurtz: I'll put you down as someone who didn't tune in.

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Bubbleville: On financial coverage: when seeking feedback on how the economy is doing, why do journalists even bother asking those employed by investment firms whose job it is to lure investors? It's astonishing how, despite the fact that we've leveraged this economy to the hilt, that incomes can't keep up with housing prices, that we have an enormous trade deficit, we still have these rosy, pie-eyed forecasts from the Smith-Barney crowd, and how those who forecast less than stellar outcomes (as we've started to see lately) are cast as doomsayers. It's like asking someone in the Bush administration about the situation in Iraq - do you really think they're ever going to admit that it's not going well?

Howard Kurtz: I wrote a book, The Fortune Tellers, on this very subject. The media's overreliance on investment bankers and stock analysts during the market bubble was one of the most misguided and flawed approaches I've ever seen to a major story. I do think the press failure on that story has prompted journalists to be more careful in writing about the housing market, and very few pieces have relied on industry officials or homebuilders (although there are always the inevitable "experts" who proved so wrong about the Nasdaq).

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Arlington, Va.: What did you think about that cameraman trying to get baseball pitcher Kenny Rogers on film and not backing off once the pitcher showed displeasure when getting filmed ? Does the "public's right to know" take precedent here ?

Howard Kurtz: I'm firmly against cameramen getting smacked around by ballplayers. They are there to do a job -- their pictures, after all, are what create the television market that finances the stratospheric salaries for pro athletes -- whether the players like it or not.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why did Alberto Gonzalez visit Iraq? I could not see any purpose for his trip. He wasn't there to collect information on Abu Ghraib, was he?

Howard Kurtz: The stated reason seems to be to help the Iraqis with their legal system and in the investigation and prosecution of terrorist activities. I did think it was a bit unusual for the AG to show up.

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Re: Declaration of Independence: In addition to the Boston Globe printing the Declaration each July 4, NPR's Morning Edition does a full reading of it every year. Talk about your left-leaning revolutionary coverage!;

Howard Kurtz: Does Ken Tomlinson know about this? Maybe he can hire someone to evaluate whether the broadcaster uses the proper inflection.

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Escanaba, Mich.:

Good afternoon. I don't believe I've ever seen this happen before. Bush's top pick to replace Justice O'Connor is rumored to be Alberto Gonzales. But oddly, BOTH liberals and conservatives have indicated they would oppose him for Supreme Court justice, albeit for very different reasons.

Has there ever been a case that you know of where a President's top pick for Supreme Court justice has been opposed by BOTH parties?

Thank you...

Howard Kurtz: I think that's way oversimplified. While some conservative activists are trying to stop a Gonzales nomination, there are plenty of conservatives who would support the AG, who was a state supreme court justice and is hardly a squishy liberal. At the same time, many liberals may conclude that someone like Gonzales is the best they can reasonably expect to get from this president and could prefer him to a more hard-line pick.

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Anonymous: I have NO problem with protecting sources on newsworthy stories. I have problems when the the press is used for partisan purposes then lets the attacker hide behind the press.

It's one thing to protect Mark Felt for helping on Watergate, it's quite another thing to protect someone outing a CIA operative. The press got used and abused by the administration and is unwilling to admit it.

O'Donnell implied that Rove's role was well known ("Too many people know this") so why did this well known secret not get confirmed until now?

Howard Kurtz: It's a fair criticism, which is why I don't see a huge groundswell of support among the general public. But keep in mind that Judith Miller didn't even write a story, while Matt Cooper wrote a piece that questioned whether administration officials were trying to strike back at Joe Wilson by leaking his wife's name to Novak.

As for "everyone knowing," that's poppycock. Lots of people say they "know" things when they really mean that they suspect it might be true or have heard it gossiped about at parties. There's a big distance between that and publishing a serious allegation.

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New Haven, Conn.: Why do people think it's going to be Gonzales? Bush owes his presidency to Ted Olsen, who argued his 2000 election case v. Gore before the Supreme Court. I think he's the one.

Howard Kurtz: The truth is, no one knows, but Bush is personally close to Gonzales and has long told associates that he would like to appoint the first Hispanic justice to the Supreme Court. One strike against Olson is that he's over 60 and Bush would probably like to name a younger person who could serve for decades.

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Rhode Island: What baffles me about the Plame investigation is that journalists were able to secure sources who were willing to disclose her name, but investigators cannot uncover who these 'two administrative' figures were. In this day and age of technological gee whiz, you would think that investigators could easily trace the source through phone logs or records. Why has this investigation taken so long?

Howard Kurtz: Leak cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute because no one really knows what happens in a private conversation between a reporter and a government official. I'm surprised that e-mail was used, given the sensitivity of the subject, but keep in mind that Novak had already outed Plame so Matt Cooper didn't view himself as necessarily breaking new ground.

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Herndon, Va.: I'm amazed how long this Valerie Plame investigation has been going on. It seems that they're really dragging their feet on it. Is the Justice Department investigating? I think that when the history books are written people will realize that Nixon's dirty tricks were nothing compared to this administration's.

Howard Kurtz: The Justice Department long ago turned over the case to a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, who is the U.S. attorney in Chicago.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard, thanks for taking questions. I don't understand the fascination with Karl Rove. He could not POSSIBLY be the person Matt Cooper is protecting, since Rove signed a release allowing reporters to talk about their conversations with him. Did everyone happen to forget that fact? What is it about Rove that makes left-wingers go berserk like this?

Howard Kurtz: This is just a wild guess, but I don't think they like him very much.

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Alexandria, Va.: If you turn on Fox Cable News (also to some extent on CNN), there is a constant drumbeat about the disappearance of an American teenager in Aruba. It is barely mention in most other American news media. Fox has their consultants (O'Reilly, Rivera, etc.) continually talking about the case. They want the police give them all of the information, not withholding any as do American police, they seem to want to decide who is guilty. The Fox consultants complaint that it has taken too long (still no body), not realizing some cases take a long time. It took police at least 6 months to solve the Scott Peterson case, without a body. This seems to me to be a media circus. Any comments?

Howard Kurtz: My comment is that even by the standards of missing-women stories, this is one of the great media circuses of all time. While it's undoubtedly a tragedy, the amount of time television has devoted to this one local case is so far out of proportion to the national importance of the story that it's hard to believe (unless you look at the ratings).

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Bangor, Maine: George Melloan in his column in the Wall Street Journal made the comment last week that Senators Kennedy and Durbin were giving "aid and comfort to the enemy" with their criticisms.

On the other side, our local Independence Day parade featured marchers opposing the war in Iraq, including one calling for the impeachment of the President.

If there is no perceived improvement in Iraq or Afghanistan in the coming months, is it likely that there will be choruses shouting treason from the conservative media answered by calls for impeachment from liberal writers?

Howard Kurtz: Most people, thankfully, are staying away from such highly charged rhetoric, despite the strong passions aroused by this war.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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