Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 1, 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, August 1, at Noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read today's Media Notes: What Did They Say, and To Whom Did They Say It?

The transcript follows.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Are reporters allowed to read blogs, allowed to comment on blog sites, allowed to approach potential sources writing on blog sites?

If so, are reporters as addicted to blogs as much of the public is?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I know of no law barring reporters from reading blogs. They have to be careful, though, in commenting on blogs or writing their own blogs, that they don't say things that might get them in trouble with their employers. Also, six in 10 people out there have no idea what a blog is.

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Arlington, Va.: Why should anybody have any sympathy for Judith Miller? She admits that her source has waived confidentiality but she still refuses to disclose his identity because, in her opinion, the waiver may not be completely legit. Since when do reporters get to ignore not just the law but also to pass judgment on their source's grants of a confidentiality waiver?

Howard Kurtz: Actually, Judith Miller doesn't admit that her source has waived confidentiality. We don't know who her source (or sources) are. I've reported that she had breakfast with Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, during that crucial week in 2003 before Novak's column came out, and Libby has certainly given waivers to Matt Cooper and other reporters. But it's possible he wasn't her source on Plame, or that she had other sources.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I appreciate the fact that you have pointed out that the cable networks focus on only white attractive missing women. But do you give the media credit for focusing on Latoya Figueroa, who is African-American? I have noticed that the cable networks, especially Fox News, have done entire segments on her. Could this start a trend?

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't hold my breath. When Figueroa first disappeared, she got no national coverage. But a Philadelphia blogger e-mailed Nancy Grace's show and asked why this pregnant minority woman wasn't getting the usual cable treatment. That has led to some cable coverage, but, let's face it, still a fraction of what is lavished on the Natalee Holloway case every day.

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Lincoln Park, Md.: Good morning Howie,

Every time I open The Post's editorial page, I'm struck by the contrast between the engaging, thought-provoking Op-Ed pieces on the right and the bland, timid editorials on the left.

Isn't it time The Post got rid of its editorials?

After all, who really wants to read the opinions of a faceless, nameless clutch of editors who, one presumes, are experts in journalism but not in the subjects about which they pontificate daily?

And if The Post can't stomach abandoning editorials, it should at least provide editorial bylines. It's somewhat hypocritical of The Post to condemn anonymous government sources while at the same time hiding the identities of its editorial writers.

Providing editorial bylines would also go some way toward convincing a skeptical public that The Post's journalists are impartial.

Howard Kurtz: You're entitled to your opinion on Post editorials and welcome not to read them. But it's wrong to say that the people who write them have no expertise--they tend to concentrate on subject areas (economics, defense, local news) on which they have ample experience. As for the practice of unsigned editorials serving as the voice of the paper, maybe it's a little archaic, but it happens to be the practice of almost every paper in America. Some edit board members, like Jackson Diehl and Anne Applebaum, also write signed columns.

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Alexandria, Va.: How will Helen Thomas' comments to a reporter for the Hill affect her ability to report stories? Will this force her to give up reporting and move to writing a column?

Howard Kurtz: Helen Thomas has been a columnist for several years now since leaving UPI.

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Alexandria, Va.: "-so abuses my integrity as a journalist." ?!!!! Why did Robert Novak finally break his silence?

The abuse of Novak's integrity as a journalist came from his silence. Grand jury investigation or not, and weather his views agree with the other journalists or not, his silence on protection of sources and other journalists jailing has abused his "integrity" as a journalist.

The other issues in this investigation sideline the issues of the importance and obligations of a free press.

Weather I agree with his opinions or not, as a student of journalism, I have lost all respect for Robert Novak as a "journalist".

Howard Kurtz: I agree that there is nothing stopping Bob Novak from explaining his role in the Plame case - including, if he testified, describing his grand jury testimony, as Matt Cooper did - except his own reticence and his lawyer's advice. But he says he flouted his lawyer's advice in writing today's column, taking issue with an account that a CIA spokesman gave The Post about Novak's role.

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Davidson, N.C.: As an important sidebar to the Plame case, I am surprised that national media critics have not made more of Doug Jehl's critical reporting in The Times of July 28 -- in which he substantially undermined Judith Miller's claims to have been "reporting" on Plame in the summer of 2003, even citing ME Jill Abramson. Why is it that newspapers, and TV networks, find it so difficult to report on their own failings?;

Howard Kurtz: I don't know that it's fair to characterize this as a "failing." The fact that Judith Miller never wrote a story about the Plame matter has been cited again and again from the first moment she was subpoenaed in the case. That does raise a question about the nature of her involvement, but it's possible she was just talking to her sources and this matter came up, or that she was reporting a story and didn't feel she had enough material to write (not an uncommon occurrence in journalism). I do think the Times should clarify her role, but perhaps that's difficult to do without undermining the source-protection principle that has landed her in an Alexandria jail.

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Baltimore, Md.: Robert Novak wrote the following in his column today:

"I have previously said that I never would have written those sentences if Harlow, then-CIA Director George Tenet or anybody else from the agency had told me that Valerie Plame Wilson's disclosure would endanger herself or anybody."

Is Novak rewriting the law? Is the standard for outing a covert CIA operative whether the "outer", i.e. Novak, is told doing so would actually endanger her or others?

Novak also apparently picks up the standard line that writing the name "Valerie Plame" is no big deal because he could write that Joe Wilson's wife, an employee with the CIA, suggested Wilson for the mission.

What Novak fails to understand, and why so many of us think Novak is a rat, is that the outing of Valerie Plame, or Wilson's wife, was done so for purely partisan reasons and was an act against the national security of the United States.

Howard Kurtz: The "she would be in danger" standard is certainly higher than the one about outing a CIA operative, and it was Novak who used the word "operative" in that original column.

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Kirkland, Wash.: How many reporters and editors at small to mid-sized papers have worked hard on enterprise and feature stories, only to see the same basic story appear days later in a competing metro without any sort of acknowledgment of where the story was first published? As one of those community-paper editors, I see this happening a lot. On the one hand, it's a backhanded compliment for good journalism; on the other hand, my staffers often resent becoming sources for rivals.

Howard Kurtz: Unfortunately, I think it happens all the time, and I think bigger news organizations should be more diligent and more generous in giving credit on such stories.

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Nashville, Tenn.: How come we don't see any articles based on interviews with Judy Miller now that she's in jail? It's impossible to imagine a similar press blackout on Susan McDougal who went to jail for refusing to testify against the administration in the Whitewater investigation. I guess the press treats is own differently.

Howard Kurtz: Absolutely untrue. Judith Miller has made a decision not to grant any interviews, even to her own paper. The Washington Post has had a request to interview her from the day she went to jail. NYT Editor Bill Keller has been quoted as saying that she doesn't want to say anything that would further tick off the prosecutor, who essentially controls how long she remains in jail. But it's Miller's decision.

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Ellicott City, Md.: From Lincoln Park, MD:

"Providing editorial bylines would also go some way toward convincing a skeptical public that The Post's journalists are impartial."

Editorials are not supposed to be impartial, are they?

Howard Kurtz: They're supposed to be opinionated, but they're also supposed to represent the position of the paper, and many are arrived at after discussion and debate by the editorial board. Bylines would suggest that the editorial is just the personal opinion of Fred Hiatt, Anne Applebaum or whomever.

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Annandale, Va.: Bolton's appointment by Bush: Legit use of a law or sneaky politics?

Howard Kurtz: Well, other presidents, including Clinton, have made recess appointments of nominees they've had trouble getting throughout the Hill. But given the staunch Democratic opposition to Bolton, this is a real finger in the eye to the opposition party.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Regarding blogs -- I find myself reading "MSM" less and spending much more of my Internet time reading blogs like Atrios and AMERICAblog. I'd just like to give a nod to you, sir, for being among the very first to explore and embrace blogging -- I think you were visionary in that regard.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks, I appreciate it. I continue to believe that blogging is the freshest and in some ways most revolutionary development in the media world in recent decades. But keep in mind that even the best bloggers depend on and in many ways feed off the MSM, if only to spend their time picking apart or denouncing mainstream reports. In other words, we also need serious news organizations, which spend the money to cover global, national and local events, or bloggers would have a lot of empty space on their hands.

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Arlington, Va.: As further proof that Judith Miller's source waived confidentiality, here's an excerpt from an article by Richard Schmitt of the LA Times, "Fitzgerald has asserted that the unnamed official has given a general waiver permitting Miller to testify; the journalist has said she does not believe the waiver was signed voluntarily. "

How is it that you're not aware that her source has waived his/her confidentiality but Miller, on her own, judges the waiver to be unacceptable?

Howard Kurtz: Well, that's Fitzgerald's version of events. My point is that we don't know who the source is and whether there may be other sources. When Lewis Libby gave Time's Matt Cooper a waiver last year, Cooper testified -- and then Fitzgerald came back and subpoenaed him a second time, demanding his notes and testimony about other sources, who turned out to include Karl Rove.

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Alexandria, Va.: The circulation of daily newspapers seems to be in a continuing decline. I'm reminded of a bumper sticker from the past which read something like, "I don't believe The Washington Post." To what extent, if any, do you think this reader attitude is contributing to the reduction in the number of subscribers?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure it's a factor, but I think two much bigger factors are a) you can get the entire content of The Post online for free, and b) people are busy and don't find enough compelling material in newspapers to make time to read them.

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Boston, Mass.: The United Nations is an institution designed to bring countries together to solve the world's problems. Though far from perfect, its a heck of a lot better than nothing.

What message do we send to the rest of the world in sending a representative to the U.N. that could not even gain the support of the U.S. Senate, never mind Russia, China, France and the rest of the world? Does the president have any respect for that institution?

Howard Kurtz: We send the message that it was more important to President Bush to have his handpicked representative there for a year and a half than to send an ambassador who could win Senate approval. On the other hand, the White House argument is that Bolton could win Senate approval (which is undoubtedly true) if the Democrats stopped blocking a vote on his nomination.

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Oklahoma City, Okla.: Out here beyond the Beltway, a lot of folks are laughing at Helen Thomas and he indignation over being quoted in The Hill about killing herself if Dick Cheney ran for president. She even said -- this is too good! -- "I'll never talk to a reporter again!" We've seen this before, in the form of "no comments" from media executives when their publications/networks get gored. Double standards? Shouldn't those who practice the First Amendment revere it most of all?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the piece so I don't know whether Helen Thomas is claiming the comment was off the record or something, but if it wasn't, and she said she would kill herself, she should certainly be able to see how that would qualify as news.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there any particular blogs you would recommend? I'm especially looking for center/left of center blogs that aren't too hysterical or over the top.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not in the recommendation business but if you look at my column every day (though I'm on vacation for awhile) you'll see plenty of center-left (and center-right) blogs quoted. Slate Editor Jake Weisberg, to take one example, is certainly on the left, but today he's got a provocative piece on why Hillary can't be elected president.

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Greenbelt, Md.: It is all calculated. She goes to jail so she can write a book makes millions when she gets out. Is that easy and simple. Watch.

Howard Kurtz: Judith Miller may well write a book, but I don't think sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the Alexandria jail for months is all that "easy."

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Good afternoon Howie,

In our neck of the woods (South Florida), there was a tragic suicide in the Miami Herald Building. Jim Defede, a columnist with the Herald, recorded a conversation with the person who committed suicide. He then told his chain of command that he had done so and was summarily fired. (Not a good synopsis, but bare outline of what happened.)

Given the facts as you know it, isn't this a little overkill on part of the Herald's management?

Howard Kurtz: Everyone I've talked to in the business doesn't understand why DeFede was fired. He made a mistake, sure, as he himself admits, and probably should have been reprimanded or suspended. But is impulsively hitting the record button a firing offense? I don't think journalists should record people's conversations without permission (especially in states where it's illegal) but the ousting of DeFede does seem excessive to me.

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Stafford, Va.: Sen. Kennedy said "It's even worse for the administration to abuse the recess appointment power by making the appointment while Congress is in this five-week recess." What's he talking about? Isn't the President authorized in the constitution to make recess appointments? Why wouldn't your reporter ask him to clarify his comments?

Howard Kurtz: Look, it's political rhetoric. I don't recall Kennedy being as upset when Clinton made recess appointments.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Lou Dobbs. I had not heard of "Dobbs Watch" until your column today, but I'm not surprised it exists. I think they are dead-on with their critique. Dobbs' "crusade" is one-sided and inflammatory at best; xenophobic and racist at worst. Most importantly (for the purposes of this chat), it seems to be bad journalism. He routinely offers only one side of an issue, and often presents views (both his and others) that are misinformed or flat-out wrong. Frankly, I'm really surprised CNN hasn't curtailed him.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I report, you decide. But while Dobbs is clearly on a "crusade" on trade and immigration, as CNN's own promotion describes him, he has frequently had guests on the other side of these issues. Given the nature of this blog by the National Association of Manufacturers, though, I doubt we'll be seeing anyone from that group on any time soon.

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Alexandria, Va.: Howard:

As the debate over anonymous sources continues, I don't see the "jumping the gun" question raised a lot.

One sees these stories all the time. In fact, at 9:45 AM it is on the front page of WashingtonPost.com: "President Bush will bypass the Senate and appoint John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations this morning, official says."

Why is the press so eager to jump the gun with these stories? Why not wait until the President actually makes the announcement before it is reported? The "competitive nature" of the news cycle and wanting to be the first one to report it can't be the answer. This isn't exactly an exclusive report and one assumes that the unnamed official told many news outlets at the same time of this pending announcement.

When using unnamed sources about what will happen, the media gets burned when it doesn't (see Justice Edith Clemment).

Will the media ever give up this desire to report what will happen?

Howard Kurtz: When the sourcing is shaky and the information is speculative, as in the Edith Clement case, then journalists look stupid. But I don't have any problem with a media outlet reporting an accurate story based on a source, such as Bolton's recess appointment. For one thing, everyone knew this was coming. For another, it's a competitive business in today's wired world, and while confirming a presidential announcement an hour or so before it happens isn't exactly award-winning investigative journalism, it ain't chicken feed, either.

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Alabama: Richard Posner argued in the New York Times this weekend that part of the media's problem is the polarization of the country; that news consumers are less interested in "truth" (his phrase) than they are in seeing their political opponents stymied. What are your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Surveys have shown that many people prefer news outlets that agree with and reinforce their point of view. But I don't think that's true of everyone, and I think there's great virtue in finding out what the "other side" is saying and arguing.

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Arlington, Va.: Wasn't the firing of Defede a simple case of a corporate owned paper covering itself for the inevitable lawsuit? What else would you do with a reporter who willfully broke the law?

Howard Kurtz: I doubt there can be a lawsuit, since the subject of the call, former Miami official Art Teele, is now dead.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Re Stafford's question about recess appointments. There is a Constitutional argument that the Framers meant the recess appointment power to apply only in between sessions, when Congress could not convene to consider the nomination -- not over a summer vacation or holiday weekend, just to get around the confirmation process.

But you are right, lofty arguments about the Constitution are almost always made in the context of the moment.

Howard Kurtz: That provision probably does reflect an era when it took lawmakers days to reach the capital by horse and buggy.

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Ashland, Mo.: Many articles discussing the recess appointments by Mr. Bush use language like "sidestepping the Senate." Since he is only appointing those who have not received a vote and appear to have majority support, shouldn't such language, if appropriate at all, be more along the lines of "overcoming minority Democrats?"

Howard Kurtz: Well, he is sidestepping the Senate. Whether this is warranted in a case where the Democrats wouldn't allow a vote -- they say because the administration wouldn't turn over certain documents -- is for voters to decide.

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San Diego, Calif.: Have a nice vacation, Mr Kurtz. I don't know what I'll read when you are gone...We look forward to your return.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. Nothing happens in Washington in August anyway.

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Alexandria, Va.: "Finger in the eye"?

Isn't the filibuster a "finger in the eye" to the President by the Democrats? A lot of the stories I read have the slant of how a recess appointment will anger the Democrats. But shouldn't there be just as many stories of how the filibuster angered the President?

If the filibuster is a legitimate process to block a nominee, than the recess appointment is a legitimate check on it.

Howard Kurtz: Technically, it's not a filibuster because the Democrats claimed they would allow a vote if the White House turned over some disputed documents. But I take your point.

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Washington, D.C.: "I don't think journalists should record people's conversations without permission (especially in states where it's illegal) but the ousting of DeFede does seem excessive to me." So journalists should be able to break the law without punishment - just like they have more rights than regular citizens and don't have to testify if they choose to protect a source. Give me a break!

Howard Kurtz: I didn't say there shouldn't be punishment. What I said was that being fired seemed to me like excessive punishment for what was a relatively minor infraction and a mistake made under duress.

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Arlington, Va.: Any chance The Post does an article comparing the statements of both parties regarding the 140 recess appointments made by Clinton with the statements following the Bolton appointment?

Howard Kurtz: Good idea for tomorrow's paper.

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Columbia, Md.: Care to comment on the "Embargo" fiasco? I think you guys have gotten skunked a lot by these guys. Don't you think the administration is making the White House press corps jump through ever increasing hoops to gain or maintain access? Are there any journalistic ethics that would guide this behavior, as the "news" it generated was certainly minor?

Howard Kurtz: I'd never before heard of a midnight embargo -- this was, as the Post acknowledged, a White House demand that a story on the decision to turn over many of John Roberts's government memos be held until that hour, so Democrats and liberals wouldn't have time to react -- and the press should never have gone along with it.

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Bethesda, Md.: The most recent Gallup and Quinnipiac polls show Bush with his lowest approval rating ever. I can't find coverage of this anywhere -- why not?

Howard Kurtz: Several other recent MSM polls - and news organizations prefer to play up their own - show Bush with either the lowest or near-lowest ratings of his presidency. This has been written about a number of times. So if yet another poll comes out with the same finding, it's not really news unless it shows, say, another 5- or 10-point drop below what's been previously reported.

I'm going back on vacation. Thanks for the chat, folks.

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