Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 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 8, at Noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

The transcript follows.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard, I can't believe you're even doing this chat, rather than observing a moment of silence for the late Peter Jennings. Have you no shame? Please tell me that you are at least on the Newseum committee to enshrine him into the Teleprompter Readers Hall of Fame, or are working hard to get a procession at the next White House Correspondents Dinner, or are dutifully penning an homage, nay, an "appreciation" for this genteel Canadian who gave so much, yet received so few millions, by reading scripted reports every night. Where is the justice? Why are the media ignoring the death of the legendary Mr. Jennings? For shame!

Howard Kurtz: Well, I came in from my vacation to write an appreciation of the man. That's my way of honoring Peter Jennings.

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Detroit, Mich.: I turned on ABC last night cruisin the channels and saw them doing a special on Peter Jennings, I was like- ooo, what's this. The next thing they show is his picture and the dates 1938-2005. I feel as if America/Canada and the world has lost an icon. When I would catch the evening news broadcasts I immediately turn to Mr. Jennings because he was the one anchor I admired the most. How will ABC go on with life after Jennings? NBC and CBS had plans for when Brokaw and Rather were to leave, but, as far as I knew ABC was planning on Jennings being around for much longer. It's a sad day.

Howard Kurtz: It will be difficult. Everyone I've talked to from ABC is still shell-shocked. They knew it was coming--the prognosis for the kind of lung cancer Jennings had was not good--and yet it is difficult to accept. CBS did not have a plan for replacing Rather--Bob Schieffer remains the interim anchor--but even the unpleasant circumstances surrounding his decision to step down are very different from the tragedy that struck Jennings.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

As we mourn Peter Jennings' passing, I'd like your opinion about the qualities of an anchorperson in 2005.

Like Jennings, should a network or major cable outlet have an anchor steeped in foreign affairs experience, or should he or she be better versed in all matters domestic?

Or can there be a happy medium?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think you have to have been a foreign correspondent like Jennings--Rather, Brokaw, Williams and Schieffer were not--but you certainly need some experience in reporting from around the world. Since an anchor is called upon most of all in times of crisis, in times of war and terrorism, deep reporting experience as well as on-air presence is extremely important.

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Ashland, Mo.: Why do news accounts of Robert Novak's outburst on CNN say he was "swearing" or "cursing"? The term is really neither. Isn't it really a "crudity," "vulgarism," "expletive," "barnyard expression," or "expletive"? Why the insistence on the stronger expression?

Howard Kurtz: He said B.S. Maybe we should just use the initials.

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Baltimore, Md.: Just want to say how sorry I was to hear that Peter Jennings died. He truly got me through the events of 9/11 with his calmness while avoiding speculation or commentary. Ernest Hemingway said courage was grace under pressure and Mr. Jennings showed it that day--and on many other days as well. He will be sorely missed.

Howard Kurtz: I knew Peter Jennings reasonably well and so this is a hard story for me. He was a very gracious man off the air -- in fact, his personality is not that different from what millions of Americans saw on their screens -- and very smart and thoughtful. The suddenness of his illness and death makes it hard to accept.

It is also difficult for me personally because my father died five weeks ago, also from cancer (of the neck, not the lungs) and was also a lifelong smoker who finally kicked the habit. When someone close to you passes away, you think not only about their accomplishments (Leonard Kurtz had little interest in retiring and worked until he was no longer physically able, just as Jennings remained involved during his illness) but about the way they touched the lives of the people around them. (My dad had many, many opinions but voiced them in his living room, not in front of a microphone.) With people who are not public figures, that occurs in private, around a smaller circle of relatives, friends and professional colleagues. With a world-famous figure like Jennings, the same process takes place on a much larger scale and reaches people around the world. But it is his family, of course, who feels the loss most deeply.

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Washington, D.C.: 9/11 pretty much marks the last day when an anchor was important. Since then, all three of the major network anchors are gone and continuous coverage from overseas and Iraq on news channels and the Internet assure that nothing happens worth interrupting regularly scheduled programming. So what started with the Kennedy assassination ended with 9/11: the era of the big news anchor.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I would disagree with that. While the network anchors are no longer the dominant figures they once were on the media stage, since 9/11 we've had the Iraq war (many hours of live coverage), the Columbia shuttle disaster of 2003, the Reagan funeral and last year's elections (I spent some time with Jennings and Brokaw at the conventions and they both wished the networks would allot more time for live coverage). So even in a fragmented media universe, these are still very important folks.

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Columbia, Md.: With the "Big 3" of Jennings, Brokaw and Rather all gone from television, America will never again see a "Anchor Icon" like these three. All were the sole source of news for many years, the last network anchors before the advent of cable TV and with it 1000s of news networks and billions of talking heads. Everyone who is over 30 can point to one of these three anchors as the sole source of news at some point in your life. You can't make that claim in the current context. With Jennings' sad passing it further hammers home that the "Anchor Era" is over forever.

Howard Kurtz: I certainly agree about the "sole source" of news, but even in its reduced state, and the rising importance of cable news, network news anchors still have the biggest megaphones. Nearly 30 million people watch their nightly broadcasts, and more tune them in when there is a major national or world event.

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Baltimore, Md.: To the initial, tastelessly sarcastic poster who started this session: Jennings spent seven years in the Middle East, working out of Beirut as a foreign correspondent. I wonder what "Washington, D.C." has done in his professional career (and by the tone, you know this was a guy) that could rival that?

Howard Kurtz: Good point.

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Burke, Va.: Howie, RE: That first question you posted and responded to - a good response to that gutless, faceless, heartless person who's too bitter to step back and appreciate that a man many people recognized and shared their evenings with has passed and it is sad. Peter Jennings paid his dues, spent time reporting during wartime, has spoken with the most powerful people in the world for decades. His experiences and hard work were rewarded and he is due all the attention he's gotten today. He'll be missed by many; it is doubtful that Washington, D.C. above will elicit the same response with sarcastic and caustic comments like the one submitted to you. Good day.

Howard Kurtz: You have my complete agreement.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: I know it's too early to be thinking about this, but watching Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer on ABC last night, I couldn't help but thinking that one of them would probably be the new host of World News Tonight. Both gave of their evenings and mornings to save Good Morning America, and both probably feel they are owed something.

Howard Kurtz: I think both of them, despite their initial reluctance to take the morning job, really enjoy their current assignments and that it's not a question of being "owed" anything. But they would have to be on the network's short list of contenders.

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Louisville, Ky.: I found myself unexpectedly saddened when reading about Peter Jennings this morning. I'm too young to fully appreciate the heyday of the network anchor (although I have come to really enjoy Bob Schieffer), but am curious about what happens next at ABC. Do you know anyone at all they have in the pipeline?

Howard Kurtz: ABC News has a very deep bench -- Charlie Gibson and Elizabeth Vargas have been filling in for Jennings on World News Tonight -- but I have the sense that executives have refused to grapple with the succession question until now because they were still hoping against hope that Peter would beat his cancer and be able to return.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't see any reason why Novak should be suspended from appearing on CNN. Carville is always uncontrollable and the network is designed to be live television, so people are supposed to be able to conduct themselves without a set plan. Novak didn't verbally abuse anyone, although his style in the past has equaled what Carville was dishing out to him that day. Would they suspend someone for leaving the set to vomit because it wasn't expected?

This whole thing is all about the meaninglessness of a second term presidency in its first year. Usually, that's when congress gets even but there's no opposition leadership in congress.

Howard Kurtz: Uttering a curse word and stalking off the set is no minor thing for a television network, so it's hardly surprising that CNN decided to suspend Novak.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I think your first poster was sarcastically suggesting that Jennings has been unduly lionized--that he did little more than sit in a chair and read prewritten copy.

Besides those "behind-the-desk" duties and the reporting from world hotspots, what's the role of Big 3 (or other anchors)? Do they serve as "editors" of the newscast, deciding which stories are big and how they will be covered?

Howard Kurtz: Boy, if that's the impression, it is wrong. Jennings in particular spent many years as a foreign correspondent and was ABC's first Middle East bureau chief. But even in his decades as the anchor, he was always flying off to trouble spots around the world as well as reporting documentaries. Jennings was also heavily involved in editing the scripts on his newscasts rather than just reading what was on the prompter.

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Tucson, Ariz.: Howard, I am so sorry to hear of your father's death. My dad died 27 years ago and I still think of him, miss him and quote him. (His dad died when he was 6, during the 1918 flu epidemic, so I had a dad much longer than he did.) My father-in-law, who was one of my closest friends, died ten years ago and I miss him a lot too. I am sorry to hear of your loss. Pat Eisenberg, Tucson

Howard Kurtz: Thank you. I very much appreciate the note. As a colleague of mine who recently lost his dad told me, it's a club that no one wants to become a member of and that everyone eventually does.

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Rochester, Minn.: My sympathies to you on the loss of your father. Losing a parent leaves a hollow feeling and is never really anticipated. One's head responds to logical reality, but one's heart expects life to continue forever. At least that was true for me. I have watched you, read your columns, but never have written. Just wanted to make a personal comment.

Howard Kurtz: I'm happy to have this be the first time. My father taught me a number of important lessons about life, both about hard work and the importance of how you deal with people (he was a clothing salesman, and I guess in a sense reporters sell themselves, and the notion that they can be trusted, every day). He also had a great sense of humor -- as did Jennings, by the way, who was very witty off the air.

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Falls Church, Va.: Howard, I read your material almost every day you write and try to watch your show on the weekends. Thanks for your great work.

Question: What is the latest on Rove"gate".. it seems to have fallen off the front page.

Howard Kurtz: Many thanks. There have not been many new developments in the last couple of weeks. Judith Miller remains in jail. Novak wrote a column defending his actions after a former CIA spokesman told The Washington Post that he had warned the columnist in strong terms not to use Valerie Plame's name. The special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, seems to be wrapping up his investigation. And that's where things stand.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, I presume that Reliable Sources is live. Has anyone every walked off your show after being asked a question that (s)he didn't want to hear? On Novak keeping quiet on his source, he did out Robert Hansen after that spy was convicted although there is no evidence that the information provided by Hansen was incorrect.

Howard Kurtz: No one has ever walked off the show while we were live, although a couple of times guests have failed to show up or satellites have gone down and you have to scramble. Yes, it's true that Novak had given up Hanssen as a source, citing his traitorous activities as a justification, as I wrote about when the Plame controversy first erupted. We don't know why he continues to protect the sources on this story, or even whether he's testified before the grand jury, because Novak still refuses to discuss the case.

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Sad Day: Just wanted to say that Peter Jennings always made me feel like a personal friend, even though I never met the man.

In reading The Post coverage today, it brought tears to my eyes. I can't remember that ever happening for any other "famous person" tribute that I have ever read.

I think that speaks to the impact of Jennings, as well as the good writing in The Post.

Howard Kurtz: It's an odd thing, television fame--Jennings clearly touched millions of people like you, that he never met, by his electronic presence in our lives, and probably, like the other major anchors, by being someone who Americans turned to for information and reassurance during times of crisis and tragedy, 9/11 being perhaps the most notable example.

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Washington, D.C.: Our family watched Peter Jennings every night (my kids knew which channel to turn to at 6:30). I have missed him every night since he announced his illness and am sorry for the great loss. Sorry to hear about your father, too. I lost my father to cancer (lung, but non-smoker) 17 years ago and it is still painful. You just want the whole world to stop and acknowledge the wonderful life that was lost. But of course, life goes on. But we will still always remember all the accomplishments of our loved ones.

Howard Kurtz: Thank you. Fortunately, someone like Peter Jennings leaves behind a body of work that makes it easier to remember him and celebrate his life. Some of the clips played on Good Morning America this morning, showing his evolution from a too-young anchor to a dogged foreign correspondent to the face of ABC News over the last 22 years, watching his perform and perfect his craft and slowly age, evoked many memories.

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Vienna, Va.: I've basically grown up with CNN. While I know Peter Jennings' contributions to news, and admire him for it, I can't say I've ever watched his news broadcast. I'm not sure I've ever watched any network news broadcast, actually: it just doesn't occur to me.

Is there still a place for an anchor-driven, hour-long news broadcast with all the other sources of news out there?

Howard Kurtz: While cable news has become indispensable for many people, and the broadcast networks have cut back on live coverage and the number of bureaus around the world, millions of people still have the nightly-news habit. The 6:30 newscasts can be a useful summary of the day's events (along with the obligatory health and lifestyle features) for people who work and don't have CNN or Fox or MSNBC on all day. Now the networks, most recently CBS, are moving toward making more of their newscasts available online, which could be a step toward reaching people who are busy or not home at 6:30 or simply want to watch the news on their own schedule.

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Charlottesville, Va.: As much as I enjoy these chats, I think the anonymity sometimes encourages those who are so inclined to displays of hostility and animosity that they'd never dream of making in other (identifiable) circumstances. I think, too, that we can all too easily forget that those people we read about in the news, like those people who bring us the news, are, indeed, just that - people, who live and breathe and suffer along with the rest of us. I am so sorry for your loss, and I am sorry for the loss that has been suffered by Mr. Jennings's family. The kind of callous commentary posted by the first writer is simply out of place, even if he does feel that Jennings has been unduly lionized; I always think of James Baldwin, who wrote, upon hearing his father - a difficult, angry man, with whom Baldwin was not close -eulogized in glowing terms, something to the effect that every man, when his time came, hoped to be eulogized in this fashion as well, which is to say, forgiven. Again, I am so sorry for your loss; while those we love live on within our hearts and minds, it is nonetheless a terrible blow to lose someone we love, and who has made such a difference in our lives.

Howard Kurtz: Many thanks. Anonymity does seem to breed harshness for some. You should see my email. But I find the majority of questions in these chats are reasonable and thoughtful.

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Oakland, Calif.: With someone like Jennings, who I definitely call a "second school" of journalist. Someone who paid his dues by watching and working with people who cared deeply about the craft of writing. People like Hugh Downs, Frank Reynolds, or even Cronkite, Brinkley and John Chancelor. This style of anchor who could make a crisis poetic as we look at retrospectives of news history. And as young journalism students will observe in class and as I did in my day. I find I start to miss those days as the face of TV news has changed. Jennings was definitely a solid anchor and passionate about his craft and it showed, and I thank him for that.

Howard Kurtz: I agree that some of the current generation haven't fully paid their reporting dues. But keep in mind that Jennings, Rather and Brokaw were far less experienced when they took over in the early '80's, and critics said they would never live up to the legacy of Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley.

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Arlington, Va.: Don't get me wrong - Peter Jennings was a lovely man. But I for one have to admit that I have really enjoyed nightly news since the departures of the Brokaw and Rather. I think the dominant personalities (and egos) of these types of anchors can get in the way. CBS has seemed much more watchable apres Rather. Bob Schieffer is a much more modest, less intrusive voice. I had frankly strayed to the cable channels at evening news time but this summer I have found myself back with the networks - just hearing the news, not reacting to a personality. Does this make any sense to anyone else?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the judgment of which anchors to watch is ultimately a matter of personal taste. Jennings was not everyone's cup of tea, and neither were his rivals. Bob Schieffer, as I've written, has tried to bring a more conversational style to the evening news and to put the focus more on CBS's core of correspondents by engaging them more in unscripted chats rather than over rely on the standard two-minute-package-with-standup.

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Baltimore, Md.: I always appreciated Jenning's reporting. He was urbane, knowledgeable without being flashy. I especially appreciated him in these uber-patriotic times. It was hard to see who would fill Cronkite's shoes. Now that the Big 3 are gone, do you see a minority heading any of the newscasts? Think Hemmer will jump from cable to network?

Howard Kurtz: Bill Hemmer has already jumped from CNN to Fox News. Someday, one of the networks is going to tap a minority or a woman as its sole nightly news anchor. I don't know whether this will be the time. Keep in mind that CBS still has to find a successor to Schieffer, although executives there have been talking about a multiple anchor format.

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Boston, Mass.: Howard,

Hope you're enjoying a well deserved vacation and thanks taking the time out for a few questions.

As a Democrat, I am wondering why the party leaders don't just rubber stamp John Roberts. Do they think the next person Bush nominates will be any better? They may not love him and the left wing of the party may not even like him, but he is as good as could be expected: competent, intelligent, modest. Democrats will only alienate mainstream America by taking him on and it will get them nowhere.

Thanks again.

Howard Kurtz: I do think the Democrats are being less vociferous in opposition to Roberts that they would have been with a more stridently conservative nominee. But they are under some pressure from liberal interest groups to be tough, and some want to use the hearings to force a discussion about both Roberts's views and the role of the court.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I have two questions: Why hasn't the press strenuously required the President and the Vice President to answer the question of how neither of them knew their right-hand-men were leaking classified information out of the two highest offices in the White House? How can they claim not to know what's going on then or now? Aren't Rove and Libby today's equivalent of Haldeman and Erlichman?

Also, I heard James Carville on Imus this morning talking about an interesting theory that he says is making the rounds in Washington; Carville says he's heard that Judy Miller was used (again) as a reporter by the leakers in the bush administration so they could pretend to keep their hands clean. They relied on Miller to spread the word, much as she did with the aluminum tubes. Supposedly, the Bushies could all say they heard it from a reporter.

Carville's point is well-taken. Why hasn't Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, and all other White House staffers come forward and unequivocally waived any claim to confidentiality? Most of all, why hasn't the President and Vice President insisted they do so publicly and immediately?

Howard Kurtz: Reporters have asked Bush about the case two or three times, and he has taken the can't-comment-because-it's-under-investigation approach. Libby and Rove have granted waivers of confidentiality, which is why Matt Cooper felt he was able to testify without betraying his sources. As for Judy Miller, there remains some mystery about her role, but keep in mind she never wrote a story about the Plame matter.

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Waynesboro, Va.: I can recall watching Peter Jennings as the anchor of ABC's newscast (which I believe, unlike NBC and CBS, was only 15 minutes at the time) in 1967 or so. I thought he was okay, but a lightweight compared to Cronkite or Huntley/Brinkley. The irony is, of course, that thanks in large part to Jennings, ABC wrested the mantle of the "authoritative" over-the-air news network from CBS.

He will be missed.

It seems these days most networks now automatically elevate their White House correspondent to anchor. I'm not sure that's a good thing, given the increasing importance of global news.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure that's right. Bob Schieffer, for one, was never a White House correspondent--he's mostly covered the Hill for years. Brian Williams served a couple of years at the White House, but his most recent preparation for the job was anchoring a nightly news show on MSNBC (a show that no longer exists) and regularly filling in for Brokaw.

ABC's news division was indeed pretty light in the '60's, but Jennings isn't the only one who deserves credit for its expansion. Roone Arledge and other executives who brought in the likes of Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, David Brinkley and many others, and who created Nightline and expanded the Sunday morning show to an hour, deserve recognition as well.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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