Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 15, 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 15, at Noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

The transcript follows.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm very disappointed in the media's lack of coverage on passing on John H. Johnson the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. I understand all the tributes to Peter Jennings (was an editorial about Jennings in The Post really necessary?) but I really feel Johnson deserved equal consideration and coverage. His contributions deserved more of than the short shrift they got last week.

Howard Kurtz: John Johnson was a very important figure, and I'm glad that The Post ordered up an appreciation to run alongside my piece on Jennings even though we didn't learn of Johnson's death until about 5 p.m. last Monday. But due to the power of television, Peter Jennings was one of the most famous people in the world, while most Americans would have had trouble identifying John H. Johnson. As a magazine publisher, he played a behind-the-scenes role; as a network anchor, Jennings played the most public of roles.

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Bethesda, Md.: Dear Howie, this weekend I saw cable news programs with banners on the screen reading "Breaking News". When I looked further I saw the "Breaking News" was just another episode in the months-long missing persons case in Aruba. My question, Howie, is how can the electronic media be trusted by the American public if it engages in such truth-bending in its self-promotion? Obviously any thinking person has already discarded the cable networks as legitimate news carriers by their complete skewing of important stories for the titillating, such as this one. Saturday Night Live was 30 years ahead of the times when Chevy Chase would intone weekly that "Francisco Franco is still dead." Your views?

Thanks for considering this and replying. I am a media believer who has sadly given up on anything emitting from the TV, whether network or cable.

Howard Kurtz: The "Breaking News" logos have long since been overused, but it's particularly appalling when they're trotted out for minor developments in the Natalee Holloway case. Fox, by the way, is the network of record on that story and has single-handedly pumped up the Aruban economy.

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Lawrenceville, N.J.: Hi,

Kind of a random question, but what would the standard be for a journalist to hold off on a story because of national security implications? For example, if a reporter got hold of war plans for Iraq (assuming we even have any) would they not print any locations with which we were going to strike?

Howard Kurtz: Journalists routinely refrain from publishing things like war plans that would endanger U.S. troops. There are tougher calls, of course, when an administration official contends that publishing some piece of information will be harmful to national security but the situation is not clear cut. News executives tend to decide these on a case by case basis.

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Washington, D.C.: Does the Alexandria Detention Center not allow Judy Miller to be interviewed? That would be a ratings bonanza for some network.

Howard Kurtz: It's not the policy of the jail. Judy Miller has decided on her own to grant no interviews, not even to the New York Times.

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Pownal, Maine: NARAL made a mistake. But were there any conservative columnists equivalent to EJ Dionne (for example) denouncing the Swift Boat commercials?

I do think it fair to say when you accept a political appointment, the assumption is that you agree with your employer's goals, even if you are an attorney. It is not the same as agreeing to represent a client in trouble seeking a lawyer.

Howard Kurtz: If there were a number of conservative commentators denouncing the Swift Boat ads, I missed them. They would say, of course, that the NARAL ad contained greater distortions. It's certainly true that a number of liberals, not just in the media, criticized the NARAL spot against John Roberts for twisting the facts. I found it interesting that the group never admitted or apologized for the commercial's flaws, just retreated to "we're taking it off the air because we don't want to be a distraction."

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Miami Shores, Fla.: Howard, thanks as always for hosting this invaluable chat each Monday. Comparing coverage of the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the foreign press, particularly the British, and with the American press, it seems apparent that the American press had mostly muted coverage, with limited photos of innocent civilians killed and with limited debate regarding the utility of dropping the bombs to end the war. Have you noticed this difference in coverage? If so, what do you think explains it?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't had a chance to study the foreign coverage. I did notice that Time did a cover on it and Newsweek had a substantial piece and the Weekly Standard ran a cover story. I'm not a big fan of anniversary stories, but with something like the momentous Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings it does give us a chance to reevaluate through the lens of history.

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Fehaheel, Kuwait: Howard,

Seeing Washington from afar and Iraq from up close, it was interesting to see the article about the White House perhaps admitting to being a bit "unrealistic" in its expectations for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Is this a trial balloon by the White House to see how it plays? For an administration that never appears to admit any weaknesses, this really seems out of character.

One thing that dealing with the war in Iraq on a daily basis does is, first, make one thankful that this isn't like it was at this point during Vietnam where the casualties were beginning to climb into the hundreds per week level. Second, the situation in Iraq is such that the fighting could go on for years to come -- with or without U.S. forces in the country.

While many here are delighted to see Saddam Hussein gone, more than a few ask if the mess left in its place was worth the price, especially since we Americans don't seem to be leaving as many would like for us to do.

Thanks for bringing such things out in your columns.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for your message.

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Arlington, Va.: Why is The Washington Post sponsoring a pro-war rally? Please spare us the corporate side v. the newsroom side memo. The rally is being "officially sponsored" by the Department of Defense. And, to top it off, participants must register with their name, address and telephone number. Sounds to me like the Pentagon is trolling for bodies to send off to Iraq.

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't call it a "pro-war rally"; that's your characterization. It is supposed to be about remembering the victims of 9/11. But I wish The Washington Post were not co-sponsoring this event. It is an operation by the Pentagon -- a place that we devote substantial resources to covering -- and therefore subject to all kinds of interpretations. It is not the same, in my view, as the corporate side of The Post handing out awards to the best teachers or other kinds of nonpartisan civic activities.

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Albany, N.Y.: There are two kinds of media pundits/commentators: those who speak their own thoughts in their own words, and those who repeat, almost word for word if not word for word, the daily spin points of the party they favor. Why haven't the latter been run out of the media? I not only do not mind but actually appreciate hearing points of view different from my own, as I never learned anything from anyone who agreed with me. However, getting propaganda instead of facts and logic neither educates nor informs anyone. The media, in covering current events, is supposed to do that.

Robert Novak is in the hot seat right now because of his role in the Plame outing. However, in spite of the fact that I disagree with almost everything he believes in, I have always respected him because he is in the first group which I described. So is his former co-host Tucker Carlson, and so are his former opponents James Carville and Paul Begala. We need more such people in the media. When are we going to get rid of the screechers and the propagandists?

Howard Kurtz: Run out of the media? By whom? Everyone should make their own judgments about who is just a talking-point propagandist, but you don't need a license to become a talking head, just the requisite glibness to convince producers to put you on the air.

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Washington, D.C.: I was at a D.C. bar seminar in October 2004 where Judges David Sentelle and John Roberts were speaking and Judge Sentelle said that he and his colleagues on the D.C. Circuit refer to him as "Justice Roberts."

Howard Kurtz: I guess they knew something we didn't.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I am disturbed that The Post is sponsoring the Department of Defense's 9-11 "Freedom Walk" in D.C.

It doesn't seem right for a national newspaper to be co-sponsoring an event with a government agency that it covers. How can The Post cover the events of the day if it appears to be sponsoring part of the administration's PR backdrop?

Howard Kurtz: Duly noted.

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Arlington, Va.: Why does The Post devote so much coverage to Cindy Sheehan's crusade against Bush? The Post certainly didn't provide the same front page coverage to the parents of soldiers killed during the Clinton administration. For example, searching The Post archive, there is not a single mention of Herbert Shughart, who told President Clinton during the ceremony awarding his deceased son a Congressional Medal of Honor, that Clinton that "You are not fit to be president." Is it only because Sheehan is a publicity hound, and if so, should this crass behavior be rewarded? Or is it because The Post prefers her anti-Bush sentiment over Shughart's anti-Clinton statement?

Howard Kurtz: The Post is certainly not alone here -- Cindy Sheehan has been all over television and in other publications like the New York Times. What she has accomplished, whether you agree with her or not, is a classic bit of media manipulation. The complaints of one mother would hardly merit plenty of coverage, but one who is dogged enough to show up at Crawford, where lots of reporters are camped out in the heat with little news to cover, enabled Sheehan to fill a void. From there the coverage seemed to build on itself--small stories beget larger stories as more protestors showed up to support her and the media decided they had a symbol of those opposed to the war. Of course, the more Sheehan allies herself with groups like MoveOn, the more she risks being dismissed as a partisan rather than a mother with a heartfelt grievance.

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Fairfax, Va.: Yesterday's Post article, "U.S. Lowers Sights on What Can Be Achieved in Iraq," reported that numerous serious Iraq policy failures are now being acknowledged. Although the article's headline claims the "U.S." has downgraded prospects in Iraq, there are no statements from Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld either admitting these policy failures or agreeing with the newly pessimistic expectations. Instead, the article equates the "U.S." with anonymous officials who apparently are now free to speak for the Administration as they spill the beans about policy failures our top leaders have long been denying. The headline says there's been a policy change without directly attributing it to our top leaders themselves( no attribution, no accountability). Why the shadow puppets? Why can't The Post, an "Independent Newspaper", simply print a headline that says, "Bush Iraq Policy Fails"?

Howard Kurtz: Because that is commentary, not reporting. As much as I worry about the over reliance on unnamed sources, that struck me as a well-reported piece that advanced the ball on a subtle but important shift in American policy toward Iraq. If you simply wait for on-the-record statements from Bush, Rumsfeld et al, you would never find out what's really going on. I also suspect that some of these unnamed officials were putting this new line out there with the acquiescence, if not the blessing, of the White House.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Howard: Can you please offer an explanation as to why both pundits and hosts on all the major TV shows from CNN, MSNBC, Fox, insist Hillary Clinton is running for president when she has never said publicly said she was going to be a candidate? Are they just trying to drum up a controversy? When any of these shows start talking about the Presidential race of 2008, I immediately turn the channel. I cannot bear to be subject to this nonsense for three more years.

Howard Kurtz: I have long maintained that it is at least possible that she won't run, but most media people don't want to hear that. They love the Hillary in '08 story because a) it's potentially groundbreaking (first woman with a real shot at the job, first first lady to consider running); b) Mrs. Clinton blows away all other Democrats in the ridiculously early polls, and c) she is doing the kind of subtle positioning that one would do to at least keep her options open for 2008. But the overarching reason is that political reporters are bored because they don't have a big race to cover this year.

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Fort Myers, Fla.: Hello Mr. Kurtz:

A recent Zogby poll found that 42% of Americans would favor impeachment of George W. Bush, if it were shown that he lied about the reasons we went to war in Iraq. Other recent polls have consistently found that a clear majority of Americans think that's precisely the case.

But as Dan Froomkin reports in your paper, only three media outlets have even published the Zogby poll results.

During the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, no poll was deemed too obscure, no detail too sordid or salacious, to warrant front page coverage. And last time I checked, no one died from Clinton's lies about sex. The count from Bush's lies about Iraq is 1853.

Why isn't the mainstream media reporting on the "Impeachment Question"? Why are no questions being put to all those republican congressmen who held themselves out as arbiters of "truth," and "moral values" during Clinton/Lewinsky but are now silent when it comes to holding Bush accountable for lies that got us into a war?

Howard Kurtz: I have not seen the poll. But I am somewhat wary of surveys that say X percent would favor something IF something else turned out to be true.

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Washington, D.C.: Your answer regarding the poor coverage of the death(and life!) of publisher John Johnson was lame, to be frank! By laying it off on the relative importance of television as opposed to print media was a cop out. Remember- for a great many Americans, and for many many years.  John Johnson was more important than anyone on television, news anchor or not! he was very important to us when indeed, there was no opportunity for people of color to work in television, most especially not in front of the camera. Remember those days? You remember why that was so, don't you? So it would not have been inappropriate for a big splash of coverage, even rivaling that of a passing news anchor, when the great John Johnson passed.

Howard Kurtz: I don't say that John Johnson shouldn't have gotten more coverage than he did. I'm simply telling you that fame and television play very important roles in these decisions. I suppose race is also a factor, in this sense: Most whites did not grow up reading Ebony and Jet, which were not aimed at them. Therefore Johnson was a figure who was very, very important to a segment of the population, and to the news culture as a whole, but was an unfamiliar figure to a whole other segment of the population.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

Could you address the question from the writer from Kuwait, who said "it was interesting to see the article about the White House perhaps admitting to being a bit "unrealistic" in its expectations for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Is this a trial balloon by the White House to see how it plays? For an administration that never appears to admit any weaknesses, this really seems out of character."

Thanks; your work is invaluable.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I think I addressed that in a subsequent post. It looks, feels and smells like an administration effort to lower expectations, just as campaign aides do during an election ("Bush will be lucky to stand on the same stage as Kerry, who's such a great debater"). The White House hopes at some point to be able to declare victory in Iraq and begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. So while I don't know who the sources were for that article and can't be definitive, it looks like some in the administration are trying to lower the bar for what would be considered a reasonable outcome in Iraq.

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Ames, Iowa: Why does Mrs. Sheehan have to be either/or? Why can't she be a mother with a heartfelt grievance AND a partisan? Why wouldn't she align herself with people who agree with her? Why wouldn't she want her feelings to have a political effect and actually make changes - rather than just a little temporary sympathy?

Howard Kurtz: She can, of course, be a mother with a heartfelt grievance and a partisan. But the more she seems like a spokeswoman for antiwar groups who is pushing her own ideological agenda, the less sympathy she is going to generate in the American public. There are, obviously, plenty of mothers who have lost sons in Iraq who support Bush and the war.

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Kansas City, Mo.: I read George Will's column about Jimmy Carter regarding who allegedly stole Carter's 1980 briefing book. I remember some comments about Will helping prep Reagan and getting some criticism about then commenting on TV about his performance but wasn't aware of the flap on the briefing book. What's this all about?

Howard Kurtz: There was a huge investigation, which continued several years into the first Reagan term, of how the Reagan team obtained a copy of President Carter's debate briefing book before their only televised encounter in 1980. It was dubbed "Debategate" and was a major political story of its era.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard, thanks for taking our questions. Regarding the Cindy Sheehan coverage, you write: "What she has accomplished, whether you agree with her or not, is a classic bit of media manipulation."

In short - bull. The MSM is covering her because it WANTS to cover her, since she makes an attractive anti-war story. Anything to further their anti-war agenda. A couple of weeks ago, a Damien Cave wrote in the New York Times "Week in Review" section an piece wondering where all the "war heroes" are. Well, guess what, the MSM has found ITS war hero - Cindy Sheehan - and they are given her a hero's welcome.

Meanwhile, I search the Washington Post's archives for stories about Medal of Honor winner Paul Ray Smith, and find 3. There are 28 articles about Sheehan. My contempt for the MSM just continues to grow.

Howard Kurtz: Since you firmly believe the media have an antiwar agenda, anything I say will not dissuade you.

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Portland, Ore.: Mr. Kurtz:

I am still struggling to understand the mindset of today's news media (or maybe it's the American public). Many reporters, at great risk to themselves, are doing excellent reporting on the war in Iraq. Yet, their often incisive coverage is generally buried or ignored. Then, a mother who has lost a son in the war stages a protest outside the President's ranch/retreat and you would think by the wall-to-wall coverage that another Jackson juror had recanted. You can say it is a compelling human interest story but there are now nearly 1,800 similar human interest stories out there not counting the thousands of soldiers maimed. The lesson to me, it seems, is that news today is all about emotion, not reason; that confrontation trumps every other news value; and that the media, despite the vast resources at their disposal, only cover stories that are dropped in their lap. This is not a healthy combination if we are to use what learn from the media to help us make sound national decisions. How did we get to this point, and how do we move beyond it?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I don't agree that the media only cover stories that are dropped in their lap, but for reporters stuck on Crawford duty in August, this story was indeed dropped in their lap. I thought it would be a two-day story at first, but Sheehan, with help from a liberal PR firm and supporters flocking to Texas, has succeeded in turning her protest into a running story. Imagine if she had come to Washington and held up her sign in Lafayette Park--I doubt she would have gotten three paragraphs in the local papers.

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Cornelius, N.C.: Mr. Kurtz, why are Fox, MSNBC and CNN so heavily getting into crime stories like Natalee, and the missing honeymoon groom and not REAL news? There is SO much going on in our nation politically, economically, and with environmental issues. I cannot get the information from the supposed cable news programs. I am forced to read blogs and op-eds etc from my computer. Are other people as frustrated with this wimpy press or are they manipulated by the owners of the channels because lately most of the news is not favorable to this administration?

Howard Kurtz: Cable news and the network morning shows have become addicted to these missing white women stories, as I've written and talked about several times, because they produce a bump in the ratings. JonBenet, Chandra, Laci, you name it. CNN went wild over the runaway bride story; MSNBC and especially Fox seem more enamored of the Holloway story. And yes, they are just local crimes, sad but hardly unusual, that a decade ago would have been covered only by the local press.

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El Segundo, Calif.: Dear Howard,

Re; Arlington, VA's comment about "Herbert Shughart" - even though The Post may not have mentioned the encounter, there were certainly other major media outlets that did (NY Times, Boston Herald, Austin American Statesman, several Florida papers, The New Republic, etc). The fact is, Clinton faced the parents and took Mr. Shughart's comments in gut. The encounter was public enough to be reported. I don't recall the current president being confronted in the same manner.

Howard Kurtz: I have not refreshed my recollection on that incident, but I think it's fair to say that the Iraq war is many, many times more controversial than the Bosnia or Kosovo conflicts were, not least because of 2-1/2 years of American casualties. If there was still strong public support for the war, as there was in the aftermath of Saddam's ouster, I don't think Sheehan's protest would be getting much coverage at all.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard

What makes for a better story or coverage out of Crawford? 1. Sheehan and the more martyred mom or 2. Citizens supporting their president.

I'll bet a paycheck or two I know what got more press coverage over the weekend.

Howard Kurtz: Sure, because you had Cindy Sheehan out there giving interviews (though I noticed Late Edition interviewed a pro-war mother who had lost a son in Iraq before talking to Sheehan). If the pro-war side organizes events, those will also draw coverage. Don't underestimate the importance of personalizing a story, any story, and of providing visuals, especially for television.

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Anonymous: For us who are uneducated, what does MSM stand for? I was taught, that one should define a term, the first it is used, and not assume that everyone is familiar with it.

Howard Kurtz: It's just the plain old, garden variety mainstream media. Bloggers began using MSM as shorthand (even though it's really two words) and it kind of caught on.

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Boston, Mass.: Courage to you, Howard, for bucking political correctness and explaining clearly why John Johnson's death didn't get as much coverage as the passing of Peter Jennings. The only legitimate argument in favor of giving both equal coverage is that, were it not for John Johnson, there would have been no Oprah Winfrey (in terms of people of color building media empires).

Howard Kurtz: That's a good comparison. In the distant future when Oprah passes, she will get 100 times more coverage than did John Johnson. Not because she was a more important historical figure -- indeed, her talk show was kind of tawdry in the early years -- but because she is a famous television personality (not to mention the spinoff magazine bearing her initial).

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Washington, D.C.: Howard - I think you missed Fairfax's point about the change in the administration's Iraq strategy. Nobody is saying that you have to wait for an actual quote from Bush, Cheney, et al. The point is, it's obvious where the "new strategy" is coming from, and the story should say so.

Howard Kurtz: "The Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned during the transition due to end in four months, ACCORDING TO U.S. OFFICIALS IN WASHINGTON AND BAGHDAD."

The third graf cited "a senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion."

I think it's pretty clear where the story came from.

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Washington, D.C.: Can I just say that I love your chats and make sure to never miss them.

But that said, do you ever find the irony/humor in the fact that you'll get messages on something like the Sheehan issue where both the left and right accuse the media of being biased in favor of the other? It's almost reassuring to me that, at some level, something is right with the MSM if so many people on both sides are so furious at it all the time.

Howard Kurtz: But that's the nature of media criticism these days, especially in a divided country and especially on a polarizing issue. People on the left and right look at the same coverage and accuse the MSM (there's that acronym again) of bias toward the other side. Sometimes each side has valid points, but their conclusions are heavily influenced by their own political opinions.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Mr. Howard, sir. Just a brief note to thank you for all your good work. Keep it up and remember what a great service you are to all of America.

Howard Kurtz: Many thanks, Atlanta.

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Rockville, Md.: In response to the posters who questioned why John Johnson was not given more coverage: I am 30 years old and moved here from Laos 12 years ago. Until his death, I had no idea who this man was. I still do not know what these magazines are, because I read magazines either aimed at other Asians or the mainstream. On the other hand, I have always watched the news on a major channel and know of Peter Jennings.

While I am sorry to hear of his death, just because something was momentous for one race or group, does not make it so for all.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for your comment. Although part of our job as journalists is to inform you about people and events you were unaware of, or had never focused on as important.

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Alexandria, Va.: The war in Kosovo ended with almost no lost of American life. Why hasn't the Press compared the difference between Iraq and Kosovo. We must of did something right in Kosovo.

Howard Kurtz: In fairness, the U.S. role in Kosovo mainly involved an air war, which is what resulted in so few American casualties. Iraq not only involved large numbers of ground troops, but they didn't get to go home once the Saddam regime fell.

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Avon, Mass.: There is a story in your paper today about Newt Gingrich. He is quoted talking about the "elite media". Has he, or any of the leading spinmeisters, ever given a list of the entities to which this term is supposed to refer?

Howard Kurtz: It's like pornography -- you know it when you see it.

Gingrich, by the way, is a commentator at Fox News, so he is part of the Murdoch media empire.

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Boston, Mass.: I haven't seen a lot of coverage about any big Senatorial elections coming up next year, save a few on Hilary and Rick Santorum. What are the chances of the Democrats picking up seats? Wouldn't those stories be more relevant than who may/may not run in 2008, which are everywhere? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: It's hard to say a year in advance, but most political pros don't give the Democrats a good chance of picking up many seats, or at least not enough to take back control of the Senate. You'll see more Senate race stories when 2006 arrives, but I don't expect any diminution of the Hillary/McCain/Rudy/'08 speculation stories. Not everyone knows who the Senate candidates are in Pennsylvania, for example, but everyone knows the possible presidential contenders (although there's always a little-known Howard Dean figure who comes out of nowhere to defy the early media prognostications).

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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