Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 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, Sept. 12, at Noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read today's Media Notes: John Roberts, Blown Away?

The transcript follows.

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Columbia, Md.: Howard, President Bush flatly declared that he would lead an investigation into the response to Katrina. Do you think the media will hold Bush accountable to do what he said he's going to do or will they accept Scott McClellan's spin dodge?

Howard Kurtz: Given the coverage of the last two weeks, I think it's a fair bet that the media will hold Bush accountable, if indeed this "investigation" materializes.

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Arlington, Va: Lots of conservative web traffic concerning the media insisting on photographing and publishing pictures of the dead in N.O., but refusing to publish/show photos of those forced to jump from the towers on 9/11 - what's your take on this argument?

Howard Kurtz: Some organizations published those pictures from 9/11, because I remember seeing them. The controversy, as best I can recall it, is whether television would show these suicides, and I don't believe the networks did.

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Alexandria, Va.: The press has reported that 35% of the Louisiana National Guard is in Iraq but the Administration and the military says this had no impact on their response to Katrina. Simple math and the logistical considerations of getting troops deployed from other areas indicate otherwise. Has the press accepted the rationale provided by the government and the military or is this story still being pursued?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's pretty obvious that all aspects of this story are being aggressively pursued. Even if many Louisiana guardsmen are in Iraq, National Guard members from other states could have been rushed to the scene if the feds and the governor had gotten their act together. Their days of squabbling while people were dying remains, to me at least, inexplicable.

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Washington D.C.: How long do you think Katrina will dominate the news? Although most papers are covering other stories, it is still squeezing out a lot of other news (like Iraq). I don't think this is necessarily bad as it will hopefully get people to continue responding, but I am wondering who is winning (Roberts?) and losing (Bush?) as a result.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the answer. I think it will be a major, major story for many months to come -- news organizations are already gearing up to open N.O. bureaus -- but it's hard to imagine that it could continue at this level of intensity (meaning, blotting out most other news) for more than another week or two.

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Ames, Iowa: My neighbor, who listens only to RWM (right wing media) says that Tony Snow said Blanco is to blame for help not getting into NO sooner. Has the RWM decided to focus all the blame on her, rather than including the mayor also? (I read that the mayor was actually a Democrat turned Republican and a Bush supporter, which would seem to protect him from blame.)

Howard Kurtz: It's certainly true that many conservatives are training their rhetorical fire on the missteps of state and local officials, and many liberal commentators are essentially arguing that it's all Bush's fault. Seems to me, given the magnitude of the multiple breakdowns here, that there's plenty of blame to go around.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

I enjoy your column. My question concerns an article I saw in the Rocky Mountain News which quoted a leaked email written by Mike Brown to his family and friends. While no fan of Mr. Brown, I can't help feeling for him on this. I'm not sure its ethical for the paper to print this--it also makes no mention of how it got the email. What's your take on this? Under current sourcing guidelines, how might The Post handle this?

Howard Kurtz: We and other news organizations publish leaked e-mails and memos all the time. Having something in writing is certainly superior to relying on someone saying that someone else said something in a meeting. The only real questions are whether the e-mail is authentic, whether it has news value and whether the contents are too personal to warrant publication. Michael Brown complaining to friends about the way the press has treated him certainly qualifies as news.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Howard- Please explain why the media mindlessly picks up on annoying phrases coined by the various D.C. "spinners". The current phrase the Bush team uses is "blame game", (during Lewinsky-gate it was "parsing"). It seems these phrases are designed to obfuscate the real issues, i.e. the ridiculous Scott McClellan using the phrase innumerable times to dodge David Gregory's question about Bush's slow response to Katrina.

Howard Kurtz: "Blame game" doesn't seem that mindless to me. It has the virtue of being short and cogently describing the point of view that we shouldn't worry about who was responsible for past mistakes while the crisis in New Orleans continues. At the same time, the media basically ignored that appeal and did their best to hold accountable those who screwed up at all levels, culminating in those big Sunday tick-tock pieces that I linked to in today's online column.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: This morning on Thom Hartmann's radio show on KPOJ-am Portland Oregon....They are reporting that the Northwest's FEMA director has been discovered to have an apparently falsified degree in his resume, no experience in disaster or emergency service, and his major accomplishment is that he was the local Bush/Cheney campaign chairman. Will the media find out how many of the other regional directors are nothing more than "ambassadorships" handed out as prizes for those that raised the most money?

Howard Kurtz: That's a particularly good job for regional news organizations for whom these officials are a very big deal. The stuffing of FEMA with political hacks certainly didn't start with this administration (although it grew more professional in the Clinton years under Jamie Lee Witt), but the flimsy credentials of so many of its top officials (leaving aside the question of resume enhancement) is really sad.

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Arlington, Va.: I've been watching way too much coverage on CNN lately and all I can say is WOW. If the media keep this up, Jon Stewart will be out of a job. The only downside is that the wall to wall coverage has knocked Reliable Sources off the air the last few weeks. Any guesses when it'll be back?

Howard Kurtz: I hope next Sunday. Lots of things have gotten blown away by this hurricane, including my show.

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Bethesda, Md.: Howie - is the Administration's sudden concern for the "dignity" of the dead from Katrina and their embarrassment over the slow Federal response merely coincidental? In other words, has FEMA ever banned the media from photographing recovery operations from a natural disaster before? Out of sight, out of mind I guess is what they're hoping.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure federal authorities would love to have no pictures of the New Orleans dead for the same reason that the Pentagon barred pictures of most flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq until FOI requests and a lawsuit overturned that effort. Sure, it makes the federal response look bad. But just to clarify, FEMA has ASKED news outlets not to show the bodies, but has no legal authority to ban such pictures. Officials have tried to limit the pictures by not taking along news crews on recovery boats, but lots of media organizations have their own boats and have continued to take such pictures.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard,

I have an advanced degree in Journalism from a great school. One of my greatest interests is in objectivity.

I'm unhappy that some of the reporting about the relief efforts in Katrina doesn't focus more on failure at all levels, as opposed to simply saying "Washington" (read "Bush") didn't respond quickly. Not to say that the Fed. Govt. effort was perfect, far from it, actually, nor that questions shouldn't be asked. Just seems like reporters' personal biases are masquerading as "tough questions".

Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see this as a question of bias. Reporters who went to New Orleans and saw how pathetically inadequate the response to the killer storm were got angry, and asked aggressive questions, and that's what journalists should be doing. Now some liberal commentators have practically accused Bush of creating the hurricane, but they're in the opinion business.

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Richmond, Va.: In your column today you quoted Spencer Hsu as saying "We don't blow sources, period, especially if we don't have reason to believe the source in this case actually lied deliberately" in regards to the correction that the Post was forced to make only hours after an article was published on Sept. 4 regarding when exactly Gov. Blanco declared a state of emergency- The article claimed she had not declared one the day before the storm when in fact she had done so several days before the storm struck.

My question is how can Hsu stand by that statement given the White House's recent lack of credibility in such matters (read Plamegate) and the fact that information regarding when Blanco made the declaration was easy to research? And if the source was that ill-informed that many days after the disaster isn't that a story unto itself?

Howard Kurtz: Whatever other credibility problems the administration might have, that doesn't change the situation when a reporter tells an official he will accept information on a background basis. If the official is not intentionally lying, the journalist would be betraying his promise by identifying the source after the fact. I think there were two problems here. One, the information obviously should have been double-checked. But even if what the administration official was saying had been accurate, I don't think The Post should have published it on a not-for-attribution basis. Why in the world can't the official be on the record talking about what the governor of Louisiana did or did not request? That kind of free pass should not have been given.

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New York City, N.Y.: Why does Spencer Hsu not "believe the source in this case actually lied deliberately"? As Lenny Briscoe could see, he had the means, motive and opportunity.

Revealing the identity sources who lie would put a check on those lies being published. What would be the downside to revealing Hsu's source? Revealing it would bolster The Post's integrity.

Howard Kurtz: For what it's worth, my understanding is that it was based on a follow up conversation between the official and another reporter here.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Howard - I found the story in Saturday morning's Washington Post about trigger-happy American mercenaries in Iraq very disturbing. Has any member of the press ever asked President Bush how he feels about the presence of so many mercs? After all, the reason they're there is because Bush refused to listen to those generals that said more troops were needed right from the start. Seems like a legitimate question to me.

Howard Kurtz: If any reporter has asked the president (or a high-ranking official) about mercenaries, I'm not aware of it.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: Hi, Howard.

Let's take the anonymous senior administration official, Post reporter Hsu, and Ombudsman Getler at their word. All three thought that the administration source was speaking truthfully when he or she claimed that Blanco was late in declaring a state of emergency. But isn't it news that a "senior administration official," presumably speaking for the administration, had no idea when Blanco declared a state of emergency? This is a critical error on the part of the Bush administration, yet the administration's ignorance was mentioned by The Post only because the newspaper had to offer an explanation for its own error. Also, Hsu seems to indicate that he would not reveal a source even if it were shown that that source lied. Do you think that's a reasonable policy?

PS--Thanks for the weekly chats.

Howard Kurtz: I've answered the last part, but on the earlier question, yes, it's fairly amazing that a senior administration official would not have known that the governor of Louisiana had declared a state of emergency days earlier, to the point of taking a partisan shot at her, under the protection of background, when a simple Nexis search most likely would have revealed he was wrong.

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Prevailing wage: Mr. Kurtz,

I was appalled to hear on public radio's Marketplace last Friday that the administration has -already- managed to avoid paying prevailing wages to workers involved in reconstructing the Gulf coast. For a painter, the princely sum of $11 per hour is apparently too burdensome, even as Halliburton & co. suck up billions.

There has been much to be disgusted about these past two weeks, and it just keeps coming.

I'm afraid that outrages like these will just get lost in the shuffle. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: The president's decision to suspend the prevailing wage law because of the emergency in Louisiana has been widely reported and noted. Organized labor is, understandably, outraged. Bush's dad did the same thing after Hurricane Andrew in '92, which I had not remembered.

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Bethesda, Md.: According to your column it sounds like The Post is giving the benefit of the doubt to the "administration official" who leaked the disinfo. that the Governor waited with her declaration. Given the tedious string of disinformation that the administration has leaked to the press since the run-up to the Iraq war, isn't that charity just a bit naive?

Howard Kurtz: It was a bad mistake, as The Post's national editor candidly admitted. Yes, it happened at night under deadline pressure, but was still a bad mistake.

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Waynesburg, Pa.: In this morning's Pittsburgh Post Gazette, there was a big article on Alberto Gonzalas as the potential nominee for O'Connor's now vacant seat on the Supreme Court. It seems to me that a very similar article ran before John Roberts was nominated. Why would a paper use up so much space for a speculative article like this, especially when they were so off on the predictions for Roberts when they only gave a small nod to the on-going military operation in Iraq at the Syrian border and the released terrorist tape claiming to target LA? They seem all mixed up in what's news and what's speculation to me.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure you'll be reading more like that in the coming weeks. The next court vacancy is a far bigger deal than this one, the attorney general is obviously a top contender, and it was only a few days ago that Bush joked about the speculation about Gonzales at a Cabinet meeting.

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Alexandria, Va.: The media should continue to find out and report as many facts as possible on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, as it does in this week's Newsweek story by Evan Thomas and others. But isn't there a likelihood at the moment that reporters will back off in response to last week's GOP strategy of dismissing criticism as part of "the blame game"?

Howard Kurtz: Back off? I don't think so. I haven't seen the slightest sign of that in the nearly two weeks of intensive coverage of this hurricane and its aftermath.

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Louisville, Ky.: Howard, do you have any sense of what kind of backlash NBC News in general and David Gregory in particular might have for Gregory's rather pointed questioning of McClellan last week? Granted, I tend to watch MSNBC more than the others so I may have seen their "blame game" exchange more than other viewers. But considering Gregory's past aggressive questioning of McClellan, do you feel NBC News is at all undermining its own objectivity, especially in light of RWM's overzealous "liberal bias" branding?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see those particular questions, though I've certainly seen David Gregory and others go at it with McClellan at a number of briefings. Scott's stick-to-the-guidance style does seem to get some of the correspondents pretty worked up. But I don't know why you say that these aggressive questions are evidence of bias. If you'd watched the hostile and sometimes poisonous relations between White House correspondents and Clinton's spokesmen at briefings, you'd know that this sort of thing goes on in every administration. It's only since Mike McCurry, though, that it's been televised.

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Washington, D.C.: I question CNN's decision to not show Reliable Sources yesterday. There are serious topics about coverage of the hurricane that aren't being fully organized and presented, the hurricane news is no longer updating as quickly, and the public has all gotten the initial word of the disaster.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I and others did talk about some of these media questions on Late Edition, but it would have been nice to have the full half-hour.

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McLean, Va.: What is with the phony beard growth on these male reporters down there. Come on, if there is electricity to power the camera and satellite uplink they cannot plug in an electric razor?

Come on.

Howard Kurtz: Of all the many and myriad aspects of the crisis coverage that I have tried to scrutinize, that is an angle that had not occurred to me.

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Falls Church, Va.: I have been outraged by the Democrats attempt to pin the whole blame for Hurricane Katrina on Pres Bush and the Republicans. Of course, this is obviously very predictable. The Democrats conveniently overlook the fact that we have a system of FEDERALISM in this country---no, that does not mean the Federal government is completely responsible for handling natural disasters. It means that the initial response is traditionally assigned to state and local governments. They should have made better preparations for dealing with the hurricane (e.g., by busing poor residents outside the city to other parts of of the state). Then, the Federal government kicks in at the request of the lower levels of government. Of course, the Louisiana state and New Orleans local governments are run by Democrats, so the Federalism theory won't fly with them, and they consequently need to blame the Federal government.

Now the future is a different matter. We should probably plan for a larger and more immediate Federal role in the event of another Katrina-type disaster. But that is not the system in place at present. The Congress would have to give the Feds more legal authority than they have at present, especially for calling in the armed forces to help insufficient National Guard deployments after a major disaster.

Howard Kurtz: As I said, there is plenty of blame to go around. Clearly, Blanco and Nagin had their share of screw ups. But keep in mind that a few Republicans have also faulted the administration's response.

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Arlington, Va.: I would just like to say I am glad the media finally decided to stop using the offensive word "refugees" to describe the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The use of that word was racist, even if it was done so subconsciously. I would bet any amount of money that if a hurricane hit Greenwich, Connecticut, the media would NOT have called those people 'refugees.' It's time the media wake up and acknowledge that they, like many people, carry around attitudes and stereotypes based on race and class, and there is absolutely no place for that coming from so-called 'objective' journalists.

And may I say the one good thing coming from this massive hurricane coverage is that cable news FINALLY stopped talking about Natalee Holloway.

Howard Kurtz: Personally, I didn't see any problem with "refugees," and I certainly don't see it as racist. If you're forced by a catastrophe to leave your home, and in many cases your state, and may not be able to return for a long, long time, aren't you a refugee? I just think we're so accustomed to hearing that term associated with people fleeing communist countries or Third World disasters that there's something jarring about applying it to Americans.

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Germantown, Md.: Howie-it seems that anonymous sources is a sick cycle no one can break. Sources can lie because they know reporters won't out them for fear they will miss out on the next off the record statement they will make and there for will get scooped. Can you see any way to break the cycle? Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: There's no question that unnamed sources are way overused, especially in Washington, and especially when they're just taking partisan shots as opposed to actually revealing sensitive information. The Plame case, of course, comes to mind.

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Rockville, Md.: Back in the Nixon era the media was very skeptical of anything the White House said. This was because of the many lies and evasions that came out of the White House on a regular basis. So when Watergate happened, the media was mentally prepared to verify everything that came out of the White House and probably helped determine the Watergate story that otherwise might have only been a story about a "two bit burglary".

Today I see a White House operating in a similar fashion. The outright lies are astounding. When it was obvious that Scott McClellan has either lied to the press or had been lied to by others when he says he was told Rove had no involvement in the outing of Plame, the press still sits and writes down every word he says and reports it as fact. If the Bush administration ever pulled a Watergate, I really doubt the media would dig it up for the American people to see. Do you see, as I do, the media as inadequate to the job of protecting American democracy by shining light where it needs to be?

Howard Kurtz: Something tells me your view of this is influenced, maybe just a tad, by what you see as the "outright lies" of the Bush administration. And by the way, it was a "third-rate burglary," according to Nixon's spokesman, Ron Ziegler.

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Saturday Correction: Can you shed any light on the concurrent running of two pieces in Saturday's Post? One was a correction, noting that the State's Attorney in Texas was not speaking about the Rove residency case specifically but was speaking in general, and then later in the A section was a story about the same woman being fired for speaking to the Post. Did a Post error, or fuzzy statement, lead to this woman being fired?

Howard Kurtz: Both involved a correction, but the news story tried to explain how the woman got fired for talking to The Post, which is not related to the mistake about whether she was specifically describing Rove's situation.

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Rockville, Md.: Last night CNN had a segment comparing Katrina to 9/11 as a way of highlighting that this disaster lacked a "Rudy Giuliani". Only in the last seconds did they add as footnote that the NO disaster covered many orders of magnitude more area than 9/11, and several other factors that made it easier for Giuliani to wander around with a bullhorn. They never did bother to add that while there were no survivors to cope with after 9/11, there were an unparalleled number in our history with Katrina. Do you think the media ever tire of this facile and misleading contrast?

Howard Kurtz: No. The press loves Rudy.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: If the administration moved Brownie out of the direct Katrina job "to oversee the big picture" (if you type that into Babelfish it comes out "because of all the complaints"), will he soon "resign for family reasons/to return to the private sector", given that Time Magazine seems to have uncovered some (shall we say) transcription errors in his resumes?

Howard Kurtz: So much for doing "a heckuva job."

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Washington, D.C.: So, why again did The Post refuse to sponsor the 9/11 Freedom Walk yesterday? I read the Post's article on the event and saw nothing that could be deemed "political" in the walk -- indeed, the article pointed out that people in the walk were both pro- and anti-war.

Howard Kurtz: The Post concluded -- correctly, in my view -- that it should not be sponsoring an event with the Pentagon, a major institution that the paper covers, whether the walk could be construed as political or not.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Has Karen Hughes really been hired to improve public relations with the Arab World or is she there to replace Karl Rove in case he gets indicted?

Howard Kurtz: The official explanation is the former. And that happens to be the reality as well, since Hughes does work for the State Department.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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