Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 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 Tuesday, Nov. 15, at noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

The transcript follows.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Howie,

I like the new time and the hour format for your show on CNN on Sunday morning. I see you are going head to head with Matthews. I like Matthews, but he's a little predictable these days so I'm voting for you with my remote. Now, the real reason I am writing, re the Dana Priest article on the secret CIA prisons. I think this is one of the best, most courageous, and balanced pieces of reporting I've seen this year. (Another piece that I thought was extremely well done and researched was an article earlier about the CIA's "secret" private airplane fleet that they've been using since our international forays to ferry around detainees and prisoners.) I'm not a journalist, but I think the quality of political journalism at The Post has increased in general, as well as relative to the Times, at least over the past year. Anyway, I hope The Post backs up Dana in case the witch hunters in Congress go after her.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I wouldn't use the term "witch hunters," since there are legitimate questions about leaks of classified information (which after all has fueled much of the anger about the Valerie Plame leak). But much more worrisome than any congressional probe is what, if anything, the Justice Department will do with the case referred by the CIA. For as we've seen all too recently, once prosecutors get involved, there is the possibility of a subpoena leading to a contempt-of-court jail term.

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Washington, D.C.: So I saw Bill Frist on the Today show this morning and was kind of annoyed by the fact that he wasn't just on, but that he was on doing the photo-op while working on building houses for hurricane victims I assume. Is there anyone that has verified that he actually worked on the houses for more than 10 minutes? Also do you think it is right for the news shows to allow politicians on when they are doing the obvious photo-op? Maybe it's just my spite towards him, but I think I'd definitely prefer not to see anyone doing these cheesy appearances and just stick with the regular interview.

Howard Kurtz: I guess it would depend on whether he was really working on the houses or just doing it for the cameras.

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Baltimore, Md.: Howard, saw Mary Mapes on your show and I think she gave as good as she got. Question: Did you ever find it suspicious the speed with which Powerline et. al. focused upon the arcane minutiae of typeface, proportion etc.? Seems to me that they had access to the papers before the broadcast. Additionally, the White House never said that the facts within the documents were false. I still believe that this was a deliberate set up to embarrass Rather and CBS and to distract, as Ms. Mapes says, the underlying truth of the story.

Howard Kurtz: A "deliberate setup"? I haven't seen a shred of evidence for that notion. The bloggers were reacting to the documents that CBS News posted online. And if someone did attempt to set up CBS--we still don't know where Mapes's source, former Guardsman Bill Burkett, got those memos--that doesn't let CBS off the hook in terms of verifying the story.

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Bellingham, Wash.: I came across some blogs talking about Bill O'Reilly saying San Francisco deserves a terrorist attack because they voted against allowing military recruiters in their schools. I have not seen anything about this in MSM. I may have missed it, or does the MSM for the most part ignore the rantings and ravings of fringe people like him and his counterparts at Air America?

Civil discourse only seem to work for them if that discourse is with someone who agrees with them in the first place.

Howard Kurtz: O'Reilly just said this yesterday on the radio, and most newsrooms aren't monitoring his radio show. Here's what he said:

"If Al Qaeda comes in here and blows you up, we're not going to do anything about it. We're going to say, look, every other place in America is off-limits to you, except San Francisco."

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washingtonpost.com: Media Notes: Another CIA Leak Probe? , ( Washington Post, Nov. 14, 2005 )

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Arlington, Va.: Several bloggers and even a few papers are now admitting they did not research claims made by a discharged Marine about atrocities committed by U.S. forces near Fallujah. When will The Post publish a correction or clarification?

Howard Kurtz: I've done a database search and am not finding anything in The Post from this guy, who did manage to fool a couple of major news organizations. It's possible that The Post ran a wire story that is not showing up in the search. Can anyone point me to a specific day and page involving this fellow Jimmy Massey?

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New York, N.Y.: Mary Mapes put on a story based on phony evidence. She did not do enough checking to verify the reliability of her evidence. For this, she was fired - justifiably in my opinion.

Now compare this to the hundreds of stories written by dozens of journalists about WMD. They wrote stories based on phony evidence. They did not do enough checking to verify the reliability of their evidence. Other than Judith Miller, who lost her job after more than two years and a generous severance package, no-one was punished in any way.

Can you explain the apparent double-standard?

Howard Kurtz: The other journalists -- and I've written about this at length -- were quoting such people as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, etc. Were they skeptical enough? Were they aggressive enough? Were they open enough to dissenting voices? By and large, no, and some top editors have now admitted that. But it is not quite the same as telling the public you've obtained 30-year-old memos from the National Guard and vouching that those documents are authentic.

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Arlington, Va.: The White House issues a press release disputing the accuracy of a Post story on pre-war intelligence and the Post does not even mention it in the next day's paper? Not even a "we stand by our story" notice? Please tell us readers how this news judgment was made by the editors?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. I was out of town yesterday so I haven't been able to look into this. Good question for the ombudsman.

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Albany, N.Y.: Howard, thanks for your excellent work.

Although people in the media do not like to see themselves as advocates for a position or shapers of public opinion, the critical everyday decisions of what news to report and how prominently to report it have a great deal of effect on policies and opinions.

For example, there was an op-ed in The Post yesterday about a Chinese man who was accused of being a terrorist, imprisoned at Guantanamo and then exonerated, but he is still being held there in the same deplorable conditions as the other prisoners.

Surely, our government blatantly depriving an innocent person of his most basic human rights is a significant story. If this story were given more prominence in reporting it surely would affect the public view of the administration's policies toward the detention of terrorists. Why aren't stories like this given more prominence?

Howard Kurtz: Well, Nightline did a report last night on two Iraqi ex-detainees who say they were tortured, and at least in one instance put in a room with lions. It is, as ABC acknowledged, difficult to verify such accounts, as it would have been at Abu Ghraib had journalists not obtained photographic evidence.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Today's NY Times editorial (11-15) rightfully criticizes Bush for being disingenuous about his handling of the Iraq WMD issue in lead-up to Iraq invasion and his misleading of the American public, yet the Times does not mention her own involvement in the same process via Judy Miller's credulous stories with bogus sourcing from Chalabi and his network. How can the Times credibly act as an arbiter of the true facts of the pre-war era without forthrightly acknowledging her own role?

Howard Kurtz: I think the Times has acknowledged its own role, starting with a lengthy editor's note about the WMD stories that was published last year.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Regarding Massey, the Post published a story on Dec. 8, 2004 on page A20 entitled "Former Marine testifies to Atrocities in Iraq". The article was by Doug Struck, a Post reporter.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the info.

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Charleston, S.C.: Howard,

Do you think it is ethical for journalists to speculate in print or over the airwaves about the CIA leak case? Specifically, the role of the Vice-President in this matter. If it is an opinion piece, no holds barred, but in a hard news story it seems inappropriate to put this type of speculation out there.

Howard Kurtz: There's been way too much speculation on the story. The day before the Libby indictment, there was so much chatter about whether Karl Rove would be indicted and what the impact would be that you got the impression he was already being led away in handcuffs.

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Washington, D.C.: Fred Hiatt's recent column urged Democrats not to focus on allegations the White House manipulated pre-war intelligence; while E.J. Dionne writes today about midterm elections as the context for the President's rush to war and limitation of time for full congressional debate on pre-war evidence. I am wondering which way The Post will cover the story: follow Hiatt's dictum to let lying dogs sleep; or in depth investigative reporting on whether the President went to war when he did to give his party control of our national legislature. Since The Post is an independent newspaper I would think the question Dionne raises would be a legitimate one for The Post to pursue now, rather than to dismiss it out of hand.

Howard Kurtz: They are both in the opinion business. There has hardly been a shortage of pieces in the news pages about the WMD debate and what happened and who knew what when and who is to blame.

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Gainesville, Fla.: I thought your piece about Maureen Dowd was insightful and revealing; sort of a "let Maureen be Maureen" appreciation without fawning or blowing things out of proportion.

And your interview with Mary Mapes was equally fair. What is your take on why the press hasn't pursued that whole matter in depth, to its logical conclusion in order to find out what really happened with all that stuff?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. If you're talking about Bush and the National Guard, I think journalists tried in both 2000 and 2004 to get to the bottom of the matter, but were never fully able to do so.

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Portland, Maine: When can we expect The Post to investigate the government's misquoting of Scott McClellen in last week's press conference ("That's accurate")?

Howard Kurtz: One of our White House correspondents said last week that he's looking into it.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Why do reporters, like The Post's Dan Froomkin, characterize the President responding to his critics as "campaigning" but never acknowledge that the criticisms he is responding to are also the result of campaigning by Democrats? Isn't this a double standard?

Howard Kurtz: It seems obvious to me, and I bet to most readers, that both sides are engaged in a full-blown campaign to affix blame over the WMD debate that provided a major justification for the war.

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Wilmington, N.C.: On Veterans' Day, Bush said, "When I made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, Congress approved it with strong bipartisan support." I don't remember it that way. I thought he needed the threat to force in inspectors and would only use it as a last resort. Is he making an admission there that the decision was made earlier than previously stated?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's fair to say that Congress, well aware of the stakes, gave Bush the authority to go to war if he deemed it necessary. Whether lawmakers were fully informed about the intelligence on which Bush relied in making the case is what's at issue now. John Edwards, by the way, now says his vote on the war was a mistake.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Why do you waste your time quoting, uncritically, people like John Hinderaker? You write:

"But others have plenty to say. John Hinderaker, an attorney and blogger, says on the Web site Power Line: 'It would be a great thing if the steady stream of illegal anti-administration leaks out of the CIA and the State Department could be shut down, and some of the Democrat leakers imprisoned. It's time to put the Plame farce to a good use.'"

Perhaps you could enlighten us by identifying just one of the following: (1) an illegal, anti-administration CIA leak; (2) an illegal, anti-administration State Department leak; or (3) an illegal, anti-administration "Democrat" leak. No need to cite the whole steady stream; any one will do. A reference to the law violated would be helpful.

If not, perhaps you could explain why Hinderaker's statement deserves any more space in the pages of your newspaper than do the writings on the wall of men's room stall.

Howard Kurtz: First, in my online column I quote all kinds of bloggers and commentators to give readers a sense of the debate out there; you're free to agree, disagree or ignore them as you see fit. Second, the passing of classified information about secret CIA prisons to The Washington Post is a) potentially illegal, and b) could be seen as a leak designed to undermine and/or embarrass the CIA.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Howard- please explain why you quoted a discredited figure like Bill Bennett. His outrageous remarks about lowering the crime rate by aborting black babies, not to mention his self-serving hypocrisy, when he was exposed as a degenerate gambler who writes books about living a virtuous life. With all this, and you cite him as someone credible enough to quote???

Howard Kurtz: William Bennett is a former education secretary and drug czar, best-selling author and host of a national radio show. Whether you consider him a credible source is up to you, but in this context he is certainly a legitimate critic.

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Washington, D.C.: With political mouthpieces attempting to direct covert policy (The honorable reverend of the nine commandments) and assigning targets to Al-Qaeda (transcript later removed from his Web site) how is the American public to be protected from the fourth branch of the government's influence on elections across the country? As a follow-up, is this last election sweep for the Democrats indicative of the media's recent call to action against the current administration?

Howard Kurtz: Call to action against the current administration? I must have been taking a nap when that happened. Also, electing Democratic governors in New Jersey and Virginia is not exactly a national barometer of where the campaign is headed next year, despite some ardent spinning to the contrary. Had Jon Corzine and Tim Kaine lost, the Democrats would have been saying it didn't mean anything nationally and the Republicans would be saying the opposite.

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Alexandria, Va.: Would you acknowledge that part of the trend puffed by Newsweek and others on Tim Kaine's "faith-based" victory in Virginia had something to do with two puffy front-page Kaine-the-Catholic profiles in the last days of the campaign? Would you agree that when a candidate's Catholicism seems liberal and unthreatening (Kaine), it gets a different take in The Post from when it seems conservative and "rigid" (Santorum)?

Howard Kurtz: What I would acknowledge is that Tim Kaine made his faith and his views on values a central part of his campaign, and so naturally the press is going to focus on that when a Democrat wins in a red state -- especially one who says that as a church member he is personally opposed to abortion and the death penalty but will carry out the law.

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Moneta, Va.: Mary Mapes did it to herself. The document was a phony. There were at least two or three of four document consultants (to CBS) who cautioned her about document's authenticity. She ran the story anyway. Apparently because she believed "the information" was true (or she WANTED it to be true). Sad. When you pile that on previous "creative" reporting by The Post (e.g., returned Pulitzer), you can see why MSM (and Democrat politicians) have NO CREDIBILITY.

Howard Kurtz: That's quite a leap from Janet Cooke in 1980 to Mary Mapes in 2004. There were SOME good stories in the intervening 24 years, weren't there? Also, I have never said or written that her National Guard documents were fake. What I've said, and what other experts and the outside panel commissioned by CBS has said, is that Mapes & Co. were not able to prove that the papers were authentic.

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Centerville, Va.: Is it fair to say you get more liberal complaints about allowing conservatives into your stories, or more complaints from conservatives about letting liberals in your stories? It seems to me that conservatives ask for balance, and liberals ask for only the "truthful" side to be aired.

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't want to generalize. There are critics on both sides of the spectrum who seem upset if I quote someone they dislike. My feeling is, feel free to criticize what these folks say but don't decree that they can't be part of the debate. For yesterday's column I interviewed one conservative critic of The Post's CIA prisons story (Bennett) and one who came at it from a liberal point of view.

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Silver Spring, Md.: This post is probably more appropriate for a Weingarten chat where I'm a regular denizen, but, I saw someone who looked very much like you in Rock Creek Park last Sunday (a week ago) with his lovely wife and adorable 1 year old or so daughter. I have two questions: Was that you, and if so, would it have been appropriate of me to say hi and that I enjoy your work, or would you prefer to enjoy a walk in the park with your family without being bothered? (Not knowing the answer to either of the questions, I just sorta stared, trying to figure out if it was you. Sorry.)

Howard Kurtz: And the answers are: yes, and yes. I don't mind if people want to say hello if they happen to see me around. So far I'm not being mobbed in airports and am able to live a perfectly normal life.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Hi Howard!

Thanks for doing these chats. A question regarding the "phase II" of the Senate investigation into whether the Bush administration exaggerated and misrepresented the intelligence concerning WMD in Iraq. Given that the substance of the controversy involves what the Bush administration said publicly, and given that there is decent access to the actual intelligence that existed, when will we see a point-by-point analysis piece in a major newspaper comparing the two? My point is - it seems to me that an investigative journalist could accomplish what the Senate has not yet completed. Has there been a piece like this that I've missed, or can we expect to see something like this soon?

Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: But it involves more than what officials have said publicly. It involves what they said to each other privately, what e-mails they sent, how their strategy was developed, and that is generally beyond the purview of even aggressive reporters. Look, for example, what Patrick Fitzgerald, armed with subpoena power, was able to unearth about Scooter Libby's role in the Valerie Plame outing that journalists had no way of confirming.

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Boston, Mass.: I am sure there will be millions of words written comparing and contrasting the Plame leak with the leak about CIA Prison Camps. But I think any twelve year old could tell you the difference in about two sentences: one was used to undermine an adversary and the other was used to blow the whistle on pretty scary stuff. Am I missing anything?

Howard Kurtz: Whether the use of secret prisons to interrogate al-Qaeda suspects is "scary stuff" or an important component of the war on terror is at the center of a pretty serious debate. But I would certainly agree that what Dana Priest did in reporting that story is, unlike in the Plame case, a classic use of unnamed sources to reveal a matter of public importance that the government has kept hidden.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Why is it the news media let pass politicians, mostly Democrats, against the war, or those who just hate Bush, without questioning and pressing them for examples of what they mean when they say, "Bush and his administration manipulated the facts to go to war". Especially those politicians who make similar statements, and pointed to the same facts as did Bush, as to why Iraq was such a threat?

Howard Kurtz: Excuse me, but wasn't John Kerry asked variations of that question about 10,000 times in last year's campaign?

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Southwest Pa.: Hello, Howard and thanks again for these chats. The President gives a speech criticizing his political opposition and within hours Post columnists and others highlight the fibs and distortions contained in his remarks. A majority of Americans now question Mr. Bush's credibility and character. I'm no political consultant, but I doubt he will be able to turn his numbers around with more exaggeration and distortion. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I'm going to go out on a limb and guess you're not a Bush fan. Look, I have no idea whether the president will be able to climb out of the political hole he's in. He's clearly had a rough few months. But he's in office for another three years, which is several lifetimes in politics. Much will depend on the economy, the outcome in Iraq and whether Bush can win support for a revised second-term agenda after the implosion of his Social Security plan. Keep in mind, in early '95, after losing both houses of Congress, Clinton was reduced to insisting he was still relevant, but 18 months later he won reelection handily.

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Arlington, Va.: For Boston: what the Plame and CIA prison leaks have in common is that classified information was wrongly leaked to the media. Forget the motivation - it is wrong, and whoever did it deserves to be punished! Losing his clearance, job and possibly freedom are the consequences, no matter if you are Scooter Libby or some Pentagon analyst.

Howard Kurtz: People's views on the leaking of classified information are often influenced by whether they agree with what the leakers are trying to accomplish.

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Oh Really?: "O'Reilly just said this yesterday on the radio, and most newsrooms aren't monitoring his radio show."

Um, MSNBC had a story several days ago saying O'Reilly said it last week on Election Day....

Bill O'Reilly takes aim at San Francisco

Howard Kurtz: I stand corrected. He was on this topic again last night, so I thought it was more recent.

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D.C., behind the teleprompter....: Howard:

Shouldn't the media impose a rule that anyone (regardless of party) who mindlessly parrots broadly circulated partisan talking points should be banned from public discourse? Reporters should demand that politicians and their familiars try to think for themselves, or at least put ideas into their own words. Our politics in this country is dying from lack of wit and originality. We once had Lincoln and the Roosevelts. We once had Everett Dirksen and Tip O'Neill. Sure, they al had speech writers, but they also could think on their fee. Now, all we have actors reading scripts and no one seems to be calling them on it or asking for more than their being able to get the words out, on camera with a straight face. Sad..

Keep up the great work.

Howard Kurtz: Not a bad idea, but that would reduce the 24-hour cable news networks to about one hour a day.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Re: Questions for John Kerry

I'm curious what John Kerry meant when he said he'd achieve victory in Iraq during the 2004 campaign. I think Kerry was planning on reviewing the Bush/Cheney rationales in order to declare the war unjustified and ill-advised, and was going to disengage. Your opinion?

Howard Kurtz: I guess we'll never know what President Kerry would have done. The impression I got from watching him for two years was that he strongly supported winning in Iraq but would go about it differently than the administration.

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Unearthing Scooter Libby: Journalists could have EASILY confirmed everything that was "unearthed" by Fitzgerald. Because all the information uncovered by Fitzgerald was discovered by interviewing .... journalists! Couldn't Russert, Miller, Cooper et.al. merely appeared in their own venues and told everything they know (something Russert has yet to do, BTW)?

Howard Kurtz: But even if the journalists were willing to betray confidences by doing that, they had no way of knowing that Cheney, for example, was one of the first to tell Libby about Wilson's wife working at the CIA, or that Libby had brought it up at a lunch with Ari Fleischer.

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Fort Collins, Colo.: What are the differences between Judy Miller's involvement in the Plame leak and Dana Priest's involvement in the leaks of the secret prisons? Should the source of one be protected but the source of the other not? I support Priest: she was uncovering government malfeasance, but not Miller: she was functioning as an attack dog for the administration (that is she would be if she had actually written an article). However, I wonder if I am simply swayed by my dislike for the present administration.

Howard Kurtz: As I alluded to earlier, you can't pick and choose whether classified leaks should be allowed based on your political preferences. But in Miller's case, she never even wrote a story about what we now know was an administration effort to discredit Joe Wilson through his wife. In Priest's case, she was bringing an important, secret matter to public attention -- but that doesn't make her story any less controversial. And as I wrote yesterday, many liberals are angry at her and The Post for holding back the locations of those secret prisons at the request of senior U.S. officials.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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