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Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 3, 2006 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, Jan. 3, at noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

The transcript follows.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

In the early going, can you predict how big a story Jack Abramoff's guilty plea will be in the coming weeks and months?

Howard Kurtz: Big. Huge. Very large. A story of historic proportions. It may take awhile, but when information starts to dribble out, as it inevitably will, about what Abramoff is telling prosecutors about his dealings with some members of Congress and their aides, we will have an important and potentially delicious case study of corrupt Washington lobbying.

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Columbia, Md.: Hello Mr. Kurtz,

Please satisfy my curiosity.

Why do newspaper reporters insist on beginning their stories with long sentences? Do J schools teach the practice? Do editors demand it?

Here's an example from today's Post:

When Congress returns to the unfinished business of immigration early in the new year, lawmakers will be trying to reconcile sometimes conflicting public attitudes on an issue that has become a crusade to some conservative Republicans but has defied effective solutions over the past three decades.

TV and radio reporters can't begin their stories like that because they'd run out of breath.

So why do newspaper reporters persist? Don't they realize that long, opening sentences are off-putting and hard to follow?

Howard Kurtz: In an attempt to provide a thoughtful answer to readers' queries, I considered many factors -- from the effort by newspapers to deliver a more detailed and contextual report than the rip-and-read style of television to the literary aspirations of some reporters who would probably rather be writing novels than covering the fire across town -- but decided, upon reflection, that this would be woefully inadequate as a response and, indeed, might raise the specter of superficiality on my part.

But my editor said it was too short.

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Washington, D.C.: Happy new year to you.

So the Abramoff deal is pretty big. I've been following this story, and still find it to be pretty complicated. However, it seems to me that people think that is of equal concern for Dems as it is for Republicans. Yet, when I look at The Post graphic of "where the money went" there are only six Democrats listed. And NONE of them are found in any article that I've seen relating to investigations. Is it a result of how the media is (or isn't) portraying the Democrats role or because it's so complicated? Or are there any Democrats that should be as nervous as the Ney's and Doolittles?

Howard Kurtz: Washington Post, Dec. 5: "Some prominent Democrats, including former senator Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), Sens. Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), were among beneficiaries of the largest campaign contributions from Abramoff's associates and clients."

Clearly, since Abramoff was a close confidant of Tom DeLay and worked with the now-indicted former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, Republicans have more to be worried about. But the money-for-favors culture in D.C. often has a bipartisan cast, so some Democrats are nervous too.

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Springfield, Va.: With all of the focus on the NSA wiretap story, is there any movement in this Congress to pass a federal shield law for journalists? Would Bush veto it?

Howard Kurtz: There is some effort on the Hill involving members of both parties, but they are far short of a majority. So such a law is unlikely to pass in the foreseeable future. The Justice Department is opposing the measure, so even if it were to somehow pass, I suppose a presidential veto is a possibility.

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Egg Harbor, N.J.: Re: NY Times NSA Leak Timing

Given the fact that a huge turnout in the Iraqi elections had happened the day before, and the Patriot Act was to be voted on that day (12/16) in the Senate, was the NY Times trying to deflect the importance of a story (Iraq) that may have slightly benefited the Bush administration? The Patriot debate was particularly interesting, since many Democratic senators referred to the article in their effort to maintain the filibuster. It is difficult, no, check that, it is impossible to believe that there was not some coordination involved between the Times and the anti-Patriot Act forces. Another example of Arthur Sulzberger's Times seeking to influence public opinion on the front page (rather than the editorials)?

Howard Kurtz: I have a hard time believing the NYT deliberately timed the story for that day to influence the Senate debate. Bill Keller has denied it. But Times editors may have been influenced by the fact that the same information was about to be published in a book by one of its reporters, James Risen. In fact, the book was released today.

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Kansas City, Mo.: Regarding the opening paragraph of stories, in J-School I thought they taught us to use 30 words as a rule of thumb for news stories, but feature or analysis might be longer. Was that a common rule?

Howard Kurtz: My J-school never said anything about numerical limits. The real question here is, what kind of sentence, long, short or in-between, can draw busy readers into a story and compel them to read it? I think a bigger problem than length is newspaper stories that are written in dense journalese.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Kurtz: First of all, I want to tell you that you have to be one of the most robustly balanced journalist I have ever read. Both your stories and your chats are always thoughtful and unbiased.

I have a question for you. I've often heard reporters say proudly that they are there to ensure that the The Powers That Be are held accountable. Yet, many of those same media members do not seem to be feel they themselves should be held accountable. For example, look how few Howard Kurtzes and ombudsmen exist.

Yet, given its role, the media seems generally unwilling to get as much as it gives in terms of also being held accountable. I truly do not understand how so many smart people like journalists appear to think they are the only ones in the world who should be excused from any critical assessments at all. Do you agree and, if so, would you be able to explain why this is?

Thank you very much.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. It's true that this is a profession populated by many people who love to dish it out but aren't wild about answering questions themselves. But I think that's starting to change. In an age of bloggers and a zillion other media critics, many journalists are starting to understand that they have more of a responsibility to explain what they do rather than hide behind "we-stand-by-our-story" defensiveness.

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Toronto, Canada: Hey Howard,

No doubt, some Democratic lawmakers may/will be swept up in the Abscam affair, but do you think the media's reporting will include the fact that Abramoff in particular (as DeLay's boy) worked within a system explicitly designed to permanently empower Republicans and permanently 'disempower' Dems?

Or will the MSM's attempt to not be 'biased' one way or another trump that fact?

Howard Kurtz: I think the reporting to date has made that clear. But lobbyists also need Democratic votes on occasion, which is why Abramoff didn't exclusively give money to the GOP.

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Bethesda, Md.: Why can't the media resist the journalist student winds up in Iraq story? It was so clear that something wasn't right with the story, and now we know his parents were complicit. This one flunked the smell test but the media just lapped it up.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the latest twist in the story, but c'mon -- a high school kid who makes his way to Iraq, that's an impossible human story to resist. And it's hardly unusual that we don't get all the details of such a story on the first day. If you call up the parents of such a kid and they tell you their version of events, it often takes time to unravel the contradictions.

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Post "Ombudsman": Question. Since the Ombudsman position is about taking reader input and acting on it, I'm wondering when The Post plans on replacing Getler and getting one?

Yes, I know The Post claims to have one, but she appears to actually be the on staff conservative crank, complaining about her personal beefs. I've yet to see one column based on reader concerns, which is the literal definition of Ombudsman. It would be nice to have one of those again.

Howard Kurtz: Deborah Howell has written some good columns during her short tenure, particularly her two on the Bob Woodward controversy. The fact that you would label her a "conservative crank" -- this is a woman who was a longtime Washington bureau chief, not an opinion writer -- suggests that the problem is you simply don't agree with her.

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London, Ontario: Mr Kurtz, during Reliable Sources on CNN last Sunday, you and your guests all complained about the drop in newspaper readers. The fact is, Mr. Kurtz, that readership is actually up if you count those who read online newspapers.

Howard Kurtz: Which is a point that was made by Bob Kaiser of The Washington Post. But the problem, as we discussed, is that the online product is given away for free, and the advertising revenue is far less than in the print edition. So if more newspaper readers migrate to the Web sites of these papers and print circulation plummets, there is no way, given the current economics, that the papers would take in enough revenue to support these large staffs of reporters, editors, photographers and so on.

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Alexandria, Va.: My husband refuses to read the big-city papers and particularly The Post because of the long-sentence problem. I savor some of those complex sentences, as on me they are doing their job of heightening drama and the feeling of entering into some kind of an enigma or puzzle; but he cries out in exasperation after the first paragraph, "WHAT HAPPENED? WHO DID IT? WHEN?" and often doesn't get satisfaction. He wants his news stories to be hard-boiled, to the point, and brief. He also doesn't like ambiguity. I love ambiguity.

I was an English major in college; he is an engineer. I wonder if that has anything to do with it.

Howard Kurtz: Could be.

I think it depends, obviously, on whether you're reporting something that happened yesterday -- in which case long, anecdotal leads do sometimes exasperate readers, including me -- or a feature story where the beginning is all about color, texture or personality.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hi Howard, The segment you did yesterday on Reliable Sources about Kevin Sites' work was fascinating. I went to J school in the 1970's and have been worried for a long time about the demise of daily newspapers and the dumbing down of network news. I firmly believe the sanitized version of war we get on cable/network TV is responsible for Americans' willingness to go along with the Iraq policy. I think Sites' work to bring a more realistic picture of what our government is doing in our name may light a fire under cable/network news operations to deliver a clearer picture of what it really means to go to war. How do you feel about this? Is the Hot Zone the future of journalism? Also, will Mr. Bush's supporters feel as comfortable about warrantless wiretaps and FBI spying on Quakers/Peta/Vegans when a Democrat occupies the White House? Thanks for these chats and for Reliable Sources.

Howard Kurtz: It was a very interesting chat. For those who are not familiar, Kevin Sites is a former NBC and CNN correspondent (who most famously shot footage in Fallujah last year of an American soldier shooting a wounded Iraqi) who is now the only journalist employed by Yahoo. He visits hot spots around the world and posts words, pictures and video on his blog. Sites told me he can do so much more in this format and that the networks, in his view, don't have much appetite for foreign news beyond Iraq, and certainly not for longer pieces. On the other hand, the fact that he's the only person at Yahoo doing original reporting suggests that the genre still has a long way to go.

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Still confused, Va.: Did any Democrats get money from Abramoff -- in the same way The Post described this weekend in the article about the DeLay slush fund? Or did Democrats just get money from tribes and others who were Abramoff clients? It seems like there is a difference between a tribe giving to its Senator -- regardless of party -- and the coordinated Abramoff efforts that (unless I'm wrong) were for the benefit of Republicans.

Howard Kurtz: The money tended to come from Abramoff clients, but there were also favors, as in this example in the Post story about North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan:

"In 2001, Dorgan held a fundraising event in an MCI Center skybox during a hockey game. The fundraiser was organized by Smith [an Abramoff associate] and the skybox was leased by an Abramoff company. The senator said he believed that the box was controlled by the Greenberg Traurig lobbying firm, not by Abramoff."

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Baltimore, Md.: Re: Ombudsman comments. I think the issue is that the current writer (Ms. Howell) does seem to present her views regarding whatever the issue a reader has brought forth rather than commenting on the process that The Post took in presenting the original material. I too feel the Ombudsman column has become less relevant and interesting in the past few weeks.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Getler presented his views too; that's part of what you want from an ombudsman, an independent judgment by somebody who's not beholden to management. Let's give Ms. Howell a chance.

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Long sentences & ambiguity: I'm an engineer too. Sometimes we feel that we were put on earth to stamp out ambiguity, and we get irked when we see others creating it unnecessarily. Ending a story with "We'll just have to see how this unfolds" is the worst thing you can do to. If an issue isn't resolved or explained, OF COURSE we'll need to see how it unfolds! Unless Nostradamus is working the metro desk at The Post, of course.

Howard Kurtz: Duly noted.

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Re: Shield law: Is one problem with gaining more support the definition of who is a covered journalist? If you include bloggers, anyone with access to a computer can claim coverage and then no one can be compelled to testify about what they were doing while "researching" a story.

Howard Kurtz: That is one of the debates about such a law: to what extent do you include online journalists, and where do you draw the line, since anyone can start a blog and therefore claim a journalistic exemption. But a majority of Congress is opposed to a federal shield law even for journalists as traditionally defined.

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Ombudsman: Liberal or conservative, I don't care. But her recent columns have had nothing to do with reader complaints/concerns -- she seems to be channeling in-staff gripes instead. That's a valid complaint about her.

I'd give her kudos for her resolutions for The Post, even if she backed into them and it took her a long time to get to the point. Also, I'd personally put them in a different priority.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. One of Deborah Howell's innovations is an in-house blog in which she keeps the staff posted on what readers out there are complaining about.

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Hartford, Conn.: Re: long ledes. When I was a young reporter at a Gannett paper, my editor enforced a corporate limit of 17 words per lede. My futile argument was -- and still is -- that 20 or 30 or more of the "right" words should be preferred to any arbitrary limit that could include several "wrong" ones.

Howard Kurtz: An arithmetic rule is ridiculous.

(Sometimes five words can say it all.)

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Anonymous: I vaguely remember a J-school story about short leads. Seems a reporter (it may have been Mark Twain) was lectured over and over about shortening his lead paragraph. Finally, he submitted the following to his editor:

"Dead.

"That's what Arnold Bobunker was yesterday when his body was found in a walk-up flat on 34th Street."

Howard Kurtz: Cool.

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New York, N.Y.: This morning on Imus, Howard Fineman referred to the NYT's original discovery of the NSA story - he said late spring or early summer 2004. This is yet another case of information that might have affected the election being held back by major newspapers (see Plame, Valerie). Also, how come no one seems particularly amused/surprised by the irony of Bush pressing a leak investigation ??? Wasn't outing a CIA undercover a serious breach of trust?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, which is why it is the subject of a special prosecutor's probe that has led to the indictment of the vice president's former chief of staff. In fairness, while Bush said he found the eavesdropping leak "shameful," there is no evidence that he is personally pushing an investigation involving the NYT story. This was routinely referred to the Justice Department, as are all leaks involving national security (including the WashPost story on the secret CIA prisons). But commentators have certainly noted that the president seems more exercised about this leak than that involving Joe Wilson's wife.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard,

Has anyone in the media notice how the frequent nationwide "red" and "orange" alerts from Homeland Security seemed to stop right after the presidential election? What's changed?

Howard Kurtz: I believe that Michael Chertoff is not as enamored of these color-coded warnings as Tom Ridge was.

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Support these large staffs of reporters: Or the pay scales will drop dramatically, making reporters for The Post cease to be in the top 20% of income earners, and greatly improve the journalism by clobbering the upscale class biases inherent in the work.

For example, all the times the Post talks about "tax cuts" as "tax relief" in straight news stories (caught Weissman at that numerous times).

Howard Kurtz: Well, I agree that the upper-middle-class status of journalists at big newspapers sometimes renders them a bit out of touch with many of their readers. But if salaries "drop dramatically," don't be surprised if the quality of journalism declines as well. And at hundreds of smaller newspapers, reporters are not well paid at all, and yet those papers are struggling with declining circulation as well.

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Bristow, Va.: Howard, when the Risen book comes out, and yet Risen and his editors won't say Word One about their internal deliberations on the story, doesn't that feed public distaste with a hypocritical news media? Everyone else has to pressed to disclose, except precious and purely motivated us?

Howard Kurtz: But Keller has said that the Risen book was not a factor in the decision (other Times sources tell me they believe it was a factor). The problem is that he believes he can't discuss the deliberations (and has refused to answer questions even from his own ombudsman) without jeopardizing the confidential sources on which the paper relied in reporting this important story. I wish he could find a way to do so, since I've found Keller to be very open to dealing with media inquiries, unlike some of his predecessors.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: A few weeks ago you linked to a column by Kathleen Parker which contained this gem: "Fox news dominates television ratings over the networks and other cable programs." Why would you help support a totally untrue statement? Network news programs have generally three times as many viewers as Fox News' highest rated show and the channel ranks 5th overall among advertiser supported cable networks with many cable shows having double the ratings of any Fox News show.

Howard Kurtz: I don't fact-check every sentence in every piece I link to or the column would never get out. But clearly, that was a mistake: Fox News is very successful in the cable ratings arena, but all the cable channels have a fraction of the viewership of the broadcast networks. (One exception: When Fox News drew more viewers on one night of last year's Republican convention than any of the broadcast nets.)

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Dale City, Va.: While I think about whether to feel sorry for the Post, what is Bob Woodward's salary for his "part time" job?

Maybe a reporter should have a shelf life like the rest of us. All workers have to contribute something to earn their pay. Pilots and other airline people have taken a lot of pay cuts to help their industry. Maybe the wealthier reporters should consider the same approach.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what Woodward is paid, but Len Downie was quoted somewhere as saying the salary was in the typical range for someone of his experience. Obviously Woodward makes the big bucks from his books.

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Quality of journalism declines as well: Actually, most of the journalistic greats throughout history were not paid upscale money. And most of the best modern journalism was done by people in their early career before they made big bucks. For example, entry pay level Bob Woodward broke Watergate. Big money Woody is a stenographer to power.

Howard Kurtz: But again, and without adopting your characterization, the big money he makes doesn't come from his Washington Post salary.

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Washington, D.C.: The Post ombudsman is not beholden to anyone at The Post? whose payroll is she on, The Post's? My understanding is that she works for The Post and can criticize without fear of retribution. But she's still beholden to The Post for her job.

Howard Kurtz: Not true. The ombudsman works under a fixed contract, usually three years, with an option for a one-year renewal. He or she is completely independent by design and not supervised by the paper's top editors.

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Chicago, Ill.: Getler did do a nice job of responding to reader concerns. I really enjoyed his column and looked forward to reading it every Sunday but have not found the current omsbudsman as engaging. Who at The Post reviews her work and gives her input on how she is doing?

Howard Kurtz: Anyone can give Deborah Howell advice, but no one reviews her work. She is independent. And keep in mind, folks, that she's been on the job for all of two months.

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Alexandria, Va.: Will the NYT and others who demanded an investigation into the Plame leak also demand investigations into the CIA and NSA leaks?

It seemed to me all along that the Plame leak was much ado about nothing whereas the CIA and NSA leaks actually have affected international relations and national security.

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe the Times has demanded an investigation of the NSA leak, but it has gotten one nonetheless. What press advocates would argue, however, is that in the Plame case (whether you think it's important or not), the leak itself was the potential crime and possibly an act of political revenge--whereas the leak of no-warrant eavesdropping, while potentially illegal, disclosed a secret government program that itself may be against the law, and is the kind of whistle-blowing that some (but hardly all) regard as a public service.

A long sentence to end on. Thanks for the chat, folks.

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