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Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 17, 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. 17, at noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read the latest Media Notes: Getting It First , ( Post, Jan. 17, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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Columbia, Md.: I was watching your show on Sunday and during one of the commercials, CNN was advertising a Larry King interview with Russ Tice and referred to him as a "whistleblower". Since it is possible that the phone tapping will still be determined legal and Tice is jailed for divulging national security secrets, how can CNN definitively refer to him as a "whistleblower"?

Hasn't CNN essentially taken a side with this commercial? I thought CNN was supposed to be objective.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't seen the commercial, but Tice has identified himself as a source for the original NYT story on the eavesdropping and also granted an interview to ABC's Brian Ross. So it seems fair to describe this former NSA official as someone who had concerns about the legality of the program and came forward to the press.

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Washington, D.C.: NY Times reporter Jim Risen says his sources on the domestic spying stories had the "purest motives" of whistleblowers.

Now we hear that one of his sources lost his security clearances and months ago after being diagnosed as being more than a little nutty. Might he have an agenda?

Who holds reporters accountable -- and how should they ensure that someone who leaks to them isn't off their rocker? Even if the source's info is correct -- he or her judgment about whether its release damages national security may be colored by their own paranoia.

Howard Kurtz: Sources often have agendas, and some are a little bit crazy. I don't know the multiple sources that Risen used, obviously, but what's important is whether the information is accurate and can be nailed down. Obviously we all need to take into account the motivation, and relative sanity, of sources in our reporting.

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Seattle, Wash.: Your column today does a great job of considering the issues of speed and competitiveness versus thoroughness in presenting a story.

Does the "scoop" mentality lead to more "he said/she said" reports? Is that really the best way to present a story?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it depends. We are in a deadline-driven business. If Al Gore says Bush is breaking the law, that needs to go on that day's newscasts and in the next day's papers. The best journalism, of course, takes more time to dig deeper into a story and try to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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Vienna, Va.: Howie...

The New York Times refused to answer any of the questions their own Public Editor asked about the decisions of when and if to run the James Risen NSA stories.

Shouldn't any self-respecting "ombudsman" or the like resign if his or her own newspaper stonewalls them like that? I can understand ducking a question or two -- but completely stiffing the guy? What would you do in his position?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. I could see an argument that you serve readers best by taking the paper to task, calling attention to the stonewalling (the word that Byron Calame used in his column) and staying on the job. The terms of the ombudsman's contract gives him complete freedom to criticize any way he wants without fear of being canned, but Bill Keller & Co. aren't under any obligation to answer his questions, other than the pressure of public opinion.

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Portland, Ore.: Mr. Kurtz;

I have been amazed how seldom the name Dennis Hastert has come up in regard either to the Abramoff stories or the race to succeed Tom DeLay as majority leader. Personally involved or not, it seems Hastert, as speaker, must be assigned some blame for the business climate in the House. Also, it amazes me that Hastert's opinion, endorsement, whatever, seems to matter so little in the race for majority leader. It seems Hastert is one of the weakest speakers in House history, but that generates little comment in the press. Is it old news or am I wrong in my perception?

Howard Kurtz: Well, The Post, as you may have seen, has a front-page piece today headlined "Speaker Largely Silent Amid Scandal." It makes clear that Hastert enjoys strong loyalty from House Republicans. When you say he's a weak speaker, I think a more accurate description would be that he's an extraordinarily low-key and behind-the-scenes speaker, almost the stylistic opposite of Gingrich, whom he succeeded.

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New York, N.Y.: Why is Condi Rice still being asked if she's running for President? She's said no repeatedly.

Howard Kurtz: Because reporters refuse to let the story line drop. And because Laura Bush said the other day that she'd make a good president.

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Silver Spring, Md.: L. Brent Bozell III is frequently connected with questionable causes, such as the recent attack on Congressman John Murtha. He is always identified by his current position, but one never reads of his background that includes writing a column for The Washington Post. Shouldn't that information have been part of your story?

Howard Kurtz: Well, he's connected with conservative causes, but has never written a column for The Post. You must be confusing him with someone else.

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Kenmore, Wash.: I'm curious if you've had a chance to read E.J. Dionne's column this morning about the swiftboating of John Murtha. Could you speak to the differences in his column and the one you wrote over the weekend?

Do I understand correctly that he writes "opinion" while you write "criticism". If so, how do you think those different approaches influence what actually appears on paper?

Howard Kurtz: E.J. writes an opinion column and is paid to say whatever he thinks. The article you refer to was a straight news story, meaning I called up the various people involved (with the help of a colleague) and reported on the effort to question Murtha's two Purple Hearts from his service in Vietnam. In my columns I sometimes engage in news analysis, which is still significantly different than commentary in that it's not a vehicle for my opinion, but that was not the case here.

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Anchorage Alaska: Isn't the Speaker elected by the WHOLE House? If so, why don't Dems force an election? Why don't they vote present or something if they do get an election for Speaker with Hastert's name the only one submitted.

Why don't the Dems DO SOMETHING other than resurrect their dead possum routine?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, the speaker is elected by the majority party.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I'm outraged at the swift-boating of Jack Murtha. To give the sleazy right wing print space or air time to disparage a legitimate veteran is nothing but despicable. The question that comes to my mind is: Have you no decency sir? When will the sleazy right wing bottom out and why would you publish such outrageous slander in The Washington Post? I'm sickened by this libel.

Howard Kurtz: So when conservatives make charges of this sort, you think we should just ignore it? Should the media never have carried a word about the Swift Boat Veterans trying to torpedo Kerry (which began with some paid TV ads)? In my view, the mere fact of this effort against Murtha was newsworthy, as has been made clear by all the commentary it's sparked, and people can make up their own minds whether the effort is fair or outrageous.

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El Segundo, Calif.: I realize leaks are bread-and-butter for reporters and "whistle blower" is a value judgment, but what are the standards used to determine that a leak is a legitimate one to use. Assuming that many leakers have security levels, how do you assess which ones are just doing it for political purposes (i.e. Plamegate) and which ones are affront to the Constitution (i.e. NSA)?

Howard Kurtz: Again, people leak for both grand and petty reasons: because they're concerned about possible fraud or violations of the Constitution, because of bureaucratic turf wars, because they want to get back at an ex-husband, because it makes them feel important. The reporter's job is to take the information, make an independent judgment about whether it's newsworthy and then determine if it can be verified.

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Fort Washington, Md.: Reporter Sue Schmidt and ombudsman Deborah Howell have both asserted repeatedly that Jack Abramoff gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans. The FEC shows no record of any Democrat getting any money from Abramoff, period. Some Indian tribes who were among Abramoff's victims contributed funds to some Democrats, but suggesting that that somehow is a donation from Abramoff defies logic. How does the Post justify passing on what appears to be nothing but GOP spin as fact?

Howard Kurtz: Howell's column Sunday said that a number of Democrats "have gotten Abramoff campaign money." That was inartfully worded. I believe what she was trying to say, and I have not discussed this with her, is that some Democrats have received campaign cash from Abramoff clients, and that this may have been orchestrated by the convicted lobbyist. That's why you have a number of Democrats (as well as many Republicans, now including Denny Hastert) giving back the tainted dough or donating it to charity. Even National Review Editor Rich Lowry says this is basically a Republican scandal -- we are talking about a Bush fundraiser and Tom DeLay pal -- but where the tangled web has extended to Democrats, we need to mention that too.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Hello Howard. Here's one for the mythical cable news/ cyberspace suggestion box: A hard news cable channel with no agenda, right or left, with no sensationalism allowed. Not a single tabloid ratings ploy allowed. Hard news and investigative journalism would be the foundation. You could do week night, prime time show about the media. Perhaps my suggestion belongs in the fantasy land box, but I would LOVE a hard news cable channel. Could this possibly work?

Howard Kurtz: If someone put up enough money and the channel could attract enough viewers to generate advertising revenue, sure. But keep in mind that investigative reporting is time-consuming and expensive, and not only for television networks.

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Columbia, Md.: Actually, the questioner was right, the Speaker is elected by the entire House of Representatives. It is just the case that the majority party has more votes (obviously) and therefore, as long as they all vote for the same person, that person will become Speaker.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, which is why the decision is essentially made by the majority party.

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Wilmington, Del.: Why wasn't there any pithy media coverage of the debacle on the new Medicare program, prior to Congress' vote, and created when the head of the Medicare program cost the taxpayers additional millions of dollars (to fatten the pharmaceutical industries) to subsidize them to compete with the U.S. government for programs? After the legislation was passed, he promptly left the administration and now lobbies for the pharmaceutical industry. If this isn't fraud, I guess I don't know what is.

Howard Kurtz: You must have been out of the country or something. There was an avalanche of coverage when the Medicare drug program was being debated and passed, with the question of how much it would cost and how it would work very much front and center. There was also heavy coverage when the cost estimates turned out to be way understated amid complaints of political pressure to lowball the thing.

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Actually...I Agree...: Actually, I agree with you that there should be coverage of groups that attack, fairly or unfairly, Murtha or Kerry.

My only gripe is that I rarely see the media give saturation coverage to groups that attack prominent Republicans. There should be balance.

The one exception is Al Gore's attack on Bush...

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure the Bush White House would beg to differ on the question of anti-Republican attacks.

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Burke, Va.: "Should the media never have carried a word about the Swift Boat Veterans trying to torpedo Kerry (which began with some paid TV ads)?"

I'm not sure - the whole point of the ads was to get media types to discuss it. Then it was often done in a "view from the right" and "view from the left" format, instead of a debunking of the charges. If the same thing happens with Murtha people will know they can say anything and it'll be taken seriously.

Howard Kurtz: There was a very serious effort to investigate and challenge the Swift Boat charges by several newspapers, including this one. The problem, as I've written before, is that the newspapers waited at least a couple of weeks to begin their efforts -- while television played the ads, and the controversy, over and over -- because the Swift Boat business was initially not seen as a major political issue as Kerry tried to ignore it.

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Springfield, Va.: So it's the job of the reporters and editors to "make an independent judgment" about what to print. And when those stories reveal sources and methods, resulting in helping terrorists, will those same reporters and editors accept the blame? Has The Post or the NYT reported on the surge in sales of disposable cell phones - harder to trace - that has occurred since the publication of classified NSA information?

Howard Kurtz: The fact that The Post omitted the locations of the secret CIA prisons -- and the New York Times waited a year to publish the eavesdropping story -- shows that the papers do consider national security and administration requests. In fact, there has been substantial liberal criticism of both papers on those points.

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Cannon Falls, Minn.: You asked in your column how reporters can forget about Abramoff being completely tied to Republicans? Well your own ombudsman did so on Sunday with her column talking about Democrats receiving money from Abramoff.

No Democrats were given money by Abramoff. When will there be a correction to her inaccuracy?

Howard Kurtz: Howell did note at the bottom of her column: "So far, [Post staffers] Schmidt and Grimaldi say their reporting on the investigations hasn't put Democrats in the first tier of people being investigated."

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Philadelphia, Pa.: How do you know "...the Bush White House would beg to differ on the question of anti-Republican attacks."? Do they call you or your paper to complain? Do they keep track of the attacks and let you know the tally?

Howard Kurtz: I read their rhetoric, and that of their allies, every day, just as I do with the Democrats.

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Greenfield, Mass.: To Nashville, Tenn., looking for a news report without sensationalism, I suggest he/she tune into the Lehrer report on PBS.

Howard Kurtz: That thought occurred to me as well. Of course, being on PBS does, to a considerable degree, free you from the tyranny of ratings.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Is there a high amount of collegiality between Washington lawyers that supercedes ideology? The reason I asked is that there are several liberal lawyers who supported John Roberts and support Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. Abbie Lowell, who represented Bill Clinton and Gary Condit, is representing Jack Abramoff. These liberal lawyers certainly aren't helping their political causes by doing this.

Howard Kurtz: The prevailing ethos among lawyers, liberal or conservative, is that all clients are entitled to representation (especially if they can pay). Now I'm sure there are some attorneys who refuse to take cases that conflict with their basic core values, but most represent defendants who wouldn't necessarily hit it off at a party.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard,

Love the chats! I never thought I'd be writing this, but -- who do readers write to of they are unhappy with a paper's ombudsman? I given Howell the benefit of the doubt over the past two or three months, but this is getting ridiculous! Do readers have any recourse, or are we stuck with her til her contract expires?

By the way, given your excellent media analysis, if you ever get sick of reporting, I think you'd make a wonderful ombudsman...

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. Like I don't have enough headaches already.

Well, readers who are unhappy with what the ombudsman says can write letters to the editor, post messages on the new Post blog (as apparently hundreds have done regarding Deborah Howell's last column) or vent in chats like this one. But each ombudsman has a fixed contract, so you don't get to vote on whether that person stays on the job.

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Washington, D.C.: Your response to Fort Washington, Md. missed the point. Howell falsely claimed in her column of Abramoff that "he had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties." Your additional quote from her column does not make that claim less false.

Why did she make that false claim, and what is The Post going to do about it.

And why did you change the subject in your response to Fort Washington?

Howard Kurtz: I have not delved deeply into this myself, but I believe it would have been more accurate to say that Abramoff steered contributions to politicians of both parties.

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The Blogosphere: Howie,

Kudos to you for rejecting Jeff Jarvis' "standards" of journalism in today's column.

Jarvis recently smeared the 9/11 Commission, blaming them for FEMA's poor response to Katrina. He claimed that the commission "browbeat Washington" into folding FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, thereby reducing FEMA's power and ability to respond to natural disasters. Jarvis' readers pointed out the the reorganization predated the Commission's report and that the Commission had nothing to do with it. Jarvis was shamed into issuing a whiny, self-pitying retraction.

See for yourself:

The Buzz Machine

If Business Week or any other reputable publication followed the Jarvis model, it would lose revenue from advertisers interested in accuracy and be laughed out of the industry.

Howard Kurtz: Without accepting your description of Jarvis's argument about the 9/11 commission...it's a blog. He fills it with his opinions, analyses and rants for people to agree or disagree with. And even if he was wrong on that particular issue, does it make him wrong on every issue? I found his takedown of "scoops" provocative, but rather unrealistic.

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Titusville, Fla.: Re. Speaker of the House, you wrote, "Yes, which is why the decision is essentially made by the majority party."

Only if there's just one candidate. If not, a united Democratic party could vote for whichever Republican they think is the least offensive, and this vote would be decisive if Republican members were split among different candidates. Christopher Shays, anyone?

Howard Kurtz: Good point, theoretically. I can't recall that ever happening, though.

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Wheaton, Md.: In the run up to the Iraq War, The Washington Post editorial page strongly argued for the war, going so far as to deride those who opposed it as "Standing with Saddam." The intensity with which they argued might have led people to think they had actually been to Saddam's WMD stockpiles and seen them pointing to Washington, DC. It has been a real eye opener the way they have blithely ignored the mistake they have made. How come they haven't apologized?

Howard Kurtz: It's an opinion page and the editorial board has addressed it as they see fit. That doesn't mean you or I have to agree. I did a lengthy front-page piece in 2004 on The Post's shortcomings on the WMD issue in the runup to war, but this dealt with the newsroom coverage.

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Fairfax, Va.: Today's Post article on Gore's speech devoted less than half the paragraphs to what Gore actually said leaving out a major point ( how one-party control works against the normal cyclical process of correcting presidential excess). The rest of the article was an attempt to rebut Gore's scathing criticism of the administration. Why didn't The Post just cover Gore and leave it to the columnists to present counter-arguments? And why didn't The Post print the text of what Gore said so the readers could see for themselves the full scope of his serious critique of the President?

Howard Kurtz: By my count, the first six paragraphs of the story deal with what Gore said. Then there are two paragraphs of what recent polling shows, and four paragraphs of Republican comments. Do the math.

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Columbia, Md.: Former Vice President Gore gives a cogent well argued speech, but all we hear trumpeted in the media are the RNC talking points of "shrill", inject himself" written into the text of "fair and balanced" reporting. When will we get straight reporting without the consent hyping of RNC spin?

Howard Kurtz: Today's Post story devotes one paragraph to a comment from an RNC spokesman. Maybe you've been watching too much television.

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Eugene, Ore.: Why do I have to read about Sen. Arlen Spector, a Republican, even mentioning the possibility of impeachment at Agence France Press instead of The Post or the NYTimes?

According to the article I read, Spector, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was appearing on ABC's "This Week" and insisted he wouldn't give the president a "blank check."

And, according to the article, when asked what could happen if lawmakers find Bush in violation of the law, Specter answered: "Impeachment is a remedy. After impeachment, you could have a criminal prosecution, but the principal remedy ... under our society is to pay a political price."

This, by any standard, is news. Why wasn't it in the major dailies Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't had a chance to check the Times, but Arlen Specter's comment on "This Week" appears on Page 3 of today's Post, in the article about Gore's attack on Bush. Specter did qualify, as you probably know, by saying "I'm not suggesting remotely that there's any basis" for impeachment.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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