Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 13, 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 Monday, Feb. 13, at noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read today's Media Notes: Under Siege , ( Post, Feb. 13, 2005 )

The transcript follows.

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Valparaiso, Ind.: Howie, I was interested by the Coretta Scott King funeral discussion on your Sunday show. The news shows I watched that night, "The Lehrer News Hour" and MSNBC's "Countdown," both reported the controversial comments, so I wasn't aware that many large media outlets botched the coverage. But further than that, what do you make of something that Keith Olbermann noted later in the week? He said Fox News edited out the long applause to Rev. Lowery's remarks, then had Morton Kondracke actually comment on the lack of applause.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know whether Fox did such editing or not, but on the King funeral coverage, cable (Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews, Olbermann, Hannity) was ahead of the broadcast networks and many of the big newspapers (the LAT was a prominent exception). As I wrote last week, a lot of the big news organizations did the predictable Thousands-Praise-Mrs. King stories and devoted little if any space to the remarkable spectacle of Jimmy Carter and Rev. Joseph Lowery, among others, criticizing an incumbent president who sat on the stage behind them. Maybe this was appropriate at a funeral and maybe it wasn't, but at the very least it was a fascinating development that deserved more initial coverage.

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Berkeley, Calif.: You asked, "should a dissident bureaucrat or independent-minded scientist be able to speak freely to reporters, or should political appointees be able to choke off such communication in the name of message discipline?"

James Hansen's views are mainstream: if we don't make rapid changes in the next 10 years, such as doubling gas mileage and only building new coal power plants with carbon capture and storage, then we are at too great a risk of creating an Earth as different from today's as was the Earth at the height of the ice age. Oh, and then we have to make rapid reductions in carbon emissions afterwards as well.

Hansen has worked for NASA since the Ford administration. His policy suggestions are as mainstream as "Quit smoking" once we acknowledged the health problems of smoking. The U.S. has acknowledged the problems of climate change.

So what makes Hansen dissident or independent-minded?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not characterizing his views on climate change, but he's certainly independent-minded in that he has flouted the concern of his agency bosses in insisting that a government scientist has the right to speak out, and to speak to reporters, about public issues, whether or not his views are in accordance with the Bush administration's. Many government employees in similar situations either don't speak out or talk to journalists off the record.

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Hartford, Conn.: Filing early, because the National Journal/Scooter Libby coverage is so disturbing. I'm not one to ascribe ill motives to the MSM, but the performance in this case, including The Washington Post's, is indefensible. The Fitzgerald documents that implicated Libby's "superiors" in the Plame leak were part of the public record for 11 days before a relatively small publication figured out what they meant. This can lead to only a few conclusions, all bad for a supposed watchdog press: the reporters assigned to the story didn't read them; they were read but their meaning was missed; or their contents were flagged to an editor, who took a pass. I once supervised a suburban news bureau filled with kids fresh out of J-school and I have no doubt many would have figured out what The Post, NY Times and almost everybody else missed.

Howard Kurtz: Given the intense interest in this case, I'm surprised the big newspapers didn't discover the Fitzgerald letter sooner. The Post's story on Feb. 10 says the prosecutor's letter was made public on Feb. 6.

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Anonymous: Why are media commentators so "colorless". When the Coretta Scott King funeral was discussed, Dana Milbank (WP), Jeff Greenfield (CNN), and Andrea Mitchell(NBC) all expressed their dismay about Rev Lowery's comments. while to most in the AA community, they were appropriate at a civil rights leaders funeral.

Ms. Mitchell (on Imus on MSNBC) opined that Bush had recently invited the Congressional Black Caucas to the White House, implying that Lowery's comments were a slap in Bush's face, and if no further "outreach" occurred it would be OK because Blacks weren't grateful.

She said this without also stating that Bush had locked the CBC out of the White House for 4 years, and was cutting education funding and other programs helpful to minorities and the poor.

Isn't the media in as much of a bubble as Bush when it comes to reflecting the views of non-Whites?

Howard Kurtz: Sometimes. Although in watching MSNBC, one of Chris Matthews's main guests was Colby King, a Washington Post columnist and a prominent African-American voice at the paper. I haven't surveyed how the others did on that score. On my show yesterday, we discussed the coverage with Post columnist Gene Robinson and radio host Blaquita Cullum.

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Washington, D.C.: Just to take a moment, I'd like to thank Jim Brady for his piece yesterday, which tied in very well with the Ann Althouse link you provided this morning?

Have you found yourself in similar situations, with bloggers deciding whether you're a pinko lefty traitor or Bush-loving wingnut on an article by article basis rather than bearing in mind the entirety of your work?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, absolutely, sometimes on the same story. But that's fine. I'm a big blog fan and everyone is entitled to post their views. If, over time, some people are utterly partisan, predictable and unpleasant, the audience figures that out over time.

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Anonymous: Howie, on your CNN program on Sunday you had a discussion about the political cartoons which touched off violent protests from angry Muslims, yet you did not show the cartoons in question. The cartoons are innocuous, as your one guest tried to explain... and seeing them is part of the key to understanding the full story in context, by NOT showing them your viewers are done a disservice. (Later in your program while discussing a photo of Bush with Abramoff another guest said, "a picture is worth a thousand words.") If Lou Dobbs was able to show the cartoons on his show, why were you unable to show them on your CNN program? (You seemed to go to a lot of trouble to make sure an anti-Semitic cartoon of Ariel Sharon made the airwaves, even if at first the control room couldn't get the tape to play the first time around.)

Howard Kurtz: Lou Dobbs did not show the cartoons; he said he disagreed with CNN management's decision not to air them. So the decision was made by CNN, not me, just as the top editors of The Washington Post have decided not to reprint them. I have conflicting feelings--obviously, the Mohammed cartoons are not innocuous to many Muslims, and I understand editors not wanting to gratuitously offend some of their readers and viewers. At the same time, no one's offered a good answer as to why other kinds of offensive cartoons (such as the anti-Semitic ones I mentioned) are all right to show while the ones that have sparked violent protests around the world are not. Of course, anyone who wants to see the cartoons can find them online in about five seconds.

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Arlington, Va.: Mabey the efforts to restrict comments by some officials would not be so heavy handed if the news media accurately reported - including in the headlines - that the statements being made were just the personal opinion of the individual. Too often some "expert" wants to use his position of responsibility within an agency to support his opinions - and the reporters and headline writers don't make the personal opinion part clear to all readers.

Howard Kurtz: But is the opinion of a government scientist about a scientific matter solely a "personal" opinion? Personally, no matter what the dispute, I like to see what career employees (Justice lawyers, FDA researchers, EPA experts) have to say, as opposed to the political appointees who run these departments and agencies.

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Wake Forest, N.C.: If Al Gore had shot someone in a hunting accident it would have been front page news for weeks. This morning the online Washington Post doesn't even mention Cheney shooting a fellow "hunter". I read that out of the million hunters in Texas, there were only 29 accidental shootings last year. So the idea floated by the "liberal" media that it happens all the time is bogus. This was sheer incompetence and negligence on the part of Cheney and should be reported as such. Cheney gives all responsible hunters a bad name.

Howard Kurtz: I just went to The Post's Web site and it's the second story, right under the lead about the Shiites nominating Jafari as Iraq's prime minister. It's on the front page of The Post's print edition this morning, and the New York Times print edition; USA Today gives it a box above the fold keying to a story inside. So I'd hardly say the accident (you do believe it was an accident, don't you?) is being underplayed.

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Washington, D.C.: I've been surprised in all the discussions about Katie Couric leaving "Today" that Ann Curry's name has not been mentioned as her successor. She's certainly been the good soldier at the newsdesk for a long time, and Matt Lauer made that transition well. Is she a candidate?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know who the candidates are. It's possible that Ms. Couric won't leave and there won't be an opening, so NBC can't very well be shopping her job at the moment.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I like your take on blogs. I think Brady was being way too thin-skinned. I don't see the Post complaining about the way they are continuously falsely assaulted by much louder voices like Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and implicitly by their silence, the entire Republican establishment.

Howard Kurtz: What?? Some of them don't like us???

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Carlisle, Pa.: Can we talk about NBC's Olympics coverage instead of politics, or do you prefer to stick to the media notes on politics? Just wondering your take on the fact that, as pointed out by a comment Dan Steinberg left in his blog today, we're no longer in a time when the nation accepts huddling up around the TV to watch tape delayed Olympic coverage and then talk about it the next day. We're a nation of finding out news immediately, and the formula of wrapping events around stories during prime time when the events occurred eight hours ago is quickly becoming passe.

Howard Kurtz: This is not the first Olympics where that's been an issue. Naturally, NBC pays zillions and wants to put the best stuff on in prime time, but just as naturally a lot of people are finding out the results on cable and the Net.

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Boston, Mass.: I missed all the Sunday morning newsprograms because all the networks had 6-8 hours of straight weather coverage - but I could see out my window that it was snowing. Also, weather is taking up a larger part of the nightly news. Why? Is it good for ratings? I think 45 seconds is enough to learn what you need to know, and the extra coverage usually just confuses matters.

Howard Kurtz: I always have trouble understanding the value of having reporters stand out in the cold and get snowed on, but yes, ratings for local TV and cable spike when there's a blizzard. Team coverage and all that.

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Washington, D.C.: I thought Jim Brady's Op-Ed yesterday was an embarrassing bit of whining. He's getting the vapors cause he got lots of emails -- including many uncivil ones. Big deal -- he works for a prominent newspaper whose ombudsman had made a glaring error on a very controversial issue. He needs to get a thicker skin or start selling shoes for a living.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the issue was the e-mails that he personally got. The issue was whether post.com's blog should remain open for comments when a torrent of those comments were obscene or abusive. Whatever you think of Brady's response, he's a guy who's been trying to make the site more interactive by adding more blogs, live chats and easier e-mail through the latest innovation, clickable bylines.

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Austin, Tex.: In a Sunday Times (London) column, Andrew Sullivan says some American newspapers decided against running the Mohammed cartoons not out of deference to people's feelings but out of fear of violent retaliation.

If that's true, it sort of casts the issue in a whole new light.

Do you have any reason to think that it is?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure the fact that there have been violent protests around the world was in the back of many editors' minds, but I also believe that they prefer to avoid gratuitously offending a segment of their readership.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think that the Cheney hunting accident is more important than the fact that senators from both sides of the aisle have called for investigations into his authorization of the selective dissemination of classified information to bolster the case for the Iraq war? A lot of people seem to think so, but I feel like it would not be too biased for the press to point out that a lot of people have hunting accidents, but not very many start wars.

Howard Kurtz: I don't see the stories as being in competition. The call for an investigation of Cheney's role in the CIA leak case is important, and the strange spectacle of the vice president of the United States accidentally shooting a man is also news.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why the 24 hour delay of reporting the Cheney hunting accident? Was this to have time to spin the story or hoped that it could have been covered up.

Howard Kurtz: I find it inexplicable. How could it possibly have been covered up? And why would the White House wait a day? McClellan being grilled on this question as I type.

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Miami Shores, Fla.: Howie, back to the Coretta Scott King funeral: the right wing press (O'Reilly, Rush, Hannity, National Review) used the funeral to punish Jimmy Carter in particular for his surveillance comments. Even though Carter was referring to surveillance conducted by the FBI on LBJ's watch, the criticism is that this "implicitly" was critical of the President because he has authorized warrantless searches.

Is this too bone-headed for words? Should Carter not have referred to an extremely difficult period in their lives (when the FBI sent tapes of MLK making love with his mistress to Coretta) just because the President might feel vaguely "uncomfortable"?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't have any problem with Carter's surveillance comment, since Martin Luther King was famously the victim of an out-of-control FBI, even though that could be read as an allusion to the current eavesdropping controversy. I thought Carter's swipe about minorities being ill served by the administration's response to Katrina was more pointed.

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Baltimore, Md.: Re Jim Brady's Sunday piece: unlike some other posters, I thought Brady's take on what had happened was measured and thoughtful. Whether people are on the left or the right, the idea that you can send e-mails full of the vilest language--ANONYMOUSLY--and not expect to be edited out is simply childish. If you are going to send hate mail, at least have the guts to sign your name.

Howard Kurtz: I do think having people sign their names would do a lot to help the tone of online discourse, as well as require people to take responsibility for their comments. You can say anything from behind a curtain of anonymity.

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WHPB: you said "McClellan being grilled on this question as I type."

Where are you watching the briefing? I can't find it on CSPAN, and I try to watch it every day. Why doesn't washingtonpost.com link to it?

Howard Kurtz: Fox and now CNN are up with it. MSNBC is showing hockey.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard, I admit I haven't been following as closely as I should be, but why hasn't there been more outrage about the James Hansen/NASA story? This seems to me to be a huge story, but I don't think it's cracked the front pages. Thanks for the chat!

Howard Kurtz: You know, we report these stories (that one was broken by the New York Times), but we don't control the outrage department. The head of NASA may have tamped things down by publicly proclaiming that employees should not be muzzled and that he would follow an open policy.

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Raleigh, N.C.: For anonymous.

Under President Bush, spending on education has increased about 75%, more of an increase than under any previous president. There have been huge increases in domestic spending on social programs (read "welfare") and the Bush administration has increased spending on AIDS research more than any administration previously. All facts can be verified online.

Maybe he isn't "dissing" the black community as one would necessarily think.

Howard Kurtz: Look, the administration can, and does, make its case about what it's done for the minority community. The president also talks about appointing blacks to high-level positions, such as two secretaries of state. But the fact remains that, at least according to polls, George W. Bush is overwhelmingly unpopular among African-Americans, and it's certainly fair to mention that as a matter of political context.

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Bethesda, Md.: Noon TV news said that the Cheney shooting was "accidental". Shouldn't that be allegedly accidental? How do we know its accidental without an investigation? What are "good" media rules on this?

Howard Kurtz: I think this will require a special prosecutor.

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Iowa: Katrina coverage (and real attention from the administration) has been scant recently, but now we have a sizable report calling it a "failure of leadership" that left people stranded when they were most in need. " Will this report get as much airtime as this year's Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, maybe more. Even though New Orleans is no longer at the top of the radar screen, I think national news organizations have continued to devote a substantial amount of attention to the painfully slow pace of the cleanup and recovery there, as we saw again Friday with Brownie's testimony on the Hill. The Post got a leak of a draft of the report to which you refer and led Sunday's paper with it, if my memory is correct.

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Falls Church, Va.: For any ordinary citizen, aren't we required to file a police an occurrence of a gun injury, especially one requiring hospitalization. Did Cheney file such a report?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know, but I bet we'll find out in the next 24 hours. There are still unanswered questions here, not least of which is why the White House allowed this to be disclosed by the rancher to the local Corpus Christi paper rather than notifying the national press. The White House press corps just spent about half an hour badgering McClellan about this and didn't get very satisfactory answers.

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Lake Forest, Calif.: Good morning Mr. Kurtz....there is something missing in the reporting regarding VP Cheney shooting accident. How did the person who was shot get to the hospital? Were the paramedics called? Doesn't a gaggle of reporters follow Cheney around? Isn't it required that gunshot wounds be reported to the authorities? If so, aren't there reporters who cover the "police beat", as seen in the movies and TV shows? Considering that the story involved the VP of the United States, it just doesn't make sense that this story could not be reported for 24 hours after it happened.

Howard Kurtz: There's a whole lot of details missing, because we didn't know about this until yesterday afternoon. No public statement or appearance so far by Cheney.

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Richmond, Va.: Re: comments at the Coretta Scott King funeral: at the funeral of a civil rights leader, what are people supposed to talk about? Did anyone say anything that was untrue? If so, what? If the truth embarrasses Bush, maybe he should stay inside his bubble. His idea of listening to the American people seems to be wiretap them.

Howard Kurtz: My position is not whether the criticism should or shouldn't have been made, but simply that it was newsworthy and should not have been played down or ignored in the initial stories on the funeral.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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