Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 6, 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, March 6, at noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Television's Aging Rock Star , ( Post, March 6, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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Selden, N.Y.: Is it lawful for the White House to leak to selected reporters and yet try to punish other reporters for using their sources in other branches of the administration?

Howard Kurtz: If it was against the law, people from every administration would be in jail. Though I'm not sure what law it would violate. In fact, the Bush administration does relatively little leaking, and relatively little "punishing," if only because the reporters have so little access and so little ability to obtain inside information that there's not much to take away from them.

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Arlington, Va.: Really, Howard. Bob Schieffer, a "rock star"? Who writes your headlines? I know Mick Jagger's about his age by now, but that's just sad. I don't know where the CBS ad salesmen are turning cartwheels over still being in third.

Howard Kurtz: That was an online headline that was meant to be ironic. :) Maybe too ironic, judging from your reaction.

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Alexandria, Va.: Last week in answer to a question on why so many of the comments in The Post political chats are so left-wing, your answer was simply that conservatives weren't sending in very many comments. I disagree. Based on my experience people are sending in comments from a right-wing point of view, it is simply that your journalists refuse to post them.

I myself used to try to send in such comments, but after my last half dozen or so were ignored, I have just about given up making the effort. And I want to stress, I am not one of those people who sends in a comment to every chat (one a week would be quite frequent for me) nor did any of my comments use bad language or make personal attacks or any of the other reasons that they might legitimately not have been posted.

I think the reason is simply that your bloggers, being 100% liberal themselves, simply found my comments and those of other conservatives to be "not interesting" and therefore not worthy of sharing. However, there always seems to be room to post yet another comment wanting to know when The Post will call for the impeachment of President Bush or praising the work of Cindy Sheehan.

Maybe you are right, though, and other person with a right-wing point of view like myself don't send in very many comments to your chats anymore because they have learned it is futile to do this. I frankly don't think this comment will be posted either, but at least I will know that I tried.

Howard Kurtz: There. You made it.

I can only speak for my own chats, and I try to include different points of view.

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Re: Hannity: Howard, since you've reported on the controversy over Hannity making campaign appearances, can I ask: are Washington Post opinion writers (or Newsweek opinion writers like Anna Quindlen) subject to any official rules or perception-of-partisanship frowns if they were to make campaign donations or appearances?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know about Newsweek, and believe Anna Quindlen is a contributor, not a full time employee, but at The Washington Post all editorial staff members are barred from making campaign donations. I wrote about it a year or two ago when a couple of them did, or said their spouses did without their knowledge.

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Arlington, Va.: What is The Post's current stance regarding its claim of 1300 dead at the Baghdad morgue following the most recent unrest? No other news outlet has reported deaths higher than (I think) 379, but The Post, as far as I know, has neither substantiated its number nor recanted it.

Howard Kurtz: The Post is standing by its story, as ombudsman Deborah Howell reported yesterday.

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Arlington, Va.: Last week the Associated Press started another national media frenzy by reporting that Bush had lied when he said he was not warned about levees breaching in New Orleans. Then late Friday the wire service finally issued a "clarification" admitting that they were wrong, and that they had confused overtopping with breaching. I guess we are supposed to believe that there was no dictionary in the AP office at the time the story was written. Is there any way to hold a wire service accountable for this type of misleading reporting? Do they even have an ombudsman?

Howard Kurtz: I'm fairly certain the AP does not have an ombudsman, and since it is a cooperative whose material is used by hundreds of news organizations, there's no easy way to express your displeasure (as you could by, for example, refusing to buy the local paper if you were upset with its reporting). I do give the AP credit for acknowledging its error, but that mistake probably set the tone for some of the early did-Bush-lie coverage.

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Arlington, Va.: Thanks for your article on Bob Schieffer. He's one of my favorites, and I think you captured what makes him appealing, i.e., he talks like a real person and he asks questions as if he really wants to know the answers.

Given that he's a short-timer, is there anyone younger in this mold who you think might replace him? (I'm hoping K. Couric will stay at NBC. I just can't take her seriously. Schieffer may be informal, but that's distinctly different from fluffy.)

Howard Kurtz: This is one subject on which I can tell you that my opinion doesn't count. Otherwise I might be tempted to say, why not lock Schieffer in the building and force him to keep anchoring? CBS is trying mightily to lure Katie Couric, and if the network has a Plan B, no one has told me about it. The earlier heir apparent, John Roberts, has now left CBS for CNN after being passed over.

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Sims, N.C.: Why does The Post not have more investigative journalism? It seems that most of the investigative journalism done at The Post is follow up to stories that break at other papers or on the network news. Why do you never acknowledge in your column the great investigative work done by 60 Minutes. They had another great report last night about the cover up of prisoner abuse by the higher ups at the Pentagon. I know you don't exactly like Rather, but CBS is one of the few networks willing to hold the administrations feet to the fire.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know why you conclude I don't like Rather, or CBS, and I've been watching 60 Minutes for 35 years. Sometimes pieces that appear on 60 Minutes are follow ups of stories that have been done locally, but the program also does good original work. As for The Post, it's widely recognized as one of the leading investigative papers in the country, and has won a slew of Pulitzers for such work, so I'm not quite sure how you reached your conclusion.

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New York, N.Y.: On your show, Reliable Sources, David Gergen said "this administration has engaged in secrecy at a level we have not seen in over 30 years. Unfortunately, I have to bring up the name of Richard Nixon, because we haven't seen it since the days of Nixon." My question is, will the latest scare tactics by the White House intimidate journalists? Or will it embolden them to dig even deeper? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Interesting comment coming from Gergen, who worked for Richard Nixon. I don't think it's a question of being intimidated. I do think that any reporter who relies on anonymous sources now has to think twice and three times about whether he or she is willing to go to jail if necessary to protect the sources, and as a result whether the story at hand is worth doing. Also, some sources themselves may be growing more cautious because of this highly charged environment.

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Falls Church, Va.: Howard, aside from the "stand by our story" business, isn't it jarring for readers to see the "1,300" pushed on Page One, and then a couple of days later, they're told on A-10 that the rest of the media thinks the Post is out on a limb alone with that number? Doesn't it appear a little odd (or appear intimidated by irritable lefty bloggers) for Howell to merely say "don't see anything wrong, la la la"?

Howard Kurtz: I agree with the jarring part, but I believe Deborah Howell made a good-faith effort to examine what The Post reported and why. It's not one of those stories that can be easily proved or disproved.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Your column "What Did He Know" seems to attempt to mitigate the seriousness of Max Mayfield's concern as to "whether the levees will be topped or not." You state that this "is still a huge deal, but not a full-scale breach." In fact, had there been a direct hit at CAT 5 force level, the wall of water coming over the levees everywhere simultaneously would have caused much greater loss of life, than the water coming in gradually through a few breaches of several hundred feet. Anyone who has seen what happened to the Egyptian Army in the movie the Ten Commandments, or remembers the 2004 Asian tsunami can appreciate this. This is corroborated by the fact that General Strock of the Army Corps of Engineers appeared on the NewsHour and maintained that the flooding had been caused by overtopping, a position the Corps successfully maintained for weeks.

Howard Kurtz: Look, I don't want to live in a city where the levees are overtopped during a hurricane. But when we examine whether Bush was telling the truth or not about anticipating the levees might be breached, you have to deal with the meaning of the word breached. Even on that score, though, some experts had been warning for years, if not in the days before Katrina, that the New Orleans levees could not hold back a truly monster storm.

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Washington, D.C.: On your CNN show yesterday, you and a guest mentioned that the only media outlets remaining in New Orleans post-Mardi Gras were the New York Times, CNN and one other (I forget what it was). The Oscar ceremony broadcast last night included comments that there are six movies currently being shot in New Orleans documenting the current situation. Do these count as news media?

Howard Kurtz: They count as media, but clearly not news media. I didn't make the comment; it was New Orleans TV anchor Norman Robinson who cited NBC, CNN and the New York Times as the news organizations that have most consistently covered the aftermath of Katrina. I would say The Post has devoted a lot of resources to the story as well.

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Alexandria, Va.: A differing opinion on Schieffer's Q&As with reporters. Asking a reporter like Sharyl Attkisson whether Chertoff is going to resign sounds more like a MoveOn question than a journalist's question. Does Schieffer or Sharyl know he's on the verge, or is this just political posturing, building up someone's perception of unpopularity/incompetence?

Schieffer's questions seem to me more about manufacturing CW than about getting "sidebar" information out of reporters.

Howard Kurtz: I couldn't disagree more. Just asking the question is not evidence of bias; it's an effort to provide some political context for a story that's just been reported. It's equally important to look at the answer. For the record, here is the exchange.

SCHIEFFER: Do you think, Sharyl, that Chertoff's job is on the line here?

ATTKISSON: I think it's hard to tell. It depends on the president's support, of course, which seems unwavering at this point. But anytime you have Republicans just as harsh with their criticism as some Democrats, I think you have an issue.

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Wilmington, N.C.: You wrote: "I don't think it's a question of being intimidated. I do think that any reporter who relies on anonymous sources now has to think twice and three times about whether he or she is willing to go to jail if necessary to protect the sources, and as a result whether the story at hand is worth doing." How is that not a question of intimidation?

Howard Kurtz: To me, intimidation is when you're scared to do a story. What I'm suggesting here is a cold-eyed calculation of the possible consequences of doing a difficult story. Of course, reporters have always done that, considering not just the question of being forced to testify (a practice that did not start with the Bush administration) but the possibility of being sued for libel.

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Bob Schieffer: Will CBS go back to real reporter types like Schieffer and Cronkite or will they stick with the other network choices: pretty faces, great legs, muchado hairdoos, smooth voices?

In other words, is it important world news adapted for TV audiences today or celebrity humint masquerading as significance?

Now ask me why I get all of my news online excepting C-SPAN and PBS/NPR.

Thanks much.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the fact that Schieffer is in the anchor chair tells you it's not just about pretty faces. And I must say that good-looking bubbleheads don't last long in network news. But nobody ever said that being attractive, for men or women, was a handicap in the television business.

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New York, N.Y.: I think much of Bob Schieffer's appeal is his age and familiarity. We are in a period of extreme divisiveness and insecurity - both domestically and internationally. The "trust" that we citizens voluntarily extend to our leaders is diminishing rapidly as more instances of mendacity (Iraq, Katrina, Medicare & Social Security "reform")are uncovered. The economic growth of the middle class has stalled and with it our faith in the future. At times like this people often look for figures who represent stability (and a bit of grandfatherliness never hurts -see Reagan, R.) I think Brian Williams is succeeding because he is able to project middle class values without the angry economic discomfort. The ABC team is broken.

Howard Kurtz: Schieffer and Williams also happen to be very experienced journalists. Personality and demeanor count for a great deal in anchoring, but so does the fact that Schieffer has covered the White House and Congress and other Washington beats and hosted a Sunday talk show for more than a decade, and the fact that Williams has covered the White House, been to Iraq and hurricanes and tsunamis, and anchored a cable news show for years. As for ABC, I think the comment is a bit unfair when one of the two anchors was hospitalized less than a month after taking over for serious injuries sustained from a roadside bomb in Iraq.

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Orange, Va.: Dan Rather makes a appearance at a backyard Texas fundraiser as a favor to his daughter and you write a front page story about it. Sean Hannity engages in much more active campaigning for Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and you bury the item in the media notes column as just something liberals would complain about. Why such disparate treatment?

Howard Kurtz: Because Dan Rather was a network news anchor whose job description called for him to be fair, and Sean Hannity is a cable and radio commentator who takes a partisan side every day. I still think there's a line between on-air partisanship and helping candidates raise money, which is why I wrote about it.

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Tucker Carlson: is wrong. He should have mentioned his father's close relationship to Scooter Libby before Tucker attacked the prosecutor's case. It doesn't mean he can't comment on the case, but the public should have known about his father's relationship. His argument that his father's views are not his is bogus. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's always a good idea to err on the side of full disclosure. Then you defuse any criticism and people can make up their own minds about whether your views are influenced by whatever personal connection you may have to a story.

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Chicago, Ill.: One likely reason why there aren't more conservative comments posted in these chats is because the conservative viewpoint usually seems so predictable. If the questions that do get posted are any indication, it seems conservative criticism pretty much consists of arguing that anyone attacking the President (or the right) is biased. There's nothing particularly thought-provoking or interesting about reading a bunch of those comments. If conservatives have something substantive to say about the pressing issues of the day, I'd love to read them, too, but when the President is at 35% and his policies are collapsing around him, it's fair to assume that the majority of posters will be critical. Bush is a big boy, he should be able to take it. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: We're not making any distinction here on the "quality" of the viewpoints expressed. If someone has a provocative question, I try to answer it whether or not they're coming from the left or right, which is often pretty clear from the language used.

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Arlington, Va.: I think that CBS's highlighting of their correspondents is a good way to transition from Bob Schieffer to whoever will replace him because we will still be able to associate with the correspondents regardless of who is in the anchor chair. Lara Logan's series on India shows a great willingness to highlight a correspondent and give a context to a major story, Bush's trip to India, at the same time.

Howard Kurtz: I thought Lara Logan's series on India was terrific, as was a series by ABC's Jim Sciutto. My criticism is why the networks wait until a president is visiting to tell us about life in the world's largest democracy, or many other countries around the world that only seem to make the network news when there's an earthquake, flood or terror attack.

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Re: Oscars: Howie, as a conservative, this is what drives me nuts: the New York Times lady yesterday telling you that this Scaife-like liberal film-subsidizer from Canada is not liberal, he's merely a guy who's interested in promoting "social good." Shouldn't reporters be more resistant to spin, instead of spinning it out?

Howard Kurtz: What makes you so certain that Sharon Waxman isn't right? I don't know this fellow who helped finance three of the finalist films and haven't researched it, so I have no way of judging.

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Media, Pa.: Is National Public Radio not considered part of the "news media"? They've covered the Katrina story consistently and with depth over the past six months: Six Months After Katrina

Howard Kurtz: Of course NPR is part of the news media and should be commended for its Katrina efforts. I'm not the one who singled out the other news outlets.

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Southern West Virginia: Howard, thanks for this chat. This is a non-partisan question! Has the national media spent any real time on the selling of our ports to foreign companies? Related question: Has the media reported on our utility companies being bought by foreign companies? Absolutely horrified me to know that both situations exist. Without this UAE port mess, I would never have known we outsourced the ports so to speak. Until recently I didn't know my state water supply was German owned. Geeez, West Virginia water ought to belong to West Virginians. U.S. ports ought to be operated by Americans, not the Brits, Arabs or Chinese!

Howard Kurtz: It seems to me the media have spent a tremendous amount of time on the ramification of the ports issue since belatedly jumping on the Dubai story. I haven't seen anything on foreign ownership of utilities, but of course I don't see everything. The irony of the UAE firestorm is the greater danger, which many of the stories have noted, and that is the failure to inspect 95 percent of the cargo that comes into U.S. ports.

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New York, N.Y.: I'm hoping you'll take a non-political question. The AP story on the Academy Awards starts out with the line, "Crash pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history, winning best picture Sunday..." How does a reporter back up such a claim? The ballots are secret and I've heard for weeks that Crash had the "buzz" and Brokeback had lost the momentum. So what justifies a claim such as the one above? I'm not criticizing, I am truly curious.

Howard Kurtz: Lots of people called it an upset. What it really means, of course, is that what was upset was the media's pre-game handicapping, based on little more than buzz, studio PR and gut instincts, all of which produced the guess that Crash was unlikely to win.

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Greensboro, N.C.: First of all let me say I love your chats & columns. They are always very enlightening and entertaining. Keep up the great work!

In the wake of the young woman who was found brutally murdered last weekend in NYC, the media released a lot of very lurid details about her death (raped, strangled, sodomized, etc. etc). My question is this: in such circumstances, does the victim's family have any right to privacy in regards to how she died or what happened prior to her death? If a victim managed to escape, her identity would be protected under rape shield laws. Who decides what details get released to the press (and what gets published) in these types of situations?

Howard Kurtz: Sadly, once someone is murdered, everything about them, including their background and the brutal details of the killing, seems to become fair game for the media. The stories must be covered, of course. Journalists should, but rarely do, consider the feelings of the family.

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The sole right-winger left in Baltimore, Md.: Regarding the early comment accusing the Post's chatters/editors as leaning left and excluding right-wing questions, I will defend Kurtz--he does indeed generally balance out his viewpoints, and a lot of his responses to leftist queries are more "oh. yeah?" than "yeah!" However, one must factor in the fact that, as far as any of the chats go, the participation in the chats (at least in the ones that have bothered to measure with poll questions, such as Gene Weingarten) lean overwhelmingly left--by factors of 80-20 or 90-10, in the cases I've actually seen.

I guess I'm more disturbed by the tendency of some chatters (Weingarten, Fahri, and others) to let slide a naked insult or slam against the right/Bush, without rebuttal or opening it for discussion. I'm sorry, but even if you despise Bush 43 and Company, if it's not on topic, leave it alone.

Howard Kurtz: Duly noted.

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Williamsburg, Va.: Re: The brief, last spot in today's Media Notes (print edition) about the Pentagon helping bloggers get its message out.

Would love to see a more detailed follow-up to that.

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I got onto it very late. It's certainly an interesting subject, and I'm sure some bloggers will weigh in as well.

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Rockville, Md.: I don't know who writes your editorials, but yesterday's The Case for Democracy was, I think, very good. It had a long-term historical perspective, was non-partisan, and seemed to take a number of different opinions on the matter into consideration. It was intelligent and reasonable, and had a somewhat unexpected conclusion (for the MSM). Consistent readers of editorials often know where one opinion might end up, but not this time. It was very well done.

Howard Kurtz: A positive comment! I need a little time to get over my shock.

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Arlington, Va.: Did you catch Bill Sammon on This Week yesterday? Will it be an Ann Coulter vs. Michael Moore "debate" next week? I hope TW isn't going down the path of the cable show screamfests and battling talking points.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see it. But while Bill Sammon is clearly a conservative (and Fox News contributor), he is a reporter who recently left the Washington Times and has written a (clearly pro-Bush) book based in part on on-the-record interviews with the president, Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman, etc. So I don't think it's fair to put him in the same category as Ann Coulter.

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Springfield, Va.: Tom Shales can be brilliant at times, no doubt, but he was just plain mean to Jon Stewart this morning. I, for one, thought Stewart was quite funny, even if he didn't really push the envelope. He certainly didn't deserve Shale's trashing and at least some critics agree with me: Ebert and Roeper gave him "two thumbs up" according to one report. Shales didn't mention some of the really funny bits that Stewart and his team put together, particularly the lobbying "ads" for nominees and the hilarious unintended "gay" humor of the old westerns. What did you think?

Howard Kurtz: Critics are sometimes a bit mean; that's part of what they do. I thought Jon Stewart was funny at times, flat at others, but it's a tough assignment and would be hard to say it was a blockbuster performance. Most critics I've seen this morning were negative toward Jon. I'm just waiting for the Daily Show sendup of his own performance. Or maybe Stephen Colbert will go negative on him.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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