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Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 24, 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, April 24, at noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read today's Media Notes: Read today's Media Notes:To Blog Or Not To Blog, (Post, April 24, 2006)

The transcript follows.

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DeKalb, Ill.: Dear Mr. Kurtz, you mention today that the information regarding Mary McCarthy and her donations, at least $7,700, to Democratic political campaigns in a single year is "absolutely relevant information" and should have been stated more plainly in The Post's article. However, you were listed as having contributed to the report; did you not object or did you not see the final version of the story? Was the discussion of the donations never a part of the story or was it edited out due to space constraints? Do "contributors" to a report get no say in the final product?

Howard Kurtz: I had nothing -- zero -- to do with that story. I was asked to make some calls from home and not a syllable of my material was used. I did not read it before publication and had no idea what was going to be in it. As I said in my online column this morning, I think it was a mistake not to include Mary McCarthy's Democratic contributions as a detail that might provide a clue about her motivation. That doesn't mean that what she did was wrong, but it is information, which was already reported by others, that readers should have had.

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Bluffton, S.C.: Howard - thanks for the truly fair and balanced article about Brit Hume last week. I'm surprised the WaPo editors let it go through. On another matter - you contributed some information to Sunday's article about CIA officer McCarthy. What exactly was it? Why was there no mention in the article about her having contributed big time to the Kerry campaign?

Howard Kurtz: I just answered the second part. You're "surprised" that Post editors "let" a fair article about a conservative journalist "go through"? I take it you have a low opinion of the editors here, but I have never in my career had a story blocked, watered down or otherwise tinkered with for political or ideological reasons.

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Arlington, Va.: Last November, in an online chat, Post reporter Dana Priest responded to a question about her source being part of a faction of the CIA opposed to the Bush administration's actions by stating: "Most CIA people I've met probably voted for George Bush." While this may be true, it misses the point that her major (only?) source has now been shown to be major contributor to the Democratic party, as is her spouse. Why didn't a good reporter like Dana Priest include this qualifying information in her original story, and why did The Post keep this information out of it's Saturday profile of the CIA officer in question?

Howard Kurtz: As I said, I agree on the profile. We don't know how many sources Dana Priest had for that story. It could have been 12. And the thing that some critics are missing is that the story was true. People leak for all kinds of personal, political and ideological reasons. If you agree to protect a source, you cannot, while that source is anonymous, publish details that might be identifying. What a reporter has to do is take into account the motivations of the source -- is the person dishing dirt on Politician X because he or she hates X -- and work extra hard to confirm the information from independent sources without an ax to grind.

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Washington, D.C.: Several of the Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to journalists that wrote negative pieces about the Bush administration.

I looked back at the Pulitzer Prizes awarded during the Clinton years, and found only one winner wrote negatively about Clinton - Maureen Dowd - who writes negatively about everything, it seems.

Given this disparity, it seems apparent that the board that selects the Pulitzer Prizes is biased to the left. Would you agree? And who are these people?

Howard Kurtz: Not necessarily. The Republicans have controlled everything in Washington for the last several years. Most national stories that get at government secrets is likely to be in the nature of challenging the Bush administration. The lobbyist at the center of a major Hill corruption scandal, Jack Abramoff, happens to be a Republican. The congressman who took $2 million in bribes, Duke Cunningham, happens to be a Republican. (These stories won Pulitzers too, the first one for The Post, the second for the San Diego Union-Tribune.) If there were major exposes involving Democrats last year that were ignored by the Pulitzer board, I'm not aware of them.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there any truth to the rumor that Tony Snow may become the next White House press secretary? Snow worked as a civil servant before - under Bush senior if my memory is correct.

It seems like people are bouncing back and forth between private industry and government "servant" jobs all the time -- and using (in many inventive ways) their government jobs (connections) to become personally wealthy.

Howard Kurtz: It's not a rumor -- Tony Snow is in active discussions about becoming White House press secretary, and has said his health (he battled colon cancer last year) is the major outstanding question at this point. He was director of speechwriting in Bush 41's White House before joining Fox News.

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Washington, D.C.: I was struck by how staged the announcement of McClellan's resignation came off. Given the timing, right after the new chief of staff started, it's fairly obvious that it wasn't McClellan's idea. Yet everyone from the president down acted as though it was. Why not simply be straightforward and admit it was essentially a firing?

Howard Kurtz: There's a long political tradition of allowing officials to bow out gracefully, especially since McClellan has been part of Bush's circle since he was Texas governor. I wouldn't say McClellan was fired so much as that he had his timetable for departing speeded up by half a year or so. But there's no question he did not come up with the idea of stepping down now.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Thank you for calling Mr. Henninger on his one-sided critique of profanity in the blogosphere. I am no prude but the language used these days on-line is cringe-making. Not because it is coarse but because it substitutes for crisp thinking. My father always reminded his children that profanity was a sign of laziness and ignorance. Authors who fill their blogs with expletives sound like shrill 13-year-olds whether they be Lefties or Righties.

Howard Kurtz: I guess some people like the shrill stuff, but it can really undercut the argument the writer is trying to make.

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Chantilly, Va.: I was surprised that the press was not more sympathetic to Wenyi Wang, who spoke out on the persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual movement last week at the White House. The Post editorial Saturday didn't even mention that she's a doctor. Would you rather she have yelled from Lafayette Park where the Chinese president would have never known of her presence? And are we so addicted to cheap cotton shirts and silk blouses that we have to welcome another oppressive and genocidal leader to the White House? After all, this is a government that has encouraged the killing of infant girls for decades, so much so that the male-female ratio is now 150 to 100 in that country. And the reported harvesting of vital organs from healthy Falun Gong members is right up there with the practices of Josef Mengele, in my view. Doctor Wang would be treated as a hero, not a nut, in my view.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I think the issue is that she was admitted by the White House as a member of the press, so she wasn't just some lone protestor standing outside the gates.

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New York, N.Y.: I've seen in a number of stories that CIA Director Porter Goss has said that the Mary McCarthy leaks to Dana Priest were very damaging to our national security. Don't reporters think about that before publishing their stories?

Howard Kurtz: As evidence that journalists do think about such things, Post Editor Len Downie, after meeting with President Bush, decided to withhold the location of the secret CIA prisons (a decision that brought considerable criticism from the left). New York Times Editor Bill Keller, who met with Bush separately, decided to hold the domestic surveillance story for a year (prompting even more criticism from the left). So my view is that while you're free to disagree on where they came down, editors don't take these decisions lightly.

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Clifton, Va.: If we had today's press MSM and press during WW II, poor FDR. The war would have been lost from December 1941 to July 1944. Up until July 1944 the outcome of WW I was still in doubt but I guess we have forgotten that. And yeah FDR and his Secretaries of War and Navy did make some stupid decisions. They would have been raked over the coals about their decisions regarding Atlantic convoys and fighting Europe first. Wonder if ULTRA would have been a secret during the War.

Howard Kurtz: Well, you go to war with the media you have. On the opposite side of that coin, the press never told the country that FDR couldn't walk, either.

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Alexandria, Va.: This may be more of a political question than a media question but isn't it typical for the White House to have identified someone's replacement before the predecessor is fired/allowed to resign? Would the media report it as a major embarrassment for the White House if Tony Snow doesn't accept the job?

Howard Kurtz: It is common but not absolutely standard for the White House to line up a replacement before announcing that so-and-so wants to spend more time with his family. One potential downside, though, is that if the administration started talking to potential successors before announcing that McClellan was leaving, the news probably would have leaked and might have been more embarrassing to Scott. I don't see any great embarrassment to the White House if Snow decides he and his family are not up for the rigors of the job.

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Washington, D.C.: My favorite part of your fine Brit Hume profile was when he said of Fox News, "I think we look conservative to people who are not."

A surprising quote, since one would think Hume's intelligent enough to realize that if Fox "looks conservative" to those who are neither conservative nor liberal, then it could probably be described fairly as having a conservative bias. Is it possible that, in his world view, there is no middle ground?

Howard Kurtz: I can't read his mind. I tried to balance the criticism of him as a conservative hack on a conservative network with his own views about how he sees his role and that of Fox News.

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Crawford, Tex.: Mr. Kurtz, does the fact that a source in the CIA source is a Democrat nullify the story? The secrecy of this administration is evident, and I hope this will not deter whistle blowers, as they seem to be the only checks in our current checks and balances.

Howard Kurtz: How can the story be nullified when the story is true? The Central Intelligence Agency has in fact maintained secret prisons in Eastern Europe that are used to interrogate terror suspects. This wasn't a story where the source's political views -- such as, say, whether Bush is doing a poor job in the war on terror -- were dealt with at all. Now that the CIA has fired the source, it's fair game to debate her motivation, but let's not lose sight of the fact that no one has challenged the factual accuracy of Dana Priest's story.

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....and yet: Not a single firing for the Plame leak.

Why am I not surprised?

Howard Kurtz: Well, Scooter Libby undoubtedly would have been asked to leave after he was indicted for his role in the Plame leak had he not immediately resigned.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi Howard...I see that you contributed to the Post's report in Sunday's paper about CIA firing. What really caught my eye was this paragraph: "The White House also has recently barraged the agency with questions about the political affiliations of some of its senior intelligence officers, according to intelligence officials."

Will there be a purge of independent and democratic agents?

And on another note, where can I contribute to Dana Priest's legal fund? I am afraid that her legal woes will begin very shortly.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know whether there will be a purge but Porter Goss has served notice that he plans to crack down on leaks of sensitive information, so I don't think we've heard the last of this. I doubt there will be a legal defense fund for Dana Priest -- who hasn't even been contacted by investigators, by the way -- because The Post will undoubtedly provide her with legal representation.

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Sewickley, Pa.: Do conservatives in your view seem to flex their muscles disproportionately against women? Ken Starr sent Susan McDougal to prison; White House operatives outed Valerie Plame; CIA chief Goss fired Ms. McCarthy. There seems to be a pattern here.

Howard Kurtz: But that presumes that the CIA went after Mary McCarthy BECAUSE she is a woman, which sounds kind of ludicrous. Plus, haven't conservatives gone after John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Dan Rather and a long list of other, uh, men?

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Re: True story: Howard, you just wrote, "And the thing that some critics are missing is that the story was true." Since no European government has admitted to finding any of these facilities, how do we know that the story was true, and not just a proposal that never got into action?

Howard Kurtz: Well, among other things, no one from the Bush administration has ever, to my knowledge, challenged the story's accuracy. Indeed, in publicly proclaiming the damage to the war on terror and launching a search for the sources, the administration has tacitly acknowledged the story's accuracy. Plus, others have independently named which countries were hosting these secret prisons.

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Washington, D.C.: "Well, you go to war with the media you have"-That is a classic response.

So what do you think is going to happen to Hiltzik? When I first heard about this I thought, suspension is the right way to go, but bring him back after making a point. Then reading your post today, I am really starting to think he has a kinda sketchy pattern of violating rules. Do you have a sense as to what his fate might hold?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. He is by all accounts a very talented reporter and writer who helped win a Pulitzer for the L.A. Times in 1999. Since Times editors have declined to publicly comment while looking into the issues surrounding his blog, I have no way to gauge how seriously they regard what the Times's editor's note describes as a violation of the paper's policy that reporters must identify themselves and not operate under pseudonyms.

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New York, N.Y.: Very good pun on Rumsfeld's line. Thanks. Did the press not think it significant that Holbrooke's column in The Washington Post implied that he was aware of more Rumsfeld criticisms coming from retired generals?

Also, have reporters been looking into the connections between these generals and General Powell? Seems to me it was Powell's Army (and his ideas about the army and how it should be used) that Rumsfeld attacked, and keeps attacking. Is there a story here?

Howard Kurtz: I doubt that Colin Powell put these retired generals up to it, since they seem to have acted independently (although the first couple probably made the path easier for other retired generals to take the unusual step of calling for a Defense secretary to be fired). I hardly think the MSM has uncovered this story, and the point has certainly been made that these ex-generals speak for at least some active-duty people who cannot criticize the head of the Pentagon.

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Anonymous: Dan Henninger column was a brilliant political piece of work. Just a week after the Post had a feature on a angry liberal blogger, Henninger is working conservatives over to get them to believe that it is the liberals that are the angry ones (it's no accident freerepublic.com wasn't mentioned in his column.) Yes, just as earthtones are forever assigned to Al Gore, soon angry will attached to liberals.

Howard Kurtz: Well, there are some angry liberals out there, but no shortage of angry conservatives, either. Maybe you have to give an edge in the anger sweepstakes to the group whose frustrated is fueled by being out of power (conservatives in the Clinton years, although they took Congress in '94; liberals in the Bush years).

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Washington, D.C.: Howard. Love your columns and your chats. My question on "Media Notes" is suggested by your headline of today. Why do you pay so much attention to bloggers in your analysis? Do they reach, on their own, anything like the number of folks that, say might have encountered the reporting, or opining, of a writer published in any of our major newspapers? If not, why do you consider them relevant? (I can say that I am a Web news junkie - and I never access individual blogs, which don't seem to generate new content, just blather about the content - and opinion - that is being put out already by MSM reporters.)

Howard Kurtz: I try to cover the whole media landscape, and I think bloggers are a new and fascinating phenomenon who are clearly having an impact. They've had an impact on the MSM in many ways that stretch beyond the stories about Dan Rather and Eason Jordan. This is the first time in history, really, when a single person who doesn't own a printing press or work at a television station can instantly disseminate his or her views around the world and have a shot at attracting an audience. Plus, as the L.A. Times flap shows, big media organizations (including The Post) are moving into blogs as well in an effort to capture a piece of that action.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Hello Howard,

In defense of Mary McCarthy and Dana Priest, I would like to offer another scenario for the firing of the CIA officer. A career CIA agent sees that the U.S. is shipping people overseas to be tortured and sometimes killed. She believes that this behavior is immoral and un-American. She believes regime change, American-style, is in order. She contributes to the president's opponent and reveals the information to the press. National security has not been damaged. What has been damaged is White House credibility. She has pulled back the curtain a little and revealed him.

Howard Kurtz: Whether national security has been damaged is debatable, but we don't know the motivations of Mary McCarthy because, so far at least, she hasn't said anything publicly.

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Re: Pulitzer Prize: Howard, do appreciate the chats. Consistently very fair.

It must have been a nice and easy Pulitzer for Ms. Priest. I really don't think she went after this info, rather this info very easily came upon her. Right onto her lap as the saying goes. Although there/she claims to be numerous sources to this story, come on, her MAIN and really possibly only realistic source was this fired CIA employee, and the information she provided her. Now there is no questioning the truth of the story, however, with all the questions arising about the political leanings of the leak, isn't it fair to bring into account the political leanings of Ms. Priest as well?

Howard Kurtz: I guess anything's fair game these days, but I have no idea what if any political leanings Dana Priest might have. She was a Pulitzer finalist the previous two years before winning this year, so obviously she has been doing high-quality reporting. I'm not saying that journalists don't have leanings or might not be influenced by those leanings, but this notion that news reporters are pushing a partisan agenda is pretty overblown. To take another Post example, Susan Schmidt got beat up by the left during the Clinton years for reporting on Ken Starr's investigations. But she just won a Pulitzer for exposing, in an incredibly detailed and sustained way, the crimes of Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist. It's fine to criticize her reporting, but the earlier notion that she was some kind of partisan was just wrong.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Why is it that the press seems to think that if Democrats win a Congressional chamber, it will be the House and not the Senate? The House seats have been so gerrymandered to protect incumbents that it would be unlikely to beat incumbents. Obviously Senate seats aren't gerrymandered and a big wave could carry Democrats.

Howard Kurtz: Most political analysts who have looked at the situation think a Democratic takeover of the Senate is a more remote possibility. It has to do not just with the way House districts are drawn but on how many incumbents are running for reelection and which ones are considered vulnerable. Making a net gain of six Senate seats is a very difficult task, probably harder than picking up 15 House seats in a 435-seat chamber.

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Vancouver, Wash.: Hi Howard...I love your articles that you write for The Post. My question is: Do conservatives in your view seem to flock to Fox News Channel when they need a media outlet to talk about something...for instance the vice president went to FNC when he talked about the hunting accident for the first time on television?

Howard Kurtz: Well, Cheney has also gone on Meet the Press a number of times. But yes, I can think of instances when conservatives (most recently Tom DeLay) have given their first interview to Fox, and the fact that all White House televisions are tuned to Fox shows that it is viewed at 1600 Penn. as a more sympathetic network.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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