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Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 22, 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, May 22, at noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read today's Media Notes: Rove "Scoop" Remains Exclusive , ( Post, May 22, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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Kansas City, Mo.: Howard, I think it's quite obvious that our 24hr cable news networks will not go away from kidnapped blonde stories to focus more on events that shape our world - that's left to newspapers and newsmagazines. My question is why? Is it that a cable news network that focuses its attention on investigative journalism would not get the same ad revenue? Is it cost-prohibitive? Would people not watch? BBC does a great job, but I'd almost like to see that combined with a large portion of the telecast like 60 Minutes - great investigative stories. I know it's time-consuming, but I just want to know what's happening in the world, not who was the latest person questioned in the Natalee Holloway case... frustrated... It really is all about money isn't it?

Howard Kurtz: The cable networks playing up missing-women stories -- although there's been a bit of a lull since the Holloway story peaked -- because it boosts their short term ratings. It's a quick fix, like heroin. Investigative reporting is expensive, time-consuming and risky, and so there isn't all that much of it on cable.

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Seattle, Wash.: Now that we know the NSA is not just wiretapping the press, their cell phones, their homes, and all the people they contact, have most members of the press realized they are already on the Enemies List, or are they still delusional that they're not under attack for telling the truth about a despotic regime?

Howard Kurtz: "Telling the truth about a despotic regime"? You wouldn't have any strong opinions about this, would you?

Actually, what ABC's Brian Ross reported is that federal authorities are tracking the calls made by top investigative reporters, not eavesdropping (as far as we know at the moment). This is, of course, incredibly chilling, although all bets seem to be off when it comes to the administration trying to choke off leaks of classified information.

If there is an Enemies List, I'll be mighty ticked if I'm not on it. I was too young to make Nixon's, and this could be my big chance.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Did I miss something? I thought these Chats were supposed to be Weekly. Are you on a new summer schedule? Without your weekly chat transcripts my boss might expect me to be productive!

Howard Kurtz: I was traveling the last two weeks, sorry to disappoint you. I'll also have to miss next week's but they will be pretty regular after that.

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Avon Park, Fla.: If Patrick Fitzgerald decides not to indict Karl Rove, will he announce that he won't or will no news be good news for Karl Rove? Could it be that while we are expecting an indictment that Mr. Fitzgerald may have already wrapped up his investigation?

Howard Kurtz: No. Rove or his attorney would receive a letter informing them that the case against him is no longer being pursued, so the world will know pretty quickly if there is a decision not to seek an indictment.

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New York, N.Y.: Maybe it's just me but I found your description of Luskin's visit to the vet just a little too canned - like a chunky little anecdote full of contrivance. And, as it seems pretty clear that Rove is in this up to his eyeballs, I find it indigestible.

How come The Post didn't write anything about McCain's reception at The New School? I thought hearing the same speech in a hall full of engaged students was much more illuminating than the cut and run trip to the Liberty event. You are the media reporter and McCain is the media's darling after all.

Howard Kurtz: The Post extensively covered McCain's speech at Jerry Falwell's university --the same speech he gave at the New School in New York -- and I recently wrote a column about journalists treating McCain with more skepticism and liberal columnists going after him. As for the New School address, The Post ran the following AP story on Saturday:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) received a cantankerous reception Friday at the New School's commencement, where dozens of faculty members and students turned their backs and raised protest signs and a student speaker mocked him as he sat silently on stage.

The historically liberal university has been roiled in controversy in recent weeks over the selection of the Republican and likely 2008 presidential candidate to speak to its 2,700 graduates and thousands of family members, friends and faculty.

The Madison Square Garden crowd cheered loudly as Jean Sarah Rohe said McCain "does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded."

Rohe, one of two distinguished seniors invited by the university's deans to address the graduates, spoke before McCain did but noted that he had promised to deliver the same speech he gave at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University last weekend and at Columbia University on Tuesday.

"He will tell us we are young and too naive to have valid opinions," Rohe said. "I am young, and though I don't possess the wisdom that time affords us, I do know that preemptive war is dangerous. And I know that despite all the havoc that my country has wrought overseas in my name, Osama bin Laden still has not been found, nor have those weapons of mass destruction."

McCain later thanked Rohe for her "CliffsNotes" version of his speech.

Sticking to the remarks he made in earlier speeches, McCain reaffirmed his support for the Iraq war but urged debate and dissent. And he repeated the theme that drew Rohe's derision: "When I was a young man, I was quite infatuated with self-expression, and rightly so because, if memory conveniently serves, I was so much more eloquent, well-informed and wiser than anyone else I knew."

As he delivered his remarks, several dozen students and faculty members turned their backs and lifted signs saying "Our commencement is not your platform."

About 1,200 students and faculty members had signed petitions asking the university president, former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey (D), to rescind his invitation for McCain to speak, saying McCain's support for the Iraq war and opposition to gay rights and abortion are not in keeping with the prevailing views on campus. Kerrey urged students to exercise the open-mindedness that he said is at the heart of the university's progressive history.

"Senator McCain, you have much to teach us," Kerrey said early in the ceremony, drawing a smattering of boos and hisses.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I'm not a statistician, but I'd like to comment on your gripe about different polls claiming new lows for the President (or whatever). Each poll uses a differently worded set of questions, and these sets are asked of a different randomly selected sample of people. Random really means that the pollster uses a process to try to get a representative sample of the public at large, or likely voters or whatever. Each pollster uses a different process.

Assuming that the questions asked by each pollster and that the process the pollster uses to select the random sample don't change each time, the best comparison of a particular set of polling results is another set of results from the same poll.

Here's an analogy: the sets of questions are like thermometers and the selection processes are like locations. Say National and Dulles airports, the mill in Rock Creek Park, and The Washington Post building. They all give about the same reading, but not identical because their locations differ. We would all agree though that any would give you a good idea of the temperature in Washington.

But if you wondered if today was colder than yesterday, you would compare readings from the same place, say the WaPo building, not Dulles yesterday to National today. That's (in part) why the polls are self-referential.

I hope this helps.

Howard Kurtz: Technically, each news organization is accurate when it says that Bush has hit a new low as measured against previous polls by that organization (though frankly, there isn't much variation in "Do you approve or disapprove of the job that George W. Bush is doing as president?", as opposed to many other questions. My gripe is that the spate of "New Low" headlines in recent months give the misleading impression that Bush has dropped from the previous week and the week before that, by failing to acknowledge in some cases that there are other polls out there with similar results. What's at work here is that media organizations pay for these surveys and so like to play up their own polls. Bush has blipped up a little in the latest couple of polls I've seen, so perhaps the "new low" question will be moot, at least temporarily.

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Gonzales on the First: The Post reported a comment by the Attorney General this morning to the effect of "The right of the government to prosecute crimes trumps the First Amendment." Meanwhile, this administration appears to be moving aggressively to track down 'leakers' (with the exception of the Plame situation).

Is this already impacting on journalists' ability to acquire sources?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. Although journalists don't like to admit it, it makes life more difficult. Any potential source has to decide whether to risk his or her job, or even prosecution, by sharing sensitive information with a reporter. And in the wake of Judith Miller going to jail and several other leak investigations going on, every journalists has to question whether a particular story is so important that he or she would be willing to go to jail to protect the sources being promised confidentiality.

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Smithtown, N.Y.: Would a 1 hour nightly news show from 7-8pm on one of the three major networks work? What if their whole promotion was strictly about news, no fluff, no bias, no human interest shows, no pretty people, just newscasters reporting the news - in depth, beyond the sound bite. And their slogan? "If you are an idiot, don't watch!" Seriously, couldn't that work? I am only 35 and I'd love to see that!

Howard Kurtz: It would be absolutely terrific (though I don't think using a slogan to insult the audience is the way to go). Dan Rather wanted to do one for years. The reality is that the affiliate stations don't want to give up an extra half hour of time -- most of them make money from syndicated fare such as Wheel of Fortune or Entertainment Tonight at 7 or 7:30 -- and especially not in an era when the audience share for the network newscasts is shrinking.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard: Did you see the 60 Minutes tribute to Mike Wallace last night? Although I have watched the show for years, I had forgotten the number of big interviews and the number of tough questions posed by Mr. Wallace. Particularly amusing was when Wallace asked Ayatollah Khomeini whether Anwar Sadat's assessment of him as a lunatic was accurate, and the translator's reluctance to ask the question. Wallace said that he stopped doing the tough interviews because he was getting to be a caricature of himself. Is there a place in journalism for the Mike Wallace type today, or have all the potentates gotten savvy enough to either having their PR acts together or to avoid such interviews altogether?

Howard Kurtz: I had the pleasure of interviewing Wallace for my CNN show yesterday, and he spoke quite candidly about the ambush interviews he pioneered and how he sometimes got caught up in the drama at the expense of the facts. In fact, he was feisty on just about every topic we discussed. I guess when you're 88 and have survived the slings and arrows for so many decades, you can say whatever you want. I asked Wallace about that Khomeini interview and he said, "What were they going to do--hold me hostage?"

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Falls Church, Va.: George Will feels that Tony Snow will add nothing to the White House poor ratings, and official message - I strongly disagree when comparing the press conference of Snow vs. any of McClellan's. Although everyone knows that the Press Secretary cannot divulge every single piece of info from the Oval, Mr. Snow is a huge breath of fresh air, don't you think?

Howard Kurtz: Snow has certainly, in his first few days, displayed more of a willingness to engage with reporters and bat around the issues rather than just assuming a defensive crouch. Of course, like all press secretaries, he has also deflected or refused to answer questions that he wants to duck.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why has the Post not written an editorial, lambasting Tony Snow for offending people of color by using the word "tar baby" in answering a question during his first press conference. Why did The Post not report this in the story that it did on the event? Tar Baby is a derogatory term and Snow should be fired for using it and then trying to defend it with a lame explanation. Toni Morrison defines tar baby this way: "Tar Baby is also a name, like "n---," that white people call black children, black girls ." How can a person like this be a spokesman for the White House, when he obviously has no sensitivity to people of color--a necessary trait at any given time, but especially so considering race relations in this country, and the current negotiations regarding immigration issues. Why has The Post expressed outrage over this insult?

Howard Kurtz: Dana Milbank reported Snow's use of the "tar baby" phrase. I have no idea why the Post editorial page decides to write or not write on a particular issue, but perhaps the folks there were giving Snow the benefit of the doubt in not using the phrase as a racial insult.

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Polling: Here's a take on the President's job approval ratings: if a pollster asked me "Do you approve of the job the President is doing?" I'd respond negatively. But if the same pollster asked whether I would support, say Hillary Clinton or Kerry, I would also respond negatively.

I look at approval ratings like an employee review: just because I'm not currently satisfied with an employee's performance doesn't mean I want to fire them, or that I'm sorry I hired them...just that I'm not currently satisfied.

Howard Kurtz: That's the way I look at it as well. And Bush, of course, doesn't have to face the voters again. But for the president's approval rating to fall by more than 20 points in a year -- with declines even among Republicans -- is highly significant, whether voters want to dump him or not.

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Drayden, Md.: If the Truthout story on Rove is such a big nothing, how did it ever get your attention?

Did Rove go see Fitzgerald five times to keep Americans safe from terrorists?

Howard Kurtz: Rove remains under investigation in the Plame case, as we've reported a zillion times. A story contending that he has already been indicted got my attention because a number of bloggers picked it up, either to trumpet it or question it. That Truthout story is now nine days old and if Rove has in fact been indicted, it remains a closely guarded secret, even, apparently, from Rove's own lawyers. Which is not to say that Rove is out of legal jeopardy, of course.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard: Good morning and thanks for taking questions.

Your earlier chats said "...with the Internet, cable TV and 24-hour news networks, the news cycle is faster and more constant, with every minute carrying a new deadline. But clearly more news and more news outlets are not necessarily better..."

Realizing there's a conflict in answering this question but, from a listener's perspective, how do you feel Washington Post Radio has affected the flow of information to the D.C. audience? I think that, while it may provide additional information, it dilutes the WTOP listener base rather than attracts a new audience (more than it dilutes the listener base of public broadcasting and WMAL). If the content is similar to WTOP, wouldn't it have made more sense to modify or tweak the WTOP format with Washington Post input/features and perhaps add a station to "saturate" the listening area?

Isn't there just so much information that can be disseminated and so many listeners to absorb that information.

Howard Kurtz: Look, people are free to listen or not listen to the new radio station (and we won't know how many people are tuning in until we get some ratings). But it's not the same as WTOP. For those of you outside the D.C. area, WTOP is your classic all news/all the time station, while the new Washington Post Radio (done in partnership with the same company that owns WTOP) is basically talk radio and news analysis featuring Post journalists and some outsiders. Plus, Post radio has me.

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Boston, Mass.: Wouldn't a reporter think twice before reporting a verified truth from an anonymous government source if she were subject to jail time for reporting? Wouldn't this be considered an abridgement of the free press and thereby unconstitutional? Is there no limit to what this administration considers legal in the name of terrorism?

Howard Kurtz: It is illegal to leak classified information, so the administration is within its legal rights in going after leakers, as other administrations have done. The difference is in prosecutors investigating and trying to compel testimony directly from reporters. Do these tactics make journalists think twice before publishing a controversial story? How about three, four, five and six times?

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Conn. Convention: I'm curious as to why the Post hasn't given very much coverage to Lieberman being embarrassed in Fri's Dem Convention. Not only did the Lamont campaign force a primary, but exceeded even the Lieberman team's "expectation management" estimates.

Seems a sitting three term Senator being snubbed by his own home state party organization would be news.

Howard Kurtz: I agree. We handled it as an item in the Sunday politics column. Given Lieberman's prominence as the 2000 veep nominee and a presidential candidate last time -- and the fact that so much of the Democratic dissatisfaction with him is directly tied to the Iraq war -- I think we badly underplayed the story.

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Washington, D.C.: "What if their whole promotion was strictly about news, no fluff, no bias, no human interest shows, no pretty people, just newscasters reporting the news - in depth, beyond the sound bite."

Newspapers do this every day and partisans still hate it.

Howard Kurtz: I think a few folks might quarrel with the "no bias" part. And the Style section has been known to run pictures of a few pretty people. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Your column today takes the blogosphere to task for running with a sketchy online report by Jason Leopold alleging that Rove has already been indicted in the Plame case -- and yet you failed to note that almost every major liberal blog either (a) ignored Leopold, (b) presented his report with skepticism, or (c) actively debunked it. Why did you decide to leave that part of the story out?

Howard Kurtz: But my column didn't take the blogosphere to task. What I was explaining was how three dozen reporters for major news organizations had to chase a Rove indictment report on a single Internet site, a report that, shall we say, remains unconfirmed. The reporters were doing their jobs, and no one went with it. But it's still a highly unusual situation.

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Greenville, S.C.: Why has the Post not written an editorial lambasting Dan Froomkin's use of the phrase "scot-free" in his post on Tony Snow's use of the word "tar-baby." Froomkin could be construed as advocating the ethnic cleansing of all us who claim Scottish descent. Granted, Froomkin meant no such thing, my reading is tendentious at best, and many other on both sides of the political spectrum have used the phrase in its intended purpose. However, none of these reasons has stopped the pile-on against Snow.

Howard Kurtz: Next thing you know someone will object if I refer to a Dutch treat.

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Cauley's Judgment: "Now the reporter who broke the -Verizon et al story, Leslie Cauley, has come under criticism from conservative activists who accuse her of political bias. They point to records showing that in 2003, Cauley gave the maximum $2,000 contribution to Dick Gephardt's Democratic presidential campaign."

Of course she's biased; we all are, one way or another. The only thing she's guilty of is some combination of poor judgment, idealism, and cynicism--kind of a snapshot summary of the Gephardt campaign.

Howard Kurtz: My view is that journalists who contribute to political campaigns are giving their critics a club with which to beat them. Unless it's a special situation, such as your spouse running, the best strategy is to just say no.

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Helsinki, Finland: Howard,

Why do many people regard Mike Wallace asking Khomeini whether he is a lunatic as a great moment in journalism? It made about as much sense as it would make now to ask George Bush whether he is a lunatic. Absolutely nothing achieved by that.

Howard Kurtz: It wasn't a "great moment in journalism." It was just a very arresting television moment with a leader who gave almost no interviews to western correspondents.

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Washington, D.C.: For Smithstown, NY. There is a one-hour news show already - The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. On PBS. Great stuff.

Howard Kurtz: Good point. Of course, PBS is less ratings-driven than the commercial networks.

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"no limit to what this administration considers legal...": Have there been any other reporters jailed other than Judith Miller? I'm not sure once can classify Patrick Fitzgerald as being part of "this administration", at least as the questioner uses it.

Howard Kurtz: The leak investigations of the NYT on the domestic surveillance story and the WP on the secret CIA prisons story could well put other journalists in the position that Judith Miller was in. And the only reason that other reporters, such as Time's Matt Cooper, weren't jailed in the Plame case was that their sources agreed to release them from their pledge of confidentiality.

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Cincinnati, Ohio: Good afternoon Mr. Kurtz! I just switched from Dan Balz' live chat and he has used the term "progressive" versus "liberal". Has there been a conscious effort to make this change or an identifiable event that dictated the change with the DNC or the MSM?

Howard Kurtz: If so, I didn't get the memo.

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Arlington, Va.: To Silver Spring, I think the reason there wasn't an uproar over Snow's use of "Tar Baby" is that it was pretty obvious he was using it in the context of the Brer Rabbit/Brer Fox fable and not as a racial slur. I don't think he should be criticized for being insensitive or racist by using the word Tar Baby- I think he should be criticized for being stupid not to realize some reactionaries would seize on his using it to fabricate an issue.

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps he didn't think about it in advance.

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Arlington, Va.: Today in his column, Paul Krugman states:

"You see, the talking-head circuit loves centrists. But a centrist, as defined inside the Beltway, doesn't mean someone whose views are actually in the center, as judged by public opinion.

Instead, a Democrat is considered centrist to the extent that he does what Mr. Lieberman does: lends his support to Republican talking points, even if those talking points don't correspond at all to what most of the public wants or believes."

Do you agree or disagree?

Howard Kurtz: I think that's an awfully narrow view of a centrist. What about Democrats who regularly challenge their own party on issues, or believe in compromising with Republicans to get things done, or are more hawkish on government spending than their liberal counterparts? Why does the definition only have to be framed in terms of supporting GOP talking points?

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Germantown, Md.: H. I agree that people are free to listen to the new station but being more traditional I've remained with WTOP and can't bring myself to splitting my listening time between two stations I would like to listen to, as well as some of the other news outlets. While I'd like to listen to you and other Posties (is there such a word?) I would have liked to have the Posties brought into the current station providing more information than splitting of assets, something like "The Washington Post on WTOP, analysis and in-depth, every hour on the forty-five".

But if it matters I still love your chats and your reporting which I can read at my convenience.

Howard Kurtz: Well, thanks for that. I certainly understand the value of an all-news radio station, though they can get repetitive (by design) if you're listening for any period of time.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kurtz, thanks for taking questions.

I've heard about reporters being chastised for anonymous (political?) postings to the Web. I don't understand why, since they are anonymous and the comments are not linked back to their employer.

Howard Kurtz: When the Los Angeles Times suspended its columnist Michael Hiltzik (and took away his column and blog) for making such anonymous postings, Editor Dean Baquet said that Hiltzik was essentially being dishonest by not posting his views under his own name, which he had not one but two outlets to do.

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Washington, D.C.: PBS is less ratings-insulated than other networks. Brian Lamb of C-SPAN did pioneer the television call-in program long before Larry King joined up with CNN. Lamb showed it COULD work, so King knew he could work it. If it will work on PBS or C-SPAN, then a cable channel could work it too, but BookTV has no competition except for Russert once a week on CNBC.

Howard Kurtz: Right. But keep in mind that C-SPAN, which is a fine public service, does not have to sell advertising and is financially supported by the other cable networks. ABC, CBS and NBC don't have that luxury.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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