Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 27, 2006; 1:00 PM

Howard Kurtz has been The Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Howard Kurtz was online Tuesday, June 27, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read today's Media Notes: Over the Top Times-Bashing, ( Post, June 27, 2006.

The transcript follows.

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Arlington, Va.: Your comments on the latest NYTimes revelations appear quite even-handed. Do you think there will ever come a point, however, when everyone stops and asks "Why did they publish that?" Will it take a headline that reads "Report: U.S. to Strike Iran at Dawn Tomorrow" or what?

Howard Kurtz: There were numerous instances during the Iraq war when the press held back that kind of sensitive military information.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Why does the media think protection of the First Amendment is more important than protection of our lives?

Howard Kurtz: Why do you assume that the two are mutually exclusive?

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Oostburg, Wis.: Is it possible that the NYT and other MSM are reacting, in part, to the apparent minimal Congressional intelligence oversight with the release of these investigative reports? While I am certainly no judge of either the legality or appropriateness of the "exposed" intelligence activities, it would seem at least the perception of a better informed oversight process might make the press less aggressive in their pursuit of these stories.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if it would make the press less aggressive. But it does seem to me that news organizations are filling a vacuum left by an almost total lack of oversight by congressional Republicans since Bush took office (not just on national security matters but on Hurricane Katrina and a host of other issues). And perhaps leakers of sensitive information, in this environment, are more likely to give it to reporters than to Hill committees that have displayed little or no interest in investigating the Bush administration. Of course, if some Hill committees were more aggressive in oversight, they might leak some of their evidence to the press to get more bang for the buck.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Howie, last night, I was watching Keith Olbermann on MSNBC when I heard the story reported concerning Rush Limbaugh being caught returning to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic with prescription drugs (Viagra) that were not in his name thus violating his plea agreement on "doctor shopping." Of course after this aired I immediately turned over to CNN knowing they would have a long "BREAKING NEWS" alert and to my surprise it was at least two hours till the first mention of it went by on the news crawl at the bottom of the screen and after three hours of watching Paula Zahn, Larry King and Anderson Cooper they had still failed to mention this story and also no mention anywhere on CNN.com.

When we hear you wonder why the public doesn't trust or respect the media .....well when the media covers up for a Limbaugh no matter what he does but at the same time you would print any rumor or charge against Bill Clinton in a moments notice no matter how unbelievable.

Howard Kurtz: You think CNN was covering up for Limbaugh? Isn't it far more likely that reporters were trying to nail down just what had happened at the airport? It's not like anyone put out a press release. I looked at some online accounts last night and there was no mention of Viagra, just that Rush had been detained for questioning regarding the possibility of drugs for which he had no prescription.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I think you do a great job covering the news media: print, broadcast TV, cable, blogs, talk radio. How come NPR is usually missing?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I did a column awhile back on the NPR ombudsman and his role, and also wrote about a dispute between Tavis Smiley and NPR while resulted in him leaving the operation. I am open to doing more. But I am limited by the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day.

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Washington, D.C.: I know this requires you to make assumptions, but let me try anyway. Do you think the White House is pleased with all the threats and hate being directed towards the NYT over the past couple of days?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure the White House is pleased with the comments made by the president, vice president and Treasury secretary, and to the extent that outside commentators agree with the administration position, I'm sure that is pleasing as well.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Good day, Mr. Kurtz. I appreciate your selecting my question today. From your column yesterday: "I don't want to be known as the reporter who had cancer," Waas says.

Compare this with Tony Snow, who began his first day as "White House the press secretary who had cancer" by tearing up and drawing attention to being a cancer survivor. Which, in your view, is the more professional approach? And which, do you think, is deserving of attention and coverage?

Howard Kurtz: I think everyone has to make his or her own judgment about how to deal with such matters. In Snow's case, it was already known because he had told the world what he was going through when he took a leave from his radio show. In Waas's case, it was something that he chose not to talk about publicly until now, when he asked me if I would write about it because he felt it was going to come out and he wanted to put it behind him.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Have you noticed you spend an increasing amount of time excerpting blog reactions to news stories? I would be interested to hear more of your views. For example, Andrew Cohen's piece today on the Duke/rape case strikes me as productive media criticism. I think you are much more valuable as an expert point of view than as the moderator of left/right blog arguments. Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: The Media Rush to Duke's Defense (Post, June 27)

Howard Kurtz: Please keep in mind that my online column is only a sideline. I have a whole other job as a media reporter and weekly columnist for the dead-tree version of The Post. But I find that digging into what's happening in the blogosphere and other papers and magazines for washingtonpost.com also helps me with my day job.

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Bethesda, Md.: For the record, many Americans have died protecting freedoms of which the First Amendment is one most important. So, the question of which is more important the First Amendment or lives has really already been answered. We live in a free and open society that our citizens have through history died to protect and some want to give that up because of one successful attack?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for defending my favorite amendment.

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Arlington, Va.: Bill O'Reilly on Fox News last night lambasted "committed left-media." He included "The New York Times," of course. But also lumped in "The Wall Street Journal." If the WSJ is left wing what is Fox News?

Howard Kurtz: "Left media" is one of O'Reilly's favorite phrases. But keep in mind that the aggressively and openly conservative Journal editorial page is entirely separate from the newsgathering operation that fills the rest of the pages.

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Richmond, Va.: It seems so obvious that the virulence of the attack on the New York Times is a king-size way of diverting attention from all of Bush's problems. How come the Times just doesn't come out and say that? How come you don't?

Howard Kurtz: Because the argument over what the Times (and L.A. Times and Wall Street Journal) did is a perfectly legitimate debate to have over the role of the press in time of war. Now it may serve a political purpose for the White House to shift attention to the media's role in all this, but that is not an indisputable fact. You have to allow for the possibility that the president and his people are genuinely upset about what the papers did (even if they are also exploiting it for political reasons, those two things are not mutually exclusive).

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NY Times Reports: What do you think of the theory that the Times is hoping for the administration to take legal action against their treasonous activities, allowing the Times to cement its relationship with its base of educated lefties?

Howard Kurtz: I would say, after considering the matter for all of five seconds, that that is absurd. One, a newspaper that saw Judith Miller go to jail for 85 days does not take such matters lightly. Two, the Times sells more than 1 million copies nationwide, and believe it or not, not every one of its readers is a committed lefty.

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Boston, Mass.: Why do you think it's appropriate to discuss and link to sleazy stories on gossip blogs? Is it just for the ratings?

Howard Kurtz: Define sleazy. After all, I've also spent years writing about seamy stories that appear in newspapers and magazines, a number of which involved prominent politicians. It's not like this stuff didn't exist until bloggers came along.

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Boston, Mass.: Dan Balz, in previous chats, sees the level of Republican corruption primary through the electoral lens; i.e. "this likely will hurt Republicans more than Democrats because, to the extent it creates an anti-DC environment, the party in power will suffer more."

But isn't the -more- important question for journalists what corruption really is out there, and its effect on the actions of the government?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, but it's an election year and Dan Balz is a political reporter. So it's hardly surprising that he's very interested in any electoral fallout.

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Alexandria, Va.: I've seen two messages being put out from the right on this NYT article:

1. Banks have tracked money like this for years. Everyone knows it. It's no big deal.

2. How dare the NYT reveal this top secret program to track money!

My head is spinning from the contradiction. Perhaps you can reconcile the two messages and tell me what message they're trying to get across.

Howard Kurtz: In a way, both are true. Terrorists can hardly be unaware that U.S. authorities are trying to monitor their financial transactions and choke off their money supply. At the same time, the articles last Friday carried a lot of detail about one specific program that certainly might have been useful for those trying to escape detection.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Mr. Kurtz - Enjoy your work. Thanks and keep it up. The thing I find troubling about the Executive Branch's attacking the NYTimes is this: The president, vp and appointees take an oath of office. That oath includes the solemn commitment to protect and defend the constitution of our United States. The first (and perhaps foremost) amendment of our constitution guarantees the freedoms of speech, assembly and the press. Aren't attacks on the press by the president, vp and treasury secretary a breach of their oaths of office? Why doesn't the media pursue THIS story?

Howard Kurtz: Actually, the First Amendment applies to everyone, including government officials. Every administration since Washington's has complained about press coverage and that is their perfect right. It doesn't undermine the First Amendment for officials to say they think news organizations behaved irresponsibly or published inaccurate information; that's part of the give-and-take that the First Amendment is designed to protect. The president also has to worry about defending the country, and so is entitled to be critical of reporting he feels jeopardizes the country. That doesn't mean he is right, but free speech can't apply to only one side.

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Chicago, Ill.: Why didn't The Post highlight the Iraq Embassy memo describing the chaos going on in Iraq at the same time Bush was sneaking into Iraq? I believe the Embassy memo should have been treated equally to the president's propaganda trip.

Howard Kurtz: Since you didn't see the printed version, let me tell you: A photocopy of the memo was splashed across the top of the Outlook section, which is the paper's second section on Sunday. It was so eye-catching that it actually was more prominent than it would have been if there had been a straight news story somewhere on Page 1.

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On sleazy (Boston, Mass.): In particular I'm talking about linking to the Wonkette posts with embarrassingly puerile MySpace photos of the children of prominent politicians.

That seemed to be rather below reasonable standards.

Howard Kurtz: Once people like Bill Frist are forced to respond -- and this was picked up by lots of other media, by the way -- I considered it legitimate. Of course, you always have the option of not clicking on a link if I'm describing something you find distasteful (or even boring!)

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Houston, Texas: Howie, Others may have already sent this in, but Glenn Greenwald has a post up with quotes from President Bush in 2004 campaign speech. Bush talks about how the government is tracking terrorist' money trails. It seems like this program really wasn't very classified. This is Greenwald's quote:

Here is President Bush, campaigning for re-election in Hershey, Pennsylvania on April 19, 2004, boasting about our vigilant efforts to monitor the terrorists' banking transactions:

Before September the 11th, law enforcement could more easily obtain business and financial records of white-collar criminals than of suspected terrorists. See, part of the way to make sure that we catch terrorists is we chase money trails. And yet it was easier to chase a money trail with a white-collar criminal than it was a terrorist. The Patriot Act ended this double standard and it made it easier for investigators to catch suspected terrorists by following paper trails here in America.

Howard Kurtz: As I say, this was pretty widely known. What was not widely known were the details, and that's what the argument is about right now.

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Chicago, Ill.: Do you ever receive any intelligent criticism from readers that are clearly of the right-wing/conservative persuasion? I ask only because you do such a good job summarizing the debates that always rage in the media. Yet when it comes to these chats, the posters who support Bush and the conservative viewpoint invariably write in with opinions that are either nonsensical (e.g., that the Times is trying to get indicted to cement its readership base) or merely pointless (e.g., the endless you-criticize-Bush-therefore-you're-biased argument). Do any of these people ever include an actual coherent analysis of whatever point it is they're trying to convey? Or do they just complain? Sure seems like the latter to me, not just on this chat but on every Live Online chat I read. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: You question; I reply. I leave the value judgments to those who read the chats. I'd say I get smart critiques and not-so-savvy critiques from all sides of the spectrum.

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Boston, Mass.: I'm annoyed at the Administration's willingness to attack previously acceptable media behavior, leaks issue, this seems like yet more dangerous broadening of Presidential power.

I also tend to see the U.S. media as the envy of the world. Are there good examples of how government control of the media in other countries produced negative results? At the moment I'm thinking Britain and Russia.

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Well, China is proposing a law to ban news outlets from reporting on "sudden events" (read demonstrations, riots, etc.) without prior government permission.

Look, this debate in our country has been going on for a long time. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Nixon and the plumbers, the Reagan administration's threats to prosecute those publishing national security information. This was not invented by George W. Bush.

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Dale City, Va.: The Times is doing now what it should have done before the Iraq war--reporting the news. After all, it is a newspaper.

This is not even something new, unlike the NSA and telecommunication company spying. We knew over four years ago they were cracking down on the financing. Why is the Administration reacting so strongly except that it is an election year and the attacks have begun? Are they really worried this news may have alerted some targets like the guys in Miami?

Howard Kurtz: I will take administration officials at their word that they are genuinely upset about this and strongly believe the program should have been kept secret. It's also worth noting that with the midterm elections coming up, these kinds of attacks on the press may resonate with the Republican base.

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Arlington, Va.: There's an apparent attitude among MSM types, like yourself, that reporting on classified information is 'all in a day's work.' Some of your readers, however -- ones who are not necessarily conservative -- are offended and angry at publications who flaunt the law and put us at risk. Is it just "uncool" to be patriotic?

Howard Kurtz: I agree with you. Millions of Americans are very upset about this, and that's their right. But while the Times may or may not have erred, I don't think it's fair to say this was treated casually. The Times held the story for weeks because of administration objections, and in case you've forgotten, the Times held the story about the NSA's domestic surveillance for a YEAR.

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Washington, D.C.: I am appalled at the hubris of the NYT in their publishing of the banking transaction program. I am a "public" and I don't want to know... I want us to use whatever electronic tracking we have to follow the money to the terrorists. If there was a chance it could lead us to useful information, locations of terrorists sources, or previously unknown supporters then hooray! Now the NYT and The Washington Post and the WSJ have probably undone this. No, I am not a far right blogger. I am appalled that the liberal press can't see that in time of war you have to keep your mouth shut about some things. I can't believe they can't see the value in being able to follow the money and connect the dots. I'd love to tell you what I hope happens to Mr. Keller, but to follow in the path of my favorite movie, being a nice Jewish lady, I can't.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for your input. Passions are running high on this question, and understandably so.

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Loganville, Ga.: I am really put off by what the press has been doing to information that they know will cause damage to the war on terror and to the American people. I just don't understand why the First Amendment is more important than the lives of our troops that are being lost due to the arrogance of the news media.

I was an electronic spy when I was in the US Army, starting June 1953 until my release in May 1956. Those programs were put in place by H.S. Trueman and Dwight Eisenhower. We monitored Communications from outside the U.S.

I do value the right to privacy but I value the lives of our service personnel more and I'm a bit concerned that any American would feel differently. It all boils down to the point that we as Americans, after the shock of 9/11, have no idea of the threat. I call this the Novel Chamberlin Mentality. Unless your family has felt the threat of battle 1st hand it is really hard to get that point across.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what you mean by "the lives of our troops that are being lost due to the arrogance of the news media." I certainly understand the argument that the war on terror is being undermined by some of these disclosures. But I am not aware of any charge that news reporting jeopardized soldiers, unless you mean indirectly. In fact, the media highlighting of such matters as inadequate body armor has arguably helped our troops.

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Burke, Va.: "Look, this debate in our country has been going on for a long time. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Nixon and the plumbers, the Reagan administration's threats to prosecute those publishing national security information. This was not invented by George W. Bush."

But it has become worse under this administration, in addition people like Ann Coulter are openly fantasizing about the deaths of all the reporters in the NYT. Personally I dislike the NYT because of the horrible way they messed up the pre-Iraq war intelligence. But the way they have been treated lately makes me nervous.

Howard Kurtz: I was simply trying to make the point that there was a long history here of clashes between the government and the press over what can and should be published.

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Glenmont, Md.: People who are in an uproar over the Times' report on the bank surveillance are overlooking a key point:

The Times did not make it up; it's true. They had sources that wanted them to report on it -- which suggests that someone has enough serious reservations about it that they decided to take the risk of incurring the White House wrath and go public with it -- to get the word out to America that it's happening. If you believe the Times is guilty of treason for publishing this story -- an extremely dangerous notion in my view -- then you have to believe that their sources are also guilty of treason.

I think the real point is we are on a slippery slope to a totalitarian state, when there is no oversight over the executive, when the executive is engaged in outright propaganda, when the president ignores laws, declares himself without obligation to obey laws he doesn't like, when the right wing noise machine blindly defends these actions -- and now right wing pundits call for a leading national newspaper to be prosecuted for treason because they published a story that is potentially embarrassing to the executive and informs us about a program whose legality is in question in the first place -- all of this together is extremely troubling to me.

Howard Kurtz: I am sure those who believe the Times should be prosecuted also believe that those who provided the information should also be charged. But you do raise the point that there were a number of sources -- including those who spoke to the LAT and WSJ -- who obviously wanted this information out. Without people like that, no newspaper could break such a story.

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Ashland, Mo.: Isn't the flap about the NYTimes really a question about judgment? What was the value of the story versus the harm that the story caused? The Times has some vague assertion that the story is valuable because the government is up to something, although it is not illegal, there are safeguards, there is no indication of abuse, and multiple testimony to the usefulness of the program and the possible harm of disclosure? Moreover, what sanction can there be if the Times is wrong in its calculation of the costs vs. benefits other than criminal prosecution since there is no libel law anymore?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I would say there is also the court of public opinion.

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West Middlesex, Pa.: What game are we playing? This incredible right-winged reaction to the New York Times story is pathetic and unfounded. But it fits in with the scenario of the major bust of "terrorists" in Miami - who just happen to be unemployed Black men fed up with the racist genocidal practices of White America. Millions of dollars have been spent on national security - and this is the "catch" of the day? Black men, who incidentally represent more than 80 percent of the prison population in the US. Now this story regarding the New York Times publishing national secrets! What about Valerie Plane and the Bush's administration's attack on her undercover position? She could have been murdered. Is the American public really that dumb? No, I don't think so! Question: This pattern of misinformation is obvious- What can we (the average thinking voter) do to reverse this pattern of deceit being perpetuated by the Bush administration?

Howard Kurtz: Leaving aside your strong feelings about the Bush administration, the reaction is not entirely pathetic and unfounded. There are lots of Americans, not just right-wing commentators and posturing politicians, who are upset about this story, who feel the newspapers made the wrong call, and we need to respect their views as well.

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Dale City, Va.: It was nice of the NICE lady not to say what she wants for Mr. Keller. How does she feel about holding someone in this Administration accountable for the Iraq fiasco? Or what about the fact we were attacked in the first place during their watch? These people may think they are nice, but they are often violent and mean spirited. Why can't we just debate opinions without wishing anyone ill?

Howard Kurtz: I believe she was speaking metaphorically.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Howie, is it true that you couldn't find a single blogger out there defending the New York Times?

Bush administration officials went on record after the 9/11 attacks stating that "they view the financial investigation, and efforts to disrupt funding of terrorist networks, as the linchpin of efforts to shut down radical groups and forestall future attacks"

Jump teams" of U.S. experts were dispatched to more than 20 countries to help them find and freeze suspected terrorist assets. After that, they began an effort to help central bankers, finance ministries and the private sector in those countries build laws and financial mechanisms to prevent their financial systems from being corrupted. In Sept 2003 the LA Times reported.

The Treasury Department says that to date, 173 nations have executed blocking orders of some kind, more than 100 have introduced legislation to fight terrorist financing and 84 have established financial intelligence units to investigate suspicious activity and share information.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I did find a couple, including James Wolcott. And I'm seeing more today. But in searching blogs through Technorati yesterday, the overwhelming majority of posts on this subject were from conservative critics.

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Marietta, Ga.: I'm with you regarding why CNN may not have reported the Limbaugh/Viagra story right away - to nail it down. Viagra, unlike the prescription drug OxyContin, is not a controlled substance (generally narcotic) governed by the Controlled Substance Act. The criminality of possessing Viagra without a prescription should be explored.

Howard Kurtz: I doubt anyone has gone to jail for possessing unauthorized Viagra. Which doesn't make the incident any less embarrassing.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: Really appreciated your great response to Oostberg, WI above.

Every time you use the phrase "time of war," you simply help Bush hide the fact that we are OCCUPYING two foreign counties. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have any "military" objectives. It took less than three years from December '41 (Pearl Harbor) to get to "D-Day," June '44.

It's just a guess, but we may have less "separation of power," than England pre-Magna Carta. We desperately need journalists to fill the "vacuum," which you so accurately described above.

Howard Kurtz: My friend, war is war, whether you agree with it or not, and whether you perceive the United States to be the aggressor or not. Those are perfectly fine subjects for political debate, but folks out there are getting killed and wounded in this conflict.

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Washington, D.C.: It's not much of a war when World War Two saw 400,000 Americans killed and Vietnam saw 60,000 Americans killed. Not even 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq.

Isn't the idea that the NYT is somehow treasonous really just an exaggeration? If war is an excuse to abridge all freedoms, then we will have wars whenever government seeks to avoid accountability.

Howard Kurtz: Your distillation of the numbers seems rather insensitive to the family and friends of the 2,500 Americans who have lost their lives, not to mention the many thousands more who have lost limbs or otherwise been seriously wounded. No, Iraq is not World War II, but it's ugly and dangerous just the same, including for journalists trying to cover it.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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