Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 17, 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, July 17, at 12 noon. ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read today's Media Notes: Bravo Dishes The Dirt on The Daily News (Post, July 17, 2006)

The transcript follows.

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Philly, Pa.: Howard...it amazes me that the media call the left side of the blogosphere angry when it is the right side of the blogosphere that is constantly calling anyone who disagrees with them "traitors and unpatriotic." A perfect example was after the NYT travel section published pictures of Rumsfeld's and Cheney's vacation homes. The pictures were printed with both men's approval and their security details' approvals, but the right-wing blogs went ballistic and called for the blogs to seek out the addresses, phone #'s and directions to NYT reporters' homes. This was a ridiculous reaction to a puff piece that had no security risks for the men involved. This continues to baffle me that the right-wing blogs are taken seriously. Is it for false balance? When will you stop having these people on your show b/c that gives them credibility that they don't deserve.

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me there is considerable anger on both sides. I wrote about the non-scandal fomented by some conservative bloggers about the NYT running a photo of Rummy's weekend place on Maryland's Eastern Shore and how this was some terrible security violation. When the Pentagon confirmed that the Defense secretary had given his permission for the picture, some of the righty bloggers backed off and some didn't.

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Houston, Texas: In yesterday's New York Times, Anne Kornblut seriously misrepresented a speech by Hillary Clinton ("Clinton, in Arkansas, Says Democrats Are 'Wasting Time'"). In her speech, Clinton attacked the priorities of Congress, saying that the Republican leadership was wasting time, ignoring serious issues in order to fire up their base with hot-button issues like gay marriage. Kornblut presented the speech as if Clinton was attacking Democrats on these grounds.

How do these misrepresentations occur, and what do you think would be an appropriate way for the New York Times to deal with them?

Howard Kurtz: I've just looked at the post on the liberal Atrios Web site and it does seem to me that Senator Clinton was talking about the Republicans.

Here's what Anne Kornblut wrote in the NYT:

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, returning to her red-state ties, chastised Democrats Saturday for taking on issues that arouse conservatives and turn out Republican voters rather than finding consensus on mainstream subjects.

Without mentioning specific subjects like gay marriage, Mrs. Clinton said: "We do things that are controversial. We do things that try to inflame their base."

"We are wasting time," the senator told a group of Democratic women here, on part of a two-day swing through a state that could provide an alternate hub to New York if she starts a national political campaign.

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And here's what Hillary said in her speech:

You have to ask yourself, we have all these problems, and we have solutions sitting out there, why can't we move in the right direction? And it really comes down to a difference in values and philosophy. You know the nine women Democratic Senators, anybody see us on Larry King's show? We put out what we call our Checklist for Change. I don't know about you, but I am a list maker. I guess it's like a part of the DNA for women. I make lists about lists. And so we were talking one day and saying, you know, we as individuals, we have all of this legislation, we can't get it on the floor of the Senate. We can't get a vote on it because the Republican majority wants to vote on other things. So we pulled all our best ideas together. Wouldn't this be a good agenda for America: safeguard America's pensions; good jobs for Americans; make college affordable for all; protect America and our military families; prepare for future disasters; make America energy independent; make small business and healthcare affordable, invest in life saving science; and protect our air, land, and water. You know, Blanche Lincoln has a bill to make healthcare affordable for small business, I have a bill I was talking to you about with respect to energy independence, we have legislation sitting in the Senate to address these problems. But with the Republican majority, that's not their priority. So we do other things, we do things that are controversial, we do things that try to inflame their base so that they can turn people out and vote for their candidates. I think we are wasting time, we are wasting lives, we need to get back to making America work again, in a bipartisan, nonpartisan way."

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Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.: Mr. Kurtz,

With your resources, it would be great to see who were the idiots who said that taking Baghdad would lead to peace in the Middle East. There had to be some of them out there.

Feel free to dig up those quotes.

Howard Kurtz: I take it you feel the invasion of Iraq led to the current violence between Israel and Hamas and Hezbollah.

The invasion may or may not have exacerbated things, but you'll recall that Israel has been fighting with these groups for many, many years--in some ways since 1948.

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Rochester, N.Y.: How come you never have liberal media critics like Eric Boehlert and Bob Somerby on your show Reliable Sources? Is it because their substantive points about media bias wouldn't generate the ratings that John Hinderaker's foaming-at-the-mouth about "treason" routine does?

Howard Kurtz: Eric Boehlert has been on several times. I guess you missed those shows.

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Fairfax, Va.: I asked a friend in Canada the other day if the Canadian press and media treat problems in the Middle East in the same manner as the U.S. press and media. His response was interesting and informative. "While we don't condone what is happening, we equally keep perspective on the issue and remain focused as well on other top stories. In the US, it seems your networks (in particular-CNN) will play the story for days and days until it is dead...overkill..boredom ... While I admit they have the first handle on stories, and the best coverage, they have no clue when to end it."

Your thoughts.

Howard Kurtz: I'm usually a big critic of cable news overkill, but given the magnitude of the fighting in the Middle East right now and the considerable stakes and danger of an even wider war, I think the heavy coverage is warranted. Would you rather they be obsessing about some missing woman?

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New Hampshire: Hi Howard and thanks for taking my question.

By now, perhaps you have seen and heard the president cursing with his mouth full of a buttered roll while talking to Tony Blair in St. Petersburg. While I do realize he is human and therefore neither perfect or infallible, I am deeply embarrassed. Do you think he and his administration will get involved in a real solution for the Middle East? I think the much touted "roadmap" just got bombed to smithereens.

Howard Kurtz: It's surprising that Bush wasn't more careful about the possibility of an open mike. I don't know what the administration will do, but most likely the president will not get involved in a public way unless he thinks the U.S. has a reasonable chance at brokering a cease-fire. And yes, I think the so-called road map, which was going nowhere anyway, has been blown to smithereens. It probably became a dead letter when the Palestinians elected a Hamas government that will not recognize Israel's right to exist.

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Fort Wayne, Ind.: In light of ongoing world events this question has absolutely zero relevance - but I'll ask it anyway. If, say, NBC tonight were to air the president's, er, "plainspoken" remarks about Syrian assistance in the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, would the network be fined by the FCC for indecency?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the fine for using the S-word is as much as $325,000 per instance.

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Scotch Plains, N.J.: Shame on Bravo !

Since when does the only newspaper convicted by a federal jury of race discrimination (Hardy et al vs. New York Daily News Inc.) in 1987 deserve absolution via a documentary?

Granted that historic court battle occurred nearly 20 years ago when the Tribune Company owned the News; but Mort Zuckerman showed his true colors when he fired every black male reporter in the editorial department the day he purchased the tabloid in bankruptcy.

Zuckerman didn't buy the News to uphold any press freedom---rather he bought a pulpit from which (like Murdock) he could protect his friends, assail those people he doesn't like and kick hell out of anyone who dares criticize Israel.

Bravo can glamorize Zuckerman's paper all it wants---but a lie cannot live forever. There are still folks around who know the truth about the sordid history of the New York Daily News.

Howard Kurtz: I don't quite get how the events of 20 years ago, before Mort Zuckerman owned the paper, means that Bravo shouldn't do a documentary on the New York Daily News. And while owners buy newspapers for two reasons--to make money and have influence--I have not seen any evidence that Zuckerman has used the paper to protect his friends or whack his enemies.

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Washington, D.C.: What can't we ever make progress in the Middle East? There has been conflict between Israel and various groups and countries for decades now. We spend more and more money and lives, and get less and less stability. Wouldn't it just be cheaper to invade wholesale and install governments friendly to us in all the Muslim countries of the Middle East?

Howard Kurtz: "Install governments friendly to us"? How do you propose we accomplish that without many tens of thousands of American casualties, and how do we explain those actions to the rest of the world? It would make Iraq look like a cakewalk.

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Ballston, Va.: Let me try and understand - when GWB does his town hall meetings with an audience that is prescreened and preselected, many in the press question the sincerity of the entire affair. But when Katie Couric barnstorms across the country trying to get 'the real story' about why nobody watches the network news anymore, and gathers her information from predetermined and preselected audiences, this is somehow different than W? Both are playing to their desired bases, while trying to convince the public that they're not playing favorites and truly want a dialogue with a broad cross-section of the country. Nonsense. The press should be consistent about how it reports stuff like this. If this practice contrived in one instance, it can't be sincere in another.

Howard Kurtz: Um, one is president and one is a journalist just going out to talk to some folks? I don't think the press should have been barred from Couric's sessions, but nor do I think it's a big deal.

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Mount Rainier, Md.: Is there any connection between Steiger leaving the Wall Street Journal and the fracas the editorial board has caused with its reporting staff? (You know, the ones who actually write about reality) The editorials' conspiratorial take on the our supposedly treasonous press, intended to focus on the NYT, definitely rebounded onto their own reporters and news editors, who thought the financial tracking story was worth writing about. Of course, the GOP-owned board disagreed (never mind how appalled classic conservatives would have been at the SWIFT program...). So how many more defections might we see at the WSJ?

Howard Kurtz: My sense is that Paul Steiger has planned to leave for some time, and as the top newsroom editor, I doubt he'd allow himself to be driven off by one caustic editorial.

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Martinsville, Va.: Do you anticipate, as NBC has said, that Katie Couric's move to the CBS Evening News will increase the amount of attention paid to the three nightly broadcasts and thereby reverse the trend of declining ratings over the past thirty years?

Howard Kurtz: For a few weeks, certainly. I don't know if it will have a lasting impact beyond then on the total size of the audience, given the many reasons for the long-term decline.

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Bush's Freudian slip: I have to disagree with the earlier poster--sometimes it's nice to get a break from all the limp-wristed diplospeak. Or has Sen. McCain have exclusive rights to "plain talk"?

Will it help to get this comment posted if I accuse you of bias?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know, give it a try.

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Weatherford, Texas: Haven't read your article yet. Usually catch you on CNN. My only statement is that without the press the American people would be at the mercy of whoever is in office and the truth would never come out. Keep reporting even if you P-ss some people off. After all, that's life.

Good Luck in the future.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the vote of confidence.

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Washington, D.C.: Broder and Balz, in their front page Sunday Post article, referred to the way Team Bush used the fear engendered by the 9-11 tragedy to solidify Republican one-party control as "skillful." Such admiration for tactics that were often deceptive, misleading and downright dishonest seems inappropriate for a paper of The Post's stature, not to mention indicative of pro-Bush bias. Any comment?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know how you conclude that the article expressed "admiration" for the Bush administration's tactics. To say that the administration's tactics were "skillful" in helping Republicans win elections in 2002 and 2004 is a judgment about effectiveness, not a value judgment. You could say that Jack Abramoff was "skillful" in using his clients' money to leverage his influence with Congress and the White House; that doesn't mean you approve of what he did.

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World "War" III: Howard:

Newt Gingrich is now going around saying we're in World War III. This is yet another example of the misuse of the word "war" by the Bush administration, their supporters in the talking head world and much, if not all, of the media. The events in the Middle East, even the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, are not war, because they do not specifically involve one or more countries facing off against other countries. A war needs an official declaration and some end result that would cause the war to come to an end. If you misuse the word, then you get a president and administration that can attack its opponents for "not standing behind its leaders during a war" and an administration that can expand its powers beyond the limits of the Constitution because "we're at war." I'd love for the media to begin to take stand against the use of the word "war" to describe our current circumstance, but I'm not holding my breath.

Howard Kurtz: Newt's "World War III" formulation on Meet the Press yesterday may have been over the top, but if what's going on now in the Middle East isn't war, it's a reasonable imitation of it. The world seems to be moving away from the era when one nation-state would officially declare war on another. The war on terror, to take one example, is against shadowy groups like al-Qaeda, not particular countries. And by the way, Ehud Olmert did say he regarded the initial attack by Hezbollah as an "act of war." So I think that word can no longer be reserved only for declared military conflicts between countries.

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Fly-over-land, Wis.: Howard,

Given the level of violence in in an increasingly theocratic Iraq, and the escalating conflict between Israel and Hezbollah taking its toll on Lebanese civilians, wouldn't it be a good time for the major media to take stock of exactly who said what in the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003?

I ask because many of the people who flogged the Iraq war--are now advocating an air war against Iran. Isn't an examination of how the analyses of various members of the Commentariat pan out a good starting point for evaluating their credibility, especially for those who advocate carrying the fight to Iran or Syria?

Howard Kurtz: I'm certainly not against that, but some of those quotes have been cited many, many times, especially Dick Cheney's "we will be greeted as liberators."

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Washington, D.C.: What do you make of the anthrax scare at the NYT (where someone sent a powder in an envelope along with a copy of the editorial defending the leak of the article about tracking financial transactions)?

Specifically, are you concerned that the rhetoric against the Times and other media outlets, on blogs, talk shows, and even from Members of Congress, has heated up so much? It seems almost commonplace now to hear allegations of treason and calls for death hurled against reporters and editors. Does this concern you at all?

Howard Kurtz: Who knows why some nut sends white powder to a newsroom?

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Hillary's comments: Actually, when Sen. Clinton says "I think we are wasting time," I think she is talking about the Democrats, and the more direct criticism is certainly directed to her own party. She complains that the Republican leadership blocks the proposals of the nine female Democratic Senators, but her primary criticism is that instead of working to advance this mainstream agenda in spite of the leadership, the Democratic party as a whole prefers to concentrate on a controversial agenda that will not appeal to middle America, and that drives historically Democratic voters to choose Republicans (as my family tends to).

Howard Kurtz: Well, I wasn't there. But I didn't get that impression from looking at the speech excerpt.

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More on "war": "The war on terror, to take one example, is against shadowy groups like al-Qaeda, not particular countries. And by the way, Ehud Olmert did say he regarded the initial attack by Hezbollah as an "act of war." So I think that word can no longer be reserved only for declared military conflicts between countries."

So do you think anyone will ever "win" the war on terror? If al-Qaeda goes away, someone else will step forward and the "war" continues. And if the "word can no longer be reserved only for declared military conflicts between countries," how do we keep the president can assuming warrantless wiretap power forever? This isn't a matter of semantics but a deliberate use of language to enable the Administration to control the rules of debate and change the way our government operates.

Howard Kurtz: Do I think we will ever completely and totally wipe out terrorism in all its forma? Bush got hammered for saying this a couple of years ago, but the answer is probably not--especially when you consider all the regional terror, guerilla and separatist groups involved in India and Pakistan, Spain, Afghanistan and many other countries.

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Washington, D.C.: I understand that you try to get points of view from all over the political spectrum but some of your favorite commentators, the Powerline guys and Hugh Hewitt, seem to genuinely believe that the Times, and The Post, are on the side of the terrorists. Is that a credible opinion? If its not, then why do you have them on your CNN show all the time?

Howard Kurtz: I leave it to readers and viewers as to whether such opinions are credible. And it is my practice, in my articles, blog and television show, to seek balanced opinions from different sides. You might see folks from National Review or Power Line on one side, but you will see Arianna or Josh Marshall or Kos on the other.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: "Seems to me there is considerable anger on both sides". Well, yes, there is.

But only one side seems to be consistently calling for the death of the people with whom they disagree (see the Coulter quote you cited this morning).

Only one side consistently uses terms like 'treason' and 'traitor' and claim that their political enemies are on the side of the terrorists.

Have you really not noticed this? If you have, doesn't it bother you?

Howard Kurtz: Anyone who reads me knows that I am well aware of the fierce anti-press views out there, including those who say journalists should be tried for treason. But I am not going to pretend those views don't exist, whether or not I agree with them. People should be aware of them and form their own judgments.

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Jersey City, N.J.: Hi Howard

I noticed that Richard Engel of NBC managed to get an interview with the Lebanese PM over the weekend, and realized that this isn't the first 'get' that he's managed. Without disparaging other Mideast reporters like Nic Robinson or Christiane, it seems to me that Engel is really doing yeoman work over in the Mideast. I'm just curious as to whether his colleagues feel the same way.

And no, I have absolutely no connection to NBC.

Howard Kurtz: I believe that CNN was the first to interview the Lebanese prime minister, but leaving that aside: Engel, who recently became Beirut bureau chief, has spent more time in Iraq than any other journalist. He has been there since the war began, and his experience shows.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Why was Rita Cosby's show canceled on MSNBC and what is she going to do now? That was the only change on MSNBC. Her ratings couldn't have been that much worse than the other primetime shows on that network.

Howard Kurtz: The new head of MSNBC, Dan Abrams, decided to shift Rita Cosby to an investigative role and drop her nightly show.

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Washington, D.C.: Please don't fall for that "Isrealis and Arabs have been fighting for decades" excuse for what's going on today!!! Bush Sr. and Clinton put a lot of effort (and competence) into making change in the Middle East, and a lot of progress was made. The current Administration let it deteriorate for the past five years for reasons I won't speculate. This is the result. It was not preordained. People need to be held responsible (and there are a lot of people who acted and failed to act to get us where we are).

Howard Kurtz: It is certainly fair to observe that President Bush has been less personally engaged in Middle East diplomacy than any other recent president. But that doesn't automatically mean that another outbreak of violence between Israel, the Palestinians and Hezbollah can be "blamed" on him. After all, President Clinton was more deeply involved in Mideast peacemaking efforts than any president since Jimmy Carter, and yet the second Palestinian intifada erupted on his watch.

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Ellicott City, Md.: How many words per minute can you type? You, by far, answer more questions in a single hour chat than any other chat host at The Washington Post. Keep it up.

Howard Kurtz: One of my many hidden talents.

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Out there: "And it is my practice, in my articles, blog and television show, to seek balanced opinions from different sides.:

Isn't balance opinion part of the problem with the press? Doesn't it lead to things like The Washington Post saying that Democrats took money from Abramahoff?

I think you should strive for accuracy and less balance. Accuracy is not saying "left and right blogs are angry." Accuracy is saying "left blogs use vulgarity" and right wing blogs call for the hanging of the Supreme Court justices" These things do not balance each other out.

Howard Kurtz: Then you want advocacy, not journalism. I don't believe in false equivalency. If partisans on the left OR right do something outrageous, I call them on it. All opinions, of course, aren't equal, or we'd have to give equal space to the Flat Earth Society. But I am never going to please the strong partisans on either side because I am not in the advocacy business.

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Washington, D.C.: Will newspapers print Bush's remarks unedited, as they should?

Howard Kurtz: S---, I don't know. I'll report on that tomorrow. The Post did famously print the F-word when Dick Cheney told Pat Leahy to perform an unnatural act on himself, but I don't know what the decision will be on this one.

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Boston, Mass.: Why do your colleagues in The Washington Post newsroom insist on framing the corruption of today's politics as a bipartisan issue? The scandals on the Republican side are vast and involve every element of the GOP machine, including politicians, lobbyists, think tanks and party organizations from the local to the national level--a completely different scale and number from the Democratic side.

The Post does a great job on reporting all the scandals, Republican and Democratic, but seems unwilling to draw conclusions from that coverage (such as "95% of the officials under investigation are Republican").

Howard Kurtz: I don't think there's any question that most of the scandals in the current season have involved Republicans -- no, I'm not forgetting William Jefferson -- and I think the Post's coverage has reflected that. Lots of trees have been killed to fill our column inches on Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham, for example.

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Philly, Pa: Howard, come on..."Seems to me there is considerable anger on both sides."

Are you serious? What lefty blogs or pundits have called for the hunting of reporters? What lefty blogs or pundits have called for the gassing of those they disagree with (Melanie Sloan), or the firing squad (Coulter)? There is definitely a difference!

Howard Kurtz: If you got the email I get, you'd know that passions run high on both sides. I don't know of any liberals who have suggested that journalists be executed, but many are plenty angry at media coverage of Bush, Iraq, you name it.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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