Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, August 28, 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, Aug. 28, at noon to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Today's Column: Journalism's Rising Risk Factor ( Post, Aug. 28 )

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Frederick, Md.: Where have you been Howard? I've missed your column.

Howard Kurtz: It's called vacation. I highly recommend it.

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Ciudad Juarez, Mexico: Dear Howard:

Am the only one who found Mike Wallace's behavior during his 8/13 "60 Minutes" interview with the president of Iran annoying? It seemed that his ego and temper got the best of him, and he was more interested in the effect of his questions than on Pres. Ahmedinejad's (sp?) answers. Agree/disagree?

Thank you for taking my questions.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure we saw the same interview. I certainly didn't see Mike Wallace lose his temper. At times he was exasperated, funny, prodding and confrontational, but that's what he does, and has been doing, for more than half a century. He's a showman.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Good morning, Mr. Kurtz, and thank you for chatting with us today! What do you think about media describing Senator Joe Lieberman as a Democrat? He's started his own party -- Connecticut for Lieberman -- is running on that party's line against the Democratic nominee in Connecticut. Don't you think the media is buying Lieberman's spin when referring to him as a "Democrat?"

Howard Kurtz: Look, everyone knows he lost the primary and is running as an independent. But Lieberman is a lifelong Democrat who says that if he wins he will caucus with the Dems. He is not the Democratic Party candidate in this race, Lamont is, but that doesn't mean he's been excommunicated.

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New York, N.Y.: I'm sure you are inundated with questions/comments as to the saturation of Jon Benet Ramsey news. My question is this: Do cable networks have the ratings numbers to back up their sensationalist coverage? Do these networks see an uptick in viewership during a media frenzy like this? Or a Lacy/Scott Peterson investigation? Because if they do, then who can blame them for covering it the way they do?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, cable networks see an uptick in viewership when they do JonBenet, Laci, Chandra, Natalee, etc., but I believe they risk alienating the larger audience by overplaying and overhyping these missing-or-murdered melodramas involving young women. This is a 10-year-old murder case with a creepy character who now claims he did it, despite a lack of evidence at the moment and conflicting accounts from several of his relatives. But let's not just blame cable here. The network morning shows have gone nuts over this case, and the nightly newscasts have given it some prominence as well.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: The rumor-mongering and vapidity of the cable news networks is sometimes beyond belief. Yesterday morning, the news consisted entirely of breathless speculation that Ernesto "might" become a Category 3 hurricane, "might" head for the Gulf Coast, "might" destroy the levees around New Orleans. Silly me, I thought journalism was about researching and reporting on actual events, not juicing up for disaster coverage five days from now. I swear I heard one hair-do say that Hurricane Ernesto might hit the Gulf Coast or it might not. This lead to all sorts of levity at our house for the rest of the day: This just in, the sun might rise tomorrow morning. Or it might not. Breaking news, Bush might order air strikes against Iran. Or not. Etc.

Howard Kurtz: Cable, of course, can barely hold a candle to local TV news when it comes to weather hype. Look, obviously the projected path of Ernesto is important if you live in Florida or one of the states that may be hit. But it seems there's a tendency now to portray every storm as a potential Katrina, the better to hook viewers. We went through this with a Category 1 storm in July that didn't even turn into a hurricane. These things need to be covered, but not at this noise level.

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Drexel Hill, Pa.: The president's Weekly address on the topic of terrorism was moved to 11 a.m. on Saturday. The Democratic response was given by Vice Admiral Joe Sestak who is running against 10-term incumbent Curt Weldon. It was difficult to find the speech. The speech was not covered by the press in its normal fashion. Was this an attempt to keep Sestak from getting press? He just outraised Weldon in the last quarter. In addition, Sestak, who was Pres. Clinton's Director of Defense reporting to the National Security Council has an outstanding resume. Please let me know what you can about the coverage of the speech. Did you hear it on Saturday?

Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I did not hear it. But in all honesty, the president's radio address rarely gets much coverage, and the opposition response generally gets even less. In other words, this was par for the course.

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San Jose, Calif.: Howard,

As one of the dozens of insomniacs who watch your show on CNN -- thank you for having these chats. As a news junkie and die-hard fan of both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, I notice a lot of references to these comedians but heavy hitters such as Chris Matthews, Maureen Dowd. I have also heard Chris Matthews says that almost 50 percent of U.S. college students watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. What influence do these guys have on the press? Does everyone in your business watch them? Do they ever have influence on how the media sees itself and reports the news?

Howard Kurtz: The "dozens of insomniacs" was a good-natured shot that Rob Corddry took at my show (kind of odd for a program that airs at 10 a.m., but hey, it's fake journalism). Sure, I'd say the majority of self-absorbed journalists (is there any other kind) watch Stewart and/or Colbert, and I'd say they definitely have an impact (you may recall that Newsweek put Jon on the cover). Stewart in particular conducts important interviews with politicians, pundits and authors, with serious discussion sprinkled among the laughs. But it's not true that half of all college students watch him. If that was the case, his ratings would be a zillion times higher.

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Alexandria, Va.: As I'm sure you know, bloggers like Michelle Malkin charged the mainstream media with ignoring Steve and Olaf in comparison to coverage of Jill Carroll. I was a little surprised myself that when a video was released, the Post put the story on A-18. Did you have any thoughts on whether mainstream media underplayed this one?

Howard Kurtz: I thought it should have been on the front page. I would agree that their story was underplayed compared to the kidnapping of Jill Carroll, but Fox executives don't believe that was because many MSM types aren't big Fox fans. First, Roger Ailes initially asked other news outlets not to overplay the story for fear of jeopardizing the negotiations to free Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig. Second, there are many more reporters in Iraq than in Gaza, and a fierce debate in America over our Iraq engagement, which in some ways turned Jill Carroll into a symbol of the dangers there. And finally, both female guests on my program yesterday agreed that gender is a factor. That is, the media are more likely to go into Natalee Holloway mode if the kidnap victim is a 28-year-old woman, as Carroll was, as opposed to the 60-year-old Centanni. Despite all of that, I believe the story deserved more attention, if only because Gaza must now be added to the list of places where it is very dangerous for western journalists to operate.

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Mike Wallace: I agree -- I thought Wallace's questions to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were perfectly appropriate. In addition, Ahmadinejad seemed more interested in lecturing the camera than answering the questions. If that frustrated Wallace, I don't blame him: It frustrated me, too.

Howard Kurtz: Good point.

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New Hampshire: Hi Howie and thanks for taking my follow up -- it certainly seems that Joe Lieberman is gunning for excommunication what with his campaigning with Republicans at the Groton sub base and his off again, on again support for Democrats in Connecticut. He has said that he is a "noncombatant" and that he is essentially focused on only Joe and the future of Joe. I would think that the media would question his continued kowtowing to the Republicans, don't you?

Howard Kurtz: I think the press has made quite clear that Lieberman needs the vast majority of Republicans and a decent share of Democrats to win this race. He certainly got a boost when the White House and RNC declined to endorse the GOP candidate in Connecticut, Alan Schlesinger. If this has happened before in modern history, I'm not aware of it.

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Speaking of the Ramseys ...:

I perused the Washington Post's front page this morning and there was NOT one story about the Ramseys. I want to say a great big, "Thank You" for that!

Howard Kurtz: Maybe if we're lucky there won't be one tomorrow either.

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Rolla, Mo.: Your response to New York's Jon Benet question is unfortunately accurate. Not only did I find myself turning off the evening CNN shows more than usual (Larry King, Anderson Cooper leading story for days on end), but even NPR and the BBC noted the story. Why would the latter two organizations even bother with this?

Howard Kurtz: When the cable channels and morning shows obsess on a story like JonBenet and keep running the beauty pageant footage, others often feel compelled to cover it on the grounds that the story is creating a major buzz. Of course, it's the media obsession that is creating the buzz, which in turns fuels more media buzz by outlets that otherwise would probably be covering more important subjects.

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Seattle, Wash.: Jonathan Weisman wrote last week: "Cheney's statements present a quandary for us reporters. Sometimes we write them up and are accused of being White House stenographers and stooges for repeating them. Then if we don't write them up, we are accused of being complicit for covering them up. So, all you folks on the left, what'll it be? Complicity or stenography?" He further added, ""Sometimes, you folks really drive us nuts.""

Is this really how Washington Post reporters really think, that there are only two choices in journalism when it comes to covering spin?

Howard Kurtz: That's not how I see it. We have to cover what the president and vice president say, and we have to play the truth-squadding role and fact-check what they say and explain the strategy behind the spin. Perhaps Weisman was just frustrated at getting hammered from both sides.

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Rolla, Mo.: I know we will see it played out soon enough, but what do you think the tone will be during the non-stop coverage of the Katrina and 9/11 anniversaries? In other words, will there be only retrospectives on the actual horrific days, or will there be context, analysis of what went wrong, what has been fixed, what remains to be done?

Howard Kurtz: I do think there will be plenty of examination of what needs to be done in New Orleans and in the war on terror. The 9/11 coverage has never really gone away, given how deeply embedded the aftereffects of that day are in our politics and culture, but there remains a passionate debate about the way the administration is pursuing this war and what tactics are acceptable.

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Fairfax, Va.: When do you think cable and TV news will get around to covering the upcoming election, election night? We had wall-to-wall coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq; we had two days of non-stop Jon Benet Ramsey coverage recently to the exclusion of just about anything else. Is this an intentional effort by corporate owned and influenced TV/cable news to minimize interest in what could be the most significant choice voters will get to make in a long time?

Howard Kurtz: Midterm elections are very difficult for television because they are a collection of state and local races in which the audience is unfamiliar with most of the candidates. (It's a challenge to newspapers as well, by the way.) We will see TV stories on a few high-profile races, like Lieberman's, and trend stories on the impact of Iraq and Bush's popularity, and of course polls and horse race analyses of who's gonna win. But I don't expect a lot of network coverage until the last few weeks. The cable channels will obviously do more if they can tear themselves away from hurricanes and JonBenet.

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Washington, D.C.: You said you weren't sure that there was a precedent for the Republican establishment supporting Lieberman over a Republican nominee. But isn't there something pretty close going on, just this year, a couple of states away? In Vermont Bernie Sanders is running as an Independent, and if anyone in the Democratic Party is failing to support him, I haven't heard about it.

Howard Kurtz: But I meant a political party, and White House, formally refusing to endorse the candidate who is running on their line.

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Gulf Shores, Ala.: Thank You for taking my question:

Why are there not more follow-up on stories that are covered. Especially if they got large or semi-large media coverage, and then they seem to go into some black hole, never to be heard of again. Two stories come to mind: The Marine that died at boot camp and the supposed-to-be-further indictments on the Abramoff scandal.

Howard Kurtz: I agree with your point in general -- it's a large black hole -- but you can't very well cover potential indictments if there aren't any, and there haven't been many new twists in the Abramoff investigation. We do continue to cover the fallout, such as the decision of Rep. Robert Ney not to run for reelection after being cited in the indictment as "Representative No. 1."

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Dale City, Va.: This whole JonBenet thing certainly created buzz in my house. We both wanted to throw things at the TV. My husband spent a lot of time e-mailing networks to complain about this. Do you know if the networks got many complaints or have we become so disappointed with the wall-to-wall coverage of things that do not affect our lives that we mostly just accept it?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if they got a lot of complaints. I figure that most people who are disgusted with the coverage of a story just hit the clicker.

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Nashville, Tenn: Howard, a month long vacation? I didn't know you were French! Just kidding. Welcome back!

Howard Kurtz: Merci. Well, I did do a little work during this period, such as a piece on Katie Couric gearing up to take over the CBS Evening News.

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D.C. Mayoral Race: Is the Post obligated to endorse a candidate?

I am just so uninspired by both Fenty and Cropp, not to mention a little worried by both as well. It causes me to not want to vote, but that doesn't seem right.

So I guess the question is, will the Post always endorse a candidate even if it is a "Lesser of two Evils" pick instead of a "Really excited by this candidate" pick?

Howard Kurtz: The Post is NOT obligated, and as proof, the paper made no endorsement in the 1988 presidential race, saying it did not feel it could endorse either Bush 41 or Dukakis.

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Prescott, Ariz.: Hi Howard,

The president met with a guy who drove a FEMA trailer up from Lousiana who proceeded to tell him how great he was for helping out after Katrina. The media (I saw it on CNN, where it ate up a good portion of the air that day) played it up as some unscripted and unscheduled event; as in the president learned a lesson after the Cindy Sheehan debacle last year.

Well, it turns out that the trailer guy was a Republican operative and had put out his own schedule noting he had an audience with the Prez before he even left for Washington.

My question is whether you think it was professional of the media to not tell us the whole story?

Howard Kurtz: I think initially the media bought the White House spin, but amply reported afterward that Rocky had run for office as a Republican (especially after he gushed that Bush should get ANOTHER four years). The White House continues to deny that it knew about his partisan background, but the reporting on that has been, shall we say, skeptical.

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Columbia, Md.: Howie,

You and other Washington Post reporters are fond of claiming that there is this "wall" between the news department and "editorial" department. If so, then why does Dana Milbank get to appear on the editorial page on a regular basis, as he did this weekend, while also writing news column during the week. It would seem to me the "wall" has a pretty big hole in it to allow Milbank to pass back and forth....

Shouldn't Milbank have to choose one side or the other?

Howard Kurtz: It is my sad duty to inform you that you are wrong. Dana Milbank's "Zeitgiest" column appears not on the editorial page but in the Sunday Outlook section, which is run by a completely separate staff and frequently includes contributions from reporters. Listen, the wall doesn't mean that on rare occasions a reporter can't write an op-ed piece. It means that editors and reporters in the newsroom have no idea what the editorial page is going to say, are not influenced by what the editorial page says, and that Len Downie has no control over anything the editorial page does.

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Hey! Don't Be So Hard On Mr. Kurtz!:

At least he takes far fewer and shorter vacations than our President and he hasn't sent anybody into war...

Howard Kurtz: I'm not much good at clearing brush, either.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: You pretty much showed the media's apathy about accuracy with your answer about Lieberman still being called a Democrat. He left the party, so he's not a Democrat. And this isn't splitting hairs. You didn't call Jim Jeffords a Republican after he switched parties simply because he was a lifelong Republican, did you?

The facts matter. Some voters may be confused by this -- they're not all as smart as you. So please, don't blow off accuracy.

Howard Kurtz: The difference is that Jeffords caucused with the Democrats. And that single fact tipped control of the Senate to the Dems for a year and a half. You can call Lieberman whatever you want (and many have), but if he wins this election, he will vote for Harry Reid for majority leader next January. Whether that matters, of course, depends on whether the Democrats can pick up six other seats now in Republican hands.

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20003: Speaking of The Daily Show, I caught up with my TiVo's episodes over the weekend to see Rob Corddry is leaving and has done his last show. Any word on where he is going??

Kudos by the way to The Daily Show on their Emmy wins, not to mention Steve Carrell's success as an alum on The Office taking home best comedy Emmy. Maybe it is a Daily Show world?!

Howard Kurtz: I don't know where Corddry is going, but I suspect he won't be on food stamps. It seems the Daily Show has become like SNL in the 70s and 80s, a good ticket to movies and other high-profile projects.

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Re: Milbank: But Mr. Kurtz, to the reader, it doesn't matter whether Downie is in charge of the section or not. What matters is that Milbank dances all over the fine line between reporting and editorializing, suggesting there is no "wall" between news and opinion.

Howard Kurtz: But that's a different argument. You said he was on the editorial page; he wasn't. Plus, he is a news columnist now, which means he has more leeway in writing than when he was a White House beat reporter, but is not dishing outright opinions the way an op-ed columnist would.

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San Francisco, Calif.: With the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upon us, I was wondering why you don't hear about the number of dead or missing reported more often. I did some digging (through Google) and found that the current confirmed dead stands at 2000 and that upwards of 6000 are still missing. I think that if you asked a guy on the street how many died on 9/11, he would likely know as it has been repeated constantly by the administration through the press. But the human toll of Katrina and the failed response is not as widely known. Do you think that number should be more aggressively reported? thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Those numbers look higher than I believe they are, but I have not double-checked. Certainly there are a sizable number of people who were never found and must be presumed dead. But I think at this point the 200,000-plus people who have been displaced is the bigger and more urgent story, since we can't bring back anyone who died in the storm.

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Washington, D.C.: I noticed last week a story online that said Bush's numbers had risen thanks to (England) stopping a terror plot. I noticed another, supposedly unrelated story, about how the price of gas has dropped.

Isn't the price of gas the main impetus behind Bush's numbers? Does the media have to prove anything, or is it like the daily stock reports where they say investors were "taking a profit" when they can never really know that?

Howard Kurtz: This is just interpretation, of course, but I think the foiled British plot had more to do with whatever bump Bush got, in part because his numbers rose on the question of handling national security. I doubt most people have noticed the relatively small decline in gas prices since they are still hovering around the forehead-slapping range of 3 bucks a gallon.

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Long Live Mr. Kurtz!: He also speaks in complete sentences and does subject-verb agreement.

Howard Kurtz: Otherwise I get nastygrams from grammar teachers.

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Montreal,Que.: How come pundits who are so frequently wrong on major issues(Iraq)appear with the same frequency. When do producers simply say this person obviously doesn't have a clue?

Howard Kurtz: When their ratings go down.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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