Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 11, 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, Sept. 11, at Noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Katie in the Evening , ( Post, Sept. 11, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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College Park, Md.: Mr. Kurtz,

CNN.com is replaying the station's 9/11 coverage in real-time today, five years after the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon. Is re-living the minute-by-minute chaos of that morning really something many people are going to want to do? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: They're all doing it. Just watched MSNBC replaying 9/11/01 coverage as well. I find it hard to watch for more than a couple of minutes. I don't know whether many in the audience will have a similar reaction.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm trying to remember: Among the many ways that the 9/11 attacks changed the news business, was this the beginning of the news ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screen? Five years later, what's the assessment of this technique? Is it really necessary, on a typical news day, to have your attention divided two or three ways between the audio and various texts, which often have nothing to do with each other?

Howard Kurtz: As best I can recall, cable networks added the crawl in the period after 9/11, when there were so many developments going on. As time went on I found it distracting, and I think most of the time now I just ignore it. What's particularly annoying is that the crawl will include silly celebrity news or sports scores or promos for upcoming shows at a time when you might be trying to concentrate on what's on the screen.

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Kansas City, Mo.: If all the people polled for the purpose of determining the percent of viewers for each of the news programs of the three major networks also had access to cable news programs do you think cable would come out ahead? As I understand it, many who view the major network news programs do not have cable access.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that's right, because about 70 percent of the country now has cable. But some of those who like the idea of a nightly news summary at 6:30 have jobs -- maybe in schools or hospitals or where they're moving around -- in which they're not near a television screen all day, and so are seeing little cable news.

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Baltimore, Md.: Re why people watch one evening newscast over another: It's a fitting day to ask that question, Howard. I only know that on 9/11/01 I was sharing a house in the Outer Banks with a group of people. When we first heard the news about the WTC and the Pentagon, we flipped around from news channel to news channel, but we finally settled on ABC and stayed with it through the day.

And the sole reason was Peter Jennings: somber, calm, handling constant updates with ease and grace. I had always preferred Jennings before, but after 9-11, I watched no other evening news until his death, and now I have no preference.

Howard Kurtz: There's no question that major news events -- a terror attack, a war, a space shuttle disaster, a killer hurricane -- really test the mettle of anchors and can forge a permanent connection to the audience. The awful events of Sept. 11 and the aftermath were in some ways television's finest hour as Jennings, Rather and Brokaw tried to get the country through the trauma. Now, of course, there will be three new anchors on duty for the next big story.

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Oxford, Miss.: I hope this question doesn't sound accusatory or conspiratorial because I certainly don't mean it either way.

Was is a deliberate choice to run the piece on the one Muslim running for Congress on the 9/11 anniversary? Seems like it adds a little extra oomph to the "BUT he's a Muslim!" element of the story.

Howard Kurtz: I would say a bigger factor is that tomorrow is the primary in that candidate's district.

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Chapel Hill, N.C.: How much input does the anchor (Katie, Brian, etc.) have on what stories are presented? It would seem that the day's events would set the agenda for the newscast and that the producer would have the lead in sequencing, allocating time, etc.

Howard Kurtz: A huge amount. They are both managing editors of their broadcasts.

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Ft Belvoir: In both your broadcast and today's column, you said this about the firing of the Miami Herald reporters:

"The journalists were compensated for appearances on Radio Marti and TV Marti, the broadcasting services beamed into Cuba."

No where do you say that Radio and TV Marti are sponsored by the US Government. After all, these folks were fired because they took government money. You could have said "...the US Government sponsored Radio Marti..." and right away a reader or viewer would know the exact nature of the controversy. You can't assume that everyone knows who Radio and TV Marti is sponsored by.

Howard Kurtz: The first sentence of the item says "accepting money from the federal government." Can't get much more explicit than that.

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Baltimore, Md.: Do you expect to hear more on the news from Brigadier General Mark Scheid that there was no planning for an occupation of Iraq and that Rumsfeld refused to even discuss such a phase when planning for the war? Frankly, based on past experience, I expect Rumsfeld will deny Scheid's account, and I also wouldn't be surprised if Scheid is asked to take an early retirement.

Howard Kurtz: I certainly would like to see more reporting on his account.

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Burke, Va.: I'm really really tired of all the overdoing of 9-11. I hate the way it's used for politics and I hate the way the media is overdoing it. I'd like just a moment of silence, no politician's speeches being carried for a day - and no more. I can't stand turning on the TV - and I don't want to read The Post special. I just want to be left alone.

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't be surprised if there are others who share your view. I am not a big fan of anniversary stories myself. Today, of course, is like a national day of mourning, and you have all these ceremonies going on and the president visiting all three sites (he's in Shanksville, Pa. as I type). So it's hardly surprising that the media would shift into high gear. At least it's about a serious subject and not just the latest missing white woman.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard,

You have an interesting column this morning, I especially like the juxtaposition of the article on the news industry folks being fired by Miami Herald for taking Radio Marti money and the announcement the Michael Gerson has been hired by Fred Hiatt to join The Washington Post op-ed staff.

I guess it's ok to take money for opinions before you sign up with the newspaper, but not during the time you are paid by the paper. (And yes, I agree, there is some difference between the editorial and the news staff. But it still seems like "pay it forward" to me on the Gerson hiring.)

Can you get Fred Hiatt to explain how Gerson will be "a different kind of conservative from the other conservatives on our page. . . . He's been part of this White House, but I expect he will be an independent voice."

How will he be different from Krauthammer, Novak, Ignatius, Hiatt, Samuelson and Malaby? Maybe it is explained in the ellipsis in the memo?

What is your count of the "independent voiced conservatives" vs. the "independent voiced centrist" vs. "liberals" on The Post's op-ed.

Was the hire run by Donald Graham?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the answer to the last question. But it seems to me that liberals are pretty well represented on the Post op-ed page through Gene Robinson, E.J. Dionne, Richard Cohen, Harold Meyerson and (until his recent surgery) Michael Kinsley. I think it's fair to raise questions about Gerson's independence, as I did, but we also should reserve judgment until we see what he actually writes.

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Seward, Neb.: Does anyone really care that the evening "news" on network TV has degenerated into nothing much more than supermarket checkstand tabloids? I consider myself to be pretty well informed on current affairs and I don't think I have watched network news in five years. What is their viewership compared to say 25 or 30 years ago?

Howard Kurtz: If you haven't watched in five years, how can you make a judgment about the newscasts? I have plenty of criticisms of network news, but they remain a bastion of fairly serious reporting and rarely deal with tabloid subjects. Viewership has been declining for 25 years, and the networks bear some of the responsibility, but they have also been hurt by the growth of cable news and online news and talk radio and all the other choices Americans have, compared to the days when there were basically just three national channels and PBS.

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Carrboro, N.C.: On "Reliable Sources" yesterday Emily Rooney made a statement that drove me nuts. In your discussion of "Path to 9/11" she stated (paraphrasing here) that it was just entertainment and no one should take it seriously. It is talk like this that drives the left blogosphere nuts about the mainstream media. This is not just entertainment! Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are not just putting on a dog and pony show that no one really takes seriously. They have a strong influence on a significant chunk of people in this country. They are allowed to make a series of outrageous and inflammatory statements and when called on it they claim people have no sense of humor and the MSM just rolls their eyes as if they couldn't even be bothered to respond. With 36% of the country believing in conspiracy theories about 9/11 and another significant chunk still convinced Saddam was involved, isn't it time that the MSM took starting taking these commentators as major contributors to the political dialog in this country?

Howard Kurtz: Here's what Emily Rooney actually said. She did not say that no one should take it seriously.

Q. My question to you, Emily Rooney, should ABC be embarrassed at put on a $40 million movie on this still very painful subject of 9/11, with a number of made-up scenes and made-up dialogue, that only in recent days has the network been scrambling to fix?

ROONEY: Well, there's no such thing as being embarrassed anymore. The only people who should be embarrassed are the ones who tune in to watch this. My feeling is it's like an Oliver Stone movie, you get what you deserve if you tune in and watch this.

It's fiction. It's a novel. I can't even believe it's engendered the kind of acrimony that it has. I mean, I'm so uninterested in this, I force myself to read the articles about it.

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Little Rock, Ark.: Your piece on Ms Couric made me think about how the media (I know that is a big community) sees itself. I come to rely on the media to bring perspective to stories not because they are smarter than me but they are offered an access to information that I just do not have. They know the back stories and the ins and outs and I think too often it appears reporters are more interested in maintaining that access than providing me that perspective. I know that making general statements can be too broad but just wanted to share that thought with you.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for that. I think this whole business about "interested in maintaining access" is overblown. Sometimes we do a good job and sometimes a not-so-good job, and we struggle to be fair, but by and large, government officials have to deal with us whether they like what we write or not.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What's the verdict on Couric? How have ratings been after the initial debut. I can tell you one thing, our family used to be CBS News people -- not anymore. We can't take the fluff.

Howard Kurtz: The ratings went down about 25 percent from the first to the third night, but that was entirely expected. No one, including the folks at CBS, expected Couric to keep pulling in the huge audience she got the first night, with its huge curiosity factor. NBC's top-rated newscast had been pulling a little under 9 million viewers; Katie got more than 13.5 million for her debut. The real test, in my view, comes this week.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Howard. Thanks for what you do. What do you think of the changes in script for the ABC movie showing last night and again tonight.

The media outlets (AP) are saying that the changes were not substantial. Yet, Clinton's lawyers are still writing letters.

Much ado about nothing? Or, a major political issue ignored by ABC?

Thanks

Howard Kurtz: The script changes seemed fairly minor to me. But I do have to credit ABC News for jumping on the controversy involving the network's entertainment division.

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RE: Katie Couric: The ratings show a decline since last week. I suggest that the first night will be the spike and that her ratings will drop and level ff, still leaving CBS in third place for a long while. What are your thoughts on her long road to climbing to the top of the ratings heap?

Howard Kurtz: I've always assumed that after an initial spike, the CBS Evening News would still face a difficult climb out of third place. It takes months and sometimes years to change people's viewing habits. Couric & Co. face the additional hurdle of trying to draw new viewers to a revamped broadcast without alienating the existing core of viewers who enjoyed watching Bob Schieffer.

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New York, N.Y.: One thing that drives me crazy about most of the articles on ABC's mockudrama, is the he-said, she-said framing of the fictitious scenes. It's always something like, "Madeleine Albright disputes the accuracy" or "Sandy Berger claims that never happened."

Why can't the reporters just say that the scenes in questions were fabrications instead of simply quoting Albright and Berger, leaving the reader to wonder where the truth is?

Howard Kurtz: I believe I've pointed out the instances where the 9/11 commission report does not support the scenes in question, and ABC did not defend those scenes as factual, although the network said we should all wait for the final version that aired last night.

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Washington, D.C.: Couldn't it be argued that ABC News hyping the controversy has the effect of pumping up ABC Entertainment's ratings?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. The same could be said for all the media coverage. I have no doubt that more people tuned in as a result of all the criticism, which amounted to free publicity. That's the nature of these things.

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Rockville, Md.: I was with the Fox News Channel when it launched- a couple years before 9/11. (Out of news now, thank you.) Fox had crawls and "Fox facts" from the beginning. Not sure if he should get the "credit," but I see the non-stop facts and crawls and updates flying all over the screen as Roger Ailes' invention. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Howard Kurtz: I was only relying on memory.

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New Hampshire: With regard to your statement about access and "but by and large, government officials have to deal with us whether they like what we write or not."

Ask Helen Thomas about this...

Howard Kurtz: There's a misconception about Helen Thomas. When she worked for UPI, she always got the second question at presidential news conferences. Now that she's an opinion columnist for Hearst, she is rarely called on (although Bush did recognize her at his last session) and it's no secret the White House doesn't like her liberal views. But columnists are not generally called upon at presidential news conferences, period.

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Alexandria, Va.: How does a newspaper get classified as "liberal" vs. "conservative"? Who decides on the classification? Do you know of any newspaper that has been re-classified? Is there a similar classification system for web sites that provide news (MSNBC, CNN for example)?

Howard Kurtz: Newspapers are often tagged based on their editorial pages, which is unfair to the news operation. For instance, the Wall Street Journal edit page is conservative and the New York Times edit page is liberal, so the label is applied to the entire publication. There is no classification system for media outlets, really, except in the eyes of the audience, who can make their own judgments.

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Rochester, N.Y.: You say that the whole access angle with journalism is overblown. Do you think, though, that is troubling when a journalist is given the kind of access that results in a bestselling book after having given his sources favorable treatment? I guess the examples of Bob Woodward and Elisabeth Bumiller (who is reportedly getting wide access to write a bio of Condi Rice after having given the White House flattering treatment at the Times for years) come to mind here.

Howard Kurtz: I guess I would quarrel with your description of Woodward's and Bumiller's work.

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Crofton, Md.: Tim Russert is taking a beating today on the blogs, especially Huffington Post, about his interview with Cheney. Why is it that Russert seems to take a different tone with those in power? He can be a pit bull when someone like Howard Dean comes on the program. But, when it is a member of the Administration, especially Cheney, Russert seems more soft-spoken and deferential.

Given that Russert/Cheney is always viewed critically the day after, maybe someone else should be assigned to the Cheney interviews from now on. Maybe Brian Williams or David Gregory could do a better job.

Howard Kurtz: Russert is one of the best interviewers in television. And I just reviewed the transcript and he pressed Cheney on all kinds of issues involving Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror. Leaving aside that Russert was once a Democratic operative, I think some Bush critics are not satisfied by any interview in which the journalist doesn't yell at Cheney and call him a liar.

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Bethesda, Md.: To what extent do you believe that media endorsements, such as those by The Post, will influence the electorate in the D.C. and Maryland primaries?

Howard Kurtz: The Post endorsement will have a huge influence in D.C. (as opposed to its presidential endorsements, for example). In the past, Post endorsements greatly contributed to the election of Marion Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't make it home in time to see network evening news, but I did catch Katie Couric on 60 Minutes last night. I thought she was surprisingly good. Do you think that eventually people will stop talking about her clothes and her legs, and actually pay attention to the content of her reports?

Howard Kurtz: Not entirely, but I hope so. That's what I tried to do in this morning's column, to deal with the substance of the journalism on that newscast rather than all the superficial and gossipy stuff.

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Re: Media: I'm curious: Since you work in both print and TV, which do you find more informative/objective?

And although I am sure you enjoy working in both, which do you personally prefer?

Howard Kurtz: Print allows more room for complexity, context and nuance. Television is more immediate and has more impact, particularly with stories that rely on pictures, but struggles when a story involves lots of facts and figures or has no visuals. I enjoy each one for different reasons.

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New York, N.Y.: Odd that there are no questions or comments about ABC's "Path to 9/11" today. Are you not getting questioned about it, or are you not taking questions about it?

If you are, I'm wondering if you know whether ABC is libel for presenting as "the official story" outright lies about the Clinton administration. Can Sandy Berger sue, and if so, can he win?

Howard Kurtz: Haven't gotten that many. I do not expect Sandy Berger to sue, and I doubt he'd have much of a legal case because of the disclaimer at the beginning of the film saying that some scenes were fictionalized. The court of public opinion, however, is a different story.

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Washington, D.C.: I also believe that network news has deteriorated over the years until we are left with stories that neither Brinkley nor Cronkite would even recognize as news. I find very little "news" gets reported, and interest stories are the rule on each of the network TV news programs. I think it is going to take someone with immense wealth and resources like a Bill Gates or a George Soros or similar to have a network that simply reports news stories and is not a video tabloid. It will likely not be a money-maker, but instead would be a public service. Citizens would become informed if they tuned in. They would know the difference between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. They would be able to find Syria on a map. An informed citizenry is the prerequisite for a strong democracy. Do you see a call for something so revolutionary?

Howard Kurtz: I am all for better and broader and more comprehensive news, although I don't share your opinion that the nightly newscasts are as soft as you seem to think. But there is also the question of public appetite. If much of the country wanted the kind of television news you describe, then the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" would have much bigger ratings than it currently enjoys.

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Baltimore, Md.: Howard,

You just said that the WSJ editorial page is conservative and the New York Times is liberal. That is true, but it is not an apples to apples comparison. The Times editorial page is definitely liberal, but they have at least two conservative columnists on the op-ed page. Since, Al Hunt left, the Journal has zero liberal op-ed columnists. The Times would be ridiculed if they decided to have an entirely liberal op-ed page. Why does no one in media criticism explore why the Journal completely disregards liberal opinion?

Howard Kurtz: Because it's their playground and they can run it any way they want. You are right, as far as the op-ed pages are concerned. I was thinking in my previous answer of the editorial pages and their positions, not the columnists they run.

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Carrboro, N.C.: Sorry to go on about this, but the final quote from Emily Rooney is the one that disturbs me: "It's fiction. It's a novel. I can't even believe it's engendered the kind of acrimony that it has. I mean, I'm so uninterested in this, I force myself to read the articles about it."

She may be uninterested in it, but there are millions of Americans who will accept it as the truth while media insiders just shrug their shoulders.

Howard Kurtz: Well, that's why I have multiple guests on Reliable Sources, so you can get a variety of viewpoints. It would be pretty boring if every guest said the same thing and you agreed with every single opinion offered.

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New York, N.Y.: ABC tells the whole world that Sandy Berger is personally responsible for 9/11 and he doesn't have a case?

Howard Kurtz: He has a case that he has been unfairly maligned. But if he brings a libel suit, ABC's legal defense is that it told viewers that part of the movie was fiction.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: The huge orchestrated hoopla for the 5th anniversary of 9-11--would it be as intense if it wasn't a major election year?

Howard Kurtz: Probably. Although I question why the 5-year anniversary is so much bigger than the third or fourth anniversary.

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Washington, D.C.: "In the past, Post endorsements greatly contributed to the election of Marion Barry..."

Yeah, um, good call with that one.

Howard Kurtz: The editorial page later came to see the folly of its ways.

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Green Bay, Wis.: Regarding your answer to Crofton, Md.: the important point is that Dick Cheney, our Vice-President, IS a liar, and a consistent one at that. This is big time important, and we the people rely on Russert, you, and other media types to give us the truth; the facts. You have to call a lie a lie, and insist on the facts. Your refusal to hold these people accountable to the truth is a big reason why you are losing your audience to the blogs and the Internet sites.

Howard Kurtz: Then you don't want news coverage, you want sheer opinion. If Cheney says X and Russert says, Hold on, Mr. Vice President, the facts don't support X and what's more, two years ago you said Y, and then Cheney is forced to justify his position if he can, the audience gets it and he has done his job.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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