Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, November 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."

'Civil' Strife, ( Post, Nov. 28)

The transcript follows.

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Raleigh, N.C.: In Sunday's NYT piece by John Burns, he explicitly names the motive of the leakers.

It really stuck out to me. Is this new? If so, what is the reason for it? Do you have an idea how many and which news organizations have adopted this practice? Is it a good idea in your view?

Thanks for taking our questions.

Howard Kurtz: It's actually not new. It's what the NYT and WP have said they strive to do but often don't live up to. Although I didn't think the explanation was particularly illuminating in this instance.

The story was about a classified report saying the Iraqi insurgency was now financially self-sufficient through illicit oil sales, kidnappings and other ventures. The key sentence: "A copy of the seven-page report was made available to The Times by American officials who said the findings could improve understanding of the challenges the United States faces in Iraq."

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New York, N.Y.: As I'm sure you know, NBC News, the LA Times, and other news organizations are now calling the fighting in Iraq a Civil War. Will this force other networks to follow suit? I fear we are going to spend the next several weeks debating what to call this thing, instead of debating what to do about it.

Howard Kurtz: You know, I see this as a very incremental development. All the networks have been saying things like "sliding toward civil war" and "on the verge of civil war." I don't think dropping the qualifiers is a dramatic move that is causing people at home to slap their foreheads and say, "Civil war?!! So THAT'S what it is!"

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Alexandria, Va.: Color me puckish, but the grandiose announcement of NBC News that it has determined from its mountain of authoritativeness that Iraq is in a civil war reads like an Election Night call. And NBC was not popular in 2004 when it called Ohio for Bush. All the networks then sat on the obvious point(Bush won) until the moment Kerry conceded. Then, suddenly, the math all added up. Doesn't this decision look politicized -- we want out of Iraq, and we want it to be a national consensus before Speaker Pelosi gets the gavel?

Howard Kurtz: No. It looks like a legitimate journalistic decision that also happened to be milked for maximum publicity. I don't see where it has anything to do with the Democrats, who haven't even taken over Congress yet. Nor, as I said a moment ago, do I think it's that big a deal. IF a network wanted to adopt this phrase for solely partisan reasons -- which I don't think is the case -- it would have done so BEFORE the election, when control of Congress was still hanging in the balance.

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Arlington, Va.: Did you wince over the weekend when the Post Style section (in captions even) praised Gerald Boyd of Jayson-Blair-scandal fame as a "stickler for accuracy"? I know there should be charity when someone passes away, but can you imagine a politician best remembered for failing to prevent a political scandal being praised as a "stickler for ethics" at obituary time?

Howard Kurtz: Gerald Boyd can never escape having Jayson Blair be part of his legacy, given that he lost his Times job over the debacle. But I don't think the notion that he insisted on accuracy contradicts that. Blair succeeded in his scam precisely because Boyd, Howell Raines and other editors didn't know that he was making things up. It's widely acknowledged that they should have picked up on the warning signals far earlier.

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Arlington, Va.: The Supreme court declined to act on the appeal by the NYT of the ruling allowing the government to search their phone records, a blogger in CALF remains in jail, and the reporters who broke the BALCO story may soon join him. Is there any hope that the new congress will act on a federal shield law? Why hasn't the media succeeded in getting the public more riled up about this issue?

Howard Kurtz: There is no hope for a federal shield law because there simply isn't enough support in Congress. I think the media need to cover all these legal setbacks for reporters using confidential sources and certainly the shield law debate, but I don't think it's our job to whip up public sentiment on our behalf. That would seem a trifle, what's the word, self-serving. Unfortunately, in my view, many people don't see the connection between these legal setbacks and the ability of reporters to disclose important information that government officials want to keep secret--sometimes legitimately, but sometimes to avoid political embarrassment or public debate.

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Ocala, Fla.: Podcasts:

Howie, congrats to your team at Reliable Sources. They had downloadable video early Sunday afternoon. Thanks for making this resource available.

Howard Kurtz: We aim to please. I've noticed that other Web sites are also posting video from the program. What a terrific way to reach people who, for whatever lame reason, aren't watching when I'm on.

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Richmond, Va.: So why now does NBC feel emboldened to call the violence in Iraq a civil war? Is it because Bush, based on the outcome of the midterm elections, no longer has the power to frame the words to describe the war? In other words, is there a quasi-psychological correlation as to how vigorously the MSM will challenge a current administration based on the the strength or weakness of those in power?

Howard Kurtz: I really don't think it had anything to do with the election. I think the sectarian violence in Iraq has been spiraling out of control for so long that it became a question of when do you call a spade a spade. Again, this is hardly a radical departure from what most people already believe is going on in Iraq.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Here's what it seems like to me about the whole "civil war" argument: pretty much everyone knows that the Bush administration puts a lot of pressure on the media to report things the way the Bush people want it reported. Sometimes the press (especially The Post, I'm afraid) caves in. Why not just admit that there's a certain fear factor at work here, that you and other reporters at The Post are afraid of being labeled liberals and traitors (or whatever new traitor-like word the right is using these days)? I don't see how you'll have any credibility with anyone until you do. I say that as someone who likes your work and The Post in general. Why can't you just be upfront about this?

Howard Kurtz: What kind of "pressure" do you think the Bush administration puts on journalists? What are they going to do, have Tony Snow say mean things? Refuse to leak what they're already not leaking? Rescind the presidentially supplied nicknames? The battle here is not so much between reporters and the administration as a struggle in the court of public opinion over how the situation in Iraq should be depicted. In that sense, it is a battle that has raged for some time between news accounts (showing things spiraling out of control there) and the White House and Don Rumsfeld (saying the media focus excessively on violence and downplay signs of progress). In my view, recent events underscore that the media were essentially right.

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Bristow, Va.: As long as the media topic du jour is calling a spade a spade, why do media reports on Iran and Syria insist that the Bush administration "claims" they're helping insurgents? CNN did this on their morning show last week. Or they discuss bringing Iran and Syria to "solve" Iraq without noting they're ahem, part of the problem?

Howard Kurtz: Because these things are murky and proving precisely what assistance Iran and Syria are providing is hard to do. Though I note that the lead story in the NYT today says that Hezbollah, backed by Iran, has been training members of the Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army.

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Alabama: Just a comment. Nicholas Kristof did this country a service today writing a column about the risks Baghdad journalists face. When Dexter Filkins says he's been "nearly killed 20 or 30 times," it puts the media-baiting of much of the blogosphere in context: Namely, that reporters in Iraq are risking their lives to get information, and many bloggers are risking carpal tunnel syndrome in their misleading and insulting characterizations of the correspondents there.

Howard Kurtz: I've said many times that whatever you think of the war, and whatever you think of the coverage of the war, you have to admire the courage of the journalists who risk their lives in Iraq, especially after some of their colleagues have been killed, wounded and kidnapped.

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Raleigh, N.C. again:"Although I didn't think the explanation was particularly illuminating in this instance."

It was illuminating to me. The leakers believe the administration isn't being honest, or the leakers are trying to undermine the administration. (The explanation one prefers depends on whether one is a donkey or an elephant.)

Howard Kurtz: It definitely helps when reporters provide whatever information they can about a source's motivation so readers and viewers can make up their minds about credibility, especially when those providing the information are critical of the policy at issue.

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Baton Rouge, La.: To celebrate the end of the Hurricane Season, Drudge highlighted the "Inconvenient Truth" that a lot of the MSM contributed a heap of scaremongering about killer storms yet to come that, upon further review, added up to nothing.

Thoughts? Comments? Any hope that we can hold the biggest offenders accountable? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I think the annual forecasts of whether it's going to be a big hurricane season (or cold winter, or whatever) are essentially useless and don't understand why they get any coverage at all. Why not predict the stock market, while we're at it?

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Washington, D.C.: You described the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday as running almost all of its national and international news from AP and other wire services. In my experience this is incredibly common in smaller newspapers, and it seems it is also becoming more common in larger ones. I understand that duplicating coverage is expensive, but at what point do we get worried about having only one or two reporters covering really big stories? Even the Internet sites the Inquirer's owner referenced as better sources for national and international news are really just "aggregators".

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's not down to one or two reporters yet, but it's a reasonable concern. Obviously, newspapers with small staffs are not going to have bureaus around the country and around the world. But when it comes to international coverage, for example, you really have just a handful of newspapers -- the NYT, LAT, WP and WSJ -- with a substantial network of bureaus around the world, and CNN alone among the American networks. It's not that we need 50 news outlets with reporters in Paris, but when you consider the importance of Russia, China, Japan, India and Europe, it's quite striking how few journalists for U.S.-based media organizations are covering that turf. Even Afghanistan, despite the presence of U.S. troops there, has only a handful of American journalists.

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"You have to admire the courage of the journalists who risk their lives in Iraq...": So ... risking your life gives you a free pass to myopic, misleading, and often incorrect reporting?

It's possible to both recognize a reporters "bravery" while at the same time criticizing their product as professionally inadequate.

Howard Kurtz: Exactly where in my answer did I say, suggest, imply or insinuate that "risking your life gives you a free pass to myopic, misleading, and often incorrect reporting"?

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kurtz, in your column yesterday you described the Philadelphia Inquirer as a paper "that routinely ranked among the country's top 10". This got me wondering, which papers are currently considered the country's top 10? The first few are obvious, but I'm curious about the second tier. Further, what sort of things determine the conventional wisdom regarding the country's best papers? Thank you for taking our questions today.

Howard Kurtz: It's an entirely subjective exercise, of course. I think that the NYT, LAT, WP and WSJ are widely seen as in the top tier of American newspapers, and the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe a notch below. In the past, the list would have included the Inquirer and Miami Herald, both former Knight Ridder papers that have suffered their share of cutbacks. The Atlanta and San Francisco papers certainly have their strengths. The Dallas Morning News was an up and coming paper but has been hard hit by cutbacks. USA Today is influential but obviously a different kind of publication. And if sales are the measure, the New York Post is the No. 5 paper in America. So I guess these lists have to be revised as this industry shakeout continues.

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McLean, Va.: Do you feel at a disadvantage because you can't pay people for stuff? Like how the Kramer N-word tirade video went to TMZ.com. The person probably went to them because they paid for it. CNN wouldn't do that.

Also, don't some shows indirectly pay for interviews? Like providing first-class tickets instead of coach and putting the person up in a suite instead of just a normal room?

Howard Kurtz: First of all, I'm glad I don't work for an organization that engages in checkbook journalism, which raises all kinds of credibility questions. Second, I don't know that TMZ paid a dime for that Michael Richards cell-phone video. It's a good site, founded by a former TV guy, that also obtained the police report on Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade. On your last point, yes, networks that nominally don't pay for interviews certainly fly guests to New York and put them up in nice hotels, and in certain cases will buy family photos or video as a way of paying without strictly paying for an "interview."

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Centralia, Wash.: I like these online discussions with better than blogs where they cuss and are mean.

Howard Kurtz: Darn, I don't want to be seen as TOO soft.

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Alexandria, Va.: Not that I'll be missed, but I am no longer going to bother reading or attempting to participate in any of The Post's political Internet chats.

The reason is very simple, I have come to the conclusion that as a conservative Republican, my views are not wanted. No matter who the reporter is, the posts are inevitably at least six to one from the left-wing point of view.

I thought at first this might have simply reflected the views of the participants, but after submitting dozens of conservative comments of my own and getting none of them posted, it is obvious that reasonable pointed comments from the starboard side of the political spectrum are not considered "interesting" or "relevant" by the hosts of these discussion and are therefore ignored.

So I'm not going to waste my time playing in a fixed game any longer since these discussions now might as well have a "No conservatives need apply" sign posted on them. Goodbye, folks, have fun examining your own navels! And you wonder how the MSM loses touch with the views of "ordinary" people!

Howard Kurtz: I hope you'll reconsider. There is no political tilt in what we post. I try to include a cross-section of different views. Some days I seem to get gang-tackled from the left or the right, but obviously I can't control who chooses to submit questions.

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Carlisle, Pa.: Now that Florida election officials are examining the electronic voting machines in Katherine Harris' old district, do you think there will be meaningful press coverage of the apparent loss of a significant number of votes in that congressional race? I can't believe there hasn't been prolonged concern on this.

Howard Kurtz: I have read and seen several stories on the disappearing votes in that race, and can only imagine what the coverage might be like if control of the House was hanging by one seat. I do think this was a harbinger of the kinds of problems that could wreak havoc in 2008 and deserves more media attention.

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Austin, Tex.: Hi Mr. Kurtz,

I enjoy these chats. Now my question:

I teach at a community college. A surprising number of my students plan to go on to a university, major in journalism (or RTF, or media studies) and become professional journalists.

I'm worried about them. Much though I admire journalists, I'm afraid the field as it's currently conceived may be dying.

What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: I think you have to have a burning desire to go into journalism. Yes, the work forces of newspapers and television operations are shrinking, but at the same time new opportunities are opening up in digital media. But breaking into this business is tough and can involve long hours, low pay and a willingness to start in smaller markets. If a student is primarily interested in a nice, secure, well-compensated career, there are plenty of less volatile choices.

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Regarding hurricane coverage: For what it's worth, I thought the recent articles explaining why hurricane predictions failed this year were generally very good (and the reporting of science matters doesn't always come across that way). Basically, the forecasters didn't anticipate a late-season change in El Nino effect, thought their original forecasts obviously contained all the usual caveats that people who get news from the Drudge Report don't hear about.

Howard Kurtz: That's fine as far as it goes, but there are always unexpected developments, in meteorology as well as life. So put me down as a skeptic when it comes to predicting how an entire season is going to go.

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Re: Alexandria:

Why does Alexandria believe that only conservatives are 'ordinary' people? Hey - there are plenty of liberal nobodies as well.

This whole 'liberal elite' thing is pretty tiresome.

Howard Kurtz: I even know some ordinary journalists.

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Penfield, N.Y.: How is the general public informed. You alluded to the idea that the people are not fooled by biased outlets but the drop-off in newspaper circulation,network news viewing and not very large numbers of viewers of cable news does not add up to a highly informed electorate. Is the country dumbing down? Is the rest of the world in essentially the same condition?

Howard Kurtz: There are many reasons for the decline in newspaper and network audiences, but looming large among them is the rise of Web sites, blogs, search engines and the like, along with hundreds of specialized cable channels. Everyone has more choices and alternatives than ever before. There's an interesting debate about whether younger people are less interested in news--or at least "news" as defined and served up by the MSM--but I haven't been able to interview any, since they're always listening to their iPods.

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Seattle, Wash.: Boo-hoo. I've noticed every indication of Post chatters bending over backwards to solicit conservative voices and answer their question. Dan Froomkin -- a frequent target of bias claims -- actively asks for voices from the other side.

It's so lame to give up posting questions to an Internet chat due to some persecution complex created in one's head. You could have told that guy that if he/she doesn't want to be here, you don't want him/her. But you didn't. You begged forgiveness.

I don't know in whom to be more disappointed.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I don't seem to lack for folks eager to chat in these weekly sessions (usually Monday at noon but I was traveling yesterday), so we'll keep trying to answer as many questions as we can.

Thanks, folks.

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