Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 12, 2007; 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."

Four Syllables, Starts With M, Ends With Uh-Oh (Post, Feb. 12)

The transcript follows.

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New York: Please tell me you agree with me Howie! The coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death was so over the top, for the first time in years I am thinking of canceling my cable TV. It reminded me of the coverage last month when Gerald Ford died (former President of the U.S. vs. druggie media-grubbing former stripper). I want to give a big thumbs up to Lou Dobbs who, in the 5:55 promo to his show last week, said "...and we will not be covering the death of Anna Nicole Smith."

Howard Kurtz: On "Reliable Sources" yesterday, I played some clips from the cable coverage to show how the networks were using what I called D-roll -- endlessly looping footage of Anna Nicole spilling out of her dress or striking provocative poses. I'm not saying her death isn't a story, but the tabloid excess here has been amazing. This is a stripper who got breast implants, posed for Playboy, married an old rich guy, got into a legal fight for his money after he died, and had a truly awful E! reality show -- and too many journalists are treating her as some kind of cultural icon. Embarrassing.

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Falls Church, Va.: Howard, several major news services including AP had stories late last week on the Pelosi airplane issue. Most of them buried the fact that the story -- that Pelosi had demanded the Defense Department provide a luxurious military plane to fly her and her family and friends back and forth to California -- was in fact not true. The Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate had requested the military provide her a plane capable of making the coast-to-coast flight non-stop for security reasons. Of the news outlets I looked at on Friday, only CNN had posted a headline clearly stating the story that Pelosi had imperiously made this demand was false. Everyone else seemed content to let readers believe it was true unless they read 8-10 paragraphs into the story. Is this at all a defensible journalistic practice? I cannot see how.

Howard Kurtz: I agree with Tony Snow that it was a "silly" story, since the use of a military jet is mandated for security reasons under a post-9/11 law. But in the first 24 hours, for some reason, Pelosi's office did not get out the fact that the larger plane (needed to reach California) was requested not by her but by the House sergeant-at-arms. That would have instantly killed the story, I believe.

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Albany, N.Y.: The Post's front-page story today on Iran relies exclusively on unnamed sources inside the Defense Department to trumpet the Iran-Iraq connection. Is this a sign that The Post has failed to learn the lessons of its pre-war mistakes?

washingtonpost.com: Military Ties Iran To Arms In Iraq (Post, Feb. 12)

Howard Kurtz: The Pentagon staged a briefing for journalists at which a "senior defense official" and a couple of experts were trotted out on a background basis. I do not understand why they could not have presented their findings on the record. I don't think it's quite like Iraq, in that this was an officially sanctioned briefing, but it does raise a similar question: If the Defense Department is so sure of its evidence on Iran's involvement, why the anonymity?

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New York: I would disagree with your final comment in today's column -- that sad astronaut was not the luckiest beneficiary of the Anna Nicole story. The luckiest beneficiary was Tim Russert. Just as the Libby trial began to develop some depth of coverage there was the sorry spectacle of Keith Olbermann ordered to rearrange his program to suit this tabloid tale. By the next morning Russert was making the rounds of the NBC shows telling his strange version of his role in the case. Granted Russert is not a terribly interesting person but his weird self-justifications after all these months of strange neutered behavior (e.g. referring to himself in the third person on his own show) ... I don't know the truth here but Russert's behavior is not in keeping with the natural curiosity one would expect from a reporter.

Howard Kurtz: Well, but the Russert story, involving a complicated trial, was never going to reach the level of either the astronaut love triangle or Anna Nicole, especially without video. And Russert has been ordered by the judge not to discuss his testimony until the Libby trial is over, so while he can talk about how it felt to be in the witness box and that sort of thing, he can't get into the substance for now. As for his "natural curiosity," Russert's account is that Scooter Libby called him to complain about Chris Matthews repeatedly criticizing him on Iraq, was agitated, and seemed in no mood to be pumped about other topics. Remember that Russert was on the receiving end of a complaint, not taking Libby out for a two-hour breakfast, as Judith Miller did.

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Sacramento, Calif.: Does everyone on your reporting staff hold our military in the same disdain as Arkin? Those in service pay for housing cars, all the same as those who sit on their duffs and write false crap about our military. If so, shame on you all!

Howard Kurtz: I'll let Arkin speak for himself, but I don't know why you would make that assumption. He doesn't work at The Washington Post. He's a military analyst who has long been associated with Human Rights Watch, has consulted for the military, is currently teaching at Harvard, and happens to write a blog for washingtonpost.com. That doesn't mean The Post's Web site has no responsibility for what he writes, but his situation is clearly far different from the full-time reporters, editors and photographers who make up The Post.

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Dallas: Frankly, I think the coverage of Anna Nicole Smith is great. Like the growing stream of vapid stories before it, it will drive more and more serious people to the Web and to newspapers, eventually in enough numbers (and frustration) for us all to stop pretending that television news matters.

Howard Kurtz: Well, maybe. But newspapers haven't exactly ignored it -- The Post put it on the front page last week -- and I suspect that Web sites dealing with Anna Nicole-related stuff have had a surge in traffic.

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Portland, Ore.: Dear Howard: Your Media Notes column is always a must-read for me, but I felt your discussion on Friday of John Edwards' decision to retain two controversial bloggers as campaign advisers was inadequate. The two quotes you have cited as examples of the bloggers' propensity for rhetorical overkill hardly begin to convey why his hiring of these two folks generated such controversy. The quotes I have read in other places (outside the MSM) regarding their ridicule of basic Christian beliefs and, especially, the Catholic Church are more than "over the top" -- your words -- but "beyond the pale" -- my words. I am curious whether you were self-censoring yourself since this is a "family newspaper" or had some other reason for not referencing the much stronger language that has drawn the ire of conservative Catholics and others and which makes Edwards' decision to keep these bloggers much more problematic for his campaign than your column would indicate.

washingtonpost.com: John Edwards Sticks With Controversial Bloggers (Post, Feb. 9)

Howard Kurtz: I had limited space, but beyond that, some of this is too explicit or offensive to be published in a family newspaper. Anyone with a computer can easily find it (except for Amanda Marcotte's post about the Duke rape case, which was abruptly taken down after the controversy exploded).

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Falls Church, Va.: What do you think about The Post's correction this weekend regarding Doug Feith? Does this suck the air out of that story? How does a mistake like that (attributing quotations from Report A incorrectly to Report B) get made? Is it safe to assume that the reporter has not seen the actual report but is relying upon someone else's characterization of what it contains?

washingtonpost.com: Official's Key Report On Iraq Is Faulted (Post, Feb. 9)

Howard Kurtz: It was a serious and sloppy mistake. I don't know precisely how it happened, but the article says that The Post obtained an unclassified summary of the IG's report. The paper did correct the error the next day, not just on Page A2 but in the front-page portion of the follow-up story, which I thought was a classy way to handle it.

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Baltimore: Howard, On Meet The Press yesterday you brought up the issue of whether Barack Obama will fail to win African-American votes because he won't be considered "black enough." Gwen Ifill seemed to question why you said that, and you didn't respond to her. I'm surprised that you didn't respond that you're not the one raising the issue, it's that many African-American commentators have raised this issue. Juan Williams did an NPR story on just this issue last Friday.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that Gwen Ifill was questioning why I said it. She was questioning why these stories were being written, as I was. It just seems like a memo went out and lots of MSM organizations suddenly had to weigh in on why some African-Americans don't consider Barack Obama to be an authentic member of their community. I suspect this may be largely a media-driven story. As an African-American, Ifill obviously has a perspective that I lack, so it was interesting to hear her say that she sometimes encounters a similar attitude as the daughter of West Indian parents.

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Seattle: Re: the Edwards bloggers. The one thing that's disappointing is that you allow William Donohue to call these folks extremists while his record of pronouncements is easily just as extreme. And I say this as a fairly devout Catholic.

Howard Kurtz: I have not mentioned William Donohue in my coverage.

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Kurtz "Meets the Press": Hi Howie, thanks for taking questions. I watched MTP yesterday and was very surprised at Roger Simon's take on the Libby trial, i.e. that no one cares but those directly involved and media covering story, and by his incredulous, superficial assertion that Libby's nickname would dictate his sentence (or lack thereof) if convicted. I'd like your response to that -- also, were you asked to be on MTP specifically to address the journalists-testifying issue?

Howard Kurtz: I was just asked to be on and was told that the trial would be one of the topics. Roger was obviously joking about the "Scooter" part, but his view -- that most Americans could care less about this trial -- is widely shared. I have a different take. I believe the reputation of journalism is taking a serious beating at this trial as the dealings between top administration officials and prominent reporters are detailed. I also think the administration's handling of prewar intelligence, and particularly Vice President Cheney's role, is on trial as well. So while most folks may barely be aware who Libby is, the trial is providing a window into an important period in the Iraq debate and the media's role as the White House tried to neutralize Joe Wilson.

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Los Angeles: Howard, I found fascinating Tim Russert's quote that you reported, about how it's easier tossing grenades than catching them (paraphrasing). Isn't it interesting when the shoe is on the other foot, when journalists suddenly become the news instead of the newsmakers? They aren't as forthcoming or at least wouldn't like to be (another example: Maria Bartiromo, as well as her network, CNBC). I also found fascinating your take on Judith Miller after she complained about your story for which she declined to be interviewed -- you said you expected that response from a politician. Actually, anyone could/would respond like that. How funny is that, that journalists are angry too when they are the story and don't like what's written, when they feel they aren't represented accurately?

It has long been my feeling that journalists ask things of their subjects they wouldn't like to be asked themselves, but more importantly, hold them to standards they could not live up to themselves. I like it when journalists are on the receiving end. Maybe they will learn how it feels. Thanks for letting me vent, and I'd love to hear your take. (By the way, I am a journalist, a former Washington Postie.)

Howard Kurtz: As a media reporter, I'm well aware that many in the profession are more comfortable asking questions than answering them -- but I don't think it's fair to put Russert in the same category as Maria Bartiromo, who has uttered not one syllable about the Citigroup controversy she's involved in, which doesn't involve any kind of litigation. Tim Russert has answered basic questions, from me and others, about what happened with Libby. He is under a judge's order right now not to discuss his testimony. Yes, he fought the special prosecutor's subpoena in an effort to avoid testifying, but so did virtually every journalist involved in this case. No journalist wants to be put on the stand in a criminal proceeding and asked about the sources and methods of how he does his job.

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Arlington, Va.: What in Heaven's name was William Arkin thinking? Yikes! If he getting stalked and chased by reporters while he is out with his family (a very scary notion), I hesitate to imagine what some others might be thinking of doing to him. Like it or not (and fair or not), his inflammatory comment (and ineffective apology -- both of which I read in his column after a soldier friend vented to me about the initial comment) have colored a lot of people's perception of the Washington Post, a publication that I often use as an example of a MSM publication that produces terrific pieces on the troops and their challenges and accomplishments. Has this episode changed the editorial practices in any way there at washingtonpost.com? Do you anticipate that it will?

Howard Kurtz: All I can tell you is that the editor of washingtonpost.com says it was unfortunate that "mercenary" slipped through the editing process and has apologized for allowing it on the site. On the one hand, bloggers are hired for their strong opinions, but at a place like washingtonpost.com, there are editors reviewing whether someone has gone too far. So the Web site, which is a separate operation from the newspaper, with offices on the other side of the Potomac River, does bear some responsibility.

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Seattle: In an online post of yours last week, you reposted an ad hominem attack on Hillary Clinton that actually called her a (w)itch. What possible purpose does that serve? Why give even a modicum of credence to profane voices on either side of the political spectrum the contribute nothing more than hate and vitriol? I'm sure there are many more nuanced disagreements with Hillary Clinton you could have chosen than the one that outright insulted her. Again, what possible purpose does posting that serve?

washingtonpost.com: Strafing the Speaker (Post, Feb. 9)

Howard Kurtz: If I eliminated from the column all bloggers who use profanity, it would be a very short column indeed.

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Lansdale, Pa.: Hi Howard. Joe Biden made some remarks calling Barack Obama the first clean and articulate black man to run for president. The MSM does not seem to care about Sen. Biden's remarks that much, especially The Washington Post. If George Allen had said this, would it have been covered differently by the WaPo? What if Trent Lott had said this -- the same type of coverage? Thanks for taking the question and I enjoy your chats.

Howard Kurtz: The MSM does not seem to care that much? I must be living in an alternate universe. The Biden gaffe was covering on all three network newscasts and was the lead story on "NBC Nightly News." It was on the front page of the New York Times. The Washington Post dealt with it in a Dan Balz story. It was all over cable and the morning shows. It was widely reported as a terrible mistake by Biden, and a symptom of his foot-in-mouth disease, and some even speculated whether his presidential campaign could survive.

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Seattle: Re: Donohue: Oops, you caught me committing a sin I hate -- specifying one reporter to represent all media. Sorry!

Howard Kurtz: I hate when that happens.

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Washington: I've been reading your column for years and think your point-counterpoint is among the most even-handed. While I'm left-of-center, what is your take of the Harry Reid land deal issue and why isn't this a bigger issue in the papers? (Yes, a few articles appear here and there but it is not quite a headline-grabber yet.)

Howard Kurtz: I think the reason it didn't get more coverage is a) it's complicated; b) Reid acknowledged at least some error by agreeing to change his financial disclosure statements; and c) there haven't been any new developments since the story broke during the fall campaign.

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Washington: Howard -- there have been many questions in this chat and raised in your column regarding the use of anonymous sources. Today's Bob Novak column was stunning in this regard. Novak, who is (in my admittedly Democratic opinion) a partisan hack used his column to attack Hillary Clinton, a purpose for which he certainly is entitled to use his column inches. What bothered me about the column was his lame use of anonymous sourcing to say his own beliefs. My question is this: what standards should the op-ed editor have regarding the use of anonymous sources -- real or possibly fictitious -- and how should those standards differ from the news sections of The Post. And, please: don't give me "wall of separation" here. Bob Novak makes up -- er, makes -- the news all the time. His column is not mere opinion.

washingtonpost.com: Not Sold On Clinton (Post, Feb. 12)

Howard Kurtz: First of all, Novak's syndicated column is overseen by the editorial page editor, regardless of whether it makes news. Second, what would be surprising about Novak finding sources who agree with his political views? He's been doing that for decades. I don't see any reason to assume the sources aren't real. Even Novak's biggest detractors would acknowledge that he talks to a lot of people in putting together his column. But it is an opinion column, and he has never shied away from that fact.

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Sterling, Va.: From your column today:

"I often try to look for average bloggers in their pajamas (or dorm rooms or wherever) rather than just stick with the top 100."

Wow, condescend much? I guess it isn't possible that a forty-something father who is working a full-time job and trying to raise a family with a child suffering from autism could possibly care enough about his country and world to blog. Take a look at the pictures of various blog communities, they look just like any other cross section of America (despite what your stereotype would suggest).

Howard Kurtz: Just having a little fun, but unfortunately you took that entirely the wrong way. I was explaining why I think it's worth quoting average bloggers who don't necessarily have a big following. There are an unbelievable number of smart or interesting people out there, putting their thoughts on the Net, and sometimes I do searches just to find out what these off-the-radar folks are saying.

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New York,: Admittedly, I was never Tim Russert's biggest fan, but I now think even less of him. He said that any conversation he has with government officials is automatically off-the-record unless the official explicitly states otherwise. In effect he's ensuring that the only thing that gets broadcast is exactly what the government official wants broadcast. Does Mr. Russert believe that his first loyalty is to his sources or to his viewers?

Howard Kurtz: That strikes me as unfair. Russert's not saying he wouldn't pursue information provided by a source in a conversation he deemed to be off the record. He's saying he doesn't think it would be fair to a source who think he's not speaking for publication to attach his name without asking for permission. Journalists have these conversations every day: Can I use that? Can we put that on the record? Do you know anyone who could help me confirm that? (Sources often pass along titillating but second-hand material.) Remember, Libby called Russert to complain about Chris Matthews, and according to Russert, nothing newsworthy was discussed beyond that.

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Follow Up on Biden: I think the point Lansdale, PA was making was that even though Biden's "articulate" gaffe made the front pages and led the news that night, there's been little to no repercussions since. Meanwhile, the WaPo in particular went "macaca" crazy for 9 straight weeks and had a new Page 1 story about the gaffe seemingly every day.

Howard Kurtz: I thought The Post overplayed macaca, but Allen spent days apologizing and followed that with other gaffes (about whether he knew his mother was Jewish), so it did generate more coverage in a Senate race that we cover intensively because it's in our circulation area. In Biden's case, he was trying (however clumsily) to say something nice about Obama, his apology was quickly accepted, and we haven't written much else about Biden's presidential candidacy at all, let alone his gaffe, because he is deemed, fairly or unfairly, to be decidedly second-tier at the moment.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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