Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 2, 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."

The Story You Can't And Can Put Down (Post, April 2)

The transcript follows.

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Arlington, Va.: Was just reading the transcript of last week's online chat and the discussion of the separation between the newsroom and editorial page. Seems to me this is an almost continuous discussion, with reporters reminding readers every day of this separation. Putting aside the question of why papers even have an editorial position, it just seems ironic to me that reporters and newspapers in general are unable to shake the impression of a monolithic paper. After all, isn't the job of reporters to help explain subjects, often complicated, to their readers? Yet they can't explain a concept at the very heart of what they do.

Howard Kurtz: It's really not that hard to explain, and it's really not that hard to understand. I think that some people just choose not to understand it.

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Laurel, Md.: Is anyone editing The Post obituaries? Today Adam Bernstein described the late Jacques Courtin-Clarins as a "masseuse" although Courtin-Clarins was clearly a "masseur." Can we expect a correction tomorrow for this embarrassing misidentification?

washingtonpost.com: Looks like it's already been caught -- Cosmetics Executive Jacques Courtin-Clarins (Post, April 2)

Howard Kurtz: I'm out of my depth here. I could barely get through four years of high school French. C'est la vie.

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Anonymous: Howard, I was watching the news-talk shows yesterday and there were an unusual number with a Republican and Democratic Senator on at the same time debating issues. My memory has been that usually those guys want to appear alone. What determines if it's one guy spinning or two debating?

Howard Kurtz: On the contrary, joint appearances by Dems and Repubs is sort of the default setting for Sunday talk shows. Whether they're "debating" or "spinning" -- not sure there's that great a distinction when you're talking about partisan politicians -- is ultimately up to the viewers to decide.

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Chicago: The video of "MC Rove" "rapping" at the Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner was the most disgusting thing I have seen in a long time. I wanted to gouge my own eyes out after viewing it. Media outlets should play this on a split screen with the scenes of bloody horror, bombings, and devastation in Iraq. Also, David Gregory should hang his head in shame and abasement. Seriously Howard, it was disgusting and shameful. I know you people in Washington think this is funny, but White House correspondents should not be dancing and "rapping" with the officials they cover.

washingtonpost.com: Video: A Rapping Rove in Washington (AP, March 29)

Howard Kurtz: I'm not a big fan of these dinners, but I guess I don't understand what was "disgusting" and "shameful" about it. You seem to regard Rove as the enemy and feel there should be absolutely no fraternization at any time under any circumstances. As for David Gregory's role, he was plucked out of the audience by these two not-terribly-funny comedians, as was Brian Williams. I doubt they would have volunteered for this distasteful duty.

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Washington: Howard -- if, as reported, Senator McCain required full body armor, an escort of one hundred soldiers, and five attack helicopters hovering overhead to make his visit to Shorja market, shouldn't that have been highlighted in the report today in The Post? Instead, the Senator's contention -- that his stroll proves that an improving situation is being underreported by the media -- is highlighted across several of the opening paragraphs. The actual circumstances of McCain's walk is barely detailed, and deep in the article. Does spin ever reach a point of such blatant silliness that a reporter is obligated to simply expose it? If so, why was that not done here?

Howard Kurtz: Those very points are mentioned a few paragraphs down in the story, but I agree it should have been higher. McCain has been taking plenty of heat from the media for saying there are parts of Baghdad that a westerner can safely stroll around unarmed. Therefore it's relevant if he tours an area surrounded by troops protecting him (which makes perfect sense under the circumstances). It's certainly fair for McCain to argue, as he does, that modest progress from the surge has been under-reported. But I know of no correspondent in Baghdad who agrees with the senator's assertion about walking the streets unarmed. The latest to disagree is CBS's Allen Pizzey, whose piece is excerpted in my online column today.

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Washington: Dear Mr. Kurtz: I'm a big fan of your work -- I believe that you are among the most objective of all reporters. Your Media Notes Extra mentions reaction to Sen. McCain's trip to Iraq but does not include coverage of CNN reporter Michael Ware's purported heckling during the senator's press conference, nor of Mr. Ware's subsequent explosive diatribe against the senator's impressions of the Iraq situation. Given that this is not the first time Mr. Ware has demonstrated such poor judgment, can CNN continue to retain Mr. Ware and maintain its integrity? Thank you very much -- I know it is a difficult question to answer because also you are employed by CNN.

Howard Kurtz: Not difficult at all. The "purported heckling" is described by one unnamed official quoted by the Drudge Report. That's it. If that person wants to put his name to it, or provide video or other documentation, I'm more than happy to report it. Ware says it's ridiculous and that while he raised his hand he did not get to ask a question at yesterday's news conference.

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Washington: While I'm not sure "shameful" and "disgusting" are the right words, I definitely see a problem with these kind of events. It is one thing to be civil, and foster a relationship of mutual respect with the politicians you cover, but hanging out and partying with these guys is taking things a bit far. We already have seen what this has done to the coverage of sports, where reporters blast the guys they don't like and laud the ones that are "cool."

Howard Kurtz: As I say, I'm not a fan of these dinners. I don't think the image is great for journalists. But I also haven't seen much evidence that they prompt journalists to go easy on administration officials. Karl Rove has gotten terrible press over the last year, especially because of his role in the Valerie Plame outing. One dinner (and there are 2,000 people there, the vast majority of whom never get near Rove and his colleagues) is hardly going to change that.

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San Francisco: Hello Mr. Kurtz and thanks for chatting today. I object to your characterization of criticisms of Katie Couric as "sniping" in your column this morning. There have been two legitimate areas of inquiry about Couric's interview. First, she lost her husband to cancer, working through his illness and raising small children just as John Edwards proposes to do. Second, she ascribed her questions -- almost all of them, although I counted eleven -- to an anonymous "some people" without naming them. Because most questions she asked first were framed by Rush Limbaugh, she interjected Limbaugh's views into the interview without giving the Edwards a chance to say "who cares what he thinks?"

Howard Kurtz: It has nothing to do with Limbaugh's views. The New York Times quoted lots of ordinary people as criticizing the decision by the Edwardses, and a number of pundits had already weighed in with similar criticism -- criticism that I don't agree with at all, by the way. Every journalist I've talked to about this says that he or she would have asked the same questions. More important, John and Elizabeth Edwards wanted to do the interview and they say it was fair. As for Katie's own situation, perhaps she should have mentioned it, but is there anyone in America who doesn't know that she lost her husband to cancer?

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Cleaning up that rhetoric: Howard: I heard one of CNN's military experts, Gen. Don Sheppard, say over the weekend in regards to a Congressional-approved timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, "Why would we tell the enemy what we're going to do?" The next time this happens and you're on the air, could you point out that's exactly what we did with the latest "surge"?

Howard Kurtz: I see a difference between announcing that you're sending more troops and announcing that you're pulling out troops by a certain date. In a democracy, of course, you can't exactly keep the sending of more troops a secret, even if you wanted to.

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Rolla, Mo.: Regarding Michael Ware, I wonder if "Washington" thinks he has exhibited "poor judgment" in being on the ground outside the Green Zone for almost four years? His "explosive diatribe" was in my opinion restrained in the face of the absurdity of Sen. McCain's comments.

Howard Kurtz: Ware certainly was aggressive in saying that McCain was flat wrong in his assertion that westerners could stroll around parts of Baghdad unmolested. And when it comes to this question, I defer to the correspondents who are actually living there and risking their lives every day. In fact, a day or so after McCain's remarks, the U.S. embassy put out a warning about Americans taking precautions even within the heavily fortified Green Zone.

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Savannah, Ga.: What would you say to making all family members and relatives of presidential candidates taboo for journalists? Keep the focus on the candidates alone.

Howard Kurtz: I would largely agree with that as far as kids are concerned. But when a male candidate runs for president, his wife is in effect running for first lady and is part of his campaign. If she is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, that has to be part of the public discussion. Keep in mind that John and Elizabeth Edwards held a big televised press conference in North Carolina to discuss this, rather than, say, putting out a statement, and they chose to go on 60 Minutes and talk to the New York Times and Newsweek. I do wish some of my fellow pundits would be more restrained in challenging or denigrating their motives. This is the most personal family decision I can imagine, and this is what they've chosen to do.

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Katy, Texas: That's funny, Rove not being an enemy. Is this your first chat? Republicans rate as either pure evil or just dishonest to the core depending on your average reader here.

Howard Kurtz: I am trying to inject a note of reason.

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New York:"...but is there anyone in America who doesn't know that she lost her husband to cancer?" While watching the interview, I had no idea. I only read about it afterward -- in your column I believe. Some of us aren't obsessed with celebrities' private lives.

Howard Kurtz: Fair enough. But Couric has talked about it, on the air and in interviews, for nine years now, so it is pretty widely known.

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Prescott, Ariz.: Can I point out to "Chicago" that Karl Rove rapping is light years more tasteful than the President looking under his desk for the lost Weapons of Mass Destruction as our soldiers were getting shot in Iraq?

Howard Kurtz: And that was a prepared bit, as opposed to getting dragged on stage.

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Glenmont, Md.: As for the firewall between editorial and news: I do think people understand the argument. It's not that they choose not to understand -- they don't believe that it really works that way. It's an issue of credibility, and speaking as a former newspaper reporter, I think that it's gotten worse as public perception of bias in media has intensified (whether justified or not, it has intensified).

I will say I find it bizarre when an editorial includes supposedly factual details directly contradicted in the news reports. I've seen this in the Wall Street Journal and I've seen it in The Post. I am talking about assertions of fact -- not expressions of opinion. The recent editorial blasting Joe Wilson as a "blowhard" comes to mind. That editorial asserted that Plame was not covert -- clearly contradicted by the paper's own reporting that very day and by Dana Priest's own previous online chats. And when that happens -- when editorials contain outright errors or fabrications -- that's when I think the public at large becomes especially cynical.

Like it or not, The Post has been hammered by critics enraged that your editorial pages beat the war drums really heavily -- and to this day the paper's largely liberal readership continues to feel betrayed by that. I include myself in that group. So that sense of suspicion spills over into how the news coverage is viewed -- and many cynical readers simply reject the assertion of a firewall. They don't believe you. That's my take.

Howard Kurtz: I would dispute the "largely liberal readership" part. The Post has the highest penetration of any big-city daily in the country, which means people of different socioeconomic classes and different points of view read it. If some of those readers want to be mad at the editorial page for its stance on the war, so be it. If they want to be mad at the whole paper as a result, again, that's their right. I'm just telling you there really is a strict separation between the two sides. That is simply a fact. I have on numerous occasions challenged something done by the editorial page.

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Washington: The problem with Katie Couric is that she asks every question with a hint of skepticism in her voice and then makes strange faces at the answers as if she doesn't believe she's being told the truth. She does it to everyone. I think it's a sign of her not being particularly good at interviewing rather than representing a political bias.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see her making any strange faces. In fact, she looked very sympathetic to the Edwardses in that interview. But that's the difference between print and television. On TV, you can watch the questions being asked and judge the interviewer. By contrast, look at this New York Times piece by Jennifer Steinhauer that ran the day before:

"Some people -- as demonstrated by responses to blogs and other forums -- believe the Edwardses are stealing time from each other and their children, while others see a couple that has weathered the tribulations and assaults life brings to most families, and could set a national example of coping. Mr. Edwards characterized both points of view as 'fair' ones."

And: "When asked about the suggestion some have made that the continuing campaign is an act of supreme denial about her cancer, Mrs. Edwards looked momentarily struck."

Nobody criticized the Times for that, as far as I know.

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Western Springs, Ill.: I would like to ask take a different angle at the McCain vs Ware story. The Senator claims that the media is ignoring a story about the "progress" in Baghdad by ignoring stories like the open-air carpet market. I am curious, how does a reporter do a story like that? News flash: an Iraqi citizen purchases rug at discount price! How does a reporter balance the fact that 2,000 Iraqis have been killed by violence in March? Or do you write both in the same article? Any ideas?

Howard Kurtz: It is certainly possible to report that there has been a reduction in killings in Baghdad, and many news organizations have. They have also pointed out that Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militias have been laying low during this period, contributing to the reduction in casualties.

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Washington: Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in office; Dick Cheney's heart troubles are well known; even if Elizabeth Edwards were in perfect health, there's no guarantee her husband wouldn't get sick himself were he elected. If, as she says, the life expectancy is on the order of ten years or more (see People interview) it makes sense that they would want to carry on. A lot of the severe criticism reflects, as you say, more about the people who make it than it does the Senator and his wife. This really is a case of there not being a "right" answer.

Howard Kurtz: The only right answer is the one that seems right to the family involved. Now people may decide not to support John Edwards as a result, or may be more sympathetic to him (although he asked that no one vote for him on the basis of his wife's illness). He is, after all, running for president. But Elizabeth Edwards says that giving up their life's pursuit -- running for the White House -- would feel, in her view, like going home to die. That is her decision and that of her husband, and I'm not going to second-guess it.

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The editorial/journalistic divide: Howard: I think you're bucking decades of history, going back to the era of Pulitzer and Hearst when the divide wasn't there. Also, in popular culture (movies, TV especially) that divide isn't usually shown. You're right, it does exist, but in fact I would argue that there is less of a divide in TV, especially at the local level -- but the problem there is often that the owners want to protect their advertisers, more so than protecting their political friends.

Howard Kurtz: Even in TV, which doesn't have an editorial page, there is a separation. The news divisions don't report to executives of GE, Disney and Time Warner. That doesn't mean there is never a breach or a punch pulled, but the news operations are not "controlled" by the corporations the way General Motors controls its car divisions. Of course, the corporations do determine the budget levels, which can have a major impact, but that's not the same as shaping coverage in one direction or another.

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Washington: I would just like to say "amen" to Glenmont's post -- he summed it up exactly as I would if I were more eloquent. I know it's not intentional, but I think you're building a straw man when you say readers "choose not to understand." It's a question of credibility --if Hiatt won't even read your reporting, why should I? Heh. Thanks for your excellent, thought-provoking and entertaining work.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't say Fred Hiatt doesn't read the news pages, and I read the editorial and op-ed pages. But the edit page prides itself on doing its own reporting before reaching its conclusions. As I've said before, the Wall Street Journal is the classic example of a paper whose editorial page is from Mars while the newsroom is from Venus.

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San Francisco: Hello Mr Kurtz and thank you for joining us for a chat today. Has The Post Web site been redesigned in order to make it more difficult to find these chats, any political stories and all the opinion columns? Because if so, it's working!

washingtonpost.com: Editor's Note: About Our New Home Page (washingtonpost.com, March 30)

Howard Kurtz: Gee, I hope not. But you managed to find me nonetheless.

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Other Chicago: Does anyone know where to get a copy of that skit of the President looking for WMD in the White House? I would love >to get that. I think that was one of the most distasteful and insulting things I have ever seen.

washingtonpost.com: Bush at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner (YouTube)

Howard Kurtz: Looks like our crack staff has come up with what you wanted. Is there anything that's not on YouTube these days?

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Concord, N.H.: So Clinton raised a boatload of money; based on her most recent Senate campaign, it's a safe bet she also has spent at least half a boatload. If she is less than $10 million (the amount transferred from her Senate campaign) ahead in cash-on-hand as of March 31, she is in trouble. I know these data will not be out until April 15 and that the Clinton people are trying to obfuscate by trumpeting the gross number, but shouldn't reporters be a little more circumspect in their reporting on this?

Howard Kurtz: The stories and broadcasts I've seen have certainly included these caveats. But I don't think there's much question that Hillary Clinton raised a huge amount of money in the last three months. Whatever the makeup of her $26 million, it's nearly triple the previous record. The key question for me is how much of that she's already spent.

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Frederick, Md.: Last week David Stockman was indicted for stock fraud. Not surprisingly, all the coverage rehashed the story about his being "taken to the woodshed" by Ronald Reagan for the statements he made to William Greider. But Stockman himself exposed that story as a scenario made up by James Baker! He says in his memoir that Reagan never had a harsh word for him. Are some myths just too good to die in this city? On another topic: it seems your friend Jim Cramer is becoming a real icon. He was parodied on the new Jeff Goldblum show the other night.

washingtonpost.com: Reagan Budget Head Stockman Is Charged With Fraud (Post, March 27)

Howard Kurtz: You haven't really made it big until someone in parodying you on TV. Just ask Chris Matthews. As for the woodshed incident, good reporters should have known of the Baker account. But the more relevant part, whether Reagan slapped him around or not, was that Stockman, in a series of conversations with a journalist, privately derided some of the arguments that the Reagan administration was making about the budget.

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Rolla, Mo.: Do you think the media would have as quickly and willingly pointed out the absurdity of Sen. McCain's "walk" through Baghdad over the weekend if it were done a year or two ago? Has the mood on the war made this easier or not?

Howard Kurtz: Media coverage of the war has certainly turned sharply negative in the past two years, but the situation also deteriorated greatly during that time. In this instance, because McCain said something so specific -- about being able to walk around unmolested -- I think it would have been just as quickly challenged two years ago if the danger level was as great as it is today. Whether we're making "progress," whether the media are providing the "full picture," those terms can always be debated. Whether you can leave your hotel without getting your head blown off is a far more concrete argument.

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New York: I found yesterday's New York Times article about Matthew Dowd disturbing. It seems a bit hypocritical to deplore Abu Ghraib and yet to have worked on Bush's 2004 campaign (the abuses at Abu Ghraib had been revealed before then). He says he wrote an article acknowledging that Kerry was right but never presented it for publication. He talks about "gentleness" but he has attached himself to the the most notoriously cruel campaigner since Lee Atwater (i.e. Karl Rove). He fell "in love" with Bush but doesn't connect the beloved's capital punishment record with his current indifference to Iraqi dead. I don't believe Dowd -- maybe he'll be off doing good works in Africa like he proposes or maybe he'll just put his good works and gentleness in the drawer where he stuffed the Kerry article. I think he has his finger to the wind.

washingtonpost.com: Ex-Aide Says He's Lost Faith in Bush (New York Times, April 1)

Howard Kurtz: You can believe him or not believe him, but Dowd sounded to me like a man wrestling with his conscience. I don't see any particular gain for him in breaking with the president he helped elect and reelect.

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Houston: RE "Katy, Texas: That's funny, Rove not being an enemy. Is this your first chat? Republicans rate as either pure evil or just dishonest to the core depending on your average reader here."

This ignores the fact that the most-talked-about people are going to be the ones at the fringes. As a reasonable Democrat, I can say there are a lot of GOPers out there whom I hold in great esteem, folks like Fred Thompson, whose political career has remained almost unwaveringly focused on what is best for the country rather than selfish ambitions, dating back to when our President was committing "youthful indiscretions" well beyond his youth.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure most of our fine readers make such distinctions, even if they belong to one political party and are assessing politicians from the other.

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Washington: So you think Katie Couric is good at what she does? Good at interviewing serious people? Whether she makes funny faces or not, her follow-up questions tend to be something that implies "I don't believe you," forcing the interviewee to repeat themselves. I'm all for challenging people on what they say, but it's nice when interviewers do so by presenting countervailing evidence rather than saying something along the lines of "come on, really?!"

Howard Kurtz: I have reached the conclusion that you're not a Katie fan. But how exactly did she remain No. 1 as co-host of the Today show unless a lot of people liked to watch her? Conducting interviews, in fact, is widely considered to be one of her strongest skills. I have to conclude that some of this reaction has to do with strong feelings about cancer and families and the Edwardses, and that some people just aren't willing to give Katie Couric the benefit of the doubt.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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