Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 16, 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."

A Sorry Story, With Apology Yet to Come (Post, April 16)

The transcript follows.

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Rockville, Md.: Great story this morning in the paper. I think this Duke case is perhaps one of the lowest points for the news media in history. It was the classic case of the facts not fitting in with the predetermined narrative and the media not knowing what to do. Not only should the DA be held accountable -- which it appears he will -- but news directors, reporters, producers and whomever decided to put the kids mug shots on the cover of Newsweek should be held accountable as well. (First up, Nancy Grace.) In addition, producers and bookers should not have people like Al Sharpton -- who went to Durham to make a scene -- on until they apologize. I know this is wishful thinking, but I just wanted to vent.

Howard Kurtz: Vent away. Now I'm not saying for a second that the story shouldn't have been covered at all. The three students were indicted, however wrongfully. But the volume and tone and sheer relentless of the story were horribly unfair to the defendants and all but wiped away the presumption of innocence. After all, there are thousands of rapes committed each year. Why did this one become a national soap opera? Because media outlets felt they could use the confluence of race, sex, sports and an elite university to turn this into a morality play. What they forgot is that prosecutors sometimes overreach and allegations sometimes turn out not to be true.

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Waldorf, Md.: I dunno, Howard: Yes, those Duke kids were falsely accused of rape, and I suppose someone ought to apologize. But I think we may be suddenly going too far overboard the other way. The initial false claim triggered some stories about a team of pampered kids who were out of control. Doesn't that part of the reporting still stand up as accurate? No one has denied that the team didn't in fact hire a couple of strippers for a midnight party. Isn't that in itself sufficient cause for concern about the nature of the team? No, they didn't rape that woman -- but otherwise weren't a lot of the team pretty much out of control, as reported? It seems to me that even without the false (and admittedly horrible) rape allegation, we are still talking about some kids who aren't exactly choirboys. I'm in no hurry to apologize to them for much of anything.

Howard Kurtz: Well, that's what I said in the column, not exactly choirboys. Great role models for America? Probably not. Hiring strippers for a midnight party is not my ideal vision of what student athletes should be doing. But let's face it, that's a misdemeanor compared to what they were (falsely) accused of, which was the horrible crime of gang rape while supposedly using racial epithets. Their families have had to spend huge sums on legal fees to clear their names. So whatever their bad judgment in hiring the strippers in the first place, they didn't deserve the demonization and humiliation that followed.

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Floris, Va.: In this morning's column, you lobbied for an apology for the Duke lacrosse players while admitting they aren't exactly choirboys. That's a bit of an understatement, don't you think? These were rich, young white athletes having a private drinking party off campus where they hired two strippers. One of the accused pled guilty to an assault in Georgetown last year and the other two have arrest records. According to your magazine cousin, Newsweek, in today's edition, they did threaten to sexually abuse one of the women with a broomstick, hurl racial insults, and refused to pay them because of their race. Not an admirable bunch, to say the least.

washingtonpost.com: What Really Happened That Night at Duke (Newsweek, April 15)

Howard Kurtz: I'm not nominating them for a Nobel Peace Prize. I'm saying they were accused of gang rape, indicted and turned into a national disgrace for a crime they did not commit. If you go back and look at the coverage of 13 months ago, knowing what we know now, the tone of much of it was irresponsible.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Was there any thought to having a special Imus insert last Wednesday? Or better yet, a national/metro/sport/business insert, so the rest of the paper could be completely devoted to Imus? I only ask because it seems like A1, C1 and E1 weren't nearly enough for a radio host who draws literally hundreds of D.C. listeners.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and led the network newscasts for several days, so if the Imus uproar was overcovered, The Post had plenty of company.

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Pittsburgh: I'm getting so annoyed at people trying to conflate the Duke lacrosse players' case with the Rutgers women's basketball team. Not that I believe the Dukes weren't entitled to full justice, but it's a logical fallacy to try to equate a team of accomplished and gracious young women with young men who held a party with underage drinking and strippers.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think anyone is comparing them on grounds of character. The women of the Rutgers team, who we would not have met (in television terms) had they not be slandered, are remarkable. But the common link is that both were treated unfairly and race was a factor. Yes, the Rutgers women were minding their own business when they were dismissed as hos, while the Duke kids were arguably asking for trouble by hiring strippers for a midnight party. But they were slimed as well, and depicted as racist criminals. I wonder how much coverage the Duke case would have drawn if the accuser was also white. And the answer, I think, is a fraction of what it got.

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Arlington, Va.: I read somewhere that the legal bills for the Duke team members total $5 million. Is there no way for these kids' parents to get this money back? How would you like it if you had to pay that kind of money for to defend a trumped-up charge?

Howard Kurtz: The only way I can see is a civil suit against Mike Nifong, the prosecutor, though I'd imagine the odds of success would be long.

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Portland, Ore.: The Dukies were treated as guilty until proven innocent -- will that ever change when talking about the media?

Howard Kurtz: That's what bothers me the most. We've already been through Richard Jewell (the falsely accused Olympics bomber) and a number of other cases where the media swarmed all over a suspect who turned out to be innocent. This is a lesson the profession never seems to learn.

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Washington: Unless they make it illegal to report on trials before their completion (such as in England) how can you blame the media for reporting these charges? We (which includes the Media, as they are comprised of human beings) trust that the district attorney is not on a witch hunt, that there is a shred of reason in these charges. But when it is found out this is not the case, the attention has been equal. Now we all know they didn't do it. I don't see how this could have played out any differently.

Howard Kurtz: I keep trying to make this point--when people are indicted, even unfairly, that is fair game for the press. What is not fair game is to bang the drums so loudly -- network stories, newsmagazine covers, front-page pieces -- with all kinds of sweeping themes about RACE and SPORTS and OUT OF CONTROL ATHLETES when the only evidence consists of one woman's accusation. It was the volume and the tone of the coverage that all but convicted these young men. Then, of course, there was no DNA match, and the long, slow unraveling of the accuser's tale began.

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Mel Gibson is still making movies, isn't he?: Howard, as disgusting as Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade was, there is a big difference -- unlike Imus, Gibson's remarks were not uttered on the public airwaves.

Howard Kurtz: That's true. But they were really ugly, and said in anger. Imus's remark was also ugly, but said in a lame attempt at humor.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: On yesterday's Reliable Sources Tony Kornheiser commented on the fact that this time Imus attacked a group without a voice. As an NPR Morning Edition addict, I was unaware of his attack on you -- although aware of his "speech" towards others. You have several voices -- your column, blog, and CNN show to respond to him. Why hasn't the lack of power these young women have when compared to someone with a major TV and radio venue been given more attention in the media? I also was appalled at the lack of attention to their age. As I understand it there were five freshman on this team, 18-year-olds -- still trying to figure out what they want to do in life. The media leaves the Bush twins alone because of their "youth," yet they are in their mid-20s -- it seems attacking individuals when they are just beginning to even reach adulthood should have raised questions immediately. (I won't even comment on the racism -- he speaks for himself.)

Howard Kurtz: It seems to me the powerlessness of the Rutgers women has been noted again and again, and rightly so. Several guests on my show yesterday made that point. For Imus to pick on Bush or Cheney or McCain or Kerry or Russert or me or anyone else with a public platform, well, we're fair game. We're big boys and girls and we can fight back. But a group of 18- to 20-year-olds whose only sin was to work and study hard and make it to the national championship? Well, at least they got some positive attention out of this mess and got to go on Oprah.

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The Missing Imus Question (Springfield, Va.): Accept as a given that the issues of racism and sexism are appropriately front-and-center. What has been entirely obscured is the issue of "Imus in the Morning" as a political forum. Most of us who have been devoted fans of the show, watch/listen not for the sophomoric humor but for the dialogue with politicians, historians and social commentators. I have been unable to think of any other venue in which such open and candid and extended conversation routinely takes place. It has been that aspect which caused Imus to be the exceptional draw he has been. And, that could always have been done without the ethnic and sexual vulgarity.

Now the question is: who will be the impresario for such regular stimulating conversation and where will it take place? Where will Doris Kearn Goodwin, Tom Friedman, Jon Meacham, Joe Biden, John McCain, Harold Ford, Tim McCarver, Darryl Waltrip -- and many more -- speak to us on a daily basis? (I have only been able to conjure two likely successors: Tom Brokaw or Tony Kornheiser.)

Howard Kurtz: I vote for Kornheiser. But he has to spend half a year doing the Monday Night Football thing.

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The Garden State: Wasn't Imus's biggest mistake trying to be a hip guy at 67, or however old he is? It's one thing for a young hip-hop performer to use that language, quite another when an old crow like Imus does. No one should talk like that, but particularly not a man in his late 60s.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think hipness had anything to do with it. It had to do with his brand of insult comedy and going too far when the target is not some political or media big shot but a group of student athletes, and by extension all black women.

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Annandale, Va.: It seems the Rent-A-Moral Center is busy this week with the chatters who are in "no hurry to apologize for anything" regarding the Duke players. The Duke players being accused of gang rape seems to be fine with them because they find the players' behavior morally unacceptable. This is why justice is blind, as to not make mistakes about who deserves the basic rights of the Constitution, based upon one's moral character.

Howard Kurtz: I'm a little surprised by some of those comments. Nobody wants to give the Duke players a medal. But can't we agree that something terribly unfair happened to them?

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Flint, Mich.: When will we all admit that the comments that Imus made were not a big deal? Having thousands of black people "mistakenly" on a felons list in Florida is a big deal. If you're black in New Mexico, having a two-in-five chance of your vote actually is counted is a big deal. Where's the media covering this all day everyday?

Howard Kurtz: The fact that we're having a national debate about what is acceptable on the airwaves is, in my view, important and transcends the argument about Imus himself. That doesn't mean the war and civil rights and a whole range of other issues aren't more important, but this was a unique moment to engage the debate about civility and lack thereof.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: On the Duke kids' legal bills: they'll write a book, right? It would give them a chance to show what all that tuition went for, although from the way their professors joined in the mob attacking them, it seems maybe not that much education was going on.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if a book is in the cards or whether there would be much of a market for it. Maybe they just want to move on rather than keep reliving the thing.

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Salt Lake City: Hi Howie, I always enjoy your columns and thoughtful commentary, and just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated: "In retrospect, I failed to appreciate how the cruder bits sounded to those who were not part of the white guys' club." I'm a (white) woman working in a profession dominated by (white) men and if anything comes out of the Imus mess I hope it's a greater recognition of more people than yourself of just how hurtful "jokes" that "aren't meant" can be to those outside the majority, be it race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. So, thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for noticing. I've given this whole matter a great deal of thought, as you might imagine.

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Wait a minute!: Richard Jewell didn't do the Atlanta bombing? Where have I been? Oh yeah, I was 16 at the time. Must have missed the correction in the paper.

Howard Kurtz: A couple of major news organizations had to settle with Jewell after he sued. In that case, law enforcement "sources" identified him as a suspect in the Atlanta bombing, but he was never charged. So the media didn't even have the fig leaf of saying, well, these students were indicted.

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Any College Town: Someone used the term "mock outrage" when referring to the Imus controversy last week and it applies others commenting here about the Duke students and your posters. Unfortunately, the behavior of the Duke kids is pretty typical of most campuses. There is "underage" drinking ... underage because we define it that way. Strippers for hire are easily obtained even in rural areas. Young men at this age can be jerks, which leads me to Imus -- still a jerk at his age. I watched his show occasionally and turned it off when the humor became sophomoric. NBC and CBS reminded me of the policeman in Casablanca who was "shocked" there was gambling.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the outrage is of the mock variety (except maybe among some people angling to get on TV). I think the Rutgers players, and their coach, were genuinely hurt, and I think a whole lot of people -- not just African-Americans, and not just women -- were upset about what Imus said. And again, being a jerk is not an indictable offense, and while I certainly don't endorse underage drinking, engaging in that practice, or hiring a stripper, does not justify the nightmare of the false accusations that followed.

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Boston: Takoma Park nailed it: Imus has no ratings -- anywhere. Isn't that the min reason he's unemployed and Limbaugh, Beck and Savage still get their fat corporate checks?

Howard Kurtz: He had 2 million radio listeners a week and several hundred thousand viewers on MSNBC. That's not chicken feed. Plus, why would McCain and Kerry and Lieberman and Biden appear on his show -- why would Chris Dodd ANNOUNCE his presidential candidacy on Imus in the Morning -- if the program wasn't seen as influential?

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Falls Church, Va.: Why did it take The Post until now to have any coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings? CNN was reporting on it since this morning. While I understand that detailed reporting takes time, I don't understand why a brief report wasn't made available at washingtonpost.com earlier in the day.

washingtonpost.com: At Least 20 Killed in Virginia Tech Shooting (Post, April 16)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. I do know there's been a lot of scrambling in the newsroom to ascertain the facts. And we try not to post stories until we have nailed down a minimum number of facts.

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Bethesda, Md.: The Gonzales op-ed shocked me. No explanation or discussion, just a long list of carefully parsed "there is no public indication" or "I have no knowledge" of wrongdoing. It almost gave me the idea that someone did break the law and Gonzales is setting himself up to say he didn't know. All this time "practicing" his ability to recount the truth and that's his best shot?

washingtonpost.com: Nothing Improper (Post, April 15)

Howard Kurtz: Well, it seemed to a preview of his congressional testimony, which is covered in the news section today. Gonzales apologizes to the fired U.S. attorneys and admits that he misspoke about the case, but otherwise seems to stick to the line that politics was not involved in the dismissals and that he wasn't trying to mislead anyone. I guess by putting out the testimony in advance, Justice gets a separate story on his side in this news cycle. But it gives Democrats a chance to shoot down his arguments before he even makes it to the witness table.

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Gonzales Poll: I checked the details asked in the Gonzales poll reported on page 1. Did I miss the question that asked whether respondents would feel the same way about Gonzales if they knew that Clinton and other presidents had fired at-will U.S. Attorneys? This is the kind of omission that skews results and makes reasonable people perceive bias.

washingtonpost.com: Poll: Most Say Politics Motivated U.S. Attorney Firings (Post, April 16)

Howard Kurtz: Actually, it's "would-you-feel-the-same-way-if-you-knew" questions that can skew a poll. Even the Republicans have moved off the talking point that Clinton fired the 93 U.S. attorneys. Every new president of a different party replaces the top federal prosecutors, and that's as it should be. The problem that Gonzales has now is the shifting accounts of why these eight U.S. attorneys were sacked; whether it was in response to political pressure from the likes of Sen. Pete Domenici; why replacement candidates were considered months before the firings; why Justice described the firings as being for performance-related reasons and now has backed off that argument; why Gonzales said he had no discussions, when we now know he was at key meetings, and on and on.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: All during this Imus mess, I've heard pundits and reporters ask Al Sharpton why he was focusing on Imus while ignoring vulgar rap music. But a simple Google search brings up plenty of examples of Sharpton working to get vulgar music off the air. Why this lack of basic research from reporters? Is it just laziness, or an unwillingness to let go of a juicy talking point?

Howard Kurtz: It is true that Sharpton and some other black leaders have objected to hateful and misogynistic rap lyrics. Whether those protests have been as intense and organized as the anti-Imus campaign is open to question. What's not open to question is that the mainstream media have devoted very little coverage to such protests, in marked contrast to last week's Imus frenzy. We'll now see if that changes.

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Seattle: A lot of the vitriol aimed at the Dukies comes down to the fact that there are a lot of people out there who plain old don't like privileged rich kids or jocks -- and lacrosse players tend to be both. (Somebody at Slate wrote a rather scathing piece on lax players early in the scandal, if I recall correctly.)

Howard Kurtz: I don't care whether people like the Duke players or not. This is a question of fundamental fairness.

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Washington: Are you doing your best to ignore the Wolfowitz-World Bank fiasco?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the paper has been covering it on the front page. I don't have anything especially brilliant to add. Arranging a big pay package for your girlfriend is not a good idea? I endorse that notion wholeheartedly.

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Bowie, Md.: Doesn't journalistic accuser-shielding practice guarantee that the reportage of such going to be one-sided? And therefore, because the coverage can't be balanced, such cases shouldn't be used as sociopolitical platforms?

Howard Kurtz: No. You have prosecutors on one side and the defendants and their lawyers on the other. It is true that a woman can make such charges from behind the shield of anonymity -- and I understand and respect the the reasons that the media go along -- but that by itself does not mean we can't be fair to both sides.

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Washington: What are the guidelines when having someone like the attorney general write an op-ed piece while his job is in jeopardy? Was The Post allowed to edit anything? And who decided on the headline? My guess is that Gonzales didn't write the headline.

Howard Kurtz: Guidelines? Given the dozens of articles that the paper has published on the fired prosecutors, running an op-ed piece in which the attorney general of the United States offers his side seems like a reasonable thing to do. Readers can buy his argument or dismiss it. I am sure that the piece was not edited except perhaps for length, and newspapers always write the headlines (in part because you don't know what the headline space will be until the page is laid out).

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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