Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 23, 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."

For Virginia Tech Killer's Twisted Video, Pause but No Rewind (Post, April 23)

The transcript follows.

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Falls Church, Va.: Howard: Have you viewed an advance DVD of the upcoming PBS special "Buying The War," and if so, what is your reaction? I understand that The Post is very much singled out for its 140 front-page stories that helped make the case for war and 27 editorials in favor of an Iraq invasion.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't seen it but was interviewed for the program. That figure of 140 front-page stories in The Post, by the way, comes from a lengthy report I did in 2004 on the paper's mishandling of the run-up to the war.

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Ashland, Mo.: Isn't NBC's "agonizing" on showing the Cho tapes an attempt to suggest a broader discussion than that which took place? News is a means to an end -- public information. Journalists cannot accept that there are times when what they define as "news" should not be disclosed. Moreover, they are unwilling to concede that the public might have a better idea of when nondisclosure is appropriate. These agonizing decisions sound more like discussions to develop a rationalization for disclosure that they suspect is inappropriate -- particularly when the disclosure will put them at a so-called competitive advantage.

Howard Kurtz: I believe, based on my reporting, that NBC did conduct an internal debate lasting several hours on the Cho material: whether to use it, how much to use, and so on. That is not something that was cooked up after the fact. And by the way, that's a lot longer than the debate at the other networks, which ran the footage minutes after NBC aired it Wednesday night without having seen it before. Still, I think NBC and the others seriously underestimated what a backlash this would cause, and how many people would find the video and the pictures offensive.

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Bethesda, Md.: Was the outcry of the showing of NBC of the footage enough to make a news organization not do it again? Is there any possibility of lawsuits against NBC by any victims or families?

Howard Kurtz: There's no possibility of a lawsuit. What law would NBC be accused of violating. NBC didn't even seek out this material, which arrived in its mailroom, but regardless, there's no legal question involved. You can't even say NBC jeopardized an investigation, since Cho was already dead and the Virginia State Police did not ask the network to withhold the material. As for the outcry, I am sure that any network in a similar situation would take it into account, not necessarily to deep-six such material, but to use it very sparingly.

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Lansdale, Pa.: I thought that the annual correspondents dinner had taken place when I heard the MC Rove rap. Now I find out that it was actually this past weekend with Rich Little performing. Where did the Rove rap occur? Was that also a press-administration shindig or was it something else?

Howard Kurtz: The Rove rap was at the Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner, which is not to be confused with the Gridiron Dinner or the White House Correspondents Dinner. This, after the cherry blossoms, is how we celebrate the arrival of spring here.

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Arlington, Va.: Okay, what's your take on the Laurie/Karl/Sheryl dust-up? I understand it was somewhat crazy for Laurie to think she was going to change Karl's mind then and there, but I also think that because access to Karl is so limited for "regular" people, I would have taken advantage of the chance to push my agenda on the nation's top advisor had I been there. That's why this concept of "no politics tonight, we're all friends here" for the Dinner seems silly. How often does Karl return any of these reporter's phone calls?

Howard Kurtz: Having not been there, I don't know whether Sheryl Crow and Laurie David confronted Rove aggressively, which got him mad, or tried to engage in a polite discussion of global warming, only to be tongue-lashed by the White House adviser. Given the speed and the glee with which they blogged about the incident, I suspect they were not averse to making a scene.

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Webster Groves, Mo.: I ask this in all sincerity: Why, oh why, do you give so much time -- and therefore, credence -- to some of the bloggers and talk show hosts you mention quite often? They may have a lot of visibility, but so often they are not just one-sided, but flat-out wrong -- if not wrong on purpose. I mention Rush Limbaugh in particular.

Howard Kurtz: I actually don't mention Rush very often, but it sounds like you disagree with him and therefore believe he shouldn't be mentioned. What I try to do is collect interesting voices from both the left and the right, ranging from popular radio talk show hosts to relatively obscure bloggers, along with the good ol' MSM.

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Falls Church, Va.: A13! That's where The Post ran its story on the first round of voting in the French presidential election. What's up with that?

Howard Kurtz: Well, that is the front page of the foreign news section. If you're asking whether I thought the story should have been on the front page, especially with the first woman with a serious shot at becoming France's prime minister, the answer is yes. I see the New York Times led the paper with it.

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Arlington, Va.: Submitting early due to travel ... why was the Anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19 totally forgotten? It was the largest terrorist attack actually conducted by Americans on our own soil. I'd be interested in your response.

washingtonpost.com: Giuliani: Nation Learned From Oklahoma City (AP, April 20)

Howard Kurtz: I saw it mentioned in a few places. I'm not a big believer in anniversary stories, the notion that we must do pieces every year on some event, no matter how important, that happened on that particular date. To me, by and large, it's a cheap peg for the media to resurrect a story on an arbitrary day.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Howard: I know most of the talk today will probably be about Virginia Tech (and that is understandably proper). The other day I happen to listen to NPR's coverage of the Gonzales questioning. It was riveting. What was striking was to hear Neal Conan (and others) describe the looks on the Senators' faces as they were asking questions. But they did this during breaks and never missed a question or an answer. Afterward, they had one senator from each party on for roughly the same time frame (4-5 minutes). Question: In your view, is NPR's reputation as a left-leaning news organization justified? It didn't sound that way to me the other day.

Howard Kurtz: I think NPR's journalists make a concerted effort to be fair, as that story would indicate.

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Floris, Va.: I am surprised you haven't written about the recent report that depicts Canadian newspapers as being much healthier than their U.S. counterparts. From what I recall, the circulation of Canadian newspapers in the 17 largest markets increased two percent last year. More importantly, the penetration of these dailies in each market was more than 50 percent. Why?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. I didn't see that report. Maybe Canada, which gets a lot of its television programming from the U.S., hasn't had the same explosion of cable channels and other alternatives as America has. And since the U.S. media barely cover Canada, those interested in detailed coverage of their country and their province or city might be more inclined to turn to local newspapers.

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Arlington, Va.: Not saying it was their sole motivation but NBC is a notoriously anti-gun network -- recent episodes of Law & Order for example -- so I'm not surprised at some of the pictures they showed.

Howard Kurtz: I think you're failing to appreciate that NBC News is completely separate and independent from the Burbank-based entertainment division that puts on dramas such as "Law & Order."

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El Segundo, Calif.: Howard, there is something I've been wondering about every Sunday since Tim Russert's testimony at the Libby trial and that is: Has there been any ratings change regarding Russert's "Meet the Press" show because of his closeness with the individuals involved? How is Russert doing in comparison with George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" and Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation"?

Howard Kurtz: Russert has been No. 1 for years and remains No. 1, as NBC reminds us with a mass e-mailing every week. If there has been any decline in the ratings, I'm not aware of it.

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Fort Belvoir, Va.: Howard, I supported NBC's decision to air the tapes and photos, but, they botched it by turning it into video wallpaper. They started using the footage every time some talking head was interviewed, almost exactly like showing Anna Nicole falling out of her dress every time someone was yakking on the screen. NBC could have been a bit more respectful with this material.

Howard Kurtz: That would have been MSNBC, since NBC aired it only on Nightly News and Today. I think you have a good point, but what really turned the tape into video wallpaper was that it was constantly running on Fox, CNN and MSNBC, as well as periodically on ABC and CBS, in the first 18 hours after NBC aired it. I was channel-surfing on Wednesday night and Thursday morning and it was just inescapable. Most newspapers, of course, also put the images on their front pages and home pages.

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Indianapolis: My wife and I decided that CNN finally jumped the shark last week. All the news that was being made last week and very little was mentioned. For example, Wolf Blitzer spent three hours on the NASA shooting. Even though nothing new was being reported about it, he continual talked about it. Okay, he did take a break to talk about Baldwin's phone rage. Who cares?! No thank you, we'll continue to watch BBC when we want to see news -- domestic and International.

Howard Kurtz: All the cable news networks stayed with the NASA shooting story for some time. I usually think these things are overdone on cable, but for a time, at least, we didn't know whether the gunman would shoot more people. As for the Baldwin tape, I have seen it (or heard it, more accurately) on virtually every morning show and cable network, and read about it in the Style section of Saturday's Washington Post.

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Albany, N.Y.: What is bothering people the most about the Cho video is the wall-to-wall airing it received on every channel the night of its release. NBC is not responsible for this abuse of the airwaves. What they did was necessary, proper and measured, unlike what the cable news networks did that evening. Plus, if you didn't want to to watch the Cho video anymore, you could just put on a movie or a ball game.

Howard Kurtz: True, but the relentless nature of it did in some ways add to the sense of being assaulted by this psychopath. NBC is responsible for what MSNBC did, but obviously not for what the other networks did in immediately ripping off NBC's footage.

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McLean, Va.: Howard: I think the challenges facing the media when covering large tragedies surfaced again with the Virginia Tech shootings -- a lot of unfounded speculation at the start, followed by way too much pontificating about what it all meant and, of course, a barrage of interviews with people who had been directly affected. But just when you think the media has gone too far, someone like Paul M. Duggan writes a story like the one he did on the family of the young Lebanese-American woman from Virginia. Sensitively done and beautifully reported and written. Even after a week, it still cut the media clutter and had a great impact.

washingtonpost.com: A Daughter's Untimely Requiem (Post, April 22)

Howard Kurtz: I think there was very little unfounded speculation at the start, in contrast to some other big stories (remember when cable declared in the middle of the night that the trapped West Virginia miners were alive?). Too much pontificating about what it all meant -- well, there was more of that as the week went on. As for interviews with family members, well, I don't see anything wrong with that as long as they're handled with sensitivity and no one is being harassed. Several reporters told me that numerous relatives and friends wanted to talk. It's been a full week now, of course, and some Virginia Tech students want the media to leave their campus, so there does come a point where journalists may be overstaying their welcome.

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Washington: Thanks for the take on anniversary stories, which I agree are by and large meaningless exercises. I wonder whether some of the reason they always are being run (not just in print, of course) is because of fears of reader/viewer/listener backlash because "we experienced this, so dang it we deserve a story to commemorate our experience!" This sense of entitlement certainly rears its head because of noncoverage decisions (see Burns, Ken) so I don't see how it doesn't play into coverage decisions as well.

Howard Kurtz: I may be in the minority on this, and I can certainly understand doing the first anniversary of 9/11, or the 50th anniversary of D-Day. But year after year, on a (relatively) arbitrary day?

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New York: Lionel Shriver expressed exactly what I felt the day after the shooting when he wrote that "I have come to dread the campus shooting's ritual media aftermath -- a secondary wave of atrocity, all conducted under the guise of grief, soul-searching concern..."

You guys are too good at this -- too efficient. Even got the tech angle on this. The media seems to live for the huge news events that wipes everything else from coverage. It feels calculated and cold, like the way a paper or TV network prepares for a big obit by keeping files on famous people waiting for the day they croak.

washingtonpost.com: What the Killers Want (Post, April 22)

Howard Kurtz: Efficient? Maybe. Cold and calculating? I don't think so. This was the largest gun massacre in American history. How could we not have heavily covered it? I've talked to many of the reporters involved, and they all say it was hard and depressing work. There isn't a journalist on the planet who wouldn't rather give up the "big story" if this tragedy could somehow have been averted.

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Philadelphia: Why all the hubbub about Reid's "Iraq war is lost" comments? Nearly a supermajority of Americans agree with him. And he is being truthful.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's the Bush administration that has gone after him hard, as you might expect.

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Washington: I'd be more impressed with NBC's consideration of handling the package from the Virginia Tech killer if they'd consulted someone outside NBC -- then maybe they wouldn't have been so shocked by the negative reaction. My own concern is that NBC has told the world the way to get your views aired is to kill a few dozen people. Dropping the Express Mail package clearly was part of the killer's plan for gaining his demented ends -- and NBC went along, aiding the plot.

Howard Kurtz: I understand what you're saying. Many, many people feel that way. I don't know that NBC consulted with anyone from the outside, except for law-enforcement officials, who they immediately notified and gave the originals to.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Brian Williams recently complained (of bloggers): "All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I'm up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment." Am I the only one who finds that stunningly arrogant? What has Mr. Williams ever done to make us trust and respect him? What I know about him is: he's never broken a major story (we're not talking about Dana Priest or Bob Woodward here), he likes Rush Limbaugh, he's an employee of General Electric, and he never questioned the reports about WMD. Why shouldn't I trust Vinny as much as him?

Howard Kurtz: Brian Williams is actually an avid consumer of blogs and writes a daily one himself. I think he was being a little tongue-in-cheek. But he also has made the serious point that while journalists, for all their flaws, pursue this as a profession, there's a pretty wide variation in the quality of blogs.

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Chicago: Glad you mentioned the Baldwin tape. I don't understand why that was newsworthy or, especially, why everyone seemed perfectly happy to publish the daughter's name and age. It's irrelevant whether one of the parents first leaked it. The media should have taken a pass. What price ratings?

Howard Kurtz: I feel conflicted about it. While Baldwin's conduct was reprehensible, I felt a little sorry for him having this private rant leaked, probably by his ex-wife, with whom he's locked in a bitter custody battle. And what about the impact on the daughter? It's sad.

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Madison, Wis.: Howard, I am in awe of your productivity -- your books, TV show, daily column, weekly chat. What's your secret? Do you have a staff?

Howard Kurtz: I have no staff (except of course for the excellent producers I work with at CNN; you can't put on a TV show by yourself). This is essentially a one-man operation you're looking at. Which makes it hard to blame someone else when something goes wrong.

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Chicago: There was a time when the so-called fourth estate realized that its responsibility was to the public, not to itself. Now, the rush to get anything on the often ignores whether the subject should be aired at all. Toward this end and the NBC/Cho debate, I refer you to the press at large and its treatment of president Franklin Roosevelt. Because of his polio, he was always in a wheelchair, yet it was very rare to see an image of him in a wheelchair in the press. The public knew he had polio -- so why sensationalize it? It showed a level of respect that today's media doesn't have in its quest for better ratings.

Howard Kurtz: I'm told that not everyone knew that FDR couldn't walk, but that, of course, was a different era. Today's media have plenty of excesses, but would you really want to go back to a time when reporters were complicit in keeping White House secrets? Where a president was physically impaired and all the reporters knew it and chose not to share that with the public?

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My theory on why Cho gave his tapes to NBC: Just my two cents, but I bet Mr. Cho gave his package to NBC rather than ABC or CBS is because MSNBC runs all those true crime profiles of Jeffrey Dahmer, Betty Broderick, and Son of Sam -- just to name a few -- all night long. Guessing that Mr. Cho wanted his own hour like Tim McVeigh and Ted Bundy and am sure he'll get his wish.

Howard Kurtz: That seems to fall into the realm of speculation.

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West Chester, Pa.: How is it that the right-wing has turned the Virginia Tech massacre into a referendum on the media as opposed to one on gun control? Watching Hugh Hewitt on your show Sunday, I was struck at how this debate on airing Cho's footage is nothing but a variation on a familiar theme: It's the media that makes people bad. It used to be Judas Priest lyrics, and now it's footage of an individual with clear mental disease. Obviously the right-wing radio world has an ax to grind with the MSM, but can someone ask them where they get the audacity to attempt to control what's newsworthy?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think you can blame this on the right wing. Bill Press, Ed Schultz and other liberal radio hosts are also blasting NBC's decision. And the millions of people who are angry are not necessarily on one side of the spectrum or another.

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Reston, Va.: I'd like to echo Wisconsin. You are the Bo Jackson of covering the media through the use of multimedia. One request: Please don't start referring to yourself in the third person.

Howard Kurtz: Howard Kurtz appreciates your comments and will do his best to live up to your expectations.

He now has other commitments and is signing off.

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