Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, August 21, 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."

Karl Rove, Insider With an Outsize Reputation (washingtonpost.com, Aug. 20)

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Bethesda, Md.: Karl Rove was on several Sunday talk shows. Did you see them? Did you notice anything that would support or refute claims of deferential treatment by Fox vs. the other networks?

Howard Kurtz: I saw two of the three interviews Rove did Sunday. New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley said that Fox's Chris Wallace actually gave Rove the hardest time, resulting in the testiest interview, compared to David Gregory on "Meet the Press" and Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation." At one point in the discussion of Rove's cooperation with Capitol Hill inquiries, Rove accused Wallace of acting like an agent of Congress.

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Re: Karl Rove and the Media: Thanks for taking my question. I watched and read about Karl Rove's interviews on the Sunday talk shows and was again frustrated -- if less than surprised -- that he was allowed to get away with the "Sept. 11 changed everything" line. On "Meet the Press," Rove was asked why, when Dick Cheney seemed so aware of the dangers of invading Iraq in 1994, the administration handled such dangers so badly in 2003 and on. When he answered that Sept. 11 changed everything, David Gregory didn't press him to explain how: how specifically did that event reconfigure Saddam Hussein's WMD? How did it alter Sunni-Shia tensions? Etc. etc.

If the answer is simply that Rove et al didn't realize the world had bad guys who disliked the U.S. before Sept. 11, then that is pretty damning, no? If I were Karl Rove, I would be amazed and thrilled that, despite all that has gone wrong, this major Bushism is still allowed to stand relatively unchallenged. Why do you think the media doesn't more forcefully challenge this basic premise even at this late stage?

Howard Kurtz: When you say Rove was allowed to "get away with" saying Sept. 11 changed everything, that is one of his (and Bush's) longtime talking points. Indeed, 9/11 did transform the political debate in this country for awhile. I think David Gregory did press Rove on the war and its badly flawed execution, and that Rove stuck tightly to his script and didn't give much ground. That's often the case in these interviews.

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Seattle: Howard, a couple of weeks back, Deborah Howell had a column up on sports reporting. I forget the particulars, but do you think it's appropriate for an ombudsman to worry about the sports pages? The news they share is ultimately very silly, unimportant, and basically is reporting on games. That's not to say the writers and editors of those stories don't work very hard, because clearly they do. However, I worry more about accuracy in the dealings of Congress and the White House than I do Mike Wise's quotes or misquotes. Thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: Quote, Unquote (Post, Aug. 12)

Howard Kurtz: First, there's a huge interest in sports in this country, so I couldn't disagree more with your dismissal of the subject as silly and unimportant. Second, look at the off-lead in The Post today: Michael Vick's guilty plea ... which follows stories on the crooked NBA ref, more doping charges at the Tour de France, the steroid allegations against Bonds as he broke the all-time home run record, and on and on going back to Kobe Bryant and other athletes accused of crimes or misconduct. In short, sports is a multibillion-dollar industry that requires journalism that does more than just chronicle what happens between the foul lines.

Second, Howell was using a sports piece as an example of whether journalists should clean up people's quotes -- whether they play ball or not -- and that has sparked a wider debate.

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Vienna, Va.: On "Meet the Press" last Sunday Karl Rove denied leaking Valerie Wilson's name to Matt Cooper. In the next segment Cooper said Rove was not telling the truth. After the Libby trial, Rove's repeated grand jury appearances -- and even his own lawyer's admission -- how can the media let him get away with continuing to say things that are totally false and not call him out.

Howard Kurtz: I think he's repeatedly been called out on it, and that Cooper did so on the very same program after Rove's appearance underscores that point. Plenty of people think the media over-covered the Plame case; I certainly don't think a case can be made that we under-covered it, or Rove's role in it.

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Santa Monica, Calif.: On "Meet the Press" Sunday, during a discussion about the presidential campaign, Matt Cooper disclosed that his wife works for Clinton. Ron Brownstein, however, made no mention of his wife's employment with McCain. Perhaps she doesn't work for him anymore, but what do you make of this? Shouldn't Brownstein have said something too?

Howard Kurtz: I think he should have because they also were discussing the Republican presidential race, even though he did not mention McCain directly. Ron is a terrific reporter and analyst, and I have seen him mention his wife's employment in other interviews, but he did not do it this time.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: I'm hating everything about the press lately, and haven't been able to make myself watch the news, though I will read the Wall Street Journal online (I pay for it) and some Washington Post stories (I pay for the dead tree version). Give me some reason to hope.

Howard Kurtz: What other paper gives you Dana Milbank, the Reliable Source and Michael Wilbon for 35 cents, plus a Media Notes column?

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Milwaukee:"To spend more time with my family" is always a euphemism for "I got fired." As far as I know, Karl has only one son and he's just leaving for college. I have been surprised the media hasn't made more of this. Evidently the pressure to get rid of Rove came about so quickly that he couldn't even call someone such as Ken Starr at Pepperdine's Law School for a cover-job.

Howard Kurtz: I think "spend more time with my family" also can be a euphemism for quitting. It's possible Bush forced out the man who has been his closest confidant since his days as Texas governor, but I haven't seen any evidence of that.

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Fairfax, Va.: Howard, I need a clarification. There have been many articles about Bush's hope for Global Democracy, and his disappointment and so forth. At the same time, working in his own back yard, Karl Rove has been trying to establish a Permanent Republican Majority, which, in effect, would end democracy in the United States. (I wonder at the attempt, actually, because we are, after all, the "model" of democracy for the rest of the world, and how would one maintain such a one-party hegemony anyway?) So is it all just a charade?

washingtonpost.com: Upcoming Discussion: President Bush's Global Democracy Efforts (washingtonpost.com, today at 1 p.m. ET)

Howard Kurtz: I don't think even Rove in his most fevered imagination wants to end democracy in the United States. Fighting to make your party the dominant one is what Democrats do as well; it hardly amounts to a desire to outlaw the other party.

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Indianapolis: We miss Imus so much and are angry that the latest flap from the Rutgers player and Al Sharpton's latest hypocritical pontification will unfairly frighten off stations considering hiring Imus. Joe Scarborough is boring and his show has worsened as his guest list has become less interesting and relevant. What are his latest ratings?

washingtonpost.com: Rutgers Player Sues Imus, CBS Radio (AP, Aug. 15)

Howard Kurtz: I don't think stations are being frightened off from Imus; he is talking to several big companies and I wouldn't be surprised if he's back on the air within months. As for Scarborough, I think his show is interesting and irreverent; his numbers are not great, but following Imus in a highly competitive time slot on the third-rated cable news channel isn't the world's easiest task. Imus already had a national radio following when MSNBC started simulcasting his show in the mid-'90s.

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New York: Howard, in the Los Angeles Times three days ago, a journalism professor named Michael Skube skewered (liberal) blogs for not adhering to the "rigors" of journalism. Skube now admits he hadn't read any of the blogs he mentioned, and he carelessly misstated facts throughout his op-ed, including claiming The Washington Post had won a Pulitzer it has not. Skube now claims his editor at the Times was an active participant in his piece. My question to you -- have we now, hopefully, reached the abyss for print journalism's pathetic flailing at the blogs?

washingtonpost.com: Blogs: All the noise that fits (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 19)

Howard Kurtz: I disagree with much of what Skube wrote, with the exception of this subhead: "The hard-line opinions on weblogs are no substitute for the patient fact-finding of reporters." I think even many bloggers would agree with that.

But I don't think it's fair to cast one column by one professor as representative of "print journalism flailing at the blogs." In case you haven't noticed, the Web sites of The Post, the New York Times, Time, the Atlantic and many others are bursting with blogs. I blog every day and take the opinions and criticisms of bloggers of all stripes quite seriously. Are there some print journalists who resent blogs or don't get blogs or ignore blogs? Sure. But they're a shrinking minority.

As for The Post's non-existent Pulitzer, the reference was to the terrific series about Walter Reed by Dana Priest and Anne Hull. It was published earlier this year, which means it's not eligible to win anything until 2008.

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Quotes and The Washington Post: I read Deborah Howell's recent column about the "cleaning up" of quotes. It appears that changing what someone said to give them the appearance of better grammar, etc., is in violation of Post directives, but it still happens. What is your view, and why should we trust any quotes from The Post if they (even just some) are getting modified?

Howard Kurtz: My view is that quotes shouldn't be cleaned up at all, that what is between quotation marks should be as close to verbatim as we possibly can make it. It's fine to avoid embarrassing people who stumble around or speak ungrammatically, but you can do this by paraphrasing and using partial quotes.

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Syracuse, N.Y.: An out-of-left-field kind of question. What's former CNN anchor Aaron Brown up to these days? Any idea?

washingtonpost.com: "He is currently the John J. Rhodes Professor in Public Policy and American Institutions at Arizona State University." (Wikipedia)

Howard Kurtz: There's your answer. He has expressed little desire in returning to a major television job.

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Arlington, Va.: Mark Warner dropped out of the Presidential race in order to "spend more time with his family" and no one seemed to question it at the time.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that was the reason he gave, although the fact that the experience blows up your personal life might have been one of the factors. Also, Warner never got into the presidential race, so he never quite dropped out; he just decided against running.

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Rolla, Mo.: Why are Sen. Obama's statements on Pakistan, talking to adversaries, etc. deemed "gaffes" in all traditional media accounts? Does the media let a rival campaign or foreign policy "experts" who have been tragically wrong over the past few years define what a "gaffe" is? Poll some average people on these statements (who haven't heard the characterizations) and many would find them reasonable.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think Obama's comments have been portrayed as gaffes at all. They've been depicted as controversial statements that some of his rivals, and others, have jumped on, leading to a substantive debate that is a heck of a lot better than the media chatter about cleavage and trophy wives.

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New York: Bill Plante has characterized his own question to President Bush at last Monday's Rove announcement as "smart-assed" (CBS Public Eye 16 Aug) but then says there is a need to aggressively push the right to ask questions at the White House. I agree with the right to ask questions, but I think his particular "question" had very little value and was more of a personal comment phrased as a question.

I might add that as far back as 1988, I personally observed Plante on a number of occasions, sitting in a chair in the first row of the traveling press pool about 15 feet in front of President Reagan's lectern. As the president was giving a speech, Plante would deliberately and conspicuously put his glasses on, cross his legs, fully open up a newspaper, and read. Plante has the right to be a boor, but do you think he is abusing the special access that is afforded to White House reporters?

washingtonpost.com: Plante's Question (second-to-last item) (washingtonpost.com, Aug. 15)

Howard Kurtz: In a word, no. Plante's was a shouted question, after Rove appeared with the president to announce his resignation and neither man took questions. "If he's so smart, how come you lost Congress?" Plante asked. This is the Sam Donaldson technique of trying to get the president and top aides to say something -- anything -- at a scripted event where they are determined not to respond to reporters. I'm sure some people find the practice rude, and it rarely succeeds, but Plante is hardly a groundbreaker in this regard.

When Plante has asked questions of presidents and press secretaries at briefings and news conferences, I have found them to be aggressive and substantive, but not overly confrontational.

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Arlington, Va.: "Over-covered the Plame case?" Okay Howie, you've been initiated into the Kool-Aid drinker club. The Plame case was under-covered. The media hated it because it exposed them for the Bush sycophants they are.

Howard Kurtz: Excuse me: I didn't say the Plame case was over-covered. I said some people feel that way, especially way beyond the Beltway. It was a tangled case that got very complicated and was hardly the media's finest hour, but if you look at the thousands of stories devoted to Plamegate in major newspapers and on television, culminating in the Libby trial (which I attended in part) and the presidential commutation, I don't know how anyone can seriously argue that the case was under-covered.

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Houston: Is a blog sponsored by a "mainstream" media outlet a "real" blog? Should distinctions be made between "independent" blogs and "MSM-sponsored" blogs? It seems to me the "independent" blogs were started by people who have something to say that may not be found in the MSM, while the blogs sponsored by newspapers, networks, etc, may be there because editors thought "Hey, we need to get us some of these blogs!"

Howard Kurtz: Maybe so -- we're always trying to look cool and often look so five minutes ago -- but there are also hybrids. Andrew Sullivan, for instance, was an independent blogger before moving his online column first to Time and then the Atlantic, so he's hardly a corporate shill. Ana Marie Cox was Wonkette before she joined Time's Swampland blog. The New York Times hosts a blog by an author of "Freakonomics." The Washington Post has bloggers who don't primarily work for the paper or the Web site. So there is slow progress.

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Arlington, Va.: Geez Howie, do some fact-checking! One of Mark Warner's children is heading off to college in 2008. He stated publicly, on the record, that he wanted to spend time with his child before said child heads off to college. And in case you didn't know, Karl's son is already in college.

Howard Kurtz: Right. But Mark Warner knew that one of his kids was heading off to college when he began exploring a presidential race. I think he made clear that the response was not what he had hoped for, or that he didn't have the overwhelming desire to pursue it, rather than suddenly discover that he had a college-age kid.

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Chicago: Howard, I think the Washington Post Web site is making itself seem unserious with the positioning of the big photo story in the upper left corner. This is almost always is a lifestyle story, and not terribly newsworthy. The Washington Post Web site often shortchanges serious or major news stories by not positioning them on page one of the Web site. For example, where is today's story about Cheney's office hiding subpoenaed wiretapping documents? Not on page one. (In the print edition, it's on Page A2.) Every day I visit The Post Web site, but it troubles me that it's inferior to the New York Times Web site. When I go there, I see serious and important news positioned prominently on the page as it should be, with the lifestyle stuff much lower down.

Howard Kurtz: It changes throughout the day. At the moment there's a big picture of the shuttle landing successfully. I don't think there's anything wrong with playing up a style or entertainment story on the home page. After all, that one screen has to provide an overview of the day's offerings that is featured on five different section fronts in the dead-tree edition. There is no shortage of serious, important stories at the top of the home page day after day. But the Web is a different animal, and we have blogs and chats and late-breaking stuff, so the page shouldn't be a strict replica of the newspaper's A1.

Besides, somebody must like it. I notice our Web traffic is now just slightly behind usatoday.com, while trailing nytimes.com -- both done by papers that circulate across the country as opposed to in one metropolitan region.

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Geist, Ind.: I agree with the poster who said that Obama's comments often are unfairly characterized as "gaffes," while to many of us non-pundit types, just voters, they seem very reasonable and most welcome. This skewed response by pundits was evident after the AFL-CIO Democratic debate, in which Obama's comments were applauded by the live audience -- and, I'm sure, many voters -- while the media afterward resorted to characterizing his comments as inexperienced, etc. (and, some implied, gaffes).

Howard Kurtz: Well, many pundits may unfairly have jumped on what Obama said, but the fact that pundits are often wrong is not exactly breaking news. I don't recall seeing a news story that described it as a gaffe, although the initial accounts certainly noted that Obama's answer on meeting with hostile foreign leaders provided Hillary with an opening to depict him as naive.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: I have to disagree with Indianapolis -- "Morning Joe" is really funny, but it is a subtle type of humor that requires some intelligence. The Imus style misogynistic bathroom humor that Indianapolis needs is usually found on radio stations that look for the 14-25 year old uneducated male demographic. I am quite tired of being called a w---e; just because I'm female, I'm a target for vitriolic hatred, and after thirty years of hearing it it's beyond boring. Indianapolis should grow up.

Howard Kurtz: I think I'll let you two fight it out.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Howie, with the second anniversary of Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast on the horizon, what is your opinion of the media's following up on the aftermath, corruption, and progress of the rebuilding, especially in New Orleans

Howard Kurtz: It's been very scattered. A few organizations have done a good job. The New York Times has been good consistently. Brian Williams repeatedly has taken his newscast back to New Orleans. Time just did a cover story on the city's continued vulnerability to hurricanes. But too many other news organizations, as I wrote after visiting New Orleans eight months after Katrina, have decided it's an old story and moved on.

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Canandaigua, N.Y.: I spent the past week in the orbit of Rochester and Syracuse in New York. It was like being in a media blackout. I knew all about what was happening in Ontario County, but the national and international news was confined to a two-minute snippet between the weather report and AA baseball scores.

Howard Kurtz: Local newscasts in most places aren't much concerned with national news. If you didn't have access to cable, how about going to an Internet cafe? No one should be truly blacked out in this wired age.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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