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Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 8, 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 transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Voorhees, N.J.: Howard, a terrific column today! Your book excerpt proves what I have suspected since the U.S. first invaded Iraq based on the lies of this administration: far from being liberal, the TV networks, and the media in general, are very conservative when it comes reporting on the military industrial complex. Why? because the the folks who run the media outlets are very conservative! Question: Do you feel the media will go back to doing their jobs (asking the tough questions that need to be asked), or will your column/book excerpt be in vain?

washingtonpost.com: As War Dragged On, Coverage Tone Weighed Heavily on Anchors (Post, Oct 8)

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the kind words about my new book "Reality Show."

The people who own the networks may be conservative, but they don't run the news coverage (although they can influence it indirectly through budgets and the like). The book demonstrates that after an embarrassingly inadequate performance in the runup to the war -- along with the rest of the media -- the network newscasts took the lead in aggressive and skeptical coverage of the Iraq conflict in 2005 and 2006, both through the anchors and the reporting of folks like Lara Logan and Richard Engel.

By the way, I'll be blogging about the book right here.

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Washington: Very good piece from your book in this morning's paper! It looks like it will be a good read. I am confused about one thing, though: Why is it important what the three network anchors think about the war (or any topic for that matter) if they are just supposed to report the news as it happens?

Howard Kurtz: It's crucial, because they are far more than newsreaders. As "Reality Show" demonstrates, Brian, Charlie and Katie -- like Dan, Tom and Peter before them -- play a crucial role in shaping their broadcasts. How do they decide when to lead with Iraq and when the news is too incremental? How do they balance the continuing violence with other kinds of reporting from Baghdad? How do they deal with criticism from the administration? How do they press Bush about the war when they have a chance to interview the president? Plus, both Williams and Couric have reported from Iraq this year. So what they think matters big time.

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Boston: Your analysis on war coverage today had one glaring hole, that being Fox coverage watched by Bush's and congressional Republican's key core constituents. Daniel Moynihan had a famous quote about people having the right to their own opinion but not their own facts. Back during Vietnam, our source for facts was much more consolidated and respected in the persona of Walter Cronkite. Today we can have our own facts, by choosing to watch Fox or some other media outlet. As long as Bush doesn't "lose Fox," which serves constituents to his core of Republican power in Congress, he successfully can sustain cloture votes in the Senate or sustain vetoes in Congress and continue doing whatever he wants in Iraq. In that sense, how Gibson, Couric and Williams cover the war doesn't matter much in terms of actual policy changes, but your analysis of Fox coverage does. Why didn't you include Fox in your article today?

Howard Kurtz: The piece is adapted from my book (once again, that's "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War" -- end of commercial), which deals with the three network newscasts. Cable is certainly mentioned, but it's not the focus.

The book demonstrates that what Gibson, Williams and Couric report about the war actually matters a great deal -- and is monitored obsessively by the White House. The three newscasts have a combined viewership of 25 million. The biggest show on Fox draws about 2 million. So whatever you think of Fox's role in war coverage, it's the broadcast networks that reach the biggest chunk of the audience by far.

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Austin, Texas: I would imagine you know this question is coming. Last week you seemed to imply that political journalists take their cues on what is topical from "The Daily Show" (in reference to Hillary's laugh). Okay -- now why aren't the chattering classes talking about Chris Matthews? Because Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show" definitely made Matthews a topic. Or is this just not going to happen because journalists protect their own?

Howard Kurtz: I talked about it on "Reliable Sources" yesterday, and I've seen the Matthews/Stewart clip played over and over again on various cable shows (not to mention online). Still, whether or not Chris Matthews has written a good book (which is what they were arguing about on "The Daily Show") is not exactly in the same category as how the Democratic presidential frontrunner is campaigning.

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San Francisco: Congrats on the book. Are you going on a book tour? Where can we see you in person?

Howard Kurtz: I will be doing so much TV and radio that I may get tired of listening to myself. No plans at the moment to come to San Francisco, though if it were up to me that definitely would be on the schedule.

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Detroit: Howie, is President Bush significantly different from other presidents in his high availability to friendly opinion columnists such as Kristol and Brooks? To me it seems awfully cheesy and comes off as propaganda. Do the columnists get that they are being used to support a particular spin, and are they willing to go along for the "exclusivity" of access? Or do they believe that these meetings offer the public and themselves important information from the president?

Howard Kurtz: It's valuable for any journalist, including friendly columnists, to get face time with the president. (Not to keep bringing up my book, but I detail a series of off-the-record meetings between Bush and the network anchors and Sunday show hosts.) Other presidents certainly have done this, although Clinton called in regular old White House correspondents more often. He had his favorites, though, calling E.J. Dionne and Ben Wattenberg for long chats, which both men later reported. Bush certainly has had a number of these sessions with conservatives, including one with bloggers on the right!

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Nashville, Tenn: Howard, congratulations on your new book! I learned something new from today's excerpt. NBC News no longer uses the word "pro-life." I ask this as a person who is pro-life: Did NBC similarly disallow the use of the term "pro-choice"? I think the rationale for calling groups this or that was based on what the groups called themselves. Calling one group "pro-choice" because the group itself chose that term and calling the opposing group anything other than the term than group has chosen for itself, i.e. "pro-life," smacks of bias. If their still using "pro-choice", NBC should be using "pro-life." Any thing less is bias. Period.

Howard Kurtz: I think virtually all news organizations have abandoned pro-life, and pro-choice as well, in an effort not to adopt terminology that appears to favor either side. (Who exactly is anti-life?) It's more common to say that someone supports abortion rights or is opposed to abortion.

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Rockville, Md.: Do people in the US still really care as much about Princess Di as the media thinks we do? I am amazed how much press this still gets. It's almost like we owe the English something for covering a U.S.-based event so incessantly. Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: I think I've about reached my limit, and so have many other folks. But as long as a segment of the population, even if they're a minority, remains heavily into Di news, you'll continue to see it on cable, the morning shows and the glossy magazines.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Howard: Enough with the media columns on television folks. There are about 1,000 newspapers and hundreds of magazines that also practice journalism in this country, and they make news in various ways every single week -- yet you're not reporting on them. Newspapers are the real backbone of the media today, regardless of what anyone thinks, and you need to report more on the print media and what is happening there. Forget the TV guys for a couple of months -- we won't miss those reports!

Howard Kurtz: Are you kidding? I report on newspapers all the time. Newspapers still drive the public agenda. My first book was called "Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers." But I undertook this one on the network newscasts because they still have the biggest impact in terms of reaching people, and because each of the networks has installed a new anchor after two decades in which Rather, Jennings and Brokaw became fixtures in our lives. And because there's a fascinating debate about whether 6:30 p.m. newscasts, with their shrinking audiences, can survive in an age of instantaneous information.

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Burlington, Vt.: Katie Couric's revelations to you about NBC News are stunning. Many liberal media critics long have contended that NBC's coverage of the 2000 and 2004 elections were slanted towards Bush, and Couric today provides some inside confirmation regarding the pressures she felt from Robert Wright in 2004 and Jack Welch. As you write in summarizing Couric's views: "If you weren't rah rah rah for the Bush administration, and the war, you were considered unpatriotic, even treasonous." Obviously, it's only Couric's perspective, but do you have any thoughts on this?

Howard Kurtz: I don't quite see how you get from Katie Couric taht she felt pressure from then-NBC president Robert Wright (regarding an interview in which she pressed Condi Rice about terrorism) and then-GE chief Jack Welch (who thought she was liberal) to a flat conclusion that NBC was biased in covering the 2000 and 2004 elections. For one thing, the co-host of "Today" does not represent the entire NBC news division, whose top journalist at the time was Tom Brokaw. For another, Couric recently got skewered from the left for going to Iraq and reporting that there were modest signs of progress in some areas.

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Washington: Do you think that the network news is experiencing scandal fatigue which affects their decisions on what stories to run? For instance, these so-called "torture memos" are a big deal to me, and the New York Times and Post have done some very good reporting. But, from what I've seen and read, these memos are not making the network news as heavily, if at all. That's troubling because it seems that most people get their news from the networks. Are the network anchors and staff tired of reporting on terrible government behavior, which makes them less likely to run stories on ongoing investigations and developments?

Howard Kurtz: It was the second story on NBC Nightly News the other day. I haven't had a chance to check the others. But the Times certainly did the groundbreaking reporting there.

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Boston: Twenty-five million viewers for Gibson, Williams and Couric is a small number compared to Cronkite back in the day, and inconsequential from a policy change standpoint to the two million hardcore Republicans who watch Fox today. Gibson/Williams/Couric changed their tone in 2006 and Bush increased our troop presence. Those 25 million viewers couldn't do a thing about it. Gibson, Williams and Couric's views are just noise and only followed by the White House because they are so paranoid.

Howard Kurtz: Well, to dismiss their roles as anchors and shapers of their broadcasts as just noise completely misses the importance of these broadcasts. You seem to blame them because Bush decided on the surge, but I believe they played an important role in 2005 and 2006 in turning public opinion against the war. No, they don't have the reach of Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, and they never will, but those legendary anchors didn't operate in a world filled with cable, Web sites, blogs, podcasts and a million other media choices.

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Indianapolis: So did a reporter ask Obama why he wasn't wearing a flag pin, or did he bring up the subject? I thought former (in the "here the press goes again" with superficial, gotcha questions vein) but friends maintain he brought it up himself. I am so tired of the empty issues that distract public and are easy for press to recycle without researching serious issues. Paul Krugman wrote good article on this. Even if he did bring it up, his explanation made sense.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure if a reporter raised it; I hadn't heard that. But Obama clearly was not reluctant to talk about it and wanted to make a point. Naturally, he's been criticized by some conservatives, but I wonder how many Americans think that what a politician says and does is more important than whether he or she wears a flag pin.

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Fairfax, Va.: Howard, will you go on "The Daily Show" to push your book?

Howard Kurtz: Yes. Jon Stewart and I will be chatting on Thursday night. I predict he will be funnier.

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Katie vs. CEOs: Do you agree that the executives at GE and other companies are very nervous about anchors like Katie Couric looking too liberal? Or was it less about ideology and more about not being too confrontational with the people currently in power? I don't think Katie's ever interviewed Hillary the way she interviews Condoleezza...

Howard Kurtz: In fact, Couric did a reasonably aggressive interview with Hillary Clinton (along with Charlie and Brian) on the day that she announced her candidacy. I don't know the extent to which corporate executives were nervous about Katie looking either liberal or overly confrontational. But I can report that she certainly felt they were.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Howard: "It's valuable for any journalist, including friendly columnists, to get face time with the president. (Not to keep bringing up my book, but I detail a series of off-the-record meetings between Bush and the network anchors and Sunday show hosts.)" With the benefit of hindsight, why is this not exhibit A in the argument against this sort of thing?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not following your logic. Whether you're a White House reporter, an anchor, a talk show host or a very conservative columnist, why wouldn't it be useful to have a chance to ask the president questions and size him up away from the klieg lights? You seem to suggest that such sessions amount to being co-opted, and I don't see that. The on-the-record sessions are basically like informal press conferences. I do question the value of having such meetings off the record, although the White House allows the participants to report the president's thinking on a background basis.

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Roseland, N.J.: Howard, forgive me, I forget the participants on this one, and I'm sure you've touched on it previously. There was a bit of a kerfuffle recently when it was reported that a major news magazine spiked an antagonistic story on Hillary Clinton while running an exclusive on Bill's charity crusade. Some said the editor caved to a threat from the Clintons that they'd kill the Bill interview if the anti-Hillary story ran; the editor said no, the story just wasn't there, and a Clinton spokesman said all they said was that it would be "harder to convince" Bill to give an exclusive if he felt the magazine was unfair to his wife.

Then you have the PBS dust-up, where the White House said "we'll give you an interview with the president, but only if Juan Williams does it" and PBS said "no, the interviewer is our decision, not yours." I don't want politicians to only give interviews to friendly sources; I certainly don't want deals that reek of "I'll give you x but only if y covers it, and not if you report z." Yet at the same time, a politician is under no obligation to talk to someone they think is out to butcher them. Is this just a normal state of affairs, or has the battle for interview control gotten excessively contentious?

Howard Kurtz: I've reported extensively on both. They each amount to a form of political hardball. On GQ. On NPR.

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Vienna, Va.: Howard: In today's excerpt, at several points the anchors were reported to have said that they wondered if there was something else to show from Iraq instead of just the endless violence and the deaths of Iraqis. Beyond any "good news" stories, there was something else to show: the American soldiers who became victims of the invasion. Do you cover the fact that the administration kept the media from showing even the coffins of the soldiers returning home (forgot about showing bodies) and that the media went along with it? If so, how? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: The evening newscasts (along with other news outlets) have reported extensively on the problems of soldiers and their families -- both those who have been wounded and those who are simply undergoing the stress of extended tours of duty. ABC's Bob Woodruff and CBS's Kimberly Dozier, both of whom almost were killed by bombs in Iraq, have made this a specialty. If the ban on photographing coffins had an impact in the early stages of the war, I think it no longer does.

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Washington: Based on recent measures of viewership for broadcast news, I am beginning to suspect that the big three anchors were champions of defense. More specifically, the battle to keep viewers was waged so successfully by the tired, old anchors that the slightest modifications have resulted in only more dramatic erosion. What's your view of this idea, after writing 480 pages on the subject generally?

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree that the slightest modifications have resulted in more dramatic erosion. Two anchors -- Charlie Gibson and Bob Schieffer, when he was in the CBS chair -- managed to increase viewership. Clearly, the anchor who made too many changes too fast, by her own admission, was Katie Couric, and that alienated some of the core viewers of the CBS Evening News. She now has gravitated toward a more traditional broadcast but still is lagging in the ratings.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Why is the media hyping the Des Moines Register poll of Democratic caucus voters and not the Newsweek Poll done last week? That Newsweek poll had Obama in the lead by about four points. I don't think that Hillary Clinton jumped 10 points within a week's time. When you combine those two polls, the race in Iowa looks more fluid, but the press is only talking about the Des Moines Register poll. That could give a false impression of the race.

Howard Kurtz: The polls jump around, and it's amazing to me how the media trumpet this one or that one as big news, when someone who jumps eight points in one survey can slide back in the next poll days later. What's important is the direction of the polls over time as measured by the averages between various surveys. Iowa in particular is notoriously difficult to predict because it's a caucus state in which voters have to be willing to spend two or three hours at a neighbor's house or meeting place on a cold winter night.

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Oviedo, Fla.: What, if anything, about the even-faster media pace of blogs, vlogs, etc. would help stop a Swift Boat story from taking hold, as happened last time? Does the ultra-fast news cycle help dilute the impact of these type of trumped-up scandal stories?

Howard Kurtz: Any story, trumped-up or not, gets out there faster in these days of digital media. Real reporting, it turns out, takes a bit of time. In the case of the Swift Boat ads, a tiny buy in three markets ballooned into a huge story because the spots constantly were replayed on cable news. It took two or three weeks for a handful of newspapers to realize that this had become an important story and to do the digging that raised questions about the claims that some of Kerry's ex-mates were making. The papers did a good job, but they were too slow.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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