Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 15, 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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Blue Bell, Pa.: Hi. How does it work that you or Woodward can write books that have revelations that you haven't put in your regular writings for The Washington Post? Don't you ethically owe The Post all your scoops. etc.? This is not a criticism, just curious.

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

Howard Kurtz: Here's the deal: I simply would not have been able to unearth the scoops that I did in two years of work on "Reality Show" had the network people I interviewed thought that they were speaking for the next day's paper. It's only through the development of sources over a two-year period that people were willing to be candid for a substantive narrative that would put any revelations into context rather than throw some nugget into the paper for a quick headline. I got permission in advance from The Post's executive editor, Len Downie, and the paper had first shot at an excerpt, which ran last Monday, on the anchors' views of covering Iraq. Downie has been quoted as saying that writing books (and there are a number of Post staffers who have done that beyond Woodward and myself) helps them become better beat reporters. I hope that I understand network news better now than when I embarked on this project.

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Austin, Texas: Howard, I'm not sure what I expected from your discussion yesterday on Reliable Sources in regard to the Graeme Frost debate, but I really left feeling you didn't do it much justice. "The consensus seems to be that the questions were fair, but certainly the tone can be mean-spirited in a lot of these controversies and it is really striking when a 12-year-old boy is involved."

Let's concede the questions were fair and the tone wrong -- but the whole point was that people ran with inaccurate answers to those questions. Kudos to you for half-mentioning it earlier in the segment, but it really seemed like the main point and you guys really didn't discuss it.

Howard Kurtz: But every guest was offered the opportunity to weigh in. Was it fair to question a family's qualifications for the S-CHIP insurance program after Democrats had made the 12-year-old boy a symbol by having him deliver its weekly radio address? My feeling is yes; you can't say one party can trot out such a symbol and no one can criticize. I also recited instances in which I felt the criticism was misleading: yes, the kid attends a private school, but on scholarship. Yes, the dad owns a home but bought it for $55,000 in a rundown neighborhood in 1990. In short, I tried to put the debate into perspective.

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Germantown, Md.: Peter Baker's story from last Sunday about the turnover among White House staff seems like a pro forma story for years six and/or seven of an administration, but did you or the newsroom get a sense of irony about such a profile this time -- what with the White House staff complaints about the lack of sleep, grueling schedules and loss of family time, as compared to our troops in Iraq?

Do they realize how spoiled they all sound during a time of war (of which they endlessly remind us)? Unlike our soldiers enduring a stop loss order, White House staffers can return to a normal life any time they want, by quitting. I thought I detected a note of irony by Baker in including the "it's a killer job" quote. Will future de rigueur articles have a better sense of the new world in which we live?

washingtonpost.com: An Exit Toward Soul-Searching (Post, Oct. 7)

Howard Kurtz: I certainly don't think we've under-covered the enormous strains on soldiers and their families of these extended tours of duty in Iraq. Peter Baker's piece was more about the rapid turnover in the White House's original, Texas-heavy team, and if those who have left want to reflect on the high burnout factor of such jobs, I don't think that's unreasonable.

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Weston, Fla.: My sympathy for the loss of your colleague. What is the latest on the Imus contract situation?

washingtonpost.com: Don Imus Close To Deal for Return To Airwaves Dec. 1 (Post, Oct. 6)

Howard Kurtz: Thank you for that. Iraqi journalists working with western news organizations are really among the unsung heroes of this war, taking enormous risks but getting little credit for helping us to understand the conflict and going places that Americans simply cannot go.

Drudge is touting this morning that the Imus deal with Citadel Broadcasting that I said was close is now final. I don't have independent confirmation of that, but I was expected it would probably get done this week, since the two sides had already agreed on financial terms.

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Albuquerque: On yesterday's Reliable Sources you discussed Ann Coulter and whether or not she should be given the airtime she gets. I have wondered that since she made the comments on the Sept. 11 widows. To me, she promotes hatred of certain groups of people, and I don't understand MSM decision to help her promote that hate. The MSM also seems to focus on one part of her hate message at the expense of even more critical issues. What she said about Jews and Judaism was reprehensible -- but when she proposed that the right to vote be taken away from women so there would be a Republican majority seems to be directed at the Constitution and amendments. Taking away the voting rights of more than half of the population seems to be an issue that should be addressed. If the right has denounced her on this, I have not read it. To me, this statement is as abhorrent as her hate speech against Jews.

Howard Kurtz: I will repeat what I said on the air: TV programs race to book her and then act shocked at some of the inflammatory comments she makes, all the while milking her appearances for publicity. Coulter has perfected the art of selling books through incendiary rhetoric. She's entitled to say whatever she wants, but I wonder when television programs will tire of the act.

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Laurel, Md.: From the first paragraph of the story about the death of Salih Saif Aldin: "He was the latest in a long line of reporters, most of them Iraqis, to be killed while covering the Iraq war. He was the first for The Washington Post." A few paragraphs later: "Michael Kelly, a columnist for The Post, was killed in April 2003 in Iraq when a Humvee he was traveling in drove into a canal."

I know you answer at least one question a week with "there's a big difference between a reporter and a columnist," but when reporting deaths in a war zone doesn't that become a hair-splitting distinction?

washingtonpost.com: Reporter For Post Is Fatally Shot In Baghdad (Post, Oct. 15)

Howard Kurtz: Without in any way taking away from Michael Kelly's accomplishments, he did not work for The Washington Post. He worked for the Atlantic and National Journal, and his column was carried by The Post's op-ed page and I believe syndicated by the Post Writers Group. In other words, he was not a full-time columnist here like Richard Cohen or Gene Robinson. I remember his tragic death all too well, having come in on that Sunday to write a piece recalling his career, and then having to do the same when NBC's David Bloom died during the war.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Have fun on Diane Rehm this morning? And does she know everybody in Washington?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, and yes.

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New York: Howard: Enjoyed you on "The Daily Show" the other night. Here's my question: Several news outlets, CNN and ABC among them, while reporting on Al Gore's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, also added "complementary" stories about "inaccuracies" in his film, as well as about how how the award has "divided" public opinion. It seems that that the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party and the environmental know-nothings have got the mainstream media running scared. They can't run a story about Al Gore and Global Warming without somehow trying to appease these lunatics. Don't you feel that this is a case not of "balanced reporting" but of trying to avoid attacks from an extremist faction?

Howard Kurtz: Glad you caught my sit-down with Jon Stewart. I don't think it's appeasing lunatics to report that not everyone is cheering the Nobel Prize awarded to Gore. While there is certainly a scientific consensus that global warming exists, a day earlier The Post and other news organizations reported that a British judge had ruled there were nine factual errors in "An Inconvenient Truth." I congratulate Gore on winning the prestigious prize, but that doesn't mean he or his movie are above criticism.

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Kettering, Ohio: In the discussion earlier today, Shailagh Murray was taken to task for the media's failure to follow up on the Dems use of the young boy in the SCHIP debate. The use of the kid was shrewd, as attacking the message would be problematic -- which didn't seem to deter the Republican answer to the the Democratic answer. Did anyone dig into the kid's family and its apparently less-than-pristine story before the Republican attack machine revved up?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know, but the conservative criticism of the Frost family happened pretty quickly.

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Ashland, Mo.: Given that on any given day, 90 percent of the country is not watching network news, is it really a subject of interest to anyone but members of the increasing irrelevant mainstream media?

Howard Kurtz: Twenty-five million Americans watch the ABC, CBS and NBC newscasts every night. That remains the biggest megaphone in the media world. As I lay out in my book, these broadcasts have to find a way to appeal to younger viewers before their core audience goes to the great television-watching couch in the sky. We live in a world of a million media choices, and not everyone is going to choose to watch a half-hour news summary at 6:30. But they remain important, and their coverage of war and politics helps drive the news agenda.

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Tattooed: Do you agree with people who think that The Washington Post was being deliberately inflammatory, if not prejudicial, in opening its Saturday article on Loudoun County sheriff candidate Greg Ahlemann with the following description of his tattoo? Is any tattoo relevant to a political race, or does it depend on the office and the content, size or conspicuousness of the tattoo? Do you know whether any of the current crop of presidential candidates sports a tattoo?

"A pastor's son and former motorcycle cop who wants to be the next sheriff of Loudoun County wears a large, colorful tattoo on his left forearm: an affirmation, he says, of his moral, political and religious convictions.

"One side of Gregory J. Ahlemann's tattoo shows a Colonial flag. 'It's there to show our nation was founded on Christian values but that as a nation, we are moving away from this,' he said, citing divorce, abortion and premarital sex as prime culprits."

washingtonpost.com: Candidate Ignites Race For Sheriff In Loudoun (Post, Oct. 13)

Howard Kurtz: I know nothing about the race, but how can the mention of the tattoo be inflammatory when the candidate who wears it is immediately quoted about what he sees as its significance?

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Boston: Next time you read a story about an IPO you'll have a greater appreciation for the grind a CEO/CFO goes through as part of their "road show." Did you get any questions from Fox about why they weren't part of your analysis, or did they just assume that the problems were with the other networks?

washingtonpost.com: Fox Puts Its Money on 'Fun' Business Channel (Post, Oct. )

Howard Kurtz: Not sure I follow your question. Fox Business Network is not a new company or an IPO, obviously, but a spin-off channel by the same Murdoch folks who bring you Fox News. The financial questions -- can they attract enough of an audience to compete with CNBC and turn a profit -- are threaded throughout the piece. Even Fox executives say they face an uphill climb, especially since the channel debuts today in 30 million homes, one-third of those reached by CNBC.

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Washington: I'm all for giving credit where it's due -- congratulations to The Post and Christopher Lee for Saturday's story on SCHIP, it really put into perspective what's at stake in the political battle.

washingtonpost.com: Vote Nearing in Battle Over Kids' Health Care (Post, Oct. 14)

Howard Kurtz: A positive comment! That's a rarity these days.

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Rockville Md.: I have a question that has been bugging me for some time and I hope you can address it. I have followed the recent stories about Graeme Frost, the child who gave the Democratic response about SCHIP, and what some commentators are calling the "Swift Boating" of Frost by right-wing groups. Realizing that the jury may still be out about Frost: It is one thing when politicians slam each other, but when someone goes after a private citizen, don't libel and slander laws ever come into play?

Howard Kurtz: Libel and slander laws only come into play when you say something that is both inaccurate and damaging about someone. Whether or not the Frost family should be considered too well-off to qualify for federal health benefits doesn't seem to fall in that category. When the parents agreed to make their son available to the Democratic Party as a spokesman for the program, surely they must have expected that their financial situation would become part of the debate. I am not, for the record, in favor of beating up on 12-year-old boys, but the family did willingly step into the political arena.

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Helena, Mont.: I think there is a difference between criticizing one party's symbol for an issue and the level of venom that was directed at the Frosts -- they were criticized for not going bankrupt in order to pay their medical bills, for Pete's sake. Michelle Malkin published their address and telephone number on her blog so more people could harass them. At what point do you say to criticize and at what point do you make the point that someone has gone too far in their criticism?

Howard Kurtz: The Baltimore Sun also published a picture of the Maryland family's house and asked for their tax returns, which the Frosts declined to provide. Is that a mean-spirited attack or plain old reporting?

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Washington: To follow up on the earlier Gore-Nobel Prize media coverage question: Are you aware of any media source running any story raising questions about or criticizing any other 2007 Nobel winner when announcing his or her prize?

Howard Kurtz: No, but the selection of a former vice president who has become an evangelist on the issue of climate change is obviously going to spark more publicity and debate than, say, Doris Lessing winning the Nobel for literature. And I must say, the overwhelming tone of the coverage was praiseworthy toward Gore as a man who came within a few hanging chads of the presidency, picking himself off the canvas and becoming a force for social change as a private citizen.

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Do you know whether any of the current crop of presidential candidates sports a tattoo?: Has the U.S. ever had a presidential candidate with a tattoo?

Howard Kurtz: If there has been such a president, the tattoo must have been well-hidden.

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New York: I wanted to write a congrats to your colleague Josh White on his story about Ricardo Sanchez's comments. For a speech that was more than half devoted to criticizing the absolutely awful job the media has done in Iraq, Josh White was able to write two sentences on the topic -- in the 17th paragraph of a 17-paragraph story. (Which is two sentences more than your competition at the New York Times was able to write.) Let me just say that I completely agree with Gen. Sanchez when he said in his speech:

"This is the worst display of journalism imaginable by those of us that are bound by a strict value system of selfless service, honor and integrity. Almost invariably, my perception is that the sensationalistic value of these assessments is what provided the edge that you seek for self aggrandizement or to advance your individual quest for getting on the front page with your stories. ... The media's unwillingness to accurately and prominently correct your mistakes and your agenda driven biases contribute to this corrosive environment. All of these challenges combined create a media environment that does a tremendous disservice to America."

Howard Kurtz: I would like to see more coverage of Sanchez's criticism of the media and also more detail from him on what he finds so objectionable.

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Chicago: Your wrote: "Twenty-five million Americans watch the ABC, CBS and NBC newscasts every night. That remains the biggest megaphone in the media world." Out of curiosity, about how many people check out The Post online every day? Do you know the numbers for the main newspaper Web sites, and for online news generally? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I don't have the online figures at my fingertips, but the top newspaper sites, including The Post, draw between 1 million and 4 million visitors. For us, it's a much wider reach than the print edition, which of course circulates almost exclusively in the Washington area, but it's still not in the category of network newscasts.

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Glen Burnie, Md.: Howard, your interview in "The Daily Show" seemed a bit abrupt at the end. Was it edited from its original length?

Howard Kurtz: Some really good stuff! Jon Stewart was so engaged in debating the role of network news with me that he went on for another six or seven minutes beyond our allotted time, telling me that it would be edited out. He was arguing that network news people need to dig harder for the truth and not be dissuaded by pressure from those in power. The crowd seemed to enjoy it, but unfortunately it was relegated to the cutting room floor.

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Baltimore: I agree Gore should be subject to criticism and I would also point out that he has been responding to attacks on his environmental record for decades. However, the previous poster has a point. When I heard on the radio that Gore had won the Nobel, WTOP immediately followed that story by talking to people in Texas, who were quoted as saying the Nobel Peace Prize is a political way of attacking Bush. Wow. That took all of five seconds before the award was spun by the mainstream media. I immediately thought the way the story was reported was a gratuitous cheap shot.

Howard Kurtz: The view of many conservatives is that with awards to Arafat, Jimmy Carter and now Gore, the Nobel has indeed become politicized. I don't think that criticism should overshadow Al Gore's accomplishment in winning the award, but it's a legitimate part of the debate.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: When I read about the family used to explain who SCHIP benefits I keep feel like I am missing something. If this family sells their home and business to pay for health care, where do people think they are going to live in the future? How much does it cost us for families with children with special health care needs if they are not in their own home? It seems the critics would be happier if this family were destitute, homeless and on Medicaid rather than try to make it with assistance on health insurance for their children.

Howard Kurtz: It seems to me the burden is on those who don't favor the Democrats' $35-billion expansion of S-CHIP to say what they would do about the millions of children who lack health insurance, or whether they think anything needs to be done at all. But it's a legitimate debate as to how costly such an expansion would be and at what income levels taxpayers should be expected to pick up the tab.

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St Louis: Howard, I'm glad you mentioned that "The Post and other news organizations reported that a British judge had ruled there were nine factual errors in 'An Inconvenient Truth' " -- Because that simply is not true. Yes, The Post reported what you claim, but that report was incorrect. The judge determined that there was no general scientific consensus on nine points, and took great pains to state that he was not determining the accuracy of those statements. Here's the judge's opinion, which I imagine you haven't read yet. And here's an analysis from someone who has read the opinion. The truth is indeed inconvenient for The Post.

Howard Kurtz: This is what The Post reported last week:

A British judge has ruled that Al Gore's Oscar-winning film on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," contains "nine errors."

High Court Judge Michael Burton, deciding a lawsuit that questioned the film's suitability for showing in British classrooms, said Wednesday that the movie builds a "powerful" case that global warming is caused by humans and that urgent means are needed to counter it.

But he also said Gore makes nine statements in the film that are not supported by current mainstream scientific consensus. Teachers, Burton concluded, could show the film but must alert students to what the judge called errors.

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Washington: Former Secretary of State George Schultz apparently admitted in public that he has a tattoo of the Princeton Tiger on his backside. Talk about pride in your alma mater.

Howard Kurtz: I missed that stunning revelation.

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Chicago: You were quoted as saying the network news broadcasts are the main reason public opinion turned against the war. Don't you believe that the rising casualty rate, the "Mission Accomplished" banner, no WMD, the vice president's "last throes" comment, and a lack of political reconciliation are the real reasons public opinion turned against the war? And what about the broadcast news role in promoting the war to begin with?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I don't buy the notion that the networks "promoted" the war. I have said, and written, that major news organizations, including the networks and including The Post, were not aggressive or skeptical enough in challenging the administration during the runup to war. Of course rising casualties and other facts on the ground contributed to the souring of public opinion. But I argue in my book that the newscasts played a key role in 2005 and 2006, during a period when the administration was accusing the media of painting an overly negative picture, of making clear that things were not going well in Iraq. This is not just a question of showing the bombings but in the way the anchors framed the stories and the debate and tried to cut through the depressing sameness of the body counts.

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Bethesda, Md.: Just wanted to pass along that I loved Washington Post radio and looked forward to the drive-time blurb from you. 3WT or whatever the new station is unlistenable. We hardly needed more airtime for these partisan call-in shows. I'm back to "Mike and Mike" and not particularly happy about it.

Howard Kurtz: I enjoyed being on Washington Post Radio and wished we'd had more time to prove that we could attract a larger audience. But it's a tough marketplace out there.

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Arlington, Va.: Regarding Ann Coulter, I don't believe the television programs will ever tire of her. The more outlandish her speech, the better her television ratings. They need each other. She needs the press to cover her crazy rants to sell more books, and they need her to fill up some of the 24 hours in each day. That being said, do you think she's a clever promoter who probably doesn't believe half of what she says, but says it to sell books? Or do you think she genuinely believes everything she says (Jews should convert to Christianity, Sept. 11 widows are terrorist sympathizers, we should invade all Middle Eastern countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity)?

Howard Kurtz: I don't want to attempt to read her mind. I do know that a decade ago, Coulter was a smart lawyer who was very aggressively anti-Clinton and dabbled in outrage and satire, but nothing like the inflammatory figure that she has become. And obviously the more recent approach is keeping her on the best-seller lists.

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Baltimore: I know that you go on Keith Olbermann's show. I was just curious if you could ask him if he ever will have on someone who opposes his own view. That is something both O'Reilly and Hannity always have.

Howard Kurtz: I do think that Countdown would be stronger if Olbermann occasionally fenced with conservatives. He certainly has the broadcasting skills to go toe to toe with anyone.

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Greenbelt, Md.: At first, I thought WaPo radio sounded like a good idea too. But after reading an article in the paper in the morning and participating in the web chat at lunch, I didn't really feel like listening to the same person on the same subject again while driving home.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the challenge was to go beyond what was in the paper and provide insight and color in an entertaining way. Sometimes we did that, and sometimes we fell short. Many people here had little experience with radio so it was a work in progress, and we ran out of time.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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