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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 5, 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."

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The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Fort Wayne, Ind.: Great column that illustrates a central disconnect between journalists and their audience. What is "true"? I'm a newspaper editor; I'm often told things that are, according to the person talking to me, "true," yet we can't publish anything because we lack sources/documents/evidence. When I try to explain this to people, sometimes they get angry and say something like "but everybody knows they're doing XYZ..." Sorry, folks, but that doesn't cut it.

washingtonpost.com: At Full Tilt on The 'News Bias' Merry-Go-Round (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 5)

Howard Kurtz: This was the nub of the friendly debate I was having with Jon Stewart. We'd all like to publish the "truth." Journalists need to dig hard to get past the spin and obfuscation and reveal what administrations and politicians don't want us to know, and to put forth evidence that contradicts what they say or at least puts it in a fuller light. But what is the "truth" of whether the surge is working, whether the No Child Left Behind act was a success or failure, or which candidate has the best health care plan?

Often I find that when people say we're not publishing the truth, they mean our accounts don't match their opinions about a given issue or person.

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Washington: Talk about walking on the wild side. Talking to O'Reilly, Beck and Olbermann. What about a little fair and balanced with their "fair and balanced"? I think all of the above feed the others' delusions. I'm not sure Olbermann has any more credibility than the others. Although he makes good TV, so do Nancy Grace and Star Jones, and they don't claim to be journalists, and I don't think you'll see them on debate platforms.

Howard Kurtz: People like O'Reilly and Olbermann are in the opinion business -- nothing wrong with that, that's why they get the big bucks. But it was just fascinating, on my book tour for "Reality Show," to go from one universe to its mirror image. No complaints; they both treated me fairly, but their conservative and liberal critiques of the media agree on very little other than their dissatisfaction with the news business. But that got me thinking about how everyone in America -- not just television and radio hosts -- is a media critic.

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Brian Williams: Thought he did a credible job on "Saturday Night Live," certainly better than many other non-entertainers who have hosted. His willingness to poke fun at himself and the hallowed television anchorman image was refreshing. The fact that he has a sense of humor doesn't make him any less of a competent newscaster.

Howard Kurtz: He did really well. A couple of the skits were unfunny, but that's an "SNL" tradition by now. I thought the best moments were those in which Williams undoubtedly had a great deal of input: his monologue (where he stiffly joked about loosening up); his "day in the life" (where he was so self-involved that he ended the day watching himself); and the debate about a new Nightly News opening (that featured Brian in James Bond-like action poses).

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Bethesda, Md.: Howard -- to stray a bit off the topic of political coverage ... did you see the story of the pilot and copilot who fell asleep while flying to Denver? I had a few "issues" with the reporting. Although, yes it is one of the ultimate sins to fall asleep while in the cockpit, the story made it sound as if they were seconds from the runway. In fact, they were several miles away, and at 35,000 feet instead of 19,000 feet - far higher than the busy portion of the airspace.

Nonetheless, stories contained was headlined "Pilots Fell Asleep During Approach To DIA" and contained lines like "the aircraft was speeding towards DIA's crowded airspace with no one awake at the wheel" and "going twice the speed allowed" (although he was not breaking the speed limit at his altitude of 35,000 feet). This of course was a dangerous situation, but not as dramatic as the writing suggests. Do journalists tend to "spice up" the facts to make a story more dramatic?

washingtonpost.com: Report: Pilots Fell Asleep During Approach To DIA (TheDenverChannel.com, Nov. 1)

Howard Kurtz: I have not looked into this, but let me just say, I don't want to be on any planes where the pilots are snoozing at 35,000 feet, or any other altitude.

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Rockville, Md.: Saw you with Tim Russert and thought you were great. However, I do wonder if NBC (and its other parts) are really as fair as they could be -- they seem so negative to me. But that is just my opinion. You really were great with your conversation and answers.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. It wasn't "Meet the Press" (this was Russert's MSNBC show), but to have a half-hour to talk about any subject is a great gift. And I had Stephen Colbert as my warm-up act!

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Rockville, Md.: What is true? Excellent question. Should they say "the president lied" when we don't have proof other than opinion? We know he was wrong, but "lied"? That has so many other implications about what he knew and when he knew it. I tend to agree that they just want their opinions posted as "truth." Sometimes the glass really is half-full.

Howard Kurtz: That's a perfect example. There are times you can say someone lied -- if, for example, you find a document that shows they knew about something they have steadfastly denied. But is cherry-picking intelligence data -- and ignoring contrary information -- the same as lying? I know plenty of people who think it is. But what if Bush sincerely believed there was very strong evidence that Saddam had WMD? That would be a wrong judgment, an ill-considered judgment, perhaps even a reckless basis on which to go to war, but not a knowing lie.

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Fayetteville, Ark.: I may be a little biased as a Huckabee supporter, but doesn't it seem as though Rudy is getting a free pass on a lot of misstatements? He claimed that he spent more time at Ground Zero than rescue workers, he claimed that only 40 percent of people in England survived prostate cancer (as a doctor, this one is laugh-out-loud wrong) and so on. Why isn't more being made of all of this?

Howard Kurtz: The Ground Zero flap received a minor amount of coverage, but there has been quite a bit about his statement that he had a far better chance of surviving prostate cancer than if he had lived in the U.K. (based on one seven-year old study). The Washington Post did a fact-check piece and said flatly that Giuliani was wrong.

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Arlington, Va.: Come on Howie, at least Keith Olbermann does some real news stories on "Countdown." You can't say that about Bill O'Reilly (his show mostly consists of him deriding San Francisco and all liberals as morons) or Glen Beck, who has no journalistic experience and who is terrified of Rep. Keith Ellison because he's a Muslim. I do watch Bill-O on a somewhat regular basis, just to find out what he's mad about now, but then he fills his show with the "body language expert" and his "culture quiz." I see that as "I can't find anybody to come on my show so I can call them names." And yes, Keith Olbermann needs more conservatives to appear on his newscast.

Howard Kurtz: Olbermann's is absolutely more of a newscast, with journalists appearing regularly and packages sometimes replayed from NBC News. O'Reilly's is more of a straight opinion show. But O'Reilly does have Democrats and liberals on regularly, and Keith's "Special Comments" -- which are, in fairness, clearly labeled -- are as opinionated as anything I've seen on television.

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Re: Too big a deal about Sleeping Pilots: Totally agree. Also, why does the press always make such a big deal about pilots flying drunk? I know I certainly drive better after a couple of quick drinks! Calms my nerves! Don't pilots deserve the same courtesy?

Howard Kurtz: Right! Why do we have so many rules and regulations when it comes to flying? Just let the free market decide!

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Chaska, Minn.: I think the reason that you say its hard to find the truth is because it is hard to find the truth. It's also expensive. Yet it does happen, and the truth is out there. I think part of the problem is an over-reliance on the corporate/traditional media. Yet there are fully sourced, fully researched stories constantly available. They are on alternative sources ... BBC, Salon, The Nation blogs. They often refer to numerous sources because they can't rely on the built-in trust that certain media outlets rely on and abuse. If you don't like the messenger,see where they get their data/research from. These guys are begging you to challenge them. I for one am tired of explaining to people that Saddam Hussein was not responsible for Sept. 11 -- this is easily verifiable from numerous sources, including the president.

Howard Kurtz: Interesting that two of the three outlets you name are self-identified liberal publications. On your last point, the media have said over and over and over again that there is no evidence Saddam had any link to Sept. 11. I've seen Bush, when pressed, acknowledge that as well. And yet polls show some people still believe that.

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Floris, Va.: Has The Post done any recent research on the community's affinity with the Redskins? Today's top-of-the-front-page coverage of two mediocre NFL teams was really unbelievable considering everything that's going on in the world and the nation. And this is literally every week now. What is the sports section for anyway -- oh yeah, more pages of Redskins coverage. I would wager that more column inches of Post reportage have been lavished on this football team than the Iraq war. (Full disclosure -- I follow the team and have for decades attended games. But I have my priorities.)

Howard Kurtz: Don't know about the research, but when I read other papers I do see a certain focus on the local teams -- even the really bad local teams.

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Kettering, Ohio: G'afternoon Mr. Kurtz. Per your Media Notes column this morning, on Friday I happened to read a comment at a liberal blog about The Post being biased towards the conservative point of view and, after allowing myself time to get over a laughing fit, it occurred to me the lefties are mimicking the righties' sometimes-successful strategy of claiming bias to work the media much the same way basketball coaches work the refs -- if they complain hard enough, they might work a story or issue into more favorable coverage for their side. I suspect The Post feels this pressure from both sides now. I don't think anyone seriously can refute that there are more liberals than conservatives in the mainstream media, but that is not the issue -- the issue is whether individual bias colors their reporting. Good reporting ignores the reporter's bias and merely reports and lets the reader or viewer make a determination. Isn't this what journalists should be striving for?

Howard Kurtz: That's my view. We're obviously not perfect, and part of my job is to point out the shortcomings and mistakes of people in the media business. It's also true that both sides to some degree are working the refs.

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Washington: Howard, I'm curious as to whether you saw Brian Williams on "Saturday Night Live," and what your thoughts were? The question I have is did Williams really do himself or his profession any good with his appearance? To me, it just seems to move him from being a serious journalist to just being another celebrity.

Howard Kurtz: As I mentioned earlier, I thought he was funny. (There's a lot in my book about the debate at NBC over whether Williams should be looser on his newscast -- and how he turned down an offer to guest-host "SNL" last season because he was worried about looking silly.) I think most people can make the distinction between an anchor having fun on Saturday night and coming back on Monday evening with a serious newscast. Anchors are already celebrities; that's the nature of television. One intriguing point: I asked yesterday on "Reliable Sources" whether Katie Couric would have gotten far more criticism for hosting "SNL." Terry Smith of PBS (and formerly of CBS) said that unlike Williams, she would have been roasted. And I agree.

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Honolulu, Hawaii: Howie, when the President told reporters that he had misled them in the days before the election about Secretary Rumsfeld, because that was the only way to get them to talk about something else, wasn't he flat-out admitting to lying? And doesn't the fact that he admitted to thinking this way somewhat dent the "we don't know his state of mind" when other things he says turn out to be untrue?

Howard Kurtz: In my view the president was not being straight with the press or the American people. And I wrote about that at the time, last November:

Did the president of the United States make a rare admission on national television that he had told an untruth?

Or had he merely engaged in a dodge of the sort that is common in politics?

Journalists by nature shy from pinning the "liar" label on any political leader, but President Bush's acknowledgments that he had not been forthcoming about his plans to dump Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have kicked up a fuss at the White House and sparked a debate about the limits of presidential evasion.

Six days before the election, Bush told three wire-service reporters in an interview that Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney were doing "fantastic" jobs.

"You see them staying with you until the end?" asked Terence Hunt of the Associated Press.

"I do," Bush replied.

"So you're expecting Rumsfeld, Secretary Rumsfeld, to stay on the rest of your time here?" asked Steve Holland of Reuters.

"Yes, I am," the president said.

On Wednesday, the day after the election, Bush at a news conference said that "that kind of question, a wise question by a seasoned reporter, is the kind of thing that causes one to either inject major military decisions at the end of a campaign, or not. And I have made the decision that I wasn't going to be talking about hypothetical troop levels or changes in command structure coming down the stretch."

The president added that he had not made a definitive decision because he had not held his "last" conversation with Rumsfeld and had not yet spoken to Robert Gates, his nominee to take over the Pentagon.

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Kensington, Md.: Howard, for the past few days the Web has been abuzz over a big "D.C. sex scandal" story about a "leading presidential candidate," which supposedly the Los Angeles Times is sitting on, trying to decide if it should be published. There has been of course the usual back-and-forth about which liberal playboy (or playgirl) they are protecting, or which conservative hypocrite they are holding back on hitting for maximum impact. But the more sober commentaries are about the likelihood that they sincerely are trying to judge whether it is honestly newsworthy. It made me wonder, has anyone in the (mainstream) news business ever sat down to try to hammer out a set of objective guidelines for what is truly "fair game," and what should be left for the tabloids? And of course, if you'd care to toss us your list of names and odds, by all means ... (just kidding!).

Howard Kurtz: I saw that on a couple of blogs and remember thinking: Hey, if "everyone" in the media knows about this, how come I don't? Did I miss the memo or something?

It's hard to talk about this as a hypothetical. If a news outlet is "sitting on" the story because editors are not sure it's relevant -- let's say it happened a long time ago and did not involve anyone on a public payroll -- I can understand the struggle with that question. (The Washington Post withheld such a story about Bob Dole in 1996 largely because it had happened decades earlier; the news came out in the National Enquirer.) But what if the news outlet is holding back the story because of a lack of evidence, including strong denials from one or more of those involved? That's what journalists are supposed to do, avoid making charges without adequate proof.

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Portsmouth, N.H.: On the "fair and balanced" business: predictably, the antiwar demonstrations a week or so ago -- which were apparently moderately well attended -- received inside-the-paper coverage in most cities, and then papers like the Boston Globe published letters that were highly critical of the coverage. It does strikes me that this ongoing debate plays into the perception of bias in a way that the media can't win. If they cover the events as front page then they'll be accused of "liberal" bias and trying to steer public opinion. If they don't cover them or cover them meagerly, then they would seem to be ignoring the fact that a substantial number of Americans object so much to the government's current actions that they'll attend a demonstration. What would you see as the most appropriate coverage?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it depends on the size and scope of the demonstrations. It's not like there haven't been antiwar protests before. A massive turnout is deemed more newsworthy than a moderate turnout, especially in a city such as Washington where there are demonstrations almost every week.

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Seattle: "Interesting that two of the three outlets you name are self-identified liberal publications." Right. And the implication is that their political leanings mean you get to dismiss them out of hand. Never mind that on the important issues of the past decade, they're nearly always right. But no matter, be constantly vigilant against the dreaded "L" word. How many of your colleagues pulled up Drudge this morning? Why did they do that? Why is that okay?

Howard Kurtz: I don't dismiss Salon and the Nation out of hand -- not at all. But I would have the same reaction to someone writing and saying, "why isn't your reporting as good and revealing as that in National Review and the Weekly Standard?" It suggests to me that the writer has a partisan point of view that he or she feels the MSM should adopt.

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Opinion: "One intriguing point: I asked yesterday on "Reliable Sources" whether Katie Couric would have gotten far more criticism for hosting SNL. Terry Smith of PBS (and formerly of CBS) said that unlike Williams, she would have been roasted. And I agree."

Why?

Howard Kurtz: Here's what Terry Smith said when I asked if there was a double standard:

"Double standard because going in there are already questions, or questions have been raised about her gravitas and seriousness in this role. I don't share them, but they have been raised. And this would only contribute to that. On the other hand, Diane Sawyer could probably do it without any loss of gravitas."

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Arizona: Howard, thank you for making time to answer questions this morning. I saw part of your segment this weekend on MSNBC in which you talked about your book "Reality Show." Once again the Dan Rather story about the current president's National Guard service came up as a topic of discussion. I realize that at this point my question is about past and not current events ... but I always have wondered why the story was/is presented as being about the "memos" instead of being about the president's service? If the president received no special consideration during the Vietnam War, and if his service was representative, then are members of current National Guard troops able to transfer to the U.S. and work on Senate election campaigns?

Howard Kurtz: The gist of it is that a number of stories had questioned Bush's National Guard service, starting in 2000, and the question of whether he had received favorable treatment was not exactly new. Along came Rather with a "60 Minutes II" report saying that 30-year-old Guard memos written by Bush's late squadron commander confirmed that the congressman's son had indeed received favorable treatment. That was why the report was such big news. When it turned out that the memos could not be authenticated -- indeed, CBS's own handwriting experts had warned the network about that, and Rather's source admitted lying to CBS about how he got them -- the story fell apart and Rather paid a price. That does not mean the question of Bush's service is settled. It did mean that CBS had to apologize for airing charges that it could not prove.

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Warrenton, Va.: Has negative media coverage of Hillary Clinton increased in the past week, since the last Democratic Party debate? Has this had any poll impact? I think she has lost, for instance, a net of 10 points against Obama in the Washington Post-ABC poll released today, although she continues to hold a large lead. Also, is more negative coverage of Clinton in the Democratic nomination race likely to make it easier and more credible for Republicans to attack her in the 2008 general election campaign? Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: Hillary Clinton got horrible coverage last week following her debate performance. There is no question she made significant stumbles, but I also questioned whether the uproar in the media (many members of which had practically been begging Obama to attack her to make it a more competitive race) was resonating more within the news business than with the public at large. The polls out today from Newsweek and The Washington Post confirm that Hillary remains in a very strong position.

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Pittsburgh: If the writers' strike runs for a prolonged period, how do you think a lack of fresh episodes of programs with political humor (Stewart, Colbert, late-night talk shows, "Saturday Night Live") will affect the presidential campaigns? Which candidates do you think actually benefit from such material? By the way, I loved Horatio Sanz in a guest appearance as Bill Richardson on "Saturday Night Live"!

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if it will affect the presidential campaign, but it will bum out an awful lot of viewers. And now that Colbert has been kept off the South Carolina ballot, what will he do to put bread on the table? You can't live on Doritos forever.

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New York: Russert's Brand X college and garbage-man's-son status notwithstanding, he is routinely antagonistic to most Democrats and visibly unsympathetic to Social Security (it makes me wonder how big Dad's pension is and how he (dad) feels about SS). I think the next debates should be moderated by newspaper people or non-"star" TV people. The preening of Chris Matthews, Russert and even Brian Williams are a distraction from the candidates.

Howard Kurtz: I don't buy into the notion that Russert is harder on Democrats, even leaving aside that he once worked for Pat Moynihan and Mario Cuomo. I've seen him be aggressive with an awful lot of Republicans, including Fred Thompson yesterday. And pressing candidates on their long-term proposals for Social Security (which everyone knows will need a financial fix as baby boomers overwhelm the system) is hardly the same as being *opposed* to Social Security.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Mark Penn touted a national poll as evidence that Hillary Clinton wasn't hurt by her debate performance. But don't national polls miss the point? Isn't her standing in Iowa, where she is neck-and-neck with Obama, more important than national polls? Why does the press focus on national polls and not state polls?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, national polls are consistently overplayed by the press. They do matter in terms of fundraising and fostering a sense of broad support for a candidate, but these are state-by-state contests. Iowa and New Hampshire loom incredibly large for their size; winning Iowa essentially launched John Kerry to the nomination and sunk Howard Dean last time. The national polls may be more important this time with so many mega-primaries on Feb. 5, but they're still overplayed. John McCain is now second nationally in a new poll, but because he's behind in Iowa and New Hampshire and Romney leads in those states, the press treats Romney as Giuliani's chief challenger.

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Question about Rumsfeld: Obviously the president lied about that, and one could make a plausible argument that he was justified. Could a savvy president, respected by the press, have said: "Look, that's a really good question, and the fact is that I do not believe that Rumsfeld will stay on until the end. We'll be making some announcements after the election, but I felt that it was very important to the democratic process that we not let these changes have a disproportionate effect because of proximity to the election." And then would a responsible report have run the info, respected the president's wishes to sit on the information, or what?

Howard Kurtz: He could have ducked it in any number of ways without actively misleading the press.

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Baltimore: Re: Sports team emphasis -- I too have no interest whatsoever in any professional sports team or event, other than the resulting traffic jams, but examine the "most-viewed stories" of a newspaper Web site that carries such a roster, such as the Baltimore Sun. Even on a weekday, four of the top five stories read online are sports stories or columns. Of course, this varies from city to city; I would expect different numbers for The Post, but still...

Howard Kurtz: A home run of a post.

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Anonymous: Do you think Russert and Williams were a little out of line at the last Democratic debate in going after one candidate? Can you think of a precedent where the moderator went after one candidate like that? I'm thinking the last clear frontrunner in the challenging party was Bush in '99, and I don't recall him ever getting it like that from a moderator.

Howard Kurtz: Moderators (as well as rival candidates) often gang up on the frontrunner, and that's what Hillary Clinton is. I'd certainly expect her to get more questions than Dennis Kucinich. And the Russert question about whether she supported Eliot Spitzer's policy on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants was entirely fair; it was only her meandering, contradictory answer that made it big news.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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