Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 2, 2008; 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 "Reality Show: Insider the Last Great Television News War," "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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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, yesterday on your show and today in your column, you inject the phrase "liberal media" into the discussion. I was wondering if you believe that the mainstream media is liberal. If you don't, then why perpetuate the myth?

Howard Kurtz: In both cases I was quoting Scott McClellan, who writes that "the liberal media didn't live up to its reputation" during the run-up to war (not that he was doing anything but spouting the administration line). I have observed that liberal commentators -- who hardly represent the entire media -- have embraced the McClellan book, while conservatives are trashing him, sometimes in very personal terms.

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Washington: Howard, with all the talk about the recently concluded buyouts at The Post, an interesting question surfaced in my mind. If an employer announces buyout packages and then asks an employee specifically "what's going on?" can the employee say it's time for an increase and a promotion? Otherwise, the question sort of locks in the employee to his or her current functions at the non-buyout price, which may be to the employee's disadvantage. Thanks and I'll hang up and listen to your response.

Howard Kurtz: Reporters contemplating buyouts certainly can ask about future raises and promotions -- after all, they are contemplating a career-changing decision. When management doesn't want someone to take a buyout, there are ways of signaling that the person has a great future ahead, while a lukewarm response may convince a wavering journalist it's time to go. But nobody was pressured into taking early retirement at The Post.

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Bethesda, Md.: One expects critics to forcefully attack and rebut McClellan's book. However, I was surprised by the mean spirited, personal and informal nature of Trent Duffy's letter on the Post op-ed page (including a special box and picture). Am I naive in assuming The Post would have certain standards of formality and professionalism for the submissions they choose to print? It seemed to me Duffy (and the Post) would have been better off if the personal snark and informality were removed from the letter prior to publication. After you wade through the vitriol, it seems Duffy is just really, really mad that McClellan told him he liked his job and misrepresented the book.

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree. It was the personal nature of the op-ed that gave it its force. Trent Duffy was a close colleague and personal friend of Scott McClellan. He feels betrayed and lied to. McClellan has been all over the airwaves and in several major papers, talking about his motivations, why he broke with Bush, how the book evolved and so on. Why shouldn't someone who knows him well get to have his say?

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Bellingham, Wash.: Lately I've heard, from The Washington Post, New York Times, NPR and CNN to name a few, that Clinton is "backing off on her attacks on Obama," on words to that effect. But just this weekend we see her basically claiming the nomination after Puerto Rico and continuing her claim that Obama can't beat McCain, having Harold Ickes threatening to go nuclear at the convention, allowing her supporters to bus "protesters" both outside and inside the rules committee hearing this weekend, and encouraging the perception among her supporters that they somehow are being jobbed by Obama and the Democratic National Committee. That hardly seems to this Democrat like someone "backing off on her attacks."

Howard Kurtz: Plenty of political observers were surprised by the tenor of Ickes and the pro-Clinton forces at that endless DNC meeting on Saturday, but I would make a distinction between the Hillary team arguing about process (whether the delegates are being awarded unfairly) and the candidate herself challenging Obama's readiness to be president and his policy positions. We haven't seen much of that for several weeks.

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Kettering, Ohio: G'afternoon Howard. I can't wait to get on my flight this afternoon so I can watch your podcast from yesterday. I am hoping you and your guests commented on the Chicago priest's rant on Hillary. His so-called apology is disingenuous, as how could he have not meant what he said in his bit? Either he is a fool, or he thinks the public is foolish enough to buy his "apology." Truth in commenting: I am an independent leaning toward McCain currently.

washingtonpost.com: Priest Again Apologizes For Remarks In Sermon (Post, June 2)

Howard Kurtz: It was at the top of the show. We also examined whether the media, led initially by Fox News, forced Obama's hand by replaying that cringe-inducing tape of Father Michael Pfleger over and over (as opposed to, say, some of the hateful statements of John Hagee, whose endorsement was belatedly rejected by McCain). Welcome all podcast fans.

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Rolla, Mo.: Gallup has a new poll out that once again contradicts the "conventional wisdom" that meeting with our enemies is a bad idea. From my perspective, the media on balance seemed to think this was an opportunity for McCain. What sort of coverage do you think we'll see of this poll?

Howard Kurtz: In that poll, 67 percent say a president should meet with leaders of countries that are enemies of the U.S. But I think the debate has evolved beyond that to the question of whether there should be preconditions and extensive negotiation before such meetings take place. McCain is not saying he never would meet with hostile leaders, and Obama is not saying he immediately would meet with any hostile leader. The question is whether you hold off on such meetings until progress has been worked out in advance.

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Cancun, Mexico: Thanks for these chats. I think today was the first time I saw that most of the media gave Sen. Clinton credit for a win without making comments that she could not win the nomination. Too bad this type of reporting was not done in the past.

Howard Kurtz: Yeah, but the only reason for that is media people now assume everyone knows that Sen. Clinton can't win the nomination. And I must have been reading and watching different outlets, because I've seen plenty of journalists say it. Today's Washington Post: "perhaps her last triumph in the race for a Democratic presidential nomination that increasingly appears to be out of her reach."

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Stone Harbor, N.J.: Do you know where the videos that are turning up of the racist preachings at Obama's former church are coming from? Does the church actually tape this stuff, or is it someone in the pews?

Howard Kurtz: In the earlier round involving Jeremiah Wright, reporters simply bought the videos from the church. In retrospect, I was surprised they didn't surface months earlier.

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San Francisco: Howard, I have to admit that the whole Valerie Plame affair became so banal and mind-numbing to me that I tuned it out after a while, so please help me out here: In Novak's column today, he makes it sound as if Rove had little to do with the leak, essentially confirming what Novak had already heard. In your piece today re: McClellan you say "the book makes clear that McClellan felt badly burned after Karl Rove and Scooter Libby assured him they had no involvement in leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, leaving the spokesman to be pummeled by the press when that turned out to be untrue." Can you please give a quick recap of the fall-out from the Plame investigation? Who were the "primary" leakers and responsible parties, as determined by the court records and verdicts?

washingtonpost.com: Parroting the Democrats (Post, June 1)

Howard Kurtz: They're not mutually incompatible. McClellan personally asked Karl Rove and Scooter Libby whether they had any involvement in the (admittedly complicated) Valerie Plame leak, and based on their assurance, he told the press they had no involvement. That was not the case, and he felt badly burned when it came out both had discussed the matter with reporters on an unnamed basis. It later turned out that Richard Armitage (who worked at State, not the White House) had leaked the name first, to Novak (and Bob Woodward). That may or may not put the actions of Rove and Libby (who was, you'll recall, convicted of lying about this in a criminal trial) in a different light, but it doesn't change the fact that McClellan believes he was lied to and had his credibility tarnished in the process.

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New York: While I understand the glee that many are having regarding the White House freak-out over McClellan's book, and while I wholly agree he is a jackass for having stood by and served of the mouthpiece for this administration while they lied and lied and lied, there is always the possibility that he did not realize how totally full of it this administration was until he was outside of Washington and had a chance to measure the difference between the rhetoric of the administration and the reality on the ground. In fact, I guess I could say the same thing about the Beltway media, if they weren't even now "disappearing" Scottie's allegations about media complicity in repeating the administration's lies without skepticism at every opportunity. What gives?

Howard Kurtz: McClellan is hardly the first to say the media were too passive in the run-up to war; I and others have written about the subject for years, as I do again this morning. Katie Couric last week called it "one of the most shameful chapters in American journalism." As to whether McClellan did or did not realize the administration was peddling what he now calls propaganda until he had resigned, that may or may not be true. But it is hard to grasp that even in private conversations with his White House colleagues, he never uttered any misgivings about the selling of the war or the mishandling of Katrina or any of the other issues for which he was the spokesman.

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Baton Rouge, La.: But Obama most definitely did say that he would meet with any world leader "without precondition" at the YouTube debate, and in his stump speech, he constantly derides the Bush administration for making demands on Iran before any sit-down can take place -- unless he has backed off of those points, which of course would be a big story.

Howard Kurtz: He has qualified that a bit as the campaign has marched on.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Deb Riechmann of the AP wrote an article today on Scott McClellan that stated that a criminal investigation found that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove were responsible for the leak of Valerie Plame's identity. Why hasn't The Post reported on this investigation and made the reports available to the public? All The Post has written is that Richard Armitage was responsible for the leak and that an investigation indicated that Libby made a false statement to the FBI. One more example of The Post covering up for Bush.

washingtonpost.com: Full, Months-Long Coverage of the Plame Investigation and Libby Trial (washingtonpost.com)

Howard Kurtz: Excuse me, but the roles of Rove and Libby have been the subject of roughly 10,000 articles in The Washington Post, give or take a few, to the point that some people would emit screams when they saw another one. According to Nexis I wrote at least 40 myself. And there were times when I wanted to run screaming from the room.

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Fairfax County, Va.: I'm posting ahead of time with a question of concern. What is the situation with Jim Lehrer and the PBS NewsHour? I believe he was last on air about a week before the Pennsylvania primary and has had some health concerns since then. How is the program functioning now without him -- who makes the editorial decisions, for example -- and how long will it be proceeding forward in this way? So far the show remains quite good, and from time to time there's even a little improv energy as they work through the unaccustomed situation, but it would be helpful to know a little more about what's happening.

Howard Kurtz: Jim Lehrer underwent successful heart-valve surgery, is reporting to be making a good recovery and is expected back on the air in the coming weeks.

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Washington: Isn't it kind of disingenuous for McClellan to tut-tut the media for not looking deeply enough into Iraq issues when he didn't even know himself, despite likely having access to the intelligence?

Howard Kurtz: McClellan didn't have access to secret intelligence -- he was a spokesman, remember -- but he did have access to the president and all the other top officials as they formulated their plan to sell the war to the public. One of his disillusioning moments, he says, was when after months of denouncing leaks of classified information, Bush admitted to him that he had declassified a National Intelligence Estimate so Cheney could have Scooter leak favorable tidbits to selected reporters.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Here's something to ponder: If Scott McClellan had written a book that defended the Bush/Cheney regime right down the line, he'd take a seat next to Tony Snow and Rove on Fox as an "analyst." He didn't do that. Do you still expect to see him on cable, perhaps on MSNBC or CNN?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think there was any great demand for Scott as a talking head, otherwise he would have been snatched up before the book, as Tony Snow was (by CNN, not Fox) when he left the White House. Remember, McClellan was dumped two years ago.

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Arlington, Va.: While many Republicans have criticized McClellan's book, none have been as scathing as Bob Dole ( see this Politico article), yet these comments by Dole were ignored by all three networks, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and both CNN and The Washington Post. Are you amazed by the pack mentality of leading journalists -- who now admire McClellan for his honesty -- in deliberately ignoring or discounting Dole's comments?

Howard Kurtz: It's a question of timing. I believe Dole called McClellan a "miserable creature" (and other choice phrases) on Friday, after the major papers and networks had already done a number of McClellan book stories. It was all over cable; Anderson Cooper read the blistering quotes to McClellan and asked for a response.

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Philadelphia: Howard, you noted that Katie Couric admitted that the press did a bad job in the run-up to the war. Why didn't you note that in the same interview, Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson refused to admit any such malpractice?

Howard Kurtz: In Charlie's case, a question of space. I would have liked to include it. But Brian Williams didn't get a full chance to answer the question (all three anchors were interviewed on CBS's "Early Show"). He was told he had 10 seconds before the segment and talked about how the post-Sept. 11 climate was very different in that period. I know from interviewing Williams that he doesn't believe the media were at their finest during the run-up to war, in large measure because of that climate.

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Chicago: Why isn't Fox News or Newsweek confronting Karl Rove with the same question Scott McClellan did? When/if he lies again, will they fire him? Why did Bush renege on his claim to fire anyone involved?

Howard Kurtz: Fox News has asked Rove about McClellan's book, on at least one prime-time show and possibly two. Haven't seen anything in Newsweek, where Rove is an occasional columnist.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Howard. Thanks for the chat! I always thought Scott retired. How do you know he was fired/dumped? Was that ever written, or is it speculation?

Howard Kurtz: It was written at the time because it was a period when Josh Bolten came in as the new chief of staff and forced a number of people out, including McClellan. Scott and the president maintained that he resigned, but it was just a polite fiction. McClellan acknowledges in the book that he was dumped, though he says he planned to leave in a few months anyway.

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Anonymous: What exactly was the point of that "open letter" to McClellan? I was expecting an angle that hadn't been said. He constantly asked "were you lying when..." Hasn't he been making it perfectly clear that, yes, he was lying at the time?

Howard Kurtz: No. McClellan's position was that while he knew he was acting as a White House spinmeister, he did not deliver false information from the podium knowingly (and in the Plame case, that is true). Only after he left the "bubble" and reflected on his tenure -- and perhaps his future book sales -- did McClellan realize the administration had done all these terrible things and he had been part of it, he says now.

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Teaneck, N.J.: In Saturday's Michigan/Florida vote by the DNC Rules Committee ... was it released who on the committee voted for the final resolution and who didn't?

Howard Kurtz: Well, they could be seen on TV holding up their hands, so I don't think their identities are secret.

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Savannah, Ga.: In David Broder's Sunday column, he mentioned a Pew study on the media coverage of the presidential candidates. It said that only 7 percent of the coverage focused on policy and only 2 percent examined the candidates records. The vast majority of the coverage dealt with the horse-race, delegate counts and the like. Do these numbers seem reasonable to you? Do members of the media take criticism like this seriously? Will they adjust coverage accordingly?

washingtonpost.com: Reality vs. the Mythmakers (Post, June 1)

Howard Kurtz: No. The media have been criticized on these grounds for the past 20 years and the situation hasn't changed much. Keep in mind, though, that this is not a monolith and that newspapers, while addicted to the horse race, publish more substantive stories about policy differences than, say, are carried on TV. Plus, between Iowa and Ohio and Texas, it was a helluva horse race that never really slowed down, except for the lull before Pennsylvania.

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Waldorf, Md.: Hi, Howard. You might also want to point out to Bethesda (who didn't like the snark and informality of Trent Duffy's op-ed) that just about the very last thing an op-ed page editor would want to do is reject a piece because it was "snarky" or "informal." How would it look to reject an otherwise "acceptable" piece (whether one agrees or not is irrelevant) on the flimsy grounds that it was "too informal"? What an uproar that would create.

Howard Kurtz: It was a very personal piece, no question about it. It was a piece by a man who feels betrayed by his former colleague and friend, as opposed to just another pundit piling on McClellan.

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Princeton, N.J.: Friends of mine are saying Scottie should have quit earlier and made a fuss, but Richard Clarke did quit in 2003, wrote his book, and mainly was ignored by the media, and Bush was re-elected in 2004. Clarke has a new book called (approximately) "The Failure of Government," which also is being ignored by the media.

Howard Kurtz: Richard Clarke was mainly ignored by the media? Were you out of the solar system at the time? The man was on "60 Minutes." He was repeatedly on the front pages of such newspapers as The Washington Post. His book caused such a furor that the administration had to attack him with this argument: "Why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is 1 1/2 years after he left the administration. ... He is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book, and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book."

The man who spoke those words was Scott McClellan.

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Arlington, Va.: Bob Dole's e-mail also was discussed on "Meet the Press" this weekend, with Russert asking McClellan directly about his thoughts on Dole's comments. I swear, half your posters don't do any research prior to posting.

Howard Kurtz: Agreed. I thought Russert had used it but didn't have time to check.

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Rockville, Md.: Does it hurt Tim Russert and Chris Matthews to be on air with Keith Olbermann? He is all opinion, and they try to stay on the facts. I think it detracts from their credibility, but don't know if there is a place to have a line.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Matthews is a pretty opinionated fellow too. As I mentioned in a story on MSNBC last week, they are on the air together only on primary nights, and the cable channel's boss says Chris and Keith wear different hats on those evenings and are not as opinionated as they are on their own programs. But there's clearly a blurring of the lines there, fueling the criticism that NBC's image is being affected by the liberal-leaning MSNBC.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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