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Howard Kurtz: Letterman, Imus Back on TV, Media, Press Coverage

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 5, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Oct. 5, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news, plus the return of Don Imus to TV and the latest on the David Letterman extortion case.

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He's Back, Hat in Hand (Post, Oct. 5) andPre-Dawn Note Launched Letterman Extortion Case (Post, Oct. 3)

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: Inside 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."

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Washington, D.C.: Outstanding article on Imus this morning, and the Imus show on Fox Business seemed excellent. For Imus fans in the D.C. area, though, we can't always be in front of a TV with FBC or a computer to pick up WABC-NY online. Any news or insight on Imus returning to the Washington radio airwaves?

Howard Kurtz: The Imus folks told me they are working on a new radio outlet in D.C. Seems like it would be a natural market for the I-Man! But for now, you can only get him on Fox Business or online at WABC.

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washingtonpost.com: He's Back, Hat in Hand (Post, Oct. 5)

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: A quibble, I guess, but one that annoys me. In your opening to Saturday's piece on David Letterman, quoted below, it appears that you -- rather than the letter-writer -- are accusing Letterman of doing "terrible things." Quote:

"The sun was not yet up when David Letterman stepped into a limousine outside his home and saw the one-page letter that threatened to reveal the secret details of his personal life. It was 6 a.m. on Sept. 9, and the CBS star immediately saw that whoever was trying to extort him had the goods. The person knew that the married comedian had done terrible things, that he'd had sex with women who worked for him at 'Late Show.'" (end quote)

I suspect you are trying to convey the letter-writer's message, and you probably didn't put anything in quotes because you didn't have the actual text. So why not say "The person knew that the married comedian had done - -- what the writer considered to be -- terrible things"? As it stands, it looks like you're jumping on the anti-Letterman morality police bandwagon.

washingtonpost.com: Pre-Dawn Note Launched Letterman Extortion Case (Post, Oct. 3)

Howard Kurtz: I'm not on any bandwagon. I debated whether to put quotation marks around "terrible things," which Dave said, but was concerned it might be seen as a direct quote from the letter left in his limo, which no one has seen.

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Manhattan, N.Y.: Dave Letterman ended his confession saying (paraphrasing)'that's the last I'm going to say about the subject' -- on the show. Was that a wise thing to say? Do you not envision sometime between now and the year 2019 the Big Guy will mention it at least once again?

Howard Kurtz: Hey, I'm tuning in tonight to see. The actual comment was, "I don't plan to say much more on this particular topic." I think Dave will say more only if he feels he has to respond to something that emerges in the investigation. Obviously he'd like this story to go away, and knows that whenever he talks about it, he provides a fresh headline.

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Davis, Calif.: What's shocking to me about the David Letterman story is how many times I hear pundits get facts wrong.

I've heard that the employees of Late Show referred to as CBS employees. They're not. They work for the seperate World Wide Pants, which owns the Late Show and produces it to sell to CBS.

I've heard other pundits say that the District Attorney should look into sexual harassment, yet sexual harassment isn't a criminal offense. It's civil. And the ONLY person who file a complaint is the woman in question. Plus it bothers me when pundits ask like the woman is question was 14 or something, when she's 25 years old, an adult by any standard.

I've heard others shocked to learn Mr. Letterman was having a sexual relationship with an employee, yet his wife Regina was once employed at Late Show.

Really, it was shocking how loose some pundits are the facts.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, the people who work for Dave work for his production company, Worldwide Pants (or, as it's increasingly being called, Worldwide Pants Down). But that hardly lets CBS off the hook. CBS is paying many millions of dollars to have Dave as its late-night franchise. And, of course, CBS is involved on the other end because the accused extortionist, Joe Halderman, is a longtime "48 Hours" producer.

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Southern Maryland: As a fan of Letterman since his morning show, I'm troubled by the abuse of power that was apparently involved. I knew from Bill Carter's book that he cheated on his first wife with comedy-club groupies. But this new behavior seems out of character for him. Unlike Bill Clinton who is charismatic and knows it, Letterman comes across in interviews as a socially awkward teenager, shy and self-deprecating. Much of his act is a comic exaggeration of that personality. Even when Letterman slavers over attractive female guests on his show, he makes the joke about himself, the irony of a big galoot like himself being able to talk to those women. The "Wow, Dave had sex" joke comes from that same sensibility. Hard to imagine Letterman seeing himself as a powerful person, whether the power was over his employees or over other celebrities in the way that Johnny Carson used to wield the power of the Tonight show.

I think Letterman deserves some credit for admitting his guilt instead of lying and equivocating like Clinton and John Edwards. And I don't see him as being a hypocrite for lambasting those politicians while engaging in the same behavior. Unlike self-appointed guardians of morality like Bill O'Reilly, Letterman and Leno and Conan O'Brien are entertainers and not puritan scolds. They sometimes take political stances on air, but they only care about misbehavior by politicians and celebrities for the comedy value.

Do you think it will help or hurt Letterman if he milks his own misdeeds for laughs the same way? Would doing so suggest contrition, or would it seem like he was disregarding or making light of the sexual harassment implications?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think Dave was trying to get laughs on Thursday night. That's part of what was so awkward--he was largely trying to be serious (except for a couple of one-liners), and the audience, unsure if he was doing a bit, kept laughing in the wrong places. As for whether it's an "abuse of power," no woman has yet complained about feeling pressure to sleep with Letterman. Still, there's such an inherently unequal relationship between the boss and, say, an intern that some people are going to be troubled.

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Kensington, Md.: The best thing about Imus back when I'd listen to him on WTEM was the guy who did those surreal parodies of everyone from Al Sharpton to "the late President Richard M. Nixon." Is this guy still around, and does the new Imus show use him?

Howard Kurtz: You're probably referring to Rob Bartlett, and he was on the show this morning. He channeled Andrew Dice Clay in doing a Top 10 List of something along the lines of the best reasons to have sex with David Letterman. (Hey, it was early.) Let's just say it stung more than the gentle jokes that Leno and others told about Dave.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, as a media reporter, do you think that Letterman is a part of your beat? Aren't impinging on Lisa de Moraes' area of expertise, or can we expect you to delve into the lives of various TV actors?

Howard Kurtz: Exc-uuuuse me. Wouldn't you say that David Letterman is part of the media? Didn't he host President Obama a couple of weeks ago? Wasn't his spat with John McCain news during the campaign? How about his apology last spring to Sarah Palin? I've written about all these things (and Leno as well). Late-night hosts have increasingly become part of the cultural as well as political fabric, and I'd be crazy to ignore them. Plus you have the little matter of a criminal indictment of a journalist, a CBS News producer, in the extortion case.

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New London, Conn.: Mr. Kurtz, as someone who goes "before the bright lights" by being television, it's probably hard to relate to people who no interest in being on it.

With that thought in mind, do you see David Letterman's wife Regina, notorious for avoiding any publicity, breaking her pattern and telling her side of the story in public?

Howard Kurtz: Who knows? My guess is she'd probably stay in the background. After all, it can't be that much fun to do an interview about your husband's philandering. But maybe she talks to People or winds up on Oprah.

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Boston, Mass.: Howie, I was going to beat you up today, but then I thought it over and realized that you save your tabloidy stuff mostly for weekends. But really, John Edwards is a never was, has been. David Letterman was a famously single man. Other than the Enquirer and Us, who cares who a TV star is sleeping with? I'm sure their celebrity means a heck of a lot more pretty women than most of us though.

Howard Kurtz: Ordinarily, I could care less who David Letterman sleeps with. But when a boss (who happens to be a huge television star) has sex with subordinates, it does raise questions. And, of course, when this happens in the context of an alleged $2-mlllion extortion plot, it becomes big news.

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Naples, Fla.: The fact that this article originated with the AP is no excuse not to edit it with common sense. The reference in the second paragraph to two winners being women needs one of two things: an explanation of why it is important or the delete button. If news organizations cannot write within the article why it is important that the subject a woman, then it shouldn't be in the article.

STOCKHOLM (AP) -- Americans Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak won the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discovering a key mechanism in the genetic operations of cells, an insight that has inspired new lines of research into cancer. It was the first time two women have been among the winners of the medicine prize.

Howard Kurtz: Seems like a straightforward fact to me. It doesn't diminish their accomplishment. Wouldn't everyone have taken note of her gender if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency?

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New York, N.Y.: Notpolitical or Dave-related, but Gourmet Magazine is folding after almost 70 years. Pretty big media news, no? Even more telling -- they're keeping their online entities. Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I hate to see any publication go out of business, and I know Gourmet has a big following. But Conde Nast is cutting back big time -- only the New Yorker seems to be spared this round of budget cuts, reported as around 25 percent -- and so it's just axed three of its magazines.

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Anonymous: "Hard to imagine Letterman seeing himself as a powerful person, whether the power was over his employees or over other celebrities in the way that Johnny Carson used to wield the power of The Tonight Show."

Seriously? You're not Dave's friend or any other type of personal acquaintance. You need to imagine anything. It happened.

Howard, what about an article about fans/supporters who don't realize that listening to a radio show or watching a television program doesn't give them personal insight into a celebrity?

Howard Kurtz: Well, that's an interesting question. Some hosts share a great deal of themselves. Dave has always been more in the private-person category. I don't remember seeing his wedding photographed by People or an Us Weekly spread on things he likes to do with his son. But even given the inherent limitations of what you can learn from a performer, if you spend five hours a week with someone, you do get a pretty good sense of them. That doesn't mean you know them, but television fosters the illusion of intimacy.

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Hanover, N.H.: Just curious, what did you think of SNL cold opening this past weekend?

It wasn't that funny, but it was a pretty harsh sum-up on the Obama administration and showing something I believe. I like Barack Obama, but if a pollster called me, I'd say I disapprove of his job performance. Now, I'm not going to vote Republican next time, but I'm less enthusiastic about him then when I say him as real man of change.

Howard Kurtz: Saturday Night Live is a good bellwether. Remember the skit that had the press eating out of Obama's hand, and the coverage it triggered? (I had been writing similar pieces to far less effect.) I didn't find the open particularly hilarious, but it does show that Obama's comedy honeymoon, if he had one, is over.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Am I the only one missing the big deal with Letterman? He's an entertainer, not the country's moral compass. And it seems to be a personal matter, not a public one. Big star has sex with hot young women. Wow. Stop the presses. I'm not even sure why Letterman made such a big deal of it himself. He did not owe us an explanation whatsoever. We're not the ones married to him. I really don't care. Is there something wrong with me?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, and I suggest you seek help.

Seriously, even if you don't care about a television star sleeping with women on his payroll, Letterman had absolutely no choice but to address his audience. Otherwise the story would have come out the next day when Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau unveiled the extortion indictment. This way, Dave got to deliver his own embarrassing news and frame the story in the way most favorable to him, that he did things he's not proud of -- "creepy" was the word he used -- but is the victim of an extortion plot.

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The Letterman Confession Solves A Mystery: I was reading a New York Times Magazine article a few weeks ago about Neil Patrick Harris and it mentioned that when he was on Letterman, it was a really awkward and almost hostile interview, which really took the actor by surprise. I just checked the date of the taping of that show online and it looks like it was the same day Letterman supposedly found the package from the blackmailer. So at least Neil Patrick Harris can sleep better at night knowing Letterman doesn't hate him.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure he's greatly relieved.

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Annandale, Va.: To me, the most bizarre thing about the Letterman story is the accused extortioner -- a newsman.

Do you know of other situations where a journalist has tried to make big money rather than report on an item?

Howard Kurtz: Well, one that comes to mind is the case of R. Foster Winans, a Wall Street Journal columnist who was convicted in the 1980s of insider trading and mail fraud by leaking the contents of his column to a trader who made money on the advance info. Winans spent nine months in jail. Rudy was the guy who prosecuted him. Overall, though, such cases are extremely rare.

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D.C.: I'm surprised Letterman didn't learn his lesson about trying to be serious to his audience. The same thing happened when he had Michael Richards after his racist meltdown.

People go to Letterman looking for laughs. Of course they are going to react the way they did and laugh at inappropriate times. Part of his schtick is pretending to be serious or deadpan. Letterman could have found a different forum for this.

Howard Kurtz: Whether he could have handled it better or not, no forum better than his home turf. What was he gonna do, pull a Hugh Grant and go on Leno?

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Hillside, N.J.: I consider the 2009 elections an off year (despite there being some "hotly contested races" such as the NYC mayor and NJ governorship. Do you think CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX should have prime time specials on election night, or just on-the hour special reports at 9 and 10 p.m. ET.

Howard Kurtz: With only two statewide races (Virginia and New Jersey), there's no way the broadcast networks are going to have election specials. News cut-ins at most. But the cable networks will be all over it.

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DCNW: Have there been other instances where a journalist(!) has used information (say, gathered in the course of investigating a story) to extort someone? Anything this high- profile?

Howard Kurtz: There have certainly been high profile cases in which journalists are sued for libel. Ariel Sharon's case against Time, for instance, or William Westmoreland suing CBS. And you have Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS, which was tossed by an appeals court last week. But as far as journalists being accused of illegal money-making schemes, only that WSJ case comes to mind. I'm sure I'm forgetting a couple, but nothing this high-profile.

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East Lansing, Mich.: How many divorces did Johnny Carson go through? Plus think about [how]divorce was treated then.

I think sowing-circle of pundits are at it again. I'm watching the Late Show tonight to see how it goes.

Howard Kurtz: Johnny Carson had four wives (I looked it up). Don't know how many affairs he had.

The pundits may be doing their thing, but keep in mind there's a criminal case here.

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Bellingham, Wash.: Leaving aside Mr Letterman for the moment, there is video of a meeting of Republicans erupting in cheers at the news of Chicago's lose of the 2016 Olympics. Same happened at the Weekly Standard, etc. Reports here, the NYT, Politico and elsewhere equate this reaction to Dems "hoping the Iraq War went badly" (I'm paraphrasing journalistic "fair and balanced" here). Do you have any examples of a room full of prominent Dems erupting in cheers upon the news of a bad day in Iraq?

Thanks

Howard Kurtz: No, never heard of such a thing. And I wouldn't compare Chicago losing the Olympics to a war. But I was struck by the conservatives who celebrated the decision. Why do they hate America? :) Unless they don't consider Barack Obama's Chicago to be part of America.

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Reliable Sources CNN Critique: I really enjoyed the segment with Byron Pitts but felt the topic deserved more time. At the end, I had more questions but the interview ended so abruptly.

With both of you being TV veterans, I expected better. Pitts would be happy to learn that I now HAVE to read his book.

Never miss you on Sunday morning.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks so much. Byron Pitts was on my show talking about his new book, in which he recounts how he couldn't read a sentence when he was 12 and other struggles from growing up. I played a small role in this matter by reporting this two years ago, which he says gave him the idea for the book. We had a lot of other news to deal with (Letterman, Polanski, Olympics), but I rarely do author interviews that are more than 6 minutes. Besides, the authors don't want to give it ALL away.

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Anonymous: "Letterman had absolutely no choice but to address his audience. Otherwise the story would have come out the next day when Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau unveiled the extortion indictment."

No, that still doesn't explain why he HAS to tell his audience. What if he didn't? They're going to bum rush the stage? Shout over his monologue. No he did not HAVE to do anything. He was a victim here, why should he be obliged to discuss it? What else is he obliged to tell the audience?

Howard Kurtz: You're missing my point. Forget the audience; think about the media. If Letterman had remained silent, and Joe Halderman got indicted for threatening to expose his personal life, there would have been a tsunami of coverage: What did Letterman do? Did it involve sex? Who were the women? The drumbeat would have built day after day until Letterman was forced to address it in some fashion. Yes, he could have put out a statement, but he's a television performer. He comes into people's homes every night. Of course he'd want to address it in the forum in which he's most comfortable.

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Lansdale, Pa.: Mr. Kurtz: Do you think there have been too many, too few, or appropriate number of articles regarding Mr. Obama's trip to Copenhagen and its political implications?

Howard Kurtz: I'd say about the right number. The president made this a big story by personalizing it and taking that eleventh-hour trip. Had Chicago won, he would have gotten a lot of credit in the media. So it's hardly surprising that he had to take his lumps. Also, it makes me wonder whether the White House intelligence was about as good as the Bush administration's info on WMD. The Obama team was convinced that Chicago was very close to winning; instead, the city's bid got just 18 of 94 votes, finishing dead last.

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Imus on Fox Business: How can this station survive with Imus in the morning? Before market hours is when government reports on payroll and unemployment are announced and the European/Asian markets often portend the day on Wall Street. Can Fox Business really be taken seriously?

Howard Kurtz: It's a crucial time period for a business channel, no question about it. On the other hand, Fox Business Network is only averaging 21,000 viewers so far. The thinking is that Imus puts the channel on the map, people become more familiar with it and maybe check out some of the other coverage.

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SNL Skit: I thought the Obama skit was funny and I still have the biggest "mancrush" on our President, but he has failed on my major reason for my vote, health care.

He also has failed or changed his mind on all those topics the skit brought up.

I do think Fred Armisen mailed in his imitation of Obama, though.

Howard Kurtz: I've never thought Fred Armisen was a particularly good Obama. But Darrell Hammond can't do it for obvious reasons.

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Dale City, Va.: When were these affairs? He has only actually been married since March.

Howard Kurtz: We don't know exactly when the relationships took place. But Letterman's production company has put out the word that they took place before his marriage in March (though he's been dating Regina Lasko for two decades and their son was born in 2003). For that reason, though, I've avoided using the word affairs.

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New York: So how will this affect Letterman's ratings. I'm guessing he gets a nice boost.

Howard Kurtz: He will do a huge number tonight. He may not talk about it, but everyone will want to see if he does, or just how he conducts himself.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Howard:

I was interested to read your comments about how the righties who "cheered" the Olympic decision. But can you expand on this a bit? Seems to me this didn't get much play at all. Had the reverse happened, I think we can agree that Fox (among others) would have been all over it.

So why did the national media simply shrug this one off? Were they afraid of getting ripped on again?

It wasn't as if it was just one or two righties who said this. It seemed like a nearly unanimous reaction.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it was "unanimous." Certainly Rush and Beck were chortling over this. And yes, if liberal pundits had cheered when George Bush failed to win the Olympics for Texas, say, the right would have denounced them as pathetic traitors.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard. Okay, I haven't followed the Letterman event 24/7 but I'm confused. Has there been any allegation that Letterman threatened or put pressure on the woman to engage in the conduct? Every comment seems to assume that. Two adults engaging in a romantic tryst is one thing, a powerful executive coercing a staffer to have sex is another.

Howard Kurtz: Of course. But most of the women haven't spoken publicly. We don't even know who all of them are. It may well be that the affairs were entirely consensual. But what if there's a female staffer who didn't sleep with Letterman, and felt discriminated against while Stephanie Birkitt (one of Dave's girlfriends) got an increasingly prominent on-air role? The law can be tricky when it comes to the workplace.

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Washington, D.C.: Please clarify -- would you agree that the fact of Letterman having affairs with his employees is only newsworthy because of the extortion attempt? I mean if the Post learned that Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien or some other TV star was having an affair with a staffer, they would not run such a story, correct?

Howard Kurtz: I would imagine there would have to be some other factor: a complaint of sexual harassment; a lawsuit by someone else claiming discrimination; a complaint that the person was promoted solely because of the relationship, or something like that.

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Athens, Ga.: I'm uneasy about whenever Fred Armisen mocks David Paterson's blindness on SNL. Personally, it's wrong and offensive to all people with blindness.

Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's pretty tasteless.

Though it was interested when Paterson was on Meet the Press talking about Obama's attempt to push him out of the reelection race. He said, "I may be blind, but I'm not oblivious."

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Seattle, Wash.: Getting a Roman Polanski question in here. Have any of the celebs who signed a petition demanding his release backed off their position yet? I see most of them doing it as a knee-jerk reaction after hearing only Polanski's side of the argument for years that he was being railroaded by a publicity-minded judge.

Then again, maybe they just wanted to keep Switzerland "safe" to run to.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't noticed any of them backing off. They seem to feel it's just fine for Polanski to have drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl because a) it was a long time ago, b) there are questions about the judge's conduct, c) he's suffered enough, or d) he's a really, really talented director. I find it absolutely amazing that there's a serious debate about what he did.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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