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Media Backtalk
With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, May 19, 2003; Noon ET

Consumers used to get their news from newspapers, magazines and evening broadcasts from the three television networks. Now, with the Internet, cable TV and 24-hour news networks, the news cycle is faster and more constant, with every minute carrying a new deadline. But clearly more news and more news outlets are not necessarily better. And just because the press has the ability to cover a story doesn't always mean they should -- or that they'll do it well.

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.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Easley, S.C.: It seems pretty clear that Ari's departure is about the reelection campaign, but why? Is is solely because Bush really feels comfortable with an evangelical Texan, Scott McClellan, at the helm of his communications apparatus? Do you know any inside story?

Howard Kurtz: My sources say Ari's announcement this morning that he's stepping down as press secretary is entirely voluntary. It's certainly true that Bush feels comfortable with Scott McClellan, Fleischer's likely successor, who's been part of the Texas gang for a long time, but I don't see where religion has anything to do with it.

Fairfax, Va.: One of the lessons of Janet Cooke was to check academic credentials. Hers weren't and they were bogus. Jayson Blair got hired without a college degree. Does the New York Times routinely not check such credentials? Has anyone gotten hired at The Post without a degree since Cooke?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, I know of at least one case where the Post hired someone who hadn't finished college, but that person didn't claim to have a degree. It's the falsification that should be disqualifying. You're right, everyone in the news biz should have learned after the Janet Cooke fiasco that resumes must be checked. I don't know if the Times does this regularly, but clearly didn't do it in the Blair case.

Columbus, Ohio: What do you think Ari Fleischer's motive is for leaving? Is he really going to work on Buch's reelection campaign or abandoning politics all together?

Howard Kurtz: He's not going to work for the campaign. He'll go into what we in Washington call the "private sector" and make far more money than he's making on the White House payroll. Most White House aides do that eventually, though I was a little surprised by the timing of Ari's exit.

Kennesaw, Ga.: Assuming published reports that Ari Fleischer resigned because he wanted a "quieter life" are spinnese for "he wanted to cash in with some paid appearances before resuming his political career" when should we expect to see him take a post with the Bush reelection campaign? My guess is November at the latest.

Howard Kurtz: If he was going to join the campaign, he would have waited until a little later in the cycle and then moved directly to the reelect committee. A campaign spokesman will have to be in place by the fall, which is hardly enough time for Ari to do whatever private or corporate consulting he plans to do.

Charlottesville, Va.: Howard, I've been following the Jayson Blair story, and it just boggles my mind that the New York Times would put up with such a high rate of corrections -- before the main story about Blair's deceptions broke. Aren't there hundreds or even thousands of fine journalists clamoring for a reporting job with the Times? Seems like they could have found a good replacement for Blair pretty easily. Also, do you think what Blair did is worse than Stephen Glass' offenses?

Howard Kurtz: I'd say on a par with Glass's serial fabrications. They both lied and made things up; Jayson Blair just did it for a more prominent publication. Yes, there are many fine journalists that the Times could have hired, but the editors perceived Blair to be young, hungry, a good writer and, of course, a minority. He also excelled at sucking up to management. But why they tolerated a man making so many mistakes who also had a drug problem is still hard to understand.

Silver Spring, Md.: I read your article on Jayson Blair with great interest. As an African-American, I feel terribly for the journalists who are going to be inevitably tarred by his actions. The injection of race into the fray is also inevitable. What strikes me as odd is that no one is acknowledging the fact that Blair schmoozed his way to the top and became increasingly emboldened by it. Race has very little to do with it: he watches shameless self-promotion and gamesmanship on the highest level and imitates it to the hilt. I see it in my industry every day. I get perfect work reviews but I am never promoted, but the guy who toots his own horn and kisses up to the boss and drinks scotch with him and plays golf gets the promotions. He's African-American and so am I. Race has nothing to do with it. He plays the game and I don't. Heaven help him once it comes out that he doesn't have the goods. Looks like it finally caught up to Blair.

Howard Kurtz: I don't see why other journalists should be tarred by what this fabricator did, except in the macro sense that it erodes public trust in the profession. But even the Times is not claiming that race had "nothing" to do with it. It was a factor, Times columnist Clyde Haberman said on my CNN show yesterday. Howell Raines says the fact that Blair was a minority probably contributed to his being too lenient with the reporter. There have been white journalists who have committed fraud too, but in this case we can't go around pretending that race was completely irrelevant.

Towson, Md.: Ari was great at making the liberals in the press corps, like David Gregory, Terry Moran, John King and others look like fools. If Scott McClellan is the new spokesman, do you think he will be able to do as well as Ari?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure David Gregory et al don't regard themselves as "liberals." John King worked for the AP and is about as straight as they come. As for McClellan, he's clearly not as polished from the podium as Fleischer, but that may not matter. Much of the spotlight in the coming months will shift to whoever Bush picks as his campaign spokesman.

Ari's Departure: What do you think about the timing of Ari's departure? It seems suspect that he's bowing out now to, in his words, get out before the reelection campaign heats up, but on the other hand, Bush did formally file paperwork on Friday to run for reelection (the same day Ari told Bush he was leaving). Any chance that he world for the RNC and ultimately Bush's reelection?

Or, maybe his new wife had something to do with all of this? Given the age differences, it's possible she wants to spend time with him now while they are still able.

Howard Kurtz: Getting married has a way of changing people's priorities. But everyone at senior levels in the White House has faced this timing question. It's considered unfair to bail out in the middle of the campaign, so either you leave by the summer or you've signed on until January 2005.

Washington, D.C.: As a "fan" of Fleischer's only because we went to the same college (Middlebury), I'm wondering if his predecessor can uphold the same standard of slickness in presenting the White House's official view. Ari never revealed much, and I think that in this case, he's doing the same thing, holding the cards close to the vest and not giving away anything about what he'll be doing next. Can we expect him to turn up on television as a talk-show-pundit, taking some time off before hitting the campaign circuit, or will he fade away for a while?

Howard Kurtz: Ari never did that much television and I don't think he'll do that much punditizing. As for what you call his "standard of slickness," his style was honed in many years as a Capitol Hill press secretary. He understands Washington and the Beltway press corps. But every spokesman brings his own style. Joe Lockhart was not as "slick" as his predecessor, Mike McCurry, but did a good job, especially in the partisan environment surrounding impeachment.

Arlington, Va.: I guess the big news today is Ari quitting. Will anyone miss his constant non-answers to even the most basic questions?

Howard Kurtz: The White House will. They loved it when he dodged questions the president didn't want answered, or wanted answered only in a certain narrow way.

Washington, D.C.: I tend to agree with your take that it wasn't racial preference that allowed Jayson Blair to go for so long without getting caught, mainly because I work with someone exactly like him, except he's white. Many of us at his level or below recognize his lies and his inability to do his job, and many of us have complained about him to upper management, but because he's so good at ingratiating himself with the higher-ups, he's never even been disciplined, much less fired. It's got nothing to do with race, in my opinion -- it's just another case of brown-nosing. Still, the Blair situation gives me hope that someday this guy will go too far, too, and his lies will catch up to him!

Howard Kurtz: This was about favoritism as much as about race. The New York Times has something of a star system under Howell Raines, and Blair was regarded as a star, which is why despite his checkered history he got assigned to the Washington sniper team. But that still doesn't explain why the negative evaluations and e-mail warnings about him didn't knock him off his star pedestal.

Columbia, Md.: First we find out that ABC's "This Week" has fallen to its lowest ratings in history. Then last week on the Imus in the Morning show, George Stephanopoulos makes the following statement:

"I believe that Al Gore got more votes both in, obviously the popular vote, and if you count all the votes in the state of Florida, Al Gore would have had more."

What basis is Stephanopoulos using for a statement like this? I have not seen one single media recount that would support such a statement.

Should Stephanopoulos be making these kind of statements if he wants to be taken seriously as an objective reporter?

Howard Kurtz: Look, he's entitled to his opinion. The major media recount efforts basically say Bush would have won Florida anyway, but there's are certain scenarios under which you could have come up with a Gore victory. Stephanopoulos is getting good buzz now because of his handling of the Democrats' S.C. debate, but is still struggling ratings-wise on Sunday morning.

New York, N.Y.: Ok, I'm officially sick of the Jayson Blair coverage. Yes, what he did was terrible and pathetic, and yes, the Times has egg on its face, but who really cares at this point? It's not a real news story -- it's more an opportunity for all these news outlets that have felt inferior to the Times for so long to take pleasure in their pain. Enough already. This is why the media continues to lose credibility. The only things they examine in depth are the scandals of private citizens and/or private acts that have little relevance or bearing on the general public's daily lives. Why wasn't there this kind of uproar about Enron and WorldCom and Tyco and reasoning behind the war in Iraq or this ridiculous tax cut that is supposed to create jobs (how)? I heard rumblings for a little while, but very few examinations of every single thing they did wrong (unlike Jayson Blair). What, because it's easier to focus on one person (Blair, or Laci Peterson, or even Elizabeth Smart), we should act like real issues are secondary?

Howard Kurtz: I have to disagree. Sure, we overkill everything eventually, but I've rarely worked on a story where so many people have strong opinions and wanted to talk about. Enron and Worldcom and Tyco did cause a huge uproar in the press, and this should be no different. The media business should be held to the same standard as any other business when it comes to aggressive coverage of major mistakes.

Somerville, Mass.: I thought I heard a comment by "Senior Administration Official Associated with Iraq" on TV saying Iraq is considering withdrawing from OPEC. Surely no one in the U.S. administration is deranged enough to think the U.S. could withdraw Iraq from OPEC, thus effectively destroying OPEC, and not utterly prove to the world the sole purpose of invading Iraq was to destroy the Arab world's power and economy. If there is any truth to this rumor it should be the front page news in every newspaper in the world shouldn't it?

Howard Kurtz: It has been fairly widely reported. It was couched as maybe the Iraqis would decide to withdraw from OPEC once their interim government is up and running -- that it would be in their self-interest to sell more oil and not be bound by the cartel's quotas. Of course, that would also benefit the west, which I'm sure will not go unnoticed, if indeed it happens.

Fairfax, Va.: I wish the White House would advertise for Ari's replacement. I've been practicing: "The President feels that the answer for the problems with Iraq is peace." Or how about "The President extends his appreciation to people of Iraq for embracing democracy."

Or even "The President strongly supports what most Americans support -- lower taxes." Finally, "The President wants the people to have the freedom to individually control their retirement accounts."

Howard Kurtz: Sounds like you're ready for prime time.

New York, N.Y.: Howard,

I enjoyed your "Reliable Sources" over the weekend, as well as your columns on the Blair affair. But I am curious why you continually make a big deal of Blair's 50+ corrections. We are not given any context as to what a "normal" number of corrections is. In fact, a Weekly Standard item a couple of weeks ago noted that over the same period of time, Johnny Apple had 46 corrections -- even though he had less than half the number of bylines that Blair had! Similarly, Adam Clymer had 36 corrections in just over half the number of bylines.

So are we right to judge a reporter on the number of corrections he has? If so, why haven't I seen anything about Apple and Clymer? What is a "normal" rate of corrections for a reporter?

Howard Kurtz: A couple of thoughts. First, many corrections (including some of Blair's) are minor -- wrong spellings, wrong titles, that sort of thing. Some of Blair's, though, were whoppers -- one story required two lengthy corrections. That involved a benefit concert where, among other things, he said two groups had performed that had canceled their scheduled appearances, raising a question of whether he was there. What's more, it's the NYT that says it found Blair's correction rate to be unacceptably high and sent him back for remedial training.

Arlington, Va.: Why is there such a stir over Ari's leaving the White House? I'm surprised he stayed as long as he did. Was there similar hypothesizing when George departed under Clinton?

Howard Kurtz: Well, Mike MCurry had the comparable job under Clinton, and that was played as a pretty big deal. When Stephanopoulos left, the chatter was all about his joining ABC and signing a $3-million book deal.

Louisville, Ky.: As a former newspaper reporter in the Gannett chain, I've seen more than my share of inept newsroom leadership, with competent mid-level editors squashed by higher-ups. I never expected to see the New York Times succumb to that problem. Do you think high-level heads need to roll? And whose? Boyd's? Raines?

Howard Kurtz: There's been a lot of speculation about that, but Arthur Sulzberger says he wouldn't accept Raines's resignation and that we shouldn't "demonize" the editors who clearly made mistakes.

Washington, D.C.: I searched Jayson Blair and drugs and found nothing. What were you referring to in one of your answers?

Howard Kurtz: Blair was in an employee counseling program, and Newsweek reports today he's been treated for alcoholism and cocaine abuse.

Re: Blair: Can other papers, like the Post, be trusted to do justice to the Blair case when they have an interest in seeing the Times stub its toe? You're not just news agencies after all. You're all competitors, aren't you?

Howard Kurtz: Well, as the person who broke the story, let me say that it had nothing to do with the fact that it took place at the Times; it was just a clear case of journalistic fraud. The Post, like other news organizations, has had its share of problems over the years. I don't take any satisfaction in seeing a great newspaper tarnished like this. Besides, the Times guaranteed that every news outlet on the planet would cover this when it published a 7,000-word, four-page mea culpa on the whole Blair affair.

Enfield, N.H.: Howard,

What's your take on the big-brotherishness of this White House, everything from the stage-managed public appearances on the carrier and at Mt. Rushmore to the ubiquitous "message du jour" behind the president every time he speaks? I'm reminded of the "War is Peace" slogans from 1984 every time I see them -- and the "Made in USA" fiasco several months ago points out how the spin has gotten out of control. Whatever happened to playing straight with the American people?

Howard Kurtz: Every modern White House tries to shape and orchestrate the news. The Reagan White House was very good at it; I wrote a book called "Spin Cycle" about the Clintonites' efforts to manipulate the press. So the Bush team, which devotes extraordinary attention to visuals, is following a long tradition.

Vienna, Va.: I'm not surprised at all that Ari is leaving -- there are surely better ways to make a living than standing in front of a mike or a camera and having to answer a bunch of (usually) idiotic questions every couple of days. Give McClellan a couple of years of having to deal with the Washington Press Corps and he'll probably be gone, too.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, the job involves a lot more than responding to questions at the podium, idiotic and otherwise. There'a a huge amount of communications strategy involved, as well as a million conversations with reporters every day away from the briefing room. And spending time with the president and top aides so you have enough of a grasp of what's going on to brief the press.

Fairfax, Va.: Pundits and pollsters continue to marvel at GWB's high poll numbers. Isn't it something more than 9/11 and his role as CIC? Don't the numbers reflect the public desperate need to believe in someone/something? They obviously can't trust Wall Street, nor corporate America, they can't trust their church leaders. Congress is incompetent and venial, the press "in-beded" with the administration. He ain't much but he's all they have. There is no outcry from either the press or Congress on the lack of WMDs -- you're too scared of taking a stand against the bully boys. Who is there to defend the people, the Republic?

Howard Kurtz: Why do we have to believe that if 70 percent of the public thinks Bush is doing a good job, they're somehow being manipulated, or they're desperate, or the press is being bullied? The American people are pretty smart. They can cut through all the fog and figure out whether they have confidence in the guy or not.

Knoxville, Tenn.: Why did the national news media ignore the story in the Indianapolis Star last week? It related how at the bush visit last week men in the audience were asked that before the cameras started filming to remove their ties. So that it would appear they were blue-collar group and not the wealthy invitees that are usually at these events. When the national media lets the white house get away with this faking an event -- why not just hire actors or have they already and we don't know it.

Howard Kurtz: That story was picked up by the New York Times, and maybe others.

New York, N.Y.: Good Morning,

I'm more impressed with Howard Dean and his campaign's use of new media with every passing day. Especially since that leaked DLC memo castigating him and his followers as "elitist activists" (another subject deserving of more comment) I have been exploring the many Web sites, including blogs and Internet-driven Meetups, that seem to be participating in this electronic grassroots campaign.

It seems to me that in addition to being the only candidate who doesn't put me to sleep or make me laugh (or cry) this year, he and/or his campaign managers are some of the most forward-thinking people with regard to politics and new media at work today, at least in the Democratic camp.

I remember that you spent a few days with him in the earlier days of his campaign - did you have a sense that he would be as sophisticated as he seems to be with respect to getting his message out on a relative shoestring using newer technologies?

Howard Kurtz: I certainly got the impression that Dean was savvy about the press and understood how it functioned, especially when he predicted that if he did well the press corps would try to bring him down. I did not know at the time -- he had only a few aides working for him -- that his campaign would be starting a blog or using the Internet very effectively.

Frederick, Md.: No privacy applies to Blair problems with drugs and alcohol? This is becoming sort of a lynching don't you think?

Howard Kurtz: It's not something I would go out of my way to report, but when you repeatedly lie and fabricate in so public a way as Jayson Blair did, you certainly invite the kind of scrutiny he's getting.

Derwood, Md.: I have a question about the Jayson Blair situation that I haven't seen answered before.

Any individual can go to news.google.com, plug in a particular quotation and immediately see many published articles that the quote has been used in. The Times has access to this tool, as well as the Lexus-Nexus databases. Has anyone explained why the Times quality-assurance people were not spot checking articles, especially those written by a reporter who had documented problems?

Howard Kurtz: Well, that was one tool I used in breaking the story. But the Times editors would say that they trusted Blair and had no reason to suspect such plagiarism. Also, database searches don't detect when someone has made something up, like the erroneous description of Jessica Lynch's house in West Virginia when Blair had ever been there. The searches only detect theft, which was just one of Blair's sins.

Enfield, N.H.: Debunk the "liberal media" or "conservative media" conspiracy theories in 20 words or less. Is there any real news anymore, or just political spin and entertainment mixed together?

Howard Kurtz: Most reporters, as opposed to commentators, have opinions but no political agenda, or they wouldn't have gone into journalism. That's 19.

Silver Spring, Md.: Do any newspapers or other media organizations routinely audit their reporters' work for accuracy, by talking to the sources after the story is published and checking each fact in print, for example. Not every story, mind you, but at least one by every reporter in a year. It seems to me the honor system isn't enough anymore.

Howard Kurtz: Magazines have fact-checkers (though it's worth noting that such a system at the New Republic didn't detect Stephen Glass's fabrications). Newspapers, with constant deadlines, don't. Obviously, editors working with individual reporters -- especially those who make a lot of mistakes -- can and should ask to see primary documents, ask who the sources are on a story, and generally use their BS detectors to determine whether someone's work is solid.

Potomac Falls, Va.: I'd like to nominate Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, Iraq's former Minister for Information, to the position being vacated by Ari Fleischer at the White House. Who else can dish the BS this Administration serves up during its daily briefs better than Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf?

Howard Kurtz: Some comics are saying he's already been hired by the New York Times.

New York, N.Y.: Hi Howard:

I noticed the use of "unnamed sources," "sources close to the administration," etc. are showing up more and more in articles here and I'm wondering if this method is used to plant a story? I'm reading the papers less here and going abroad for news more and more.

Howard Kurtz: It varies. Sometimes these sources try to put a story out; more often reporters call and try to extract information. In general, unnamed sources are overused (like the White House aide who was allowed by the NYT to say that John Kerry "looks French"), although in many instances there's no other way to get the story. What's helpful is when news organizations at least try to characterize the motives of the source -- someone opposed to the president's policy, someone sympathetic to the White House position, etc.

Bethesda, Md.: Howard,

How would you explain Arthur Sulzberger's refusal to fire or discipline Raines and/or Boyd after the Blair fiasco, especially after Raines's admissions at the staff meeting last week? Sounds like a reign of terror. As steward of a public company shouldn't Sulzberger intercede on behalf of the stockholders?

And what is your opinion: Should Raines and/or Boyd resign?

Howard Kurtz: Arthur Sulzberger has to weigh this major mistake -- a mistake on which no one disputes that Raines and Boyd were deceived -- against their long service to the paper, track record, abilities and other factors. Last year, for example, Raines had led the Times to a record seven Pulitzers and was named Editor & Publisher's Editor of the Year. So far, Sulzberger has given no hint that he's considering any kind of regime change.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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