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Media Backtalk
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Media Backtalk
With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, Feb. 18, 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.

Alexandria, Va.: Why do we always hear about travelers stranded at airports whenever snow storms hit? Especially with this storm, the weather frogs were predicting "The Big One" for a week! If you're stuck at the airport, I say poor planning on your part. So why does every single broadcast emphasize it?

Howard Kurtz: I was thinking the same thing. Obviously, some people are coming from elsewhere to make connecting flights and get stuck at the airport. But anyone who headed to the airport with two feet of snow coming down, expecting to check in and fly off, is a few fries short of a happy meal.

Goleta, Calif.: Mr. Kurtz --
Please comment on the fact that this last Sunday's morning political shows only had guests from what used to be called "the establishment," and no one from the anti-war movements, (except for showing video of some of the marches). Why so obviously one-sided in their reportage? Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: Sunday morning shows have always tilted toward the establishment. They say their job is to get the best newsmakers, which is why Condi on various senators were on. This tilt, combined with the lack of an obvious and well-known antiwar spokesman, is a problem not just for these programs but for all talk shows on the air. One not-very-good substitute, as I wrote last month in interviewing Janeane Garofalo, is to put celebs on the air and pass them off as representing the antiwar movement.

Memphis, Tenn.: It seems to me that many of the television news people especially the cable folks have adopted the notion that the attack on Iraq is absolutely necessary. The impatience with the French and Germans was loudly expressed almost in unison after the inspectors' report at the UN Security Council. The public opinion polls I've seen, seem to say that large majorities of citizens of almost all industrial nations except the U.S. oppose the invasion of Iraq. Even in the UK, Australia, and Canada the citizenry seems overwhelmingly opposed to invading Iraq. Why don't we see more examination and exploration of this division between the U.S. and the rest of the world?

Howard Kurtz: You started to see some of that this weekend with the big demonstrations in Europe. But the truth is that U.S. networks are very America-centric. While they'll cover a big street protest or Security Council debate, they don't spend much time contrasting public opinion here and abroad.

Atlanta, Ga.: Nice to see you act as a media critic on "Reliable Sources" rather than just spin Beltway conventional wisdom or advise us to change channels if we don't like something. Still, in addressing the "level orange/duct tape" nonsense, you left something out -- the media failed miserably at looking at the credibility (or lack of it) in the info that spawned all this. One has to look for obscure pieces that are more likely to be noticed by a weblogger than your Washington Post colleagues and their "peers."

Howard Kurtz: We did mention the ABC News report that an informant who spoke of a possible dirty bomb -- and whose information was partially responsible for the Code Orange alert -- later failed a polygraph test. But the fact is, it's difficult for journalists to assess the reliability of the information used to trigger terror alerts because we don't have access to most of it -- not to mention the fact that Tom Ridge & Co. also have difficulty evaluating what they admit is vague and fragmentary information.

Northfield, Minn.: Howard, the Pentagon's plan to put reporters with troops in Iraq -- which both you and the New York Times have written about -- sounds great. Do you think this is on the level? Openness and access have not been hallmarks of this administration. On the other hand, Rumsfeld is a self-confident guy, and may figure (rightly, I believe) that letting reporters at the story (even though there surely will be some tensions with the military at times) is on the long run better for the military and better for the citizenry. What's your take on all this?

Howard Kurtz: It's on the level in the sense that the Pentagon is moving ahead to "embed," in military jargon, about 500 journalists with U.S. troops. I have no doubt that this will happen. The question, which can't be answered in advance, is how much access they will have, how much freedom to file stories, and how much interference from their military minders on security grounds. Based on what happened in the last Gulf war, that is where the conflicts will erupt.

New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Why did the cable stations, and their respective Web sites (CNN, in particular) focus on peace marches in Baghdad, rather than the ones in New York, London, etc.?

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me I saw much more on the European demonstrations over the weekend than the protest in Baghdad -- at least when the story wasn't whited out, so to speak, by the huge East Coast snowstorm. And given the cracks in the NATO alliance, there's no question that the European demonstrations were more newsworthy. Even Tony Blair now feels under great pressure from public war opposition at home.

Burke, Va.: You don't seem to quote Josh Marshall as much anymore. Is there a reason why?

Howard Kurtz: Let's see, I quoted him this morning. I try to get in as many provocative points of view as I can each week. Sometimes Marshall and his fellow Webloggers don't file every day.

Boston, Mass.: What is going on with MSNBC? How can a network have extreme right and left shows on the same night? Is Donohue getting the boot for Jesse Venture and former Rep. Scarborough?

Howard Kurtz: Without adapting the word "extreme," I like the idea of a network airing both conservative and liberal talk shows. (Ventura, by the way, is hard to categorize; he was, after all, a third-party candidate. Having interviewed the man, I think he'll be good at pushing buttons when he gets on the air.) Why should any network be the captive of one point of view? There have been many stories saying Donahue is on his way out, but so far it hasn't quite happened. If MSNBC also hires Sam Donaldson for a nightly show, there would seem to be no room left for Phil, at least in prime time.

Round Rock, Tex.: I read your article on Tim Griffin in today's Austin American Statesman. In one paragraph you quote Tim Russert as saying that he receives information that is "less than complete" and in the next paragraph you write about the "attack" on Edwards, his record, etc. However you did not say whether the things written by Griffin about Edwards was true or not. Were they?

washingtonpost.com: Oppo Man On the Attack (Post, Feb. 16, 2003)

Howard Kurtz: What the RNC put out about John Edwards -- and just about everyone else -- is true in the narrow sense of being factually accurate. That is, it's mostly a compilation of voting records, interest-group ratings and past clips. It is, of course, selective and reflects a partisan point of view. That's why folks like Russert are smart to double-check everything from a political organization. But Griffin and the RNC make that easier by listing citations for all the oppo stuff they put out.

New York, N.Y.: Hi Howard,

Here in New York City we were being subjected to the Orange Alert last week (not realizing that we had actually been there for the last year and a half) when on Friday I read an AP news item to the effect that the Orange Alert was based on the lengthy and imaginative testimony of a captured al Qaeda operative who subsequently failed a polygraph test -- after the alert had been given, of course. Thousands of us were changing plans, laying in water and wrapping ourselves in duct tape, all the time unaware that the basis for the alert was at that point pretty much invalid.

I noticed that news of this minor miscalculation was very slow to leak out, and that coverage of it was very spotty. If I hadn't been looking for it on the internet I would not have seen it.

Do you think it was because news media didn't feel up to contradicting the Homeland Security folks, or was it simply laziness that kept this information out of the hands of the general public for so long?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure why that report by ABC's Brian Ross didn't get more attention. I thought for sure it would be a front-page story the next day. In fairness to the homeland security folks, they say their alert was based on other information as well, including intercepts and a Muslim holiday period. But you may as well hold onto your duct tape -- I'm sure the heightened alerts will be back soon.

Bethesda, Md.:

I want to get your opinion on this. I feel that the anti-war movement is being allowed to get away with all kinds of ridiculous assumptions about why we are going to destroy the Iraqi regime. For example, they are allowed to state their anti-war views without being asked to state them in the context of the facts at hand. I.e. Saddam's defiance, Saddam's pursuit of wmd for 12 years, Saddam invading his neighbor, cutting checks to Hamas. Don't get me wrong I have respect for the anti-war view, but reporters should ask that these anti-war types state their positions with regard to the circumstances and facts at hand. They should be asked tough follow ups on the above actions of Saddam. Do you agree that the press has a job to get them to answer these questions along with letting them spout their views? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I do agree. The media should pay more attention to antiwar voices and press their spokesman as well. It's not enough to say you're for peace. What, if anything, would you do about Saddam? What about his history of lying about weapons of mass destruction? What is the alternative? Can containment really work in an era of terrorism? Anyone who wants to argue that the U.S. should not send in the troops now massed in the gulf has a responsibility to try to answer those questions.

Knoxville, Tenn.: Mr. Kurtz

On Saturday's CNN's "On the Story" Suzanne Malveaux said that when she has been traveling with Bush around the country that she has not seen too many protesters. Do you think you could inform Ms. Malveaux about the "First Amendment Zones" that the Secret Service sets up before the press corps arrives. They are to make sure the TV and photographers never see all the people there to object to this administration. The spoon-fed White House press corps might want to occasionally stick there heads up and see what real people are doing?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the context of her remarks. I'm sure she is well aware that it's often difficult for protestors to get anywhere near a president, although obviously they can do their thing outside the venues where he is speaking.

San Francisco, Calif.: I praise you on your important Dec. 16, 2002 piece on the Trent Lott story. It is a wonderful example of the power of good reporting.

Similar to the Trent Lott issue, I wonder why Rep Coble's recent remarks endorsing executive order 9066 have not made more of a stir?

Representative Coble, on a recent talk show (Feb 4, 2003), made the comment that he agreed with FDR's executive order 9066 and believes that the order was executed for the protection of the Japanese Americans who were as he says an "endangered species." He also makes the statement that there were Japanese Americans who were certainly out to do America harm. These are interesting comments as the choice of the word "species", is to directly imply that Japanese are a different species than his, the idea of needing protection implies that Japanese are weak and need protection and doing harm implies that all at the same time Japanese are "sneaky, inscrutable" and are not to be trusted. Careful examination of history in an official government inquiry led to the signing of the public apology and reparation payments signed by President Reagan in 1988.

As Chairman of the judicial subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, congressman Coble's prejudicial leadership is now directed at Arab Americans, who like the Japanese during WWII are terrified of drawing attention upon themselves and are trying to prove themselves patriots in any way they can. Like the Japanese Americans, they have no mainstream attention coming to their defense.

I am afraid that most of mainstream America is still in denial that internment ever occurred or on some level agrees with Rep. Coble. Feb. 19th is the 51st anniversary of the signing of executive order 9066. As a direct result of this order my parents age 8 and 10, my grandparents and all my aunts and uncles were removed from their schools and professions and sent to horse tracks around the country to live out the duration of the war behind barbed wire under the watchful eye of armed soldiers. This was essentially like being sent to prison. It has taken my parents years to deal with the confusion and shame of being proclaimed public criminals at such a crucial stage of their childhood.

There is an on-line petition that is beginning to gather steam calling for Rep. Coble to step down. You can see this poll here.

I believe that we as a nation are stronger because of our diversity and our acceptance of other cultures. We can not let racism, bias and hatred guide our collective decisions.

Keep up the good work!

Thanks for listening,

Stephen Nishimura, MD
Asst Prof
University of California at San Francisco

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. This was a blip of a story, reported in short form in my paper and others. Obviously, unlike Trent Lott, most people outside North Carolina have never heard of Howard Coble. I also think the congressman took some steam out of the story by apologizing for his remarks. But I'm still surprised it hasn't gotten more attention.

New York: Howard,

You published my note last week re the Code Orange bug on CNN. It looks like we, and common sense, won out as the bug disappeared this weekend. On a related note, what do you think of the coverage of the report that the Code Orange alert was based, at least in part, on false information? The media, and the White House, seemed to dismiss this fact as a minor detail. While I'm not a big "war-media" conspiracy theorist, the news networks did seem to gloss over this fact and plow on with reports on duct tape etc. Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: It may be that other news organizations had trouble confirming the ABC News report about the flunking of the polygraph. But as I said earlier, given the enormous attention to the alert, all the reporters rushing to hardware stores and sticking microphones in people's faces and asking them if they are scared, I'm surprised that piece of information didn't get bigger play. It did make you wonder why the authorities didn't give this guy the lie-detector test much earlier.

re: Bethesda, Md.: Sure, but shouldn't those spouting off about why we MUST go to war be held just as accountable? Seems there's a dearth of logical, legitimate reasoning on both sides.

Howard Kurtz: Um, it seems to me that those arguing for war - from the president to Powell to Condi to members of Congress - are constantly asked to justify their position, especially in light of growing overseas and U.N. opposition. We may or may not like their answers, but the questions are certainly being asked.

Folsom, Calif.: Bob Kaiser's editorial [Feb. 16] totally trivialized the antiwar movement and its communication's strategy capabilities, which last weekend produced the largest collective antiwar march in world history. Millions marched for peace. It was, no doubt, a communications strategy effort second to none. Let it be said, Kaiserism is Potemkinism.

washingtonpost.com: There's a Reason Why There Hasn't Been Much of a Fight, (Post, Feb. 16)

Howard Kurtz: You're certainly free to dismiss Kaiser's commentary piece in the Sunday paper. But I don't think it's fair to say it "trivialized" those opposed to the war.

Baton Rouge, La.: A liberal talk radio network? I'm sympathetic to the idea, but doesn't the timing leave a lot to be desired? Raking the administration over the coals when there is (potentially) a war going on doesn't sound like a recipe for success.

Howard Kurtz: The problem with such an idea (which has attracted some rich potential backers, according to the New York Times) goes well beyond the current situation with Iraq. While many conservatives see Rush, Sean, O'Reilly etc. as a welcome alternative to the liberal media, I'm not convinced there's any great hunger among liberals for a new network. They're much more likely to be satisfied by NPR and the rest of the mainstream media world. Previous attempts to launch liberal hosts (Mario Cuomo, Jim Hightower) have flopped. Al Franken, who is considering starting a show, is an entertaining guy, but it takes more than one funny liberal to make a network.

Kansas City, Mo.: Howard,

Regarding Tim Griffin, when Al Gore talked about the "Fifth column" and how news started at the RNC and moved up to the mainstream media it didn't seem people took him seriously. Yet your story seems to confirm his beliefs. Did Gore's statements lead you to look into the story?

Howard Kurtz: What led me to look into the story was the barrage of e-mails that I and a zillion other reporters get from the RNC. Gore's point was more along the lines of Limbaugh, the Washington Times, Fox etc. touting conservative charges that then make their way into the mainstream media. I can't see anything wrong with the RNC, in a public and up-front way, using cyberspace to put out its propaganda (as long as journalists fully check it out). The only surprise, to me, is that the DNC doesn't do more of this.

West Des Moines, Iowa: Howard: Quick question regarding the press coverage of the Estrada nomination: It seems apparent that the Democrats wish to block his appointment for reasons associated with "Roe v Wade." There has been little coverage along these lines. Are the inside media people focused on this angle?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure Estrada's views on abortion are a subtext here, as they are in nearly all these judicial nomination battles. But the larger question is whether a nominee can take the stealth route by refusing to discuss his views, and whether the Democrats can force the administration to cough up Estrada's confidential writings while in the solicitor general's office. So I think it's fair to say the Dems are concerned about more than just Roe v. Wade -- concerned enough to risk the potential fallout from filibustering a Hispanic nominee.

West Des Moines, Iowa: Howard:

National Public Radio has carried extensive "anti-war" coverage over the last three weeks. Given their reach, would I be wrong to conclude that the left (Democratic Party) has an established radio voice to counter the Limbaugh effect?

Howard Kurtz: The antiwar demonstrations are news -- arguably the biggest news last weekend aside from the snow. I don't see why covering the demonstrations should be viewed as having a "left" viewpoint. There are plenty of liberals, and Democrats, who support military action against Iraq.

Washington, DC: I know I am not the only one with this opinion, but I have to say that it is driving me crazy that the media often report that the U.S. may take "unilateral" action when the U.K., Spain, Italy, Portugal, Australia and various Eastern European countries are one the same side as the U.S. It seems that if we do not have France and Germany, we're being unilateral. I realize it's shorthand for saying "acting without a Security Council resolution" -- but say it accurately, for crying out loud. It's not unilateral unless one acts alone. Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: Good point. You anticipated my answer - shorthand for no Security Council backing. And clearly the U.S. will do most of the heavy lifting. But you're right, it's not unilateral, at least as long as Tony Blair and some of his European counterparts stand by Bush, and shouldn't be described that way.

Seattle, Wash.: Personally, I really like the idea of an Al Franken radio show. Does he have to have a whole network to make it work though?

Howard Kurtz: No. But he would have to do what every other potential radio host has to do -- find a way to get on the air in lots of major markets. That's a tough task. In Washington, for example, the main AM talk station, WMAL, already airs six hours of Limbaugh and Hannity in the afternoon. The main FM talk station puts on four hours of Howard Stern, followed by O'Reilly and the popular shock jocks Don & Mike. So there isn't a lot of daylight there.

Kansas City, Mo.: The reason a liberal radio network won't work is that, simply put, liberals want balanced news coverage while conservatives want to hear a conservative point of view. That's why NPR is a hit with liberals and FOX is a hit with conservatives. NPR is far more balanced than FOX, despite what conservatives say.

Howard Kurtz: I've always thought that the most popular programs do more than preach to the converted -- that is, appeal to people in the middle who aren't extreme partisans of either side.

Bethesda, Md.:
Rush Limbaugh, the biggest of the conservative personalities always says the American people would not put up with a liberal radio show host because while they are respected, they are seen as whiney and naysayers. Can you imagine 3 hours of radio where the host tells you you can't make it in America because right now the deck is stacked against you? Contrast that with the chest pumping, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps mentality of conservatives. Who'd you rather listen to? That is exactly why they have failed. Not even liberals like listening to other liberals -- it's depressing man!

Howard Kurtz: Your description sounds more like a conservative's fantasy of what a liberal talk show host would say. Someone who was both partisan and entertaining, along the lines of Carville, might find an audience. I'd agree, though, that sounding whiny is not a plus.

Washington, D.C.: Doesn't the DNC routinely offer talking points on topical subjects to reporters? And don't those talking points routinely make it onto the airwaves?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. Everyone puts out talking points. But what the RNC is doing is old-fashioned digging into the record of opponents, with lots of citations. Example: a talking point would be to say that Joe Lieberman has changed his position on affirmative action. An oppo-gram contains the exact quotes in which Lieberman questioned affirmative action, followed by his supporting affirmative action and insisting he's never changed his position. That has a bigger impact on the Russerts of the world than just partisan rhetoric.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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