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Media Backtalk
With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, April 7, 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.

Southside, Va.: Howard --

Always enjoy the columns and chats. Like all of us, I grieve for Kelly and Bloom and others and do not wish to sound callous, but should the question be asked: Are all these correspondents really equipped to go into some pretty horrible, dangerous, grueling conditions, all (essentially) in the name of ratings or readership? It's important work and needs to be done, but do you think the media organizations are so interested in chasing stories that they endanger people and send people who shouldn't go? Daniel Pearl (whom I also grieve, as well as his wife and child) simply should not have been in the place he found himself without bodyguards or other controls. Thanks, Howard.

Howard Kurtz: The truth is, no one goes into a war without being fully aware of the risks. News organizations don't "send" people -- they recruit volunteers. Bloom and Kelly, as much as anyone, knew they were putting their lives on the line but felt compelled to be there for the story. All too often we take this kind of courage for granted until someone is killed.

Las Vegas, Nev.: Early this morning, while watching the War coverage in Iraq, there was a report regarding Col. Dowdy being relieved of duty. He was with the 1st Marines Div. The embedded reporter for that division is Bob Arnot. Today there is absolutely no mention of this incident in the TV news or on the Internet news. What is going on and why would that information be kept from the public? ODD. What happened?

Howard Kurtz: The Washington Post had a front-page story on this over the weekend. It has not, however, been much of a television story. In fairness to embedded reporters like Arnot, it's probably impossible when you're out in the field to find out anything about a decision in Washington to replace a top commander.

Philadelphia, Pa.: You gave coverage last week to the cat fight between MSNBC and Fox News over their respective problems with reporters. In reality, was it really appropriate for either network to trumpet the other's problem as "news"?

Howard Kurtz: It was news in the sense that both the Peter Arnett and Geraldo Rivera embarrassments were legitimate stories that had to be reported. But when these get put into promo spots as a way of dissing the competition, my sense is that most viewers would say, Come on, guys, grow up, there's a war on.

Harrisburg, Pa.: With the recent deaths of Michael Kelly and David Bloom, is there going to be a "re-think" on the practice of embedded journalism? Personally, I hope not. It has given almost unprecedented access to the media (and thus, the American people) of the workings of our military, and has helped viewers (and perhaps the media outlets, too) to better understand what our service people are doing. While the standard "War is a dangerous business" was bandied about in the buildup and opening phases, it REALLY hits home when someone who is in the public eye suddenly is killed. My thoughts go out to the families of these two journalists, and to the families of our dead servicemembers.

Howard Kurtz: Amen. But despite these tragic deaths, I think the embedded program is working well. News organizations like it because they get access to the front lines. The Pentagon likes it because it humanizes the tale of our fighting men and women. The public should like it because it's providing, by and large, an unvarnished view of the battle. Unfortunately, there's no risk-free way to cover a war, and if journalists get embedded, some of them are going to get killed.

Frederick, Md.: Howard, do you know how the rescue of PFC Lynch and the Iraqi who risked his life to save her have been portrayed in Al-Jezeera and other Arab outlets? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Dunno. I'd suspect it's not much of a story. We now get al-Jazeera in the office here, but since I don't speak Arabic, I'm reduced to having to decode the pictures. Right now they're showing some buildings in Iraq that have been reduced to rubble, and the camera lingered on a child's teddy bear.

Arlington, Va.: Why did the tag "conservative" have to follow Michael Kelly's eulogies on NPR, CNN et al? Why couldn't it just be, "Michael Kelly, columnist for The Washington Post and editor-at-large for the Atlantic, died in tragic accident?" Why try to label someone, rather than celebrate his accomplishments and life? Very sad and disappointing.

Howard Kurtz: It's just a fact, like saying that he once worked for the New York Times and the New Yorker. Kelly wrote an opinion column in which he became prominent by kicking the living crap out of Bill Clinton. He was also fired as editor of the New Republic over his skewering of Clinton and Gore. He was a brilliant magazine editor and by all accounts a lovely guy, but the fact that he was a very opinionated writer doesn't need to be glossed over amid the eulogies.

Boulder, Colo.: A free and independent press seems key to any successful democracy. Do you think there will be any effort by media organizations such as the New York Times or The Washington Post to assist Iraqis establish a free press in post-war Iraq?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think they need any assistance. If there is to be a free press in post-Saddam Iraq, it will have to be created by the Iraqis themselves, not by some journalistic export. I do think that will be a key test of how much of a democracy will be allowed to take root in Iraq.

Dunkirk, Md.: This isn't a question, but just a word of appreciation for NBC's David Bloom. Not only was he an outstanding journalist, but many of us knew him, when he and his family lived here in D.C., as a very engaged, caring father. He served on school committees, gave freely of his time and was, to put it simply, just a great guy. He will be sorely missed as a reporter and as a friend.

Howard Kurtz: Well said. He was a terrific guy, and I don't know anyone who didn't like him.

Crofton, Md.: Just wanted to pay tribute to David Bloom and Michael Kelly, two outstanding journalists that we lost too soon. It is heartbreaking to have lost these two men in their prime, and their loss leaves a void for me, and certainly for their families, friends and colleagues. I know they died doing work that they loved and valued, even though it placed them in harm's way. I feel as if I've lost two friends.

Howard Kurtz: That's the interesting thing about journalism, that people we've never met somehow become part of our extended family because they manage, through their words and images, to touch our lives. Bloom and Kelly, though very different personally and from different parts of the business, are prime examples of that.

Kensington, Md.: Hi Mr. Kurtz,

We all listen to the Iraqi Information Minister say that U.S. troops are nowhere near Baghdad when the troops are right around the block from where he's speaking, and we laugh. Yet I get the impression that some in the media -- and by extension we not in the media -- listen to Gen. Brooks, for instance, and assume he's telling the precise truth. I understand the role of misinformation, but I wonder, how much skepticism does/should the media give to military spokespersons? What screens for misinformation are there? And what is the media perception of this military's forthrightness? Thanks

Howard Kurtz: That's hardly a fair comparison. The Iraqi guy has become a laughable figure as he insists there are no Americans in Baghdad and that U.S. forces are getting slaughtered, despite substantial evidence to the contrary. Brooks, like any military briefer, is obviously going to put the best face on things -- the plan is going well, etc., even if it's not going all that well. But he is not denying U.S. casualties when they occur. He is not saying U.S. troops are someplace where they aren't. In short, he isn't lying.

Arlington, Va.: I have to strongly disagree with the term "killed," in reference to the untimely passing of David Bloom, as written in today's "Media Notes." Someone who dies because of some internal trauma like a bloodclot or heart attack is usually not deemed to have been "killed." For instance would one ever say after the recent passing of Senator Moynihan that he had been killed?

Howard Kurtz: It may not have been the best choice of words, but I believe his death was war-related. If he wasn't spending all those hours sleeping in a cramped tank, he probably wouldn't have gotten the blood clot in his leg. And if he had gotten such a clot back in New York, he likely would have received instant medical attention and been saved.

Vienna, Va.: Howard, do you think that simple removal from his MSNBC job was enough punishment for Peter Arnett? I don't. The State Department and the Supreme Court should seriously consider stripping him of American citizenship and barring him from entering the country. Normally I'm for giving people a break, but not this time -- he has had too many already.

Howard Kurtz: Stripping his citizenship? Get real. The man blew up his career and lost his job. I certainly don't think he got off easy.

4th Estate: Howard,
As a journalist myself, with co-workers in Iraq, I'm a bit divided over all the coverage Bloom and Kelly are getting. They were high-profile figures and both put their lives on the line for the job. It's admirable. But part of me is a bit embarrassed by the full blown coverage -- your tribute to Bloom in today's paper, the multiple articles about Kelly over the weekend, including a Post editorial. Meanwhile, countless nameless soldiers are being injured, some killed.
Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: As I wrote this morning:
Those of us in the news business probably make too much of journalists in time of war, when American soldiers take far greater risks. We tend to be a clannish bunch, and everyone feels it when one of our number goes down in the line of duty.
Yes, American soldiers take greater risks, and most of them don't receive this kind of attention when they are killed or wounded. But Bloom and Kelly managed to touch a lot of people through their writing and reporting, so naturally there's a lot of public interest in their tragic deaths.

Takoma Park, Md.:

With the war won (hopefully) do you think some of those reporters, ie the Posts Atkinson, Newsweek, ect. Should be laughed at for suggesting, the war was going badly and that the military had miscalculated. I mean here is the military insisting things were going according to plan, they didn't desperately need the 4th ID and the press didn't believe them. I believe the military now and wonder why the Post didn't take them at their word.

Howard Kurtz: No newspaper or newsmagazine declared that the war was going badly, though the stories about stiff Iraqi resistance, friendly fire incidents and so on might have created that impression. Our Pentagon reporter wrote a piece quoting current and retired military officials as questioning the war plan and speculating that the war could drag on for months. They now look to have been seriously wrong, but we quote people all the time who turn out to be wrong (about elections, the economy, etc.). In this war, unlike any other, viewers and readers could vacuum up lots of real-time information from the media and make their own judgment about how the war was going.

Arlington, Va.: Howard, could you comment on the strange dissonance in the Iraqi Information Minister giving foreign reporters a 180 degree different story than one that our networks are giving us? The other day, he offered to take reporters to the airport the next day in order to show them that Iraqis were still in charge. How is this playing in the non-U.S,. part of the world?

Howard Kurtz: Don't know about the last part, but my sense is that the esteemed information minister will still be proclaiming there are no U.S. troops in Baghdad when he's behind bars.

Boston, Mass.: When is the Jessica Lynch made for TV movie coming out? Has the media gone a bit overboard with her rescue?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. But it was a heck of a dramatic rescue. We in the press always look for ways to humanize a story, and to have this daring raid to free an injured POW - who happens to be a young woman - based on a tip from a disaffected Iraqi is certainly movie-of-the-week stuff. It's hard to absorb the blur of information about this war sometimes, but Saving Private Lynch has a nice, clear plot line.

Charlotte, N.C.: In this morning's Chicago Sun Times, Phil Rosenthal writes that some perspective is needed on the death of David Bloom, that the media should be careful not to make it seem as though the death of a reporter, from natural causes, was more important than the death of any American or member of the allies just because he was a famous face. He pointed to the special coverage from Bloom's colleagues at NBC and the amount of time and space devoted to his death by the various media.

May I offer a different kind of perspective? When someone who is part of our cultural landscape dies, it is not that this person's death is more important or that we grieve any more. It is that our cultural -- or mental -- landscape has been disturbed. This is what happened when Diana, princess of Wales died, or when Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, or... well, anyone famous dies or is stricken with an awful illness. You're just so accustomed to seeing them that they take on an aspect of fictionality, I suppose -- never changing, never harmed, certainly never dying. It's jarring when a reality smoothed over by a layer of fiction is disturbed. So we're not any more saddened by David Bloom's death than anyone else in Iraq -- we're just shocked that it happened and we're trying to realign our sense of what is real.

Howard Kurtz: In the larger scheme of things, no one life is worth more than anyone else's. But Bloom was not only famous through television, he was on the air, round the clock, from his tank vehicle, narrating the march to Baghdad. I don't think he'd want to be portrayed as a hero. Rather, he was a passionate journalist who put aside his cushy anchor job and risked his life in pursuit of the story. End of epitaph.

Lexington Park, Md.: Howard, how do they select which media organizations get to sit in on the CentCom briefing every morning? It seems every day there are at least two super stupid questions being asked. The most memorable so far, for me that is, is the journalist, from Hong Kong I believe, that asked what our retreat plan was for when things start to go bad. It was a highly leading question and completely out of line.

Do the officials ever frown on this type of question? Like, enough of them and you're not invited back?

Howard Kurtz: Reporters from any accredited news organization that's willing to spring for the plane ticket can get into the briefings. As for dumb questions, I suppose the briefer can always skip over someone who asked a particularly hostile or idiotic question the last time. But that's true at any press conference.

Washington, D.C.:
Hi Howard:

In my humble opinion that catfight between Fox News and MSNBC was totally appropriate. That was a critique of their style of reporting. Think of it this way, knowing what we know about Arnett's past going back to Vietnam and his Tailwind story that turned out to be totally untrue, MSNBC should have NEVER hired the guy. It is telling that anti American guys seem to get a pass in the liberal mainstream media. Birds of a feather flock together and that is the case Fox made quite effectively. I bet MSNBC loses more viewers and NBC should lose some credibility too.

Howard Kurtz: Without agreeing that Peter Arnett is anti-American, I utterly fail to see how he got a pass in the "liberal" media. NBC both dumped him and dumped on him, and every newspaper and network in America, liberal or otherwise, prominently played the story (I wrote two), and almost no one defended the guy.

Woodbridge, Va.: MOST DRAMATIC COVERAGE: I'm kind of surprised that what I think is one of the biggest media stories coming out of the war has received relatively little attention here. The BBC yesterday carried some amazing footage of the friendly fire bombing that killed eighteen Kurds over the weekend, and came close to killing the BBC group accompanying them. The clip shows the group of Kurds plus BBC walking through a grassy area; then suddenly all is confusion, noise, yelling, some screaming; the camera careens around and you see red blobs over the picture; it becomes obvious blood has spurted onto the lens; people running; the camera focuses on the BBC reporter who is limping and has lost one pants leg, but who begins to narrate the event to the camera anyway; they state that their translator who was close to them is severely injured (he died shortly afterward). American media reported the Kurds death, the presence of the BBC group, but showed only the pictures of the burned out vehicles. It seemed to me that this BBC tape shows the utter confusion of an attack without including anything that is taboo on American TV, like bodies. It also is the most amazing story about a reporter that I have seen. The reported said he saw the bomb coming out of the plane; he said it hit about ten meters from him. The story is on the BBC news site and so is the video clip, although it loses some of its vividness when shown on a two inch square on the computer screen. I don't remember the exact title but it is something like "the scene from hell".

Howard Kurtz: It sounds pretty awful. American TV has covered it, but it's true that the American networks shy away from pictures of dead bodies. There have been more explicit pictures of casualties in the newspapers, which are sometimes overlooked in terms of their contribution to war coverage, as I argue in my print column today.

Boston, Mass.: A real poll (not an on-line poll) released in mid-March by CNN showed that about half of all Americans think that Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks. How do you and others in the media interpret this? That the media have failed to properly make clear that there is no credible evidence for such a proposition; that the Bush Administration has been wildly successful in promoting this proposition despite the lack of such evidence as a means to gain support for the war; that the opinions of the American people are simply (and sadly) and easily manipulated; all of the above?


Howard Kurtz: I don't know what to make of it. Not even the Bush administration has contended that Saddam was "behind" 9/11, though it's certainly argued that he has links to terrorist groups. Maybe Americans are just naturally suspicious of someone who gasses his own people.

Philadelphia, Pa.: Re: David Bloom.

Because I have an odd work schedule on weekdays, I never really have time to see the news shows on TV. The only chance I have to watch the news is on Saturdays when David Bloom hosted "Today".

For some reason, the way he delivered his commentary always interested me. Comparing him to Matt Lauer or Tom Brokaw, I would characterize his delivery as forceful without being patronizing. You could always tell he really enjoyed his job and what he was doing.

That said, am I the only one who felt NBC went a bit overboard in memorializing Mr. Bloom?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, NBC probably went a bit overboard. So what? These are the people who knew and loved him, who knew his wife and three young daughters. Katie Couric looked absolutely shattered yesterday. Do news outlets make too much of the passing of one of their own, even if it's only from old age? Probably. That's human nature.

Chicago, Ill.: I saw most of the tributes to Michael Kelly you referenced were from the right. I always viewed Kelley as one of those conservatives who could only see things in black or white (expect of course for questions on the financial affairs of a company). Outside the right how did people view him?

Howard Kurtz: I think lots of liberals and people in between admired him as a forceful writer and incredibly talented magazine editor, even if they didn't always agree with his anti-Clinton/Gore and pro-Bush pieces. Maureen Dowd eulogized her friend yesterday and she's certainly no right-winger.

Crackpot-ville?: Howard:

In alternative Web sites, you often read about the influence of the Project for a New American Century on the administration's war plans. What is the mainstream press' opinion of persons who do indeed think that this organization has a lot of influence on this Administration?

Howard Kurtz: I wrote about this group, and its cofounder, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, just before the war started. I don't know that there's one "mainstream press" view of it. Certainly there's a recognition that Kristol and his neoconservative brethren have been pushing for Saddam's ouster for a long time. The fact that Kristol, back in 1998, could get the likes of Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz and other future Bush officials to sign a manifesto demanding that Clinton work to topple Saddam is one of those historical twists that loom large only in retrospect.

Orange, Va.: I hate to speak ill of the recently departed Michael Kelly, especially given his courageous decision to return to the field of reporting in such a dangerous environment, but was there ever any thought that he had become a little too Johnny One Note in incessant harping on Clinton, Gore, and even more recently, the Democrats in general. I agree with some of his criticism -- especially of Clinton and the Democrats -- but after awhile the sheer vitriol and frequency of his attacks got more than a little predictable. It was like reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Howard Kurtz: Sure, some people thought he had gone way over the top during the Clinton administration. He was a man of very strong views. Lately, though, his main obsession seemed to be that the United States had to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and it was that conviction that led him to return to the gulf for his second tour of war coverage.

Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard:

All of us who have watched the war unfold on television admire the courage, tenacity and skill of David Bloom and lament his tragic demise.

Having said that, is it just me or did the news of his death quickly eclipse that of Michael Kelly, an equally stellar journalist who toiled in a different medium -- print?

It seems to me -- and your piece in today's paper dealt with this -- that the print guys (and gals) have provided equally valuable coverage of this conflict. Kelly was a bona fide phenomenon in the print world. It would be nice to see the networks give the same due as the newspapers are giving Bloom.

Thanks for your insightful reporting.

Howard Kurtz: I thought television really gave Kelly short shrift on Friday -- a still picture and a couple of sentences. The networks' view is that you can't really be famous unless you're on television. There's no question that Bloom was more famous and reached more people, but Kelly probably had a greater intellectual impact on journalism. It's nice that many of his print colleagues have written tributes to him, but because he didn't play TV's game -- he turned down most invitations -- he was treated as a minor figure.

Arlington, Va.: This is just my opinion, but I'm curious on your thoughts -- when did this country become so angry? Never before have I heard such scathing comments on a daily basis in the mainstream press. There's this uber-patriotic, my way or no way sentiment in people that is frightening -- stripping Anti-war protestors and journalists of their citizenship? Are you kidding me?! I know some would say its a reaction to 9/11 but wouldn't one think that would bring people together, not divide? Are these people the majority of the country or are they just yelling the loudest? What has happened to common sense and balance?

Howard Kurtz: War has a way of bringing great passions to the fore. And that's understandable, since the stakes are never higher. A debate about some Iraq-war-on-the-horizon six months ago simply doesn't have the same urgency as a debate when people on both sides are being killed.

Los Angeles, Calif.: Howard, hello,

Like many people, I was surprised that once the war started Fox maintained its U.S. ratings lead over CNN (although CNN apparently has a much larger worldwide audience). So, to me, it seems that Fox's mantras of "fair and balanced" and "we report, you decide" prove the old saying that "you can fool some of the people all of the time." But do Fox news people really believe they are objective? Do most media people? Do politicians? Do you?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. They believe they're telling both sides of the story and that the rest of the media tilts away from the conservative viewpoint. Fox's anchors are certainly making no bones about being strongly in support of this war.

Maryland: With all due respect, Mr. Bloom's tragic death had nothing to do with the fact that he was embedded with a military unit. His condition could have struck at any time and was not a direct consequence of the war.

Mr. Kelly's death, of course, while the result of an accident rather than a combat injury, was a result of the war, if indirectly. However, I think the general public fails to realize that MANY journalists are killed each year all over the world in pursuit of their stories. The jobs of field journalists are quite risky at times.

Howard Kurtz: As I said earlier, I view David Bloom's death as war-related, even though he wasn't felled by a bullet or a bomb. But it's certainly true that courageous journalists are killed all over the world, in relative obscurity compared to an American network star.

Washington, D.C. : There's been much attention paid to pan-Arab anger at the U.S. But, little of this has focused on the Arab media's role in shaping these opinions. I'd hate the U.S. portrayed in these highly subjective and often completely fiction reports too! These papers have carried reports of U.S. soldiers routinely raping women and children and nuclear weapons detonated.

(By the way, do you ever read Pravda's English language site? They've really gone off the deep end too.)

Is there any hope that the Arab media will become more even handed?

Howard Kurtz: I've read many articles on this subject since 9/11 and believe this is an important factor in stoking anti-American anger in the Arab world. I think we need to become more aware of it, but I'm not sure there is much we can do about it, despite the administration's efforts to sell its side of the story. And the Arab media's heavy focus on civilian casualties in this war is probably making things worse.

Project for a New American Century: Uh...er... it also pushes for picking fights with Syria (gee, who are we picking a fight with for unproven administration allegations of arms sales?), Iran and others. Basically a "Pax Americana" of violently enforced "regime change" across the entire Middle East.

I noticed you skipped that part in the "Sanitized For Your Protection" response. Just thought I'd help here.

Howard Kurtz: I was not attempting to describe the entire foreign policy of the project, just reflect on its role in spurring action against Iraq. You sound like you may disagree with its approach just a little bit.

Dupont, Washington, D.C.: Since you get a feed from al-Jazeera at the Post, I'd assume that someone there speaks Arabic, right? How many? At what level are they? Do you have people getting training in it now?

When I took Arabic in college 10 years ago, people thought I was insane. And at the time -- just 10 years ago -- I saw in a newspaper article, I was one of only 4,400 students taking Arabic in the entire United States. Makes it less of a mystery why it takes the government so darn long to get things translated!

Howard Kurtz: There are probably just a handful of people here familiar with Arabic. And I've been thinking it would be helpful to have many, many more with U.S. forces as they attempt to take over and then temporarily run things in Iraq.

West Des Moines, Iowa: The "war news" has taken much of the spotlight off the early campaign efforts of the democrats. I view this as good -- the cycle will be long enough in 04. Do you suspect that the spotlight will shift in the next few weeks back to the candidates? And, if the war goes well, will the press approach Dean in a different way? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I think the spotlight will slowly return to the presidential race, and that there's plenty of time for us all to get sick of it. Howard Dean's campaign will look different after a successful war not because of anything the press does, but because the debate will have shifted and the antiwar stance that brought him lots of rank-and-file attention will involve an issue that will be in the past, though the debate about Iraq certainly won't vanish.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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