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Media Backtalk
With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, April 14, 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.

Fairfax, Va.: Howard,

I have two things. First, we're hearing, more and more, about the "wish to replace all the middle east dictatorships with democracy," as though if they just say it often enough, when they start doing it, we'll all be comfortable with it. We won't. Did you see Mr. Raspberry's column today?

Second, I'm afraid the coalition has made a terrible error in not stopping the looting. According to the news, the Muslim clerics have stepped in and I would think that would be the LAST thing the Powers That Be would want. It's sad and awful to see the museums vandalized -- I don't, personally, get the point of that, since those museums existed before Saddam, and have nothing to do with him, but everything to do with the study of civilization -- and the medical facilities looted. Coalition forces could have policed that, but sat back and watched, and now the fundamentalists will have a toe hold. I hope we all don't live to regret that.

Howard Kurtz: I think the initial failure to at least try to curtail the looting was a spectacular miscalculation. I understand that the soldiers were still fighting and had to be concerned about their own safety, but it was the official administration policy not to bother with the looters -- until the scale of the plundering got out of control. Didn't it occur to anyone that not only would the pictures look terrible, but that ordinary Iraqis would form a negative impression of what their liberators had wrought? The ultimate blame lies with the rampaging looters, but the military -- and the media -- didn't take this seriously enough at first.

Colchester, Vt.: I wonder what you think about the reporting of the Post's Anthony Shadid from Baghdad?

It seems that much more than many of the better known reporters there, he has provided the kind of detailed and nuanced reporting that has really captured the complexity of the situation in Baghdad both during and after the fall of Baghdad. As opposed to the kind of bipolar kind of reporting that asks merely whether the Iraqis are with us or against us, Shadid is providing a much more comprehensive understanding of the situation and of Iraqi attitudes and motivations that will be essential in order to achieve a political victory in Iraq. (I hope the U.S. government has similar resources on the ground.)

All along Shadid has seemed less reluctant than other reporters to move beyond the confines of the Palestine Hotel. In addition, the ability of other journalists to report was affected, at least temporarily by the loss of translators (John Burns, for example).

Do you think the quality of Shadid's reporting from Baghdad will encourage other news organizations of the value of having foreign reporters, who have a greater ability to blend in and can speak the language of the country they are reporting from? It seems like such a tremendous advantage for a reporter to have.

washingtonpost.com: Full Coverage: Anthony Shadid

Howard Kurtz: I've never met the guy but I think his reporting has been absolutely terrific. The Post hired him about a year ago from the Boston Globe. He speaks Arabic, I am told, which is undoubtedly a big help in divining the views of the local populace. I recall that he was shot while covering the Israeli-Palestinian struggle for the Globe. This is a reporter who does not lack for courage.

Marion, Ohio: The statue toppling was a staged event with 150 carefully chosen people flown in for the occasion (see aerial photo link). Why does the media report the lie instead of the truth? Does FOX have the rest of the media THAT scared that they have to lie also?

Howard Kurtz: Don't know what you base your indictment on, but I've seen absolutely no evidence that anyone was "flown in" or that the scene was in any way staged. The Marines obviously facilitated the toppling of the statue when the Iraqis with their axes were unable to bring it down.

Washington, D.C.: I'd give the media an "A" in reporting details on the war in Iraq in real-time, but at best a "C" on reporting on the political, cultural, historical background on Iraq, about which Americans know so little (the "Post" did carry one very good article on the history of the British in Iraq, in the "Style" section). Your view?

Howard Kurtz: Culture and history are never our strong suit on breaking stories. But this was an area where newspapers did a creditable job. I learned a lot from some of the sidebar pieces on, for example, the history of animosity between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, or the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 (if memory serves). In other words, the information was out there for those motivated enough to go looking for it.

Cincinnati, Ohio: I hope you will be covering the astounding column in the New York Times by Eason Jordan regarding what CNN knew and didn't report. This is a major story considering their slanted war coverage. They are all too ready to report alleged atrocities by U.S. forces and not so quick to report what they knew firsthand. I can understand them not reporting these specific instances, but to have slanted their reporting in support to the regime is disgusting.

Also a caller to Rush just brought up how close was Eason to Uday that Uday confided that he was planning to murder his brother-in-laws. How nice he notified the King of Jordan. What about the poor sots who were going to be murdered. If he truly thought he and the interpreter were the only ones who knew and didn't tell to protect the interpreter then he can not claim that this was typical bluster from Uday. We must assume they had a close relationship.

Does CNN also have a nice close relationship with Castro and are we being treated to only one side of the situation in Cuba. The possibilities are endless in the world.

They disgust me.

Look forward to seeing your coverage of this issue.

Howard Kurtz: I deal with this in today's Media Notes print column. I don't agree that CNN's coverage has been "slanted," but I do think it raises all kinds of questions that the network sat on disturbing stories of human rights abuses, as Jordan now acknowledges. I asked about his relationship with Uday and he says they were not close but that Uday just went berserk in making these threats (which prompted Jordan to warn King Hussein). His rationale is that CNN could not have reported the specifics without jeopardizing lives, including those of the network's Iraqi employees in Baghdad, but I don't find that explanation entirely convincing. CNN could have just pulled up stakes in Baghdad rather deal with these thugs, but was unwilling to do so.

Philadelphia, Pa.: How can CNN maintain any kind of credibility after one of its executives admits to suppressing stories for years? That would seem like a cardinal sin of journalism, and it would be very hard for CNN to ever gain credence again.

Howard Kurtz: I think they've taken a hit. There are lots of instances of news organizations withholding information (such as troop movements or imminent arrests) that could jeopardize people's lives, but usually the information gets published after the crisis has passed. In this case you have CNN's top news executive acknowledging that the network suppressed important stories about Saddam's regime for a dozen years. That makes the situation very different.

Columbia, Md.: Watching the coverage of the war on all three cable news channels was a good way to get a variety of viewpoints on the war and that was a good thing. My question is why do we seem to see so many articles by the "mainstream news" complaining about Fox News' supposed pro-America, pro-Bush administration stance, yet there is almost nothing about CNN having a presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Wesley Clark, as its main analyst. It seems to me it would be a conflict of interest for a Democratic candidate to be given a platform by CNN to bash the Bush Administration on a daily basis since it would only help Clark in his bid for the White House. Do you believe there is a double standard here?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the key word is "presumed." Wesley Clark has denied he's going to run, though he clearly has encouraged some of the speculation. Far worse, in my view, was CNN providing a platform to Pat Buchanan between his three presidential campaigns, when it was entirely clear that he was going to run again. In this case the situation is more ambiguous, but if Clark takes even a small step toward forming an exploratory committee or otherwise organizing a campaign, CNN should drop him immediately.

Long Beach, Calif.: What exactly did France do that has the administration and most of America so ticked-off?

Howard Kurtz: Not just opposing the war but repeatedly threatening to veto a Security Council resolution authorizing action against Iraq. It's more clear now than it was before, I believe, that simply giving the inspectors more time would have resolved the crisis. The Army now says it has discovered 11 chemical-biological labs buried to avoid detection, though what those labs contain has not yet been established.

Long Beach, Calif.: I consider the Pentagon asleep at the wheel for allowing the US flag to go up in Baghdad.
Does symbolism mean anything to the military mind?

Howard Kurtz: When you say the Pentagon "allowed" it, what actually happened was that one soldier climbed the statue and briefly placed the flag over Saddam's face. He apparently thought better of the symbolism, though, and it quickly came down.

Washington, D.C.: A little over a week ago NPR reported that Marines had found some missiles with chemical weapon warheads (sarin and mustard gas) "ready to fly" and breathlessly reported it. This weekend The Post reported that not only were there no missiles, but the Pentagon denied that such a report was ever made by the Marines. Has NPR run a retraction? What do you think about the normally staid news organization fighting so hard for a scoop that they refused to apply a modicum of skepticism to a report that was utterly incredible? Has the "too good to check" sensibility invaded even NPR?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't hear the NPR report, but if so they had plenty of company. Fox, among others, was also aggressively reporting the chemical discovery that turned out to be pesticides. We'll have to wait and see if this latest find of chem-bio labs turns out to be anything. The lesson here is that journalists need to be careful about initial fragmentary reports in wartime or they wind up doing a lot of backtracking.

Chicago, Ill.: Howard -- I've been making a concerted effort to read a wide variety of international news sources over the past few weeks to gauge international opinion and also to get different perspectives on events. I'm consistently amazed at some of the things reported by the foreign press (especially sources like Pravda and many of the Arab media outlets) -- many of the stories seem sensationalist and (as well as I can judge) patently false. This is in addition to the "hard news" stories that are peppered with commentary posing as fact. Regardless of their slant, it seems that many of the Western news outlets do their best to get as much confirmation as possible and to avoid running false stories, perhaps at least partially because there is such a sense of self-awareness in the media. My question: Do you think we there are different standards of journalist "truth" or "fact" practiced outside the West? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Hard to generalize. In the British press, for example, you have not just sensational tabloids but papers that clearly embrace left-wing or right-wing ideology. On the other hand, some foreign accounts have been more explicit about Iraqi casualties, more skeptical of Pentagon accounts, etc. Whether that's an improvement or not depends on your view. The most fascinating finding in a Pew survey I reported on last week is that far more people opposed to the war are critical of the media's coverage, compared to those who support the war.

Washington, D.C.: How do you think the Iraq situation and coverage has affected how the American public thinks of the press in general?

How has Iraq affected how members of the press think about the press in general?

Is embedding here to stay?

washingtonpost.com: Down in the Trenches, Up in the Public's Opinion (Post, April 14, 2003)

Howard Kurtz: Several polls indicate that the public view of the media has soared during the war. This is not just because of the obvious bravery of the embedded reporters, I believe, but because the news business is at its best when it's blanketing serious and important breaking stories, as opposed to hyping tales of killer sharks or missing children or sex-starved public officials. We saw the same boost in public esteem after 9/11. But the media's approval ratings soon returned to the gutter as the coverage drifted back to "normal," and I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happens over the next couple of months.


You just said that giving inspectors more time WOULD have resolved the crisis. Did you misspeak (or in this case mistype)? Didn't you mean that giving them more time WOULDN'T have resolved the crisis?

Howard Kurtz: My fingers got out ahead of my brain. I meant to say that giving the inspectors more time would never have resolved the standoff or forced Iraq to come clean.

Boston, Mass.: Why are so many people obsessed with the idea that the media are hopelessly biased one way or the other? This tendency seems much more pronounced recently with coverage of the war.

Conservatives talk about "liberal" journalists with a reflexively anti-US worldview, while liberals talk about "corporate" media wrapping themselves round the flag and how we're not getting the full story.

It seems to me that people want to justify their own position with the thought that, "If you knew the REAL truth, you would agree with me too."

The fact that the other 49 percent of the country continues to disagree is taken as evidence that the media have failed, rather than simply that others draw different conclusions.

Howard Kurtz: In a nutshell, when people feel passionately about an issue, they are much more likely to have strong views about the media coverage of that issue. This war is no exception, and the Pew poll I just mentioned makes clear that public perceptions of the coverage are heavily influenced by personal opinions. We saw the same phenomenon during the Lewinsky scandal and the 2000 Florida fiasco, where pro- or anti-Clinton people, or Republicans and Democrats, had very different views of how the press was handling those controversies. The greater division there is in the country, the more likely there are to be polarized views of the press.

Washington, D.C.: Do you think the media has done a good job examining the stated motivations behind this war? For instance, the fact that 50 percent of Americans believe that Saddam was significantly involved in 9/11 seems to me to be a massive failure on the part of news organizations to provide a compelling alternative to the administration's public justifications for attacking Iraq.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure the media should take the blame on that one. Lots of stories were written and broadcast making clear that there was almost no evidence of Iraqi involvement in 9/11. Even more stories reported on the debate over the administration's motivations -- oil, grudge match against Saddam, imperialism, intimidating other countries, or enforcing the '91 agreement to get rid of WMD.

Chicago, Ill.: Can we go a bit further into the CNN debacle?
Eason Jordan all but admitted that CNN's coverage in Iraq was softened so they could stay there while Saddam was in charge. He acknowledged that they didn't report some of Saddam's horrific human rights abuses. So why should we trust anything CNN does from Syria or Cuba today? Indeed, how can anyone claim today that CNN is a trustworthy news operation after these admissions?

Howard Kurtz: Jordan didn't admit that CNN softened its coverage. In fact, he told me that the Iraqis so disliked CNN's reporting that they kicked the network out a half-dozen times. What he did acknowledge that in several specific instances -- including the torture of a CNN cameraman and assassination threats by Saddam's son Uday -- CNN felt it could not report the information without jeopardizing people's lives. That has understandably given lots of people the impression that the network pulled its punches in order to maintain its presence in Baghdad.

Alexandria, Va.: How big of a hit has the Arab media taken? It seems to me that they were saying what their audience wanted to hear rather than what was actually happening.

For weeks, Al-Jazzera among others were broadcasting the outright lies by the Iraqi Information Minister and treating it as credible. Then all of a sudden when the Iraqis said they were winning, Baghdad is fallen and the regime calls in sick. If I were basing my account off of Al-Jazzera I would be wondering "What the h-ll happened?"

Howard Kurtz: Hard for me to judge. Depends in part on what other sources of information the Arab audience has access to. I don't think al-Jazeera, for example, conveyed the impression that the Americans were winning the war so much as highlighting what were depicted as brutal tactics by focusing repeatedly on Iraqi casualties. (Al-Jazeera aksi carried Rumsfeld briefings and other U.S. statements.) The network takes the same approach by emphasizing Palestinian victims in the conflict with Israel, and is therefore playing to the prejudices of its audience.

On the beach: Do you think the coverage of Iraq will remain so intense through the summer months that the American public will be insufficiently informed if there is another wave of shark attacks? 2003 could be another Summer of Sharks and we won't even know it because all the media wants to talk about is Iraq.

Howard Kurtz: On the contrary, I think the sharks (and similar stories) are poised for a comeback. With the war petering out, the networks are already bringing back their star correspondents. While Iraq will remain a story because of the presence of large numbers of American troops, I suspect that within a few weeks we'll be reading and seeing more of the usual celebrity fluff and infotainment that was briefly overshadowed by the war.

Wheeling, W.Va.: Why are so many in the press falling all over themselves to tell us that Bush's gamble has paid off? Everyone knew that we'd beat the stuffing out of Iraq on the battlefield. That's not the gamble, the gamble is will our safety be improved in the long haul. I pray it will, and I think we're on the right track, but let's not count our chickens here.

Howard Kurtz: I happen to agree that winning the peace will prove harder than winning the war. But let's not gloss over what happened here. Despite predictions of a war that could last for months and degenerate into house-to-house fighting, the U.S. and British forces won this war in three weeks with minimal casualties and limited damage to Iraq's infrastructure, sufficiently intimidating most Iraqi soldiers into fleeing. While no one doubted that the U.S. would win, it could have been much uglier and bloodier.

Arlington, Va.: Why is it that only your column bothers to mention mea culpas by the press? When was the last time one of these armchair generals, or Sunday morning "journalists," or Newsweek's CW, said "Oops, my bad on that one"? Public officials are held to a high standard of accountability; why aren't the news media (and no, Arnett and Rivera do NOT count because they are self-promoting clowns who even before their faux-pas were being distanced by their colleagues)?

Howard Kurtz: The press is not, shall we say, famous for admitting error. Factual mistakes are corrected, but we don't have an army of journalists and commentators falling on their swords and saying, "Boy, did we mess up when we ran those stories saying the war could drag on for months. Please forgive us." This is a business that points the finger of blame at everyone else but doesn't much like taking its own lumps. That's why media critics can put food on the table.

Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.: Last week you mentioned in passing, when discussing the bravery of embedded reporters, that one of them pointed out the location of an enemy sniper to U.S. military, who killed him very quickly. What separates embedded journalists from fighting forces if they even participate in military action?

Howard Kurtz: Good question. Journalists are supposed to be there as neutral observers, but when they come under enemy fire, naturally they want to help those with whom they are embedded keep them alive. That does blur the lines between journalists and soldiers, but is perhaps an inevitable byproduct of war coverage when a reporter is traveling with his own country's troops. Hard to be totally neutral when you're in danger of having your head blown off.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company