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Media Backtalk
With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, April 28, 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.

Silver Spring, Md.: I was amazed to open Sunday's Outlook section and see no mention of the Santorum imbroglio. A U.S. senator claims there is no right to privacy and that the state should have the ability to limit people's wants and desires, and no one at The Washington Post has an opinion about it?

Was this merely a 24-hour story? If it was, then we're in bigger trouble than I thought.

Howard Kurtz: Outlook, which sort of does its own thing, is not necessarily a good barometer. The Post, to its credit, has done four news stories on the Santorum controversy, along with one editorial and one op-ed piece (by Richard Cohen). I write in my print column today about an effort by conservatives to discredit the AP reporter who interviewed Santorum. Since there's been little GOP criticism of Santorum (other than from a couple of moderate senators), it does look like the story may peter out fairly soon.

New York, N.Y.: Hi Howie,

Caught your show on Saturday and I was shocked by Walt Rodgers claiming reports of the switchboard lighting up when CNN showed a dead Iraqi. I've asked among my friends who were all anti-war and none of us said we would call to complain about seeing this because we were all upset CNN wasn't showing the true side of war in that people die. Do you think supporters of the war called CNN to complain so these photos wouldn't show up and therefore swing public opinion? The fact that many of us had to get our news from international sources makes me suspect about who was calling CNN. Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: Rodgers was quite candid in saying this on the show (which actually airs Sunday, at 11:30). It's one thing for people to call and complain about a picture of a dead person; that's their right. It's another for a network to react by pulling back and showing few such images, as Rodgers says. This was the most intensively covered war in history, but war is ugly, and TV viewers were often shielded from that ugliness. Newspapers were a little more explicit in some of their photographs but also, in my view, struggled with the question of how to avoid offending readers.

Philadelphia, Pa.: I am by no means a TV critic, but I have to question CNN's decision to shorten Inside Politics to one-half hour and to move Crossfire to 4:30p.m. I think that Crossfire was better off in its original time slot. Shows of that format are better off in the early evening or prime time. I think that the 4 o'clock hour should be devoted to a hard news program like Inside Politics. Opinionated shows should be reserved for the evenings when more people can watch them. What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not a fan of the decision. Inside Politics, in my view, falls into the category of if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it. Heading into a presidential campaign cycle, the show would have no problem filling an hour with quality reporting. Maybe CNN will restore the extra half hour when we get closer to the primaries.

Arlington, Va.: Howard,

What was up with Fareed Zakaria throwing in "unfortunately" at the end of his statement about how Santorum probably won't have to resign form his leadership position yesterday on "This Week"'s round table? That just adds fuel to the fire about liberal bias that Goldberg and Coulter are blabbing about, and this time it is irrefutable.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the segment, but this is not a question of bias. It's an opinion segment. Zakaria is on the roundtable to express his views, which are certainly more liberal than those of George Will. He's not a working beat reporter, any more than Will. It's the equivalent of a newspaper op-ed page.

Washisngton, D.C.: Howard:
Your piece today contained a little of everything, but was short of insights from foreign journalists. Almost all that I hear from, including the British, view the US media -- especially television -- as having caved in to pressure from the Pentagon, the White house or a "support the troops" public mood. Are they the ones who are being unbalanced, or is it us?

Howard Kurtz: This was a review of how the American media performed in Iraq. I did a piece a few weeks ago on the BBC and how some viewers in this country welcomed it as an alternative to the American networks. But whatever the flaws of the U.S. media coverage, I don't understand the "caved into pressure" argument. Perhaps they censored themselves, but journalists in this war were free to say whatever they wanted, and the instances of pressure from the military or administration were remarkably few.

Graham, Tex.: Re: "Mr. Personality" show

Do the producers really think Monica Lewinsky will draw an audience?

She was not a good hostess, she stammered when she READ her lines. She is a reminder to the dirt that washed up, during the Clinton administration. She needs to find a career out of TV. PLEASE!

I would like to see the results of a poll to find out if people watched the show to see Monica Lewinsky or out of curiosity of the real TV show "Mr. Personality."

Howard Kurtz: Without the benefit of polls or focus groups, I'll go out on a limb and say most people tuned in to check out Monica. (It can't have been the 20 guys in masks!) Whether she performed well or not is not the point. She's a celebrity in the post-Clinton world, and television believes deeply in marketing celebrities. What you became famous for -- and everyone knows the answer in Ms. Lewinsky's case -- is almost irrelevant. That's why Mark Fuhrman is popping up as a commentator again in the Laci Peterson case.

Champaign, Ill.: Doesn't the Santorum story demonstrate how uninformed secular reporters are when it comes to matters of theology and social issues? They all puzzled over "hate the sin, love the sinner" like it was Einstein's theory of relativity.

Howard Kurtz: I disagree. What they did was question whether the senator's explanation of "I have no problem with homosexuals, I have a problem with homosexual acts" would hurt the GOP's efforts to portray itself as a compassionate and inclusive party. Santorum is, after all, saying he sees no problem with criminalizing sexual relations between consenting adults in the privacy of their home, if those people happen to be gay.

Alexandria, Va.: What sort of camaraderie is there between journalists of competing media in a war zone? Ted Koppel spoke very kindly of the late Michael Kelly, both embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division. Today you wrote of journalists hiding a New York Times reporter in their hotel room in Baghdad. In a dangerous situation, is there more of a feeling of "we're all in this together" rather than a desire for a scoop?

Howard Kurtz: It happens even on campaigns, but when journalists are thrown together on a battlefield in which the possibility of being killed is floating in the air, you bet there's a bonding process that goes on. That doesn't mean they don't compete journalistically - of course they do. But scoops can sometimes seem less important in a war zone in which everyone is trying, under difficult conditions, to survive.

Boston, Mass.: The allegation against the AP reporter is clearly a diversion -- Santorum is a big boy and she's got him on tape. He said it, he's got to deal with it, and his allies can't expect to protect him by shooting the messenger.

That said, you're bound to get criticized for bias when reporters are married to campaign operatives. Is this common in DC, for reporters and editors to be married to politicos? What kinds of policies are in place?

Howard Kurtz: Every news organization deals with it on a case-by-case basis. Sure there are journalists married to people involved in politics. They shouldn't be writing about their spouses' employers, which was not the case here. Sometimes reporters have switched beats to avoid the perception of a conflict. In other cases, the spouse has given up an assignment. In the early 90s, when CBS's Rita Braver was covering the White House, her husband stopped representing the Clintons so she could stay on her beat.

Washington, D.C.: Do you have any idea what purpose the new "Sunday Source" section that debuted yesterday in the Post is intended to serve? I don't think anything in the section was over six paragraphs long. Is the Post now trying to appeal to people who don't like to read?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's not Outlook, and not intended to be. It's supposed to be quick read and entertainment guide. Looks to me like it's pitched to younger people, who are famous for not being very interested in newspapers. Since all the "serious" stuff remains in the Sunday paper, I don't see any harm.

Baltimore, Md.: Do you think the media has a responsibility to ascertain, as best as possible, an accurate civilian death-toll in Iraq, in the face of the government/military's stated refusal to do so?

Howard Kurtz: In a word, yes. That's an important part of the story. I don't fully understand the administration's rationale for saying it doesn't plan to bother with the civilian death toll. I'm sure military planners will be looking at it privately.

Re: White House Correspondents Dinner: Saw come of the White House Correspondents Dinner on CSPAN. Are you bothered by media and sources and celebrities mingling so closely? Can a reporter be objective about someone s/he had martinis with or invited to one of the top social events in Washington?

Howard Kurtz: There's clearly a bit of coziness in inviting administration officials and lawmakers to the dinner (I'm not too worried about excessive bonding with Kelsey Grammer, who was one of the Post's guests). I don't think it's a big enough deal to cause journalists to pull their punches (hey, there are cameras there, so it's not some shadowy off-the-record meeting). But it does add to the perception that it's one big happy family.

Maryland: So what is Newt's purpose in criticizing Colin Powell? Is he getting ready to run again, or is this just him voicing his opinion? Does this story have legs?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think Gingrich is running for anything. He feels strongly about the issue, enjoys mixing it up and probably wants to reclaim a bit of the spotlight now that he's a Fox commentator. Nothing illegal about that. The story has reverberated quite a bit, considering it was just a speech by a former speaker who's been out of office for five years. It even earned Newt a less-than-friendly phone call from Karl Rove.

Boston, Mass.: Just a quick folo on the reporters married to political players.

While it's true she's not reporting on Kerry, she is reporting on one of his rivals in the Senate. In the biz press, a reporter married to the VP of marketing for Coke couldn't very well report on Pepsi. Why is it different in the political arena?

Howard Kurtz: Well, my point is that her husband works only on Kerry's presidential campaign, not in the Senate. But if Kerry were to, say, win the Democratic nomination, I can see where things would get tricky.

New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Do you see yourself ever making the jump to the op-ed pages? I'd like to see what you really think about what's going on in the world.

Howard Kurtz: You mean you have no idea, with all the thousands of words I've been churning out?
I've written a few op-eds and have toyed with the idea from time to time, but am still enjoying this media-reporting gig.

College Park, Md.: Speaking as a younger person, I didn't like the Sunday Source. I read Hax's column, and then wrinkled my nose at the rest of that section. Seriously, was another entertainment section really required? Why not just revamp the Weekend section?

Howard Kurtz: You reach a somewhat different audience on Sunday, which is a much bigger circulation day for most newspapers. And having a new section enables you to sell more ads.

College Park, Md.: Yet another day of Laci while Rome burns. Lovely.

So will the media at some point pursue coverage of the corruption charges against the current administration re: Iraq contracts with the same ferocity it did the Clinton scandals?

Will the documented graft of reconstruction get the same level of coverage as the documented lies about WMDs? Or should we all completely tune out the corporate press in favor of independent media?

Howard Kurtz: Corruption charges? Documented graft? Everyone has written about the Halliburton/Bechtel contracts, but I haven't seen any evidence of illegality. I'm sure there are lots of reporters who would love to break that story, if there is a story.
I do think the media (especially cable) has gone overboard on Laci Peterson, and I do think the WMD story has been underplayed.

New York, N.Y.: Has the Washington Times become more influential than the Post, due to its ties to the right wing?

Howard Kurtz: I like having the Washington Times around, and it's well plugged-in in conservative circles. But the last time I checked its circulation was about one-eighth that of The Post.

Montclair, N.J.: I've read a few columns questioning whether the administration was fudging the matter of WMD in Iraq throughout the run-up to war. Will the tide of dissatisfaction continue to mount, or are pro-war journalists satisfied enough with the overthrow of Saddam to ignore the failure to find weapons? It seems to me that the longer this goes on, the more explaining the administration and its friends have to do.

Howard Kurtz: Finding WMDs was one of the basic rationales put forth by the White House for going to war. If we don't find such weapons, it's an international embarrassment for the United States, and an important continuing story for the media. Yes, the administration can say maybe they're just too well-hidden or maybe they were destroyed before the war, but we run the country now. Toppling Saddam's brutal regime may have been reason enough for invading Iraq, but that's not how this war was sold.

TV Newsland: Howard,
I was at a journalism workshop this weekend (sponsored by the Poynter Institute). Sam Donaldson spoke late in the day Saturday and says he thinks that the networks will soon do away with the evening news. Do you agree? If so, when would that likely happen?

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree, actually. Certainly, in an age of 24-hour news, the evening newscasts have lost a significant chunk of their audience and are something of an anachronism. At the same time, they reach about 30 million people and are a good summary for people who aren't watching cable all day. It's certainly possible that one of the Big Three will pull the plug in the next few years, or shift to a prime-time hour of news. But some folks have been predicting the end of the evening news for at least a decade and so far it hasn't happened.

Re: Sunday Source: I LIKED the Sunday Source. Maybe because I just drove back from NJ, and it was a light read about several subjects, nothing to heavy, and I liked the volunteering for animals article. ( I volunteer a lot).
Demographics on me -- 50 year old professional female.

Howard Kurtz: Finally, a fan. I wasn't in on the planning for the section so I didn't know what to expect. It's certainly on the breezy side of journalism. But my view is that papers ought to be like a smorgasbord and offer something for everyone: Comics, movie reviews, food recipes, high school sports. I'm not a fan of horoscopes but some people like them.

Reston, Va.: Howard,

What's your take on the, in my opinion, strong showing of Voinovich on Meet The Press, standing up against Bush campaigning in his back yard for the tax cut? Personally, I think he came across so well, I started to ask why he wasn't considering a run someday for the Presidency.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the senator's appearance, but I used to cover him when he was mayor of Cleveland, and he's a straightforward, no-nonsense guy. Probably not scintillating enough to run for the White House, but a guy who is serious about being a deficit hawk and willing to stand up to the president on the issue (though he supports Bush on just about everything else). People often look for hidden motives -- what's this guy REALLY up to? -- but with Voinovich what you see if pretty much what you get.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

washingtonpost.com: That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company