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Media Backtalk
Post Column: Media Notes
Recent Columns by Howard Kurtz
Media Backtalk
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Media Backtalk
With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, May 5, 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.


New York, N.Y.: Howard,

What was ABC's rationale for not televising the Democratic debate live, in all markets, or allowing cable networks or CSPAN broadcast the debate? And why was it not even available on all ABC affiliates?

Howard Kurtz: ABC says it offered the debate to all its affiliates, but that it would have been unprecedented for a broadcast network to order all local stations to take a primary debate so early in the process. I think ABC deserves credit for staging the debate, but the unfortunate effect was that virtually no one could see it live (New York's ABC station, one of the 50 affiliates that carried the debate, put it on at 5:30 am). The other cable networks couldn't carry it because it was an ABC show. So C-SPAN's replays were the only real alternative for lots of folks.


Kingston, R.I.: Re: Photo op on the Abraham Lincoln

Observation: a president who basically blew off most of his Air National Guard hitch would fly onto an aircraft carrier to declare an end to a war, and that amid all the media's gushing over this stunt there was virtually no mention of the president's military record -- or lack thereof. Question: I realize that this may be "old news," but wouldn't it have been apropos to bring up his Air National Guard absence?

Howard Kurtz: I've seen a couple of references to Bush's National Guard service, but since we never got a definitive explanation as to whether he was absent without leave, it's hard to keep pounding that as an issue.


Washington, D.C.: Aren't media commentators supposed to hold our leaders accountable? This administration has unabashedly lied about Bush's airplane joyride, falsely claiming that the aircraft carrier was too far from shore to allow a helicopter flight. In fact, the president's lackeys feel free to brag shamelessly that this publicly-funded Republican rally was designed to produce images for the 2004 campaign. If President Clinton's administration had engaged in such insultingly obvious executive misconduct, the journalists in this town would have broadcast their outrage for years. But instead of doing some actual investigation and writing relevant stories, won't we see the press dismiss critics of Bush as out-of-touch anti-Americans and get back to making fun of the Democratic presidential candidates?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if the administration lied or not. I do know that the Boston Globe reported that the Lincoln was slowed in its return to shore to allow the Bush visit, and that a helicopter would have been a viable option. So it seems the administration went to great lengths in staging its picture-perfect landing.


Baltimore, Md.: On Capitol Gang, there were three liberal panelist (Margaret Carlson, Al Hunt, and Mark Shields) and only one Conservative panelist (Bob Novak). Even if you add in their special guest John Sununu, liberals outnumbered conservatives 3-2. Then on your show Sunday morning, you had one conservative guest, Laura Ingraham, and two liberals, Evan Thomas and E.J. Dionne. Most people believe CNN tilts left, but now you guys don't even try to hide it. Is this a new policy at CNN?

Howard Kurtz: Capital Gang usually has conservative Kate O'Beirne as its fifth panelist; she must have been off. As for my show, Laura and E.J. are clearly on opposite sides of the divide, but Evan Thomas is not an identifiable "liberal." He's a reporter and writer, not a columnist who spews opinions, and I don't see him leaning to one side. In fact, he defended Bush's staged aircraft carrier landing and said he was entitled to the spectacle after having won the war.


Columbia, Md.: Do you think John Kerry will ever be able to string three consecutive sentences together WITHOUT mentioning his service in Vietnam?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure he will. But it's obviously a card he intends to play early and often, just as Bob Kerrey did in the 1992 campaign and John McCain did in 2000. I have no problem with Senator Kerry stressing his military service, though with that comes his opposition to the war when he returned home. Of course, there's always a danger of a candidate trying too hard to run on his resume. Campaigns are about the future, as Bill Clinton likes to say, and past military service is a fine credential but not a sufficient reason to put someone in the White House.


Lakewood, Ohio: To what extent did Jayson Blair's race protect him during his tenure at the New York Times? I've never heard of a reporter making 50 errors and keeping his job. Was diversity so important that quality was of secondary importance?

Howard Kurtz: I have no way of knowing for sure. Blair was a young and aggressive minority journalist -- he boasted of being one of the youngest reporters hired by the Times -- and newspapers obviously have an interest in nurturing and retaining such reporters. But 50 corrections -- plus controversies over whether he actually interviewed some people -- is a huge number, and you do have to wonder if Times management would have been so tolerant with a middle-aged hack who made so many mistakes. Blair, by the way, says in a letter that he's been dealing with unspecified personal problems.


Brandermill, Va.: I'll be the first to say that George Stephanopolous did a great job as moderator of the Democratic debate in South Carolina, but at what cost? Didn't he risk his carefully managed evenhandedness for This Week by plainly moderating as a Democrat?

Howard Kurtz: I thought he did a terrific job -- I would have thought it was impossible to make a nine-person debate interesting -- and I don't see any evidence he moderated "as a Democrat." In fact, in the final segment he asked each candidate a tough question about stereotyped perceptions -- whether Kerry was too aloof, Lieberman too soft, Edwards too inexperienced, etc. So I don't think anyone can say George, as a former Clintonite (and ex-Gephardt staffer), went easy on these folks.


College Park, Md.: This is from the University of Maryland's Diamondback story about former Diamondback editor Jayson Blair's problems at the New York Times.

"Matt Sheehan, the 2000-2001 editor in chief who worked with Blair, was hesitant to characterize Blair's career with examples from his work at The Diamondback.

'It was a college paper,' said Sheehan, now with The Washington Post. 'College papers aren't exactly the prime areas of integrity. I've done some things I wouldn't have printed. I've matured a lot in the last two years since I've been editor.'

I work at this paper. How am I supposed to respond to this? Blair, Sheehan and all other former diamondback editors are treated with an air of deference around here, as they generally seem to land the top jobs. Why would Sheehan add to an already uncomfortable situation by degrading his own work and the four years I and many others spent putting in what I thought was our best effort?

Howard Kurtz: I was puzzled by that. Didn't know what he was referring to. College papers, including the one I once edited, often do very good work.


Washington D.C.: Re: Today's on-line column- Dennis Kucinich did NOT preside over Cleveland's bankruptcy. Cleveland did NOT file for bankruptcy. It defaulted on loans; that's a big difference. Please get it straight. The city was forced into default because Kucinich refused to the sell the city's Muncipal Electric Company. That same company is solvent today and considered a big asset for Cleveland. So in the long run, Kucinich's refusal to kow-tow to private interests has been vindicated. No, he's still not presidential material, but not because of his mayoral record in Cleveland.

Howard Kurtz: Sorry for the semantic misfire. But a city that defaults on its financial obligations is essentially bankrupt.


Philadelplhia, Pa.: Why isn't John Edwards getting credit from the national press for being consistent on his stance on the Iraq war? The same analysts killed him for his performance on Meet the Press last year should give him credit for not pandering to antiwar Democrats during the pre-war debate. He easily could have said one thing to one group and another thing to another group. The same goes for Joe Liebermann and Dick Gephardt. What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: I've seen a couple of stories that stressed the fact that Edwards was telling Democratic audiences what they didn't want to hear in stressing his support of the war. So I think he has gotten some credit on that.


New York, N.Y.: Other than the talk shows and radio, why was there so little reporting on Bill Bennett's gambling problem? Can you imagine the headlines if it had been Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson or any Democrat?

Howard Kurtz: I actually think it's getting quite a ride -- stories in the Washington Post and New York Times, for example, lots of talk on TV and all over the Internet. It was somewhat diluted by breaking over a weekend, but I predict the gambling story will pick up steam in the days ahead.


Silver Spring, Md.: Howie, when are you writing up something about William Bennett, the maven of virtues?
His spokesperson told your Post that 'he was digesting the story and not available'! This from a man you can get to come to the TV in two minute flat for every 'indiscretion' that is not 'virtuous' enough for his liking? Common, Washington Post, where is the outrage?

Howard Kurtz: I'll be addressing it. But the Post had a story on the subject on Saturday, crediting the Washington Monthly and Newsweek, and today has an op-ed column roasting Bennett by Michael Kinsley.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Howard,

With the Laci Peterson murder show now becoming the next Chandra story (which is sick enough that it is so flippantly thought of like that), will other stories be pushed aside? If I didn't watch "This Week," I would never have seen ANY footage of the South Carolina Democratic Debates. With stories like the Jayson Blair New York Times scandal only hitting the blogging community, and the Iraq Contract Spree only getting play on NPR, what is the hope of the Media getting back to covering the news, instead of regional stories that have little impact on the rest of the nation?

Howard Kurtz: In fairness to the other networks, ABC made available only three minutes of debate excerpts for others to use (we used some on my show). Also, the fact that the debate ended at 10:30 on a Saturday night, and Sunday is not a big news day on TV, clearly limited its impact as well. That's why I've been saying that the media interpretation of the debate is in many ways more important than the debate itself, since so few people saw it.


Boston, Mass.: Mr. Kurtz,

Bill Bennett admitted to losing $8m in gambling and Rick Santorum made the remark about the gay community. The GOP has rushed to defend these two, and it seems that once they are defended by the GOP, the media lets up. By this standard, does the GOP dictate when a story runs its course?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the media "let up" on Santorum. The story was covered for about a week, but when it was clear that both Bush and the GOP were defending the senator, and he wasn't in danger of losing his leadership post, the headlines began to fade. I do think the story demonstrates that while saying something nice about segregation in 1948 can get you kicked out of your job, saying that consensual gay sex should remain criminalized in 2003 apparently is no big deal in some circles. As for Bennett, the story just broke over the weekend, so it's too early to judge. But I'm sure the coverage will be tempered by the fact that Bennett is a) not a public official and b) did nothing illegal.


Thornton, Colo.: Howard --
It seems as though a lot of ink has been used trying to explain the similarities and differences between Bush #41 and #43 with respect to the economy. One account, which I believe I saw in Time, indicated that most voters would overlook poor economic performance as long as the perception is there that #43 was trying to do something. Isn't he like a baseball manager however, in that if the wins aren't there, or the economy continues to falter, he'll get "rung up" by management, or in this case the voters?

Howard Kurtz: Hard to judge. If the stock market is down and you've lost your job and it's hard to find a new one, the fact that a president is "trying" to do something may be little comfort. The truth is, presidents get more credit than they deserve for a good economy and more blame than they deserve for a bad one. But it's a double liability to be seen as disengaged from the problems of ordinary people, as Bush Sr. appeared in '92. The larger question for '04 is how much national security and defense will resonate with the electorate, in addition to pocketbook concerns.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I read the feature in this morning's Post about the debate in South Carolina. It seems that members of the press are now so "embedded," to borrow a term, that I wonder if they are able to report in such a way that is useful to the voter. In other words it seems that reporters are so immersed in the culture of the campaign that they are following that it would be easy for them to lose track of what people are interested in, "outside the looking glass." How do reporters stay engaged with their readers, besides swallowing the poll numbers that are released by the campaigns them selves?

Howard Kurtz: I'd be the first to agree that political reporters sometimes get overly absorbed by inside baseball and that their stories about polls and tactics can seem remote from the concerns of ordinary people. But I don't see where the debate coverage is an example of that. Nine Democrats held their first debate and argued about national security, the war and extending health insurance to those who aren't covered. The press certainly covered the substance of the faceoff, along with the strategic question of who was helped and who was hurt by the debate.


Conroe, Tex.: Do you think it's right for ABC to stage an event like a debate and sit on the copyright? Couldn't this be a disturbing trend of outlets essentially "canning" news content for their exclusive use? I understand the idea of the "exclusive" interview is old, but this seems to go well beyond that.

Howard Kurtz: ABC is hardly the first news organization to do this. CNN and others have staged a number of debates, and when a network goes to the time and expense of doing that, naturally it wants the exclusive rights. The difference here is that when CNN does it, anyone who has cable can watch. When ABC does it but declines to make it required programming for its affiliates, almost no one gets to watch it live. So perhaps ABC should not have locked up the rights if it wasn't willing to go all the way.


Syracuse, N.Y.: You wrote, "I have no problem with Senator Kerry stressing his military service, though with that comes his opposition to the war when he returned home." You portray this as a double-edged sword, as if Kerry has something to be embarrassed about because he served in the military AND was involved with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I totally disagree with your implication and think Kerry should be proud of doing both.

Howard Kurtz: You're reading into what I wrote. I happen to think it was courageous for Kerry to be involved with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But his opposition to the war and symbolic tossing of his medals was, and will be, controversial with some. My only point is that you can't offer a selective version of your biography.


Arlington, Va.: It was expected that the media would cover Bush's landing on the aircraft carrier and walking on desk in the flight suit, even though it was pure P.R. The White House was were pretty confident that there would be little or no reference to Bush's own military record. I don't feel that the media felt intimidated. They just always focus on the here and now, especially if it's visual. Some might feel that the story of Bush going into the Texas Air National Guard at a time when many people went into national guards in order to lessen the chances of going to Vietnam (I knew several people who did this, or tried), and then curtailing that service, has been sufficiently discussed, but the White House expressly chose to portray Bush as a sort of Top Gun fighter pilot, so at least this would seem time to clarify just what Bush did during the war and -- the part that's usually just implied by those discussing it -- why? Once again, the media (especially television) focuses on the immediate and the visual. Imagine if Clinton had tried such a stunt! Even Gore (and he did serve in Vietnam).

Howard Kurtz: I think it's entirely appropriate for the media to talk about Bush's Guard service when he stages an event on an aircraft carrier. I just don't think it delegitimizes anything he does, just as I didn't feel that Clinton's avoidance of military service undermined his tenure as commander in chief (though it did contribute to his strained relations with the military). Much more troubling, in my view, is the way that television, particularly cable, turned Bush's excellent adventure at sea into a 24-hour campaign commercial, complete with gushing commentary and endless replays of the landing, as if it were Apollo 11 touching down on the moon.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I was unable to see the debates Saturday night. I was surprised to find nothing on the front page of the Post about them the next morning. Actually I saw no coverage in the Sunday paper. Why?

Howard Kurtz: There was a lengthy story on Page 4. Perhaps it didn't make the edition you get, which is entirely a function of the event ending at 10:30 p.m., which in turn was dictated by Joe Lieberman's observance of the Sabbath. The NYT must have had the same problem, because I didn't see any debate story in my edition of the Sunday Times, although I'm sure it made some papers in New York. Next time you might go online to catch up with such late-breaking news.


Northfield, Minn.: Yes, like everyone, I love the Bill Bennett gambling story and salute the Washington Monthly and Newsweek for breaking it. BUT: is the leak of records of legal financial transactions not an egregious violation of privacy? If I were Bennett I would pay my gambling debts by suing whoever from the casinos leaked my records (and then stick a sock in my big sanctimonious mouth for a while.) Did anything about this exposing of a hypocrite give you any pause? And is it clear why the story broke in those particular venues?

Howard Kurtz: It broke there because the Washington Monthly reporter, in particular, did a lot of work on it. And yes, it's a gross breach of privacy when someone's personal financial records get leaked. But politics has become a very rough sport, and high-profile commentators like Bennett, fairly or unfairly, become targets of this sort of thing.


New York, N.Y.: Howard, please give me an honest opinion: do you believe this press corps is intimidated by the Bush regime? Is that why they consistently refer to Bush as a "popular president" and refuse to demand more accountability from Bush himself to the press?

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe the press is "intimidated" by the administration. I think Bush is described as a popular president because his approval ratings are around 70 percent, and he had an extraordinarily long period of stratospheric popularity after 9/11 and Afghanistan. The press tends to give favorable coverage to politicians who are riding high in the polls and to kick around those who are struggling in the polls. It's sort of like the way baseball managers are covered depending on whether the time is winning or losing. I'd be the first to say it's not a good approach, but I don't think it's the result of intimidation. As a footnote, The Post's Dana Milbank won an award for stories holding Bush accountable, including one that challenged his veracity on a number of issues. It was fun watching Bush have to shake his hand when the award was announced at the White House Correspondents Dinner.


Yellow Springs, Ohio: Is it really appropriate for a sitting president to wear a military uniform? Forget whether it makes for a "good visual," isn't this one of those things that violates an unwritten rule about the separation of powers?

Howard Kurtz: Look, he IS the commander-in-chief. Other presidents have certainly shown up in flight jackets or military windbreakers, and that's one of the perks of winning a presidential election. Haven't seen anyone in a helmet, though, since Michael Dukakis's ride in that tank.


Bowie, Md.: I think once the William Bennett story has been out awhile, the aspect that will get the most play is that Bennett's explanation was in part that the Catholic church (of which he's a member) does not condemn gambling. I think he also is or was a heavy smoker, which the Church also does not condemn. But...

William Bennett has made a career out of not just preaching that there should be moral values, but that HIS moral values are the ones that should be used. And that conduct that only directly affects consensual adults in private are still moral issues for their indirect effects on society at large.

That William Bennett doesn't draw the parallels into his own conduct and has made a career criticizing the values of others is what will turn him into an effigy for the pluralism movement to hang.

Howard Kurtz: Well, he's certainly given his critics a big stick with which to beat him. Bennett would say he's never held himself up as a paragon of virtue, but it's hardly surprising that someone who makes his living (an amazingly good one at that) as a morality czar is going to get barbecued when it turns out he has a major-league gambling habit.


Winthropt, Mass.: How come the press isn't pointing out the cost of Bush's campaign commercial on the aircraft carrier to the public? If I remember correctly, an aircraft carrier battle group costs at least 30 billion. The carrier was delayed at least a whole 24 hours in an area where it had no military use, and wasn't getting maintenance. I would assume that you would write off military equipment in about 10 years, since it would require updates in technology that cost at least its current value by the end of that period. That means that Bush's commercial costs the taxpayers at least 8 million dollars, not including additional personnel costs, and using extremely conservative numbers. Since we were loudly and repeatedly informed of the cost of every trip President Clinton took, why is there nothing on this? In addition, why did the press let this event smother the coverage of the extremely bad economic numbers that came out at the same time? It looks to me that the press allowed the President to spend millions of our own money to avoid us thinking about how many of us are out of work.

Howard Kurtz: Don't know how difficult those figures are to get, but they're obviously fair game. At the same time, a garden-variety presidential trip, whether to Louisiana or London, costs the taxpayers a great deal, just because of the expense involved in moving POTUS and his aides, communications gear, security, etc. So I've always felt it was an easy shot to take.


On Selective Biographies and the Press: Howard, you say candidates can't offer selective versions of their biography, but that is exactly what Bush successfully managed in campaign 2000, effectively shutting off all discussion of his drug use and other "irresponsibilities" of his youth and middle age. Earlier you claimed, essentially, that there's nothing there in the questions about Bush's Guard service. Why is Bush's Guard duty, which you would probably have to admit is still cloaked in mystery, off limits to reporters when every other candidates military service will not be?

Howard Kurtz: Bush didn't shut off discussion of his youthful irresponsibility; he just refused to talk about it in any detail. The press was filled with stories questioning what he was trying to hide, examining his youthful drinking, speculating about whether he used cocaine, questioning his explanation to a Dallas reporter that he could have signed a government application attesting to no drug use in the past 15 years. There was also the story of his DUI charge that broke in the last week of the election. So this was hardly a non-issue.
Thanks for the chat, folks.




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