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Media Backtalk
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Media Backtalk
With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, May 12, 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.

Suncoast, Fla.: I think there was an amazing contrast between the way the Post handled the Janet Cooke affair and the way the Times is handling the Jayson Blair situation. The Post pulled no punches, admitted its mistakes and immediately put into place safeguards to ensure the situation wasn't repeated. That obviously isn't the case with the Times, who, despite the extensive article, don't seem to realize that the fault for this debacle doesn't rest solely with Jayson Blair.

Howard Kurtz: Well, one key difference is that the Post has an independent ombudsman, who conducted a pulling-no-punches investigation. The Times does not. I think the paper deserves credit, once the allegations came out in my newspaper and elsewhere, for doing the zillion-word piece published yesterday. But it did seem to stop short of pressing the top editors on how, with so many warning signs, they could have allowed this to happen.

Washington, D.C.: I've been following the Jayson Blair story with a mixture of fascination, morbid curiosity, and sympathy. I thought the New York Time's piece on it in the Sunday (5/11) paper was commendable, and didn't shrink from the tough questions raised by the whole mess. What's your take on the piece and where they go from here? Is it really possible to put structures in place to prevent or deter this kind of thing?

Howard Kurtz: On some level, it's hard to stop someone who is absolutely determined to lie and cheat in journalism. The Washington Post learned that, as the New Republic, Boston Globe and others have with their own fabrication scandals. I think it will be a long, long time before the NYT lives this down, just as people still bring up the Janet Cooke fiasco. But clearly, there were all these Times editors raising questions about Jayson Blair's work, giving him negative evaluations, and yet the paper kept promoting him. That is more than a communications problem, and it's one the Times badly needs to fix.

Washington, D.C.: If someone with the same academic and professional credentials as Jayson Blair had applied for a job at the NY times, but they were a white male, they never would have gotten hired, would they?

If this is true, then ALL of the comments about the racial issue/affirmative action/etc, are legitimate, and deserve to be discussed.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's hard to say whether such a person would have been hired. Blair had been the editor of his student paper at the University of Maryland, had been a freelance reporter for the Post and an intern for the Boston Globe before being hired. Clearly, though, it's legitimate to question whether the Times gave him second, third, fourth and fifth chances when he kept screwing up because of his concern for diversity.

Capitol Hill liberal, Washington, D.C.: Jayson Blair is thoroughly discredited among colleagues, I'm sure. But Matt Drudge can still kick up a lot of buzz with his website. A few weeks ago he caused a stir with his item that Hillary Clinton was way past deadline with her book and did not even have a title. Now it turns out the book is being released in a few weeks. Before you say "it's only Drudge," you can't deny that he can and does produce press interest and even drive stories, even though his standards are little better than Blair's.

Howard Kurtz: I've written more about Drudge than any other journalist on the planet. There's no question he makes mistakes, and there's no question he often drives press coverage. He gets some legitimate leaks and scoops as well. Perhaps it would be a good idea for Drudge to do what the NYT did (though at lesser length) and tell his fans when he's screwed up, as on the Hillary Clinton book story.

Corpus Christi, Tex.: Mr. Kurtz, I don't have a question --

I just wanted to thank you for your reporting; I read your 'Media Notes' often.

And I just wanted to express my sadness over the death of your colleague; your reporting of her death in Iraq just hit home somehow.

Thank you, sir... and goodnight to her.

washingtonpost.com: Boston Globe Reporter Killed in Accident in Iraq (Post, May 10)

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the nice note. I've had to do too many obituary pieces during this war -- I wrote earlier about Michael Kelly and David Bloom -- and it reminds us all that some journalists risk their lives to tell stories under difficult conditions.

Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Kurtz,

In your opinion, why have the Democrats become so silent? Is it them, the media, or a combination?

Howard Kurtz: The out-of-power party often has trouble finding its voice. Everything the president does is covered exhaustively by the press; opposition leaders are not, whether it was Trent Lott and Denny Hastert during the Clinton years or Daschle and Pelosi now. With nine people running for president, the Dems don't have a national spokesman, or even a consensus on major issues. That will change once they settle on a nominee, but for now they're at a disadvantage.

Silver Spring, Md.: Will the Jayson Blair incident change how newsrooms are run? Will more fact checking be done by editors? For many newspaper stories that is impossible but there are possibly other ways.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure it will make the Times more cautious. I don't know what effect if any it will have elsewhere. If editors at other papers do anything, they'll probably be a little more wary of younger, untested reporters claiming to have spectacular stories and demand to see notes, sources' names, etc. There's an old saying in the biz: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Stephen Glass of the New Republic also seemed to always have the perfect quote, the perfect scene, until the magazine discovered in 1998 that he was making it up.

Washington, D.C.: In two unrelated items in your column today the issue of reporters personal relationships with the subjects of stories arose -- Wilbon's relationship with Michael Jordan and various unspecified reporters who were aware of the Bennett/gambling story but did not want to pursue -- perhaps because they liked him.
The Wilbon issue doesn't bother me -- I guess because it's sports and also because Wilbon is mainly a columnist (isn't he?). But do reporters really ignore news stories because they like the people involved -- how do their editors feel about that?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, Wilbon's mainly a columnist who's made no secret of his affection for MJ. As for other reporters, some do tend to get too cozy with the people they cover. I wasn't terribly excited about the Bennett gambling story, but it's clear there were rumors floating around town. Of course, to nail down such rumors, you have to work the phones, try to get documents, etc., as the Washington Monthly did. But then, young reporters not part of the system often have a way of breaking such stories. Watergate, of course, was broken not by White House correspondents but by two young metro reporters for the Post.

Greenbelt, Md.: Pardon me for not following every detail of the Jayson Blair case, but how likely is it that at least a few of the "lifted" quotes came from press conferences, interviews at which multiple reporters were present, etc.? I'm not trying to excuse what he did, but obviously there are times when multiple reporters get the same quote legitimately.

Howard Kurtz: Sure - but that's not the case here. Some quotes and scenes he simply made up, but the ones he plagiarized from the Post, San Antonio Express-News and elsewhere came from interviews that the other reporters had conducted. That was also true of a 1999 Boston Globe story Blair did in which he falsely claimed to have interviewed D.C. mayor Anthony Williams. It's perfectly fine to recycle someone's public statements as long as you don't represent that as having been in an interview you did. Of course, Blair wasn't in a position to hear even the public statements since he didn't go to Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and Texas when he claimed to be filing stories from there. He'd never left New York.

Washington, D.C.: Your Sunday article on Jayson Blair didn't add up. You lead with a strong case suggesting that Jayson Blair was not fired earlier owing to miscommunication and fumbling by NYT management. Then you describe how he was promoted despite management's knowledge of his high correction rate and absenteeism. That's a reason to demote him. Blair would not have survived without the active collusion of someone inside the NYT management. Who?

Howard Kurtz: The Times's failure to heed the red flags here remains at the center of the mystery. Ultimately, it's Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd who bear the responsibility for furthering Jayson Blair's career despite the often-expressed concerns of their own deputies.

Baltimore, Md.: Not to kick an old gray lady while she's down, but do you think this Blair incident will have long-term repercussions for the NY Times, or damage its overall credibility much more than the Post's Cooke incident? An incident like this gives TONS more ammunition to opponents of the "liberal media," such as Rush Limbaugh, etc., because of the multiple layers of complicity.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure what it has to do with the "liberal" media, other than whether the pursuit of diversity clouded the judgment of Times editors. The Janet Cooke debacle was undoubtedly as bad, because D.C. officials launched a manhunt to find the bogus 8-year-old heroin addict she wrote about. But Blair's fabrications tainted at least 36 stories, by the Times's own account. Of course the paper's critics will use this as a club to beat Howell & company, and that's what happens when you screw up on this royal a scale.

Washington, D.C.: Your Blair article appeared the same day as the Times article, but your piece relied heavily on what was reported in the Times. How does that work; do you share information prior to press time?

Howard Kurtz: The Times posted its Sunday story on its Web site on Saturday afternoon, which enabled me to come out the same day. I knew some of the material from having published three earlier pieces on Blair, but obviously did not have the results of the internal investigation.

Baltimore, Md.: What sounds particularly "scandalous" about the Jayson Blair incident at the NYT, at least from the article in the Post yesterday, is not that it happened, but that his career continued in spite of warnings and what appeared to be attempts at whistle-blowing from editors within the NY Times itself, and that the axe did not fall until outside newspapers blew the whistle on being plagiarized. Might this be as bad as, or even worse than, the actual "sins" Blair is being accused of?

Howard Kurtz: I would say yes. In Blair, you had a rogue reporter -- a guy who, for whatever twisted reasons, set out to lie to his editors and his readers. He's gone now. But the Times hasn't fully explained how some of the most experienced editors in the business, at one of the most tightly edited newspapers, missed so many warning signs and allowed this problem to veer out of control.

Austin, Tex.: More about Blair. Sorry...
What about the fact that he never graduated from college? Do major newspapers routinely hire and promote people his age without college degrees? (I imagine there may be older journalists who worked their way up through the ranks, but that's different.) I don't like to think of myself as the sort of person who makes these kinds of comments, but the race issue is looking pretty unavoidable. And of course, one group that's going to be hurt is smart young black journalists.

Howard Kurtz: I hope that's not the case. The Post in the late '70s had also failed to check Janet Cooke's resume and failed to discover that she inflated some of her academic credentials and falsely claimed to speak several languages. The truth is, the business still runs largely on trust. It's a shame to think that editors have to call colleges to find out whether every applicant graduated, but maybe that should now be standard procedure.

College Park, Md.: In the New York Times' article on Jayson Blair, it mentioned that he was writing a book about the sniper coverage in which he made up a portion of the material. In light of Stephen Glass' book, does the possibility of Blair being able to write a book about his ordeal and profiting from his actions disgust you as much as it does me?

Howard Kurtz: I believe what the Times said was that he was exploring the possibility of doing a sniper book. No publisher in America would touch that now. Of course, the utterly disgraced Stephen Glass has just come out with a book, but at least it's fiction -- this time, he admits he's making it up (even though the tale is about a guy named Stephen Glass who fabricates stories for a Washington magazine).

Conway, Ark.: You're right that the Democrats are tone-deaf on the carrier stunt. Such images do play well in America. But Andy Sullivan's pictures of Bill and Hillary in "military garb" are a stretch. Nobody would confuse them for wearing real uniforms complete with rank insignia and accessories like oxygen masks of the sort Bush donned. That's the problem everyone missed except for Post reporter Dana Milbank, who reported that no President since Theodore Roosevelt appeared in authentic combat garb (which a bomber jacket is most certainly not) because sends the wrong message about our democracy. Saddam and other tinpot dictators wear uniforms, not US Presidents, least of all those who used influence and duplicity to avoid their military obligations.

washingtonpost.com: How Many Votes Is a Picture Worth? (Post, May 12)

Howard Kurtz: I think the larger point is that many presidents have availed themselves of photo-op politics by mingling with the troops, eating in the mess hall, etc. It's one of the perks of being commander in chief. That doesn't mean Bush didn't go a step further with this stunt on the aircraft carrier, on which he easily could have landed by helicopter. But the issue seems to me to be a political loser for the Democrats.

Boston, Mass.: Howard,

Enjoyed your story on Jayson Blair yesterday, but I have to ask, how in the world did he do what he did? It seems that he sent out multiple warning signs, and they all were just ignored. Is the New York Times just as much to blame as Blair or are they just a victim of his deception?

washingtonpost.com: N.Y. Times Uncovers Dozens Of Faked Stories by Reporter (Post, May 11)

Howard Kurtz: I guess the answer is both. The paper was clearly victimized by a guy who repeatedly lied. At the same time, he had such a sloppy record, not to mention personal problems that required counseling, that the Times appears to have been negligent in not cracking down on him before his fabrications were out of control and shredded the newspaper's credibility.

Washington, DC: I am in a public affairs position here where I deal frequently with New York Times reporters. As Ken Auletta noted in the New Yorker, there plainly is an instinct in the Howell Raines era to hype stories in a distinctly un-Timeslike fashion. Yes, Blair was a fraud and violated editors trust. But (as the Post found out 20 years ago in the Cooke affair), this is what happens when reporters and subordinate editors are encouraged to drive curves at high speeds.

Howard Kurtz: There's a clear distinction between engaging in a bit of hype on an otherwise solidly reported story and just blatantly making stuff up. But your larger point is right: if a newspaper keeps allowing its reporters and editors to push the envelope, eventually the envelope may tear. The Times also had problems with its handling of the Wen Ho Lee case, though that was before Howell Raines was executive editor.

Ithaca, N.Y.: Howard,

I just finished reading the Sunday NY Times article about Jayson Blair.

Is it the case that most news outlets have a statistical range of acceptable errors, a number of corrections that's "ok" and a defined point where one becomes "not ok"? This seems to run counter to the assertion of the article that there's a stark line between correct reporting and incorrect reporting. Is this just a Times thing?

Howard Kurtz: I'd never heard of that before. The Post doesn't have such a statistical approach. Its approach is that if a reporter seems to be making a whole lot of errors, editors get concerned. Everyone makes mistakes, including me. Sometimes these involve misspellings and wrong titles; sometimes they are more serious. I think it's hard to reduce the issue to percentages.

Washington, D.C.: Now that Jayson Blair has ruined his "career" and done permanent damage to the New York Times' credibility, is the next step litigation? Can a newspaper sue a reporter in this situation? Were laws broken that would cause charges to be filed? I'm curious about the next steps. On another note, has this story caused the Washington Post to change any of its verification procedures?

Howard Kurtz: Interesting legal question. I suppose an attorney could come up with various laws that an employee has violated in lying to an employer. But what would be the point? Since Blair already maxed out his credit cards, there's no money to recover. The Times wouldn't be suing to vindicate its reputation, as libel plaintiffs often do, because it's already laid out all the dirty laundry. It would probably be bad PR for a big corporation to sue an individual who's already been disgraced. So I don't see that happening.

New York, N.Y.: Mr. Kurtz,

Does it seem like over the last few years that news is becoming more soundbites, rather than discussion or debating? For example, after watching the Sunday Morning Talk Shows, I understand that the President wants a $726 billion tax cut, but I still don't understand how that will produce jobs? And why there is little discussion on the cost down the road of tax cuts? Same with the judicial nominees.

Howard Kurtz: That's why it's important to read newspapers - and get the fine print. Sure, TV news has become more and more soundbite-driven, and doesn't do a particularly good job of covering complicated economic debates such as tax cuts. Television is more likely to cover the politics of tax cuts than to deeply analyze the degree to which such cuts would stimulate the economy, and how the various plans compare.

Somewhere, USA: Are Post columnists held to the same accuracy standards as reporters or are they give more freedom?

Howard Kurtz: They're definitely held to the same standards of accuracy -- they can't play fast and loose with the facts -- but are given complete freedom in terms of offering their opinions and arguments.

Arlington, Va.: Howard, do you have any sense that the country is not as polarized as it was back in 2000? For the non-Bush people, seeing him in his fly-boy suit with the usual smug little boy grin, is not worth a million votes. I think that all too often, we buy into the easy analysis and let it go at that. I think that this instant analysis on television has made us too quick to say what is happening. Perhaps a little reflection before determining how many votes the airman's jacket gets would be in order.

Howard Kurtz: Look, people who don't like Bush aren't going to like him any better if he lands on the moon. But there's little doubt that winning the war in Iraq has given him a boost, just as Afghanistan did in 2001; and the aircraft carrier speech was a picture-perfect reminder of his commander in chief role. The contrast between the saturation coverage that drew and the fact that the Dems' first debate, in South Carolina, wasn't carried live on national television underscores the obstacles facing the opposition party.

New York, N.Y.: Howard,

I have a new definition for "ironic":

Stephen Glass' book making it to the New Yorks Times bestseller list.

washingtonpost.com: Stephen Glass Waits for Prime Time to Say 'I Lied' (Post, May 7)

Howard Kurtz: Works for me.

Washington, D.C.: Did many people at the Post suspect Jayson Blair was a charlatan, after competing against him on the sniper case?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, absolutely. A number of Post reporters complained that his sniper stories were not accurate and questioned the kind of journalism he was producing. And the Post reported that the Fairfax County prosecutor had denounced Blair's story as dead wrong. But since it was a case of dueling anonymous sources, it was hard to definitively knock down what Blair was writing.

Alexandria, Va.: How confident are you that a Jayson Blair is not lurking in your midst at the Washington Post? Is there likely to be a continued drumbeat for heads to roll at the Times, or does this weekend's big spread bring the story to a close?

Howard Kurtz: You can never say never. The Post, after all, already had its Jayson Blair in the person of Janet Cooke in 1981. But I know of no reporter here who has drawn the kind of complaints that surrounded Blair's work. As for a demand that heads roll, media organizations don't tend to do that to one another, as they would if this had happened at, say, a government agency.

Washington, D.C.: Speaking of errors in reporting, I'm astounded by the number of errors during Katie Couric's interviews, including the one you reported on. Whose responsibility is it to check these things out?

Howard Kurtz: Today has a large staff. In this case, I'm sure some researcher probably screwed up and gave Couric the wrong information. Maybe heads will roll there.

Ithaca, N.Y.: Do the number of second chances afforded Jayson Blair seem normal to you given the standards of the industry? Certainly every industry has a set of behaviors that will land one a "don't do it again" but were the number of times this was afforded to Mr. Blair seem reasonable to you? I.e., does the Times' assertion that they shouldn't blame themselves because they were duped by a fraud hold water to you or are they heavily to blame for the missed opportunity to get him out of harm's way earlier on?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's fair to say that the numerous chances Blair was given went well beyond the level of slack that a typical reporter at a typical news organization would receive. Even the Times seems to agree with that, given the tenor of yesterday's story.

Brian, Ga.: Not to excuse Drudge, who often times runs off "half-cocked" with stories, but he doesn't KNOWINGLY make stuff up as the guy for the New York Times appears to have done.

He (NYT) fabricated whole interviews and placed himself at the scene of events where he was not.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, absolutely. But it wasn't the New York Times that knowingly made things up. It was a single Times reporter who deceived his own bosses and colleagues. Let's not lose sight of that.

Rochester, N.Y.: One presumes there are very few outright frauds like Jayson Blair. But the fact that he could get away with what he did for so long is a damning commentary on the public's expectations of journalism. Apparently many average people who knew that he had embroidered or even fabricated stories about them just figured, "Well, that's how the media works" and did not even bother to complain. And, sad to say, they were probably right to be skeptical: Given how long it took the Times to clue into Blair's ostentatious deceptions, how responsive or accountable are editors likely to be to complaints of more commonplace problems -- like a one-sided story, or a misleading headline?

Howard Kurtz: Probably not responsive enough. That's why it helps to have an independent ombudsman. But in fairness to the Times, the paper began investigating Blair when I reported that the editor of the San Antonio Express-News was accusing Blair of plagiarizing its reporter's story about a Texas woman whose son was missing in Iraq. Before that, management had plenty of warning about Blair's sloppy journalism, but no suggestion that he was inventing things out of whole cloth or stealing other papers' work.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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