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Media Backtalk
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Media Backtalk
With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, May 27, 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.

Rochester, N.Y.: Howard, this is a question from a reporter who is also an admirer of your work. Could you please address Andrew Rosenthal's point in your story the other day about the tiff at the Times over Iraq coverage? He suggested you should not be reporting internal e-mails of Times correspondents, especially when this reveals sources. Yes, it's the nature of journalism that privacy takes a back seat to public interest. But there should be a pretty good reason before printing someone's internal correspondence (wouldn't you be pretty hacked off if they printed yours?). In this case, what was the reason? Turf battles between reporters are totally routine in most newsrooms, perhaps even at the Post. And outing Chalabi as an important source for Judith Miller's Iraq seems like a dubious enterprise. Please explain your reasoning.

Howard Kurtz: I gave this serious thought for days before deciding to go with the story. For one thing, journalists report internal e-mails of government officials and corporate executives all the time, so I don't think we should place ourselves off limits. Second, if Ahmad Chalabi had been some shadowy secret source (as opposed to a well-known figure) whose career or life somehow would have been jeopardized by the revelation that he was feeding information to the New York Times, I would have withheld the information. But that's not the case. And I think the question of whether people with definite agendas are feeding stories about WMD to major newspapers is an important one.

Philadelphia, Pa.: How much do you think the New York Times has really been hurt by Jayson Blair? I would say the Janet Cooke situation was much worse as she won awards for her fictitious work, and the Post recovered with its reputation intact.

Howard Kurtz: I disagree. Janet Cooke was exposed 22 years ago and people still talk about that fiasco, and it remains a blot on The Post's reputation. You might say that what she did was "worse" because she won a Pulitzer for her fiction and because D.C. police launched a manhunt for her fabricated 8-year-old heroin addict. The Blair case was worse in that he fabricated or plagiarized parts of 36 stories. The New York Times is a great newspaper and will obviously survive this, but with more reporters being scrutinized (and one, Rick Bragg, suspended) it is obviously going through quite a wrenching period.

New York, N.Y.: Hi Howard,

I came on this snippet of an interview in journalismjobs.com with reporter Matt Labash this morning:


JournalismJobs.com: Why have conservative media outlets like The Weekly Standard and Fox News Channel become more popular in the past few years?

Matt Labash: Because they feed the rage. We bring the pain to the liberal media. I say that mockingly, but it's true somewhat. We come with a strong point of view and people like point of view journalism. While all these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective. We've created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It's a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It's a great little racket. I'm glad we found it actually.


Do you have any comments on this? I find it disturbingly close to my own perceptions of what's going on in journalism in America today.


Howard Kurtz: I give him credit for candor. When he's talking about the opinion media -- magazines like the Standard, and Fox talk shows -- he's obviously right, and there are liberals who take the same approach, that causing controversy and sounding outrageous are more important than dispassionate discussion. When it comes to newsgathering, including Fox's newsgathering, there should be a very different standard and "feeding the rage" is not an appropriate job description.

Arlington, Va.: What do you make of Rick Bragg's defense that the Times knew he was a diabetic who couldn't get to all those places and yet they expected him to? Would that work for Jayson Blair? As a reader of Rick Bragg for as long as I can remember as a native of Alabama, I never thought he was, as an editor said "too good."

Howard Kurtz: Rick Bragg isn't using his medical condition as a defense. He in fact says, and there is no evidence to contradict him, that he went everywhere he said he went. But he admits to breezing through some of these towns quickly, filing stories on the run and making extensive use of stringers, researchers, interns and clerks. That raises lots of questions about whether the people doing the scut work are being denied proper credit and whether the Times is obsessed with correspondents accumulating datelines.

Arlington, Va.: Last week, the Post printed the following clarification:

"People attending a forum in Arlington on Monday night sponsored by the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority posed questions orally during the session, after a period in which the officials addressed questions posed to them in writing. A May 20 article incorrectly said participants did not speak at the meeting but were invited to submit written questions. The article also said "more than 100" people attended the hearing; an authority official said the crowd numbered 300 or more."

Doesn't this appear to be related to an article where the reporter was not at the meeting? On a lot of routine meetings, my guess is the write-up is based upon a press release.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that suggests the reporter wasn't there. People make mistakes. I can tell you from experience that coming up with a good crowd estimate is very tricky, and even police and other "experts" have a hard time arriving at an accurate count.

Boston, Mass.: Mr. Kurtz,

I couldn't help but wondering yesterday as I watched various news programs yesterday, that no one is asking whether the War with Iraq really was necessary. I mean, there were several deaths yesterday, and we still have not found WMD's (yet we found a lot of US dollars). Why doesn't this resonate with the public?

Howard Kurtz: I'm somewhat surprised that the failure to find WMD hasn't been a bigger issue, given that the president declared over and over that Saddam was lying and Iraq was hiding these weapons, and that this was the major justification for the war. One reason, I believe, is that the tales of brutality that have followed the toppling of Saddam have been seen by many people as a kind of ex post facto rationalization for going to war, since we did manage to boot a brutal dictator. But the very important question about weapons of mass destruction remains.

New York, N.Y.: Regarding the tax cut that was passed last week. Why is there so little in the media about the sunset provisions? Isn't that sort of a gimmick to keep the true cost down? Where is the scrutiny?

Howard Kurtz: There's been a lot of it in newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, for example, ran as its lead story a tough piece on how misleading and unrealistic the sunset provisions are and how the bill, therefore, involves far more than the official $320 billion. The Post has made this point as well. I think it hasn't been covered as much on television, in part because TV hates numbers stories.

New York, N.Y.: How much time must pass before it becomes a full-blown scandal that no WMD's have been found in Iraq? It seems like the media is holding its breath, waiting for what was expected to be the inevitable finding of a biological or chemical weapons cache. At some point, however, too much time will have passed for there to be a realistic belief that pre-war WMD predictions will ever bear out. Will there be a public or media outcry? If not, why not?

Howard Kurtz: I doubt there will be a public outcry, and it's not the media's job to produce a public outcry. I do think the journalistic attention span has been too fleeting on this. Several times I've seen TV correspondents breathlessly report about finds of "possible" chemical or biological weapons, and when the preliminary results don't pan out, that doesn't get as much attention. You can't, of course, prove a negative -- we don't know whether the weapons are just incredibly well hidden, or were destroyed before the war, or never existed -- but that's no excuse for giving up on the story.

Fairfax, Va.: I'm curious as to your thoughts on why virtually no major news outlet in the United States, including the Post, has reported the BBC/Guardian story on Jessica Lynch. They reported that the rescue was largely propaganda and the truth was she was very well cared for and our forces met no resistance in the rescue. Recognizing that this is the Iraqi version of the events, the BBC reported it, I would guess it was carried internationally by others, and it isn't even mentioned in the U.S.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the BBC had a lot of hard evidence, and the Pentagon is flatly denying the report, making it hard to find just where the truth lies. On the other hand, Post columnist Richard Cohen has taken the paper to task for being less than forthright in correcting some of the initial errors in the Lynch case, such as the notion that she had been both shot and stabbed.

Burlington, Vt.: The Rick Bragg suspension raises the question about what's a national reporter for a newspaper really supposed to do, anyway? It seems to me that they usually parachute into a region or city about which they know virtually nothing, read the local papers' stories about whatever breaking news it is that brought them there, then rewrite those stories, very often quoting the same sources and sometimes even quoting the local reporters themselves. What's the point?

Howard Kurtz: There's a lot of parachute journalism, obviously, but experienced national reporters can bring perspective and texture to something that is just a long-running local controversy. But the issue here is not whether big papers like the NYT or WP or LAT are treading on ground already plowed by papers in Kansas City or Tallahassee or Omaha, but whether the correspondents are barely touching down in far-flung cities to "get the dateline," as Bragg says, and relying too heavily on stringers, interns and researchers for the reporting.

Edwardsburg, Mich.: Howard Kurtz,

Thanks for taking my question. George Stephanopoulos jumps to the head of the line and lands a job with ABC News, Jayson Blair is hired by the New York Times when he's barely old enough to legally drink and countless former athletes head straight to the network broadcast booths, where they train to be sportscasters. Does anyone pay their dues anymore?

Howard Kurtz: Lots of people do. It's just that you read about the exceptional cases, or where someone has gotten into trouble. For every Jayson Blair, there are 99 reporters who toiled at a wire service, or for some small-town paper or TV station, or some trade magazine before eventually making the jump to the big leagues. My first job, for example, was working nights for a regional paper in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Gaithersburg, Md.: What happened to the daily online Media Notes? Do you know when (or if) they'll return?

Howard Kurtz: I am taking some vacation time (despite a brief return to the newsroom) and plan to resume the online column on about June 9. Thanks for noticing.

Los Angeles, Calif.: Howard, hello.
I keep reading SO much about Jayson Blair. Do newspaper/magazine readers really want to follow each micro-advancement of this story (if they care about it at all), or do the papers think it's a much bigger deal than everyone else, just because it involves one of their own?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's one heck of a story, a human-interest drama as well as a journalism scandal that the Times describes as a low point in its 152-year history. So why shouldn't a meltdown at a Fortune 500 company like the Times receive the kind of intensive coverage afforded Enron or WorldCom or some government scandal? Besides, the story has now moved on to other Times reporters, such as Rick Bragg, and Blair's attempts to market this tragedy by peddling a book proposal.

Arlington, Va.: So if Rick Bragg had given credit to the stringers and researchers, he would have been in the clear? Is there a problem with having a lead writer who pulls together a story that has been researched and contributed to by others -- as long as you give them credit?

Howard Kurtz: I think that's a key point. Giving credit, even in a tagline, is a way of leveling with the reader. The Times rarely if ever credits stringers, clerks and interns who do reporting, and that's one of the subjects that its internal committee on revamping the newsroom plans to explore. Bragg, as I note in today's story, agrees that these folks deserve more credit.

Saint Louis, Mo.: With the recent hit the NYT has taken, has there been any talk at The Post of going national? I for one would really like to see it happen.

Howard Kurtz: There's been some buzz about it in various magazines, but I don't see it happening. The Post has gone national, in a way, through this Web site, which racks up some great numbers from around the world. But distributing the newspaper around the country is a business decision that wouldn't be made just because the Times has hit a rough patch. While most reporters would love for the paper to be available on newsstands in Chicago and Detroit and L.A. and San Francisco, Don Graham has always taken the approach that the Post is a local newspaper and that the economics of national sales wouldn't work. You have to get a lot of national advertising, and that might be difficult to do. Another reason the Post stays local is that it dominates its circulation area -- the highest penetration rate in the country -- while the New York Times, for example, sells only about a third of its copies in the Big Apple area.

New York, N.Y.: I'm curious as to why there is so little coverage of Afghanistan, even considering that we just finished a war in Iraq. From what I can get by piecing together bits of stories here and there it seems as if Karzai's provisional government has very limited power, the warlords are essentially in charge, heroin is once again (or still) a big cash crop, the Taliban is very much alive and kicking, and we're doing nothing to reconstruct the place.

Yet it's no longer 'newsworthy.' What gives here?

Howard Kurtz: It's embarrassing. The Post and the New York Times and a few other papers still have fulltime correspondents in Kabul who have been writing some very good stories. But the rest of the media have simply moved on. Afghanistan barely exists as a television story. In fact, one monitoring group tells me that the amount of time devoted to Afghanistan by the three network evening newscasts in a recent month was a grand total of one minute.

Indianapolis, Ind.: I watched Sid Blumenthal on Crossfire. Tucker Carlson made some good points by saying Blumenthal crossed the line, failed to be objective, etc. But in the interest of fairness it was common knowledge reporters didn't like Al Gore, liked McCain, etc. So, what's the big deal?

I'm just an average viewer and I see reporters become commentators on the spot simply by virtue of the way they turn a phrase--Brian Williams is the master at this--so their individual likes and dislikes about issues or people are no secret to the viewer and possibly a large part of the reason why the viewer watches. Not to mention reporters ones who treat journalism/punditry as a "weigh stations." So, I guess I don't get why Carlson was acting like he'd exposed some unique thing because Blementhal took sides.

Howard Kurtz: The questions are certainly fair, in Blumenthal's case, because he was covering Washington for the New Yorker while, by his own account, talking privately with the Clintons and being very supportive of them -- so much so that the magazine banned him from covering the White House. A couple of years later Sid shows up on the White House payroll. Lots of journalists have opinions, but that's quite a ride.

Baltimore, Md. : You know what else is troubling about the failure of news organizations to thoroughly report on the fact that no WMD's have been found?

The fact that editorial pages of major metropolitan newspapers beat the war drums heavily based on this one major fact, (that Saddam had WMD's), and then has utterly failed to follow up with editorials criticizing the failure to find WMD's.

If WMD's were so critical to the Iraq war, sanctions, etc..., then the failure to find WMD's is also critical. Your editorial board should demand accountability.

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair point. In the early weeks, I think there was a reluctance to declare the WMD search a failure because there was a chance that a major find could happen any day. Now that more time has passed, the editorialists and columnists who argued that the potential weapons threat justified invading Iraq owe it to the readers to revisit the issue. One who's done so is Tom Friedman, who says he doesn't think it matters whether WMDs are ever found because Saddam was such a thug that his ouster is a good thing either way.

Arlington, Va.: You said you wished reporters would follow up on the incorrect stories about the finding of supposed WMD. Do you also think that the newspaper should correct their numerous errors on the supposed looted museum story that has turned out not to be anywhere close to as bad as CNN and others reported. CNN spent days on this story, yet I do not believe they have issued a correction.

Howard Kurtz: That situation seems a little more ambiguous to me. Obviously there was some looting; there were also things stolen as an inside job, in cooperation with the staff; there are also people who have returned some of the loot.

Mt. Rainier, Md.: If stringers are getting a lot of the story, then how does the parachuting reporter verify the stringer's facts? Doesn't this just make it that much harder to be sure the story is right?

Howard Kurtz: If you have confidence in the stringer, you may ask some questions -- how do we know this, where did this statistic come from -- but you're going to rely on that person's work. Important elements should obviously be double-checked. Rick Bragg told me of one instance where he interviewed someone who he said had been "pre-interviewed" by his assistant.

Riverdale Park, Md.: Hello Mr Kurtz,

Why did The Post put last week's Algerian earthquake on page A16? Surely, the story deserved more prominence.

Howard Kurtz: I would agree. Unfortunately, there's a long tradition in journalism in which faraway disasters don't get as much coverage. A local small-plane crash in which two people are killed is often treated as a bigger story than a jet crash in some distant land in which 100 people are killed.

Washington, D.C.: Does the Sunday edition of the Post circulate to other cities with greater reach than the daily edition?

Howard Kurtz: No. You can buy the daily or Sunday at a few newsstands in Manhattan and other selected eastern cities, but beyond that you either wait for delayed delivery, subscribe to the National Weekly edition or read the paper online.

Down South: Howard -- Interesting column today. From what I understand, this is not the first time that Mr. Bragg has been called out. Some might say that he has a knack for getting the kind of quote or visual image that seems almost TOO perfect. Have you heard anything from your fellow journalists suggesting that maybe Bragg was more of a storyteller than reporter?

Howard Kurtz: Those rumors have certainly been around, but I make it a point not to traffic in rumors. Bragg has made some mistakes that required lengthy editor's notes, as I pointed out in my first story on the subject Saturday. But just because he's a colorful writer, I don't think it's fair to assume he's embellishing things without hard evidence.

Arlington, Va.: My biggest beef with journalism in the post 9/11 age is all the speculation. Endless stories about what could happen, what might happen. That is not news to me. Sure, there needs to be education and heightened awareness. But stories that speculate on how terrorist could be able to do something isn't news.

Howard Kurtz: Speculation is dangerous stuff, as we learned during the sniper case, when all these experts blathered on with theories that turned out to be utterly wrong. But it does seem to be endless in our 24/7 world.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company