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Media Backtalk
Howard Kurtz
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Media Backtalk
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Media Backtalk
With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, June 16, 2003; 1:00 p.m 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.



Philadelphia, Pa.: With regards to your column today on how these British papers blare out sensationalistic headlines without strong evidence to back them up: how exactly do these papers maintain credibility, or are they just the British equivalent of The National Enquirer and similar tabloids?

washingtonpost.com: For Blair and Bush, No Fleet Street Credibility (Post, June 16)

Howard Kurtz: Well, they're far different than the National Enquirer. Some of them, in fact, do excellent reporting. But they are far more openly partisan (pro-Labor and pro-Tory) than anything we're used to here in the States.

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Columbia, Md.: The Baltimore Sun reporters today are having a "byline strike" where they leave their names off the articles. You guys at the Post have done similar things in the past.

What exactly is the point of this type of strike and what is it supposed to accomplish as far as forcing the newspaper to concede. I guess what I really want to know is how is it supposed "hurt" the newspaper so that the newspaper will concede to demands?

Howard Kurtz: It probably doesn't hurt the newspaper much, since most readers don't care about bylines. In the case of The Post, it was a way for a union with relatively little leverage to get some attention to its side of a contract negotiation fight.

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Potomac, Md.: I enjoy your Reliable Sources show, it is about the only thing I can watch on CNN without wanting to throw something at the TV. That being said, I thought you were rather dismissive of Fox News' interview with Juanita Broaddrick by calling it just "creative counter-programming." There are a lot of people who believe Broaddrick a lot more than they believe Hillary Clinton and at least Fox News is willing to give both sides of that particular story. I saw you also did not state that Fox News' interview with Broaddrick beat the Larry King interview with Hillary.

Has CNN covered the Juanita Broaddrick story at all? If not, why not?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. The Washington Post covered it extensively. NBC, you may recall, was the first to air an interview with Broaddrick back in 1999. I don't suggest that her story is in any way not legitimate or that she is not credible. My point was whether Fox was making a statement by putting her on -- four years after her allegations surfaced, with no new information on her part -- exactly the time that Hillary was being interviewed on CNN.

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Washington, D.C.: You gotta admit that Mrs. Clinton's book tour has been ultra-successful. Both in sales & politically. Haven't seen this many people stand in line for a book signing in the DC area since Vanessa Del Rio came to town a few years ago.

But if people want to read the dirt on Bill and Monica why don't they just go to the online text version of the Ken Starr Report?

Howard Kurtz: I guess because we all wallowed in that back in '98, and the only remaining mystery was what did the first lady think about all this. Why did she put up with Bill, why did she stay married to him, yadda yadda yadda. And so this is the first time that Hillary has pulled back the curtain a little bit and let us hear her side, albeit in carefully controlled nuggets.

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Chicago, Ill.: Howard,

It is very interesting reading your article on British press. Do you think Bush can survive such a standup press? What if he had to go through a parliamentary debate every Wednesday? Do you think a UK press would have shamed Colin Powell to resign because he was duped by other people telling blatant lies to the whole world?

You have reported on the UK press before and each time you did not put in the obligatory qualifier "even thought the evidence is pretty thin." Which practice do you prefer, the British or the American way?

Howard Kurtz: Each has its strengths. I prefer newspapers that at least try, however unsuccessfully, to be objective, rather than openly lean toward one political party or the other. At the same time, the American press could use a bit of British aggression when it comes to challenging public officials on issues like WMD.
As I sat in the House of Commons watching Tony Blair get grilled, I wondered how American politicians would fare if they had to submit to such weekly interrogations. The answer, in part, is that our system would breed a different kind of president -- one who was a quick-on-his-feet debater -- if that was a prerequisite of the job.

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New York City, N.Y: Howard, I enjoy your columns very much, and your column about the "looting" of the Baghdad museum was excellent.

There seems to have been quite a few stories lately which have played up an anti-war angle but that have later proved to be false (or at least very much overstated). Off the top of my head, besides the museum story, there was (1) the BBC/Toronto Star story asserting (falsely) that the Jessica Lynch rescue was faked (with our soldiers using "blanks," no less), (2) the Maureen Dowd ellipse to make it (falsely) seem as though Bush said that al Qaeda is not a problem any more, (3) the Vanity Fair article that (falsely) asserted that Wolfowitz said that WMD were merely a "bureaucratic" excuse for war, (4) the similar story in London's Guardian that (falsely) claimed that Wolfowitz said that we went to war because Iraq is "swimming in oil", which followed close on the heels of (5) another Guardian retraction of a story that (falsely) claimed that Powell and Brit FM Jack Straw met before Powell's UN speech to cast aspersions on WMD evidence.

What's going on here? These are widely varied sources -- Brit, American, Canadian -- television, magazines, newspapers. Does this normally go on, or am I just becoming more sensitive to these false stories since the Jayson Blair episode?

Howard Kurtz: I don't necessarily see the museum looting story as an "antiwar" story, although liberal critics of the war certainly jumped on it. The tale was simply swallowed whole by the press with very little skepticism until it simply blew up in everyone's face.
The examples you cite are very different -- for example, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz did say something similar to the Vanity Fair reporter, whose handwritten notes did not match the official transcript. I certainly don't believe the Jessica Lynch rescue was faked, but the jury is out on whether it was somewhat overdramatized (The Post probably contributed to this with an early account, later disproved, that she had been shot and stabbed). I guess the fog of war is thick indeed.

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Somewhere, USA: Reviews of Margaret Carlson's book imply she blames Gore's poor press coverage on the food given to the press on the Gore plane wasn't as good as what the Bushies offered. I think I've read that part of the problem with Travelgate was when the Clintons changed travel services the Press no longer got special treatment. Is this all part of "feeding the beast?"

Howard Kurtz: I don't think she blames it entirely on the food, although a poorly fed campaign press corps can turn cranky. But having ridden on both the Gore and Bush planes during the 2000 campaign, I can tell you that the attitude toward reporters -- Gore mostly ignored them, Bush catered to them -- played a role, at the margins, in the more sympathetic press the Texas governor received. I wrote this at the time, because I was never quite able to figure out how Al Gore, as a former reporter, became so distrustful of journalists.

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Clintons: Howard, some time ago you wrote that "no one is neutral on Bill Clinton." You probably agree that the same is true for Hillary. Why do you think Americans were so divided about the Clintons years before Whitewater and Monicagate?

Howard Kurtz: From the moment they burst on the national scene, they seemed to arouse strong emotions in people. In Bill's case, it was not just that he was from Arkansas, but because he had the draft-avoiding, Gennifer Flowers, didn't-inhale baggage. In Hillary's case, she was outspoken, not made in the traditional first-lady mold and seemed to some people to be angling to be a co-president. Both of them developed a chip on their shoulder toward the press early on, which didn't help. So it really started in 1992.

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Columbia, Md.: Is the Jonathan Karl who writes for the liberal magazine "The New Republic" the same Jonathan Karl who claims to be an "objective" journalist on CNN?

I already know Judy Woodruff is still a registered Democrat and Jeff Greenfeld has a Democratic background, and both are considered "objective" journalists by CNN. Does CNN have anyone acting as an "objective" journalist or analyst that has a conservative/Republican background?

Howard Kurtz: Writing a not-very-ideological piece or two for the New Republic doesn't make you a liberal (in fact, TNR itself is not that liberal these days, since it backed Bush on the war and has bashed the Democrats on national security issues). Karl is widely regarded as a fair reporter who, by the way, used to work for the not-very-liberal New York Post. CNN also employed Major Garrett, a Hill reporter who previously worked for the not-very-liberal Washington Times and now works for the not-very-liberal Fox News.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Did you catch Ben Bradlee on Larry King last night. The disdain he holds for Ms Clinton and her husband was quite evident. He was so put out that they were still 'married' but yet his only marital history is not so clean and his best bud JFK put Mr. Clinton to shame when it comes to playing around. I like Mr. Bradlee and not big supporter of the Clinton but I thought he was taking some pretty cheap shots. Then I recalled that Ms Quinn took the Clintons to task a few years back for coming in to the Washington and trashing "our town".

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see it, but Bradlee, who hasn't been the editor here for 12 years, is certainly entitled to his opinion. And it's certainly true that his wife, Sally Quinn, publicly criticized the Clintons for avoiding the Washington social scene.

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Somewhere, USA: Re: your latest column:

While I agree that the American press shouldn't be as harsh as the British press, there are still questions to be answered.

I'm sorry, but I think the American media is doing a poor job of that.

The American media IS too gentle on Bush. It needs to find a middle ground between what it does now and what the British press does.

Thank you for listening.

Howard Kurtz: No strong disagreement there. Interestingly, days after the WMD issue because a huge issue in the British press, there seemed to be some cross-Atlantic impact, because the same issue starting to heat up here. Not to the extent of Britain, where newspapers were slamming the prime minister on the front page day after day, but there were some scoops (including a couple in The Post) that raised significant questions about the WMD case that Bush made.

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North Potomac, Md.: Howard--

In today's column, you state how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought 'brilliantly and successfully.'

Common! Since our mighty victory in Iraq, over 40 soldiers have been killed, and still no WMD or Osama! And please don't tell me you're 'only or specifically' referring to the military -- you're also commenting on Bush's policies. Are we truly any safer now than we were before?

Howard Kurtz: The post-war in both countries has not been handled brilliantly and successfully. Iraq remains in relative chaos, and the Karzai government in Afghanistan looks as shaky as ever. I was simply pointing out that the military did a superb job in winning both wars quickly and with minimal American casualties.

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Houston, Tex.: Howard,

I noticed with the coverage of Hillary's book, that many networks promoted their interviews with her as "exclusive." What exactly constitutes an "exclusive" interview these days? I used to think it meant that the subject was only talking to that one network, but that does not seem to be the truth any longer.

Howard Kurtz: It used to mean you had the only interview, or at least the first one. Now it seems to mean she's not talking to anyone on any other channel for the next hour or so, at least as far as we can figure out.

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Beyond the Beltway: The NY Times had a story today about the sickening practice of, what amounts, to buying highly sought TV interviews by enticing such people as Jessica Lynch with various news/entertainment deals. It made me ill, but, it wasn't just CBS's excesses that the story targeted that made me feel that way. It started off talking about Katie Couric sending Jessica Lynch a bunch of "patriotic" books and Diana Sawyer sending her a locket. Good grief! I don't care that these are small things. I'm a newspaper journalist and we'd get fired pulling that kind of crap. We are left with our powers of persuasion to get people to talk to us. Obviously, we can't compete with the networks and the tabloids, and I hope readers and viewers understand that. Most newspapers are still in the business of bona fide journalism and we DON'T buy off interview subjects and don't promise them anything. Given the dangers of media consolidation and the winner-take-all attitude of business, though, I suppose many of us who now work for editors and publishers of conscience are at risk of eventually winding up like the slimy TV people.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the old rules about networks not promising interview subjects anything seem to be fading in this era of corporate synergy. Now, if you're Jessica Lynch and you sign with Viacom's CBS for an interview, you find dangled before you the possibility of a made-for-TV Viacom movie, a book contract with Viacom's Simon & Schuster, and the chance to host a very cool music special on Viacom's MTV! This is not the first time one of the networks has tried this sort of thing, though it may be the first time that someone has written it all down so we can see exactly how the game is played.

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Washington, D.C.: Looking in hindsight, should the media have been more skeptical about the administration's claims about Iraq?

Howard Kurtz: To be fair, there WAS some skepticism, especially about a supposed link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, but it was awfully hard to disprove what the administration was saying during the buildup to war. And it's probably fair to say that during that heavily patriotic time, some news organizations didn't try very hard. But with Iraq under Saddam's tight-fisted control, who could really know what if any weapons he was hiding? It's only now, with the country under U.S. control, that you have to wonder why we haven't found any of this stuff.

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Niles, Mich.: Does anyone recognize how the "trial by media" concentration on one spousal murder (Laci Peterson in California) takes over all other coverage of non-sensational, still contested court-related news? I certainly hope that there is a "gag order" by the judge presiding over that legal proceeding soon! Even high profile landmark cases like the accused terrorist Moussaoi have gotten all the "air sucked out of the room."

Howard Kurtz: It's not only overshadowing other legal news; if you watch cable these days, especially at night, the Laci Peterson case often seems to drown out all the news.

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Alexandrria, Va.: When people talk about how popular Fox News is, what do they mean? Do more people watch Fox every day than watch either Brokaw or Rather or Jennings?

In an average day how many people watch each of the major broadcast and cable news programs?

Howard Kurtz: No, not even close. They mean that Fox gets higher ratings than its cable competitors, mainly CNN, MSNBC and CNBC. But it's a still a fraction of the audience that broadcast news draws. The most popular Fox show, the O'Reilly Factor, reaches about 2 million viewers at 8 pm EST. Brokaw, Rather and Jennings each pull in an audience of roughly 10 million, and even that pales compared to what the sitcoms and dramas draw.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard

What was your opinion on the Hillary interviews? It seemed like she was allowed to skirt a lot of issues that were much more important (at least in hindsight) than her thoughts on her husband's infidelity.

Howard Kurtz: I thought most of the questioning was fairly soft (though Katie Couric did a pretty good job), that Hillary wasn't really pressed on many topics, and that she never got pushed off her fairly predictable script, which often echoed what she had written in her book.

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Silver Spring, Md.: In articles on the debate over the national budget, including Bush's proposed tax cuts, I do hear mention of many spending programs, but the $80 billion bill (just as a start) for the rebuilding of Iraq seems to be mentioned primarily just in articles on the political/military situation in that country. After all the articles I've read on the situation, I have no real idea of how much the tax cuts will affect me and absolutely no idea whatsoever as to how much I'm paying towards that $80 billion tab for Iraq.

Howard Kurtz: I agree with you on Iraq, but newspapers have run fairly detailed articles and charts showing how the Bush tax cut will affect the typical taxpayer in different brackets. Your mileage may vary, of course.

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Del Ray, Alexandria, Va.: Jonathan Karl started his career at TNR as Fred Barnes' assistant -- not very liberal credentials!

Howard Kurtz: Didn't know that.

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Somewhere, USA:

You hit the nail right on the head!

The British press leans too far to the left;
while the American press leans too far to the right.

Objective doesn't seem to be a word in either's vocabulary.

Howard Kurtz: But there are plenty of exceptions. There are some very conservative British newspapers, and the last time I checked, no one was accusing the New York Times editorial page of being too far to the right.

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Wooster, Ohio: Howard:

The recent NY Times issues has made me more cognizant of by-lines. I've started to notice that the Times will have short articles with a by-line of "The New York Times". Who writes these articles, and why don't they get any credit?

Howard Kurtz: Sometimes they're just reporter-written pieces too short to warrant a byline, and sometimes they're written by interns or stringers who are very rarely credited by the New York Times -- though that may change when a newsroom committee makes its post-Blair recommendations.

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Arlington, Va.: People seem to say Hillary's running for president with her book, and will say in the future that all scandal questions were addressed in her book. But none of her softball interviewers is getting to the questions the public still wants answered. Can she credibly claim years from now that she doesn't have to answer them because Katie Couric and Barbara Walters didn't make her?

Howard Kurtz: No, but that won't stop her from trying -- if, in fact, she runs for president. One of my problems with the Hillary coverage is that most reporters simply assume that this is the opening salvo in her 2008 campaign for the White House. They don't know, and probably Hillary doesn't know, whether she'll run in five years. Given her first-hand experience at what she'd be subjected to, it's entirely possible that she'll decline to run.

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Boston, Mass.: Mr. Kurtz,

In your opinion is the right wing media trying to minimalize the WMD issue?

Howard Kurtz: I'd say conservatives in general are playing defense on the issue, arguing that Bush didn't intentionally mislead anyone and that the fact that we haven't found such weapons so far doesn't mean they don't exist.

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Glen Burnie, Md.: Mr. Kurtz, it seems to me your beat would be better served and the coverage more substantive if you spent less time on the "gotcha" of this particular news figure with a conflict of interest, or that particular editor/reporter with an ethical breach, and more time and effort examining, in a qualitative way, the growing number of issues that face the American media. The daily struggle of the New York Times for example to come to terms with Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg is entertaining and more easily reported than smart, detailed think-pieces about the forces that create such lapses. How about the prize culture in newspapering? How about the star system and what it can encourage in an unhealthy newsroom? How about an in-depth analysis of what the growth in narrative, fictive-like storytelling has done to newspaper standards a la Bragg? Or a thoughtful piece about how everyone in journalism is quick to assess Blair as a unique case -- a bad apple -- when this continues to happen in newsrooms throughout the country, and almost every working reporter I have talked to has doubts about the veracity of one or two of his colleagues? How about examining the built-in career incentives to falsify product as they now exist. Clearly, Bragg and Blair both achieved more status than an accurate news report might have allowed? Clearly, there is a motivation to pump a story that continues to produce such scandals at the New York Times and at other publications. Yet, you and other media critics tend to respond piecemeal, in fifteen-inch easy-to-bite morsels, rather than probing the root causes with any kind of depth. Why not ask yourself harder, more systemic questions in your coverage? I find your work to accurate and fair, but stunted in its pursuit of deeper meanings. And no, I don't work at the Post, or at any other publication for that matter. But I do love newspapers and am saddened by recent trends.

Howard Kurtz: I've written lengthy pieces or columns on all the subjects you just rattled off. It's far more interesting to try to figure out why these blunders happen, but you also have to report on the blunders themselves, as I did in writing the first pieces about Blair's fabrications and plagiarism.

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Washington, D.C.: Just heard that Torie Clarke is resigning. Any comment?

Howard Kurtz: She more than any person on the planet is responsible for the embedding program in Iraq, which journalists were highly skeptical of but now praise as having been a breakthrough. She's also someone who has young children and worked incredibly long hours through two wars, and so I'm hardly surprised that she would want to ease up for awhile. There's already speculation about whether she'll be involved with the Bush reelection campaign. She was the chief spokeswoman for 41's reelection campaign back in 1992.

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Virginia: Re: Glen Burnie. You clearly don't need me to spring to your defense, Howard, but I actually think you and other media critics have done a pretty fine job doing long explainers in the wake of Blair/Bragg. Just my two cents. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Your two cents is happily accepted. Thanks.

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Icebergville, Minn.: I don't get it? Are reporters not supposed to have opinions? Are they not supposed do vote?
What does being registered to a party have to do with being objective?

Compare David Brinkley to George Will and you will see the difference. A reporter who tried to remain as objective as possible -- certainly not 100 percent objective, but still -- versus a pundit who is paid to express his opinions.

Yeesh!

Howard Kurtz: Reporters obviously have opinions, and there's nothing wrong with them voting. But I think it's probably wise for those who cover politics and government not to be registered to a political party.

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