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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 09, 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.



AP: So in the new world of crediting everyone who's contributed, what does this mean for The Associated Press? Some papers give a credit line at the end for material from the AP, many others (like the New York Times), do not.

My sister is an AP reporter. On at least three occasions her stories have appeared in the Times word-for-word under a Times reporter's byline, once with a new lead, once slightly rearranged.

This especially irritates me because on the whole it seems like newspaper writers really look down their noses at AP reporters, like they wouldn't be good enough for a newsroom. Meanwhile, they are using their material word for word. But I can't see the august Times admitting that it's using wire copy.

Howard Kurtz: Word for word? That's not supposed to happen. Please send me the details.
Every journalist, including me, relies on AP, Reuters, local papers, TV, etc. The key -- and it's so simple and so basic and doesn't cost anything -- is to credit. So-and-so told the AP. Such-and-such happened, according to Reuters. If a significant chunk is used, AP should get a byline or credit line. You don't appropriate other people's work. It's that simple.

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Boston, Mass.: Howard,

In your opinion, too much, too little or just enough coverage about Hillary's book?

Howard Kurtz: Right now I'd say it's pretty big news (even if the media blitz was partially engineered by Hillary and her publisher) and deserves the coverage it's getting. In about 48 hours I may have a different view.

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Columbia, Md.: Last Thursday in The Washington Post, an article with the title "Some Iraq Analysts Felt Pressure From Cheney Visits" written by Walter Pincus and Dana Priest.

The sources in the story were as follows, in order of appearance in the article: intelligence officials, two senior Pentagon officials, officials in the intelligence community, Government sources, former CIA officials, senior officials, one senior analyst, a senior defense official, one former defense official, and finally one current defense official and one former defense official. There was not one single named source in this story that backed up the claims made by the authors.

To me, I have no idea if the authors made up these people or whether it is actually just one person used over and over again. Just what is the policy at The Washington Post for anonymous sources?

Howard Kurtz: The policy is that they are to be used sparingly and only when there's no other way to get the story. The Cheney story, which has not been denied, certainly falls in that category. Pincus and Priest are veteran reporters, and there's no way senior officials are going to go on the record on a sensitive, intelligence-related story like this. Does The Post, and the media in general, use too many unnamed sources, especially in political stories where partisans are just taking blind potshots at each other? Yes. But this story is not an example of that.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Howard,

Great article today. The hypocrisy in the Times is staggering -- calling for a public accounting of people in the news, yet stonewalling when they are called onto the carpet, or calling criticism "rascist" (Blair) or "a conspiracy" (Krugman). It is sickening.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I was just trying to make the point that the Times would not settle for saying that no one at the top is responsible, or willing to grant interviews, if the subject under fire was a politician or top businessman. Ultimately, the paper did hold its top folks accountable. But lots of Timesfolk have told me they felt it was a mistake for Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd in particular to hunker down and grant no interviews while the storm was raging.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you see the lack of significant progress in the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as on the verge of becoming a huge story in the mainstream U.S. media (as it already is in Britain and much of Europe)? The TV networks seem to be paying more attention now than a few weeks ago, with NBC's Tim Russert grilling Condoleezza Rice for ten minutes on the topic yesterday. On Fox News Sunday, Colin Powell suggested that whether or not the alleged WMD are ever found is not a major concern to most Americans, and unfortunately the show's conservative host Tony Snow did not ask a follow-up question. Is there a lingering post-9/11 reluctance on the part of the media on this side of the Atlantic to pursue or promote stories that may cast suspicion or doubt on Bush administration foreign policy motives?

Howard Kurtz: There's no question the European press has been much more aggressive on this subject. But the American press is showing signs of life. I think it's a less salient political issue on this side of the Atlantic because most Americans believe Saddam was a brutal dictator and are glad that he's gone. But that doesn't mean the press should give the Bush administration a pass on the WMD question. After all, the president said over and over, month after month, that Saddam's refusal to disarm was the reason the United States would have to go to war.

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WInthrop, Mass.: I am reading about the book "The Clinton Wars," by Sidney Blumenthal. Its nice to see many figures in the media admit that the whole Clinton impeachment thing was an unconstitutional out of control right wing effort to derail a popular moderate president, but its amazing they are trying to write off their historic failure to do their duty to the country as history. The fact that the case against president was so clearly a result of a massively funded effort at digging for any dirt by the right wing of the Republican Party was not even hidden to anyone outside of the media. Since this failure is a 1000 times worst than anything the New York Times is reporting, why isn't it front page news everywhere?

washingtonpost.com: Sidney Blumenthal will be online to discuss his book Tuesday, June 10 at 11 a.m. ET.

Howard Kurtz: That debate -- whether Clinton lied in a judicial proceeding or was railroaded by an overzealous prosecutor --consumed the country in 1998 and 1999 and is not exactly new news. Nor is it surprising that one of his ex-aides and loyalists would deride the whole effort as a right-wing witchhunt. But as Hillary's book reminds us, the former president did lie to her, and the country, about Monica. Whether that was just a character failing or an impeachable offense is a debate that will go on roughly forever.

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Washington, D.C.: Is the Raines/Boyd resignation really only about the Blair scandal? That's what most of the media is reporting it as.

But people who read the blogs know that Raines has been horrible long long before Blair ever came out.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Howell has certainly been a lightning rod over the years, as I reported both during his tenure as editorial page editor and when he was named to the executive editor's post. But in the end, as I tried to say this morning, the resignations were not just about Blair, because Raines and Boyd were deceived like everyone else. It was the fact that Raines's management style had so alienated wide swaths of the newsroom that he no longer had much of a base of support. That's why Arthur Sulzberger, who earlier had vowed not to accept Raines's resignation, changed his mind.

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Baltimore, Md: Howard, as troubling as the Jayson Blair story is, for the New York Times, I've got to tell you that I'm more concerned about the Judith Miller affair and am surprised it hasn't received more coverage. She appears to have been one of the leading media voices promoting the Administration's now seemingly non-existent Iraqi WMD disinformation campaign. More troubling than her bias, however, is the sort of reporting that NY Times editors let her get away with. In May you yourself commented on an April 21 front-page piece of hers (which I recall reading) in which she claimed an Iraqi scientist had verified Iraqi WMDs, but maintained that military censorship rules kept her from interviewing him, revealing his name, visiting his home, writing about it for three days, nor even mention the types of suspected WMD in question. How could an editor approve for publication (on the front page, no less) a piece that basically boils down to "unnamed sources, say an unnamed top scientist, in an undisclosed location in Iraq, has shown them where to find some stuff that... while we can't actually tell you what it is... believe us... it's pretty nasty."?

Howard Kurtz: I'll just tell you what Times Assistant Managing Editor Andrew Rosenthal told me: that Judith Miller was playing by the rules of embeddment, that the fact that she didn't "interview" the Iraqi scientist doesn't mean she hasn't met him, and that the Times is comfortable that the story was accurate. But she has obviously taken a lot of criticism over this arrangement.

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Takoma Park, Washington, D.C.: Here's a dumb question: What does a "publisher" do? I understand what Howell Raines' job was as executive editor, and I sorta get what Gerald Boyd did as managing editor, but I've been reading about Ahiur Sulzerberger Jr., and it completely escapes me what a publisher's day to day responsibilities are, beyond firing executive editors and managing editors.

Howard Kurtz: It varies from paper to paper, but basically the publisher worries about the business side of the paper -- advertising, circulation and so on. The publisher also sets editorial-page policy, usually through regular meetings with the editorial board. At most newspapers, the publisher, while dealing with the broad outlines of news coverage, tone and where journalistic resources should be deployed (like, say, how much money to spend on the war), does not get involved in the day-to-day journalistic decisions. That's why he or she hires an editor.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Given the number of front page stories many outlets devoted to the "complete destruction" of the antiquities at the Baghdad Museum, are we going to see the same treatment given to the revelations that nothing of the sort really happened, or will it be buried? Thanks to the post for today's story.

washingtonpost.com: All Along, Most Iraqi Relics Were 'Safe and Sound' (Post, June 9)

Howard Kurtz: We should, but probably not. I too was amazed at the "never mind" quality of the aftermath of what the media played as a huge and dramatic story. It doesn't mean the earlier stories were flat wrong -- a lot of stuff was in fact looted -- but it does cast those events in a very different light. By now, though, we've all moved on to Hillary.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Howard, and welcome back.

I noticed today's NYT editorial: "Was the Intelligence Cooked?", while The Posts's front page features "Bush Officials Defend Iraq Intelligence." Further, the NYT carries an item stating that two high ranking al Qaeda captives deny that they were working with Iraq. And so on...

Do you think we may be on the verge of realizing in retrospect that we may have been stampeded into a war based on something less than fact? And that the stories concerning the bad intelligence or bad interpretation thereof may in fact be growing legs?

Howard Kurtz: The problem with this whole area is that intelligence is murky, based on assessments of unnamed sources and defectors and people with axes to grind and people of less than pristine reputation. It's hard for the spies to determine what the truth is, and harder still for journalists, who don't have access to all the classified stuff, to figure it out. So while it's possible that both U.S. and British political leaders hyped the WMD threat based on the available intelligence, it's awfully hard for the press to prove or disprove that.

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Crystal City, Va.: Although you covered it briefly, I've seen very little mention elsewhere about the LA Times memo concerning bias in an article about abortion. Any follow-up? Anybody quit, get fired, or at least disciplined?

Howard Kurtz: In a word, no. John Carroll, the L.A. Times editor, told me the reporter who wrote the abortion piece that he eviscerated was in good standing and that no action would be taken. Carroll obviously didn't intend for his memo about abortion and liberal bias to become public, but like just about everything else in a newsroom, it leaked.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: It seemed like a lot of the Sunday morning shows mentioned Hillary Clinton's book in terms of a future and inevitable presidential run. I was surprised that commentators are wasting time with this because of Hillary Clinton's huge negative numbers. Was this merely a way for Republican commentators to link the Democratic Party to Hillary Clinton like an albatross or are there people who think a president can win without carrying Texas, Florida or even her (former) home state Illinois?

Howard Kurtz: The press is obsessed with a Hillary candidacy because it would be such a great story. The truth is, who knows what might happen between now and '08? I doubt Hillary Clinton herself knows, though some aides have been quoted as saying she is at least weighing a future run. She's certainly a polarizing figure, but then, many pontificators didn't think she could get herself elected to the Senate to represent a state she'd never lived in. Hillary for President is a game that everyone loves to play, including conservatives who love raising money off the scary prospect of another Clinton White House.

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Texas: Re: looting "corrections"

"... By now, though, we've all moved on to Hilary."

Howard, I know you were being glib. Still ... doesn't it pain you to know that you work in an industry where this very conclusion is held unironically? And that this industry is just TRAINING us not to trust it?

Howard Kurtz: Lots of things pain me about the media biz these days. I was being light-hearted, sure, but also making a serious point about the media's fleeting attention span. Way too many big stories -- WMD is one example -- lose altitude when the initial furor fades or when contradictions surface. Meanwhile, I can't turn on cable without seeing another gabfest about Laci Peterson.

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Kensington, Md.: Howard, it seems like the whole country (spanning the political spectrum) has been up in arms over Jayson Blair's and what it means for the New York Times. Meanwhile, the fact that the president and his circle at best exaggerated and manipulated information about a potential threat from Iraq, and at worst outright lied and "fabricated" stories, seems to be getting tepid airplay.

I understand that you broke the Blair story, and justifiably had an interest in getting it out there. But given the relative magnitude and consequence of the two men's fabrications, don't you find the respective outrage just a little out of balance?

I'm glad Blair is no longer reporting, but whether he visited West Virginia or not does not affect the state of the real world one iota. The other fabricator opened up an era of pre-emptive warfare with his "stories."

Howard Kurtz: In the scheme of things, more stories have undoubtedly been written about Iraq and WMD in the last month than about Jayson Blair. But there should be more reporting on this, in my view, even though the reporting by its nature is very difficult. Jayson Blair is important because of what his case says about journalistic ethics and the New York Times. But Tony Blair and George Bush and their handling of the Iraqi weapons question is obviously a far bigger issue, given that we just went to war on the charges of weapons of mass destruction.

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Gallery Place, Washington, D.C.: So with Hillary's book strictly embargoed, how the heck did the Post get two copies last week? And what does that mean to the bookseller that broke the embargo?

Howard Kurtz: The Post got it the old fashioned way -- with cold cash. When a book is embargoed, stores aren't supposed to sell it until a certain date. But with so many bookstores out there, and this has happened before, one or two may screw up or ignore the ban and put it on the shelves early. The first stories came from a leak to the AP, though.

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Stafford, Va.: Do you believe a person has to watch television these days to know what's going on in the world? I read the paper, listen to the radio, and read information on-line but don't watch TV. Sometimes I wonder if I'm missing any important news. What do you think one needs to do to stay informed?

Howard Kurtz: Television is such a huge force in society that to ignore TV news is to ignore the way that most Americans get much of their news. The power of images and the immediacy of live coverage cannot be matched. I worry more about people getting their fill from the tube and ignoring the more in-depth coverage and analysis of print.

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Cincinnati, Ohio: A follow-up on the WMD issue: Is the American media's willingness to finally ask tough questions on this topic an indication of a growing willingness to scrutinize, more carefully, the administration's general handling of the war on terrorism?

Howard Kurtz: Not necessarily. The fact is, it's often easier to explore these issues after a war. In part that's because we now have the ability to scour Iraq for WMDs, which we obviously didn't while Saddam was in charge. But it's also true that in the rally-round-the-flag surge that happens when American men and women are marching off to war, many news organizations are cautious about pressing too hard for fear of appearing unpatriotic.

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Alexandria, Va.: A New York Times article two days ago on possible Iraqi WMD facilities made extensive use of quotes from anonymous experts.

How can a reader know whether anonymous experts in an article are actually experts? Should a logical reader accept statements that are based upon the authority of anonymous experts?

Howard Kurtz: It all comes down to trust. When reporters for the Times or any other newspaper describe an unnamed source, they have to hope that readers believe that they're shooting straight and not quoting a taxi driver or guy at the bar as being some important hotshot. That's why media credibility is so fragile and so important, and why a breach of trust like Jayson Blair's is so damaging.

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St. Louis, Mo.: Any response to what Rush Limbaugh said about your New York Times reporting -- basically that your work helped save the Times -- and that this hard look at the Times would not have happened 15-20 years ago?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't know he had said that. I certainly don't claim credit for "saving" anyone, but I'm proud to have been able to get the Jayson Blair story out and to do the detailed follow-up reporting that the situation required. As for 20 years ago, he's probably right. There was much less scrutiny of the media by the media, and unless there was a very public blowup -- as with Janet Cooke and The Washington Post in 1981 -- media blunders often got swept under the rug or got little attention.

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"Pressing:" "Many news organizations are cautious about pressing too hard for fear of appearing unpatriotic."
Isn't that a horrendous state of affairs. And why would anyone's questions appear unpatriotic? when the attack machine of the Right rolls into action, is when. We are living in fear, now, and I think that is just incredible. This is America!

Howard Kurtz: I'm certainly not endorsing that view. Asking tough questions is what journalists do, and we shouldn't be out to win any popularity contests. But in time of war, when networks compete for the best flag-waving logo, it seems to me that's not always the case.

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Washington, D.C.: Your reply to Winthrop, Mass. is spot-on reflective of inside-the-Beltway unwillingness to consider both its culpability and cooperation with conservative extremists in perpetuating the 'Clinton Wars.' The writer's query concerned CLINTON'S ENTIRE TENURE, not just his lying "in a judicial proceeding" (in truth, a deposition in the ancillary, unfounded Paula Jones civil suit). As to "exactly new news!" You and other varied media colleagues have made it a point to repeat this 'old news' as "new news" whenever it serves you well. Right?

Howard Kurtz: But I'd make the same point about Clinton's entire tenure. Some of the stories of that era, Whitewater in particular, were over-hyped. Others, like the '96 campaign fundraising scandal, were not. But this was argued about constantly for most of the eight years, including the media's role.

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Cold cash?: Does that mean the Post paid cover price or essentially bribed someone at a bookstore with a three or four figure sum?

Howard Kurtz: I believe we paid the cover price. Why bribe someone when the book is publicly available for sale?

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Washington, D.C.: Does it erode your confidence in your colleagues at the New York Times to know that they we so easily deceived?

Personally, based on the level of errors, it seems to me that there was some willful ignorance to the transgressions of one reporter. How on earth do newspapers stay in business without verifying the work of their reporters? There's only so much they can rely on the public to identify in terms of inaccuracies in newsprint, isn't there?

Howard Kurtz: It's hard to understand why Jayson Blair wasn't caught sooner, but it's worth remembering that there were major deceptions at the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, New Republic, and on and on. More than one editor has told me that it's hard to stop a determined liar -- at least until it's too late.

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Ivy, Va.: You mention in your response to NY, NY that the murkiness of intelligence makes proving cases/issues/agendas on it difficult. But what about the recent leap from that seeming murkiness to statements of fact by the Bush administration, that there were "no doubts" about possession of WMD and so on? If the administration won't mitigate its case when it wants a certain end, what is the journalist's duty in terms of holding the administration to account, to flesh out the story more fully, whatever it was? Or in presenting more clearly that the murkiness is murkiness?

Howard Kurtz: The journalist's duty is to ferret out as much information as he or she possibly can, and then it's up to readers and viewers to decide how much they care about the issue at hand.

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Hillary's book: Has there been any coverage of the non-Lewinsky portions of the book?

The only thing I've seen not Lewinksy-related has been from Tom Shales' review of the Barbara Walters interview. Found that much more informative than seeing "I wanted to wring Bill's neck."

Howard Kurtz: A little, but not much. Everyone seems far more interested in the Monica period.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Howard,
It seems to me that the root of all problems in media/journalism these days is fame and money. Every paper, every reporter wants a big splash to say it broke this story or it broke that story, and the basic tenets of journalism fall by the wayside in the name of a reporter or paper making a name for itself. Which leads to fame and money, via a spot on Larry King (you know what I mean) -- with the basic tenets of journalism the victim. As long as the reporter's name gets out there, it seems, it doesn't matter if the story is wrong. The reporter is willing to take that chance -- for fame and money.
Regards,
Cynic in SoCal

Howard Kurtz: You make a good point, but let me point out that there are literally thousands of reporters you've never heard of who work their beats, pore over documents, pound the pavements at city hall or the state house or the courts and have no desire to be on television. And people often forget that because there's so much focus on the TV loudmouths.

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Wildwood, Mo.: A silly question. How do you actually conduct these online discussions -- do you actually sit at the computer go through the questions, then type in the answers yourself -- or do you have someone else screen them and type in your responses?

Howard Kurtz: I sit at my computer, look at the questions and type out the responses as fast as I can.
And with that, I want to thank everyone for today's chat.

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