Q&A With Howard Kurtz
"Levey Live," appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion offering washingtonpost.com users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it.
Bob's guest this week is The Post's media reporter, Howard Kurtz. True, he may not be the King of All Media, but nobody is hip to hot issues in print and electronic journalism like Howard. Formerly The Post's New York bureau chief, the prolific Kurtz has written countless articles about every aspect of the media sideshow.
Today, Bob and Howard will discuss television in general and specifically the effect television coverage has on elections.
Alexandria, Va.: This is more of an issue during presidential elections, but is there any evidence that media coverage of election returns actually influences people who vote late in the day?
Howard Kurtz: The TV networks generally avoid giving out exit-poll information until the polls have closed in a particular state, so I don't think it has much effect on voting. One exception would be in a presidential year, where someone can be declared to have reached the magic 270 before polls close in the West.
Alexandria, Va.: Have you noticed a trend in the last few years toward speculative political reporting? That is, reporting that doesn't tell what happened, but is instead focused on how this will affect/position things in the future. This seems especially true of Sunday morning talk shows (especially that insufferable McLaughlin Group), but do you think it has spilled over to print reporting? Do you think it's a good thing? Is there anyway to stop or discourage it?
Howard Kurtz: A trend toward speculative political reporting? We now WALLOW in political speculation, 24 hours a day, particularly on cable. The only redeeming factor is that the rest of us can enjoy how often the supposed experts are wrong.
Exmore, Va. Sally Quinn's recent Post article suggested that the Washington, D.C., political insider community is privately aghast at the president's behaviour. What would Howard Kurtz's observations be about media insiders reaction to the President?
Howard Kurtz: It's been clear for years that the Washington establishment including the media establishment just plain doesn't like Bill Clinton. The piece by Sally Quinn, Washington insider, was one more piece of evidence. I worry that these sentiments are reflected in some of the coverage of Monicagate.
Washington, D.C.: I read your columns all the time and find them really insightful. How do you get other reporters to open up to you so freely?
Howard Kurtz: I generally use a rubber hose. Works wonders. Actually, getting other journalists to respond with any degree of candor is the hardest part of my job.
Bob Levey: About leaks: They're not new, they're not necessarily offered for negative purposes and they're not necessarily wrong. Yet the public seems to think that leaks are somehow unsavory, and possibly illegal. Have we in the media contributed to this misunderstanding?
Howard Kurtz: People are just plain distrustful of stories based on anonymous sources. They wonder if we are being used by one side or the other and there's now a federal investigation of alleged leaks from Ken Starr's office to journalists. I think our overreliance on unnamed sources and willingness to adopt the sources' characterizations of secret evidence makes this problem worse than it needs to be. Also, people wonder why it's OK for us to publish secret grand jury info (which it is, legally) but against the law for prosecutors to leak it.
Regarding your book "Feeding Frenzy": What effect does the behavior of the White House press corp have on statehouse reporters and city hall reporters?
Howard Kurtz: Actually, my book is called "Spin Cycle." ("Feeding Frenzy" was written by Larry Sabato.) I supposed the behavior (or misbehavior) of White House correspondents does have a trickle-down effect on state and local reporters because the WH folks are so visible, the daily press briefings are televised, and so if they shout and act obnoxious, it's hard not to notice.
Washington, D.C.: Isn't the press manipulating election results and turnout by continually reporting the "anticipated low" voter turnout? Isn't this called a self-fulfilling prophecy? (Forgive the spelling mistakes.)
Howard Kurtz: Despite the media's many sins, I don't think low voter turnout can be blamed on the press. Turnout has been dropping for decades, and our predictions are based on some pretty good polls. In a broader sense, one might say the superficial and inside-baseball nature of political coverage helps turn people off, but we've got lots of company in that department, including the endless barrage of politicians' negative ads.
Bob Levey: Jim Naughton, the head of the Poynter Institute, suggested an interesting way for media to avoid hopping on juicy speculative stories that are already "out there" in other media but may prove to be wrong. Naughton suggested a new form of print journalism: a sidebar of unverified stuff that carries a "potentially inaccurate" warning label. Your reaction?
Howard Kurtz: I'd actually like to see more news organizations break from the pack mentality and ignore thinly sources stories reported by someone else. But when they're too "out there" to do that, a clear statement that "WXYZ reported this and we don't know if it's true" might help readers and viewers make better judgments.
Tokyo, Japan: I am curious about last week's preliminary ruling and launching of an investigation by Judge Norma Holloway Johnson. I think this is a very important story it amounts to the judge appointing a special prosecutor to investigate leaks by Starr's office. The consequences if leaks are proven are enormous members of Starr's office could be charged with contempt, even disbarred. Yet the press virtually ignored the story. Is this because the media is complicit in any illegal activity themselves? I have heard journalists say the press cannot be manipulated but with the leaks to date they have been "played like a violin." Is the media simply ignoring the leak story because it would force them to look too close to home?
Howard Kurtz: Well, it's not quite right to say the press virtually ignored the leaks story. The Washington Post, New York Times and NBC all carried stories on the probe. But many others did not. I've written on this subject many times, and it's unquestionably an awkward situation for news organizations who are gobbling up these leaks to be reporting on an inquiry into who's doing the leaking. The press, for self-interested reasons, too often shies away from this subject.
Washington, D.C.: Do you feel that the media drives discussion of certain events (a la Monica) because it feels driven to dig for details, not because the public really desires those discussions? If so, why does the media do this?
Howard Kurtz: The media have gone mad over Monica for these reasons: a) It's a criminal investigation of the president; b) The White House spent seven months lying; and c) It's a helluva tale that has boosted the ratings of several cable networks. If we were giving people what they want, we'd be doing a lot less Lewinsky. But journalists are also driven by the competition to beat the other guy on the season's hottest political story. Most folks think we've gone overboard, and they're probably right.
Bob Levey: All of us in the business hear that the public hates gossip, wants it straight. Yet the National Enquirer remains atop the circulation heap. Do you think the public says it wants one kind of journalism, yet votes with its pocketbooks for another?
Howard Kurtz: Actually, not to correct my esteemed host, but National Enquirer's circulation has been dropping badly. That may be because people can get all the tabloid news they want from the mainstream press these days. Yes, there is a degree of public hypocrisy out there people tell pollsters they want the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and then watch Hard Copy.
Arlington, Va.: I recently read your book "Spin Cycle" and was interested in the very frank description of the participants' internal thought processes. How exactly do you research that, particularly since some of these thoughts were too critical to have been passed directly by the thinker, who was often still employed at the White House? Or does an author take reported comments and recast them as internal thoughts?
Howard Kurtz: I can't talk too much about the sourcing methods in my book "Spin Cycle," but I had a rare degree of access to many of the White House folks. I never reported that someone was thinking something unless I had talked to that person or someone who had been in a conversation with that person about the subject. My mind-reading skills are not that good. But I interviewed some sources 20 and 30 times, which helps you develop a sense of their thinking.
San Francisco, Calif.: What do you think of the way even more so in this election than at any other time polls have dominated political coverage? What are your thoughts on the constant repetition of stories how many damn times do we need to hear speculation (and that's another story) on how many congressional seats the Democrats and Republicans will win or lose; how many people will turn out; will the Republican ad campaign on Clinton help or hurt them?
Howard Kurtz: I'm sick of polls. Everyone's sick of polls. But polls have become a way for news outlets to hype themselves "an exclusive NBC-Wall Street Journal poll shows..." even though the results are the same as 40 other polls. Besides, we'll find out how people are going to vote today. The "would you vote Dem or Rep" strikes me as particularly useless since people are voting for Congressman Smith or Challenger Jones, not the national party.
Columbia, S.C.: The other day in my gym I overheard an instructor asking the members who to vote for. She had no source of information. As I thought about it, I realized that I found it far easier to shop for a new car than to shop for a governor. I had access to Consumer Reports, www.Edmunds.com and so forth. But, for all the breast-beating in the media about "casting your vote," it seems the media can't give us straight-ahead reporting on the "product" we are choosing. Why is substance so often sacrificed to the horse race, the strategy and the insider thinking? How can this be changed?
Howard Kurtz: Yes, we're far too absorbed by the horse race, attack ads, polls, political stunts and so on. But the fact is, for anyone with a passing interest in casting an informed vote, it is easier than ever to get basic info about the candidates. The Internet, C-SPAN, local newspapers, the candidates' own Web site, etc. So your gym instructor has no excuse.
Fairfax, Va.: I know that TV ads are essential to campaigning these days, but has there been any study to find out how negative ads affect voters? It seems that things are getting more vicious every year around election time (Md. governor's race being the ultimate example). Do these ads really work in swaying voters?
Howard Kurtz: There have been several studies showing that negative ads work. Everyone says they hate them, but they stick in voters' minds, even as they turn people off to politics. Ironically, viewers are more likely to believe Candidate A's charge about his opponent than if he says something positive about himself.
Bob Levey: My big worry about politics and the media is that theater has overwhelmed the relationship. We scribes reward theatricality for theatricality's sake. For example, the time that Bentsen zinged Quayle with the line about Quayle being "no Jack Kennedy." That had absolutely no news value, yet it became a major story. Shouldn't we in the media be much less susceptible to such one-liners and such stunts?
Howard Kurtz: Dream on. TV in particular needs pictures, drama, conflict. We're locked in a symbiotic relationship with politicians who provide what the media want as a way of getting face time.
Bob Levey: Will the investigation into the Starr leaks dry up further leaks?
Howard Kurtz: I think the investigation has had a chilling effect on potential leakers in Starr's office. But thanks to the 445-page Starr report and three-volume appendices, we already know almost everything there is to know about Bill & Monica. So it's turned from an investigative story into a political one.
Half an hour remaining with our guest, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz.
Bob Levey: A lot of campaign coverage seems cynical in one consistent way: It assumes that every word a politician utters is aimed only at getting him elected or re-elected. For example, every story about Al Gore notes that he's running for President in 2000. No kidding! But that doesn't mean he has nothing important to say in (or about) 1998. Your thoughts?
Howard Kurtz: I don't think it's a felony to note that Al Gore has one eye on 2000. The larger problem is the automatic assumption that everything a politician does, every statement uttered, is solely for personal and political gain. There are lots of occasions where that's true, but too often we let our own cynicism color our reporting.
bethesda, Md.: Do you feel that newspaper ombudsmen actually improve the quality of the paper they are working for, or do they just keep the critics as bay? In reading the Washington Post's ombudsman column for years, the same issues are raised repeatedly, and yet they do not seem to be be resolved, when more careful editing would help.
Howard Kurtz: I think every U.S. newspaper should have an ombudsman, not just the 30 that do. Ombudsmen do more than just write a weekly column; they write internal memos of criticism. Does that solve all the problems? Of course not. But it's nice that there's one person on the paper who can publicly take editors to task for their screwups. (Television, by the way, has no equivalent.)
I have two questions:
Howard Kurtz: I'd argue that the media are obsessed not just with sex but with crime, pathos and anything else that makes for good drama. The big media stories before Monica were O.J., Princess Di and the killing of JonBenet Ramsey. But while every right-thinking journalist insists that the Lewinsky story is not about sex, it's hard to imagine this level of saturation coverage for a Starr report alleging the same crimes on the Whitewater land deal. Sex, it turns out, is good box office.
College Park, Md.: Do you think that the public's mostly apathetic reaction to the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal is indicative of a new public attitude on such personal matters? Or is this a situation unique to President Clinton, arising from the fact that most people understood beforehand that he had this character flaw, and were tired of the five years' worth of breathless media scandalmongering around him?
Howard Kurtz: I think most people make a distinction that journalists don't they see sexual misbehavior, however revolting, as a private matter that doesn't affect the running of the country. Perhaps they also assume the worst of politicians when it comes to sex and lying, and certainly it was no shock that Bill Clinton developed problems in this area. But there are a lot of Americans who don't like or trust Clinton personally but nonetheless think he's doing a decent job as president.
Bob Levey: It has been a miserable year for the American media, what with the Patricia Smith, Mike Barnicle and Stephen Glass scandals. Will these cause lasting damage, or did the public always believe the press was inaccurate?
Howard Kurtz: 1998 is the year that the media's reputation just sank into the gutter and mostly from self-inflicted wounds. A decade from now, people probably won't remember the specifics of the problems at the Boston Globe, New Republic and CNN, but they will remember a profession that at times seemed out of control on Lewinsky. I think it will take a long, long time to recover from the press's handling of this story.
washington D.C.: How does Joe Lockhart, in your estimation, compare to McCurry as WHPS smarts, savvy, skill, deftness, etc?
Howard Kurtz: Lockhart is a little less smooth and a bit more openly partisan than McCurry. But he's well-liked by reporters and well-prepared for the job. He understands TV even better than McCurry did, in part because he's worked for NBC, CNN and ABC.
Washington Post: I may have missed a story here or there, but I noticed that the Post didn't do much horse race reporting (i.e. reporting of polls) when it came to the D.C. mayoral race and the Md. gubernatorial race. Was this a conscious decision? Or an experiment? Will this be done in future elections?
Howard Kurtz: There was probably less horse race coverage of the D.C. mayor's race because there wasn't much of a horse race. But I've seen a number of poll stories on the Maryland governor's race, so I'm not sure there's a major change there.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you feel U.S. media (especially broadcast) should provide more international coverage?
Howard Kurtz: Television has all but opted out of foreign news, and only a handful of newspapers (including this one) maintains a far-flung network of foreign bureaus. In the wake of the Cold War, TV execs have become convinced that people don't care about international news unless it involves disasters or scandals. And I think that's a shame.
Bob Levey: What will TV news look like when God help us 400 channels of cable television are available?
Howard Kurtz: Probably the same wasteland that it looks like now, only our fingers will get more exercise from hitting the remote.
McLean, Va.: HOW EMPTY-HEADED IS THE AVERAGE TELEVISION NEWS REPORTER?
Howard Kurtz: I detect a slight point of view in your question. I'd say the average TV reporter is actually pretty smart and aggressive, but working for a medium in which a minute 45 seconds is considered an in-depth piece.
Bob Levey: What about taste in today's reporting? Has it gone away forever in light of stains on blue dresses and detailed descriptions of oral sex?
Howard Kurtz: Good taste has been obliterated by the tawdry details of the Lewinsky mess, and it's probably shifted the cultural boundaries for future stories. All of which makes it harder than ever for parents who don't want their kids seeing this stuff in their living rooms. One ABC correspondent told me he now watches the news with his kids with one finger on the remote control.
Bob Levey: Back when we were young pups, media folk worried about socializing too much with political sources. Yet being invited to White House dinners and to Renaissance Weekend has been a mighty good way for some scribes to get close to the Clintons. Comments?
Howard Kurtz: I deny ever having been to a Renaissance Weekend. But the fact is, journalists do a lot of socializing with the folks they supposedly cover, and that convinces readers and viewers that, especially in Washington, it's kind of a cozy club that excludes everyone else. Which is why so many people think journalists are out of touch these days. You can't be chatting up ordinary folks at the corner bar if you're in a tuxedo for the Gridiron Club or a White House state dinner.
Arlington Va.: I'm an aspiring media critic and one of your biggest fans how did you gain such high level sources in the White House and other media organizations? How do you usually get tips? Do they call you or do you call them?
Howard Kurtz: At this point I'm established enough that plenty of people call me with stories. But you don't just show up for work and start as a media writer. I covered many other beats before I started doing this one in 1990. My first job was working nights and covering two small towns for a New Jersey newspaper.
Bob Levey: Watergate proved that good reporting produces good journalism. But since Watergate, I've noticed a new tactic being used to short-circuit good journalism: "no-comment-ism." The thinking seems to be that they can't get you if you don't ever say anything. This tends to be pretty effective in blunting investigative journalism. Thoughts?
Howard Kurtz: The problem with saying no comment in today's environment is that journalists (and many other folks) automatically assume that you're lying, guilty or have something to hide. As in the White House stonewalling this year, it simply makes reporters double and triple their efforts to find out more about what the public figure refuses to comment on.
Bob Levey: Will big newspapers ever fade away? If so, how quickly?
Howard Kurtz: Most newspapers are now local monopolies and I don't expect them to fade in my lifetime. The question is whether many papers will become even blander and less interesting than they are now which of course would drive away more readers.
Bob Levey: Clinton-Lewinsky has been an exceptionally tough story to cover from the very beginning. There've been no hearings, not many public statements, very little public record on which to base stories. Yet most of the pre-Starr Report coverage has proven to be accurate. Why, then, does so much of the public feel that coverage was bloodthirsty, biased and baseless?
Howard Kurtz: The public isn't so much angry at journalists for being "wrong" about Clinton-Lewinsky as for being too loud, too relentless and too in-your-face on a story that most of them don't think is as important as journalists do.
That's it for today. Many thanks to our guest, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. Be sure to join us next Tuesday when "Levey Live" takes a look at the NBA lockout.