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    Media Credibility

    July 30, 1998 Transcript of an Online Chat With Post Reporter Howard Kurtz
    Howard Kurtz

    SpacerThe Post's media reporter was online to discuss problems with the press. How well or how poorly are newspapers and television dealing with a spate of bad reporting? Here are his responses to your questions about the media.


    New York City: If Monica Lewinsky's "dress"
    is found to contain elements belonging to the President is that in and of itself considered proof of a sexual relationship? If this is so, what is the fallout for the President? And with the knowledge of the possibility for this to becoming damaging evidence, why isn't he defying the subpoena?

    Howard Kurtz: In court cases, DNA evidence is often used to prove
    paternity. The president's DNA would certainly
    be very strong physical evidence. Although you may recall that O.J. Simpson's lawyers challenged the accuracy of the
    blood tests that prosecutors had submitted. One thing I know is that it would definitely be front-page news.


    Herndon, VA: I very much enjoy your weekly "Media Notes" in the Style section. I am bothered by the proliferation of anonymous sources in Post reporting. On the one hand, we tend to believe what we read in the paper, but on the other hand we are in no position to assess the credibility of a source if we don't know who he/she is. What do you think and how do Post reporters judge how believable their sources are?

    Howard Kurtz: Anonymous sources ARE troubling. But there are some stories (Watergate comes to mind) that can't be fully reported without offering protection to people who might lose their jobs. Having said that, I think The Post and other news outlets rely too much on unnamed sources and people are understandably skeptical.


    Ellicott City, MD: The Internet has given small operations like The Drudge Report access to the same audiences once only available to big publishing companies. Do you think this is changing the nature of reporting?

    Howard Kurtz: The Net is absolutely changing the nature of journalism--not only by giving people like Drudge a huge megaphone, which is many ways is healthy, but in putting news outlets on a 24-hour cycle (witness the Wall Street
    Journal and Dallas Morning News rushing Lewinsky stories onto their Web sites and later having to retract them.)


    Arlington, Va.: You wrote in a recent column that the White House seems to doles out presidential interviews
    based on the stance that journalists take on the Monica Lewinsky investigation? So what type of access do The Post's reporters get?

    Howard Kurtz: Well, I think it's fair to point out that The Post is not the favorite newspaper over at 1600 Pennsylvania and has
    not been granted a presidential interview in a long time.


    Atlanta, GA: With all the recent news coverage of the Ken Starr investigation of President Clinton, its common to hear people saying that they don't care and they think the press is making "too big of a deal" about it. Then you hear the press retaliate by saying that it is what the people want to hear and that's why they keep covering it. My question is this: how does the press gauge if the news they are presenting is what the public is interested in hearing? Do they study the results of polls or take their own?

    Howard Kurtz: News outlets take lots of polls and focus groups, but the
    Lewinsky story is being played big--too big, many people feel--not because editors think it's popular but because journalists passionately believe it's an important story of possible perjury and obstruction of justice by the president. Nighttime cable shows do it day after day, even when there's zero news, because the Monica matter has
    produced a big jump in their ratings.


    Portland Maine: I just watched Jim Lehrer talk to reporters from USA Today, Time, and Newsweek about the President's coming videotape testimony. Lehrer tried three times to find out if the taping would reveal to the Grand Jury all nuances of both the President's reactions and the interplay between him and his lawyers. Lehrer got almost no help from the three reporters. Either they didn't understand or they didn't want to say they didn't know. Question: are most reporters and editors pretty dim and less than fully candid? And will the videotaping recreate the full drama or only present the President's talking head?

    Howard Kurtz: Most reporters are not dim bulbs, contrary to what you may believe. But they're constantly being asked to gab on television about matters they know very little about--the
    precise contours of the president's videotaped deposition,
    for example. That leads to endless speculation and sometimes makes us look silly.


    Sunrise Florida: In regards to the need to feed these 24hr news programs now...it seems that the need to sensationalize and editorialize has become the standard bill of fare for "news" programs. I believe the term reporter has become very similar to Jerry Springer with this move. Does it seem that way from the inside?

    Howard Kurtz: God, I hope we're not synonymous with Jerry Springer. But there has been an undeniable merging of news &
    entertainment that makes it harder to tell the real reporters from those who play one on TV.


    Rosslyn, VA: Mr Kurtz,

    Many writers that I know who were at U.S. News before Jim Fallows joined believe he made the magazine worse, destroying morale and moving away from news. Do you have any thoughts about the product before and after his reign?

    Howard Kurtz: Jim Fallows brought some creative and thoughtful journalism to U.S. News, but I lean toward those who believe the magazine drifted too far from covering big breaking stories. It's a dilemma for all newsmagazines that come out days after the events they're writing about.


    Crofton, MD: James Fallows in his roasting of journalists in Breaking the News cites you as one who has also seen journalists being lured off track.
    Have your feelings about the White House press corps, the McGlaughlin Group, and the "Star" system changed since that was published?
    Also, who are we to believe at US NEWS, Fallows or Evans?

    Howard Kurtz: Fallows cited my work in his book because I've written extensively about too many journalists becoming speechmaking celebrities and talking air heads. The problem certainly hasn't gone away. I'll leave it to readers' judgment to decide whether they side with Jim Fallows, Mort Zuckerman or Harry Evans over Fallows's firing.


    Cambridge, MA: From the O.J. Simpson trial to the Starr-Clinton saga, the "respectable," mainstream press often seems to be more audience- than news-driven. Does the press have an obligation to limit its coverage of such "juicy" stories in order to report on other topics that are more relevant to the public good? If so, how might this balance best be achieved?

    Howard Kurtz: The question of whether we report news that's important (say, Social Security reform) or titillating (say, Marv Albert) is the central dilemma of the news biz these days. Many editors and producers seem to be leaning toward the notion that first you have to get readers and viewers into
    the tent.


    Arlington, Va.: How did CNN's retraction of their Vietnam story impact media credibility?

    Howard Kurtz: The CNN nerve gas retraction terribly damaged the credibility of the network, and the rest of journalism as well. How such serious charges could be made with such shaky evidence is still a bit hard to believe.


    Germantown, MD: Why does the media continue to refer to what the American public will or will not accept
    as far as the possible impeachment of President Clinton is concerned. Shouldn't this be decided on the legal issues alone and not by the polls?

    Howard Kurtz: It now looks like the Clinton investigation will be decided by Congress, not in the courtroom. And Congress is a political institution that reads public opinion polls. So the possibility of impeachment really does become a political question, as the Constitution intended.


    Atlanta, Ga.: Mr. Kurtz,

    ABC News continues to report that the dress Lewinsky turned over to Starr is "semen-stained."

    However, The Washington Post says the dress may provide DNA evidence (without specifying what that means) and the New York Times simply says a dress was turned over.

    How come the two newspapers do not go as far as ABC News and report that the dress is semen-stained?

    Thank you

    Howard Kurtz: The WP and NYT don't report that the famous Lewinsky dress is semen-stained because we don't know. All anyone knows is that Monica Lewinsky is reported to have said this on the Linda Tripp tapes. So it's fundamentally a matter of caution.


    Washington, DC: Mr. Kurtz, I think you have one of the most interesting beats around and you do a great job with it. How did you get into covering the media?

    Howard Kurtz: Eight years ago, I finished a tour as The Post's New York bureau chief and needed a job. I had little idea at the time that the beat would become as challenging and all-encompassing as it's been.


    Atlanta, Georgia: On TV talk shows such as Nightline and Geraldo, Lanny Davis is described as a former Clinton advisor. I think he is part of the Clinton "spin team" and not an independent voice in the media. Has anyone ever asked Mr. Davis if he is a current Clinton advisor?
    Also, is Mr. Davis currently consulting with the White House on the content of his appearance on these shows?

    Howard Kurtz: The WP has described Lanny Davis as an informal Clinton adviser, and he obviously consults with the White House before his TV appearances. I think TV does a lousy job of making these things clear, although in Lanny's case most
    viewers understand he's not out there as an independent analyst.


    Annapolis MD: Aren't these leaks from the Independent Councils office, about the dress etc, serious abuses of his power. This seems to me proof positive that he has a political agenda and doesn't just want to gather the evidence.

    Howard Kurtz: I don't know for a fact whether these leaks come from
    Starr's office (although a Justice Dept. leak investigation is under way, and Starr has acknowledged talking to reporters on background.) That's what makes the subject difficult to write about. The reporters involved--even my Post colleagues--do not discuss their confidential sources.


    Arlington, Va.: Will new White House press secretary Joe Lockhart fill Mike McCurry's shoes? Can you speculate what Lockhart is going to be like on the job?

    Howard Kurtz: Joe Lockhart is a very savvy guy who was Clinton's chief campaign spokesman in 1996. But he's the first to admit that filling McCurry's shoes is a difficult task, particularly in this environment. For one thing, he knows little about foreign policy compared to McCurry, a former State Dept. spokesman.


    Columbus, Ohio: I heard news reports that Hillary and others in the White House were investigating the personal background of members of the Judiciary Committee. Is any of that true?

    Howard Kurtz: I have never heard that.


    Falls Church, VA: There seems to be a large difference between the ethical and accuracy standards required of mass media in the U.S. and Europe. (I'm thinking of the British tabloids and European sports journals, which routinely make up quotes, as examples of journalism that is perceived by many in the U.S. as going too far.) As far as you know, is this observation true? What are the roots of this difference in standards?

    Howard Kurtz: The British tabloids are much more freewheeling than their counterparts in the US, and the British papers in general are more openly partisan--clearly identified as Labor or Tory. Here, by contrast, the supposedly "liberal" papers like the NYT and WP are those giving Clinton the hardest time on various scandals.


    Arlington, Va.: What's the latest news from the Boston Globe on staff morale after the Patricia Smith scandal? I hear the staff divided along racial lines over the incident involving a columnist who faked quotes.

    Howard Kurtz: The Patricia Smith firing at the Boston Globe has caused a bit of racial turmoil because previous indications of fabrication resulted only in a warning. One white Globe columnist said her rise at the paper had everything to do with race; many blacks, on the other hand, feel she was treated more harshly because of her race when she ran into trouble.


    Tulsa, Oklahoma: In the military, men and women have been drummed out of the ranks for immoral behavior. Why hasn't the press been beating this drum as it relates to the Commander-in-Chief and the Clinton/Lewinski affair?

    Howard Kurtz: If you think the press has given short shrift to the Lewinsky matter, I must be living on some other planet.


    Columbus, Ohio: Susan McDougal is in contempt for refusing to say whether Clinton told the truth about his knowledge of the $300,000 check. Now that Clinton is testifying before the grand jury, can't Starr just ask that, and if so, would McDougal be off the hook?

    Howard Kurtz: Clinton is testifying about Lewinsky, not Whitewater.


    Allentown, PA: Howard, re: the Patricia Smith case. Do you sense there is a desire among journalists to blame Smith for all of the sins of journalism? And what's your take on a nationally known writing coach bringing Smith to newswriting seminars where accuracy, honesty and and genuine voice are topics of discussion? Should the writing coach tell the participating reporters about Smith's background beforehand?

    Howard Kurtz: I can't imagine anyone in journalism not knowing who Patricia Smith is.


    Washington, DC: Focusing just on the DC area, what parts of the community does the DC media most ignore? I would argue that DC's gay community gets very little attention from the WP, for example.

    Howard Kurtz: My feeling is the Post does a better job than it used to in covering the region, particularly the outer counties, but I'm sure we have a ways to go, on the gay community and other communities as well. As one example, we now have a reporter covering local immigrant community. That job didn't exist a couple of years ago.


    Arlington, virginia: What do you think would be the best way to improve journalism as we know it today in the United States?

    Howard Kurtz: I could write a book on that subject. In fact, I have. It's called Media Circus.


    washingtonpost.com: We're out of time now so let's bring this online chat to a close. Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz has answered your questions live from Washington. Thanks to all for participating.

    Tomorrow at noon, come back for "Tell Me About It" - Live! Every Friday Washington Post staff writer Carolyn Hax offers advice to the under-30 crowd. See you then.



    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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