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Washington Post media critic, Howard Kurtz on Foley and Woodward

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

HH: Welcome back to the program now Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post, also every weekend on CNN, Reliable Sources. Don’t miss that. Howard, good to talk to you again.

HK: Same here.

HH: Three big media stories. Actually, two big and one interesting. Let’s start with Brian Ross and the Foley IM’s, Howard. Is it possible that those IM’s were obtained by Ross’ source illegally, in your view?

HK: My understanding, although Ross has been, you know, understandably cautious about revealing confidential sources, is that he has been dealing extensively with Republican former House pages, who through whatever electronic means, has saved these things. And I haven’t seen any evidence that some nefarious outside group has somehow obtained these things in any kind of violation of the law.

HH: But of course, even if it is pages, if it’s not the pages to whom they were directed, it’s possible, then, that they were illegally obtained, correct?

HK: Oh, this is a stretch, Hugh.

HH: No, no, I don’t actually think it is. Unless he got those from the kids who were cyber-molested by Foley, I don’t think they have a right to break into someone’s computer. I think…

HK: Well, all right. You’re using a phrase like break into someone’s computer. Have you ever heard of forwarding? I mean, these…apparently, these messages were sent around among a lot of the former pages to their friends to say hey, did you see this, I couldn’t believe this, I was weirded out by this. I mean, I obtain memos all the time and publish them, not from the people who wrote them, but from someone else who got ahold of them. As long as nobody has broken into somebody’s computer, office, drawer, closet, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

HH: But…I couldn’t agree with you more, but is it possible that somebody did?

HK: It’s possible that Brian Ross took a crowbar and broke into somebody’s computer, but I don’t have any evidence that that’s the case.

HH: Okay. But now given that it’s possible, shouldn’t he release the people who gave it to him, at least by category, or at least to a third party, like you, Howard, to confirm that in fact, it’s an innocent release? Because a lot of odd things are going on about this story.

HK: That’s up to Brian Ross. He has told the New York Times that he has dealt extensively with Republican former members of the House page program. And the fact that nobody disputes that these messages were sent, the fact that Congressman Foley resigns within hours after being confronted.

HH: Oh, they’re authentic.

HK: You know, they’re clearly authentic.

HH: They’re clearly authentic.

HK: And the idea that…that the issue is how ABC obtained them strikes me as a bit of a political distraction without any evidence to back up the suggestion…

HH: The issue is not how ABC obtained them, the issue is who has had them. And are you going to say, or…

HK: I don’t know how Brian Ross got them.

HH: So it’s possible it is a black bag job, or a dirty trick, and you’re not interested in that?

HK: I’d be extremely interested. I have seen no evidence other than your speculation to support it.

HH: Do you know who Mike Lux is?

HK: I don’t.

HH: Mike Lux is the former Clinton staffer who is running the robo-call effort to get Dennis Hastert to resign. You’re not familiar with the specifics?

HK: No, I’m not.

HH: Okay. Over at, you can check out some of these. He organized a robo-call campaign to Republicans, demanding that they ask Hastert to resign yesterday.

HK: Did hepersuade the editorial page editor of the Washington Times to call for Hastert’s resignation?

HH: Absolutely not.

HK: Okay.

HH: Absolutely not. But I’m just saying there are dirty tricks at work, correct?

HK: What I see in reading the blogs every day, and reading conservative publications is a lot of conservatives, not all, certainly, but a significant number for this sort of thing, either being disgusted with what Foley did and the way the Republican House leadership handled it, or moving outright to say that Dennis Hastert should no longer be in that position. I’m not…

HH: Howard, you’re stonewalling for the media, which is fundamentally disinterested at this point in the dirty tricks aspect.

HK: Fundamentally disinterested? When you supply me with documented evidence, I will be happy to write that story. I’m not stonewalling anybody.

HH: No, but I’m talking about…so if, in fact, someone sends you information about the Lux dirty trick, you’ll go into that?

HK: I’d be happy to look at it.

HH: All right. Next, number two. The idea that…this is a very complicated fact pattern. If Democrats distort that fact pattern in campaign ads, does the media have to report that?

HK: One of the things that I do in presidential election years is to fact-check campaign advertising by both sides. And look, are you saying to me that are some Democrats going to sort of over-simplify, exaggerate what’s going on in the Foley case for partisan political gain? Of course. We’re in an election season.

HH: And is that newsworthy then?

HK: I would say so.

HH: Patty Wetterling, who is the candidate for Congress in the Minneapolis district, I think it’s the 4th district, I’m not quite sure of the district number, has put out already an ad saying it shocks the conscience that Congressional leaders have admitted to covering up the predatory behavior of a Congressman who used the internet to molest children. Is that fair for Patty Wetterling to have said, Howard Kurtz?

HK: No. Clearly, they haven’t admitted to any such thing. There are conflicting explanations about who knew what when among House Republican leaders, and I certainly think that reporters should continue to ask questions about that. But to say in an ad, even given this sort of license of political rhetoric that candidates take upon themselves that House Republican leaders have admitted to covering up predatory practices? No, because clearly, what Dennis Hastert and some of his colleagues knew, maybe it was enough to act on, maybe it wasn’t. But it was the same amount of information, this is the milder e-mails and not the really raunchy, sexually explicit computer messages, that the Miami Herald had, and the St. Petersberg Times had, and they decided not to publish the story based on what they had. So it’s not like it was an absolute slam dunk that they, Hastert or his colleagues, knew that Mark Foley was coming on sexually to some of these minors.

HH: So the Wetterling ad is false?

HK: Based on what you’ve just read me, that sounds like a real factual exaggeration.

HH: Now Kos, Daily Kos himself, has written, “Patty Wetterling in Minnesota ’06 is already using Foley in an ad. More will follow.” What’s the obligation of, say, the Minneapolis Star Tribune when the left roots, especially the far left roots, are encouraging and praising ads like Wetterlings, which if I’m correctly quoting it to you, and I am, is abusive of the facts, and disingenuous as well as just fraudulent?

HK: Well, look. Everybody’s got free speech on the web, but elsewhere in terms of commenting on ads. Maybe some people think it’s fair. I don’t, from what you’ve read me. But the Minneapolis paper in particular, or the Minnesota papers, because it’s their local races, local race, excuse me, has an absolute obligation to report to its readers on whether or not that ad, and any ad put up by her opponents as well, are fair and accurate, exaggerated, or outright distortions.

HH: All right. Now let’s go to the third of these three stories. Your colleague, Bob Woodward, has a new book out. Have you read it yet?

HK: I’ve read a good chunk of it.

HH: All right. Your former colleague, Thomas Edsall, was my guest yesterday, and I interviewed him about the book. Have you had a chance to see any of that, Howard?

HK: I have not.

HH: All right. I want to play you some excerpts of it. By the way, how long have you been at the Post?

HK: About 25 years.

HH: So you and Edsall and Woodward have got…you’ve got the gold watch between you. You guys are already over your diamond anniversary together at the Post.

HK: I come to the office every day. Bob sort of does his own thing.

HH: All right. Let’s play…here’s Thomas Edsall and I yesterday, cut number one.

HH: Okay. Do you believe everything Bob Woodward writes?

TE: No.

HH: Do you believe he saw Bill Casey at the hospital bed scene in Veil?

TE: I have real problems with that.

HH: Howard Kurtz, do you believe Casey saw Woodward and talked to him at the hospital bed scene in Veil?

HK: I have no clue.

HH: What do you think Edsall’s saying when he says he has real problems with that?

HK: You know, you’re going back now fifteen years now? There was a lot of controversy about whether the scene between the former CIA director, the late CIA director, and Bob Woodward took place the way Woodward described it. I’ve known Woodward a long time. I’ve worked with him occasionally on stories. I’ve been critical of him on a number of things. I have never known him to make anything up.

HH: All right. Next cut.

TE: I’m not sure that Bob Woodward makes things up. That’s…I’m…

HH: Is it possible for people to infer that, based upon both the Final Days and Veil?

TE: Well, you can always infer.

HH: Is it a reasonable inference?

TE: It’s a possible inference. I wouldn’t say…

HH: But you know…

TE: But certainly, it’s not something that a jury would conclude as conclusive evidence.

HH: Would you agree with Edsall that it’s a possible inference that Bob Woodward makes things up?

HK: I don’t deal in possible inferences. I deal in facts. I’ve not seen any evidence that Bob Woodward makes things up. Does he write things in his books, in his best selling books, I should add, that other people then come along and dispute? Absolutely. But you look at the nature of some of the disputes. For example, Woodward writes in this new book that Andy Card tried to get Donald Rumsfeld fired. So the White House puts out a statement saying no, no, no. This is a myth. It’s one of five myths about the Woodward book. Except when you look at what they say, Andy Card has…I’ve seen him on television acknowledge that he did raise the question of Rumsfeld’s resignation with President Bush, but in the broader context of a number of changes that might be made in the cabinet. So was Woodward flat wrong? No. In fact, it was accurate. But everybody’s going to put their own spin on it.

HH: Okay. Cut number three.

HH: But my question is, is Woodwardism good for journalism, Tom Edsall?

TE: I think that the problems Woodward poses as a journalist are significant. I think, though, that his contributions…

HH: What are those problems.

TE: …have also been significant. It’s a mixed bag.

HH: I agree, but what are the problems?

TE: One is what you sight, credibility. I think a much more serious problem is his dependence on sources, which makes him, to a certain extent, a sucker for those who talk to him, and a hostile adversary to those who do not talk to him.

HH: Howard Kurtz, your reaction?

HK: I wouldn’t adopt that language. I have written about Woodward having all this access to high level people, the extent to which…that makes him a captive of their narrative, and I should add that all beat reporters struggle with this to some degree or another. You want the sources around the mayor, the governor to talk to you. At the same time, you don’t want to be in their pocket. But on the other hand, we know that Don Rumsfeld did talk to Woodward on the record for this latest book, and Rumsfeld comes offf looking pretty bad, whether you buy that particular portrait or not. So I think this whole sort of access journalism, in which…and Woodward’s hardly the only practitioner of it, does raise serious concerns. I don’t take the next step, as you do, and perhaps Edsall does in part, to say that therefore, there are deep flaws in Woodward’s reporting. People can make up their own minds about whether or not he has been taken for a ride by his sources, or whether or not he maintains a sort of critical distance, which is what all journalists try to do.

HH: Last Edsall quote.

HH: But given everything you’ve just said, that he shades towards his sources, he punishes those who don’t work, he’s not credible in Veil, and the Final Days, doesn’t that really undermine the idea that this guy should be listened to? It seems like you’ve got a very wart-filled prima donna who by virtue of his early work at the Post, has inherited a lot of credibility which he simply doesn’t deserve?

TE: I think that there are significant problems in Bob’s reporting techniques, and the product that he produces, that every reader of his work should be aware of. But I don’t think you can dismiss what he writes, and just disregard it, because he does get a lot of information that no one else does.

HH: Howard Kurtz, are you surprised by Edsall’s candor here?

HK: Edsall’s always been a candid guy. Maybe he’s a little more candid, now that he’s not on the Washington Post payroll. But look, the Bush White House loved the last books that Woodward wrote. They saw a lot of it, particularly the first one about the war in Afghanistan as favorable to the president and the administration. This one, they don’t like so much, because it’s more critical. So was he, is he the flawed reporter that the Bush administration would now have you believe? Or was he the terrific reporter that many officials told me on the record…

HH: No, no. He’s the flawed reporter that Thomas Edsall is warning us about…

HK: Well, what about President Bush…

HH: Yeah, but I’m talking about the Edsall…I’m curious at a Washington Post reporter who knows him well, as opposed to a political person who can be expected to like what he likes and dislike what he dislikes. Edsall’s a practitioner, a craftsman.

HK: Well, I’m also a Washington Post reporter who knows Woodward reasonably well. I have criticized him in the past on a number of things. But I am nowhere near as critical as Edsall. So you don’t have a monolith of views here at this newspaper.

HH: All right. Two quick subjects. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz admitted recently, according to Business and Media Institute, that the taxpayer-funded National Public Radio leans heavily to the left politically. Do you agree with their characterization of what you had to say on CNN’s In The Money, Howard?

HK: No, I didn’t say anything like that. I said that…I certainly said that there are perceptions like that. And I said that many more liberals listen to NPR. I didn’t offer a view on whether it leans to the left or not.

HH: They’re quoting you as saying with the rise of Fox News and conservative talk radio, and NPR on the left, and certain liberal cable programs, there is, polls have shown, that people like hearing opinions that reinforce their…

HK: A-ha. Polls have shown. So perhaps, Hugh, I was not spouting off about my own opinions, which I tend not to do all that much, but saying that there…the people out there, liberals tend to gravitate toward NPR, they may see it as being on the left. I don’t know. And clearly, more conservatives watch Fox News. Polls have shown. That’s the key phrase.

HH: So when you said with NPR on the left, you were referring to the polls, and not your own objective judgment?

HK: That’s exactly what I was referring to.

HH: Okay. Last question. Jon Stewart last night on the Jon Stewart show with Dennis Miller, out of the blue asked Dennis Miller if he had to do Alan Colmes or Sean Hannity, which one would he do.

HK: (laughing)

HH: And Dennis didn’t quite get it at first. And then it clicked on. Now my question is, is that appropriate?

HK: It’s Comedy Central.

HH: So you have no problem with that question?

HK: If you’re asking me is Jon Stewart, who happens to be a very funny entertainer, is he a clearly a liberal who ultimately supported John Kerry? Yes.

HH: No, I didn’t ask that. I did not ask…I just asked is that question appropriate for one of the highest watched television shows in the United States, especially by a younger demographic.

HK: It’s a little raunchy for my taste, but look, they bleep that show all the time, because they use a lot of words that you or I can’t repeat on the radio.

HH: And so, why is it raunchy? There are no inappropriate words there. It’s just a casual questioning of whether or not a major celebrity would have…if he had to “do” one of two other celebrities. Is there anything even mildly disturbing to you about that, Howard? You’re a media critic.

HK: (laughing) You’re not a Jon Stewart fan, I take it?

HH: Oh, no. I love Jon Stewart.

HK: Yeah.

HH: I’m just asking you as a media critic, do you see that having any kind of significance about where we are in the media these days.

HK: When you’re talking about comedy, you know, everybody has to draw their own line about where the bad taste lies. It’s certainly not a joke that I would tell on national television. On the other hand, I didn’t get to host the Emmy Awards.

HH: But why wouldn’t you tell it on national television?

HK: Why would I not talk about whether somebody would do somebody else?

HH: Yeah.

HK: (laughing) Because I’m not as funny as Jon Stewart. Let’s face it. I’ve tried. I’ve tried.

HH: Is that…you have no reservation in your mind as to…

HK: I said…look, Hugh, I think it’s a little raunchy, but Comedy Central is not TV news.

HH: But why does it matter. I’m really digging here. Why would it matter that it’s a little bit raunchy? Why do we care what’s on television. Why are you a little bit shocked that he asked that?

HK: It’s on at 11:00 at night. If people don’t like that sensibility, there’s a 177 other channels they can watch.

HH: So can anything be on at 11:00 at night?

HK: No, no. Somethings clearly cross the line. Does that one? Give me a week and I’ll get back to you.

HH: All right, Howard. I’ll take you up on that. Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post. Always a pleasure, Howard.

HK: Thank you.

End of interview.

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