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Howard Kurtz: The line between journalism and sensationalism

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly program, Reliable Sources, which scrutinizes the media's fairness and objectivity. He is the media reporter for The Washington Post, and writes a regular column called Media Notes.

CNN: Thank you for being with us today Howard Kurtz and welcome to

KURTZ: Hi folks.

CNN: What have been some of the highs and lows of media coverage since the attack on the World Trade Center?

KURTZ: For once, the media must be doing something right, because 89 percent in a recent Pew Research Center poll are giving the fourth estate high marks for their coverage. When there's real breaking news, it turns out, we do a pretty decent job. But we have also rushed into print and on the air too many rumors and allegations that turned out to be unfounded, and some media outlets seem to be sliding into speculation about what may happen next in this strange war.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can you describe where you see the line between journalism and sensationalism lies in a story such as this?

KURTZ: Journalism and sensationalism have sadly become merged in the public mind during the media frenzies of the last decade. But on this story, I think the press has largely stayed away from sensationalism, although that could always change. The reason is obvious: this is a story of such human drama and unthinkable tragedy that it doesn't need the usual dose of media hype. Journalists don't need to pump this story up in order to get people to read or watch. That's one reason that the news business seems to be getting higher marks, at least initially, than on other major stories of the O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy variety.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why did the media keep showing the plane hitting the building over and over or showing loved ones falling or jumping from the building?

KURTZ: Unfortunately all the networks succumb to the temptation of showing the World Trade Center attack again and again, although not everyone aired the footage of people leaping out of the towers. I wrote a column four days after the September 11 attacks, begging the networks to stop using this footage as video wallpaper. They were even playing it as "bumpers" before breaks and as a split-screen illustration while various guests were being interviewed. This served to trivialize and dehumanize a horrifying event. Soon after that, ABC said it would no longer run such footage, except for occasional still photos, and the other networks eventually followed suit.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Kurtz: How does the media walk that fine line between informing the public yet not revealing information that may be harmful to the pursuit of the terrorists?

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KURTZ: It is a longstanding dilemma to strike that balance between aggressive reporting and jeopardizing the safety of American troops. News organizations have been willing to take out some details, just as in past wartime situations, when the administration makes a compelling case that such information could be harmful. Just about everyone in the media is abiding by Ari Fleischer's request that we not report the advance schedules of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. But there will be other clashes between the Pentagon and the press over what is appropriate to report, and I have no doubt that the public will overwhelmingly side with the government in these disputes.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think any reporters will be arrested if leaking information is made a felony in the new terrorism law?

KURTZ: Traditionally, prosecutors have gone after those doing the leaking in national security cases, as opposed to the journalists who are the recipients. Such leak investigations are awfully hard to conduct, and it's rare that anyone is charged, but reporters, fairly or unfairly, get something of a pass under the First Amendment.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Kurtz, every station gives a different tally of the dead, missing, identified. Why?

KURTZ: The truth is that none of us knows what the tally is, because the vast majority of bodies in New York have not been recovered. The task is further complicated by imprecise figures from other countries, whose citizens were trapped in the World Trade Center. So, we're all dwelling in the world of estimates, and there may never be a definitive final figure.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does the American media display bias by showing their support (i.e. flags on TV) for the American government?

KURTZ: There are passionate views on both sides of this question. Journalists are patriots who love their country, and are horrified by these attacks, but many believe it's simply inappropriate for them to engage in flag-waving on the air. ABC news, for example, has barred its journalists from wearing lapel flags. CBS's Dan Rather told me he wouldn't feel comfortable wearing one. But NBC's Tim Russert wore such a flag while interviewing Dick Cheney on Meet the Press. A practical problem is that some of these news organizations are sending reporters to Afghanistan and other dangerous places, and they may have trouble getting access or be in danger if they are perceived as members of a blatantly pro-American network.

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CNN: Now that the media is starting to focus on the investigation and the war on terrorism, is it possible that the media will be used as a vehicle for so-called misinformation to throw off the opposition?

KURTZ: It is more than possible; it is even likely. In a Washington Post story on Monday, I quoted a former spokesman for the joint chiefs of staff as saying the military had deliberately floated word, knowing it would leak to journalists, that a U.S. aircraft carrier was not heading to the Persian Gulf in 1988, when in fact it was. This was a clear attempt by the Pentagon to confuse the enemy with the media serving as an unwitting conduit. I also quoted a military official as saying it was likely that the government would lie in what he described as a war of information. Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that he would not lie to the press, but I think before this is over, we may indeed see some instances of disinformation at levels below the secretary of defense.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How do you think the media will handle the facts of the "dirty side " of the war such as possible assassinations and so forth?

KURTZ: I think it is the media's responsibility to report on the war, any war, in an unbiased way. War is nasty business, and it's not our job to whitewash it. This may have an impact on public opinion and anger some Americans, but the media can't retain any credibility if they become an arm of the government.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think further media coverage on biological or chemical warfare give people like bin Laden ideas?

KURTZ: Unfortunately, these bio-terrorist stories are probably not telling the terrorists anything they don't already know. The Washington Times has a story this morning saying that bin Laden and his terrorist group are already trying to acquire chemical weapons from the Russian Mafia. So, these stories probably help to boost public awareness of a threat that's already out there, rather than plant a seed in anyone's mind.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think this attack will change the American news media industry, as it has changed other industries around the world?

KURTZ: I think the media are heading for a more serious and sober period in which international news, the military, intelligence agencies, and other subjects that have previously been on the back burner, will be getting lots of attention. My sense is that there's probably less public appetite for some of the frivolous gossip and interviews with airhead celebrities that we have thrived on for so long. It would be impossible for the news business not to be changed by the events of September 11, and I hope that change is for the better.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

KURTZ: I encourage people to keep watching and critiquing the coverage, because it helps those of us in the press to do a better job. I'll certainly try to do my part on Reliable Sources.

CNN: Thank you for being with us today, Howard Kurtz.

KURTZ: Thank you.

Howard Kurtz joined via telephone from Washington, D.C. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview on Wednesday, September 26, 2001.


• Howard Kurtz Bio

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