Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz
Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers
ISBN: 0812963563
Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers
Howard Kurtz, author of "Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers," published by Time Books, discussed the book's criticism of the American newspaper industry. He talked about his career in journalism and media criticism, including the changes that have occurred in the newspaper industry during the rise of television and other electronic media. He also evaluated the major trends in contemporary journalism, and gave his impressions of current newspaper news coverage. He questioned the ethical standards exercised by several newspapers and argued that since Watergate there has been an emphasis on scandal in print media.
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TRANSCRIPT
Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers
Program Air Date: June 20, 1993

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Howard Kurtz, author of "Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers", why the need for a book like this?
HOWARD KURTZ, AUTHOR, "MEDIA CIRCUS": I spent my whole adult life in newspapers, and I've lived through the death of a newspaper. I used to work at the Washington Star, which was shut down in 1981, and so for me this is not an academic question. I've been increasingly frustrated by the decline in the business. When I got into this business in the mid-70s, newspaper reporters were sort of cultural heroes. It was an age of "All the President's Men" and "Lou Grant" and "The Boys on the Bus." And now it seems like we're more often seen as buffoons. We're made fun of by late-night comics on television. And I wanted to examine in a longer form than I was able to do in my daily newspaper job what has happened and why the industry seems to be struggling and why we're in this sort of identity crisis.
LAMB: How did you approach the book? What was your outline when you went to the publisher for the first time?
KURTZ: I wanted to tell the story of how newspapers work and don't work from a perspective inside the newsroom. I didn't want to write a thumb-sucking book, an academic study. I've been in this business a long time. I wanted to give readers a sense of how these decisions are made, how we deal with the personal lives of politicians, how we deal with covering wars or covering the White House. And I thought I had a sort of a unique perspective because I'm both part of the circus -- I'm a performer; I've been doing this a long time -- and I'm almost a critic; I'm paid to second-guess the people who second-guess everybody else. And there's so many conspiracy theories about the press, it seems to me; so many people think we do things because we've all just had a meeting and we've decided this is the line we're going to toe. Well, it doesn't work that way at all. We have a lot of weaknesses and a lot of flaws, but they don't tend to be the kind that people ordinarily accuse us of. So I was hoping to shed a little light on the internal workings of the business.
LAMB: Can I ask you a simple question about this cover? If you look at it, up here it says Media Circus and then down here under your name it calls you a press critic. What's the difference between press and media?
KURTZ: We were just trying to avoid using the same word twice. I usually use media reporter but, since media was in the title, we used press critic, and also this is primarily about the print press.
LAMB: Let's start with what the word media means.
KURTZ: To me it means all forms of conveying information. In my regular job as media reporter at the Post, I write about magazines, television, newspapers -- just about anything. This book is an attempt to sort of make it different than lots of other books written by the press, I wanted to focus on newspapers, their role. In a satellite age, in a time when you can get information from C-SPAN or CNN or the networks, local news, what is really the role of newspapers? Why should people read newspapers? After all, I mean we're sort of outdated technology. We arrive on your doorstep in the morning, filled with news that is usually at least 10 or 12 hours old. I think there is a niche for newspapers, but clearly they face a different challenge than the rest of the industry so that's why I focus on the press.
LAMB: In the front of the book, you dedicate this book "to Judy and Bonnie, who may have wondered why Dad was spending all those nights in the basement." Who are they?
KURTZ: They are my two daughters. Judy is age 9 and Bonnie is 7. Writing this book, frankly, took a toll on them because they didn't get to see their dad as much as they usually do. I tried to write this book at night while keeping my job at the Washington Post, so I thought I owed a special dedication to them.
LAMB: Have you introduced them to newspapers?
KURTZ: Yes. My older daughter in particular looks at what's in the paper. I mean, she is not a regular reader yet, but things catch her eye. One of the problems for our business is that younger people, the MTV generation, don't have much feel for newspapers. It seems like a very outmoded, black and white technology to them. Now, I think you either get this habit by your teenage years or you don't. I was lucky. I grew up in a household where newspapers were read every day. It never occurred to me not to read newspapers. I've tried to introduce my kids -- if there is an article on the Simpsons or something, I'll point it out to them, something they would be interested in.
LAMB: In your acknowledgments you say "I am indebted to my parents, Leonard and Marcia Kurtz, for giving me the newspaper habit." Can you remember when they started it?
KURTZ: Well, they started it before I was born.
LAMB: Can you remember when they started your newspaper habit?
KURTZ: I grew up in New York, and, as I recall, the New York Post and the New York Daily News were always sitting around the house. One of them was usually reading the paper. I delivered the New York Post when I was 13 years old, and I didn't really reflect on it at the time but it is clear to me looking back that that became -- you get fixated on it. I mean, if you get into the habit, even as immediate and as gratifying and as dramatic as television is, you wake up in the morning and you want to see what the headlines have to say. And so that's where I got my habit.
LAMB: How much did they read and talk about what was in the newspaper?
KURTZ: My parents are not excessively political, but they would talk about stories that interested them. They would talk about if there was a sort of an outrageous story about the waste of taxpayers' money or what those crazy politicians were doing again. They would sit and talk about, "Hey, did you see this in the paper?" And so I came to see newspapers as something that were part of the daily conversation. I think we've lost that a little bit, that newspapers are not seen as part of a great national conversation. It is seen as a more specialized -- almost like a bulletin board for the elite. It's one of the things I think we need to get away from, writing for just those who are really plugged into politics.
LAMB: If you look at this cover, inside that basket -- actually, you can see it better on television than you can in person -- it says "The Bush Affair." Did you pick that New York Post purposely, inside that basket?
KURTZ: I picked all those headlines. They're all supposed to relate in some way to topics that are covered in the book. We talk in the book about the coverage of the `92 presidential campaign and how rumors or sensational allegations make their way into print, and that was one of my case studies. I told the folks at Random House to go find an old-fashioned New York City garbage can and take a picture of it, and they did a nice job.
LAMB: The Bush affair -- why did you write about it?
KURTZ: The Bush affair was a classic case of the media food chain, what I call the food chain, which is to say how stories make their way from certain -- what is the right word? -- certain members of the media fraternity up to the elite news organizations. The Bush affair -- you know, reporters in Washington for years had heard the rumors that George Bush, while president, actually while vice president, had had an intimate relationship with a woman who was once a member of his staff. Nobody ever printed this because, frankly, we hadn't any proof. And I'm still of the school that believes you ought to be able to prove things before you put them in the newspaper.

Well, during the `92 campaign, a book came out that had a footnote -- this was all based on one footnote, quoting a dead ambassador as saying that George Bush had had an affair with this woman Jennifer Fitzgerald -- most people now know her name. Republicans had peddled this around town for two or three weeks. Nobody bit. And the people at the Washington Post passed on it as well. Then the New York Post ran that headline based on the footnote in the book. After the New York Post ran that headline, George Bush was asked at a televised press conference by a CNN reporter -- it was carried live on CNN -- "Mr. President, what about this story?" He gave a very angry response, that I'm not going to take any sleazy questions from CNN. Well, at that point, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, couldn't ignore it any more. Actually it happened on live TV, and so the next day all the big newspapers have got stories on the Bush affair, which started from a footnote and made its way up the food chain.
LAMB: Why can't you ignore a story like that if you don't like the source of it? In other words, if somebody says, "I don't trust the New York Post; I don't trust the New York Post's source was the footnote in the book, so I'm just going to ignore it."
KURTZ: I wish we could do that, but I think, in the media world that we live in, that that's basically not a realistic approach. We went through the exact same thing with Gennifer Flowers -- the other Gennifer -- six months earlier, which is to say that, sure, to some extent you are surrendering your standards to other folks who may have a very low threshold for what they're willing to get into the public domain. But once it's out, once a president is asked on live television about something and if he chooses to respond, it affects the dynamic of the campaign. If you then withhold, you're withholding something from your readers that they need to know. The Gennifer Flowers story, true or not true, fair or unfair, had a profound effect on the New Hampshire primary and the subsequent perceptions of Bill Clinton. I think if you just say, "We're not going to publish this at all," you're doing your readers a disservice. What you can do, what we do try to do and others try to do, is to make clear this is unsubstantiated, this was something that was asked; we don't know if it's true -- in other words, to put it in a little bit of context rather than just running just a huge headline.
LAMB: What's your favorite newspaper?
KURTZ: My favorite newspaper? That's a tough question. I like a lot of things about the Washington Post. I don't say that just because I work there; I've worked at other newspapers. I also think there are areas in which the Post can improve, but the Post is a paper -- one of the things I like about it is that it tries to be, because of its market penetration, a paper for all kinds of readers. It's read by congressmen, it's read by lower income people, it's read by housewives, it's read by a broad spectrum of folks. We don't have the luxury of just catering to an upper middle class elite. We've got to try to speak to all readers. We don't always do that successfully, but it's an interesting challenge every day. The New York Times, by contrast, which I think is a much -- it's always been a great newspaper -- I think it's much improved in recent years because it is putting more real stories about real life on its front page as opposed to just government news -- has the luxury in New York of having the upper slice of the market, and so it serves a very different audience.
LAMB: What's your favorite thing in the newspaper?
KURTZ: I like the fact that newspapers are unpredictable. I like the fact that you pick it up in the morning, and you don't know what you're going to see on the front page, that, hopefully, there will be at least one story -- I think now that we don't enough of this but hopefully there will be at least one story you'll say, "Wow, I didn't know that" or "Look what this guy said yesterday. This is really an outrage." I like the smorgasbord aspect. If there is nothing on the front page, I turn to the sports section. I think that's one of the nice things about newspapers is that so much information on a single day for 25 or 35 or 50 cents can be crammed into the daily product.
LAMB: What time of day do you get your newspaper, and when do you start reading?
KURTZ: Let's see now. I usually get up about 7:30, go outside the door and take a look at my Washington Post, which is delivered to the door; usually do a first read on it in the morning, flip through look at the most interesting stories, look at the headlines, look at things I might have to worry about that day. And then when I get to work about an hour-and-a-half later, I've got a stack of papers. Of course, I'm not a normal person. I have to read six, seven, eight newspapers a day, and I look through the others. It's interesting sometimes to see the way different papers play the same story, sometimes, in contradictory terms. Sometimes you, just see -- especially when you read a lot of stuff every day -- you see this incredible evidence of pat journalism. You see everybody doing Bill Clinton's first hundred days. You see everybody doing Hillary Clinton's first hundred days. You see that any decent idea will get recycled over and over again, and, in fact, that's one of the things I think is a problem in this business is that we all tend to jump on the same bandwagon.
LAMB: How much of television news is based on what people will say in this town, or, in New York, read in the newspapers?
KURTZ: I think newspapers play a much larger role than most people realize in setting an agenda which is often followed by television. Now, that's not to say that television doesn't do any original reporting. Obviously it does. But most cities, I look at the local newscast. Three out of five top stories have probably been in the local paper that day and during the campaign, when I studied this very carefully, I noticed that a lot of, at least the tone if not the substance of what was on the network news that night in the political area took its cue to some degree from what was on the front page of the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post. So, we play a role in bringing news to readers, but we probably play a more subtle role in influencing what other news organizations do.
LAMB: Explain what your beat is, and what kind of latitude do you have?
KURTZ: I'm fortunate enough to have a lot of latitude. I second-guess the people who second-guess everybody else for a living. I try to write about the press and journalistic ethics. I try to write about how the press interacts with public officials and politicians and, so, how the news is shaped. Sometimes that means how we are used. I try to sort of give the story behind the story and how things are handled. And, so, there is more stuff that I could possibly get to in any given week. I have a pretty broad mandate to look at the way the press functions and to try to ask the same questions about journalism -- how they do their job -- as we ask about everybody else. I think this is the most undercovered business in America, given the impact of media in the modern communications society. Only a half dozen people in daily newspapers do what I do. I think every sizable newspaper should have a media reporter. I just think it's that important, and I think that there is a certain double standard here. We're very willing to point the finger at other large institutions and point out their flaws, but we very rarely turn the spotlight on ourselves.
LAMB: Who do you answer to at the Washington Post?
KURTZ: I answer to a number of editors, beginning with Leonard Downie, the executive editor, and I have a couple of different editors in different sections who I work with on a more daily basis. They edit my stories -- I'm like any other reporter -- but I have, almost in my job description, an unusual degree of independence because everybody understands that I sometimes have to report on my own newspaper. I'm probably the only person in the newsroom who's regularly in that position. You can't be the media reporter for a large newspaper and question what others do and just ignore the Washington Post. You would have no credibility if you did that. So, while I get edited and they have the final say what goes in the paper, basically I've got a pretty wide amount of independence.
LAMB: You come to work in the morning, and you get at your desk normally at what time?
KURTZ: About 9 a.m.
LAMB: And you look through the newspapers, and you find something that you want to write about. Do you have to get permission to write about it?
KURTZ: Unless it's a big project, I usually sort of follow my instincts, make some calls, see if there seems to be a story there. Obviously, there is a consultative process at some time. I'll talk to editors and say, I'm thinking of pursuing this or here is what this looks like. But I do more than just read the papers. What happens is the phone rings. This is a very gossipy business. People I don't know call me from news organizations across the country saying, "You ought to take a look at this," "You ought to take a look at that." Some days I can't even get to the men's room without getting lots of advice, solicited and unsolicited. But that's good because it plugs me in to what's going on in the business in a way that, no matter how many papers I read or how much TV I watched, would be hard for me to do. A lot of the tips don't turn out to be anything; some of them turn out to be great stories, so I get a lot of help from my brethren.
LAMB: How long have you worked at the Washington Post?
KURTZ: For 12 years.
LAMB: How long have you been on this beat?
KURTZ: About three.
LAMB: For the three years you've been on this beat, what story has gotten you the most attention, or been the most controversial?
KURTZ: One story that might have been the most controversial, I suppose, is when I wrote in early September of '92 that the press corps was tilting a little bit. I guess the way I put it was the press corps was much softer on Bill Clinton than it was on President Bush. I don't think that I would have shocked anybody by saying that, but I think I was the first to say it in a straight news story, that here are some of the reasons why, here are some of the evidence. You know, that story got a lot of attention. It was quoted in a lot of places.
LAMB: What about your colleagues?
KURTZ: Privately most of my colleagues didn't disagree. I think we always wrestle with this. I think there was a feeling that perhaps we were being too tough on Bush. It's interesting now, in light of where we are in this administration, one could argue that we're being just as tough on President Clinton as we are on President Bush. Some people think we're bending over backwards to show that we can be just as hard on a Democratic president as we were on his Republican predecessors. I don't believe, as many people out there do -- I know from doing call-in shows that a lot of people think the media is just riddled with bias, that there was a conscious conspiracy to elect Bill Clinton because reporters are all closet liberals.

I do think it's a fact that most journalists are to the left of the general population. But I think something else was at work here. I think that reporters identify with Clinton generationally. He was around the age of many of the reporters on the campaign trail. Reporters liked him personally; a lot did, at least. He was a new story. The idea of covering a second Bush administration put a lot of people to sleep. And, at the same time, a lot of reporters, at least privately, felt that Bush had been a mediocre president, and also it's clear in retrospect he was running a terrible campaign and we tend to have a front-runner by us. In `88, when Bush was running a very smooth campaign and Michael Dukakis was not, Bush got better press than Dukakis even though he is a Republican. I think the opposite was at work in `92. So there are a lot of subtle factors, and I think that people who think that all reporting is ideologically driven don't quite understand how the business works, which is not to say that sometimes our opinions don't seep into our stories, but probably less often than people think.
LAMB: Why do some conservatives think the media is biased? As you know, we hear lots of voices coming into this network and most criticism, probably, over the last 15 years has been from conservatives about the liberal press.
KURTZ: I wouldn't dispute that for a second. I think conservatives believe, with some justification, that, privately at least, most journalists are somewhat on the liberal side of the spectrum. I also think that a lot of bias is in the eye of the beholder. Most people don't want to hear that. I mean, you get calls from people who are opposed to abortion, and they are convinced that your paper is pro-abortion. Same thing on Israel, same thing on homosexuality, gays in the military. You know, there are certain sensitive subjects that just bring out those charges of bias.

I think that sometimes we slip into a kind of unconscious or cultural bias. What I mean by that is an example I cite in the book involving my own paper. In 1990, I believe, there was a major anti-abortion march in Washington. The Post played it pretty small. In retrospect, Leonard Downie, the editor, said this was a mistake. Now, I'm sure that most conservative folks believe that we did this deliberately, that we all support abortion rights and therefore we decided this was not going to be news. I think what actually happened is we just sort of missed it because we are not close friends with lots of people who are fervently opposed to abortion. We didn't understand how big an event this was. So, unconsciously or otherwise, we blew it. We made a mistake. But it was not a mistake driven by ideology; it was probably a mistake driven by the fact that we were out of touch with this segment of the society. I offer that as an example.
LAMB: You have a chapter in here, Chapter 6, called "The Glass House Gang." How thin-skinned are people in our business?
KURTZ: I think that journalists are the most thin-skinned people in the country.
LAMB: How do you know?
KURTZ: I know because I deal with this every day. I mean, before I had this job I was like most reporters: I covered politicians, I covered administration officials, I covered Congress. And, you know, people in that walk of life know how to take the heat. I mean, they expect bad stories. They expect to get kicked around. It's not to say that they don't complain about it. Journalists are not comfortable being on the other side of the notebook. They don't like answering questions -- many of them, I mean; I should qualify. I've been stonewalled by editors who say, I'm not going to talk to you about that." I've had people tell me, "No comment." I've had people call me up and denounce me for a story that's a fraction as harsh as they write themselves every week. I've just really been struck and I'm continually amazed -- I suppose I shouldn't be -- by how sensitive to criticism are people who, after all, do this for a living and, one would think, would be sort of more savvy about the fact that every story is not going to be a glowing puff piece. And so it really is a glass house, which is not say when I'm interviewed I'm any less sensitive. But it just seems to me that, since we are in the position of constantly pointing fingers at other folks, we ought to be willing more often to take our lumps.
LAMB: Any particular story that you remember covering about this industry? Who's been the maddest at you?
KURTZ: A couple of editors. There is no one example that stands out. But, you know, there is no question that there's been some bruised feelings when I do this kind of work -- sometimes by people in my own newsroom, sometimes by people at other papers. We're expected to be tough on politicians but when I call up a reporter doing a story that they're not necessarily going to like, you know they'll say something like, "Well, you know, go easy on me, will you?" or "Gee, it would really be awkward for me if you printed that," not seeming to understand that what I try to do on my job is to apply the same standards as I would if I were writing about anybody else.
LAMB: You write about Phil Donahue in here. What's the story?
KURTZ: Phil Donahue wrote a syndicated, not column, but article that was reprinted in the Washington Post, among other papers. In it there was a very touching piece about his boyhood and going to Catholic school, and it was a tribute to a nun who had taught him, who had changed his life, who had recently died. And it later came out that he done a couple things in this piece that I thought were not typical journalistic practice. One was he had used a fake name. He had not used the nun's real name, but he didn't tell this to the reader that it was a pseudonym. Another is he had an actual reproduction of a note that the nun had written to him in 1953, I believe it was, that was not actually written by her but by a friend of his who knew this special handwriting that the nuns use. And so it was, in plain terms, a forgery. It was not written by the person it was purported to be.

I called him up and asked him about this. He answered the questions, but he was a little bit on the defensive for somebody who likes to stick microphones in peoples' faces. He said he didn't see why this was a great moral issue. He had withheld the nun's real name because she had recently died of breast cancer and perhaps her family would be offended. And he didn't seem, at least at the time, to understand why it was that I was raising this question. He later discovered the actual note, the one that he couldn't find in his trunk, and sent it to me to show that he hadn't completely made this up. He recently had me on one of his shows, so I guess he proved to have the thicker skin than I thought.
LAMB: Linda Greenhouse?
KURTZ: Linda Greenhouse is the Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times. She attracted a lot of attention -- most of it unwanted, I'm sure -- in 1989, I believe was the year, during a big pro-abortion rights march in Washington, one which the Washington Post gave a lot of coverage to, unlike the one I mentioned earlier. She marched in that demonstration, although she covers the Supreme Court and therefore frequently writes about abortion cases. Her view of it was, "I don't make any secret of the fact that I am pro-choice; my editors knew that; I've raised money for Planned Parenthood; I don't see anything wrong with marching in my private time, and the real test is, does it affect my copy, are my stories fair?" Most people think her stories are fair, in balance.

The question though was -- and this was a question that came up again in the recent gay rights march in Washington -- is a reporter ever off-duty? Can you march one day, even as a private citizen on behalf of some political cause, without impairing your credibility? The editors at the Times later decided that she should not have done that and, I believe, there were some Washington Post reporters who marched in that abortion rights march as well. That is against the policy of the paper. That's a very controversial thing, the whole question of do you have a private life separate from what you do as a reporter. But my own view is that I would draw the line at marching in a demonstration. I think the appearance of being unbiased -- and, after all, we're often applying this appearance standard to politicians -- is as important as anything else.
LAMB: You write about outing of gays and about a particularly sensitive story about a former Pentagon official who is fairly high ranking. What's that story?
KURTZ: That was, maybe, the toughest story I've ever wrestled with because I personally think that outing is a despicable practice. This is, you know, the technique by which some gay activist groups want to announce to the world that so-and-so is a homosexual. So-and-so would rather not have their sex life made public. And they can't do that without the media as an accomplice; I mean, we're how they get the message across. In this particular case this Pentagon official in the Bush administration was outed by a gay magazine called the Advocate and by a gay group that held a press conference.

And it started to trickle through the media. Jack Anderson wrote a column on it that was carried in 600 papers, naming this official. I don't name the person in the book. A couple other newspapers picked up on it; a couple TV stations picked up on it. I proposed to my editors not that we name the person because that's generally against our policy and I would not have wanted to do that either but that we write a story about the controversy, about the dilemma, saying here was an attempt to out a Pentagon official, here is how the media struggled with it, here's who has gone along, here's who hasn't.

The editors at my paper decided they didn't want to do that, and I was overruled in that case. They said that, well, you just add to the guessing game; everybody immediately wants to know who is this person. And so, in a way, you become an accomplice to outing. The argument of those who were in favor of outing in that case was that the Pentagon's policy of discharging gay soldiers -- their view was there was hypocrisy involved here. My thought was, this particular person had never publicly defended this policy. He was just somebody who worked at the Pentagon, and they were using him as a convenient symbol in order to try to generate press against the Pentagon policy. So, we wrestled with it. Ultimately we decided not to write anything, but then in sort of a footnote which kind of underscores my point about the media food chain and how we sometimes are forced to do things whether we like it or not, the outing incident was mentioned, although the person's name was not mentioned, on "This Week With David Brinkley," about a week after my story was turned down. Suddenly, it's on national television. Post editors then decided to run a story, not by me but by another reporter, about the fact that there had been this attempt to out an official and that defense secretary Dick Cheney had spoken about it on television. So, the story that we originally decided not to touch we touch a little bit gingerly because it had appeared somewhere else.
LAMB: It just reminds that on call-in shows here often we don't have a delay. People will call in; they can say anything they want. And this particular story you're talking about, because people had seen the story around the country, they call up and mention the individual's name at the Pentagon. So, how do you deal with that? Here you have one medium that has the names. The same thing went on with Jennifer Fitzgerald. That name was mentioned here before it was ever published, probably five or six times.
KURTZ: Well, would having a six-second delay help you bleep some of that out? Or you don't want to do that.
LAMB: Well, our basic philosophy here has been, let it go. Here you're talking about when a newspaper publishes and when they don't, and some do and some don't and some people think that the media will eventually get what they want out of the process by getting a story out. Somebody will publish it, and then it gives you the right at the Post to publish the story.
KURTZ: I think a lot of people do think that and I think a lot of people think that we somewhat gleefully take these back-door opportunities to get this stuff into print. In fact, I think we anguish over it a lot and we're not happy when we have to sort of back into a story that we wouldn't publish otherwise. But, I mean, let's face it. We live in an era of live television, of satellite communications. Anybody can call up your show and say anything they want. I think people understand when they hear a caller say something on television, on live television, that you're not vouching for it.

That it may, in fact, not be true. This is one person's opinion. A newspaper decision to publish probably has more weight because people sense that there is some process behind it, that somebody is weighing whether or not either this is true or something that ought to be published, and so probably committing it to print has a little more weight, a little more permanence than just somebody saying it on television. But we wrestle with this all of the time and a recent example, I take the view that we ought not to print rumors if there is any way we can avoid it unless we know they're true. But often we succumb to this process. For weeks after the Clintons took office, every reporter in Washington heard this third-hand gossip that Hillary Clinton had gotten mad and thrown a lamp or some other large object at her husband. You know, everybody tittered about it; nobody knew whether it was true.

Well, suddenly Newsweek decided to run a little item on it in its Periscope section saying that Secret Service was saying this. I think even Newsweek said that this was unsubstantiated. Well, that opened the door and everybody can make fun of it. It gets into my paper and other papers either as a laughing matter or kind of a sideways reference. The truth is, I don't know if it's true; you don't know if it's true. It probably isn't true. But in the modern media world there are many different ways for stories to slip: If they can't go through the front door, they come through the back door. I wish we could do something about that, but I haven't figured out how.
LAMB: Go back to your early days. Did you say you were raised in Brooklyn?
KURTZ: I was, in fact, raised in Brooklyn.
LAMB: What year were you born?
KURTZ: 1953. I'm 39.
LAMB: Your parents do what for a living?
KURTZ: My father is in the shirt business. In his early years he was a shirt salesman. He is now a clothing executive. And my mother is your basic homemaker.
LAMB: Do you have brothers and sisters?
KURTZ: I have a younger sister who lives in Staten Island.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
KURTZ: I went to college at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which was the furthest you could go away from home and still be in the state of New York. I was 17 and I wanted to sort of strike out on my own. First day I got to Buffalo I showed up at the student newspaper there and said I'd like to try this and ended up spending four years on the college paper called the Spectrum, became the editor of it and decided, gee, I might be able to make a living at this.
LAMB: Had you started, by the way, in high school writing for a school newspaper?
KURTZ: Not for the school paper, no. I drew subversive cartoons in high school. That was how I got my creative juices out. And I wrote for the literary magazine. It didn't occur to me in high school, when I was a lot more interested in playing basketball and chasing girls, that one could make a living doing this. It wasn't until I got to college that the great revelation that this was not only fun but that one might actually be paid for it.
LAMB: Do you have any idea where all your interest in this all started?
KURTZ: I don't know that I can put my finger on it. I wasn't terribly interested in politics in high school. I was always interested in writing. I guess I have always been kind of an observer of the process, and in college you sometimes you find out what you want to do in life and I just naturally gravitated toward journalism.
LAMB: When you got out of school, what did you want to do?
KURTZ: I wanted to go to work on a big city paper.
LAMB: Where did you go?
KURTZ: I went to Columbia Journalism School to punch my ticket and get my master's degree. I got out of Columbia in 1975 at the height of a recession and wrote to about 50 papers and had a lot of trouble getting a job. But I did get a job at the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J., a very good small paper which I write about in the book, and my first job was working nights and covering two small towns. I went to zoning board meetings and sewer hearings. I was 21 years old and I said, "Boy, this is really small potatoes; I want to go to New York or Washington." But in retrospect, it was really good training, you know, to cover suburbs at the local level, get immediate feedback on your stories. I'm glad that I did it.
LAMB: What about the business do you like the most?
KURTZ: I guess I like finding things out, getting on the phone and talking to people and trying to sort of pull out what's at the heart of a story -- you know, not just what people are telling you or what they're paid to tell you but what's really going on. When you finally sort of break through and you feel like you understand it, then you can sit down at the computer -- or, in those days, at the manual typewriter -- and write it up, sort of shape it, help people understand it and help people talk about it. I mean, that's kind of fun.
LAMB: From the Bergen County Record to where?
KURTZ: I wanted to come to Washington, so I signed on for a couple years with Jack Anderson, worked as one of his reporter-researchers, wrote a lot of columns, learned something about investigative reporting and then I got a job at the Washington Star.
LAMB: How long were you there?
KURTZ: I was at the Star for three years. It was a tremendous amount of fun. Very few papers like the Star anymore, a lot of colorful characters as an underdog afternoon newspaper, a kind of paper where you'd cover a congressional hearing in the morning and run to the phones and dictate your story over the phones -- this was before everyone had laptop computers -- and the story would hit the streets that afternoon. You felt like you had made news. And it was a place that had a lot of spirit because it was the second newspaper in a two-newspaper town. There aren't very many two-newspaper towns any more. And I was very sad when the ship went down.
LAMB: What did you do after that?
KURTZ: Well, apparently I had beaten the Washington Post on enough stories that they decided that maybe they might want to pick me up, unemployed as I was. They hired a few people from the Star, many of whom have done well, and I started on the Metro staff at the Post, worked for a while in the investigative unit and then went on to cover a variety of different beats.
LAMB: Are you married?
KURTZ: I am.
LAMB: Who did you marry?
KURTZ: I married Mary Tallmer.
LAMB: When?
KURTZ: In 1979. She's a social worker. A lot of people in my business have married to other journalists. After doing this all day, the idea of coming home and talking more about journalism -- I don't know how some people do it. I'm glad to be married to somebody who has other interests in life.
LAMB: You write about Jack Anderson in Chapter 3; you write about a relationship you had with an attorney. Do you want to tell us about them?
KURTZ: Sure. I mentioned in the interest of disclosure this attorney had once represented me 10 years earlier in a lawsuit. That was interesting because this is in the context of the savings and loan scandal, which I think is one of the press's least shining moments. And most reporters I've talked to have said -- most national reporters, I should add -- said they're embarrassed by the press's performance. This was a story particularly the newspapers could have cracked but didn't.

But Anderson, by his own admission, had a young guy working for him, now his co-author, Mike Binstein, who had a good chunk of the S&L story early, early mid-80s, before it had really become a huge multibillion dollar scandal. Mike Binstein couldn't get these stories published in Anderson's column because the lawyer who represented Anderson, to protect him from libel suits, was also turned out to work for a law firm that represented Charles Keating of S&L fame. And it was Anderson's understanding that, if he published these controversial S&L stories, some of which involved the Keating Five -- in fact, Binstein actually had the minutes of the famous Keating Five meeting involving the five senators who wanted the regulators off Charles Keating's back -- that if he got sued he couldn't be represented by this attorney who was doing it for low or little or no cost.

Anderson didn't have libel insurance at the time -- apparently insurance companies don't think he is a great risk -- and he decided that he was no longer in a position to publish controversial information that could lead to a lawsuit. So mostly that stuff went unpublished. Mike Binstein went to other newspapers, magazines. He did get a couple pieces printed in Regardie's magazine, which is no longer around. But mostly he had a hard time peddling it. And so the fear of a lawsuit, that sort of chilling effect, kept out of the press some important stories that might have, if not stopped the S&L scandal, certainly had told us a lot earlier the magnitude of it.
LAMB: What about the attorney? You talk more about David Branson, the attorney. Did he violate any kind of ethics in this whole thing?
KURTZ: I don't believe so, and he certainly argues forcefully that he hasn't. He made full disclosure to Anderson. He says that he represented -- that his law firm, I should say; he didn't personally represent -- but his law firm represented Charles Keating, and he said that his position is that if Anderson had a problem with his working for a firm that happened to be Keating's firm all he had to do was to hire another lawyer to vet those columns, and so he doesn't feel that Anderson's failure to publish those stories should be blamed on him. And he has a point.
LAMB: You say that Jack Anderson has 600 newspapers he's published in?
KURTZ: Right.
LAMB: Is he still the biggest in the country as a columnist?
KURTZ: As far as I know he is, yes.
LAMB: What's he like?
KURTZ: Anderson is a very nice man with nine children who has broken so many big stories in his career. For years he had toiled in the shadow of Drew Pearson. In recent years, as he has gotten older, I wouldn't say he has pulled his punches, but I think his column has not had the sharp investigative edge that it used to have and this probably is a good illustration of why.
LAMB: Has the number of subscribers gone down over the years?
KURTZ: At one time he had about 1,000 papers, and it's now down to 600. But, on the other hand, 600 in the syndicated column business is a pretty substantial number; I mean, most columnists have a 100 or 200 papers. That's considered pretty good.
LAMB: What did you learn working for him?
KURTZ: I learned persistence, and I learned that without being part of a big news organization or having a fancy title, if you worked hard and dug and got your hands on some documents, you could make a difference. You could have an impact. You could get something into print, and it would influence events; that, in other words, all the investigative reporting isn't only done by the New York Times and the Washington Post; a lot of small papers do a very good job with it. I think in the last half dozen years, S&L, the HUD scandal and others illustrate this, that much of the press has moved away from investigative reporting, the kind of investigative reporting that made Anderson famous and that where other papers made a reputation. I just think we've lost our edge in recent years, and it seems to me that that's part of our credibility crisis, that we were not on the front lines in the debacles like the S&L scandal.
LAMB: Page 309: "Before the self-congratulations get out of hand, however, it is worth noting that we didn't have much choice. The 1992 election was decided by larger forces: the ailing economy, a deep-rooted fear that the country was headed down the wrong track. And that made the horse race stuff that reporters like to write about almost irrelevant." And this is in the chapter called "The Talk Show Campaign." I read that first sentence, "before the self-congratulations get out of hand," and that's after you've been writing about all those talk shows.
KURTZ: Well, the chapter before that talks about the primaries of the presidential campaign. Well, I thought the coverage was pretty awful. I mean, as everybody recalls, we wanted to make the primary campaign about Gennifer Flowers -- basically sex, drugs and the draft. And people were a lot more interested in the economy and health care.

I think it's interesting that the press clearly was out of touch with the mood of the country in those first few months. We missed the Ross Perot phenomenon. Perot goes on Larry King, gets hundreds of thousands of calls to his Dallas headquarters, doesn't make the front page of the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times till more than a month later. And we were still in our attack mode. We were still in our horse race mode. We wanted to tell you about the character of the candidates and we wanted to race one primary state to another, and the people were a lot more serious. I mention this because I think that in the fall the coverage got a lot better. One of the reasons why I think the coverage got a lot better -- for one thing we got a real kick in the pants. I think we woke up to the fact that we were missing something that was going around in the country in 1992.

But also we had the talk show campaign. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, in particular, learned how to go on long-form television shows. They learned how to go on everything from MTV to Arsenio Hall to Phil Donahue and get an hour and talk to people and to avoid the sort of prosecutorial culture of the press, to avoid the condensing of their remarks to an eight-second sound bite or one paragraph in the newspaper. And it worked. It worked for them, and it made us in the sort of establishment press realize that we had to find other ways to cope. And so in the fall -- that's why I talk about the self-congratulations -- I just think in September and October television networks and newspapers got a lot more serious about the campaign, did a lot more issue stories, did a lot of stories about what voters actually thought. We actually went out and talked to voters instead of just talking to political consultants and pollsters. And I think, probably out of necessity, our coverage improved. But, I also think that the media landscape has permanently changed and that every campaign in the future is going to feature the talk show aspect and that we, the behemoths or the dinosaurs of the political press, have to find ways to adjust.
LAMB: "The talk shows may have taken over the campaign, but time and time again the interviewers' questions were drawn from the morning papers." That's what you wrote.
KURTZ: I am not one of those who thinks that it's any great threat to the republic that people get to ask their own questions or televise town meetings or call-in shows. I think it's really healthy. I think it gives people a sense of being connected to politics. One of the problems of the establishment press is that people feel cut off from it. They think that we have our own agenda and that somehow we are writing about stuff that doesn't really matter to them. And when you saw some of those questioners during the debates and during some of those town meetings stand up and talk and ask Bill Clinton or Perot or Bush, "What are you going to do about the economy?" "What are you going to do about this problem that's affecting my life?" -- whether it's crime or health care, whatever -- some of those questions reporters couldn't have asked.

The point I was trying to make in that sentence that you quote, though, is that the context always comes from the press; in other words, it's the press's decision to play up the passport investigation or -- I'm trying to think of another example -- the latest economic figures. I mean, people who ask those questions in a town meeting don't just ask them off the top of their heads. They're part of the media culture too, and so I just think, even when we're not asking the questions -- I don't think we should ask all the questions, but I do think it's important that we ask some of the questions -- we are setting an agenda that has an indirect effect on the process.
LAMB: You remind the reader here that Jack Germond said that the running mate for Bill Clinton would be Bob Kerrey; that David Broder put his money on Al Gore; that Tim Russert of NBC picked Lee Hamilton; that Time magazine's Margaret Carlson bet on Jay Rockefeller; the Boston Globe said Clinton was seriously considering Florida's Senator Bob Graham. What's the point?
KURTZ: The point is we get into these frenzies of speculation. Just the other day in the New York Times there was a list of names about who the Supreme Court nominee might be. And I just think it's silly. I think that's the press at its worst; it's not to beat up on anybody who made the wrong choice. I didn't know he was going to pick Al Gore either. The point is, in the week or two before Bill Clinton picked his running mate, there were so many inside baseball stories about, it's going to be this one, it's going to that one, let's put our money on so-and-so, and I just think that that's not what the press should be doing. I think that was an example of us not writing about stuff that really concerns you, because, after all, we were going to find out anyway.

There was going to come a day when Clinton was going to have a press conference, and everybody would know who the name was. So there is this whole obsession, almost, in my business to be 24 hours early with a story. And I like a good scoop as much as anybody, but you don't really change the world much by reporting 24 hours in advance something that everybody is going to find out anyway.
LAMB: You tell us that Al Gore once called you about leaking a story to you. When did that happen?
KURTZ: It happened in 1984 before he was the vice presidential nominee, and the only reason I mentioned it -- he was the House subcommittee chairman at the time, and he was conducting some hearings and I was going to write about it. Nothing particularly unusual in the fairness about it, but he made a point of saying, "Listen, I'm in a tough race for the Senate, and I want to make sure my name is in the story. I want to get some credit."

And the funny thing that I thought -- and I did credit him because it was the investigative work of his committee -- but there is often an unspoken understanding between reporters and members of Congress that when reporters get an advance on something the congressman is doing that the third paragraph is going to say congressman so-and-so is investigating. And Gore was just a little bit more assertive than most in making that explicit in saying, "Listen, don't leave me out of the story. I'm running for the Senate."
LAMB: Does that happen very often?
KURTZ: It had never happened to me before.
LAMB: But I mean, has it happened very often where a senator or fairly well-known individual calls you to leak you a story?
KURTZ: More often these things are done through staff. The staff are the experts. Reporters have more contact with staff members, and they usually are the ones that have the details. But, sure, it's not unusual at all to, you know -- Capitol Hill is fun to cover because you've got 535 guys who want to get their name in the paper, and there is sort of this incestuous relationship. We want to get the goods and get at the paper; they want to get credit, and that's part of the sort of normal interplay between the press and politicians.
LAMB: You write about Ross Perot and Bob Woodward.
KURTZ: I do. That was a tough one for the Post, I think. Just to recap what happened, Bob Woodward used Ross Perot as a source in 1988, the time George Bush, vice president, was running for president. Ross Perot was a colorful Dallas businessman, you know, widely known but not a serious political force. And Perot was feeding Woodward information about Bush, information, as it turned out, that never made it into the paper. But he was giving him leads and some documents that might enable Woodward to write an investigative piece about George Bush. Well, four years later the context has changed.

Perot was running for president, and there were a lot of stories on TV and in the press about him investigating people. It was the whole "Inspector Perot" phenomenon. That was news. Did Ross Perot really investigate people? -- people who work for him and so forth. So Woodward wanted to get this into the paper, and he called Perot and said, "Look, I've got to write about this, the fact that you were investigating Bush." Perot's position, as I understand it, was that this was a confidential relationship, that Woodward had promised him anonymity.

How could he write about it? Woodward said that he was going to try to write about it in some form. He did write about it in the Washington Post. He did not explicitly say that Perot had been his source. He just used the information in a way that, probably, most readers could read between the lines and figure out that there had been some cooperation between Ross Perot and the Washington Post. I then come into it because as the media critic I have to examine the question, was Woodward fair to Perot and how was the story handled?
LAMB: How was it handled?
KURTZ: I think it was handled less than perfectly. On the one hand, I sympathize with Woodward wanting to share with readers something that was definitely newsworthy, that Ross Perot had, in fact, been conducting inquiries into then vice president George Bush's life. On the other hand, I don't think that we did -- the story was written in such a convoluted way that I don't think that we were up-front with readers. I think often when the press gets into trouble, it's because we're not straight. I think if we were going to bite that bullet, we should have just said, "Here is what happened in 1988. Now we're reporting it. Here's why. Here's why we think it's okay." Instead, we sort of danced around it. And I tried to do what I could to shed some light on it, just as I would have if it had been another newspaper that had been involved.
LAMB: You also mention, in the context of Bob Woodward, Janet Cooke.
KURTZ: The Janet Cooke fiasco -- one cannot write about ethics in journalism without recalling that. This was in 1980 before I worked at the Washington Post, but the famed story of a reporter who made up the tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict, for which she later won the Pulitzer Prize, for which the Washington Post later had to return the Pulitzer Prize, because the story was a complete fraud and Woodward at the time was the Metro editor of the paper. One thing the Post did that I think was good -- and, again, I was not there at the time -- was to unleash its ombudsman to write something like an 18,000-word report on what had gone wrong, which made clear that there had been an editing failure at many levels. Even 12 years after the fact -- 13 years after the fact -- it remains one of the great blots in journalistic history, one that the paper can't erase.
LAMB: Have you ever seen a story about Janet Cooke since that time, an interview with her? Do you know where she is? Does anybody know where she is?
KURTZ: I don't know where she is, and, in fact, when the 10-year anniversary of that debacle came up, there was some interest in finding her and writing a story about what's she doing now, what she thinks about what happened and so forth. Either we didn't know where she was or she didn't want to talk, but, as far as I know, she basically has not spoken publicly since that time.
LAMB: Are you surprised that other journalistic institutions haven't pursued her?
KURTZ: I think they have; I think just haven't had any luck either in finding her or convincing her to sit for an interview.
LAMB: You write about the relationship of the newspaper reporter to Ross Perot. Is there a difference between the way the newspapers treat him and the way television treats him?
KURTZ: That was an interesting case study in the interaction between newspapers and TV, because I think newspapers, much quicker than TV, one might say, turned on Perot, decided to subject him to the same kind of scrutiny that any presidential candidate would get. All those investigative stories about whether Perot had investigated people, whether he had done business with Vietnam, whether he had gotten government contracts, appeared in places like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. It wasn't until several weeks later that that more aggressive tone spread to television, but the other interesting thing is Perot used to make light of newspaper reporters.

In fact, there's a quote that I use in the book where he said, "It doesn't matter what you print on the front page of the New York Times because it doesn't matter. It just blows away." In other words, in his view, all that matters is television. And I think what happened to his candidacy is a case study in the fact that he was wrong, because it was newspapers that lead the charge in investigating Perot and that probably contributed -- because he felt that he had been so badly treated by the press -- to his dropping out of the race the first time, in July. So his view that we basically were dinosaurs and he could go over our heads and it didn't matter, I think, turned out to be wrong.
LAMB: "The Smell of Death"?
KURTZ: "The Smell of Death" is the name of a chapter about the fate, or the condition, of the newspaper business. And, I guess, having lived through the death of one newspaper and having written about several others and even -- since I started the book a couple of years ago, the Pittsburgh Press, the Arkansas Gazette, the Dallas Times Herald, the San Antonio Light have gone out of business -- major newspapers in their cities. It's not even big news any more when a big-city newspaper folds. And so I think there is a great fear in the newspaper business today, a fear that our readers have gotten away from us, a fear that we have to figure out a way to find our niche and to be more compelling and not to completely lose our audience to other forms of media. I think there is the smell of death at many struggling papers these days and I wish that was not so, but I think that's the reality.
LAMB: On page 314 you've got some numbers I want to ask you about. The New York Times Company, which in 1975 posted earnings of less than $13 million, turned a profit of $266 million in 1989; the Washington Post Company saw its annual profits rise from $12 million to $197 million over the same period. Other highly profitable newspaper companies that year included Gannett, $397 million; Knight-Ridder, $247 million; Dow Jones, $317 million; and Times Mirror, $298 million. Where are they today, 1993?
KURTZ: Those profits are dramatically lower in 1993, and that was one of the points that I was trying to make. In the late `80s, newspapers and news organizations became money machines; they were making profits beyond their wildest dreams. How? The economy was booming, newspaper advertising went through the roof, classified sections grew fat -- I mean, they couldn't not make money. It was just a time in history when there was a boom and they were able to ride it. I think one of the reasons that we got so caught up during that era with covering the Donald Trumps of the world, with making people like Michael Milken, Leona Helmsley celebrities is that we were part of that culture; we were making lots of money, everybody was making lots of money, nobody thought the party was going to end.

What I go on to say in "Media Circus" is that suddenly the recession of 1990 hits and not only does the country wake up with a serious hangover after this long party but the press, which had gotten addicted to these very fat profit margins, suddenly finds that they're having trouble making money. I mean, profits went down 60, 70 percent at major companies. These are publicly owned companies. I mean, they're not doing this out of charity; they want to make money. And so almost every major newspaper I know of laid off staff, closed bureaus, cut their news space. I mean, the newspaper industry really took a hard hit in `90 and `91 and `92. We're just beginning to climb out of that hole now, but I think it changed the business in a way that -- too many corporate managers probably think that we're supposed to make these huge profits that we made in the late `80s, whereas I think that's an aberration. I think that if we don't invest more in journalism and be willing to accept more modest profits -- obviously, you've got to make some money if you want to stay in business -- that we could be sealing our own doom because good journalism is expensive.
LAMB: This is a non sequitur, but I've got to ask you about this sentence: "There was a daily guide to all the ads in the newspapers, which would certainly appeal to my mother, who's more interested in Macy's sales than the Middle East." What made you write that sentence?
KURTZ: I guess, other than poking a little bit of fun at my mother, I was trying to get across the idea that lots of people are interested in different things when they pick up a newspaper. This happens to be in the section about the Boca Raton News, which has sort of gone the USA Today route of lighter and tighter and brighter and colorful stories; in fact, the pink flamingo is the symbol of the newspaper. Most of the journalism is not the kind of journalism that I espouse, but they've done some smart things and one of the things is to have a daily guide to all the ads in the paper. Now, I read a newspaper, I'm interested in the hard news and the politics and the business news and so forth. Some people are more interested in the advertising or seeing what's playing at the movies, so I was just using my mother as an example of somebody who, while she is certainly interested in the headlines, might have other interests in the daily newspaper and it seemed like a good way to express it.
LAMB: In 1967, 73 percent of the American adults said they read a newspaper every day. By 1991 that figure had dropped to 51 percent. You also indicate that daily newspaper circulation has hovered around 62 million for the last 25 years. What's going on?
KURTZ: What's going on is that people are tuning us out; particularly, every survey ever taken shows that younger people, the MTV generation, doesn't have the newspaper habit perhaps the way people did when I was growing up. Too many people have decided that they can turn on the news in their car and the radio and they can watch the local news at night, and they don't really need what a newspaper has.

I think what's also going on is this sense that newspapers are bland. We're in an era now where we're afraid of offending people. I hear these discussions go on in the newsroom. You're so afraid of offending this or that group that you almost sanitize the process, almost sanitize the product, in a way so when it comes to really controversial stuff that I think people are vitally interested in -- race relations, homosexuality, abortion; you know the litany -- we tend to walk on eggshells. We're afraid of offending people. If you say the wrong thing, you get a backlash with people canceling their subscriptions. And I think when you take it to that extent, then you sort of remove the newspaper's reason for being. If we're not going to delve in controversy, if we're not going to be on the front lines of investigative journalism, if we're not going to be on the cutting edge of tough stories, then what are we providing that's any different, that people can't get on television? There are lots of reasons for that 30-year decline in readership, but I think it's too easy for us to sit around and just blame it on TV. I think we bear part of the blame.
LAMB: How long are you going to do this?
KURTZ: I'll probably do it until more than half the people in the business are no longer talking to me, at which time my effectiveness will be limited. But I'm not tired of it yet. I think it's a fascinating beat. It gets me into all different kinds of issues. I think it's important that somebody hold up a mirror to the media, and I'd like to do it a while longer.
LAMB: Does the Post have a contract with you to do this? And do you have any kind of protection if you write things about them?
KURTZ: No, I don't have it in writing. Last time I checked they were still paying my salary. There's no contract; any reporters on the Post move around to different beats. Usually there's a sort of understanding between yourself and an editor when it's time to do something else. I was the New York bureau chief for three years before taking on this job. There is an oral understanding that I ought to have some independence about writing about the Post even when it makes them unhappy. I think it adds to the paper's credibility; I think people recognize that the fact that the editors are willing to let one of their reporters loose and say things that are less than flattering sometimes -- sometimes they'll say nice things -- about the paper in print shows that they're willing to take their lumps. Most newspapers wouldn't allow this, and I think it's to the Washington Post's credit.
LAMB: Do you have another beat you'd like to have if you move on from the media beat?
KURTZ: I've done a lot of things in Washington: I've covered the Hill, I've covered urban affairs, I've covered the Justice Department. If I do take on another beat, I think I'd like it to be one where I get to float around because covering the same department every day is very hard work and I've done that sort of thing and I'd like to be a little freer. One thing I don't want to do is cover the White House -- the most glamorous beat in journalism; I think, also one of the most confining because of the control the White House often exercises over your movements and the way news is often spoon-fed and so forth. A lot of people really want to be a White House correspondent. That's not on my list of desires.
LAMB: Have you changed your mind at all from the first time you appeared on television to the later -- I mean now we see a lot of you at different places.
KURTZ: I do write in the book that too many journalists have become celebrities, and probably, now that I've done a little bit of television, I can be included in that indictment, although I do think that our media culture now values sort of shouting on talk shows more importantly than the old Woodward and Bernstein kind of journalism. But, you know, like anything else in the business, there's a great variation. There's a show like this where you can come on and talk for an hour and actually provide some insight, and you go on other shows and you've got 30 seconds to make your point and so it tends to reward the short and snappy. I think television is great in terms of immediacy. I often think it's superficial; I think many people in television think it's superficial. It was interesting during the Gulf War, when so much of the immediacy of the warfare was carried on TV, newspaper circulation actually went up because people found they wanted to know more; they wanted more analysis, more context, more history. That gave me a little bit of a feeling that maybe there is a place for newspapers after all.
LAMB: Last question. You say you're a skeptic about the future of electronic transmission of newspaper information.
KURTZ: Simply that it's going to replace the ink-on-a-paper version. I think with computerized technology, sure, lots of people will be downloading the news and I think that's great, but I don't think the computer screen is ever going to completely replace the daily newspaper. For one thing, you can't roll it up and take it on the bus with you.
LAMB: Will we have a newspaper that we can pick up and buy in 10 years?
KURTZ: I'm stubbornly optimistic that we are not going to go the way of the horse and buggy. I think newspapers are going to be around, maybe not as many of them, but I also think that they've got to change the way they do business if they're going to hold onto their readers, and that's one of the things I try to write about.
LAMB: Howard Kurtz's book is called "The Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers", and we thank you for joining us.
KURTZ: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.