Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz makes a living picking apart the news business. Thursday, he brought his insights about his profession to the Marvin Center theater as a guest lecturer in Lanny Davis’ class “Scandal, Damage Control and American Politics.”
Kurtz discussed themes from his recent book, Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, such as the 24-hour news cycle and media-government relations. He also reflected on which issues constitute news and deserve media coverage.”The book is about spinning . and the scandal machine that drives much of our journalists and political coverage,” Davis said.Students questioned Kurtz about the Internet, the trials associated with writing about his colleagues in the press and coverage of the scandals in the Clinton White House.Kurtz said the Internet is a healthy development that offers the opportunity to hear the voice of the masses. A downside to the Internet is the rumor and innuendo that may lead to irresponsibility, he said.”We all now are living for what flashes across the (Internet),” he said.Kurtz said he likes his job as a media watchdog, dealing with questions of racial tensions, sexual harassment in the newsroom and fairness in reporting.”I have a lot more scars than anyone else in the Post newsroom,” he said. “(Members of the media) love to ask the questions and we hate to give answers.”When asked about coverage of the White House and the interactions between the press and White House aides, he said both journalists and the White House adhere to a survival strategy of “spin.””We’re dealing with journalists who have their careers enhanced by scandals,” he said. He also said there is “a culture of mistrust on both sides,” which White House press secretary Mike McCurry tried to ease.”(McCurry) tried to break down barriers between the two sides,” Kurtz said, citing off-the-record sessions McCurry arranged between reporters and Clinton.But he added the current White House is “as aggressive as any in modern history.” Feelings between journalists and White House aides are extremely personal and raw.”Most of the wounds my profession has suffered are self-inflicted,” Kurtz said. “We’re seen as part of the Beltway culture.”Kurtz was asked about the ethics involved in gathering and printing information. Kurtz said a journalist’s job is to report the news, but when stories are based on anonymous sources, journalists face a more difficult decision.”We get our information however we can,” he said. “It is not a crime for journalists to receive information.”Kurtz polled the audience to find out if they believed the media has given too much coverage to the Clinton scandal. The majority of the audience members raised their hands.”The public is on to something when they say we’ve gone overboard,” Kurtz said.He also talked about the strenuous job of reporting stories about the President’s sex life.”The whole (area) of reporting on sex is basically out of control,” he said. “Kenneth Starr made it easier for us to get (the sex stories) in the paper.”Kurtz cited the example of the “cigar story” reported in the Starr report Sept. 11. The story detailed a sexual encounter between President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.”Nobody wanted to write about it, let alone think about it,” Kurtz said.Davis said the job of the press is to write facts, and people on the President’s side make it difficult to write those facts. “It’s not a bias against Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon,” Davis said. “It’s a bias toward all politicians.”Davis, a former White House adviser, said he began his career with a negative view of the press but left his position with “an immense respect of reporters.” During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Spin Cycle became a New York Times bestseller.Davis joked that he liked Kurtz’s book because his name was mentioned frequently. He often has been a subject of Kurtz’s stories in The Post and is discussed and quoted at length in Spin Cycle.”Before the book came out, many people had never heard of Lanny Davis, now he’s inescapable,” Kurtz said.Students in Davis’ class were required to read Spin Cycle before the lecture.”The book was informative,” junior Alexis Rice said. “He uttered my personal opinion that the media hasn’t changed.”Capital Style, a magazine on life in the District, and KIRO, a Seattle-based radio station, covered the discussion.Future speakers for Davis’ class include Tony Blankley, former press secretary to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert, and Steven Brill, editor of Brill’s Content magazine.