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Interview With Howard Kurtz, Michael Wolf

Aired July 14, 2003 - 20:35   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: On a day when the accuracy of 16 words in a presidential speech is getting a lot of media attention, we would like to focus some attention on the accuracy of the media. Today "The New York Times" was forced to print a major correction on the front page of its business section. This after a major plagiarism scandal last month which led to rolling heads in America's paper of record.
No media, CNN excluded, is exempt from mistakes which leads us to tonight's question. How much of what you hear or what you read can you believe? Just what can you trust? I'm joined from Washington tonight by Howard Kurtz of "The Washington Post," and here in the New York studios with me, "New York Magazine" media columnist Michael Wolf. Welcome, good to see both of you.

Howard, I am going to start with you first. How damaging was this piece today, basically highlighting every single mistake made in this business page piece?

HOWARD KURTZ, WASHINGTON POST: It was nothing short of humiliating, Paula. To paraphrase another journalist, the only accurate words seemed to be "the end" and "but." This was a 2,000- word correction of a piece, of a profile of a music industry executive, which got everything wrong, from the premise, which was that this man had lost control of his company, to his address. I talked to the reporter today, Lynette Halloway (ph), she declined to comment, but lots of people at "The Times," are asking where were the editors? How could such a flawed piece of journalism have made it into the paper?

ZAHN: Well, that's a question, Michael, a lot of people are asking tonight, and in the "Columbia Journalism Review," which does a lot of analysis of these media pieces, someone is quoted as saying "mistakes are the rule rather than the exception." Why?

MICHAEL WOLF, MEDIA COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE: Because there is an enormous amount of information, because it's rendered very quickly, because there are lots of competing views. I think that you could argue in a way it's interesting that there aren't many more mistakes. Now, the truth is there are many more mistakes, it's just that in very few instances do publications confess to them.

ZAHN: When you're talking about different views, are you referring to the fact that you can have a different analysis of what a phrase meant in a piece that it is not objective? The nature of the analysis is subjective? WOLF: There is that level of different views, and then there are different views of events themselves. There are -- there are -- especially in business, for instance, there are always competing fact patterns. And I don't mean to suggest that this story is merely a result of -- of faulty interpretation or counterinterpretation, but I do mean to suggest that in any kind of -- any kind of -- whenever you're looking at business, you're in a situation where -- where the facts are very squirmy.

ZAHN: But you raise a very good point there, Howard. I want you to respond to that. The difference between an inaccuracy and an out and outright falsehood.

KURTZ: Well, look, every story gets picked apart these days, because everybody is a media critic and that's healthy. That's a good thing. But there is a difference between a story where detractors might say, there's a certain amount of spin in it, it's biased, it didn't highlight this, it left this out. And the story that "The New York Times" has acknowledged today, its own piece, that the facts were just totally screwed up. That was not intentionally done, as in the Jayson Blair case, but the damage is the same and the embarrassment to the paper is the same, and it is unfortunate for the "Times" because it came on a day when they were trying to get a fresh start by naming a new editor, Bill Keller, the former managing editor, to the job that was hastily vacated by Howell Raines after the Blair scandal.

ZAHN: Is it your belief that this slowly erodes the trust the public has in any form of the practicing media?

WOLF: Well, it probably does. And that's probably a good thing. What everyone is being told and now we're being told in many different ways is that all of this stuff should be taken -- taken with -- with actually more than a grain of salt. We should say, no, that this is probably not all together right. Some of it is right. In many instances, most of it is right. But it is never, ever, ever all together right.

ZAHN: And finally, Howard, in this "Columbia Journalism Review" piece, someone suggested that perhaps you need to destigmatize some mistakes and restigmatize others.

KURTZ: Well, I think holding the media accountable is something that not only lots of outsiders should do, but that we in the business should do. And "The Times" does deserve credit for not just burying this with a terse and oblique editor's note, but putting the full 2,000 word record out there. Does it undermine confidence in the business? Sure. So did the Jayson Blair case. So did Janet Cook, Stephen Glass, mistakes that CNN has made and others, and I think that those of us in the news business are going to have to do a better job of not just sticking closer to the facts, but explaining ourselves and being held accountable. Otherwise the public view of what we do, which is the trust that we all rely on, is going to just sink into the toilet even further.

ZAHN: I agree with you. Both of you. Howard Kurtz, Michael Wolf, thanks for your time tonight. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT

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