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On the March 25 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, host and Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz asked: "As the White House tries to limit testimony by Karl Rove and other subpoenaed officials in the case of the purged prosecutors, are the media openly siding with the Democrats?" Kurtz said to CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry, "[Y]ou and your colleagues have been going at [White House press secretary Tony] Snow pretty hard on this issue. It sounds like you think the Bush proposal is a terrible idea," referring to the White House's offer to allow Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to be interviewed by congressional committees investigating the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys, but only in private and without an oath, transcripts, or subsequent subpoenas. Kurtz later added: "I believe in very, very aggressive White House reporting, but the tone and volume of the hammering of Snow over this does make it appear to people watching at home that journalists were taking sides." He did not raise a different explanation for the media's behavior -- that the ability of reporters to cover the interviews of White House staff -- and indeed, the issue more generally -- would be sharply limited if the interviews are conducted privately and without a written record.
Kurtz's suggestion -- that reporters who are upset with the White House's refusal to allow sworn, public testimony from Rove and Miers "are taking sides" with Democrats -- is just the most recent example of his using questions to suggest that the media are sympathetic to Democrats or taking positions against Republicans or the Bush administration, as Media Matters for America documented. Three of Kurtz's four guests -- Henry, Politico senior editor John Harris, and Chicago Tribune national correspondent Jill Zuckman -- disagreed with Kurtz's suggestion that reporters were "taking sides."
From the March 25 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
KURTZ: The question now: Does it seem heartless to cover the political impact of Elizabeth Edwards' cancer?
Up in arms: As the White House tries to limit testimony by Karl Rove and other subpoenaed officials in the case of the purged prosecutors, are the media openly siding with the Democrats?
Calamity central: A missing Boy Scout, a kidnapped baby, a teenager trapped under concrete -- is this really the stuff of national news?
KURTZ: Ed Henry, you and your colleagues have been going at Snow pretty hard on this issue. It sounds like you think the Bush proposal is a terrible idea.
HENRY: Well, the bottom line for me that when you're a White House correspondent, you have a duty to ask tough questions. Earlier in the week, Tony Snow, when I asked him a question about Iraq, told me off-camera to "zip it." He later apologized for that, but I think the bottom line is White House correspondents should not zip it, whether they're covering a Republican White House, a Democratic White House. You've got John Harris on your panel, and I seem to recall when he was covering the Clinton White House, there were pretty tough questions for Bill Clinton, and I didn't necessarily hear Republicans think that John Harris and others asking tough questions of the Clinton White House were doing the bidding of Republicans.
I think you have to let the chips fall where they may, whether you're covering a Democratic or Republican White House, and tough questions come with the territory, Howie.
KURTZ: All right. Well, zip it for just one moment so I can get John Harris in. You were a White House correspondent for years. You know that when 10 reporters in a row pound the press secretary on the same issue, it can sound pretty one-sided.
HARRIS: Well, that's right, but that doesn't mean that it is one-sided. And the sort of pushback that Tony Snow was giving to -- hey, you're being partisan -- is itself part of the defense for them to get off the defensive. You have to brush it off and go to the heart of what's very legitimate questions, as Ed says. Keep asking them. The job is not to be popular; it is to try to get answers. And that can be difficult to do with this White House.
ZUCKMAN: And the press briefing is not a television show. The bottom line is what reporters write in their newspaper stories or on their websites or put on television in the evening news broadcasts.
KURTZ: But these days, the press briefing is a television show.
ZUCKMAN: Well, you know, that shouldn't stop reporters from asking questions.
KURTZ: And it's certainly a television show when Tony Snow goes and does, you know, five morning show interviews. What do you make of him telling CBS' Harry Smith, as we saw a moment ago, "You sound more like a partisan than a reporter"?
ZUCKMAN: It's a tactic. He's supposed to do that. He's trying to push back.
DONALD LAMBRO (Washington Times reporter/columnist): Of course you pick someone --
KURTZ: OK, I gotta go.
LAMBRO: -- who's going to carry your agenda. There's nothing illegal about that.
KURTZ: Of course there's politics --
LAMBRO: They're just trying to make it sound illegal.
KURTZ: Of course there's politics involved. And at the same time, the press covers lots of things that are not illegal but that are questionable. And here, this is a situation where President Bush says mistakes were made.
I'm going to disagree with you all on one point. I believe in very, very aggressive White House reporting, but the tone and volume of the hammering of Snow over this does make it appear to people watching at home that journalists were taking sides. And I think some of the "Gonzales is toast" reporting has gone a little bit too far. But we'll see.
John Harris, Ed Henry, Jill Zuckman, Don Lambro, thanks very much for joining us this morning.