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Anchors Twittering Their Lives Away

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009 9:59 AM

The sun was not yet up when David Gregory checked in with his followers:

"646 am. Just got to NBC. Almost showtime. Betsy just sent me Frank Rich piece. Actually read during night. Should we include?"

Less than two hours later, the "Meet the Press" host offered an update: "Rehearsal done. Guests should arrive anytime now. This is a good time for me to go thru my q's one last time. Maybe a bagel b4 air."

Gregory was providing real-time chatter on Twitter, the social networking site built around terse messages, which is becoming something of a hangout for high-profile anchors.

"Here's a chance through Twitter, all these social networks, to break the glass in front of the tube," says "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran. "It gives you a chance to offer more about your life as a reporter, a person living in Washington." Being on Twitter counters "the whole notion that newscasters speak from Olympus," and yet "it leaves you open to some rich contempt and mockery. You don't want to overshare."

Twitter, which began in 2006, has 6 million users, a fivefold increase since last summer. The 140-character limit on each message initially seems silly but forces a witty sort of brevity that seems well matched to today's sound-bite culture. While dwarfed by the likes of Facebook, which has become so mainstream it can hardly be viewed as edgy, the bare-bones Twitter has been generating considerable buzz lately.

In an age when people expect behind-the-scenes dish, the site enables television types to explain what they're doing -- and flatter their fans by soliciting their opinions.

Moran did that two weeks ago, providing a steady flow of tweets, as they're called, on the day that he interviewed President Obama. He asked his followers what questions he should pose to the president -- and some of the suggestions, he says, were pretty good.

"Focus on the economy," one person wrote. "Don't wander off like clowns at the news conference, talking about Iran, Afghanistan."

Moran's updates had a you-are-there quality:

7:18 a.m.: "Arrived at Andrews. Security smooth and courteous. Wondering if $1.5 trillion is enough to save the banks."

8:46 a.m.: "On board Air Force One. Pancakes, bacon and eggs on the menu. Twix and snickers for snacks."

1:47 p.m.: "Waiting for the big interview. Cooking up my first question. Gotta go with Wall Street's reaction to the banks plan, no?"

Moran proceeded to scoop himself -- and ABC -- with some of the president's remarks. "Just finished interview," he wrote at 3:06. "I asked, 'Wall Street really doesn't like your plan for banks.' 'Wall Street wants an easy answer, there isn't one.' " Two minutes later: "On why not nationalize banks, O: too many, too expensive, not our culture."

With that kind of pipeline, who needs television?

Most major television news programs and anchors have a Twitter page, but most are impersonal listings and links to promote each show. A relative few offer a steady stream of personal observations.

Gregory says he sometimes gets responses within 10 seconds -- and that the information can be useful in questioning guests. "People generally want to be heard," says Gregory, who has posted pictures from his studio for his 46,000 followers. "They don't want to be talked at. They don't want to deal with closed-off media institutions.

"I want to find people where they are. . . . This is 'Knock knock, let's talk about the news, and by the way, hope you'll check me out on Sunday morning.' "

CNN anchor Rick Sanchez has built his 3 p.m. program around Twitter, as well as Facebook and MySpace, since the show's launch last fall. Sanchez, who has 56,000 followers, reads some tweets on the air and producers run excerpts at the bottom of the screen.

"When I first started doing this, I thought, 'This is crazy. What the hell does this have to do with news?' I thought Twitter was a fad my teenage sons are going through," he says.

During Hurricane Gustav, Sanchez recalls, someone tweeted that a Mississippi highway was backed up for miles. Sanchez reported the information after a producer confirmed it.

Sanchez makes some entries during the program, posting such messages as "alright, what do i lead my show with tomorrow, what's the best video out there. best talker?" And: "getting lots of word that rush limbaugh is going after me on his show, what's he saying? anybody know?"

Twitter is gradually becoming a factor in news events. When that US Airways flight made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in December, Twitter users were providing updates before the New York Times published an online story. Janis Krums, a passenger on a nearby ferry, posted a Twitter photo of the plane in the water that was quickly picked up by major news organizations.

Fox News correspondent Julie Banderas, who was twittering at home when a plane crashed outside Buffalo, asked whether there were any eyewitnesses she could contact. Keith Burtis, who saw the crash, responded to Banderas's posting. She wound up doing a phone interview with Burtis, who later appeared on Fox.

But the online chatter isn't all about journalism. "With my wife and oldest son skiing, I'm home with my twins watching Willy Wonka. Solid," Gregory reported. And where else could you glean this information about MSNBC's Rachel Maddow: "Spending the weekend in a bikini, riding a crayfish, listening to Boozoo Chavis!"

The Twitter world may be self-involved and incestuous, but its adherents are true believers. "The people we're trying to attract," Sanchez says, "love the Internet and pretty much live there."

Hitching a Ride

Kathleen Parker was "a little mystified" when the White House invited her to accompany President Obama on an Air Force One flight to Chicago. The right-leaning columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group recently called his brief tenure "a study in amateurism."

Yet there she was, interviewing Obama along with such liberal columnists as Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, Bob Herbert of the New York Times and The Post's E.J. Dionne. The result was an upbeat column and a posting on the Daily Beast in which Parker said she was struck by Michelle Obama's "warmth," her "adorable" children and her husband's "immense calm."

Parker says in an interview that Obama came across as "an extremely thoughtful, deliberate person," but she is not about to change her views. "I don't think any of us are likely to be seduced by an airplane ride and a book of Air Force One matches," she says. "I also doubt the president had any such illusions when he invited us."

During the campaign, Parker received 12,000 hostile e-mails after sharply criticizing Sarah Palin on National Review Online. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin called Parker's latest column an "obsequious, embarrassing paean to Barack Obama."

Parker expected the counterattack: "Conservatives are saying, 'Aha, you sucked up, you bashed Palin so you could ride on Air Force One.' I don't care if I ride on Air Force One. Big deal." What was useful, says Parker, is getting "a better sense of how he thinks and approaches issues."

Always Check the Tape.

The Huffington Post was quick to post a video that purported to show Fox radio host John Gibson comparing Attorney General Eric Holder to a monkey with a bright blue scrotum. The liberal Web site never called Fox for comment, and it turned out the video was doctored. 'We regret the error and apologize to Mr. Gibson,' the Huffington Post said.

In other developments . . . the bad news for Barack Obama in this CNN poll: he's down 9 points. The good news: he's still at 67 percent approval.

As the Burris saga drags on, Craig Crawford points out that one person hasn't weighed in:

"One cross word from President Barack Obama himself would probably end his party's latest nightmare -- the utterly ridiculous situation of Roland Burris in the United States Senate.

"It is not that this is Obama's problem. But it becomes his problem if the president tolerates this fool any longer."

In the wake of the New York Post's apology for that awful cartoon that seemed to liken Obama to a monkey, The Washington Post runs a preemptive editor's note:

"The headline, illustration and text of 'Below the Beltway,' a column in The Washington Post Magazine today, may cause offense to readers. The magazine was printed before a widely publicized incident last week in which a chimpanzee attacked and badly mauled a woman in Stamford, Conn. In addition, the image and text inadvertently may conjure racial stereotypes that The Post does not countenance. We regret the lapse."

The NYT ran a front-page piece on a decade-old Watergate tapes dispute, loosely pegged to a manuscript submitted to a journal of history that, its ombudsman points out, was soon rejected for publication.

More depressing news for the newspaper industry: the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News filed for bankruptcy last night.

There's still some chatter about Obama calling on HuffPost's Sam Stein, and MarketWatch's Jon Friedman weighs in:

"Stein is sensitive to suggestions that he and Huffington Post give Obama a free pass. 'We have written critical stories on the Obama administration and his campaign before, including breaking the 'Bittergate' piece about his comments on guns and religion in San Francisco,' Stein said.

"For his part, Stein could do without being branded a trailblazer among bloggers. He prefers to view it as the administration's acknowledgement that Huffington Post is a legitimate alternative to newspapers, magazines, TV stations and radio outlets. 'We do good reporting and we break news,' he said. 'Huffington Post has earned legitimacy.' . . .

"Huffington Post threw a ball during the inauguration festivities last month in Washington. It was one of the best-attended parties in town. Perhaps a lot of the debate centers on professional jealousy."

National Review breaks with Arnold, calling him a "Girly Man" in a cover headline. Says Rich Lowry:

"The Governator: What a sad artifact of a bygone era that moniker is. Arnold Schwarzenegger circa the 2003 'total recall' election was going to sweep all before him as California governor, bringing the same élan and toughness he had on the big screen to fighting special interests and restoring his beloved state to competitiveness . . .

"His new role is as a supporting actor in the Golden State's fiscal destruction. If the future happens in California, we all should tremble at its ever-expanding debt, falling credit ratings, crushing pension obligations, suffocating regulation, and rising taxes -- with environmentally preening, ill-considered restrictions on carbon emissions thrown on top. California Democrats are only slightly ahead of national Democrats, so the country's fiscal future may be in preview in Sacramento . . .

"Schwarzenegger presided over the creation of a budget deficit worse than the one that led to his ousting of Democratic governor Gray Davis in 2003."

Speaking of state finances, I was wrong in saying all GOP governors would accept the stimulus money. Bobby Jindal has turned down some extra unemployment benefits for Louisiana. Interesting that the only federal cash he declines affects people who are out of work.

You know how everyone, especially in Washington, always seems to be ticked off over something? Atlantic's Marc Ambinder has some perfectly calm observations about that:

"Everyone uses the same language and affect to express outrage -- often over what someone said -- regardless of the harm of said outrage. I have found that, even in cases where someone says something offensive, expressions of outrage are almost always derivative of a desire to get publicity, or to make someone feel good, etc. We're all adults. Let's save our outrage for acts against real people that harm them, rather than just hurt their feelings. (Torturing people = outrageous. A cartoon of a chimp in the New York Post? Offensive, yes, but orders of magnitude less harmful.) . . .

"There are people in Washington who have the job of manufacturing outrage; who get paid to take offense, or to find ways to take offense, and to broadcast their outrage to others. The more outrage they generate, the more attention they get. I think it was Michael Kinsley who said that these folks go from zero to outrage in 60 seconds. These outrage factories, be they media watchdogs, bloggers, cable show hosts, TV bookers, lobbyists, communication consultancies -- all operate as if outrage were the only valence level they can occupy. Often, the outrage is accompanied by argument. Just as often, it is used to replace argument."

As the Octomom debates continues to rage on television, the Nation's Katha Pollitt says enough is enough:

"Unemployed single mom with six kids under the age of seven plus a complete set of octuplets and no more sense than a goldfish. Must there always be an woman whose out-of-control female body gives us something to gawk at? Step aside, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Palin (remember all that ridiculous conspiracy theorizing about her baby really being Bristol's?), Jessica Simpson's weight and the endless procession of celebrity baby bumps. Photos of Suleman's naked grotesquely distended pregnant belly rule the internet, along with much speculation about her resemblance to Angelina Jolie (plastic surgery?), her finances (unclear), the father (mysterious) and the fertility doctor who violated professional guidelines by implanting so many embryos in her (time to regulate!) . . .

"The vitriol heaped upon Suleman as her story dribbled out revolves around the money the octuplets will cost society, beginning with an estimated 1.3 million dollars for their premature birth and extended hospital stay. If she was a millionaire (or a married christian) people would call it a medical miracle, wish her well and move on. The vituperation on comment threads -- 'spay the stupid bitch!' and 'they need to cut out this woman's uterus' are typical -- shows that welfare reform did nothing to put a damper on the all-American resentment of 'welfare queens.'

"Her case, though, is not much like that of real mothers on TANF, who have only 2.3. children on average, and would probably have fewer if they had better access to sex education, birth control and abortion, and better prospects in life to begin with -- prospects like Suleman's, who comes from a middle-class family (school teacher mother, translator father) and has a college degree. Basically she's a one-off, a mentally disturbed individual with excellent manipulation skills. She's the maternal equivalent of a cat collector."

Did the NYT go overboard in the runup to last night's Oscars? Slate's Timothy Noah thinks so:

"A Nexis database search turns up, in the New York Times, 251 mentions of the phrase Academy Awards or the word Oscars since Jan. 1. That's more mentions in the Times than for the words Pakistan (186), Geithner (169), foreclosure (142), or Blagojevich (66). In 2008, Academy Awards or Oscars appeared in the Times no fewer than 1,383 times. That was down slightly from 2007 (1,455 times), but in general the trend has been upward: 1,259 mentions in 2003, 1,282 mentions in 2004, 1,327 mentions in 2005, 1,341 mentions in 2006. As recently as 1995, there were only 810.

"While Times Oscar coverage has been trending upward, the American public's interest in the Academy Awards, as measured by Nielsen ratings, has mostly been trending downward: 20.4 percent of U.S. households watched in 2003 (when interest was said to be dampened by the start of the Iraq war), 26 percent watched in 2004, 25.4 percent in 2005, 22.9 percent in 2006, 23 percent in 2007, and a truly dismal 17.9 percent in 2008. The 2008 Oscar ratings were the lowest ever recorded. Thirty-two million Americans watched, compared with the peak Oscar audience of 55 million in 1998."

On the other hand, I bet more people clicked on some of the Oscars stories than the Pakistan fare.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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