Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 3, 2006; 12:00 PM

Howard Kurtz has been The Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Howard Kurtz was online Monday, April 3, at noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read today's Media Notes: The Anti-Bush Anchor , ( Post, April 3, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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Durham, N.C.: Hi Howard, I was wondering why the washingtonpost.com keeps listing your column in the style section??? Will you be providing us with the latest news on Britney and Brangelina now??? Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: Probably because, in the dead-tree version of The Post, it runs in the Style section. And I may check in on Britney now and then, just to keep my traffic up.

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Bethesda, Md.: Just like last year a few months before the election, the administration stirred up the whole gay marriage thing and it seemed to work for them. I think they are doing the same thing as all the suddenly they brought up the immigration issue. I hope the media and Americans realize this and do not fall into their trap. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: A conservative on National Review said the other day that the Republicans seem to pound the gay-marriage issue in even-numbered years and then do nothing in odd-numbered years, meaning there has been no serious push for a constitutional amendment. That seemed like an apt observation to me.

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Alexandria, Va.: Shailagh Murray just joked a few minutes ago with a chatter who wanted more media coverage of the Murray Waas report on Bush's level of knowledge on WMD intelligence. Shailaugh quipped:

"Just a sec, let me check with the White House reporters -- nope, they're working on profiles of the twins and that cute dog Barney."

Do you think the White House reporters for The Post would appreciate that? And what about Helen Thomas writing a book about her colleagues in the W.H. press being wimps? How do they react?

Howard Kurtz: I think our White House correspondents possess an actual sense of humor. Personally, I can't get enough about Barney.

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New York, N.Y.: Hello! So do you have a vanity url as well? Froomkin does, Milbank does... I've tried to figure out yours but nothing is working. Notes? media? medianotes? median?

help! I hate the new organization of washingtonpost.com It's driving me crazy. First they move Stephen Barr and now everyone is mishmash and I have to use those dreadful drop-down menus all the time.

Sorry for the rant!

Howard Kurtz: I'm not in charge of organizing the paper, but your rant is duly noted. I have no vanity url. All my ravings appear in the washingtonpost.com column.

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Rockville, Md.: Tough neighborhood?

Howard:

I don't know what you think, but the environment for reporters seems to be tougher with more attention from both sides and what seems to me to be a new era of no tolerance. What is your take?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, some of the online criticism gets nasty and personal, but that's the neighborhood. In my view, that's outweighed by the insight and energy and passion and fun that so many bloggers bring to cyberspace.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Was your point in writing today's column that Keith Olbermann is out of place in a conservative media and that he ought to find another line of work or that there ought to be more like him, more balance? For example the Google news robot shows 508 articles covering Sen. McCain's statements on "Meet the Press" yesterday but only four articles covering General Zinni's. (Among other things Zinni requested that Rumsfeld resign)

Howard Kurtz: My point was to say that Keith's show is starting to get much more attention and somewhat better ratings, and that it stands out in a cable universe that has no liberal shows but a number of prominent conservative ones. Olbermann also happens to be a talented broadcaster and a very witty writer, but there's no other daily cable show that I know of where the anchor gives Bush such a hard time night after night.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Ellen Knickmeyer has an article in today's Post, "U.S. Plan to Build Iraq Clinics Falters".

In it she details the gross gluttony of the contractors building and re-building in Iraq. What she reports can only be described as "bad news" because every project has fallen short of their goals and the contractors will still be paid for their lack of work.

How smart is it for you to keep asking if the media is getting the "good news" out to the American people? Aren't you just parrotting the Administration's smoke-screen for their outrages and egregious failures of their own making?

Howard Kurtz: This is exactly the kind of reporting we should be doing. When I report that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al are urging the media to report more good news from Iraq, that does not mean I am endorsing that view. I do believe that the reporting on the war in recent weeks, triggered by the three-year anniversary and upsurge in violence (mainly against Iraqis), has been extremely negative and quite focused on the violence. It's important that we also take a hard look at the reconstruction. And if it turns out that isn't going well, as this story indicates, we should report that aggressively as well.

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Richmond, Va.: Re: Olberman and giving Bush a hard time. Is that a bad thing? Some blogs label you conservative-leaning (I agree). Your comments about host Olberman talks about Bush seems to confirm that.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sorry, but that's utterly ridiculous. The people quoted in today's column are mainly Olbermann, the president of MSNBC, and the president of NBC News. Where do I hint, imply or otherwise suggest that Olbermann's constant criticism of Bush is a bad thing? It is unusual for television, and that made it newsworthy. I apply the same standard when I write about Olbermann as I do when I write about Shepard Smith or Brit Hume. I ask questions, present their view of the world and include what supporters and detractors are saying.

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Good Night, and Good Luck: I like Olbermann's show a lot, although I usually miss most of it putting my kids to bed. I've noticed his sign off using Morrow's line and also announcing the number of days since Bush's "Mission Accomplished" photo op on the carrier. Are these recent additions, or has he been using these lines for a while?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe you should tape it. I'm not quite sure how long Olbermann has been using that signoff.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, last week on Reliable Sources, you asked the question about whether reporters in Iraq were failing to give the good news. I thought that Lara Logan was quite effective in explaining the conditions under which the media worked in Iraq. But why ask such a provocative question in the first place, just because Dick Cheney raised the issue? Did you ever doubt that it was rough out there? I am inclined to ask that your readers chip in to send you to Baghdad, pretty much like Kristoff is trying to get O'Reilly to go to Dafur.

Howard Kurtz: Has it ever occurred to you that I asked the question precisely so Lara Logan could address it and take on the kind of criticism being regularly leveled by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld? When you interview guests on television, you ask questions that challenge them because that is what produces an interesting conversation. That doesn't mean those questions reflect your personal viewpoint. Logan was terrific, but the people who think she was somehow arguing with my viewpoint don't understand how TV interviews work.

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Washington, D.C. : Can you tell me what is the upside in Keith Olbermann denying he has an agenda? I mean, you didn't buy that line. Who would?

Howard Kurtz: I'm agnostic. It is true that he was on every night in 1998 dealing with the Clinton scandal. And even most opinionated anchors don't want to be seen as aligned with one party or another (although Sean Hannity talks openly about raising money for Republican candidates). The true test will come the next time there's a Democratic president.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard. Great chat.

Regarding all the attention given to Jill Carroll in the wake of her being taken hostage for three months...a commentator on CNN this morning talked about how she was whisked into a black car upon her arrival in the states in an effort to avoid the media including media helicopters trying to track her movements. I feel badly about her being taken hostage and am glad she was released unharmed...but isn't this a case of the reporter becoming the story? Aren't journalists supposed to shy away from this kind of attention because it diminishes the focus on any story they might write?

Howard Kurtz: Well, of course she's become the story. She didn't ask to be kidnapped, held for three months and threatened with death, but she was, and there's enormous public interest in her story. I am sure she will be doing some interviews in the coming days about her ordeal, and that's entirely appropriate.

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Washington, D.C.: Typical negative coverage of Iraq again this morning in your paper. "After two years and $200 million, only 20 of 142 Iraqi healthcare facilities will be completed."

Why not focus on the 20 new hospitals opened up to serve the Iraqis we injure and maim? Also, those 122 unfinished hospitals will be, according to your paper, 2/3 completed on average. So that's works out to another 80 hospitals, totaling about 100 - not 20. What's with the fuzzy math?

Howard Kurtz: If the U.S. spends $200 million -- that's a sizable sum -- and says it will fund the opening of 142 health clinics, and only 20 are finished, that strikes me as news, and news that is unfortunately all too emblematic of the problems with the reconstruction.

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Anonymous: Regarding the Media Hiring Bias column of last week. Maybe there are more liberals in journalism, just like maybe there are more conservatives in business. So where are the "why aren't there more liberal in business" columns?

Howard Kurtz: Because in business, Job 1 is to make money, not spout off on politics. The typical corporation doesn't care if a CEO is a left-winger or a right-winger as long as he or she can get the stock price up.

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Tampa, Fla.: Your column on Olberman showed what I believe is a disturbing trend; the breakdown of any differentiation between commentator and reporter. Do you think this could lead to a breakdown in honest and informed debate in this country or worse; people shopping the news for a 'reality' that only fits their ideological tilt?

Howard Kurtz: Well, but I don't think Keith Olbermann presents himself as a reporter. He's a cable anchor with plenty of opinions.

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Baltimore, Md.: Comment: I discovered Keith Olbermann's nightly show about 3 months ago. I am now addicted - I watch the midnight repeat because I, too, am usually in the middle of something earlier in the evening. Anyway, it is so refreshing to find a witty, well-written news/opinion show. I wish they could clone him. It's not just that he is unabashedly liberal, vice all the conservative talk/news show hosts - it's the entertainment value I prize. I hope his demographics improve so that quality imitators can find a home on cable news.

PS: I have come to believe that Bill O'Reilly is suffering from some mental disorder. He has been so successful in the past, yet since he's crossed some indefinable line of fairness, good manners, taste and rationality, he's become un-watchable for me.

Howard Kurtz: If you're also watching the midnight repeat, that's a good sign for Olbermann.

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Bias: Again, with no hope of this being posted than any other time...

Isn't the real bias issue one of class bias? Almost any bylined reporter or editorial staffer over there is a six figure income. And a lot come from nice upscale families that could afford to send them to Ivy's (your old gossip columnist, Lloyd Grove was a Yalie for heaven's sake...like a gossip columnist needs credentials).

Not surprisingly, this tends to put out content biased accordingly. Socially liberal, economically conservative. Being called out by both sides doesn't mean everything is hunky dory, if what you are being called out on are two different sets of topics. Conservatives correctly call the press out on social liberalism, while liberals correctly call you folks out on economic conservatism.

Allow me to give three recent examples. Weisman and others continually keep getting caught using the term "tax relief" to describe tax cuts in straight news stories. Hyatt's article today is basically the voice of a well off guy who's kids and family will never eat a bullet in some elective war, calling Democratic policy plans that don't send other people's kids to eat a bullet, bad.

Then the topper. "Red America". Lost in the whole "Benny's a Plagiarist" bit is the question, how did a 24 year old with no worthwhile experience or qualifications get a major gig at The Post? Oh yeah...he comes from the "right people". In other words, he was upscale and had the connections.

Why do you and other folks keep making a big deal about the bogus political bias issue, while blithely ignoring the far more prevalent issue of class bias, and the underlying assumptions and world view that goes with it?

Howard Kurtz: I have said and written hundreds of times that one of the problems in journalism these days, at least in the big cities, is an increasingly upper-middle-class profession that is out of touch with vast numbers of working-class readers and viewers. (For the record, I went to public schools and a state university.)

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New York, N.Y.: I think a lot of people are missing your point about Olbermann. I didn't see it as you making a judgment on him since a large section was entirely in quotes - you let his words speak for him without much comment.

Now I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the point is that the this signals a shift in what the audience is wanting or accepting. Bush bashing used to be ratings death, now it's ratings gold. Or did I miss the point too?

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't say ratings gold, since Olbermann is still in third place, but it certainly makes the newscast distinctive. And yes, you are right, I basically presented what Olbermann does, what he says about it, what his bosses say about it, and let smart readers make up their own minds. Some partisans on the left or right don't like that; they want you to take a stand, and if you don't, they declare what they believe your stand to be.

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Washington, D.C.: "Why not focus on the 20 new hospitals opened up to serve the Iraqis we injure and maim?"

Oh, Howard I thought for sure you'd get my sarcasm. This is the kind of garbage Cheney would say.

Howard Kurtz: Sorry. I'm a little irony-impaired today.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

You followed your news today about Democratic decoy Web sites with "So you can't believe everything you read online." Is there any indication that the information contained on those sites was actually false? Or merely below the belt?

Howard Kurtz: I was being a little tongue in cheek. But if a Democratic campaign or group puts up a site that only includes positive news for its side, that doesn't mean it's inaccurate. It does mean it's one-sided. Which is fine if those reading know it's a Democratic Web site, but misleading if that fact is hidden.

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Louisville, Ky.: Fred Hiatt made the jump from the Editorial page to Op-Ed just to publish that?

Well, I hope his conservative opinion column lasts as long as Ben Domenech because judging by today's column, it's just as pointless, just as mean, and just as boring.

Howard Kurtz: As editorial page editor, he regularly writes op-ed columns (which you're free to agree or disagree with), so there's no "jump" involved.

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Manassas, Va.: Mr Kurtz - you covered Justice Scalia's letter to The Boston Herald last week in your online column and even praised him for his writing. But you did not link to the photograph that the paper published (on the same day!) or mentioned the eye witness account of the photographer as to what actually happened and which obscene word the Justice has used. Why such a double standard on a single story?

Howard Kurtz: I did link to the photograph as soon as I saw it,  which means it wasn't published in the online column until the next day. Had I known the photo was running that morning, obviously I would have linked immediately.

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Washington, D.C.: I can understand that you don't want to comment regularly on the New York Times as an organization, but to ignore it when the Web site undergoes a significant change is odd.

Howard Kurtz: I can't comment (at the moment) because when I go to the site I get some message about how my browser can't support the new format. So I'll have to call in my IT people to perform an intervention.

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Louisville, Ky.: What is Bob Woodward working on these days?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Another book about the Bush administration--the details of which he has not shared with me.

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Zinni: If the previous contributor's math is correct that there are only a handful of news stories today on Gen. Zinni's comments on "Meet the Press" that is an indictment of the media. John McCain did nothing but tap dance around questions about his not-yet-announced Presidential campaign for 2008, while Gen. Zinni gave a brutal indictment of the administration's past and current actions and thinking about Iraq. Given that he can't seem to be tarred with the political brush, why aren't more media people covering that?

Howard Kurtz: I see nothing in this morning's Post. One possible reason is that Zinni has said similar things before. But they sure seemed like strong and newsworthy comments to me.

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Reston, Va.: "They want you to take a stand, and if you don't, they declare what they believe your stand to be."

Perhaps you need to enlighten your audience about the virtues of "show, don't tell."

Howard Kurtz: Doing my best.

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Re Olbermann: Howard, you're a great reporter and I enjoy your column. But today's piece on Olbermann was perfect free media for him. Being a radical on cable is the only way to get press. How can we simultaneously argue that cable TV is polarizing and pedestrian when we give such good P.R. to its perpetrators? Now you're part of the problem, too!

Howard Kurtz: You're saying that the column amounted to good press for K.O., when the last several posters have said I was somehow being negative toward him for constantly criticizing the Bush administration. Perhaps that's because you think Olbermann is a "radical" while the earlier posters see him as a liberal truth-teller. Look, anyone I profile gets some "free media" out of it, but the guy's already got a television show. All I'm doing is trying to intelligently report on and analyze what he does and why his show is different from just about everything else on the tube.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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