Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 1, 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, May 1, at noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read today's Media Notes: The Media's Musical Chairs , ( Post, May 1, 2006 )

The transcript follows.


Washington, Not L.A.: So Hilzik got canned for lying by using a anonymous, alias online thus violating the 'ethics' of the L.A.Times.

Can these readers get your view of the continuum of ethical misdeeds:

If he had lied under his by-line is that OK?

If he just transcribes a lie made by someone else is that OK.

If he leaves out material information which would disclose that the what he wrote is demonstrably false -- still OK?

If his editor cuts information that had put in the article to demonstrate that the transcription, while accurate, is a lie -- still OK?

If the headline writer takes a small item out of context and distort the meaning of the text -- still OK.

Just asking where you come down on the truth vs. "truthiness" continuum.

Thanks in advance.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, there's no suggestion that Michael Hiltzik put out inaccurate information (most of it was opinion in the form of attacks). It was the deception -- the use of pseudonyms -- that LAT Editor Dean Baquet concluded was lying. What's puzzling to me is why a columnist and blogger who could pretty much say what he wanted under his byline would resort to that kind of subterfuge.


Atlanta, Ga.: It appears that Colin Powell gave an interview in the UK this weekend in which he strongly criticized Rumsfeld's conduct of the war --instantly becoming the most important former general, and only senior foreign policy officer to come out against Rumsfeld and the administration. This seems to me to be a very big deal. So how did the media somehow avoid mentioning this?

Howard Kurtz: The story I read said that Powell disclosed that he had argued for sending more troops than Rumsfeld did, clearly a newsworthy development. But Powell did not slam Rumsfeld according to the accounts I saw.


Huntsville, Ala: There seems to be a news blackout of anything negative about illegal immigration. I have yet to see a column about the cost of illegal immigration - uninsured medical care, schools, crime, prison population. The press has picked sides, and refuse to inform the readers. The Post does a story on M-13 criminals, and refuses to mention they are illegal aliens. Instead, the Minutemen are your bad guys for doing what they believe in. I think this is a new low for the left-wing media.

Howard Kurtz: I would agree that a whole lot of the MSM coverage has been awfully sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants, and in some cases glosses over the fact that these folks broke the law to come to this country. It's not that people working in these low-wage jobs aren't deserving of sympathy. But when there are big rallies, I wonder if the press doesn't give short shrift to the many people who are opposed to illegal immigration but are not rallying. Certainly there have been political stories that deal with both sides of this very contentious debate, but those in favor of amnesty or guest-worker arrangements have certainly succeeded in putting a human face on their side of the argument.


Rochester, N.Y.: Why no mention of Colbert's performance at the Correspondent dinner in your column today? It seems a perfect topic for the column -- someone critiques the press to its face and gets the cold shoulder. And what do you make of the fact that the usual media is largely ignoring the Colbert performance (the NYT has yet to mention it for example), while everyone in the blogosphere is talking about it? Did it just hit to close to home for some reporters?

Howard Kurtz: Uh -- maybe because I wasn't there, and another Post reporter covered the dinner?


Honolulu, Hawaii: Colin Powell....what prompted him to speak up and to the British press instead of American press. Will he make himself available to further interviews or will he 'retreat' back into his 'no comment shell'.... Is/was he moved by comments by retired generals?

Howard Kurtz: That's a good question. Powell certainly would have gotten a bigger splash if he had made those comments on NBC, CBS or ABC. I don't know whether that was calculated on his part or not.


Washington, D.C.: I keep reading about how upset Bush was at Colbert's routine, but it really didn't seem that bad. Critical, yes, but hardly offensive. Is it possible that the bubble is even more suffocating than we thought, and that any needling comes as a surprise to Bush?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what those characterizations of Bush are based on, other than his facial expressions during the routine. He seemed much more aggravated during the first debate with Kerry.


Fairfax, Va.: Editor and Publisher ran a detailed story today on Steven Colbert's roast of the President including numerous examples of his biting zingers. Post coverage of the event did not convey with any specificity what Colbert had to say. Why do you think The Post chose not to inform its readers in this way and what was your take on Colbert's performance?

Howard Kurtz: The problem in part is one of deadline. The presses were already rolling by the time Colbert came on at 10:30, so the story had to be largely written by then and then some of Colbert's jokes added on the fly. I've seen Colbert clips on TV -- I ran a couple of them on my show yesterday -- but television seemed to prefer footage of the prez and his impersonator.


Laramie, Wyo.: Hi, there was an Editor and Publisher piece this week talking about how newspaper publishers were uncomfortable with reporters having blogs because they didn't want reporters who were involved in stories expressing opinions (on the same stories I gather). Why is it that these same newspapers are more than happy to see their reporters trotted out on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc. to give opinions? Personally if someone writes something on a blog they are more likely to have time to get their facts straight as opposed to the hectic TV environment.

Howard Kurtz: Well, as someone who both blogs and appears on television, the issue is the same. You try not to say anything you wouldn't say in print, at least in a news analysis piece. Newspapers like the exposure of having their folks on the tube -- there's a camera in the middle of the Post newsroom -- and want the hipness of their people blogging. But that obviously increases the chances that someone will say or do something embarrassing.


Boston, Mass.: On the other hand, the pro-immigrant rallies have gathered millions of people in city streets across the country. Anti-immigrant rallies certainly haven't. Just because there's another side doesn't necessarily mean that fair coverage requires equivalency.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the rallies deserve plenty of coverage. But let's say there were major abortion rights demonstrations and no demonstrations opposed to abortion, but polls still showed the country split. Would we only cover one side?


Long Island, N.Y.: "Howard Kurtz: Uh -- maybe because I wasn't there, and another Post reporter covered the dinner? "

That's never stopped you in the past from commenting - come on Howard, it's the D.C. media's big gala, you really didn't see it?

Howard Kurtz: I've watched the tape. And it seems to me that Colbert did a nice job of skewering both Bush and the press. I'm not quite getting this reaction that he totally decimated Bush and the administration's policies and the poor timid media are afraid to report it. The man is a comedian -- a very talented comedian, to be sure. But his routine seemed to me to be within the normal range of political needling at these events.


Anyone going to run the headline tomorrow...: Anna Nicole Smith before the SCOTUS 1-0, Al Gore 0-1

Howard Kurtz: The New York Post will easily top that. Otherwise I will consider the paper a big bust.


New York, N.Y.: "Because I wasn't there"

That's a little lame, I'm afraid. Video of the correspondents' dinner is all over the blogosphere. Seems to me that if you're covering the media, that both that critique of the media and the failure of the media to cover it is smackdab in the middle of your beat.

Can we expect some coverage, including reactions from the WH press corps in a future column?

Howard Kurtz: I'll be writing more about it tomorrow. But is the world really breathlessly waiting to find out whether the journalists there liked or hated being made fun of?


Washington, D.C.: In your opinion, what is the impact of today's rallies going to be on the whole immigration debate?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. I wonder if it will be as big as the last major set of rallies clearly was, only because there was dissension within the movement over whether boycotting jobs would help or hurt the immigrants' cause.


Wilton, N.H.: Dear, Mr. Kurtz,

I was so glad to read your column the other day citing the lack of elegant writing on blogs today. I could not agree more. I love, love, love Mark Steyn and James Lileks! Thank you for standing up for journalism, too! I just wish that both sides would take your advice... perhaps the country would not be so divided and we might just get along and solve the very real problems that face us.

How do you think the situation might be reconciled?

Howard Kurtz: Well, even if bloggers decided to tone it down and be more civil -- there's probably a better chance of the U.S. and Iran kissing and making up -- it wouldn't exactly end divisions in this country. And, of course, the pugnacious and over-the-top quality of some blogs is precisely what their fans like about them.


I call BS: "Not being there" hasn't stopped you from critiquing other media events. AND it was on C-SPAN for all to see. As to deadline pressure, that didn't stop your colleagues in Style from covering the Bloomberg party. I think you're full of it.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the vote of confidence. The Bloomberg party, you may have noticed, was in TODAY's paper. I know this sounds hard to believe in the digital age, but if something happens after midnight, we can only get it into a fraction of the newspapers we publish, and if it happens after 1 a.m., we can't get it in at all.


New York, N.Y.: Three years ago today major combat operations in Iraq ended. Why haven't the mainstream media paid more attention to this happy anniversary?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not a big fan of anniversary stories on any subject, but since today is the day, I'm sure you'll see references if not stories about it on television. The anniversary was also the peg for Frank Rich's return-to-the-NYT column yesterday.


San Francisco, Calif: As a media critic, I should think that whether or not you were actually at the correspondents dinner where Colbert gave his astonishing, rather important monologue is beside the point. Are you actually present at every media event you comment on? Were you actually in the room when Hilzik was fired? When Powell made his recent comments about the number of troops?

Colbert's spot-on skewering of the Washington Press corps, and their subsequent omitting of it from most reports on the dinner is revealing. Why no comments about it?

Howard Kurtz: Well, he did completely and totally slam-dunk the Washington press corps -- a fat target indeed -- especially with his fake answers to actual questions from previous briefings. But why would anyone who has watched his show doubt that he would do that? I've actually interviewed Colbert, and believe it or not, he respects journalists and once wanted to be one. At the same time, like Jon Stewart, he sees the foibles, flaws and shortcomings of media people as great comedic fodder. And why not? Why should we be exempt? I happen to think Stewart and Colbert are at their sharpest when they mock the pretentiousness and other habits of the MSM.


Glen Ridge, N.J.: "But is the world really breathlessly waiting to find out whether the journalists there liked or hated being made fun of?..."

- No it's not. But US citizens are likely to be very interested in the evident (if not obvious) reaction from the president to criticism that the majority in this country agree with - especially when put into justifiable context (Anyone remember: "Gee... where are those pesky WMD" as he looks under the couch.) I suspect that thousands of us - if not FAR more - more properly outraged by the president's performance. You honestly don't believe that Bush's reactions are irrelevant in light of his the "Bubble-Boy" label?

Howard Kurtz: I'm very interested in the president's reaction. It was certainly news when Clinton was steamed about Don Imus poking fun at his eye for women at the same dinner years ago (and this was pre-Monica). But whether David Gregory and the gang were offended...I suspect they have more of a sense of humor than some of you seem to believe.


New York City: Do you think that the media has done a good job of explaining why gas prices have gone up? I don't. It's not that difficult a topic, I don't think - supply/demand. But all we get is a lot of stories about how people are angry and want someone to "do something".

Howard Kurtz: The Post (and others) have run several good pieces about oil supply, refining capacity, fuel economy standards and the like, and explained that for all the posturing by both parties, nothing they do is going to have much of an impact on the price of gas in the short term. It's a decades-old problem that can only be resolved in the long term, that is, if Congress could ever overcome its gridlock on the issue and work out a reasonable compromise.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Howard, I usually watch NBC news, and I have seen the movie Flight 93 covered twice on the NBC evening news. Once during the week with Brian Williams, and once last night with the weekend host. The weekday story was covering the premiere, and seemed to cross the line from reporting the story to encouraging people to see the movie. Last night's story also seemed to encourage movie-goers to see Flight 93. My question is -- are the other news channels covering the movie this way? Am I too cynical in believing these "stories" may have more to do with NBC's parent company (which is somehow connected to the movie's distributor) than with actual news? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Williams actually addressed that by saying this had nothing to do with the fact that it was a Universal movie and he was not urging people to see it, he just happened to see it and was moved by it. I don't know about the second mention on NBC. But it seems to be getting a lot of play in the media -- including a front-page story in The Post about some of the liberties taken by the filmmakers -- and that's understandable, given that the subject matter is 9/11.


Fairfax, Va.: I am looking forward to your take on the Colbert blackout by the news media. Don Imus skewered the Clintons in 1996 (and became famous in the process) and a simple search online comes up with more than 100 msm news articles gleefully reporting about it. Colbert skewers Bush and the media and the only paper that covers it is USA Today. Spin that Howie.

Howard Kurtz: "Blackout" seems a tad strong to me. I, personally, did not participate in the blackout, having played not one but two clips of Colbert on "Reliable Sources" yesterday. So I must not have gotten the memo.


Anonymous: No coverage of J.K. Galbraith's death in my maryland edition of the Sunday Post; gee, the New York Times Washington final had it. and no coverage to speak of that I can see of Stephen Colbert skewering the most powerful man in the world Saturday night at the correspondents dinner? So what gives on l street NW this past weekend?

Howard Kurtz: The Post ran a story yesterday but obviously it didn't make many editions. I don't know what time Galbraith died but the story refers to "last night." Again, we are often the prisoner of deadlines. There is a 2,000-word obituary in today's Post.


Austin, Tex.: Tony Snow, press secretary: first, he's taller than Bush, not good. aside from some of those generals, aren't Bush's cabinet members by and large shorter than the decider?

And second, Snow took the job so he can write a book about it three years from now. it's all about the access to the inner sanctum (more inner & sanctum-y than previous administrations) so snow gets a chance to explore it first-hand and then dish.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't surveyed the relative height of top Bush aides and Cabinet members, but how exactly did you conclude that Snow plans to write a book about his experiences? And even if he does, so what? George Stephanopoulos wrote a book about his time as a Clinton aide. Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart did not write books. Clinton himself wrote a $10-million book, following in the footsteps of many predecessors. Ari Fleischer wrote a book but deliberately withheld most "inside" details, so it couldn't be characterized as a kiss-and-tell. Isn't it at least possible that Snow is taking a pay cut and giving up his radio and TV gigs to do this because he thinks he can make a difference?


White House PR Problem: Howard: If you were Tony Snow, what are the top two or three initiatives or actions you'd undertake to improve the administration's relationship with the press?

Howard Kurtz: 1. H'ors d'oeurves in the briefing room

2. Leak everything in sight

3. Yell at the TV reporters so they'll have good sound for their stories

That would be a start.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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