Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 8, 2007; 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."

The Candidate Who's Always On, ( Jan. 7)

The transcript follows.

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Madison, Wis.: Hi, Howard. Would John Edwards be getting any media buzz if he looked like Carl Levin?

One could ask the same question about Barack Obama. The Democratic Party has always had a JFK complex; party activists seem prone to give extra points to candidates who look as if they could model underwear, even or perhaps especially if their devotion to campaigning is notably greater than their record of accomplishment in public life. Neither Obama nor Edwards have really done much of anything to make one think they could be good presidents, but they look really good, which makes it OK.

That's the theory, anyway. What to you think?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think anyone would confuse John Kerry with an underwear model. Good looks don't hurt in politics, and the Bush campaign (anonymously) tried to ridicule Edwards as "the Breck girl." But the fact remains that the man has charisma, finished second in the 2004 primaries, and was the VP nominee. So I think his appeal goes beyond appearance -- and what he's doing online is very interesting, as I report this morning.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Today's Media Notes title, "The Candidate Who's Always On"

It suggests some degree of uniqueness. I'm curious, which candidate(s) do you believe is not "always on"?

Howard Kurtz: It was a play on words about the YouTube aspect of his campaign.

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Baltimore, Md.: Howard,

Why does the media tend to adopt for its own use the buzzwords and euphemisms of the administration in power? The word I'm referring to at the moment is "surge" because I've heard and read journalists casually tossing this word around instead of stating in clear language what the administration is actually proposing to do: substantially increase U.S. involvement in Iraq by sending in thousands more troops.

What I dislike about this practice is that that the language an administration uses to explain its policies is frequently used to obfuscate rather than illuminate a given policy or proposal. Whenever the media adopts the language of an administration, the administration wins a battle in its P.R campaign.

Howard Kurtz: The only thing good about surge is that, for headline-writers, it's short. It's obviously a linguistic attempt by the administration to find a term less dramatic than escalation. I've been using escalation myself, or so-called surge. Because who's to say the additional troops would indeed be temporary, as surge implies? There is a long history, of course, of politicians and activists trying to control the language -- with phrases like affirmation action, or pro-life -- in ways that help their cause.

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New York, N.Y.: True Story. Recently I am sitting at an airport bar reading my paper. Fox News is on the TV. A couple walk up to the bar, sit down, and tell the bartender that if he wants their business he needs to turn off Fox News. The bartender walks over to the TV when another man at the bar says 'don't turn on MSNBC!' The bartender looks around not sure what to do. He turns the TV off and goes back to serving drinks. I guess this is what we've come to.

Howard Kurtz: Another sign of the polarizing times. Maybe Comedy Central would be a safer choice.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Regarding the President's proposed "surge"/escalation, many commentators have commented much. None, as far as I know, have drawn what ought to be an obvious comparison between this and Gorbachev's failed surge in Afghanistan in 1985. How come?

Howard Kurtz: Well, let's see. Maybe they don't think the situation is comparable. Maybe it's because our historical memory in this business extends about a month.

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Baltimore, Md.: Howard,

You wrote:

"There is a long history, of course, of politicians and activists trying to control the language -- with phrases like affirmation action, or pro-life -- in ways that help their cause".

I don't dispute that. My question to you is: why does the media do it? Journalists, after all, make a living at know how to use language well. So why do they fall into the administration's trap?

Howard Kurtz: Some have, some haven't. I think intellectual laziness is part of it, and I don't think it's limited to adopting language put forth by the Bush administration. We were a little more skeptical about "cut and run," at least.

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Surge is up!: I just looked up "surge" in the dictionary to confirm my suspicions. As I feared, the majority of the meanings related in some way to the ocean, surfing, or waves. I can practically hear Beach Boys music in the background when reporters talk about the proposal. Much more palatable than what's really being planned - an "escalation". Are reporters really this stupid or am I missing something?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't know the term came with a sound track.

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Vienna, Va.: Do you view your role as a media critic as having changed over time? I ask because in the past I would have expected you to comment on the NY Times' ombudsman column that accused the magazine editors of failing to check their facts and then refusing to correct misstatements that changed the entire point of the story, with the editors' actions perhaps the result of their personal biases.

Howard Kurtz: Believe it or not, I can't cover absolutely everything that happens in newspapers, magazines, television, radio and the Internet. Not until I figure out how to get 32 hours into a day.

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Wilmington, N.C.: From today's column:"An unscripted moment caught on a cellphone camera? Not exactly."

Is the "not exactly" referring to the "unscripted comment" part or the "cellphone camera" part? If it's the "unscripted" part, I'd ask, how do you know? If it's the "cellphone camera" part, I'd ask, who cares about the specific equipment used?

This definitely reads like you're saying the scene is not genuine, was that your point? If so, how do you know?

Howard Kurtz: It's called reporting. Actually, it applies to both. It's not an inadvertently captured unscripted moment because Edwards was sitting there talking to a television crew that he had hired, and they were using cameras, not cell phones. That doesn't mean he wasn't being candid, but he certainly wasn't caught unawares.

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YouTube candidacy: Actually, this is pretty brilliant. Edwards can circumvent the McCain-Feingold Free Speech Restriction Act, since no money is changing hands, plus he can overcome Rodham's overwhelming financial advantages. It's not like any likely Democrat primary voter doesn't know who Edwards is; he just needs to focus their attention on him and not Obama.

And since TV viewing is about to be surpassed by online viewing, at least among younger people, Edwards is ahead of the curve (thanks be to Al Gore for inventing the medium).

Howard Kurtz: It's interesting that Edwards is employing former Howard Dean folks in trying to get out ahead on behind-the-scenes video, Facebook and MySpace pages, etc. Money is changing hands, since he has to hire these crews and these bloggers, but it's true that you avoid the federal regulations involving TV ads (and it's a heckuva lot cheaper). Of course, there's nothing stopping other candidates from beefing up their Internet presence as well.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I am puzzled by all the support for John Edwards in these Post chats. He quickly lost support in his home state after he was elected senator and would never have been reelected had he run again. It's not usually a good sign when a first term senator can't risk asking the voters who know him best to vote for him again. Why do folks think he'll do any better on a national stage?

Howard Kurtz: Well, that's why we have campaigns, to find out who has support and who doesn't. Edwards seems to be placing many of his chips on Iowa, where he did well last time, and since he doesn't have a job at the moment, he can camp out there to a much greater extent than his rivals. When Kerry won Iowa last time, it catapulted him to a victory in New Hampshire, and the race was essentially over.

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Connecticut Panhandle: RE the Fox News haters: The couple who refuses to watch Fox News needs to be tolerant for a variety of news sources. The left has their own bigotries as well.

I'm still waiting for the hard-hitting stories similar to those about Speaker Gingrich (AKA Gingrinch TIME cover).

Love your Columns!

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I raised on my show yesterday whether Nancy Pelosi would be subjected to the kind of scrutiny that Newt Gingrich was when he became speaker in 1995. Obviously, Newt was much more of a confrontational figure. And Pelosi did take some knocks over her failed attempt to install Jack Murtha as her deputy. We'll see how long the current honeymoon lasts.

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Rockville, Md.: So much effort to use the exact word - is it a war or a civil war or an occupation or an invasion or perhaps something else? Just do what Tom Ricks did and call it a "fiasco." But he does want us to win in Iraq. So "fiasco" can be used by either side as a good description.

Howard Kurtz: Well, "Fiasco" is a great book title, but too opinionated for news stories.

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Arlington, Va.: So, on today's Post front page, the derailment of a Metro train, with twenty local people injured and the Metro system, as of press time, potentially crippled, runs BELOW the fold. Above the fold the Post has a retrospective on Iraq deaths and a speculative article about what stem cells may yield someday. Is this (a) a small example of political opportunism overcoming news judgment, or (b) an admission that (as with Time and Newsweek) no one reads newspapers for actual news anymore, just for features?

Howard Kurtz: You might be overthinking this. They're all on the FRONT page. A local Metro accident is big news, but new figures on civilian deaths in Iraq, and a possible scientific breakthrough on stem cell that would neutralize much of the moral debate, also strike me as pretty important.

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Anonymous: I saw the Rush Limbaugh quotes you had on your show yesterday. While he has a large audience, does he retain much credibility after the Michael J Fox incident and those comments you played? I thought he'd gone overboard but others say he has always been that way.

Howard Kurtz: Regardless of what you think of him, Rush Limbaugh has the biggest audience in talk radio and is carried on 600 stations. That means he has a pretty substantial following. Also, I wanted to get my guest's reaction to Rush calling Pelosi a wide-eyed feminist wacko who is being celebrated by a lapdog media.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: There is little doubt that the current White House spends a lot of time figuring out ways to manipulate the media. The current word of the day seems to be "surge" and woe be to those reporters who use the term "escalate" instead. Jim Webb's testy exchange with the President turns out to be leaked by the administration in order to make him look bad. And last Thursday there was a reshuffle of the generals, a new U.N. ambassador, and the Miers' resignation, all which could have happened the next day, but was probably planned in order to limit Pelosi's exposure on the nightly news. Having followed other administrations am I wrong in thinking that this gang goes far further in an attempt to shape news or am I naive?

Howard Kurtz: What is the administration going to do if journalists start abandoning surge? Escalate their rhetorical war against us?

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Austin, Tex.: In your Friday Media Notes, you stated: "Boehner made some bipartisan noises in his short speech, but he still used that pejorative 'Democrat Party.'" I find the term "Democrat Party" highly offensive to me. However, I personally don't think that the omission of the "-ic" is necessarily pejorative. Rather, I believe it makes the Republicans who use it sound like backwards redneck hicks -- which most of them are not -- and as a backwards redneck hick myself, I find their pretense offensive. We American rustics may have our lingual eccentricities, but their roots can generally be easily identified and their reasons for being are often well understood even by those who refuse to stoop so low as to employ them. "Democrat Party," though, violates those basic standards for abandonment of the King's English. That deviation from the rules makes users of the phrase the worst type of backwards redneck hick there is: the counterfeit type. (By the way, omission of the "-ic" has become so ingrained into GOP politics that a former GOP staffer who was working for me prepared an endorsement list for our nonpartisan organization which made repeated reference to the candidates we supported in the "Democrat Primary." She was surprised I thought it should be changed. Now if I could only get people to understand that the state Attorney General has not actually attained the rank of General.)

Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not making any judgment about the cultural heritage of those who use "Democrat Party." I just wonder why a Republican leader, in a moment he seemed to intend to be bipartisan, would use a term that he has to know annoys the other party and is viewed as a pejorative.

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Austin, Tex.: From today's column: "But Edwards generated plenty of online buzz by hiring friendly bloggers or paying their travel expenses, which would be ethically unacceptable for mainstream journalists." Question: Once the campaign starts in earnest, who pays for air travel for the pool of reporters who travel with the candidates? And how nice are the planes front to back (i.e. like a traditional carrier with some first class and some coach -- though probably with some private area for the candidate -- or an all first class charter with all the fixins?) If candidates are paying for the air travel, is there any sort of arms race to try and have nicer digs for the pool? If reporters (rather, their employers) are paying, do they pay a proportional share of true expenses or do they pay market price?

Howard Kurtz: Even at this stage of the campaign, if reporters travel with a candidate, their news organizations have to pay for it. It's the same thing when journalists fly on Air Force One. The reimbursement is determined by some complicated formula about how the costs should be allocated. As for the niceness of the accommodations, it depends on the campaign. A well-heeled campaign with a big press corps tagging along might have a nice jet; a smaller campaign with just a few reporters in toe might use a small 10-seater.

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Anonymous: The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among others, editorialized against the quick, and rowdy, execution of Saddam Hussein, largely because it had the potential to inflame sectarian violence, which certainly puts our troops in danger. The White House seemed to agree (somewhat) with this angle. A number of Fox News hosts and commentators took the position that to complain about the execution made one pro-Hussein (the term used more than once in reference to the New York Times). Fox News commentators seem to often be on the same page on the same day (last week, more than one show complained that reports on danger to polar bears by global warming was disinformation by environmentalists). Do Fox folks get any marching orders from management, or is it just a matter of like minds thinking alike?

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe there are marching orders or that everyone at Fox jumps on the same issue. But there's no question that several Fox commentators have ripped the MSM over the criticism of Saddam's hanging. I would point out that such criticism has also been made by U.S. officials, British officials, Iraqi officials, and such conservative columnists as Charles Krauthammer.

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Nokesville, Va.: There's no doubt that Gingrich was a "confrontational figure." But he also faced a confrontational media that did those Newt-bashing covers the other questioner mentioned. (Pelosi was out there pledging to "drain the swamp" of Republican corruption, and said the president was inept and incompetent, which seemed to ruffle no media feathers.) Why has Pelosi not been on a news mag cover, if she's so historical? Or do the media types not really think she's meritorious enough to get the full "milestone" rollout?

Howard Kurtz: Well, her swearing-in led all the network newscasts and got prominent front-page play in all the big papers. It's only been a few days, so the newsmags could still give her the cover treatment. Time could not, because it switched to Friday publication last week, meaning that the magazine was unable to cover Pelosi's ascension.

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Chantilly, Va.: The speeches at Ford's passing seemed to focus on how he had healed the nation and his pardon of Nixon the right thing to do. I remember the howls of outrage when it happened, especially since some of the people hadn't even been tried yet -- and here's the one who gave the orders, walking free while they're facing prison. Did any of them have any comments on how "healing" the pardon was and what a good idea it was?

Howard Kurtz: I have not seen any. Some of them, such as Haldeman and Mitchell, are dead. But the revisionist history, as I wrote last week, has been fascinating to watch. Most journalists were outraged by the Nixon pardon, and many, but not all, have a more sympathetic view looking back three decades later.

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Washington, D.C.: Yesterday CNN showed a graphic that indicated more than 50% of those polled favored an either an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or withdrawal by the end of the year. Given that half the country wants out of Iraq now or damn near now, why does the media cover the politicians who debate more troops vs. the same? Why don't the voices that reflect the voices of those polled appear instead? The fringe viewpoints have moved center but the mainstream media now covers the hawkish fringe despite the voters.

Howard Kurtz: I believe that some of those calling for withdrawal, such as John Edwards, are getting more of a hearing in the media, especially with the Democratic takeover on the Hill. And Dennis Kucinich has gotten more attention since he threw his hat into the presidential ring again.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you think Time magazine will miss a lot of interesting Friday news dumps by a subpoena-laden White House later this year?

Howard Kurtz: I think it cuts both ways. At times, Time will be right on the news, first out when a major development breaks early in the week. At other times, it will miss out on developments that happen Thursday, Friday or Saturday and will be a full week behind Newsweek and U.S. News.

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Philadelphia, Pa.:"Most journalists were outraged by the Nixon pardon, and many, but not all, have a more sympathetic view looking back three decades later. " I guess this is what Bush is talking about when he says that he will be regarded well in 50 years!

Howard Kurtz: That's his hope. The Harry Truman model.

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Philadelphia, Pa.:"I just wonder why a Republican leader, in a moment he seemed to intend to be bipartisan, would use a term that he has to know annoys the other party and is viewed as a pejorative."

Because the current Republicans don't know what bipartisan means. Boehner is also asking of the Democrats in Congress to treat the Republicans the way that the Democrats wanted to be treated when the Repubs were in power!

Howard Kurtz: The GOP complaints about being shut out, after the way they ran the House for a dozen years, strike me as fairly audacious.

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Frederick, Md.: Oh, the irony--

From The Washington Times, a story questioning the existence of Iraqi police Captain Jamil Hussein, an AP source. The article covers conservative bloggers' skepticism about the veracity of AP's and other wire services' sources.

At the very bottom of the article is this:

"This story is based in part on wire service dispatches."

Howard Kurtz: D'oh!

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Roseland, N.J.: Are there any sales figures in for Time's notoriously mirrored "Person of the Year" issue? Every time I saw it at the newsstand, it was in a huge, undisturbed, unsold stack.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't seen any. But newsstand sales are a small sliver of a newsmag's circulation. You'd have to say it had a cultural impact, in terms of starting a debate, both among those who thought it was a shrewd choice and those who found it a copout.

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Hyattsville, Md.: Hello Howie,

I wish reporters would say up front what fraction of total troop strength the proposed "surge" represents.

An additional 10,000 soldiers sounds like a lot, but if it's just 10%, it's unlikely to accomplish much and is more like a top-off than a "surge."

Howard Kurtz: With almost 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, 14,000 would be 10 percent, while 20,000 new troops would be closer to 15 percent.

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Sewickley, Pa: I understand that documents released in response to a FOIA request indicate Chief Justice Rehnquist was a long-term drug addict. And that the FBI was dispatched to question (intimidate) witnesses who opposed him. Why hasn't that garnered more attention? Will there be some focus on how he voted in drug cases?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it was on the front page of The Washington Post. I thought it was a huge story -- not so much because of the toll of the drugs but because of the improper role of the FBI, which sounded like a throwback to the Watergate days.

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Funny he should bring up Michael J. Fox: Your earlier commenter wanted to chide Rush Limbaugh for being wrong on stem cells. However, the news today is that scientists have been able to harvest useable stem cells from amnio fluid without harming the baby/fetus. This should come as pretty good news for Mr. Fox, especially considering his argument that there was NO stem cell research being done today thanks to Bush.

Howard Kurtz: That's why I think it's a big story, contrary to the earlier poster who complained that it is higher on the Post's front page than a Metro train accident.

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Shelton, Wash.: OK, this is a somewhat less weighty topic, but have Lara Logan and Trish Regan disappeared from the CBS evening news? Did Couric not want the comparison to two beautiful, brilliant, and YOUNG correspondents?

Howard Kurtz: Lara Logan has been on vacation for a couple of weeks. She's actually had a pretty high profile under Couric.

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Re: Fox News/MSNBC/Etc.: Doesn't this show how good (or bad) of a job that OUR elected politicians and the news media how done in polarizing the country? Democrats hate Republicans, Republicans hate Democrats, they both hate Independents, Independents hate everyone. What most seem to forget is that above all we are all Americans, and we need to do a better job of finding things we agree on instead of focusing on differences. Is this too naive of an outlook? Or is it too much to ask that our elected officials united us instead of divide us. Stupid is as stupid does I guess.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it was just a brief incident in an airport bar. I don't think I'd use it to draw sweeping conclusions about the state of American civilization. Unless I was drunk.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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