Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 20, 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."

He was online Tuesday, Feb. 20, at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

A transcript follows

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Rolla, Mo.: On CNN's Saturday morning show, I saw what I thought was a "Daily Show" send-up of media coverage of the Anna Nicole Smith death -- the question of the day was, with no sense of irony, "Why are Americans so obsessed with celebrity?" My question to you is, how do you see this chicken-and -egg scenario, is it the MSM, particularly cable news, just giving the people what they want, or is the MSM putting these stories out there (maybe because they are easy) and Americans get hooked on them?

Howard Kurtz: SATURDAY morning? My video reel of the Anna Nicole coverage on Sunday morning was MUCH more "Daily Show"-like. I don't believe the country is rising up and demanding to know more about this woman's sad life (well, maybe just the involvement of Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband), and it's not much of a newspaper story. But the dynamics are classic cable TV. In a Pew survey, 61 percent say the Anna Nicole saga is being overcovered, but 11 percent say they are following it very closely. Cable is catering to that 11 percent. (In fact, MSNBC has been covering the BREAKING NEWS of the latest court hearing pretty much continuously today.) In cable, you only need an extra half-million or million viewers to produce a serious spike in the ratings, and that's why Anna Nicole, nearly two weeks after her death, is still sucking up plenty of cable oxygen.

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Anonymous: On your Sunday CNN show, a clip of Barack Obama was shown in which he stated that information regarding his positions was available, but that the media was reporting how he looked in a bathing suit.

One reporter felt that Obama would have to become less thin-skinned if he wanted to survive the campaign. Isn't it really the press who is thin-skinned? News media appear to reject criticism as mere partisanship.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the press IS thin-skinned, but I don't think this is a great example of it. Barack Obama has gotten perhaps the most glowing coverage of any presidential candidate in four decades. Even his swimsuit coverage (this is the paparazzi shot that ran in People) has been positive! I think political writers have given Obama his due on the policy front, but it's also true that the senator, as much as any candidate I've seen in my professional lifetime, is running on his persona and his life story.

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Teaneck, N.J.: Regarding Mitt Romney and how his Mormon faith might affect his run, it seems like the media is questioning the Mormon faith by just running polls on the subject. What doesn't seem to be talked about is who is questioning the Mormon faith and why. From my experience, the divide is primarily an Evangelical-Mormon divide. Most people in this country don't care, so right now it looks as if the media is encouraging prejudice against Mormons by asking people who don't care what they feel. (Romney's faith makes no difference to me.)

Howard Kurtz: I think the media have really been lazy in the knee-jerk reporting on Romney=Mormon=political problems. For one thing, there's more to Mitt Romney, like him or not, than just his religion. But somehow it's okay to depict Mormons as strange creatures. If we are going to delve into whether that is a significant obstacle -- as it didn't seem to be for his father, George Romney, whose 1968 presidential bid was derailed by his "brainwashing" in Vietnam -- I'd like to see a lot more nuanced reporting on the subject.

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Murtha under attack: Howard: I hear the orchestra tuning up to play the "Knock down Murtha" symphony. Brit Hume practically calls him senile, Bob Novak terms his previous career "undistinguished" and all the talk show blowhards are saying he's ready to leave the troops naked and unarmed on the streets of Iraq. All of which means Murtha's on the right track. His proposed legislation actually points out that we've already been sending unprepared and under-equipped troops into combat for some time now. We're not only not winning over there, we're shredding our military in the process. Any chance we can get the media to actually focus on the state of the military to some degree, say the same paid to Anna Nicole Smith's will or Britney's head?

Howard Kurtz: Whoa -- that's tough competition.

The fact that some conservatives are attacking Jack Murtha in personal terms doesn't mean he's right. It does mean that his proposal -- to in effect restrict Bush's ability to deploy troops by requiring consideration of such factors as adequate training and home rest -- has touched a nerve. I'd sure rather see the debate fought out on the merits of the subject than on the personality and sharpness of this ex-Marine. After all, the only reason his plan would have any weight is that it may attract lots of support from other Democratic lawmakers.

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Minneapolis: Hi Howard -- What do you make of the media's coverage (or lack thereof) of the president's stunning (and in my view, outrageous) comment last week that "living in the beautiful White House" he doesn't really pay attention to what's happening on the ground in the Iraq. Maybe I just missed it, but it doesn't seem to be getting much play, given its arrogance and hypocrisy (who's not supporting the troops now?) Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Here's what the president actually said, in response to a question on whether there was a civil war in Iraq:

"I can only tell you what people on the ground, whose judgment -- it's hard for me, living in this beautiful White House, to give you an assessment, firsthand assessment. I haven't been there; you have, I haven't. But I do talk to people who are and people whose judgment I trust, and they would not qualify it as that. There are others who think it is. It is, however, a dangerous situation, thereby requiring action on my part."

That's a little different from saying he doesn't pay attention.

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Follow-up to your first answer: So your answer is that the ANS coverage IS being driven by the people and not the MSM -- it's just that it's only 0.5-1 million people driving the coverage?

Howard Kurtz: Yes. Which is another way of saying that it's been driven by television, mostly cable and the morning shows. I avoid MSM here because, at least after the day of her unexpected death, Anna Nicole has not become a newspaper obsession. It's TV that is treating her as though she were Princess Di.

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Chicago: Opinions polls show that voters are less likely to elect someone who has been married three times or someone who is in their 70s than they are to elect a woman, a Mormon or an African American. Why isn't there more coverage about the potential political liability of divorce and age, when there is so much coverage about Romney's religion, Obama's race, and Hilary's gender?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't seen those polls, but I'm sure we'll get to those issues. I don't know to what extent McCain's age will be a factor in the race. I'm a little skeptical of the married-three-times business, an obvious reference to Rudy. It used to be conventional wisdom that a divorced man could not be elected president, but Ronald Reagan disproved that. So is having taken a third wife that much more disqualifying than having taken a second?

How about having been cheated on? The New York Post reports today that Hillary's decision to stand by Bill after the Monica unpleasantness is viewed as a sign of strength by 56 percent in a Siena College Research Institute poll. One in five said it was a sign of weakness.

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Boston: Last week, after Mitt Romney formally announced his presidential ambitions, most newspapers ran at least one story about his religion. But I saw no stories covering his record as governor. Some casually mentioned his success in Massachusetts. Others referenced his landmark health care bill. But Romney's one term in office was hardly a success. After suffering setbacks in the mid-term elections, he pretty much hung it up and started focusing on the White House. Neither of his two Republican predecessors is endorsing him, and his health care bill may never be implemented. Is it too much trouble for reporters to check a few of the candidate's references?

Howard Kurtz: Whether it was a success or not, Romney's term as governor of Massachusetts -- including his bipartisan health care plan, which now appears to be faltering on the basis of lowball cost estimates -- is his principal qualification in running for president. I don't put his management of the Salt Lake Olympics in the same category. I would have thought that by now we'd see major journalistic inquiries into his record as governor, beyond the Boston Globe. So far, all the media attention has been on Mormonism and Romney's move to the right on abortion, gay rights and gun control -- an important area of inquiry, but not the whole story.

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New York, N.Y.: With regard to the the press asking whether Romney's Mormon faith will hurt his presidential prospects, you asked, "Try to imagine a headline that said, 'Will Jewish faith hurt bid for White House?' "

Is your memory really that poor? Six years ago, there were dozens of stories asking if Lieberman being Jewish will hurt the ticket.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, my not-so-poor memory mostly recalls a spate of stories saying that Lieberman would be a huge asset to the ticket. When he ran in 2004, there was a brief flurry of yes-but-would-he-work-on-Saturday stories, but his candidacy didn't last long enough for a serious inquiry.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you explain why The Post's Peter Baker would ask President Bush a Plame trial question when he clearly knew Bush would not answer it? Was it simply designed to embarrass the president or draw attention to Baker? And why didn't he offer another question when Bush gave him the option?

Howard Kurtz: Peter Baker may be the least flamboyant reporter covering the White House, so he certainly wasn't trying to call attention to himself. He was trying to find a formulation that would draw Bush into commenting on some aspect of the Scooter saga by trying to put the trial itself off limits. It was a gambit that obviously didn't work.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: Okay, cracked me up...."the Monica unpleasantness" I always appreciate someone with a flair for understatement. That was great!

Howard Kurtz: I used up all my other formulations in 1998.

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Brookline: Regarding last week's op-ed by Byron York, followed by Victoria Toensing's ill-informed screed on Sunday. Is The Post trying to tamper with the Libby jury?

Howard Kurtz: The last time I checked the First Amendment, we're still allowed to comment on trials that are under way. The judge has not sequestered the jurors but has asked them to avoid all coverage of the trial. I'm keenly aware of this because there was a brief uproar when one juror saw my Style section piece on Tim Russert's testimony that federal marshals had somehow failed to excise from the morning papers, and the judge had to question the jury before the trial was allowed to proceed.

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Rochester, N.Y.: What do you think of all the "McCain's got his groove back" type stories that have appeared in the press the past couple days (here and in The Politico, for example)? Does the press have to be careful to let its obvious affection for McCain not color what should be fair, objective coverage?

Howard Kurtz: Having written at great length about the media's dalliance with candidate McCain in 2000, I have to report that the romance has cooled. There has been a steady drumbeat of stories for months now about McCain abandoning his maverick ways, McCain flip-flopping on the likes of Falwell, McCain hiring political gunslingers he had once denounced, and how McCain's pro-war position is hurting his candidacy. A couple of color pieces saying he seemed to discover some of his old verve during one campaign swing hardly amounts to a new swoon.

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Re: Plame: Do you think the press will push further about the Plame story after the trial? There's been a bunch of interesting news in the testimony.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the trial has suffered for lack of media attention, and I'm not sure how long it lasts after the verdict, especially since a large number of Americans find the whole case incomprehensible.

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Boston: Howard, what is your reaction to the Citi - Bartiromo hubub? I remember that you wrote that good book about conflicts in financial journalism. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for remembering "The Fortune Tellers", which dealt in part with CNBC and Bartiromo. Without going into chapter and verse, I'm still not positive what Maria has done wrong. She spent time appearing at Citigroup functions and cozying up to one executive who lost his job, but journalists at all levels try to develop high-level sources. She hitched a ride with said executive on a Citigroup jet back from Asia, but CNBC reimbursed the company for the flight (albeit at much cheaper rates). No one has yet pointed to an example where Bartiromo pulled a punch or put a positive spin on a Citigroup story. She has, however, made one major error, and that is retreating into no-comment mode as all these questions have swirled. That's not the way a journalist should act.

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Ballston: Bravo for your earlier answer regarding the media's lust-fest over Obama. He really does seem to be getting the JFK treatment thus far. Any chance the press will want to have someone else's baby before November 2008?

Howard Kurtz: It's a long campaign. We'll eventually get tired of Obama and briefly fall in love with someone else.

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Boston: Where are you getting that a large number of Americans find the case incomprehensible. The only poll I've see says 70 percent of Americans find the Libby trial to be very important. It seems it's the D.C. media that wishes it would go away.

Howard Kurtz: I'm the first to argue that the reputation of Washington journalism has hardly been enhanced by this trial. But the major MSM outlets have covered the trial every day. Outside of the media/political world, though, I believe there is very little interest in a former vice presidential aide who was hardly a household name and who is accused not of outing a CIA operative but of lying about what he did with reporters. I wish there was more public interest in the case, but as I watch Fox and MSNBC continuing wall-to-wall coverage of the latest Anna Nicole hearing this afternoon, I just don't think there is. Maybe if federal trials were televised, the situation would be different.

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Alexandria, Va.: As a reporter, I wish you would ask a fellow reporter like Diane Sawyer what kind of conditions she agreed to for access to Mr. Ahmadinejad. And isn't it weird for a female reporter to put on headgear and interview a man that won't even shake her hand? I would have liked to see her reactions to that in your article.

Howard Kurtz: She agreed to no conditions, which is standard for news organizations, and that's why it wasn't worthy of mention. And I don't think you should let your distaste for Ahmadinejad -- there is, of course, plenty to be repulsed by -- cloud the importance of journalists obtaining interviews with foreign leaders and skeptically questioning them. It is important to understand our enemies.

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Adams Morgan, D.C.: What has been the genesis of these stories about Barack Obama being authentically "black enough"? I first heard this question raised on CNN in a puff piece last year that was more about asking African Americans on the streets of New York if they knew of Obama or could even pronounce his name. On Feb. 2, I read a story in the NY Times that black essayist Debra J. Dickerson questioned Obama's black authenticity and that blacks favor Hillary over Obama. Last week's opinion piece in The Post by Marjorie Valbrun should have put the issue to rest.

Personally, this African-American thinks that these articles spark journalistic interest because whites are shocked that blacks would challenge the racial identity of someone who is obviously "phenotypically" black. From reading some of the response's to Valbrun's article, many whites are happy to point out what they perceive as sheer prejudice of blacks against one of our own. And then whites can trumpet the canard that Obama's race doesn't matter! When I heard Brit Hume expounding on how the country is ready for a black candidate like Obama, I started to see that Americans really like to believe that we are a race-neutral society, willing to give anyone a chance. It's as if Obama's candidacy is our latest racial Rohrshach test, and we are more than willing to believe of ourselves that we are ready to give a black man the chance to be president.

Howard Kurtz: I think that whole issue has been overhyped by the media. Sure, there is some interest in a biracial candidate who has a serious shot at a presidential nomination and where he fits into the African-American community. Essays like Debra Dickerson's "not black enough" piece in Salon helped stoke the debate, along with the arm's-length approach of folks like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (as if they spoke for all of the black community). Some white journalists can't figure out why Hillary is polling higher in the African-American community than Obama and conclude there must be a "problem." It's an interesting debate, I suppose, but has been somewhat simplistic in my view.

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Avon Park, Fla.: I'm concerned with the way the national press covers presidential politics, especially primaries. They base their decisions on who to cover based on national polls which don't mean anything. There are states in which lower candidates could be doing relatively well but don't get coverage because their national numbers aren't good. Should fewer national primary polls be conducted in favor or more state polls?

Howard Kurtz: The answer isn't fewer polls, it's reporting that ranges beyond the numbers and examines candidates beyond the so-called top tier. Howard Dean was at 1 percent when he started, and Bill Clinton wasn't much above that. By contrast, Joe Lieberman was the early front-runner in the Democratic polls last time around, and John Kerry was written off by November of '03 because he was sinking in the surveys. We make the same mistakes every cycle and then have to play catchup when someone not initially anointed as one of the front-runners catches fire.

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Aspen, Colo.:"The only poll I've see says 70 percent of Americans find the Libby trial to be very important."

Okay, I'll bite. Who was doing that poll and what was asked. The Libby trial is the biggest fiasco in Washington D.C. special prosecutor jurisprudence. There was no crime and I'm sure the jury will find there was no intent to perjure himself. This trial -- and the "much ado" the left wingnuts who love to hate George Bush are making of it -- is a joke. It makes the law look bad. If anyone should be on trial it should be the Special Prosecutor for abusing his office.

Howard Kurtz: I guess feelings are still running strong on this.

There was an alleged crime -- lying to a grand jury. But such coverup cases are obviously a far cry from trials in which someone is charged with the underlying offense, that is, whatever was allegedly being covered up. I think it's a bit harder to paint Patrick Fitzgerald as an out-of-control special prosecutor, whatever the flaws of this case, in that he has a day job as the well-regarded U.S. attorney in Chicago, so is not someone who needed to bring charges here to justify his existence or boost his ego.

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D.C.: Mr. Kurtz,

I don't understand why you constantly say that Obama gets such glowing coverage that others do not get. For example, Rudy gets a pass on things since he became "America's mayor" on 9/11. Please. Meanwhile Obama coverage implies that he is radical Muslim, a relative of Saddam's, and not quite "black enough." Also people in the media obsess about Obama's lack of experience - but how is his experience less than someone like Rudy's?

Howard Kurtz: It's absurd to suggest that MOST media coverage "implies" that Obama is a radical Muslim or relative of Saddam's. People can make up their own minds about two years as a U.S. senator (and eight years as a state senator before that) versus two terms running New York City. I would agree that Giuliani's record in that job has not gotten anything close to a full-blown media examination, but until recently many political reporters weren't convinced that Rudy was actually going to run.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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