Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 5, 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."

Looking Back to '9/10 Rudy,' and Ahead to 11/'08 (Post, March 5)

The transcript follows.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hi -- can Dana Priest write your entire paper? Her articles are so inspiring because she acts like a real journalist. There are so many shameful examples of the current state of journalism and their fear of the Bush Administration. It's so amazing that she's not afraid and actually does her job on behalf. I'm amazed by her because my cousin was wounded on Thursday when his Kiowah helicopter made a hard landing in Kirkuk. He is now on his way to Walter Reed. Because of Dana's work, we are very hopeful that he was be treated properly.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sorry to hear about your cousin. The reporting by Dana and Anne Hull touched a nerve for a number of reasons but one is: no unnamed sources, no bureaucratic leaks, just plain old-fashioned sitting with people and trying to evaluate their stories. How often does reporting like this quickly lead to the ouster of the general in charge and the Army secretary -- as well as congressional hearings, which began today?


Aptos, Calif.: After Ann Coulter's slur at CPAC, Michelle Malkin wrote, "With a single word, Coulter sullied the hard work of hundreds of CPAC participants and exhibitors and tarred the collective reputation of thousands of CPAC attendees." Do you really expect Malkin and other conservatives to shun Coulter after this incident? She has said plenty of other hateful things in the past, and yet few in the movement have made more than cursory efforts to distance themselves from her.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know about the shunning part, but I'm glad that some conservative bloggers have spoken out against that kind of incendiary language. I think it's important for commentator types on both sides to blow the whistle when someone on their ideological side goes too far.


Prescott, Ariz.: Hi Howard -- as one who has always been bothered by the canard that Republicans care more for our troops than democrats, does the Walter Reed Hospital situation finally put that to rest once and for all?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if I'd blame the substandard care and shoddy conditions at Walter Reed on a Republican philosophy. I think it's certainly fair to question how the Bush administration -- for all its professed concern for our soldiers -- tolerated this awful situation, especially because we now know many families had complained to the Army through the years. If we're going to wage war, don't we owe it to our wounded American servicemen and women to give them top-quality care?


Alexandria, Va.: Re: Giuliani. Do you think one of the reasons the Republicans are interested in Giuliani is because they think he can sort of glide past the usual "liberal media" potholes on his social views? Because your article today suggests that his liberal views aren't going to help him at all when push comes to shove, and the media starts pushing Louima, Diallo, mayoral adulteries, etc.?

Howard Kurtz: I think Giuliani is running as a leader, crime-fighter and tamer of the city's bureaucracy, and simply saying to conservatives that while we don't agree on everything (read: social issues), we agree on many other things. I don't know whether his abortion and gay rights views and his multiple marriages will be a big factor for GOP primary voters; they simply may look at the polls, swallow hard and decide that Rudy represents their best chance of keeping the White House. I do think it's fascinating, as I wrote this morning, that much of the New York press corps can write these stories about the controversies of his mayoral tenure without having to get on an airplane or call up a bunch of experts.


Greenville, Ky.: Is my memory failing, or didn't Clinton fire all federal prosecutor when he took office?

Howard Kurtz: Every incoming president of a different party appoints a whole new set of U.S. attorneys -- indeed, they serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired at any time. What's at issue in the eight that recently were dumped by the Bush administration is whether the explanation -- that performance-related issues were involved -- was a cover for either wanting to put other political candidates in these jobs (including a former Karl Rove aide and RNC opposition guy) or in response to pressure (as in Sen. Pete Domenici trying to get the New Mexico prosecutor dumped after calling him to ask about the progress of an investigation with a Democratic target).


Austin, Texas: Following up on Michelle Malkin's distancing herself from Ann Coulter: Do you really think it was Ann who sullied the participants at the CPAC or those who so rapturously applauded her sentiments?

Howard Kurtz: I was certainly surprised that she got more than a smattering of applause when she dropped the F-bomb.


Concord, N.H.: Why did you choose to base a Media Notes column around statements made by anonymous posters to the Huffington Post Web site? Yes the posters' comments were hateful, but how is this news? You can go to any political Web site that allows individuals to make comments and find offensive comments of this sort. More to the point, a Google search will lead you to examples of right-wing bloggers and pundits (e.g., Coulter, Malkin, Limbaugh) making similarly hateful remarks. I thought your column lacked perspective and context. Death Wish (Post, March 1)

Howard Kurtz: And I thought I made perfectly clear that this was representative of nothing but a kooky fringe -- and there are crazies on both sides of the spectrum. I was very careful not to say this was representative of anything larger, and I praised the Huffington Post for taking down those comments. Still, I think the comments -- expressing regret that the Afghanistan suicide bomber had not gotten Dick Cheney -- were despicable.


Ann-ulment: I'm a conservative, and I can tell you that the grass roots is getting pretty tired of Ann Coulter. She's gone through a cycle of (1)can-you-believe-she-said-that giggles of delight, to (2)sticking up for her first real bonehead statements, because she's intelligent and witty, to (3) getting so tired of her attention-grabbing bonehead-on-purpose statements that she's just an embarrassment. So how does this stack up against what Bill Maher said about about how a dead Dick Cheney would save lives?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not familiar with that Maher comment or joke, but I do find the conservative criticism of Coulter's antigay slur to be very telling. Maybe lots of folks have gone through the stages you describe.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Your column on Giuliani was right on the money -- people also forget the corruption that was exposed after he left office (Kerik, Harding etc.). He even tried to get around the term limits and push himself for another term, once he became "America's mayor."

Howard Kurtz: Giuliani can't be blamed for Bernard Kerik's corruption, though it certainly reflected badly on him when it all came out after Rudy had persuaded President Bush to name Kerik as Homeland Security secretary. Giuliani did raise the possibility of extending his term (by a few months, as I recall) after the 9/11 attacks, but later dropped it. The larger point is that there is a long list of controversies stemming from his two terms as mayor, and all of this will be aired in the campaign -- even more so because the New York press corps is so large.


Plano, Texas: USA Today's redesigned online presence now allows readers to comment on every article and have their comments featured in rotation on the masthead. All of this under the guise of "expanding our editorial mission." How long will it be before we have nothing but Wikinews? Yes, I know that "we" are Time's Person of the Year, but frankly I'm getting sick of us. It's a new look for (USA Today, March 3)

Howard Kurtz: Well, I still love "you." Enabling comments on stories (which The Washington Post already does) is good. This is the world we live in, and people who don't care about the masses weighing in simply can choose not to scroll through the comment section.


New York: Anna Nicole is buried; Scott Peterson is long since locked away; as far as I know, no white female twentysomethings have been kidnapped this week. My goodness ... do you think journalists will have to turn their attention to more mundane things like poverty, the war, etc.?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe that explains why all the cable networks today are carrying the House hearings on Walter Reed -- they're just waiting for the next Amber Alert or the next D-list celebrity to kick the bucket.


Oxford, Miss.: Are the comments from Ann Coulter, a featured speaker at the most influential conservative convention, comparable to anonymous blog comments made at the Huffington Post? Do the anonymous comments at HuffPo tell more about liberals than comments from featured speakers at conservative events tell about conservatives? (And Ann Coulter's views and style were known before she was chosen to speak.)

Howard Kurtz: Coulter's comments are more telling because a major conservative conference of the Republican Party invited her to speak. Again, I never said that the nutjobs posting Cheney death wishes on the HuffPost were representative of anything other than the fringe, despite what some bloggers may be saying. You can look it up.


Mayors for President?: No disrespect to Rudy or any of America's Mayors but there is no way in H-E-Double Hockey Sticks that I would consider any mayor to jump straight into the Presidency of the United States. I just know I can't be alone. Has anyone is the media asked that question? I've heard it in regards to a one-term senator's qualifications, but I don't believe I've heard it in regards to a mayor. I can't see how being a mayor (even of a huge metropolitan city) readies anyone for the foreign and domestic responsibilities of our country.

Howard Kurtz: There are lots of reasons to vote for or against Rudy, but that's not one of them. New York City's 8-million-plus population is more than twice as large as that of Arkansas (2.7 million) and almost as large as Georgia (9 million), both of which produced governors who became president. To be a Big Apple mayor is to run the city with the largest police force, school system, hospital system and transit system in the country -- and unlike senators, who basically speechify and vote, it's an executive position. The politics, of course, are far different than in 99 percent of the country.


Helena, Mont.: Do you think it's particularly despicable because Dick Cheney is an elected leader, or do you think that all commentary wishing death on people is despicable? I mean, Pat Robertson as good as called for the death of several Supreme Court justices -- John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- on his show several years back. This sounds to me to be as despicable as some people wishing the bomb in Afghanistan had reached its target.

Howard Kurtz: I'm against publicly wishing that anyone will die, period. There, I've done it. I've taken a very controversial stand.


Richmond, Va.: Hi. What has happened to coverage of President Bush's signing statements? Like Augustus, he seems to be portraying himself as a defender of a free republic, yet is usurping powers that do not belong to the executive branch. P.S. -- Thanks for all your good work!

Howard Kurtz: I don't know that there has been any major legislation passed lately, so that would reduce the opportunities for writing about signing statements.


Just to Clarify:"So how does this stack up against what Bill Maher said about about how a dead Dick Cheney would save lives?"

He didn't just say dead. He said dead or not in power. What he said was "But I have zero doubt that if Dick Cheney was not in power, people wouldn't be dying needlessly tomorrow ... I'm just saying if he did die, other people, more people would live. That's a fact."

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the clarification.


Re: Coulter's comments: It still won't stop The Today Show, GMA, Hannity and Colmes, The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News Channel (in general), Imus, etc. from having her on their shows now will it?

Howard Kurtz: That is an excellent question -- and the answer is, almost definitely not. In fact it was on the Today show that Coulter launched her attack last year about the 9/11 widows enjoying their husbands' deaths because they have become celebrities.


Boston: Should Edwards sue Coulter for slander?

Howard Kurtz: He's done something much better (and faster): he's using her attack on his Web site as a way of raising campaign money.


Washington: Regarding the Coulter matter, why is the F word she used not the equivalent of the N word? It seems to me that if Coulter, for example, had used the N word to describe Barack Obama, she would not only be criticized, she would be absolutely radioactive -- her career as a pundit effectively over. Her use of this slur doesn't seem to have nearly as much of an impact.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure about that. I regard this F-word for gays as in the same category as the N-word for blacks.


Anonymous: Howard: this morning on the Political Chat, Shailagh Murray wrote this about a question on Ann Coulter's remarks:

"Whatever anyone thinks of Ms. Coulter, her entire shtick is the deadpan ridiculous statement. That's how she markets herself."

It seems accurate -- that is indeed how she sells herself. But why cover it? The MSM doesn't cover 5-year-olds having melt-downs in the supermarket or 3-year-olds who use curse words ... yet you (the MSM) cover her? Why? What intellectual, moral, factual insight does she bring to the stage these days -- other than the smirky, gratuitous insult?

Howard Kurtz: I wrote a column last year questioning why television shows continue to give Coulter a platform. But I think the situation is different if she uses that kind of language as an invited speaker of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a major Washington event that was attended by, among others, several Republican presidential candidates.


New York: I concur with those who wonder how Giuliani will survive his past. His bad husbanding and cross-dressing aside, there is endless footage of the Mayor participating in a police rally that turned into a riot, criticizing his own appointees when they had the temerity to do their jobs (in the Police Dept. and especially the Board of Education) and, most egregiously, insulting black citizens or any citizen who disagreed with him. However well he performed on 9/11, his governance before that was unstable and his lavish current lifestyle built on the one good week he gave New York (and the nation) is unseemly.

Howard Kurtz: Okay, I'll put you down as not being a Rudy fan.

Look, there's also the plus-side of the ledger. The Giuliani administration greatly reduced crime, slashed welfare and tamed what had been considered an uncontrollable bureaucracy. In the process, though, he ticked off a lot of people and was not very popular with minorities. The cross-dressing thing, by the way, was for a skit at a press dinner. There's no record of Rudy wearing dresses in everyday life.


Arden, N.C.: Will the media spend 5 percent of the time discussing Giuliani's public adultery that they will spend on discussing Hillary's husband? Rhetorical question, obviously.

Howard Kurtz: Well, there was a story in the New York Times over the weekend about how Giuliani has been estranged from his 21-year-old son because of conflicts with his third wife. Remember, Hillary (and Bill) have been national figures for 15 years, and Rudy is just mounting his first national campaign.


Anonymous Sources: Howard, stories like Dana Priest's and Anne Hull's on the conditions at Walter Reed clearly require the use of anonymous sources, as already evidenced by the consequences these vets have to further suffer for speaking out. But how in the world can anyone justify Cheney's use of "senior administration official" even if the transcript didn't give him away? Were reporters actually prepared to write the story with him as SAO if he hadn't blown his own cover? I realize that it costs these media outlets a ton of money to travel with the Veep and they might need to justify their expense by getting an interview with Cheney, but as an SAO? The story should have read "Vice President Cheney refused to go on the record..."

Howard Kurtz: First, Priest and Hull had almost everyone on the record. Second, when I reported on this absurd Cheney briefing last week, two reporters on the trip told me they had pressed for the vice president to go on the record (which he did only about his reaction to the Afghanistan bombing). But ultimately they went along, and even now could not confirm to me that the SAO was Cheney. So if Cheney had not used "I" several times, it would not have come out, because the seven journalists on the trip were bound by the agreement they made.


Saint Helens, Ore.: The AP said it wouldn't cover Paris Hilton as news, and made it about two days. What will it take to break the fascination of the media with Ms. Hilton, Spears, Smith and the like? War, storms and a crashing home market can't seem to do the trick. Any thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Just a wild guess: maybe readers like it? Or editors think that readers like it? For the record, the AP ban lasted a whole week until Paris was ticketed for driving with a suspended license.


Washington: Any word on why Congressman Jefferson has not been indicted yet? Are the U.S. Attorneys too busy with other things?

Howard Kurtz: The truth is we don't know, and I'm a bit surprised that the case has dragged on this long. I mean, how good a prosecutor do you have to be to make a case against someone with $90,000 in his freezer?


Crestwood, N.Y.: Hello Howard: I imagine you're getting inundated with blogger questions, so let's forget that and talk about the media that most Americans get their information from.

In all honesty, do you think that the major media gave the voters in the 2000 election a fair and accurate depiction of the qualifications, positions and character of the two candidates, Gore and Bush? Do you think the upcoming election will be covered with a greater concentration on issues of substance, or will there be an undue emphasis by the media on sensational and trivial tabloid issues that have little or no significance to the job that is being filled? So far, it looks like the latter to me.

Howard Kurtz: I think the media in 2000 got sidetracked onto some silly issues along the lines of Gore's sighing and whether he had claimed to visit a disaster with the FEMA director when it actually was the deputy director. But I also think there was a huge amount of coverage about the records and positions of Gore and Bush for anyone who wanted it. As for this campaign, what, you don't consider David Geffen attacking Hillary the most important challenge facing the country?


Washington: When do you think you will the press just might focus on a non-"media darlings" (i.e., HRC, Obama) running for president, such as Bill Richardson -- who has experience and might actually have something of substance to say?

Howard Kurtz: I've been wondering why Richardson hasn't attracted more coverage. I'd say that by the fall journalists will be so tired of the current frontrunners in both parties that we suddenly will "discover" one or two also-rans, declare them to have "momentum," and obsess over them for awhile.


San Francisco: Do we know whether Cheney got jobbed by the reporters, or did he want to be reported with the "I"?

Howard Kurtz: The White House put out an official verbatim transcript with all those I's -- the reporters on Air Force Two had nothing to do with it. And the transcript enabled the rest of us, who weren't bound by any ground rules, to conclude the obvious about the Senior Administration Official.


Re: Anonymous sources: Do you believe that reporters should burn anonymous sources who knowingly and deliberately provide them with misinformation or flat-out lies?

Howard Kurtz: I think a source who knowingly and deliberately lies has broken the contract of confidentiality with the journalist, who then must weigh whether he or she feels free to identify the person.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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