Critiquing the Press
Monday, March 26, 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."
Online Ugliness (Post, March 26)
The transcript follows.
San Francisco: What did you think of Katie Couric's "some say" construction during last night's 60-minutes questioning of the Edwardses? Seems to me she managed to get a lot of right-wing talking points into the discussion by ascribing them to "some people." Is this an honest journalistic technique? Shouldn't she just ask her questions, e.g. "Are you being ambitious?" or "Are you capitalizing on this?" Alternatively, she could have named the "some people" she was quoting, but I think most of them were Rush Limbaugh.
Howard Kurtz: I thought the questions were perfectly legitimate, and not right-wing talking points. Everyone is talking about this, and there's a real split of opinion about whether it makes sense for them to continue. You couldn't give John and Elizabeth Edwards all that national airtime and not ask those questions. In fact, John Edwards said they were legitimate questions, and one of the reasons they went on "60 Minutes," obviously, was to try to answer them in more depth than you can at a press conference or in a five-minute sit-down. I've been struck by how many people are criticizing what has to be the most personal and painful of decisions. Elizabeth has said, quite movingly, that for her, abandoning the campaign would be a decision to go home and prepare to die. I think it's a decision she gets to make for herself.
Northern Virginia: Howard, question regarding the headline and terminology used in today's Post story on foreclosures. In both the current washingtonpost.com headline and the lede the term "victim" is used. The word implies predation and an I see an implication that these people aren't smart enough to understand what they're signing when they apply for mortgages. Am I reading too much into this or is there a subtle racism to writing about immigrant "victims"?
washingtonpost.com: Foreclosure Wave Bears Down on Immigrants (Post, March 26)
Howard Kurtz: I couldn't agree more. I think it was a mistake to describe immigrants who are having their homes foreclosed upon as "victims" when there's no suggestion in the article that they were defrauded. We can have sympathy for them, sure, as we would for anyone losing his or her house. But don't they bear some responsibility for taking out high-interest loans for houses they could not really afford?
Arlington, Va.: Read your pieces on Hillary as Big Sister. A great, great ad. Who's Jose Antonio Vargas, by the way?
washingtonpost.com: A Brave New World of Political Skulduggery? (Post, March 23)
Howard Kurtz: Thanks. Jose is a Style section writer who is going to be concentrating on online media this campaign season.
Rochester, N.Y.: I've been struck by the difference between how news reporters and opinion writers have treated the U.S. Attorney purge. On the one hand you, have newsrooms devoting lots of resources to terrific coverage of what they (rightly) consider to be an important story. On the other, you have most opinion writers (especially at your own paper) laughing it off, calling it business as usual, and endlessly repeating the phrase "they serve at the president's pleasure." You've done a very good job at spelling out the differences in the typical practice of bringing in new attorneys with a new administration and the politically-motivated firings done by the Bush administration, so tell me: are you disappointed in most opinion writers' inability to understand these issues? Do you think this sort of thing justifies readers' stereotypes of opinion writers -- that they are pampered, out of touch and prone to recycling the conventional wisdom?
Howard Kurtz: Well, opinion writers are paid for their opinions. But I've seen more of a split, with some pooh-poohing the scandal as overblown and others saying it strikes at the heart of the justice system's credibility. I think it's fine to argue that there's no proof that the prosecutors were removed for purely partisan reasons, or that politics is always a factor in such selections. (Harder to wave away the serious discrepancies between what Alberto Gonzales has told Congress and the press and the evidence emerging from those e-mails. My column this morning looks at Justice's strategy for dealing with the press, as revealed in the e-mails.) But if I hear one more commentator recite the apples-and-oranges talking point that, oh, Clinton fired all 93 U.S. attorneys, I might be sick.
Washington: Mr. Kurtz, I'm a big fan of your column, and your position as media watchdog. But I have to say your colleague Hank Stuever won the week with Sunday's Question Celebrity:
"Outside this peaceful cocoon were two sources of noise: the constant Anna Nicole coverage and the far more irritating outcry over the constant Anna Nicole coverage. Media watchdog groups started releasing statistics of just how much airtime was going to Anna Nicole, in lieu of news from Iraq. This pious nagging has become the usual accompaniment whenever a bizarre or shocking celebrity occurrence briefly hogs all the air time and news hole: How far has America fallen that it is helpless to resist such pap? How dumb are we? How dumb are our media? These are not altogether bad questions... Is there some sort of nationwide cultural rehab for so many minds in the gutter? The argument falls apart. Those tut-tutters fail to understand that partakers of celeb gossip aren't all one dumb herd, but include many -- maybe a majority -- who view meta-mythological goings-on smartly, through a knowing prism (or so we tell ourselves). They also miss the most obvious fact: Anna Nicole was interesting alive, and fascinating dead."
As a smart gal with a weakness for celebrity news, thanks to Hank for making me feel better about pairing my Economist subscription with one for Us Weekly.
washingtonpost.com: Question Celebrity (Post, March 25)
Howard Kurtz: I, of course, do not engage in pious nagging. Only very enlightened and extremely hip nagging.
Reston, Va.: Why are the little guys shut out of broadcasting?
Howard Kurtz: They're not anymore. Check out YouTube.
Falls Church, Va.: Did you see George Will's column on Sunday? He recounts the story of a woman standing up on a wagon outside the White House during the War of 1812, unfurling her long hair, and declaring that she would cut it off if it would be used to hang James Madison. It seems a certain level of vile and violent discourse has been part of our democracy from the beginning. We like to think of ourselves as more refined and modern, but the old impulses are still there.
washingtonpost.com: Anger Is All the Rage (Post, March 25)
Howard Kurtz: It was a great anecdote. These days, of course, Ms. Longhair would just start a blog.
Fox News: Dear Howard: I love your chats -- enough so to skip my usual lunchtime gym workout!
Speaking of which, last week at the gym someone had on Fox News. They were asking Dem and Rep strategists about Gonzales. When introducing the Dem strategist, the anchorman gave his name and then described him as a "Democrat strategist." Putting aside why the strategist didn't object, my question is how can Fox be "fair and balanced" if it refers to the Democratic party by a pejorative only otherwise used by some conservative Republicans? Thanks.
Howard Kurtz: Don't get flabby on my account! I didn't see the segment and don't know who said it, but the "Democrat" formulation really bugs me. Bush recently said he wasn't aware that he uses it and wasn't trying to needle the other party.
Dunn Loring, Va.: MSNBC seems to be an outlet for Post reporters. That said, were you surprised when a guest on Hardball Friday called The Post a liberal paper and Chris Matthews corrected him and said that it used to be, but now it's a "neocon paper?" Fred Hiatt, at least, will be pleased.
Howard Kurtz: I wasn't surprised because I didn't see it. (MSNBC, by the way, has a news alliance with The Post, which accounts for some of these bookings.) Certainly the Post's editorial page, with its strong backing of the Iraq war, is far less liberal than the paper's old reputation. But it's silly to label the entire paper with an ideology, unless you make clear you're talking about the edit pages.
Right-Wingers?: For the record, Howard, if Katie Couric had been interested in channeling "right-wing" talking points last week, she would have bothered Edwards about his energy use at that big mansion of his, or asked about those Christian-bashing bloggers he and his wife hired, not tastelessly built ratings points on a cancer diagnosis.
Did you see any hypocrisy in Couric insisting Edwards take time off when Couric didn't take off a year during her husband's losing bout with cancer?
Howard Kurtz: But she WASN'T insisting that he take time off. She was asking whether he had considered it, or how he responded to criticism that he should suspend his campaign. People on television, myself included, often ask questions to elicit interesting answers or explore all sides of an issue, not because we are pushing something that we personally believe. Clearly, Katie Couric understands as well as anyone in the business the loss of a loved one to cancer and being torn between professional responsibilities and family life.
wiredog: When considering Online Ugliness, I wonder if anyone at washingtonpost.com has looked at Slashdot or other online forums to see how they deal with it. Washingtonpost.com has been discovered by the flamers and trolls and doesn't seem to have figured out how to deal with them, even though Slashdot had figured it out back in the '90s. A bad case of "Not Invented Here" Syndrome?
Howard Kurtz: I must confess ignorance as to how Slashdot does it. Obviously you don't want to discourage people from posting comments on your site, but neither do you want the site polluted by really foul stuff.
Washington: Howard -- I know everyone's been wringing their hands about the Politco's one-source error on Thursday with the Edwards announcement, but let's face it, if their source was correct you and others would be singing the praises of Web-based reporting and lamenting the future of newsprint, new paradigm in journalism, etc. So isn't it worth it for Politico and other online pubs to take risks? It seems the reward from the payoff is greater than the consequences of the occasional misfire.
Howard Kurtz: Actually, I wouldn't be signing the Politico's praises if the Edwards "scoop" had been right (though I read it regularly and think it does some very interesting and provocative journalism). I simply don't think it's a fabulous exclusive to find out what someone is going to say at a press conference an hour before they say it. We're all competitive in this business, but I'm far more impressed by anyone who writes or broadcasts a story that would not have come out otherwise.
San Francisco: To what do you attribute the recent discussions among pundits about Democrats needing caution not to "overreach?" This meme seems to have spread far and wide, and quickly. After only ten weeks in power, could it be that congressional Democrats truly worry the punditocracy with their investigations?
Howard Kurtz: It may be driven in part by the war-funding bills. But it's also driven by the fact that the Democrats are suddenly holding a lot of oversight hearings and issuing a lot of subpoenas -- something that Republican Congresses do only when there's a Democratic president -- while not winning final passage of the any of the "Six for '06" measures they ran on. But it is certainly early to make such judgments.
Richmond, Va.: I strongly resent the biased article by Brzezinski in the Post Outlook section yesterday implying that the "war on terror" is simply a mass media slogan engineered by the Bush administration. The implication is that there are no real international terrorists out there intending to attack the U.S. -- that this is all a domestic political and media phenomenon; if we simply do nothing and make nice, the terrorists will all go away. This is a good example of why liberal Democrats are not to be trusted to defend this country against its many international enemies, and hence do not deserve to occupy the White House. And speaking of Brzezinski, look at how the Carter Administration dealt with Iranian hostage-taking terrorists -- which may partly explain Iran's intransigent attitude today regarding nuclear weapons.
Howard Kurtz: There is no such thing as a "biased" article in an opinion section. If you read what a former national security adviser has to say in Outlook, you are getting his opinions about the state of the world. It's certainly fair to disagree, and to bring up his own record from the Carter days, but opinion pieces are supposed to be just that.
Ex-Californian: What did you think of long-time California Representative Pete Stark's declaration that he doesn't believe in a Supreme Being? Is this political suicide? I read that the Concerned Women were going after him. Speaking as a closet agnostic, I commend Stark's courage -- sometimes I feel like we're the last unacceptable minority in politics.
Howard Kurtz: I was glad he felt free to speak his mind, and wonder why it never came up before, since he's been in Congress for a long time.
Jacksonville, Fla.: Howie, does the reaction to the latest Attorney General e-mails show that, given the 24-hour news cycle and the bloggers, the "Friday night dump" rule no longer applies? It seems like it's more of an alert that there is something good to dig out of the pile, which makes trying to fly under the radar look even worse.
Howard Kurtz: I think it does still apply. Because news consumption is low on Saturday, and the network newscasts may or may not come back to the issue tonight, dumping documents on a Friday night remains an effective way to dampen coverage of embarrassing material. It's certainly less true in a 24-hour world of cable, Web sites and blogs, but imagine how much more attention those e-mails would have gotten had they be released this morning.
Boston: Howard -- something has to be done about the comments here and on other similar Web sites if they want anyone to take any of the comments seriously. Occasionally I will start to read them but usually will stop after a few because they get so bad. My suggestion would be to require people who post comments to register with a credit card. You can charge $5 per year to cover any costs of the system and it still essentially will be free, but the comments won't be anonymous, and if they get kicked off they won't be able to just go get another free e-mail account and return posting more vile comments.
Howard Kurtz: That doesn't strike me as realistic. I bet 98 percent of people would refuse to pay $5 for the privilege of commenting on a Web site, not in a medium where everything (except NYT columnists) is expected to be free. I think you hugely cut down on the problem if you require people to attach their full names (and maybe address, not to be published) to their postings. The paper, for instance, doesn't publish letters to the editor without such information. I don't know why The Post's site, and the Web in general, allowed themselves to be drawn into the talk radio model, where "Joe from Jersey" can spout off without giving his name. I certainly have more respect for folks who give their views without hiding behind a screen name.
San Francisco: Okay, I'll bite -- what's a "news alliance"? Do Post employees get paid for appearances on Countdown? Are scoops shared between the two outlets? I know there was some co-reporting of the Walter Reed story, but the phrase "news alliance" isn't familiar to some of your readers.
Howard Kurtz: I believe Post and Newsweek staffers are paid for their appearances, and there are occasionally joint journalistic efforts. But most of the "alliance" has to do with material shared, or linked, on the MSNBC and washingtonpost.com Web sites.
The Slashdot method, moderation: Basically, trusted users get to assign points to comments, +1, -1, with various qualifiers (Insightful, Funny, Troll, Flame-Bait, etc. (someday I hope to get a comment rated "+5, Troll", but I digress)). Readers can sort replies by comment score (highest first), and only see replies with certain scores or higher. It's not a perfect system and wouldn't work well in stories or blog posts that only get five or ten comments (but the blogger could moderate there). There are other things that can be done to help out, but that's a long essay. Click here to learn more about the Slashdot method.
Howard Kurtz: Interesting. But since we get about 2,000 comments a day, I wonder how even the most dedicated "trusted users" would have time to sit around rating other people's comments. Don't even trusted users have lives?
Washington: Do you believe The Politico aims to skew right? I always find the comments sections to be an interesting barometer at least of people who read, are involved, and have the time. The Politico's comments section looks like some you'd see a right-wing blog.
Howard Kurtz: I don't believe the Politico skews right, based both on my reading and the fact that I have known several of its highest-profile members for a long time. I don't think it makes sense to judge a publication based on the views of those who post comments. And remember, only a relatively small percentage of readers post comments, just as only a tiny percentage of talk radio listeners actually call the shows.
Re: Anonymous comments: Keep in mind that Madison, Hamilton and Jay published the Federalist papers anonymously.
Howard Kurtz: But they were eventually outed, weren't they?
Paris: Hi. I just returned home from work and have not had time to read your column. However I was watching last week as the Edwards gave their news conference. Immediately afterward the Washington Post homepage had an erroneous headline stating that Edwards was bowing out of the campaign. I don't know how long it stayed there but simply its presence shows that the headline writers had not themselves heard or seen the news conference. Any comments?
washingtonpost.com: For Post Web Site, It's A World Wide Whoops (Post, March 24)
Howard Kurtz: As you'll see in the linked story below, it was a production mistake that resulted in the wrong headline (written in advance as one of three possible versions) being up for all of 51 seconds. It was an embarrassing mistake, but not a journalistic one, for at the time when it was accidentally posted, Edwards had already announced that he was staying in the race.
Albany, N.Y.:"I'm far more impressed by anyone who writes or broadcasts a story that would not have come out otherwise." Guess that would be Josh Marshall these days. Do you think his journalism model will catch on? Is anyone else doing what he is?
Howard Kurtz: Well, there are a lot of bloggers who do good digging. It was the Huffington Post, not the MSM, that unmasked the employee of Obama's Web design firm who posted that anti-Hillary ad on YouTube. What someone like Josh Marshall (and comparable folks on the right) do besides reporting is linking and analyzing stories on the same subject from around the country, which might otherwise be ignored or seen as isolated.
Washington: The online ugliness is interesting but I think it's more a reflection of the general way in which people talk about politics now and in the past. I used to walk by a truck on my way to work every day with a bumper sticker that said "I wish Hillary had married O.J." -- and it was obviously not a homemade sticker, so this is out there. I wonder if it isn't always so bad to see the true colors of people who are arguing. I mean it's no surprise to me when people comment on immigration stories using racist stereotypes -- it shows who some of the people are on that side. Is it so bad to know who stands where?
Howard Kurtz: Except that we don't know WHO stands where if people are posting anonymously. Sure, it's hardly shocking that there are folks out there with some ugly opinions. The question for The Post and other Web sites is whether to give those folks a megaphone by allowing them to spew on your site.
New York: Hamilton et al. had plenty of time (4 whole years) to be anonymous: 1787 -- Federalist Papers first published. 1792 -- authors "outed" in a French edition.
Howard Kurtz: These days it would only take a couple of cable news cycles. But that's a great little history lesson.
Washington:"But it's silly to label the entire paper with an ideology, unless you make clear you're talking about the edit pages." Well, without getting into the nitty gritty of whether The Post is indeed a liberal paper, you'd agree that political bias, if widespread among reporters at a paper would impact reporting choices, right? Story selection, emphasis, word choices can all be used to convey not just the relevant facts of a story but also the writer's opinion of them, even if not an opinion piece.
Howard Kurtz: Of course. And if every reporter on the paper was biased in the same direction, and it constantly showed in their work, then it would certainly be fair to point that out. The conservatives who think The Post is too hard on the Bush administration loved all the investigative reporting that the paper did on the Clinton administration, and the opposite is true for liberals. My main point is that no paper should be tagged with a label because of its editorial page. Witness the Wall Street Journal.
Seattle: Howard, I wanted to share another thought on Couric's questioning. I watched last night and recognized where those particular questions were coming from, but while I am supportive of Edwards' candidacy, I didn't take issue with them. I think that if you willingly join the circus that is an American presidential election, you willingly open yourself to questions that ordinary citizens wouldn't have to answer. Political motives behind cancer announcements are just one in a long litany of silly questions we expect our presidential candidates to answer (if I recall correctly, McCain had to speak at length about his melanoma some years back). That said, I think both Edwardses handled the questions brilliantly and the couple ended up looking strong, well spoken and comfortable, at least on my television screen.
Howard Kurtz: Thanks for weighing in. To be sure, no one forced John and Elizabeth Edwards to go on "60 Minutes."
wiredog: Some of us are fairly well known by our screen names. Heck, it's my Washington Post login ID; also Slashdot, Daily Kos (registered defensively there, but not actually used), hulver.com, Gmail, and a few other places. My "real" name doesn't show up in a Google search, but wiredog does (although the top results are an ISP in Norfolk -- I'm not really very (at all) important).
Howard Kurtz: Well, it's nice to be such a frequent poster that you're sort of known by your screen name, but since you're proud of your views, I still don't get the insistence on secrecy. And again, with 2,000 comments a day, it would be hard for even the most diligent reader to keep track of all the wiredogs out there.
Thanks for the chat, folks.
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