Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 11, 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."

From the Local News to a Higher Calling (Post, June 11)

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Falls Church, Va.: Bravo for your piece on Brody. It was thoughtful and refreshingly lacked the sneering that the MSM so often exudes towards those who aren't part of the club, either physically or ideologically. With God-talk and faith dominating the election cycle this time around, what are the chances that we'll see more openly religious journalists becoming mainstreamed and accepted in the big media newsrooms?

Howard Kurtz: I don't do sneering (except maybe when talking about Paris Hilton).

I think David Brody of CBN is doing interesting work and was well worth writing about. I also think the MSM is doing a better job than a few years ago of covering religion; in fact, Brody's blog gave high marks to The Washington Post and the New York Times for recent pieces on evangelical Christians. But it's telling that most of the major networks don't have religion correspondents.

As for "openly religious" journalists, there are certainly lots of them at major news organizations, but it's their job to report, not talk about their own feelings of faith.

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Fred: Howie, I was a bit baffled about how your guest on "Informed Sources" dismissed the plot to blow up the petro tanks at JFK airport as not much of a story. They mentioned such things as that the plotters were in their fifties and sixties, they did not have financing yet, they did not have materials yet. It is not too much of a secret that a gasoline tank can be exploded without much effort. In fact, a lightening strike has caused a very large storage tank to explode, which can cause a chain reaction. I prefer that such plots be caught before they are financed and supplied! By the way, I work in the oil industry and have seen first-hand how a leaking valve from a gas line can cause a fire. The source of ignition was a nearby truck which had its engine running.

Howard Kurtz: It's "Reliable Sources," by the way, and I don't think we'll be changing the name. But that was the same explanation the New York Times's national editor gave for not putting the story on Page 1 (which the new ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, disagreed with yesterday). It's obviously a good thing that federal agents could infiltrate this ring and make sure no plot got carried out. It's also obvious that these people had no weapons, no financing and were a long way from pulling anything off -- breathless TV coverage to the contrary.

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Port Jefferson, N.Y.: Mr. Kurtz, Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. There's been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about the lack of coverage of Mitt Romney's erroneous statement that Saddam Hussein didn't allow inspectors into Iraq before the war, and Paul Krugman joined the chorus in his column on Friday, calling out The Washington Post specifically (though I don't remember seeing any coverage in the Times either). At what point do the blogs become part of "the mainstream media" -- because I certainly saw a lot of coverage of Romney's gaffe, albeit mostly in the blogs. Secondly, has The Post ever had a "Campaign Watch" column that dissects candidates' statements for accuracy? I'd be curious to read it.

Howard Kurtz: We don't have a separate column but consider it part of our day-to-day responsibility to correct factual misstatements made by politicians, whether in debates, speeches, congressional hearings and so on. The failure of The Post and other news organizations to pounce on Romney's error -- this was no trivial matter, after all -- was significant.

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Vienna, Va.: Brody clearly "takes sides" when it comes to the big picture of religion, and he acknowledges such. Do you think that has any reflection on his credibility as a journalist? Full disclosure: I attend the same church he does, though that's a really big church and we've never met.

Howard Kurtz: He openly talks about his faith, and he works for Christian Broadcasting Network, but the proof is in the journalistic pudding: Is his work fair? The Democrats seem to think so, as Barack Obama's spokesman told me for the column.

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Columbia, Md.: I love your column and show, but you committed what I consider to be a faux pas yesterday on your show. In introducing your second panel of guests, you said the following (straight from the CNN transcript, emphasis mine):

Joining us now, Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic"; Amy Holmes, conservative commentator here in Washington; and Jake Tapper, senior national correspondent for ABC News.

Why did you not label either Michelle Cottle or Jake Tapper as liberals,or at least identify their political philosophy the same way you referred to Amy Homes as a conservative commentator? Other than that, keep up the good work!

Howard Kurtz: Michelle Cottle was on as a liberal guest and that was clear because she is associated with a (mostly) liberal magazine. Amy Holmes has no such association at the moment, and in fact asked to be identified as a conservative commentator (she previously worked for Sen. Bill Frist). Jake Tapper is an ABC News correspondent who is not an advocate of either side.

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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, with the media talking of a Libby pardon, shouldn't there be a little context given about how Bush 41 pardoned the Iran-Contra felons? Some of these guys even ended up in the Bush II administration. I mean, shouldn't the media be reporting on administrations pardoning their own people convicted of crimes? I know if there is some context that Clinton's Rich pardon will be brought up, but somehow I don't think that pardoning a contributor is on par with pardoning one of your own guys who committed a felony on your behalf.

Howard Kurtz: I think the history is relevant. The New York Times ran such a piece Thursday, reviewing all the high-profile presidential pardons going back to Nixon and including Cap Weinberger and Marc Rich.

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Alexandria, Va.: I don't understand the outcry over the media coverage of Paris Hilton. While I agree that Paris should not have buried news about Gen. Pace, there is a legitimate news angle to the Paris story. Unlike the fight about Anna Nicole's baby or Lindsay Lohan's latest trip to rehab, the Paris story contains legitimate issues of class and equal application of the justice system, as has been fleshed out in numerous articles in the L.A. Times. The 24/7 media generally spends too much time on celebrities, but in this case there was some justification.

Howard Kurtz: Legitimate story? Legitimate angle? Absolutely. Worth dozens of hours of virtually nonstop cable news coverage -- covering her car's journey to the L.A. courthouse as if it were O.J.'s white Bronco -- while other stories (such as the cashiering of the nation's top military officer) are blown off? I don't think so.

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Bristow, Va.: Did you see the ombud piece in the Chicago Tribune where they complained that the use of "Hillary" in headlines is too informal and insulting? Should copy editors consider running "Rodham Clinton" headlines to avoid confusion? Aren't brevity and feminism at odds here?

washingtonpost.com: Are we getting to be a little too familiar? (Chicago Tribune, June 8)

Howard Kurtz: I addressed this in today's column. I used to have the same concern until HRC began running for office and promoting herself as "Hillary" on her Web site, in literature, etc. If it's good enough for her, it's good enough for me.

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Richmond, Va.: Can you explain how, with all the horrors going on in the world, CNN and MSNBC would interrupt their regular programming to go live to Paris Hilton leaving her house and going back to jail -- and following her car, like the O.J. Bronco chase, and then following her into the jail? And then this: "Hardball" with Chris Matthews devoted half of his political program to talk about Hilton, and there was a segment on Keith Olbermann. What in the world is going on?

Howard Kurtz: Some sort of mass psychosis, I guess. The Paris coverage on cable was so breathless and relentless that you might never have guessed we were talking about an heiress and a 45-day jail term. But it was such a tsunami that it forced everyone else (network evening newscasts, major newspapers) to deal with the great Hilton saga as well. Here are two examples. On Thursday, Brian Williams, unlike Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, refused to cover the story; by Friday he had it near the top of the newscast. On Friday, the day after Hilton was sprung from jail early, the New York Times devoted all of one paragraph to the event; the next day the paper put it on the front page.

On my show yesterday I played clips of Fox, CNN and MSNBC bailing out of the ouster of Joint Chiefs chairman Peter Pace as quickly as humanly possible and immediately saying, "Let's go back to L.A. for a live update blah blah blah," despite the fact that nothing was happening there at that moment.

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Centreville, Va.: Speaking of religious journalists, thanks for drawing out ABC's Robin Roberts on her faith on CNN a while back. She is a full-fledged morning anchor now, but people don't seem to acknowledge that. When she accepted an invitation to a White House state dinner, few complained, as if she wasn't in an important news position. Will she grow in fame?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know, although being the co-host of "Good Morning America" is a pretty prominent platform. But Roberts told me she had a tremendous response the first time she spoke openly about her faith on the show, and I appreciate you recalling that.

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Panda Pregnant!: You recently have been talking on CNN about an article on certain "people" magazines which run stories on supposed pregnancies, divorces or other events in the lives of stars. The facts often do not back up the stories in the long run but the headlines are designed to attract the eye of unsuspecting readers. My question is: Didn't the front page of the Washington Post Web site do the same thing when it ran a story last week about a possible panda pregnancy at the zoo? Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Happy Birth Day to Mei? (Post, June 8)

Howard Kurtz: Hmmm ... can a very large bear who eats bamboo really be in the same category as Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston and Katie Holmes? Does the panda have an agent? And if the story wasn't true, why hasn't the panda denied it?

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Somerdale, N.J.: "As for 'openly religious' journalists, there are certainly lots of them at major news organizations, but it's their job to report, not talk about their own feelings of faith."

I've noticed that NBC has stacked the deck with a lot of Catholics. Why hasn't this ever been pointed out? I mean, the percentage of big Catholics is way higher than the percentage as a whole in the U.S. -- Russert, Matthews, Williams etc. It also seems they do a lot more papal reporting. Is it just me or is there some sort of secret Catholic handshake needed to get a big job at NBC?

Howard Kurtz: "Stacked the deck"? Do we really want to start counting anchors and correspondents by religious affiliation?

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New York: I know columnists are given more leeway than straight reporters, but does Washington Post allow its columnists to write abject falsehoods? The first sentence in Andrew Ferguson column is "you can't really blame Al Gore for not using footnotes in his new book, 'The Assault on Reason.' " But if you take two seconds to open Mr. Gore's book, you see that it has extensive footnotes -- 20 pages worth. Does The Post have any standards at all for its op-ed pages, or are we back to the days when anyone can make up anything they want about Al Gore?

Howard Kurtz: It's a piece in Outlook, the Sunday opinion section. Because I don't have the book, I can't rule on whether the book contained footnotes or not, but certainly editors try to prevent factual errors even in opinion pieces.

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Washington: Using "Hillary" gets the candidate into people's memories without having to contend with the psychological alarms that go off when some people see and hear the word "Clinton." Using a word without the Whitewater/Lewinsky baggage can make the difference in selling a candidate to some voters. On that note, did David S. Broder have any comment on the rising popularity of David S. Brody?

Howard Kurtz: Whether you call her Hillary, Mrs. Clinton, Senator, the former first lady or anything else, is anyone really going to forget about all the baggage, pro and con, that she accumulated in the '90s as the president's wife? I mean, this is one of the most famous people on the planet, and a woman about whom almost everyone seems to have an opinion.

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Washington: I agree that the Paris coverage was excessive. That said, when my brother text messaged me Friday afternoon to let me know Paris was back in jail, I went straight to CNN for nonstop coverage and I watched the coverage for about an hour. So I'm guilty of promoting the excess coverage.

Howard Kurtz: You are! It's all because of you that the cable networks do this sort of thing. I'm glad to see you taking responsibility.

At least during the Anna Nicole frenzy there was an actual news event: a famous B-list celebrity had died. Here the stakes just seem so ... small. I know that springing Paris after three days raises a question about celebrity justice, and that should have been covered, but I suspect many news organizations secretly were thrilled to have a chance to wallow in the celebrity cesspool by dressing up the story as a matter of judicial fairness.

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Laurel, Md.: Have there been any reporters that have proclaimed themselves to be atheists?

Howard Kurtz: Christopher Hitchens comes to mind, in light of his recent book attacking organized religion, but he is obviously a commentator as well as reporter.

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Washington: I don't know if I am mis-remembering but I thought I saw the headline for your articles on the wives of candidates and it said "The Girls of 2008" Are you serious? Did The Post actually just call a group of accomplished and adult women girls? I was a bit appalled. I know you don't write your own headlines but have others noted this?

washingtonpost.com: The Girls of 2008 (Post, June 6)

Howard Kurtz: It was a tongue-in-cheek headline based on what some commentators were saying about the hotness -- or lack thereof -- of the candidates' wives (which, for the record, I do not believe should be the criteria for judging them or their spouses). I take full responsibility.

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Chicago: In the Reliable Sources discussion on the JFK Terror plot, why wasn't Keith Olbermann brought up? He was a TV person who looked into the story and had an expert on who said that the fuel system had lot of safety devices that would have prevented a mass explosion and also added that it takes a lot to ignite jet fuel. Olbermann's story on the lexis of terror and politics and the media deserves to be looked into. Also, why do commentators make the comparison of the judgments against Clinton and Libby? Clinton copped a deal and I'm sure if Libby had copped a deal he wouldn't be looking at 30 months, probably probation. It's apples and orange, a lazy comparison, but one that I'm sure stirs up conservatives.

Howard Kurtz: Clinton copped a deal? The special prosecutor decided not to bring charges. Libby chose to go to trial. In that trial, he was convicted, and then a judge sentenced him. It's called the rule of law. I won't even get into how one case was about sex and the other the outing of a CIA operative.

We had a clip of Olbermann for that segment but wound up cutting it for time reasons. Nothing more complicated than that.

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Bowie: When dealing with a semi-story like Paris Hilton or Anna Nicole's baby, at what point does the coverage itself turn it into news? The Post (to its credit) devoted little coverage to John Mark Karr; but when everyone else is blanketing the story, what kind of space should The Post devote to keeping its readers up on the "what every is talking about" angle?

washingtonpost.com: Questions Surround JonBenet Suspect (Post, Aug. 18, 2006)

Howard Kurtz: I think we should resist being stampeded, but at the same time, you can't take an ostrich-like approach to the news. In the case of Paris H., The Post ran Style section pieces both days that treated the whole shebang as what it was, a celebrity spectacle driven mainly by television. There was also a Gene Robinson column analyzing the eternal mystery of Paris's celebrity. I believe you can bring smart analysis to these frenzies without getting swept away or so overdoing it that you commit the same excesses as those you're writing about.

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Arlington, Va.: One thing the Hilton story did was minimize the extensive coverage that CNN and others give to factory fires in, say, Houston or Atlanta, which allow for showing pretty vivid film.

Howard Kurtz: Either there were no fires that day or they went unrecorded.

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Howard Kurtz: Hmmm ... can a very large bear who eats bamboo really be in the same category as Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston and Katie Holmes?: Only in terms of its contribution to society ... though the panda may be ahead.

Howard Kurtz: Ouch! (Ba-da boom.)

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New York: Howard, I have a random question, but thought you'd have the answer. Very often when I see TV news stories citing obesity statistics, they have stock footage of overweight people in public. I suppose it's a visual for those who don't know what fat people look like. My question: Do the people in those shots know they are being used to illustrate a story on obesity? I know their faces usually are not shown, but still I've always imagined it would be awkward to have a friend calls up to say that they thought they saw your backside on TV. Can TV news programs simply do that without permission?

Howard Kurtz: If you're walking down the street in a public place, you're fair game for the cameras. But television obviously tries to avoid singling out some unsuspecting person and making them a symbol of a problem (such as obesity) both because that would look cruel, and because that could give rise to a legal complaint. How successful such a suit would be if the person were in fact obese, I don't know.

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Rolla, Mo.: Follow up Romney gaffe question. So will CNN bring this up at the next Republican debate for clarification by Romney?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think there's another debate for awhile, so perhaps CNN should deal with the subject in a news story, if the network hasn't already. But the NYT, LAT, WP, CBS, NBC and ABC were just as capable of spotting the error, which was carried on national television, and they didn't.

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Arlington, Va.: When Ted Koppel had a "Nightline" program that simply stated the names of our military who died in Iraq, he was chastised for being ant-Iraq War. Now The Post periodically runs a spread of The Faces of the Fallen and Stephenanopoulos lists this week's dead on "This Week," and nobody seems to complain. I guess that we are past the point of thinking that the dead are only an advertisement for the anti-war position.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it was the first time Koppel did it, either. But it was during the 2004 election, a time of heightened political sensitivities, and a majority of the public had not yet turned against the war. But still: whether you support this war or hate this war, what is wrong with recognizing those who gave their lives in the conflict?

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Bethesda, Md.: Is Paris Hilton overload really any worse than all of the fawning for the last week on radio and TV for the end of "The Sopranos"? Tons and tons of publicity for a show on a pay channel that less than 10 percent of the population watches. (Besides, the story should have been how HBO foolishly cancelled the superior "Deadwood.")

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's a show a lot of people feel passionately about -- and it is, after all, fiction, unlike Hilton's real-life antics. But I long have wondered about the amount of media space and airtime devoted to a program that most people can't watch because they're not HBO subscribers.

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Seattle: I thought that was a great piece in Sunday's Post about the five myths of the Libby episode: simply pointing out five false statements (Plame was not a covert operative, for instance) that still have general circulation. Could the reporters at The Post do more pieces like that?

washingtonpost.com: 5 Myths About Scooter and the Slammer (Post, June 10)

Howard Kurtz: I think such pieces are a real contribution.

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Washington: "Howard Kurtz: If you're walking down the street in a public place, you're fair game for the cameras."

Can I get the legal background on this statement? If this is true, why do reality and prank shows blur the faces of bystanders?

Howard Kurtz: Well, because there are a zillion lawyers in this country.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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