Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, July 31, 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."

At CNN, Taking On the Cable Guys (washingtonpost.com, July 27)

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Hinsdale, Mass.: Ted Stevens is on the front page of the Post this morning. How does an article like this effect a Senator? Do they usually stay in the background until the investigation is over, or will he continue to make noise? Should we expect another "Bridge to Nowhere"?

washingtonpost.com: Alaska Senator's Home Is Raided (Post, July 31)

Howard Kurtz: I would say a bigger problem for Ted Stevens than being on the front page of The Washington Post is being on the front page of the Alaska papers over this scandal, which already has ensnared his son. Stevens clearly doesn't intend to say much for now, and his statement included this tepid sentence: "I urge Alaskans not to form conclusions based on incomplete and sometimes incorrect reports in the media." I'm sorry, I don't think blaming the media works here, especially if you don't specify what the supposedly incorrect reports are. It wasn't the media, it was the FBI that raided the senator's home in this probe of whether his vacation home was lavishly renovated by a company whose CEO has pleaded guilty to bribery.

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Dearborn, Mich.: Your story on Campbell Brown was very good. Although she was mad about being passed over for the "Today" chair, how is she possibly going to make the 8 p.m. CNN slot a success? Isn't that a very uphill battle?

Howard Kurtz: Brown is the first to say that it's an uphill battle, as I quoted her in the piece. She didn't say she was "mad" about not getting Katie Couric's seat at "Today" after four years of cohosting "Weekend Today" -- she said she really wanted the job and that not getting it caused her to reassess her professional options.

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Midwest: Reports this morning say that the Bancroft family has accepted the deal to sell the Wall Street Journal to the Murdoch-owned News Corporation. While I am no fan of the Journal's editorial stances, it saddens me to see this quasi-independent, well-regarded news organization swallowed up by the Murdoch operation, which assuredly is not the poster child for responsible, objective journalism.

Howard Kurtz: It's been clear to me for some time that Murdoch was going to get control of Dow Jones. In fact, the final vote of the Bancroft family was closer than I expected. Certainly, many of the people who work at the Journal are concerned about Murdoch's history of meddling with the journalism of his media properties, but I interviewed some who said that Murdoch failing would also have consequences in that it would likely lead to serious cutbacks and layoffs.

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Phoenix: So, is Campbell Brown nuts?

Howard Kurtz: After spending some time with her, I think I can reassure my readers that she seems quite sane.

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Austin, Texas: Howard, is it just reflexive now for media people (like yourself or Debra Howell, etc.) to circle the wagons around your fellow reporters? The volume of complaints The Post received subsequent to the Hillary Clinton "cleavage" story (or non-story) was overwhelming. Yet you and others point to the Pulitzer the reporter won in the past as somehow legitimizing this story. As if someone with a Pulitzer couldn't make a mistake ... doesn't the sheer volume of complaints mean that perhaps the public doesn't agree with your opinions? And does it concern you at all that there seems to be a disconnect between what journalists consider news and what the public considers news?

washingtonpost.com: Cleavage & the Clinton Campaign Chest (Post, July 28)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know why you portray me as defending Robin Givhan's column. I was the first newspaper reporter to write about the Clinton campaign slamming The Post in a fundraising letter -- we immediately posted the story online with a big headline -- and I quoted all sides: the fundraising pitch ("grossly inappropriate," etc.), Clinton adviser Ann Lewis, Givhan and the deputy Style editor.

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Dryden, N.Y.: There was an excellent political story published yesterday in the L.A. Times. It detailed Sen. Clinton's connection with the Indian Tata group and the way it (and she) manipulate job shortages in upstate New York to obtain visas for the company's employees. I thought it would tear up the blogosphere; instead, all I read about was cleavage. Do you think the political blogosphere is slipping into the lowest-common-denominator that often marks the mainstream press? Thank you for the chat.

washingtonpost.com: Clinton woos the outsourcers feared by U.S. workers (Los Angeles Times, July 30)

Howard Kurtz: I'm a fan of the blogosphere, but cleavage is apparently hard to resist -- not just for bloggers but for newspaper columnists (Ruth Marcus, Judith Warner in the New York Times). And it's worth noting that story got a second wind when the Clinton camp put out that fundraising letter, and the campaign knew full well that by going public it would generate more attention than the Givhan piece had received in the first place. The whole thing really was dying down when Hillary's side put out that letter.

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The Web site and your column: Howie, it seems like it's getting harder and harder to find your column every day. It was bad enough when the link to the day's column appeared in a different place every day. Some days it doesn't appear at all, and that's not just on days where there is no column. But now, the old reliable menus on the columns & blogs home page have been removed. On top of that, if I stumble onto a column, it's impossible to find out if it's the most recent, because the link on the side leads to a page that is supposed to link to all of your recent columns, but instead links to a single random column (currently the one from July 17). What gives? I know there's probably nothing you can do about it, but does it drive you as nuts as it drives me?

washingtonpost.com: Complaint forwarded to our opinions team. This may help until that link has been fixed.

Howard Kurtz: I was off yesterday and didn't write a column today, but I've had many complaints like this for quite awhile. Sometimes my column is billboarded underneath a news story on the home page, if they're on the same topic; sometimes it's just listed under "Columns & Blogs." The quickest way to find it is just to type my name into the search box at the top of the page.

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Boston: Who in your mind is doing the best reporting on the NSA wiretapping/data mining/"other intelligence activities" controversy? Why isn't there more media focus on the "other intel activities" considering much of the senior Department of Justice leadership was willing to resign because it was illegal? Isn't the fact the administration potential was committing a crime from 9/11 to March 10, 2004, newsworthy enough for more consistent coverage from the time it came up in the New York Times/USA Today a few years back? Frontline did a decent piece on it last year.

Howard Kurtz: It was the New York Times that broke the story, of course, and they came back with another good piece the other day about "data mining" being the focus of that argument between Gonzales and other administration officials involving the legality of the then-secret program.

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Atlanta: While you are right to point out that "cleavage" story was a style piece by fashion critic Robin Givhan, I think the big problem is that most people read the story on the washingtonpost.com Web site, where the story was given equal play with straight news reporting of the great issues of our time. In other words, the Web presentation of the story was missing some key context.

Howard Kurtz: You make a fair point. And in much of the broadcast pickup, it was "The Washington Post says..." One Web account even said the story was on the front page. People are free to dismiss the column or argue that The Post shouldn't have published it, but it was a piece by the paper's fashion writer, who often critiques the wardrobe choices of politicians, and ran on Page C1, the front of Style.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you believe Fox News -- namely Roger Ailes -- is encouraging GOP Presidential candidates to duck out of the CNN You Tube debate? If so, isn't that quite a hypocritical stance to take? I mean, if you can't face real questions on YouTube, how can you stand up to terrorists?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't seen any suggestion that Ailes has had anything to do with it; nor do I think the candidates necessarily would take his advice. CNN says the debate is in the process of being rescheduled, but it's pretty clear that some of the GOP contenders are wary of answering questions from YouTubers. Mitt Romney says presidential candidates shouldn't have to answer questions from a snowman. To which I say: Governor, how are you going to deal with Osama bin Laden if you can't deal with a snowman?

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San Diego: Most blogs, articles, and opinion pieces on washingtonpost.com allow for comments to be made by readers. Not so on your Media Notes. Why?

Howard Kurtz: I have no idea. No one ever has raised it with me.

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Rolla, Mo.: Campbell Brown is married to Dan Senor, Andrea Mitchell to Greenspan; I know these were/are not traditional conflicts of interest, but of all the people to find in the world, can prominent newscasters not get involved with those they cover?

Howard Kurtz: Senor is no longer part of the administration, and hasn't been since they've been engaged and married, as far as I can tell.

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Bethesda, Md.: Last night on NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams was announcing a string of deaths of prominent people: Ingmar Bergman, Tom Snyder, and Bill Walsh, and then Marvin Zindler. I wondered why Zindler -- whom I'd never heard of -- was up there with these household names and it turned out he was a reporter for an NBC affiliate. And then Williams reported on the death of an NBC news producer who was even less well-known. This got me thinking about how the media seem to lose some objectivity when reporting on their own. Sure, it's a nice gesture to acknowledge a colleague's life, but doesn't this practice erode some of the media's credibility by favoring members of their profession?

Howard Kurtz: A small problem with your conspiracy theory: Zindler actually worked for an ABC affiliate, and had enough of a niche that others did stories on him as well. In general, do the deaths of media people get a little more attention from the media? I wouldn't quarrel with that. Williams did more than the other networks last night on the death of Tom Snyder, maybe because NBC had the file tape available (including footage of Dan Aykroyd's brilliant Saturday Night Live parody of Snyder). ABC did more on its entertainment critic Joel Siegel.

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Re: Campbell Brown: In your opinion, how is the jump to a low-ratings time slot helping her career?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it obviously depends on whether it remains a low-rated time slot. Still, having a nightly show with your name on it, one that is built around you, is not chopped liver, and is a great journalistic challenge as well. Campbell is hardly the first network journalist to make the leap. Soledad O'Brien, who also cohosted "Weekend Today," jumped to CNN and became cohost of "American Morning." John Roberts, the former CBS White House correspondent, is now the cohost of "American Morning." And Keith Olbermann was a Fox sportscaster before joining MSNBC. In all these cases, you're trading a bigger audience for an organization that is tightly focused on news and talk about the news.

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Washington: Howard -- Re: Ted Stevens -- you have to love the old-fashioned approach to graft that is alleged in today's story. The guy who has pleaded guilty evidently walked around dispensing wads of $100 bills!

Howard Kurtz: I noticed that! Who does that any more?

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Fort Belvoir, Va.: This whole "cleavage" thing is driving me crazy. What part of "Fashion Writer published in the Style section" don't people get? For the Clinton campaign to use Givhan's article for fundraising is silly. She is no Ann Coulter, that's for sure. If one of The Post's political reporters had written about Sen Clinton's cleavage in the A section, then we could have a discussion about how low political reporting has gotten. We're not there yet.

Howard Kurtz: I agree. But that doesn't let The Post completely off the hook. Even a Style section column by a fashion writer still represents a decision by the paper to devote precious newsprint to the subject. Those who think it's trivial and insulting, whack away. But I hardly think it's fair to suggest that The Post is covering cleavage instead of  health care and Iraq and all the other campaign issues to which we've devoted acres of news space.

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Arlington, Va.: Plunging necklines or bosoms? On the one hand, I think the Hilary fashion/cleavage story is legitimate news. This is something that Hilary and all professional women wrestle with. On the other hand, I think it is disingenuous for Givhan to claim that she was writing about a plunging neckline, not Hilary's bosoms. That's what cleavage is! Although many people are upset with her for writing the story at all, I think what really raised people's ire was her sometimes flippant attitude (perhaps revealing her own discomfort writing about Hilary's bosoms). Would you agree?

Howard Kurtz: I think Givhan touched some kind of nerve, and the fact that she was writing about the Democratic presidential frontrunner just boosted it into the media stratosphere, especially with the campaign's letter of outrage. Myself, I didn't think Hillary was wearing anything that you wouldn't see walking down any city street.

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Silver Spring, Md.: So, news just hit the wire that the Dow Jones/News Corp deal is done. What are your thoughts on this? I am less upset that the Wall Street Journal becomes part of News Corp. (I'll freely admit I hate Fox News) and more upset that it is the continued consolidation of news outlets into large corporations.

washingtonpost.com: News Corp., Dow Jones Deal Expected Today (Reuters, July 31)

Howard Kurtz: On that point, though, the train left the station a long time ago. Disney and General Electric control networks, Time Warner controls cable networks and magazines, and News Corp. already owned Fox, Fox News, the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, the Times of London, the London Sun, HarperCollins, 20th Century Fox and MySpace, among others.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think the people complaining about Robin Givhan's article on Hillary Clinton's blouse are the same people who complained about her article about Dick Cheney's parka?

Howard Kurtz: Uh, probably not.

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D.C. Metro and Hillary's cleavage: I'm the first to say that Hillary's cleavage was an insult to her and all women -- shouldn't happen in the 21st century. That being said, who really cares about Hillary's cleavage? I mean -- come on people -- there are more important things to worry about, including Gonzogate and an inept and "not so smart" administration, let alone Congress and the Iraqi Parliament on break for a month while our soldiers are dying in the biggest kitty litter pan in the world.

Howard Kurtz: There sure are more important things to worry about. But again, the Hillary campaign chose not to put out a fundraising letter about Alberto Gonzales or the Iraq war, but about one Style section piece focusing on a couple of square inches of her anatomy.

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Washington: Howard: a Post article last week on Fred Thompson referred to the American Association for Justice -- which used to be known as the American Association of Trial Lawyers -- as (and I'm paraphrasing here) "the group representing trial lawyers." I just wanted to say how refreshing I found this. Instead of reprinting the spin, The Post called an organization, objectively, what it is. Given all the phony grassroots groups out there, I'd love to see more of this.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't even know the group had changed its name. But journalists definitely have a responsibility to explain what these organizations are and who's behind them, especially when they have innocuous-sounding names like Committee for America's Future.

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Washington: Has the media simply given up on questioning Sen. Vitter about his apparent use of prostitutes in the District? I think it has been a couple of weeks since he returned from his weeklong exile, and the press seems to have all but forgotten about him.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know that the Louisiana press has forgotten about him, but you're right that he has slipped off the national media radar. Reporters have no ability to force any public figure to answer questions. On the other hand, Sen. Vitter may not be able to call a press conference on some pet issue, because journalists undoubtedly would raise some of the questions he steadfastly has refused to answer.

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San Francisco: Good morning and thanks for chatting today. What's your take on Bill O'Reilly's recent jihad against the Kos Web site and convention? Is there much overlap between O-Heads and Kossacks? What impact can O'Reilly hope to have here?

Howard Kurtz: O'Reilly is trying to make Democratic presidential candidates who attend this week's Kos convention pay a price by depicting it as a hate site. But the examples he has cited all seem to involve what individual commenters have posted there, not Kos and his regular band of contributors. Well, hateful stuff gets posted at every Web site, including Washingtonpost.com, and including BillOReilly.com. Some places are better than others at purging such offensive material, but it can be a huge task on a popular site.

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Re: Robin Givhan: Why don't you guys post some of her other columns ( the Dick Cheney one, the one about Dubya wearing Crocs with dark socks) so folks can get a taste of what Givhan's work is ordinarily like?

washingtonpost.com: An Image a Little Too Carefully Coordinated (Post, July 22, 2005)

washingtonpost.com: A New Leader's True Colors (Post, March 24, 2006)

Howard Kurtz: I think that would be a fine idea. And we're doing it here.

When we talked about this on "Reliable Sources" on Sunday, I made a point of putting up pictures of Cheney's parka (worn at an international gathering to commemorate Auschwitz) and Condi's calf-length boots to show that this is what Robin Givhan does for a living.

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Kansas City, Mo.: Was Clinton's cleavage story really even "new" news? The National Review had a snarky piece in June 2006 about Sen. Clinton wearing something similar, and the NR made a prediction at the time, saying they expected a "Washington Post Style section piece by a Pulitzer Prize winner about Hillary's sex-appeal advantage." A year late but apparently the NR was right about the story; not sure about any advantage.

Howard Kurtz: I just checked that, and in my humble opinion the cleavage is practically invisible. (Little did I know that my years of journalistic training would be employed squinting at photos of a female senator in a search for a telltale piece of skin!) But there's a difference between two paragraphs on a National Review blog and a full column in The Washington Post.

For those who think this is an utterly stupid topic and blame the media for keeping the story alive, we sure are getting a lot of questions about it in this chat.

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Houston: As a transplanted Washingtonian, I understand Bethesda's consternation regarding the mention of Marvin Zindler's passing as a national news story. Marvin's reporting often also was listed as the inspiration for the play/move "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Trust me, Marvin would not be the taste of those in the District, but he was a great man who helped many less-fortunate folks in Houston, and should get some national due.

Howard Kurtz: Duly noted.

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Lansdale, Pa.: Does this mean that News Corp will be responsible for tabulating the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Do news corporations that quote this index (which, as far as I can tell, is everyone) pay any kind of usage fee to Dow Jones?

Howard Kurtz: It certainly does mean Murdoch will control the venerable index, which has been renamed the Rupert Industrial Average.

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Westchester, N.Y.: So the Iraq soldier blogger published by the enthusiastically pro-war New Republic was authentic. I guess we'll have to line up those right-wing guys to deliver their apologies, right? Why is there always a huge emphasis on apologies when the subject is Clinton or Gov. Spitzer, but these conservative mini-pundits sail blithely on, their "credibility" apparently unimpaired? You'll quote them all like they have some sort of expertise and gravitas tomorrow, anyway, won't you? It's the same with cable: the pro-war pundits, who are always wrong and who have paved the path to ruin have no problems getting air time, while a Michael Moore gets on every three years or so when he has something to plug. Seymour Hersh, except for CNN, almost never gets airtime. Funny, isn't it?

washingtonpost.com: Anonymous No More (Post, July 27)

Howard Kurtz: A couple of points: Most of the conservative bloggers didn't necessarily say that the Baghdad diarist didn't exist, they just challenged whether he was inventing or exaggerating his tales of petty cruelty by U.S. soldiers. The fact that we now know the Army private's name doesn't corroborate his accounts, which the New Republic itself is still investigating. As for Michael Moore, Wolf Blitzer noted during their recent dustup that he had invited Moore to appear numerous times in the three years before the filmmaker returned to promote "Sicko," and that Moore had declined.

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Wall Street Journal Reader: I can understand the media lamenting the sale of Dow Jones to Rupert Murdoch and its potential effects upon journalistic coverage. However, in most newspaper articles I've seen it is not mentioned, analyzed or discussed that before the Murdoch bid, Dow Jones stock -- in a 10-year period when the market was up -- was off $10 from 1997. The only commentator I heard mention this point was Jim Cramer on CNBC's "Mad Money." Isn't a depressed stock price a major component of whether a company is a takeover target, and a definite factor to consider? Also, what is your opinion of the two-tier voting rights structure of stock in media companies like Dow Jones and the New York Times, where a group of people with relatively small stock holdings are able to exercise control?

Howard Kurtz: There actually has been a lot of coverage of the fact that Murdoch offered $60 a share for a company whose stock was languishing a bit above $30, because that ensured that no other media organization could match his offer. It also sparked concern that if the sale didn't go through, Dow Jones stock would plunge and major cutbacks would result. I of course favor the independence provided by the two-tiered stock system that the Grahams and the Sulzbergers have in place at The Washington Post and the NYT -- and anyone who buys the Class B stock knows about the situation beforehand.

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Chicago: The Clinton cleavage article was sexist and demeaning. There is no correlation to Cheney wearing a parka to a somber event -- that is a false comparison. I don't care where in the paper you run it, the truth is that the story shouldn't have run in The Washington Post at all. The only appropriate response from The Post would be an apology -- not all this parsing you are doing. There were tons and tons of negative comments about the Clinton article in The Post. So reader reaction is meaningless. You guys just inherently know better. Sleazy journalism, Howard, pure sleaze.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for your input. Next up, someone with a different view.

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Pickerington, Ohio: It's hard for me to imagine why Hillary's wardrobe choices are not considered newsworthy. You have already pointed out that the timing of the campaign's response was not accidental. Wasn't the original wardrobe choice also deliberate? As far as I know (and I don't follow these things too closely, that would be creepy) it represented a sartorial departure for HRC.

Howard Kurtz: I think it's safe to say there is a sharp divide in this country about this bulging national issue.

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Albany, N.Y.: What's your take on the heavy media attention (and not just The Post) to such personal matters as Hillary's cleavage and college letters, Chelsea Clinton, Thompson's and Kucinich's "trophy wives," hatchet jobs in Vanity Fair on Judi Giuliani, and the like? Are these stories just popular and attract a lot of readers who like to scream about them?

Howard Kurtz: I think we ought to make a distinction between stories that actually shed light on the people running for president, and their families, and some of this other stuff. The trophy wife angle, for instance, is inherently demeaning. But the treasure trove of letters written by Hillary to a friend when she was in college, published the other day by the New York Times, was utterly fascinating, and not done in a sensational way. Same thing with today's NYT piece on Chelsea, which was largely favorable and noted the possibility that she could become the only person in history to have both her parents serve as president. Chelsea did not cooperate with the piece, and indeed some of her anonymously quoted friends seemed nervous even about saying nice things. But it's hard to imagine she won't have some role in her mother's campaign.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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