Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 17, 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."

The Lukewarm Truth: Unable to Lock In on Elusive Facts, News Outlets Hear It From All Sides (, Sept. 17)

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


Avon Park, Fla.: I know that O.J. Simpson's arrest is a big news story, but does that justify wall-to-wall coverage of it? Fox News preempted their repeat of Fox News Sunday to have on legal experts just speculating on this case. Isn't General Petraeus's remarks on Iraq more important than Simpson? After all, Mr. Simpson isn't a head of state. This story has no national implications that can affect people.

Howard Kurtz: There's huge public interest in the O.J. case for obvious reasons. I'm not yet ready to declare this a ridiculous, over-the-top, out-of-control media frenzy (but check back with me in 24 hours). O.J. was a very famous football player who became probably the most famous murder defendant in a generation, acquitted in a racially charged trial whose verdict many Americans don't accept. And the Las Vegas case is so incredibly weird, complete with audio now being played on TV. Given that Simpson was arrested late yesterday, I think it's a no-brainer to preempt a taped show to cover it.


Fortaleza, Brazil: We get Fox News, BBC and CNN, among other stations, via satellite. Interesting that yesterday the main stories for CNN were the plane crash in Phuket and the O.J. Simpson arrest, in that order of priority, while BBC reversed the two. For Fox News, the story all weekend was the Simpson saga. Several reporters/commentators seemed to have decided Simpson was guilty, and Geraldo Rivera said that he felt in every fiber of his being that Simpson was guilty of murdering his wife and Ron Goldman. Heck, I think O.J. murdered his wife. But strange to hear such judgments from a network that proclaims "we report, you decide."

Howard Kurtz: Well, commentators are allowed to commentate. Straight news reporters should stick to the facts -- Simpson was acquitted in the double murder trial but held liable in the civil suit, and many Americans think he's guilty. In the latest case he admits taking the sports memorabilia that he claims was rightfully his, but now of course he's been arrested on armed robbery charges.


Inside the Beltway: I know Tony Snow has been ill and is well liked ... so the sorrow/wistfulness of the Washington media over his departure is perhaps understandable. The conclusion of commentators was that he handled the job well and made his points defending the administration well.

Isn't this just another example of an inside-the-Beltway lovefest ... where you folks are all too close to each other to be critical or challenging?

Jon Stewart, in the pursuit of comedy on almost any given night in the past couple of months, ran clips of Snow saying one thing that specifically contradicted something he said a month, half a year or a year ago. If a comedy show can make fun of the inconsistencies and blatant spin on the same day, why don't newspapers and TV make better use of these comparative pieces. It feels like -- and this may reflect my own bias -- that the MSM let Snow get away with more than say McClellan, because they "liked" him more and he is soon to join their ranks again.

Howard Kurtz: I think the press was hard on Snow -- didn't you watch all those briefings where he and David Gregory and other correspondents went at it? But there was simply a recognition of two things: that as a former talk show host he was more adept at the spokesman's job than McClellan, and that as a human being there's a natural sympathy for someone fighting an advanced form of cancer.


Los Angeles: In today's columns you say "the senator's (Larry Craig) flat denials can certainly be portrayed as straining credulity, but there is no definitive proof that he engaged in gay sexual misconduct."

What would constitute "definitive proof" for you?

Howard Kurtz: Um -- pictures? A sworn affidavit from someone who says he had sex with the guy? Look, the guy pleaded guilty in the restroom incident, and my presumption is that the police officer knew exactly what was going on, despite Craig's subsequent denials. But since things never got beyond the hand and foot signals, there's no definitive proof of the senator engaging in sex. That doesn't mean people shouldn't draw their own conclusions, of course.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon! As someone with a background in history, it strikes me (with all due respect) that journalists writing on certain kinds of issues, such as political trends or international affairs, lack historical knowledge and perspective. What kind of requirements are there at a major paper or wire service for writers on those kinds of topics to be historically informed? Does The Post retain an historical consultant as a resource for its reporters? If not, should it?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it was the late Don Graham who famously described newspapers as providing "the first rough draft of history." No paper that I know of has a resident historian, but the best beat reporters obviously know the history of the areas they cover.


New York Times article on attorney general nomination: The Stolberg NYT article about the upcoming nomination of Mukasey for AG cites people "familiar with the decision" as its source. Of course it's not difficult to guess that this was an authorized leak, but to me this article violates some of what should be the guidelines regarding anonymous sources: their motivations should be explained, their positions pinpointed as closely as possible, and the writer should give the reader a specific sense of whether or not the leak was authorized. Or would that be too much to ask?

Howard Kurtz: Well, that was better than The Washington Post, which just cited "sources." This was obviously an authorized leak, and I don't know why -- consistent with any agreements on anonymity -- that couldn't have been reflected in the stories. Of course five days ago the New York Times, citing sources, reported that Ted Olson was a leading candidate to be named attorney general.


Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, perhaps you could clarify something for me. Recently on Glenn Beck's show you said:

"KURTZ: I think the argument that I've heard Olbermann make in the past about Fox News -- it's not an argument that I embrace -- is that, because it poses as a news organization and puts out dangerous misinformation --and is -- is a cheerleader for the Bush administration, that it's misinforming our society. But you know what? They're entitled to do that."

Did you really mean to say that a news organization is entitled to put out misinformation and misinform our society? What kind of a standard is that? You are a media critic and yet you see no problem with a news organization putting out misinformation and misinforming its viewers. Surely you can't be saying what it appears you are saying.

Say it ain't so!

Howard Kurtz: I meant that if a network wants to be a cheerleader for the administration -- and I'm not saying Fox is -- it has that right under the First Amendment. I did not mean to endorse the "misinformation" part, as I spend my career trying to hold news organizations accountable for misinformation. Not the most artfully put thing I've ever said. My larger point was simply that whether you agree with a network or not -- and there are some folks who don't agree with NBC, ABC or CBS -- it has the right to offer its take on the news (and is of course subject to criticism for bias and mistakes).


San Francisco: Wait, when did Don Graham die? Or do you mean his father, Phil?

Howard Kurtz: The late Phil Graham, of course. Typing too fast here. Don, we love you.


Washington: Why does the podcast version of Reliable Sources exclude commercials? I don't like having to wait hours for it to be posted online, the content isn't PBS commercial-free news, and like all viewers I am used to viewing segments as segments. The sponsors wouldn't lose any viewer impressions they paid for by immediate posting to the web either. Like all things television, it's easier than reading, so the ads aren't a burden.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know; that's above my pay grade. I'm just glad it's available for people who've missed the show.


Boston: Has anyone in the media gone back to reference quotes of all the times over the last four years that Bush or others in the administration have teased Americans with the hope of changed missions and drawdowns of American troops six to nine months down the road as a way to reduce political pressure at that moment only to have none of those hopes come true? Could a little more digging into the records provide context to editors' headlines and reporters' first and second paragraphs of stories about Bush/Gates "showing leg" about possible drawdowns or changed missions in the future?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think there have been many administration hints of troop reductions, except in the vaguely defined future, a la when the Iraqis stand up so we can stand down, etc. I do think there have been several relaunches and redefinitions of our mission in Iraq and what would constitute success, and I think these were extensively reprised last week as the president came up with a new slogan.


Anonymous: "Of course, give days ago the New York Times, citing sources, reported that Ted Olson was a leading candidate to be named attorney general." Do you think he was not a leading candidate at the time?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. Maybe he was. Maybe pro-Olson partisans were talking him up in an effort to build momentum. On the day that Gonzales announced his resignation, several news organizations all but awarded the job to Michael Chertoff, based on unnamed sources. It's hard to separate fact from spin when we don't know who the sources are.


Fairfax, Va.: Thanks for addressing MSM critics such as Arianna Huffington in today's article. Your reference to the truth as "elusive," however, seems to reinforce her point that to you and other MSM guys there is no objective truth about whether Bush lied us into Iraq, whether Iraq is in a civil war or whether the "surge" was simply an escalation of troop strength.

Why is the truth "elusive" when stating it would undercut the Bush administration's rationale and public PR talking points, yet the truth about the Holocaust is not elusive? Of course there is truth to be told, but sometimes it requires investigative work that the MSM is unwilling to do (e.g. do the people want Bush impeached?). And sometimes it requires the journalistic integrity to report it like reporters in more crudely repressive regimes do -- often at the cost of their lives, let alone their jobs.

Howard Kurtz: Okay, take the question of whether Bush "lied." You obviously think he did. Lying requires intent. It's certainly fair for journalists to maintain that the president cherry-picked intelligence, ignored contrary evidence, wanted to invade Iraq all along and bulldozed his way into war. But can I or any other journalist prove that Bush knew that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction and deliberately deceived the country so he could have his war? I can't. He and the people around him may well have believed that, given Saddam's history with illicit weapons.


Richmond, Va.: The more you journalists dump on Fred Thompson, the more his polls go up. Go ahead, call him a lazy old cracker -- he needs to pick up a few points in Florida.

Howard Kurtz: The Newsweek cover said, "Lazy Like a Fox?" At least there was a question mark. And I certainly think it's fair to point out that a man who walked away from the Senate and delayed jumping into the presidential race for months is not exactly undertaking a taxing schedule. It may not matter in the end, but it's worth reporting.


Rolla, Mo.: Personal anecdote on blogs -- I recently delved into commenting on a few liberal sites (my political viewpoint) and what I found was disappointing to say the least. While I like much of the writing in these sites, it seems there is another world of vitriol behind it, a community of commenters who spend much of their time demeaning one another or their opposition. Do these people drive the actual writers in the blogs in certain directions?

Howard Kurtz: I think commenters say whatever they want but are drawn to like-minded sites. And yes, there's a lot of vitriol out there, along with plenty of reasoned discourse.


Menomonie, Wis.: Re: O.J. -- did you notice that neither Phil Spector's nor Robert Blake's murder trials have garnered much media coverage? It's only worthy of non-stop coverage if the alleged perpetrator is a famous black man. It is the media playing into the racist fear factor, as always...

Howard Kurtz: "Racist fear factor?" I don't think anyone is afraid that O.J. is going to come to their home and steal their sports memorabilia. I just think there's a public fascination, in a train-wreck kind of way, with the most famous and most reviled murder defendant of the past generation.


Woonsocket, R.I.: Any comment on FOX's censorship of the Emmy awards (specifically, Sally Fields' anti-war comment)? I was surprised that it didn't even deserve a mention in your column. Going Out With a Bang and a Bleep (Post, Sept. 17)

Howard Kurtz: It was covered by my colleague Tom Shales. I don't have any problem with Fox bleeping the expletive, given the FCC's penchant for big fines. I have a big problem with Fox not letting Sally Fields complete her thought -- that she was making a statement against the war. Award shows may or may not be the appropriate venue for political statements, but she said it at a live news event, so in a way Fox was censoring the news.


Shrewsbury, Mass.: Why would the White House, Justice, have an authorized leak of some news item when they intend to formally announce it, anyway? Aren't authorized leaks usually just trial balloons where nominations are concerned? Seems like much ado about absolutely nothing.

Howard Kurtz: It's pretty routine to leak something the night before a morning press conference, as a way of building interest and jacking up TV coverage. I had a harder time figuring out why the White House leaked two days in advance that Bush would embrace Petraeus's troop-withdrawal plan, thus depriving his prime-time address of even a hint of drama.


Rochester, N.Y.: I have a question I'd really like you to address. Why does the media get so caught up in building up the character qualities of people like David Petraeus? This happened to a lesser extent with George Bush himself, who they told us was a good man, time and time again. When the elite media -- I'm thinking the Cokie Robertses and David Broders and Gergens of the world -- tell us that someone is a great guy and that we should ignore the issues and just focus on what a great guy he is, isn't that pretty much begging for groups on the other side to attack the guy's character as with MoveOn? It seems ridiculous to me: these pundits set the whole thing in motion by making Petraeus sound like Eisenhower and Mother Teresa all wrapped into one, then they act shocked when MoveOn criticizes him personally. Couldn't this all be avoided if the pundits just stuck to the facts and left moral characters judgments alone?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the media have been portraying the general so much as a nice guy but perhaps as the most scholarly man to run a war in modern history, the officer who literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency. I also think Petraeus has been accessible to journalists through the years (and did 11 interviews last week, including sit-downs with the network anchors) and has benefited from that. The coverage of his testimony was more mixed, in my view, and certainly critics in the media have questioned whether he is now playing a political role in putting the best face on a bad situation for the administration.


Alexandria, Va.: Oh come off it, Howard. Since when is political punditry from a Sally Field defined as "news"? You wouldn't say it was news if Tom Selleck made a pro-Bush speech. You'd say it was propaganda.

Howard Kurtz: I'm afraid you're wrong. Personally, I'd prefer if movie and TV stars didn't hijack awards ceremonies to push their political agendas. But if they do -- whether liberal or conservative, pro-war or antiwar -- it is part of a live news event that a network is ostensibly covering.


Hey Menomonie, Wis.: Comparing the O.J. trial to Blake and Spector isn't really fair. Yes they are celebrities, but O.J. was much more famous to the average person than either of them. Plus, with O.J., it wasn't just the trial, but the crazy lead up to the trial -- the slow-mo car chase, etc. -- that built into a frenzy.

Howard Kurtz: I agree. The Blake trial, it seems to me, got a reasonable amount of coverage. I've been surprised that the (interminable) Spector trial has drawn so little. But in celebrity terms, you're right, they're no O.J. Not only did he break the single-season rushing record for the Buffalo Bills, he became well-known after retiring as a network sportscaster and Hertz pitchman.


Baltimore: Phil Spector, Robert Blake and O.J.: If anyone thinks racial bias plays into coverage, just ask yourself "which one of these defendants was a world class athlete with a 'winning' public personality who parlayed success on the field into commercials and film work." As opposed to "who is the record producer most Americans have never heard of" and "who is an actor whose last major success was in the 1970s."

Howard Kurtz: Well put. Spector was a big deal in the music world, especially through his association with the Beatles, but hardly a household name.


Raleigh, N.C.: I have been following the Alexis Debat saga. Fake interviews are only the tip of the iceberg. Are you following up on this? This story seems a whole lot bigger than the Dan Rather tempest in a teapot, yet I don't hear much from the MSM. Is it because everyone is busily digging and we should hear more soon? I think ABC should not be let off the hook on this. Ex-ABC Adviser Faces New Allegations (Post, Sept. 14)

Howard Kurtz: I'm surprised it hasn't gotten more coverage. I've certainly tried to be aggressive in pursuing it. The New York Times followed up the next day, and ABC itself has been out front on this, but I've seen little else.


Somerdale, N.J.: Are we really going to have wall to wall O.J. coverage? This is why cable news is a joke. What insight do the Browns or Goldmans have regarding an armed robbery, and is this really deserving of all the attention? This is about seeing O.J. get punished for the murder, and has nothing to do with this new crime.

Howard Kurtz: I'm going to disagree, at least for now. It's not just a cable story -- it's on the front page of The Washington Post, as it should be. The case is bizarre, and O.J., who boasted that "nobody got roughed up" when he burst into that hotel room, is behind bars. The Browns and Goldmans are relevant because Simpson hasn't paid more than a pittance of the millions he owes them under the civil court verdict holding him liable for the murders. I'm sure we'll lurch into media-excess territory before long, but right now there's a lot of public interest in just what the hell happened in Las Vegas.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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