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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 12, 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."

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The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Greenville, S.C.: Howie -- I caught the first part of Reliable Sources yesterday before leaving for church. Did you laugh, as I did, when Michael Medved suggested that Fox was the choice of viewers on the right, MSNBC the choice of viewers on the left, and CNN the choice of the middle? The middle of what?

Howard Kurtz: Medved, who's a conservative, didn't say any of those networks was the CHOICE of certain viewers. In response to a question about MSNBC trying to hire Rosie O'Donnell to join the likes of Keith Olbermann in prime time, he said it was a smart move to position itself on the left, as opposed to Fox, which is on the right. That, he said, would leave CNN in the middle. Whether viewers out there see it the same way is another matter.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Well, Mr. Kurtz, it's a year away from the election, and truer words will never be spoken that those uttered about our hopelessly dysfunctional political press corps by a waitress in Iowa, Anita Esterday: "You people are really nuts." Direct hit! Oh, snap! Amen, sister, amen! When even NPR is chasing stories about candidates not leaving tips, we've seemingly reached the nadir of our national discourse -- but we have so very far to go; there's plenty of time to set a new low in cable tabloid idiocy. Hey, never mind the loose nukes, I think I saw some cleavage on that Ms. Bhutto! Ms. Esterday should be able to make a fortune on those "You People Are Really Nuts" T-shirts, huh? I'll bet your whole newsroom will want one. You can wear one on your next show!

washingtonpost.com: Esterday Quote (last paragraph) (New York Times, Nov. 9)

Howard Kurtz: The Post devoted several paragraphs in the Trail column to what turned out to be a non-story about whether Hillary Clinton's team left a tip at a restaurant in Iowa. The silly episode began when a waitress told NPR there had been no tip. The Post item quoted the manager as saying that a tip had in fact been left but may not have been distributed properly to all the support staff. End of semi-nutty story.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Mr. Kurtz, I'm writing this on a Sunday, so I don't know if you addressed it today -- but the way the news media, especially the networks and local news, covers strikes (TV writers and Broadway both) is a national embarrassment. You would think that one or two of the reporters would have enough integrity and self-respect to inform the reader/viewer with some degree of impartiality as to why the strikers have walked out, as opposed to slanting the entire report towards complaints about how the public is being inconvenienced.

Nobody is starving or going without police protection or heat because of these strikes, to my knowledge, so if the slant is whether this is bad for mere entertainment, we can just imagine what it would be for manufacturing workers or teachers. One sad example is the recent Metropolitan Transit Authority strike in New York, which the New York tabloids in particular reported using coded race words, because many of the workers in that union are black or Hispanic. Mayor Bloomberg chimed in, calling his adversary, the black head of a huge labor union, a "thug" -- something I never heard from a mayor back in the days of Albert Shanker or Mike Quill. There were no repercussions or soul-searching by the journalistic profession, to my knowledge, after this strike was crushed. Great argument for splitting up the media conglomerates, right, Howard?

Howard Kurtz: The Los Angeles Times, as you'd expect, has had terrific coverage of the strike. (The N.Y. Times, meanwhile, has owned the two-day-old Broadway strike.) Most of the initial stories reported that the striking writers want a tiny percentage of revenue when their scripts are re-used in DVDs or on Web sites. Yes, much of the coverage has focused on the impact on celebrities, but there's also the larger question of how much viewers will be bothered as more of their favorite shows shift to reruns, and whether they will ultimately come back after getting by with the likes of YouTube, podcasts and Netflix. I agree that we shouldn't lose sight of the underlying issues, but equally interesting is whether TV entertainment has lost its grip on the public.

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Arlington, Va.: There seems to have been minimal focus on Giuliani about his connections to Kerik since the indictment on Friday. Sure, there were a few stories, but if it were someone connected to the Clintons there would be wall-to-wall nonstop coverage -- certainly on Fox, but also on the other cable networks. It seems the issue of the Clinton camp planting questions is getting more play than Giuliani and his connections with Kerik and other scandal tainted appointments.

washingtonpost.com: Kerik, Indicted on Corruption Charges, Pleads Not Guilty (Post, Nov. 10)

Howard Kurtz: I must be living in a parallel universe. Every newspaper story I read, and every TV segment I saw, focused on the potential impact on Giuliani's candidacy. It also came up in Jake Tapper's "Nightline" interview with Giuliani, a piece of which I replayed on my show. Now these questions might be unfair if Bernie Kerik was just some former Rudy aide. But he was a close confidant who Giuliani not only made police commissioner, not only recommended to Bush as Homeland Security chief, but took with him to his firm Giuliani Partners. Plus, there is testimony that Giuliani was warned by investigators about Kerik doing business with mob-related firms before making him New York's top cop.

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Centreville, Va.: Sorry to ask a question about the home office, but don't you think it was a little odd for the Post Outlook section to feature a CEO-ethics-bashing column by uber-lawyer William Lerach, but not explain he's under indictment?

washingtonpost.com: Loser CEOs, Raking It In (Post, Nov. 11)| Lerach Enters Guilty Plea In Class-Action Conspiracy (Post, Oct. 30)

Howard Kurtz: In the piece, Lerach explained (rather briefly) that he had pleaded guilty, been fined $8 million and was headed off to prison for at least a year. But I still had problems with the piece. How does a guy who's a newly confessed crook have the standing to start lecturing us about all the problems with CEOs? He may or may not be right, but it was odd to publish a piece by a plaintiff's lawyer that allowed him to so briefly brush aside his criminal conviction.

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Critiquing the Press: Howie, I was just watching CNN U.S. Can you explain why a runaway kangaroo in Australia is news?! If there were a kangaroo in Arkansas or somewhere in the U.S., that might be news, but I would think if there weren't a runaway kangaroo in Australia, that would be news. So please enlighten me, otherwise I would think it was just a filler so as not to report anything serious like, say, the intelligence guy who says we can kiss privacy goodbye. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Well, there was good video! Good video of an utterly unimportant story. Then again, remember all the coverage of that whale who made it into a river in London? Television seems to have a weakness for these runaway animal stories.

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Silver Spring, Md.: It's bad enough that the Clinton campaign got caught with a planted question; it's even worse that the girl who asked the question was taped actually winking to the staffer while handing back the mike. Really sleazy if you ask this liberal Dem.

Howard Kurtz: I missed the wink. I'll have to watch it in slow motion.

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Floris, Va.: A few weeks ago, at his last press conference, a reporter asked the president if he were irrelevant. Of course Mr. Bush denied it, and said something about "sprinting to the finish." However, yesterday, the mini-summit with Angela Merkel wound up on page 13 of this paper, and the veteran's day speech he gave to servicemen is a small wire service story on page 9. Nothing on the morning cable news channels or "Today," either. So Howie, was the reporter prescient?

Howard Kurtz: The get-together with Merkel didn't produce much news, and neither did Bush's speech. I don't think that adds up to Bush being irrelevant. He's still the commander-in-chief in a time of war, and he is still vetoing bills (and having his veto overridden for the first time on that pork-laden spending bill). Obviously a president who is both entering his last year in office *and* quite low in the polls has less clout than a popular president earlier in his term, especially when we're in the middle of an intense campaign to succeed him. Beyond that, with the failure of his immigration measure, Bush is no longer pushing a domestic agenda and mainly playing defense.

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Fairfax, Va.: I don't understand the way the MSM pooh-poohs what words mean. For example, last week Josh White's article quoted an expert on torture as saying waterboarding is not "simulated" drowning but actual drowning stopped before the victim dies. Yet on the front page of The Post that day an article about Mukasey's confirmation called waterboarding "simulated drowning." The use of "simulated" is a euphemism, of the kind The Post often employs to avoid reporting accurately what is going on (e.g., "surge" instead of escalation). I used to think this behavior indicated pro-administration bias but perhaps it is less bias and more sloppy journalism that The Post suffers from. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I think we could do a better job of defining it. But the description you cite in the Josh White article is attributed to a former Navy survival instructor, and not everyone agrees with that viewpoint.

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Los Angeles: Howie, c'mon, you know as well as I that the silly non-story of Hillary's tipping will be kept alive by Drudge and the right-wing echo chamber as long as she's in the race, the same way Al Gore's "I invented the Internet" lie was kept alive and the same way John Kerry's "shot himself for the Purple Heart" lie was kept alive. The more surprising outcome will be if the mainstream media doesn't buy into this propaganda one more time.

Howard Kurtz: I think it was pretty convincingly knocked down and won't be kept alive. Hillary's critics are already onto the planted-questions business. These things pop faster in a blog-driven world, but maybe they have a shorter half-life too.

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Washington: And yet, Lerach's points needed to be made. Why couldn't The Post find a better stock-holder advocate? Surely they are out there ... as it is, Lerach's problems not only undercut his argument but undercut a serious story about how CEOs in this country are rewarded for failures that harm the business, the stockholders and the economy ... not to mention ethics and morality. Your editors should have looked harder, in my opinion.

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair point. It's not like no one else is out there making these arguments, particularly with CEOs getting these amazing golden parachutes at places such as Merrill Lynch and Citigroup after performances that were problem-ridden at best, including huge losses in subprime loans.

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Re: Kerik and Clintons: I have no doubt that Kerik and Rudy are close, and you're right that it has gotten strong media attention. But Clinton had actual cabinet officials indicted (Cisneros, for example) and nobody thought it had anything to do with Clinton. Clinton had his business partners convicted of multiple felonies in Whitewater in 1996 and the media tried to insist it didn't really relate to the Clintons, and it was hardly a campaign obstacle. Hillary's chief fundraiser was indicted in 2005, and it didn't get attention anything like this story. You can feel the Clintons have been dogged by the media, but it is not always worse than what Rudy's getting.

Howard Kurtz: Um, does anyone remember how huge the Whitewater story was, both during the 1992 campaign and later, after a special prosecutor was appointed? I have long argued that it was overblown, but it did involve business partners of the Clintons in what was ultimately a money-losing land deal. President Clinton took much less heat for the indictment of Henry Cisneros, his HUD secretary, because that case involved payments to a mistress and had nothing to do with Clinton. In Rudy's case, no one is suggesting he had any involvement in Kerik's dealings with questionable companies (Kerik has already pled guilty to state charges in the matter). It's the question of whether Rudy as mayor ignored warnings about Kerik or so valued the man's loyalty that he in effect looked the other way.

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Re: Arlington, Va.'s question: Why is it though, in the whole Kerik story, very few of the reporters and pundits ever mention that Kerik worked at Giuliani Partners or headed the security firm Giuliani-Kerik but instead is referred to as "a former aide" to Mayor Giuliani as though they only worked together while in office? At least at the next debate it will be interesting if Russert and Matthews hound Giuliani repeatedly, such as the way they are going after Hillary Clinton now.

Howard Kurtz: I think the Giuliani Partners link should be mentioned in most of the stories, to illustrate that it's not just some former commissioner whom Giuliani barely knew. In fact, Kerik was Rudy's driver before the mayor elevated him to run the Police Department.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: I don't see how the no-tipping story is a negative for Hillary. Next time the Republicans call her a Spendocrat, she can point to this as an example of her fiscal restraint.

Howard Kurtz: LOL

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Washington: I am far less concerned about Giuliani's connection to Kerik than I am about his connection to Norman Podhoretz. Do you think the media has covered this connection enough, especially in light of the fact that Podhoretz has said the U.S. should attack Iran right now? I have seen literally zero mentions of this on TV news.

washingtonpost.com: The Gurus: Giuliani's Policy Professor (Post, Oct. 26)

Howard Kurtz: The New York Times did a front-page story on the role that Podhoretz and other neoconservatives are playing in the Giuliani campaign, and NBC Nightly News did a piece that night. But I would agree that television news has largely overlooked that story.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, the David Greene follow-up on NPR had lots of self-flagellation in it, that he should have done more checking. It'd be hard to argue that NPR is an anti-Hillary media outlet, don't you think?

washingtonpost.com: Clinton Campaign Says It Tipped Maid-Rite Waitress (NPR, Nov. 9)

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see any self-flagellation in the piece, just a tick-tock on what happened with the waitress's initial complaint to NPR. And no, I wouldn't call National Public Radio anti-Clinton.

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Tuscaloosa, Ala.:"She's just gritty, without sacrificing any femininity -- more comfortable in fatigues than in mufti," says ABC anchor Charlie Gibson. I thought this was a rather sexist thing to say. If she's gritty but not feminine, what, she's not a real reporter? Or not a real woman? We would never start an article on a male reporter in this fashion. Why did Gibson think it was so important to say, and why did you put it at the top of your piece?

Howard Kurtz: I put it near the top of my piece because it was an interesting quote. And I don't think Gibson was intending to be sexist at all, just to point out that female war correspondents -- especially those who nominally cover the White House -- are still somewhat rare in the TV biz. And it was Raddatz who told me the story about the admiral joking that she wanted to be an "honorary man," and who talked about the difficulty of juggling mom duties with her career.

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Washington: Everybody is being hard on MSM today, but that series in the Post on theft and anarchy in the school system is terrific: I don't see how anyone can read it and not think that Mayor Fenty and the new head Rhee have to be allowed a free hand to clean up this appalling system. My question is how did the reporter get that kind of close access? Why did the inept math teacher and the principal, etc., let the reporter see how utterly out of control Coolidge High is?

washingtonpost.com: Fixing D.C.'s Schools: A Washington Post Investigation

Howard Kurtz: I think it's just old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, carried out over a period of time and given adequate space to tell the tale.

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San Francisco: Did I miss your evaluation of the PJE/Shorenstein Center Study of presidential campaign coverage? Your colleague Deborah Howell covered it somewhat yesterday in launching her own study, but several commenters to her column asked why you'd not discussed it.

washingtonpost.com: Sizing Up the Politics Coverage (Post, Nov. 11)

Howard Kurtz: Yes, you missed it. My piece ran on Oct. 29. Here's the top of it:

If you harbor a sneaking suspicion that the 2008 campaign is all about Hillary, you're right.

Hillary Clinton has drawn nearly twice as much media coverage as any Republican presidential candidate, making her the dominant figure in the race. But that coverage is more negative than positive, a new study says, in part because the former first lady is such an object of revulsion on conservative talk radio.

In the first five months of the year, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 17 percent of the stories were about Clinton, followed by Barack Obama (14 percent), Rudy Giuliani (9 percent), John McCain (7 percent) and Mitt Romney (5 percent). Everyone else was a relative blip.

The two front-runners, Clinton and Giuliani, achieved a rough parity: 37 percent of the stories about them were negative and 27 percent positive, with the rest neutral.

Overall, though, the Democratic candidates drew more positive stories (35 percent) than the Republicans (26 percent). That, says the Washington-based research group -- which conducted the study with Harvard's Shorenstein Center -- was almost entirely due to the friendly coverage accorded Obama (47 percent positive) and the heavily negative treatment of McCain (12 percent positive).

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Albany, N.Y.: I saw that CNN ran a story last week about an e-mail accusing Obama of not having his hand on his heart during the pledge, which as the story reported was not true. But why is this even newsworthy. By reporting the story to debunk it, you only amplify it.

washingtonpost.com: Fact-Checker: Obama Nabbed by the Patriot Police (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 2)

Howard Kurtz: That is a dilemma we constantly face in campaigns. When a false or misleading allegation receives a certain amount of traction -- on Web sites, on talk radio, on cable shows -- then I don't think the answer is to ignore it. If a reporter can say this story is false, here's how it got started, here's why there's no factual basis for it, that can be something of a public service. Also, Obama was getting asked about the incident (in which he didn't put his hand on his heart during the national anthem, not the Pledge of Allegiance) at town meetings.

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New York: How is the Fox Business Channel doing? I know they launched under the premise that CNBC is somehow anti-business, and they plan to report mostly good news. I seriously doubt that approach will work on savvy business people. Then again, I never thought Fox News would be as big as it is.

Howard Kurtz: It's hard to say because there are no ratings and won't be for several months. I'd say the channel debuted to mixed reviews -- a number of critics said it was fun to watch but at times descended into triviality (unless you think an interview with Times Square's Naked Cowboy is a hot business story). But Fox executives told me in interviews that it would take a considerable amount of time to successfully challenge CNBC, which is in three times as many homes. So it's a bit early to judge.

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Anonymous: Is the new media or the old media best positioned to affect the 2008 presidential race?

Howard Kurtz: Do I have to choose? I'm glad we have both. The new media feed off the dinosaur types, which still do most of the journalistic heavy lifting, but bloggers and others add an important dimension in which many more voices can be heard.

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Post Chat Schedule: Why does the Post cancel its discussion schedule for Labor Day, but not for Veterans Day? Is it because the Post honors and appreciates union members more than veterans?

washingtonpost.com: Our holiday decisions are based on anticipated traffic. We believe more businesses give their workers Labor Day off than give their workers Veterans Day off, and so we expect traffic and question numbers to be better today than they would be on Labor Day.

Howard Kurtz: There's your answer.

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Washington: Dear Howard: I often submit questions critical of the Post and its coverage of events. However, just pass along to your colleagues and editors that the coverage of the D.C. Tax Office scandal, and especially the coverage of abuse of D.C. School System student activity funds, has been excellent. It embodies what good local reporting should be. Bravo!

Howard Kurtz: It is one heck of a scandal.

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Re: Jake Tapper: I think we'd all like to know whether Peter Jennings told you that your neckties were inelegant.

Howard Kurtz: Jake Tapper said on Reliable Sources yesterday, in talking about a book remembering Jennings, that he was wearing the only tie that the anchor ever found worthy of praise. Apparently he often critiqued the appearance of his correspondents. Although I interviewed Peter a number of times, he never appraised my wardrobe.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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