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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 19, 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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Washington: Howard, with regards to the Tim Page issue, Deborah Howell said that reporters can get angry about issues, but cannot say anything about them in public or write down their feelings in a public forum because it can hurt their credibility. To me, it would seem that a reporter's credibility is hurt by requiring they pretend to have no opinion on an issue. How can you balance this? Is it even possible?

washingtonpost.com: The Toll of an Intemperate E-Mail (Post, Nov. 18)

Howard Kurtz: Deborah is right. It's not a question of pretending you have no opinions. People in the journalism business give up certain rights -- the right to give money to candidates or march in political demonstrations, for example. That doesn't mean they don't have opinions; it means that they are not openly taking sides when they represent a news organization that covers such issues. And sending an abusive letter to a former mayor that all but hopes he has a drug overdose definitely falls in that category -- as Tim Page, who has apologized to Marion Barry, understands.

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Boston: I laugh when Post reporters and columnists sign off of these online chats by saying "gotta get back to work." Maybe they need to read your article on the Mercury News to understand that their online presence is a critical part of their work. The only time I see a copy of The Post is if I'm traveling through town. I read the online version of The Post every day and these chats enhance my relationship to The Post's Web site (and online ads, which fund an increasing portion of reporters' salaries than print ads). Do most Washington Post reporters understand the economics of their own company?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, but the fact is the print edition still pays the bulk of the bills. But even if that wasn't the case, we have to juggle multiple responsibilities these days. Or maybe those who say they have to get back to work just aren't that into you.

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Falls Church, Va.: The Merc staffers who conducted the "undercover" operation -- were they reporters? Isn't it ethically dicey for reporters to misrepresent who they are?

washingtonpost.com: In San Jose, Downsizing With Dynamite (Post, Nov. 19)

Howard Kurtz: They were reporters and editors (asking random Starbucks customers what they thought of the Mercury News). Technically, they didn't misrepresent themselves because they said that they worked for a local media company. But it was hardly full disclosure, and it made me a bit uncomfortable.

On the other hand, posting all kinds of readers' opinions (many of them critical) on a blog devoted to the revamping of the paper is a smart move.

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Anonymous: If Robert Novak says he stands by his report that the Clinton camp has some dirt on Obama that they are not using, but he does not know the details and offers no proof, should this even be news? Because of his track record? His nonpartisan objectivity? Does he charge the Clinton camp dug up dirt or received info they will not use (in which case I would think the Obama camp would say thanks to Clinton and you jerk, Novak).

Howard Kurtz: I would say it's not news, that the report is just too sketchy. But many of us got sucked into covering it when the Obama and Clinton camps rushed out toughly worded statements on the controversy (or the non-controversy, depending on how you view it). So whether the original column item was worth anything or not, it became an issue in the presidential campaign.

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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, how many more Bush is still relevant/popular stories must we endure? When will reporters stop with their misleading Bush cheerleading? Mike Allen writes in the politico that Bush is still popular because "he has raised more money for the party this year" than he had last year at this time ($63.5 million this year compared to $62.4 million last year). Of course if you read all the way at the bottom of the article you find out that he has had twice as many fundraisers this year (29 compared to 15 last year). This would mean that he is taking in half as much per fundraiser. It seems to me that any fair and balanced reporter wouldn't look at these facts and use them as proof that Bush is doing better this year than last. Why would Allen mislead his readers?

washingtonpost.com: Surprise! Bush still popular on stump (Post, Nov. 16)

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me that Mike Allen was making one narrow but interesting point about Bush: "The party's donors still flock to events he headlines." There was no attempt in that piece to say that the president is popular with the public at large; in fact, that was the point, that an unpopular president can still raise money for his party.

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Long Island, N.Y.: Howard, on a scale of one to ten, where does Novak's column of Saturday (Hillary vs. Obama) rate in journalistic quality? Additionally does the publisher of his column have some duty to ask him to come up at least one shred of proof that this controversy exists? To me it seems just as likely that the story could be a plant to make both Dems look bad (which I would think Novak would enjoy).

washingtonpost.com: Clinton and Obama Campaigns Clash Over Report (Post, Nov. 18)

Howard Kurtz: Well, Novak insists he has a solid source, but that the source doesn't work for the Clinton campaign. It's hard for me to assess since the brief item was so lacking in detail. It would be one thing if Novak had said he knew what the "scandalous" information that the Hillary camp supposedly had about Obama was, but was not publishing it because he couldn't verify it. But Novak says he doesn't even know what it allegedly is. So how are we supposed to assess it?

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Washington: Howie -- re: the Barry Bonds segment on Reliable Sources yesterday, I heard your guests discuss the culpability of the media (in singling out Bonds), the owners (who knew about the drug use but just wanted to win) and Bonds himself. However, I heard nothing about the players union, which fought reasonable drug testing policies to maintain its power (it is the strongest professional players union). It took a threat from Congress to get them to concede. How was this missed in the discussion? It seems like a chunk of the blame for these issues should be assigned to them.

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair point. I was more focused, naturally, on the role of the media, and the sportswriters who looked the other way for years as Bonds and others like him magically bulked up. I also wanted to explore whether Bonds gets worse press than he otherwise might if he hadn't consistently been a jerk to reporters over the years.

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Washington: Howard, while I definitely agree that Mr. Page was inappropriate in his e-mail to Barry, I really was bothered that Mr. Barry's response was immediately to invoke race and imply that Tim Page somehow was racist in his e-mail. That was an issue I was surprised to see no follow-up on by anyone.

Howard Kurtz: Hey, it surprised me too. We were about 10 seconds into the interview when Barry brought up race, going on to talk about Jena, La., and other controversies. Keep in mind that when Barry was mayor and The Post constantly was investigating his possible drug use, he regularly denounced the paper and often brought race into the discussion.

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Bremerton, Wash.: Help! I looked this morning and all of the news shows started with another pretty white woman still missing. This while there's ongoing unrest in nuclear-bomb-armed Pakistan. I'm half-expecting Nancy Grace to come in and pre-judge the husband's entire family. Didn't the networks learn anything from Katrina?

Howard Kurtz: Apparently they learned more from the ratings boost they got from feasting on the tragedies of Chandra, Laci and Natalee.

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Seattle: Good show yesterday with the analysis of the Debate on the "News or Theater" aspect. I also get very tired when an audience-member gets his/her question "re-interpreted" by the moderator. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist David Horsey made similar comments. Maybe C-SPAN should host a debate for the sole purpose of getting just the facts. Call it the "Sgt. Friday" debate.

Howard Kurtz: We'll see if it's any different at the YouTube debate with the Republicans next week.

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Louisville, Colo.: On Reliable Sources, you often ask if a story was legitimate and merited widespread coverage. I'm equally concerned with the stories that don't get much coverage. Nada Prouty (Jihad Jane) is the latest story that seems to have everything except coverage by TV and major news outlets. Why isn't this a legitimate story for anyone except the New York Post?

washingtonpost.com: Ex-FBI Employee's Case Raises New Security Concerns (Post, Nov. 14)

Howard Kurtz: As you can see from the link, The Washington Post did a significant story on it, as did other major papers. I'd like to read more, but it may be that not much new information has emerged in the case.

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Source of the rumor about Clinton and Obama...: was, I have it on good authority, George Tenet, who assures Novak it is a slam dunk.

Howard Kurtz: I guess that was inevitable.

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Seattle: What's your take on Sunday's Doonesbury? How much of that is responsible for the coverage we're seeing of the horse-race aspect, to the exclusion of the policy aspect?

washingtonpost.com: Doonesbury for Nov. 18

Howard Kurtz: It's a pretty funny take on MSM reporters blogging (which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, observing that the campaigns take these blogs very seriously and respond in real time). But I don't think blogs can be blamed for the horse-race addiction that has been a staple of political coverage for decades now.

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Alexandria, Va.: While Republican frontrunners Giuliani and Romney seem to have a lot of time to be interviewed by the likes of Sean Hannity, I don't believe they have as yet fit a Tim Russert grilling into their schedules. Their debates all gang up on Hillary, but they have not had the kind of pointed confrontations with each other that have been the mark of the last two Democratic debates. How much longer can they get a such a free ride before the press calls them on it?

Howard Kurtz: Russert told me in an interview last week that both Giuliani and Romney have agreed to come on Meet the Press before the Iowa caucuses. But look, candidates do what is in their self-interest, and if the Republicans think they can prosper by giving most of their TV interviews to Fox, they're going to do that. Fred Thompson, by contrast, has done Meet the Press and This Week in the last couple of weeks.

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Silver Spring, Md.: My, how far the Merc has fallen in recent years. I cringe when I see statements like "nobody cares what the Cupertino City Council does." That just sends a green light to these people to do as they please, and the public is none the wiser. I used to cover city hall for newspapers in a couple of Western cities, and I really find that attitude offensive. My questions: How do newspapers get over the bottom-line financial focus that forces them to dumb themselves down to the point where they're nothing more than daily lifestyle rags? Do they have to go nonprofit? Go private? Will we be leaving that kind of coverage to alt-weeklies?

Howard Kurtz: Well, that's a big, complicated and depressing topic. One alternative -- a throwback to the old Hearst days -- has been private businessmen buying papers, such as a PR executive owning the Philadelphia Inquirer and real estate mogul Sam Zell buying the Tribune Company. For the record, the San Jose Mercury News staffer didn't say nobody cared about the Cupertino City Council; he said people weren't particularly looking to the Merc for coverage of the council (as opposed to Silicon Valley technology news, etc.)

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Portland, Ore.: C'mon Howard -- "so whether the original column item was worth anything or not, it became an issue in the presidential campaign"?Is it this easy to spin the press machine? So what if the candidate never had sex with a sheep, the campaign responded to the story -- therefore it's significant. The press has a problem, and you (as a press critic) can't seem to see it. It's enough to make a reader want to stick needles in his eyes.

Howard Kurtz: I'm explaining to you the dilemma. If the campaigns hadn't said anything, I believe the Novak item would have gotten little to no pickup. But with the Hillary and Obama camps ripping each other -- which, by the way, provided an interesting glimpse of their tactics -- we would have been accused of covering it up if we simply did not cover it at all. As it was, the coverage was rather modest, which makes sense.

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New York: Howard, in a recent column, you wondered whether the alleged recent drop in troop and Iraqi civilian deaths might have an impact on American electoral politics. I frankly don't understand the point of your exercise here. Given that millions of Iraqis are already either dead or displaced, and that Iraq's infrastructure is in complete tatters, your comments seemed like a vulgar exercise in denying the reality of the situation -- which is that Iraq is not improving, but a total catastrophe, as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not making a pronouncement on the totality of the war. I was simply picking up on what other reporters and pundits are saying, namely: If the reduced level of casualties continues, and Iraq recedes as an overriding issue, how will that affect the shape of the race? It doesn't mean that people will change their minds about the war itself. But it's also true that Iraq is not dominating the news agenda now the way it was a year ago.

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The "diamonds or pearls" question: To paraphrase Steven Colbert, dumb debate question or dumbest debate question ever? And shouldn't CNN have to forfeit its right to host any more debates for actually planting that question?

washingtonpost.com: Jewel of a Question (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 19)

Howard Kurtz: As I reported this morning, CNN didn't "plant" the question. The student in question provided a list of several questions she wanted to ask. Her top choice was about nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, but that had already been asked, so with a minute left in the debate, a CNN producer suggested she ask another question on her list, which was whether Hillary would prefer diamonds or pearls. It was kind of a dumb question, and maybe a bad move by CNN, but the network didn't plant the question, which was already on the woman's list.

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New York: Howard, CNN appears to have orchestrated the Las Vegas debate to help Senator Clinton. They even have covered up the fact the Clinton state chairperson controlled all of the non-UNLV tickets for the event, and Wolf Blitzer continues to equate the Clinton crowd response with some form of objective poll. My questions to you are, should CNN have to report all of their expenses for the debate as a contribution to the Clinton campaign, and won't the size of these make them illegal?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure I understand your reference to Wolf, but if it was a pro-Hillary crowd, and I think it was, I don't think that can be blamed on CNN. The bulk of the tickets went to the two debate co-sponsors -- the state Democratic Party and the University of Nevada -- as was the formula in preceding debates. (Each campaign got 22 tickets.) I haven't seen any evidence that the school or the party deliberately stacked the deck; Hillary happens to be ahead in Nevada. I do think it's a fair question whether Blitzer should have asked the crowd to stop cheering and booing. David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief, told me that passion is part of politics and a debate should not be conducted as if it were in a morgue. But the boisterous crowd did become a factor.

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Greenbelt, Md.: But if the Merc doesn't cover the Cupertino City Council, who will? Does Cupertino have its own newspaper? Is there a local blogger who tries to go to Cupertino City Council meetings, and is the blogger covered by the First Amendment? And who pays to keep the roof over the head of the Cupertino blogger in mega-expensive Silicon Valley? From a former small-town newspaper reporter.

Howard Kurtz: Well, that's exactly the problem. The local newspaper is the last line of defense when it comes to covering the meat and potatoes of government in towns and counties. If the local paper doesn't do it, no one will fill the gap in a meaningful way. At the same time, newspapers are losing revenue and circulation, and it's hard for them to compete with hyperlocal community papers across a broad metropolitan area. So they have to focus on what brings in the biggest audience, and in today's economic climate they can no longer do everything.

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Bethesda, Md.: I would like to second the confusion on the Bush rebound articles. Today's Post has the (online) headline "Finally, Better Days for Bush?" This clearly implies an upswing for Bush. Baker then lists stuff that has gotten better for Bush, which is mostly White House talking points -- including confirming an attorney general. Talk about a low bar. He can replace a cabinet member who resigned in disgrace! At the end of the article, you find out that the public is historically unimpressed, the "gains" from the surge aren't what the surge was intended to do, and Bush hasn't so much gained anything as he has stopped losing. So, why the article? Why the front-loaded White House talking points? Why the misleading headline?

washingtonpost.com: Analysis: For Bush, Advances But Not Approval (Post, Nov. 19)

Howard Kurtz: The notion that these are White House talking points is way off the mark. Peter Baker simply points to modest progress for the administration on a few fronts, from reduced casualties in Iraq to a tentative agreement with North Korea. But he balances that by pointing out that the White House is no longer even trying to pass new domestic initiatives but simply pursuing a defensive veto strategy. And the larger point is that all this has made no impact on public attitudes toward the Bush presidency.

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Rockville, Md.: I tuned in to see your comments on the suggestion that FOX news may have attempted to discourage negative news for Giuliani, but no beans. What gives?

washingtonpost.com: Ex-Publisher Regan Sues Over Kerik 'Smear Campaign' (Bloomberg, Nov. 14)

Howard Kurtz: My comment is that Judith Regan has charged, in her lawsuit against Murdoch's News Corp., that executives asked her to withhold information about Bernie Kerik (her lover as well as one of her authors) because it might hurt the campaign of Kerik's pal Rudy Giuliani. But Regan hasn't named the executive, and News Corp. has dismissed the suit as preposterous. I think this could get real ugly, but until Regan provides more specifics, it's hard to judge how much evidence she has.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Mr. Kurtz -- I wanted you to talk a little more about Newsweek's hire of Karl Rove. From all outward appearances Jon Meacham is a honorable man. Why has he given a man who has aided and abetted the slandering of war heroes (John McCain and Max Cleland), a man who aided and abetted the outing of a CIA agent, a man who represents the absolute worst in campaign tactics -- such as voter intimidation and a wide assortment of gray-area political shenanigans that work against a fair electoral process -- such a platform?

Evan Thomas lied to us about Joe Klein more than a decade ago and allowed to Klein to attack the integrity of individuals in Newsweek's pages when Thomas knew the critics were right and Klein was wrong. Where are the ethics and thought process at Newsweek? Who next -- Michael Savage?

washingtonpost.com: The Trial: Karl Rove's New Gig (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 15)

Howard Kurtz: First, it wasn't Evan Thomas who withheld information that Joe Klein was "Anonymous," it was the late Newsweek editor Maynard Parker. Second, Meacham defends the hiring of Rove by pointing to the simultaneous hiring of Markos Moulitsas, better known as Kos. And Meacham says his readers are smart enough to figure out whether Rove is acting as a GOP apologist (funny, his first column, out today, doesn't contain the word Bush). I'm troubled by the overall trend in which administration officials and politicians are anointed pundits by major news organizations five minutes after leaving office.

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Debate: Howard, don't media outlets have an obligation to keep the crowds under control during a debate? Allowing cheers and jeers interrupts the flow and appears to show favoritism (or lack of) towards the candidates. It's disrespectful and makes all involved, crowd or host network, look terrible. Meanwhile, I don't feel like I've learned anything.

Howard Kurtz: Had I been moderating, I would have asked the crowd to pipe down. However, no one has asked me to moderate a presidential debate.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Howie, is there some unwritten rule that pundits can't criticize each other? In his column yesterday on atrocious debates that Blitzer, Williams, Russert and Matthews have moderated, Broder (rightly) condemns these debates as empty, then says it isn't the candidates' fault, but stops short of saying it is the moderators' fault. Isn't this a pretty clear-cut example of pulling one's punches?

washingtonpost.com: Debates in Need of Rescue (Post, Nov. 18)

Howard Kurtz: I think Broder made his views clear in writing: "The TV impresarios are so eager for headlines they rarely pause to ask the candidates for evidence to support their opinions or assertions. It is bang-bang, but rarely because-and-here's-proof."

There's certainly no rule, unwritten or otherwise, about commentators not taking on other commentators, though everyone has his or her own style. Just read my column each day and you'll see plenty of examples of pundits bashing pundits -- including today, with the criticism of Novak over that Hillary-Obama item.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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