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Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, November 27, 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 transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Washington: Why are guys like you and Dana Milbank on Facebook? Seriously, aren't you a little old for that sort of thing?

Howard Kurtz: Ha ha. Surely you're aware that my generation is sneakily taking over Facebook in a dastardly attempt to ruin it for everyone else.

Actually, when I first went on earlier this year, I did feel like an aging parent visiting my daughter's college dorm (that would be the daughter who's refused to friend me). But now, every other day I'm friended by some (older) journalist, PR person or campaign strategist. So the transformation has become a reality.

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Annandale, Va.: Scott McClellan seems to be just the latest in a long line of former Bush officials who wait until they have a book coming out before relieving their guilty consciences. All these people are getting a pass on not performing their duty to the country to expose these acts when they happen. Why isn't the first question in every media interview "why didn't you tell us then?"

Howard Kurtz: The reason that isn't the first question in every interview is that McClellan hasn't given any interviews. His book doesn't come out until next April.

That's precisely what I wrote in my blog: now he tells us? But it's hard to gauge how much he did tell us, since the publisher released only a brief excerpt, and later said McClellan was not accusing Bush of intentionally misleading him about the Valerie Plame case, just saying that the president unknowingly passed on bad information.

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merzydoats: On the coverage of Sean Taylor by The Washington Post: The first articles concerning the shooting spent far too much space on his past troubles, at least online. I noticed that later in the day online Monday, the article had changed to focus on the event and its investigation, with a smaller portion at the end of the article on Taylor's past. I thought this is how the first set of articles should have been presented. Now that we know more, perhaps more information on the ATV incident could be discussed, but because we don't have any official information, just lightly.

My question is -- and please don't tell me it isn't -- how is race involved in this? Sean's assassination (I am not a reporter, so I can use that word) was a tragedy, and it should have been the focus of the articles overall, not a reaction to the criticism received after the first article and its subsequent updates. The focus of these articles initially was "look, he had a checkered past, so of course he got shot!" In fact, the first few reports made me wonder if there had been an event at his home; it was later when we were told that he and his fiancee were in bed at the onset of the event.

The ombudsman will get hit with this and give her opinion on Sunday. What is your reaction to how the Taylor issue was initially handled? I know the information was a huge story, and needed to get out quickly, but who is the editor responsible for quick releases and how do they judge these articles, especially the relevancy of the content? Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I was traveling yesterday and didn't follow it closely, but I think that online reports on a breaking news story are not unlike watching sausage being made. We used to have 24 hours to produce the finished dish -- no more. In the early reports, it may well be that not much information was available on the investigation, so reporters used the occasion to look at Sean Taylor's life and past troubles (not sure you could immediately rule out that there might be a link). As more information became available about what the police were finding about the crime itself, the focus shifts.

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Coverage of the summit: Howard: It seems to me that among the punditry and columnists, coverage of the Annapolis summit has been surprisingly optimistic. But when you read their columns, they're largely stating the positive results that could occur if everyone acts responsibly and applies the accepted foreign policy theories. It doesn't seem to be grounded in the realities of the moment. (Why would any Arab leader openly side with George Bush when we plan to stay in Iraq for what appears to be decades?) Your opinion?

Howard Kurtz: From what I've read, I don't know that optimism is the first word that comes to mind. Most of the journalists covering this understand the obstacles involved and aren't predicting quick results. The Palestinians are divided and Abbas is politically weak, among other things. So it doesn't seem to me that pundits are pumping up the hopes for any kind of big breakthrough.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Submitting early: I read your piece about Carole Simpson and then read the Boston Globe piece, also. I must be missing the issue. She is no longer a journalist; she is a faculty member at a college. I don't think her personal opinions, which she expressed, have anything to do with journalism or any journalistic standards of impartiality. To have someone come out and say this is further evidence of a liberal bias in the media is ludicrous. She is a private citizen making a personal statement. Isn't this an example of commentators looking for an issue?

washingtonpost.com: The Press's Post-Iowa Tailwinds: As Nature Intended It? (Post, Nov. 26)

Howard Kurtz: Well, Carole Simpson herself said she had made a mistake in endorsing Hillary and offered to resign her academic job. Yes, she is no longer a journalist, as she was at ABC, and is free to do what she wants, but she is a journalism professor, raising the question of what she is teaching her students about politics. She's still free to endorse if her university doesn't have any problem with it. It is nonetheless interesting.

By the way, if you click on the link the lead of yesterday's column was about how the media build up the winners of the Iowa caucus and trash the losers, and what a distorting role that plays in the process.

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Arlington, Va.: With hurricane season ending this week, have any of the media outlets that breathlessly reported on the dire predictions for several strong storms to strike the U.S. gone back to the "weather-guessers" to find out what went wrong with their predictions? I'm not holding my breath waiting for any corrections, retractions or apologies.

Howard Kurtz: Good, because holding your breath that long can be hazardous to your health.

Media outlets will say they were simply reporting the forecasts of professional meteorologists. But forecasting a whole season has always struck me as a bit loopy, and this time was way off the mark. Which is why we should basically ignore this kind of long-range crystal ball stuff.

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Edinburg, N.Y. : Mr. Kurtz, it would seem to me that the surge by Huckabee is the most predictable self-fulfilling prophecy of the past fifty years, because the press corps obviously finds the man charming and openly has been rooting for him to get back into the race. The religious right finally has started to read up on Giuliani's record, which is a sordid thing to wade through, and they've decided that they are better off with a real minister. So, mission accomplished for your buddies.

Now, is it honest for the media to play favorites like this, and to make fun of the "strange ideas" of a Paul or a Kucinich (i.e. protect the Constitution, what a bizarre concept!) and to overlook the truly wacky beliefs of their hero, who thinks that the Earth is 10,000, something that would shame any bright 14 year old? After the press openly pushed for the anti-science Bush over Gore, I'm starting to think that journalists as a group are hostile to science.

Howard Kurtz: Let me try to answer your Huckabee questions rather than debate all your opinions. I have written that the media often give sympathetic coverage to an affable long shot, and this season Huckabee is the man. The initial coverage is always largely favorable, and with the guitar-playing Huckabee it's no exception. (I'm not defending this, by the way.) But the boomlet really began when Huckabee finished second in the Ames straw poll, intensified when he picked up Sam Brownback supporters after the Kansas senator dropped out, and exploded when he surged to within a few points of Romney in the Iowa polls. You could make a case that this is more of an example of the poll-driven nature of the press. In any event, I predict a wave of negative coverage now that the media are belatedly taking the former governor seriously.

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Crystal City, Va.: Has anyone in the media bothered to ask Gen. Sanchez why, if the Iraq strategy was so fatally flawed, he did not put his stars on the table and resign years ago? This 20-20 hindsight employed by many retired generals and politicians -- without any media skepticism -- damages both Gen. Sanchez's credibility and that of the reporters who don't ask the obvious questions. It seems to this reader that, especially with war critics, Post reporters act more like stenographers than journalists -- throw a couple of high fastballs at him before you put his dubious claims on Page 1!

Howard Kurtz: I think the way that Sanchez turned against the war was a front-page story, and deserved to be. I don't know if the question of why he didn't resign came up at the forum where he gave that speech (in which he also ripped the press coverage of the war, and most news outlets shamefully ignored or minimized that part of his comments). Obviously, a military leader can't openly rip the policies of the White House and Pentagon, but you're right, one can always turn in one's stars and go public.

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State of Spin: Thanks for your observations that it is not so much whether you win Iowa or New Hampshire, but the spin you put on it to frame the next contest. I thought I was the only who remembered that Bill Clinton did not win either state in 1992, but framed himself as "The Comeback Kid" for Super Tuesday. Which Democratic Candidate has the best Spin Machine to shape whatever happens in Iowa into a victory? Which Republican?

Howard Kurtz: There essentially was no Iowa caucus in '92 because Tom Harkin was running, and Clinton was able to spin his second-place New Hampshire finish into a comeback because he had been sinking in the wake of Gennifer Flowers, the draft issue and other controversies. I can't predict what the candidates' spin machines will do this time around, but it's safe to say that Huckabee will get a huge media boost if he either wins Iowa or finishes a close second, and Obama or Edwards would get an even bigger boost if either edged out Hillary, even if by a few hundred votes. (I say a bigger boost because the press doesn't view Huckabee as a candidate who can go all the way, while Obama is seen as a more serious threat to win the nomination if he can upset Clinton's applecart early.)

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Elkhart, Ind.: Howie, do you always try to seduce network news anchors when you interview them? What's up with the candles, man?

Howard Kurtz: I just sat down and put on the mike. I was not consulted on the decor! Honest!

The mysterious reference is to my Reliable Sources interview on Sunday with Tom Brokaw, which was conducted in an interview room in which a producer placed a couple of candles to lend a homey touch.

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Washington: I was pleasantly surprised that there weren't media stories about Thanksgiving travel delays. After 2004 my wife and I stopped watching the news over the holiday to specifically avoid what are our family's most hated news stories -- the stranded traveler or the "I'm angry about air travel" traveler. Do you think 2007 might be a turning point where these amateurish bush-league stories may finally end?

Howard Kurtz: No! Didn't you turn on the TV? There were reporters stationed at the airports all day long to do the delay story. Actually, it turned out there weren't that many serious delays, so that became the story, but the genre is alive and well. On Sunday, by the way, the New York Times had about a 9-million-word piece on airline delays.

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Hyattsville, Md.: Hello Howie. Reporters finally understand: When comparing current prices with past prices, they should adjust for inflation. But reporters still don't understand they should adjust for population increases. This Thanksgiving was indeed the "busiest ever" -- but only because there are more Americans. Do journalism schools teach any quantitative skills? Yesterday an NPR reporter said that California is among the states with the highest number of foreclosures. But that could be true simply because California has the largest population!

Howard Kurtz: Good point. I don't know if "busiest ever" was based on the sheer number of people driving and flying, or on such factors as percentage of airline seats filled. But whether it's school overcrowding, prison populations, heart attacks or anything else, the figures are robbed of much of their meaning if you just include raw totals, as the U.S. population continues to steadily rise.

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Washington: Howard: are there any new tricks for old dogs, or are we doomed to political coverage that seems to follow an always predictable pattern? We've the horse race story, we've the he-said, she-said story, we've the poll-driven surge story and we've had the media-selected-charmer-of-the-moment story. This, in essence, appears to be mostly what we get from the MSM about our politics. Yes, I know there are exceptions -- great exceptions -- but why don't the great exceptions inspire better reporting? It can't be just that these stories -- like the horse race story -- are easy to write and edit; that suggests that reporters are seriously shallow. Don't all good political reporters aspire to do more?

Howard Kurtz: Political reporters insist that what most people want to know is who's going to win. So it's not a question of their own shallowness as much as it is aiming their coverage at what they think people want to see and hear. What drove me crazy at a recent Democratic debate was when Hillary and Obama got into it over how many uninsured their health plans would cover, 99 percent of the coverage was about the theatrics of the exchange, and the tiniest fraction about the not-inconsiderable difference between their proposals. It's true that with news organizations putting more and more material online, you can learn as much as you want about the candidates' proposals on just about anything. But as a recent survey documented, the horse-race remains the dominant mode of presidential campaign coverage in 2007.

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Pudgy in Texas: Can you somehow influence all the TV news channels to just stop showing the corpulent midsections of people walking on the streets during the inevitable holiday stories on obesity? I mean, headless waddling officially is played out.

Howard Kurtz: I'll do my best. I sometimes wonder if that is footage of the same 100 overweight people. I mean, how would you know if it was?

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Fairfax, Va.: What is your reaction to the post on Huffington Post on Friday by Valerie Wilson accusing the media of ignoring its responsibility to the public and the Constitution by refusing to follow up on the implications of the McClellan revelations for impeaching the President? As a media reporter, why aren't you focusing on how the MSM obscures McClellan's bombshell instead of trying to minimize it by framing it as "old news," a favorite way to bury news? McClellan said the president was behind lies about Wilson's outing and the destruction of her career. Isn't that newsworthy enough for you? Ask Ms. Howell if the story merits front-page placement.

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree that it's been dismissed as old news. I read lots of stories about it. Leaving aside that Plame, who is pursuing a lawsuit, is hardly a disinterested party, keep in mind that we already knew that McClellan said he defended Karl Rove and Scooter Libby based on their erroneous assurances that they were not involved in the leak. The new information here involves Bush (and to a lesser extent Andy Card). With McClellan unavailable, some reporters asked his publisher, who said McClellan wasn't really accusing the president of dishonesty. So there was some follow-up.

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Southeast Washington: Nothing but softballs from Katie to Clinton last night -- she's not going to gain much of a reputation as a new heavyweight if that's the best she can do. No questions about drivers licenses, flip-flopping positions, no plan for Social Security reform -- my eighth-grader in civics class could have been more hard-hitting than Katie Couric was.

Howard Kurtz: I believe CBS plans to air more of the interview as part of a serious of profiles of the candidates. But in what was shown last night, Couric asked Hillary about the newly aggressive tone of her campaign, her feelings about Oprah campaigning with Obama, and if she'd be disappointed if she lost. I'll have to wait and see whether her questions about the issues air at a later date.

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Longtime Media Observer in Washington: So, The Post that landed on my front doorstep this morning, with Sean Taylor's brave fight for life, already was seriously out of date by the time I pulled it out of the plastic bag. Is this going to be a textbook case for the decline and fall of the dead-tree edition?

Howard Kurtz: Look, until someone figures out how to print and deliver a paper product in half an hour, we're always going to miss news that happens after 1 a.m. in a morning-edition paper.

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Anonymous: While the MSM timidly says that there are signs of progress in Iraq and it is too soon to tell what the long term outlook is, Fox News -- both commentators and news readers (the latter are the fair-and-balanced ones, I guess) -- have started to regularly lead off reports saying that the tide has apparently turned in Iraq. When does the turning of the tide become official?

Howard Kurtz: I jokingly wrote last week that it became official when the New York Times ran a four-column lead story on how Baghdad was becoming safer. Newsweek did a big spread too. No one should be declaring any tides turning, since we've had other lulls in violence followed by resurgent violence (indeed, days later there was a big marketplace bombing in Baghdad). But these are noteworthy developments that need to be given the same kind of media attention that a comparable rise in attacks and casualties would have received.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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