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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 3, 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 "Reality Show: Insider the Last Great Television News War," "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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Dunn Loring, Va.: Okay, this morning a mediocre professional football team playing another mediocre pro football team takes up most of the front page and two full pages in the first section, plus more pages in the sports section than my grandchildren can count. Then you throw in a college football story on the front page as well even though no area teams are involved. But here's my question: The banner across the masthead tells us "Redskins Lose to Bills." Do you believe there is a single person in the Washington area that didn't know that?

Howard Kurtz: That above-the-logo banner is there for one reason, to drive newsstand sales. It's a way of announcing to readers peering into those boxes, Lots of good Redskins stuff in here today.

Yesterday's game was newsworthy not just because the Skins lost on a field goal in the final seconds after a penalty caused by the coach, but because it was the first game without Sean Taylor, who was murdered in his home last week, a story that became national news. The game included various tributes to Taylor.

I don't understand the criticism that The Post devotes too much attention to sports. If you don't care about it, just don't read it. There is plenty of other material in the Monday paper, including Media Notes.

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Baltimore: Howard, I was struck nearly speechless by this item from your column today: "CBS News is looking for an environmental reporter for its Web site. Here's the ad on JournalismJobs.com: 'You are wicked smart, funny, irreverent and hip, oozing enthusiasm and creative energy ... Knowledge of the enviro beat is a big plus, but not a requirement.' "

Jeez, I know that Web reporting is supposed to follow a "new paradigm," or whatever, but you would think that the online inheritor of the work of Ed Murrow, Erik Sevareid, Walter Cronkite, et al would want a reporter who is familiar with the beat he/she will cover and is not just "smart and funny." This is why Web reporting can't yet be trusted. Too many people think it's all about the medium, and that the message is, well, secondary.

Howard Kurtz: I'm all for hiring smart and funny people. But wouldn't it be nice if an environmental reporter knew something about the environment? Or is my thinking on that hopelessly Old Media?

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Springfield, Va.: Is Imus on locally?

Howard Kurtz: Not yet, I don't believe. I listened online today.

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San Diego: The Washington Post's Lois Romano said Thursday in defense of the Post's coverage of the "Obama whisper campaign": "How to address something that people are talking about, that clearly has become a factor in the race, without taking a position. Part of our job is to acknowledge that there is a discussion going on and to fact-check and lay out the facts. The Internet has complicated this responsibility because there is so much garbage and falsehood out there."

Do you agree that it is part of your job to acknowledge there's a "discussion" going on regarding every rumor, smear, overt falsehood or piece of propaganda -- without commenting on the veracity of the claims -- as The Post did in the Obama incident? In other words, the fact that someone did in fact say something and created interest in the statement on the Internet is more newsworthy then someone saying something false and creating interest in the statement on the Internet?

washingtonpost.com: Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him (Post, Nov. 29)

Howard Kurtz: No, of course not. But it's always a subject of journalistic debate as to when a rumor or smear has gained enough currency that a newspaper should weigh in and debunk it, even at the risk of spreading the original trash. I had debates in this newsroom many times about wanting to knock down some of the Clinton scandal rumors that were gaining currency in tabloids or British papers, and that was before the Internet was the force that it is today.

Post editors say they were trying to knock down the Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor, but I don't believe the piece was well executed. It didn't read like a debunking piece. There was too much about Obama "denying" or "disputing" allegations rather than just branding them false. This was particularly true in the case of the madrassa he allegedly attended as a child. That charge is bogus, as a CNN interview with a top official at the Indonesian school demonstrated, and the Post story failed to make that clear, in my view.

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Gainesville, Va.: Howard, I think it is time to send political reporters and commentators to a remedial course in statistics. You wrote that Obama could as easily be tied with Hillary because his lead of 28 percent to 25 percent is within the margin of error. What the confidence interval means is that if the confidence interval is smaller than the difference between two means we can be 95 percent (not 100 percent) sure that the opinions held in the universe will reflect the higher response to be greater than the lower. If the difference of the two poll results are within the confidence interval, it may mean we can only be sure that one is greater than the other with 80 percent or 75 percent confidence. It doesn't mean they are tied. It really would be helpful if you and your colleagues boned up on this question before you made statements that aren't true.

Howard Kurtz: I stand by what I said. Obama's lead is within the margin of error. In fact, the poll's margin of error was over 4 percent, which makes the 3-point lead even more of what I would regard as a statistical tie.

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Stone Harbor, N.J.: I feel fortunate to receive WABC (Don Imus) on my Bose (although I'm miles away from New York) but would like to know the best way to contact Comcast to have them include RFD-TV.

Howard Kurtz: Get all your friends to call the company.

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Louisville, Colo.: Hi Howard. Thanks for having David Bohrman on Reliable Sources yesterday. What is your opinion of Bohrman's responses to the criticisms of CNN? Do you feel the criticisms were justified?

washingtonpost.com: CNN Admits Holes in Screening of Questioners (Post, Nov. 30)

Howard Kurtz: I think CNN made a mistake in not spending more time trying to vet retired general Keith Kerr, who asked the Republican candidates about gays in the military and who turned out to be on a Hillary Clinton advisory board. If bloggers could come up with that information in 10 minutes, certainly CNN could have. Bohrman's position is that the network made reasonable efforts, by verifying that he was a real general and ascertaining from FEC records that he had made no political contributions. But Bohrman has also said that CNN probably wouldn't have used his question had it known of the Hillary link. Obviously, you can't catch every possible thing about every potential questioner, but this one could easily have been detected. I also think that once CNN decided to put Kerr in the studio audience, someone should have asked him if was publicly supporting any candidate.

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Washington: So you're telling me that when a Washington Post beat reporter (not a columnist) first starts a new beat, he/she has a substantive background in the area they're covering? Given all the arcane areas covered by the many federal agencies headquartered in Washington, I'm skeptical.

Howard Kurtz: No, obviously there is a learning curve. But then, we don't advertise for wickedly funny reporters. I'm the only exception.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Howard, reading news of the primaries and caucuses, I find there to be an extraordinary amount of poll data, so much that to make any sense out of them is virtually impossible. I am of the opinion that the media way overuses polls (even ones they pay for). Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: We are drowning in a sea of polls. They can be useful, of course -- though less so in Iowa's complicated caucus system -- but they drive coverage to an amazing degree. Four years ago, John Kerry was way behind in Iowa and New Hampshire and the MSM wrote him off. A few months ago, Mike Huckabee was regarded by the media as a charming long shot with no chance to win. He still may be a long shot, but he's now leading Mitt Romney (who's spent millions) in Iowa--that is, if the polls are to be believed.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Howard, last week's CNN debate problems seemed predictable to me. No matter which network is doing it, inviting people to submit via the Internet and its various offshoots opens the door to partisans who can sneak in because they do a good job hiding their real feelings. I understand this is the 21st century, and technology is, well, grand -- but aren't we better served by having debate questions offered by responsible media? Or have the debates just become another form of evening entertainment?

Howard Kurtz: Look, there's an element of showbiz in the YouTube format, but it also allows ordinary people a voice in the process. The alternative is having journalists ask all the questions, and while I like journalists very much, I don't think they should have an absolute monopoly.

There's no law against partisans being able to ask questions at a Republican or Democratic debate, but they should be identified as such so viewers at home have the information to make their own judgments. That's why CNN failure to find out about the Hillary adviser was an important omission. The guy had served in the military for 43 years; his question about why gays couldn't serve openly was a good one. We just needed to know that he had lent his name to a Democratic candidate (ironically, the one whose husband passed the don't-ask-don't-tell policy.)

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Wheaton, Md.: Howard, when the Politico story broke about Giuliani's administration hiding the expenses of taxpayer-funded security for Rudy's mistress, his aide Tony Carbonetti earnestly promised The Post "an investigation." Given the odds of the campaign voluntarily re-raising this issue of roughly 10,000-to-1, when do you suppose it would be proper for the press to, you know, ask him what he's found? (And I'm sure he's digging determinedly to get to the bottom of those charges the "Loft Board" incurred at the Atlantic Utopia Lifestyle Inn in swanky Southampton.)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if you'd call it an "investigation," but the Giuliani campaign has come out with more details on its version of events (the Police Department reimbursed the agencies, it had been done that way during Rudy's first term, etc.) and that's been reported.

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Rockville, Md.: Howie, I think we have a prime example of how the media influences elections: All the talk is about how Sen. Clinton has fallen behind in Iowa. The truth is that she's almost always been behind. It really isn't big news. I believe that different headlines about Sen. Obama overtaking Sen. Edwards would yield different results in New Hampshire and beyond. Let me say this: I don't think that the media is rooting for one candidate over another, but they certainly are rooting for a captivating horse race. The problem is that it influences the results.

Howard Kurtz: I agree that the media are rooting for a horse race. Reporters did not like the whole inevitability scenario. I also agree that Hillary hasn't slipped that much in Iowa, where the race has always been tight. (She's lost a bit of her lead in N.H. as well but remains comfortably ahead.) The combination of her stumbling in that Philadelphia debate over driver's license for illegal immigrants and her modest poll slippage has produced a new story line. Whether it's justified or just a bump in the road remains to be seen.

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Los Angeles: Why do the questioners at any debate need to be "vetted"? What about who the person is negates the question itself? Are "gays in the military" not legitimate questions to ask?

Howard Kurtz: As I said, it's perfectly legitimate. But as a viewer, I want to know that the person asking the Republicans a question is openly supporting Hillary Clinton, just as I'd want to know whether a questioner at a Democratic debate was on an advisory committee supporting Mitt Romney. And I don't think it's all that difficult to ask anyone whose question is selected whether they are backing a candidate. They can always lie, I suppose, but then at least the news organization made a good-faith effort to find out.

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Long Island, N.Y.: Howard, first off I'm a New Yorker who isn't supporting Rudy (at this point I'm leaning towards supporting the Libertarian candidate). The thing that bothers me with the Rudy story is that it's apparent that even though it may have not been illegal for cops to act as a pseudo-car service for his then mistress (as it was for New York State Comptroller Hevesi to have cops drive his ailing wife around), it seems as though he and she took advantage of the "security" reason for her own private purposes on the taxpayers dime. Do you think the "legal but questionable judgment" side of the story has been addressed sufficiently?

Howard Kurtz: Well, when you have New York police officers walking Judith's dog, I think it's clear that this is not an indictable offense but perhaps not the best use of taxpayers' dollars. And obviously it raises questions about Rudy's judgment. He's entitled to 24-hour police protection, but the dog?

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Chaska, Minn.: I am confused. The question was one of the best questions of a terrible debate. I wish both sides would take questions from the other side. It seems that like the traditional media, you are bending over backward to foster the false notion that the media -- and for that matter the world -- is conspiring against conservatives. Stop encouraging these crybabies. Asking a relevant question to persons seeking the highest office in the land is not a sign of bias, it's the point to them standing on that stage. Same is true for the progressive/liberals. Stop coddling the fringes and show some backbone, traditional media.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not conspiring against anyone, last time I checked. I'm simply in favor of disclosure, and the same disclosure rules for Democratic or Republican debates. It was CNN that strove for having only Republican or independent voters ask questions at the GOP debate and vice versa for the Democrats. I'm okay with people who happen to belong to the other party having their videos used. Just tell us if they have contributed money, joined an advisory panel or otherwise are supporting Candidate X.

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New York: Why the bizarre spin on the Sex on the City scandal? And how could you not run with Bloomberg's girlfriend's quote from the New York Daily News: "Taylor, 52, takes the bus every day to her midtown office and rides the subway to business appointments. In the six years Taylor and Bloomberg have lived together, she said she has never had reason to want or need personal NYPD security. 'I don't have security in Bogota or Nairobi or Moscow when I travel there on business, why would I need security in the safest city in the world?' Taylor told the Daily News yesterday."

Howard Kurtz: That's an interesting contrast. Bloomberg generally takes the subway to work but obviously he has, and should have, security. I'm not covering the story day to day but I do think these developments should be reported.

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Washington: Last week on C-SPAN your colleague Glenn Kessler stated that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's staff planted a question with "a friendly reporter" in an effort to rehabilitate Rice's image after the Iraq debacle. The planted question was whether Rice was considering a run for president. Given that Tim Russert famously asked Rice about her presidential ambitions in a 2005 "Meet the Press" interview, do you have any information as to whether Russert was the one taking planted questions from Rice?

Howard Kurtz: Russert asks EVERYONE whether they're running for president. My educated guess is that it was a member of the State Department press corps. But I don't know for a fact.

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Anonymous: New York Times, right now: "Breaking News 12:06 PM ET: U.S. Report Says Iran Halted Nuclear Weapons Program in 2003." This should be interesting.

washingtonpost.com: "Iran halted its nuclear weapons development program in the fall of 2003 under international pressure but is continuing to enrich uranium..." (AP, Dec. 3)

Howard Kurtz: I would just make a note about the attribution in the lead: "senior intelligence officials said Monday." They may well be right. But some intelligence officials were obviously flat wrong about Saddam's WMD.

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Imus Availability: FYI, I listened to him this morning on the live stream from wabcradio.com. Comcast isn't gonna add RFD-TV anywhere in their footprint, because they've just spent the past five years or so consolidating their markets to get away from rural America. Not as much demand for the Porter Wagoner show in Washington as you might think.

Howard Kurtz: It doesn't sound like the rural RFD is a great match for the Washington area. On the other hand, there are a million digital channels these days. If Comcast thought Imus might pull enough ratings, it might reconsider.

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Minneapolis: But CNN actually apparently made no such effort for the Democratic debate, either. There clearly were questions from Republicans in that debate, as the Los Angeles Times confirmed. Why was it only a big deal when it happened in the Republican debate?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not aware of anyone who asked a question at the Democratic YouTube debate who was openly supporting a GOP candidate. It may have happened, I just haven't heard that.

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Statistical refresher for Gainesville: Howard, you are right to stand by what you wrote and I hope no one listens to Gainesville's blather on stats. The most appropriate way to read the numbers in the Register's poll would be: The pollsters say that if they were to conduct this same poll 100 times, then they are confident that in at least 95 of those that Obama would fall somewhere between 24 and 32 percent; Clinton would fall somewhere between 21 and 29 percent. Taking only that poll into consideration, it is a statistical tie. The thing about political polling is, because there are so many of them, you can see movement over time. Combine that with independent polls showing the same direction of movement, and it's newsworthy -- even if it is a statistical tie.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the elaboration. But hey, if you don't like today's poll, I'm sure there'll be another one tomorrow.

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New York:"But as a viewer, I want to know that the person asking the Republicans a question is openly supporting Hillary Clinton, just as I'd want to know whether a questioner at a Democratic debate was on an advisory committee supporting Mitt Romney." That's a pretty strong standard to hold citizen questioners to, especially when the talent on the tube are not held to the same standard.

Howard Kurtz: To me, it actually seems like a low standard, since I'm not saying they shouldn't be able to ask the question. When you watch O'Reilly or Olbermann or Dobbs or Hannity or lots of other cable folks, you can form a judgment over time as to where that person is coming from. When you watch a woman named "Journey" -- who shows up the next day on YouTube with a John Edwards '08 T-shirt -- ask a question about abortion, you have no idea where she's coming from.

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Vienna, Va.: You said on Reliable Sources yesterday that you agreed with Erin Burnett's self-assessment that when she called the president a monkey on MSNBC it was stupid. Wasn't it more than that? Seems to me it played right into the belief held by many conservatives that the media viscerally and irrationally will attack the president in the most juvenile way. Yes, the comment was stupid -- so was Trent Lott's joke about Strom Thurmond. But in the senator's case, the media weren't so quick to dismiss it.

Howard Kurtz: It was a stupid, ill-conceived attempt at a joke (Bush was the monkey in the middle because he was flanked by Sarkozy and Merkel). It was not a serious attack on the president.

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Washington: Howie, my question about the "Obama rumor" piece is that there are specific, equally spurious, oft-repeated and well-known rumors out there about both Clinton and Edwards. Why is it that the Obama rumor merits a two-page, front-page treatment, but not the rumors about the other candidates? Is it because this rumor is about religion (and hints of a terror-related aspect) while the others are of a more salacious nature?

Howard Kurtz: The Post's rationale was that Obama himself was being asked about this on the trail; that some percentage in polls believe he is a Muslim; and his campaign was devoting time and energy to knock it down. That's in a different category than a whispering campaign that someone's having an affair. But as I said, I don't think the story made clear enough that these rumors are false.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: On The Post's hiring practices: I would hope that a national newspaper like the Post would hire reporters who have some, if not substantial, experience in their beat. The Post is not some 5,000-circulation daily in Kansas that has to hire new college graduates. I expect their reporters -- even the new ones -- to have some expertise, or why hire them? As a former newspaper editor for several somewhat smaller papers in Pennsylvania, even then I expected my beginning reporters to have some knowledge of what they were going to do. While a reporter at The Post may have a learning curve as to who is who, the basic knowledge should be there.

Howard Kurtz: Agreed. But people change beats over the course of their career. Someone hired as a Metro reporter might wind up being sent to Iraq and then come back and cover politics for the National staff. By that time, of course, that person would have demonstrated that they know the basics of good reporting and writing. Even if they're not wickedly funny.

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Odenton, Md.: Re: "The guy had served in the military for 43 years; his question about why gays couldn't serve openly was a good one. We just needed to know that he had lent his name to a Democratic candidate (ironically, the one whose husband passed the don't-ask-don't-tell policy.)" Why is it so important we know? As you said, his question was a good one. Would know he was on an Clinton advisory board change the way any of the candidates answered the question? Frankly, I don't understand the big deal. Seems to me this is a classic "shoot the messenger" reaction by the right.

Howard Kurtz: Well, we just disagree on that point. I'm perfectly capable of saying, who cares if he likes Hillary? He was in the military for 43 years and raises a valid question. But a news organization shouldn't put itself in the position of not knowing, forcing the moderator to acknowledge it on the air after the debate was over.

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Greater Green Bay, Wis.: I'm a little surprised you aren't getting blasted by people who were steamed at the Post and other media for reporting after Sean Taylor's murder about his past run-ins and other problems -- Mike Wilbon was one of the angry readers' targets, as was Len Shapiro, I believe. Any thoughts there?

Howard Kurtz: I questioned Wilbon about that very subject on my show yesterday. You can read the transcript here, toward the bottom.

He believes that Taylor's past scrapes with the law, including pleading no contest to assault and battery, had to be mentioned in explaining why he, Wilbon, wasn't surprised by the murder. I questioned whether it was worth mentioning so soon after the awful tragedy, based on no concrete evidence that this was anything other than a burglary gone bad.

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Boston: Howie, last week in a discussion with Jonathan Weisman, there was conversation regarding your piece on Hillary access by the press. Basically, responding to a question about why anyone should care that politicians don't want to (and usually don't) respond to questions about the "politics" of politicking (polls, winning in Iowa, etc) instead of policy questions, Weisman basically responded: What do you expect, these are political reporters. If that's true, then who's responsible for reporting on the policy stances of these politicians?!

Howard Kurtz: Reporters don't only ask horse-race questions. They also ask about substantive differences between the candidates, though perhaps not often enough. And we have plenty of people writing about the issues. But if a candidate doesn't talk to the press for days at a time, he or she is refusing to deal with all kinds of questions.

Interesting to me that Hillary held a news conference yesterday because she had a message she wanted to get out -- attacking Obama and questioning his character. That was the message of the day.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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