Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 14, 2008; 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."

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


Louisville, Colo.: ABC aired two long segments of Hillary Clinton being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos. I may have missed it, but I did not hear any kind of disclaimer in either one. In your opinion, should ABC routinely disclose the prior Stephanopoulos-Clinton relationship, and his continuing relationship with advisors to the Clinton campaign? Stephanopoulos recently made the statement that he talks to James Carville every day.

Howard Kurtz: I don't buy the part about the "continuing relationship"; Carville talks to lots of reporters every day. But I do think that when Stephanopoulos interviews Hillary Clinton, he should mention that he worked with her as a top aide in the Clinton White House (if indeed he did not). Lots of people already know that, and it was more than a decade ago, but it's still a relevant piece of information.


Albany, N.Y.: While Clintons been accused of being hostile to the media, the folks The Post has covering the Clinton campaign have done better at producing more of "inside the campaign" stories that obviously have campaign insiders as sources than the ones covering Obama or any of the Republican candidates. Are the folks covering Clinton just that good, or are the other campaigns just not talking off the record to reporters? Clinton, Crying Foul -- or Craftily Playing the Game? (Post, Jan. 14)

Howard Kurtz: That's funny, a couple of months ago everyone was writing how disciplined the Hillary organization was and how everyone was reading from the same script. Then she lost Iowa and there was a lot of internal finger-pointing and some of it made it into print. As for more behind-the-scenes narratives involving the Clinton campaign, I'd say she simply is covered far more intensively than any other presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican.


Hobe Sound, Fla.: Yesterday on Reliable Sources you mentioned that you thought there could be a backlash against the media for its over-the-top fawning and prognosticating for Obama. I'm proof that it's beginning. I was for him, until I got sick of the Second Coming media coverage. I went back and looked at Hillary's record and realized how little had made it into the mainstream media. I'm now supporting her with my time and money. Do you think we'll see more of this, or will the electorate continue to follow the lead of a guilt-ridden press looking for something to make their jobs more interesting?

Howard Kurtz: You're conflating two different things I said. I said the media are facing a backlash because of the endless waves of prognostication and predictions that tell us how primaries are going to turn out before they happen (which was, as everyone knows, spectacularly wrong in New Hampshire). I also said I don't think the press has given Obama's record the kind of scrutiny that other leading candidates routinely are subjected to. You're seeing a little more of it now because the Hillary camp is pushing an argument about alleged inconsistencies in his stance on Iraq, as I wrote about this morning.


Arlington, Va.: I read that a Goldman Sachs analyst is forecasting an 8 percent decline in revenues at newspapers if there's a recession. Given all the cutbacks and layoffs we have been reading about, are the major metropolitan newspapers really in shape to adjust to such a decline and survive, or do you expect bankruptcies and foldings?

Howard Kurtz: I expect more serious cutbacks, but not a wave of shutdowns. They still occur -- the Cincinnati Post just shut its doors -- but people forget that for all the hand-wringing about revenue, newspaper profit margins are still relatively high compared to most other industries.


Vienna, Va.: Thank you for reminding people that real journalists are supposed to be objective in their coverage of politics. Unfortunately, those "journalists" are not listening. They still think that every thing Hillary says is "shrill," negative, and a mistake and that everything Obama does is wonderful and positive. I think that the world has turned over and I now live in some alternate universe. When a country needs an experienced leader as badly as ours, I don't know why journalists and much of the public want the most inexperienced candidate in the field. Heaven help us.

Howard Kurtz: I certainly wouldn't suggest that journalists think everything Hillary says is terrible and everything Obama says is wonderful. Remember that in the fall, when Obama was 20 points behind, much of the press depicted Clinton's nomination as all but inevitable, and the pundits kept demanding that Obama stop being a wimp and start attacking her. He certainly got a huge wave of favorable press when he got into the race, and another after winning Iowa, but there has been criticism as well.


Richmond, Va.: I want to know who anointed Obama the expert on Dr. King's legacy? The insinuation in his criticism of Clinton's comments is that she has no right (is ill-advised, even) to discuss race, and yet he does because ... he's African American? I have a dream -- that the media stop giving Obama a free pass when he pulls the race card.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it's fair to accuse Barack Obama of playing the race card when he simply was responding to Hillary's remarks on MLK and LBJ -- and in fact he and his campaign said little about that for days. But he certainly is entitled to respond to the implication that while he's an inspiring speaker, it takes a tough president (as in Hillary) to get things done.


Springfield, Va.: Lee Cowan tells Brian Williams that it's hard to remain objective when covering Obama, and Williams later bristles at the notion that Cowan or NBC might be "biased" Obama boosters. Instead, Williams tries to explain Cowan's fawning as a fishbowl syndrome of getting caught up in the moment as a reporter. Does Williams have any idea how much he sounds like the exact kind of political posturing/backtracking that often occupies headlines for days on the nightly news when politicians and other prominent public figures are the ones who can't get out of their own way?

Howard Kurtz: Time out. Lee Cowan wasn't fawning at all. He simply said -- as some other journalists have said -- that you have to redouble your efforts to be objective when one candidate (Obama) is drawing massive crowds and generating so much enthusiasm. I asked John Harris, a former Washington Post editor who now runs the Politico, about this on my show yesterday, and he said:

"When I was at The Washington Post, Howie, this is when I first noticed this. Almost a couple years ago, you would send a reporter out with Obama, and it was like they needed to go through detox when they came back -- 'Oh, he's so impressive, he's so charismatic,' and we're kind of like, 'down boy.' "


Arlington, Va.: Everyone I know is hungering to see real talk about real issues in the campaign. Instead all we get from the press is he said/he said/she said, who's up and who's down in the polls, who attacked whom with what spurious innuendo, etc. This issue of issue-free coverage has been raised over and over and over again, yet nothing ever changes. What will it take to make reporters do some actual reporting instead of analysis and horse-race, with sound-bite quotes from the candidates and their surrogates? The press has not served the public well at all. Maybe they all need to have their licenses revoked.

Howard Kurtz: I'd prefer to hold onto my license, thanks. But you're painting with a very broad brush. It is undeniably true that there has been an awful lot of horse-race stuff and he said/she-said in the coverage, especially now that we're in the dizzying rush of early primaries packed so closely together. But there have been many, many stories written and broadcast about the candidates' health care plans, stance on Iraq, position on immigration and on and on. The debates have featured plenty of substantive questions. The danger, though, is that many of the stories I'm referring to appeared in 2007, when lots of people weren't paying attention. So we may have a tendency to dismiss them now as "old news" as we ricochet from Iowa to New Hampshire to Michigan and Nevada in a matter of days.


Amarillo, Texas: Enjoyed your Reliable Sources program Sunday and your comments on the media's poor performance in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. The broadcast and print media have plenty of egg on their faces, and editors should take the rap. It seems network anchors relish the role of what you labeled "commentators" rather than serving as "managing editors" of their news product. Newspaper editors also appear content to let "reporters" take on the role of "columnists." Is this all we can expect of journalism?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's fair for anchors and reporters alike to engage in analysis. We study this stuff for a living, part of our job is to sort it out, and we don't have much relevance in a wired world if all we do is regurgitate what happened that day. But there's a difference between analysis and commentary, or even framing the story in such a way that it's obvious we expect Obama to win New Hampshire and that Hillary has almost no chance. The lines may have been blurred through the years, but journalists simply shouldn't be in the prediction business, period, if only to keep that egg off our collective face.


Boston: Instead of asking for historical analysis of the '60s civil rights movements from the candidates for 2008 presidential election, shouldn't the media be asking the candidates what they intend to do today to address the real-life economic concerns of African Americans?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, of course, although I wouldn't say we were "asking" the candidates to reflect on Martin Luther King and the civil rights era. Hillary brought up the MLK/LBJ analogy, and yes, reporters then asked Obama for a response -- and as surrogates and supporters started weighing in, it became a larger controversy. But this isn't a dispute that was started by the media.


Washington: I thought it was interesting, regarding Bob Johnson's comments yesterday, that the media is very focused on the part that (to any reasonable person) appears to reference Obama's drug use as a teen. There seems to be less emphasis on the Sydney Poitier comments, which I think are the more racially-charged part. Specifically, they seem designed to suggest to the African American community that Obama is not really black enough. Why do you think this is?

Howard Kurtz: I think the clear allusion to Obama's youthful drug use, coming from a Hillary surrogate so soon after her New Hampshire co-chairman was fired for explicitly raising the same thing, was the more newsworthy comment. But I'm seeing a lot on the blogs today about Robert Johnson likening Obama to Sidney Poitier, and I predict you will read more about that tomorrow.


Williams and Cowan: I found Williams's comments refreshing, in a way. It can't be easy for a news reader who takes his job so seriously to admit that perception of bias is a problem. Contrast that with, for example, Cronkite's comment (of course I'm paraphrasing) that "reporters are liberal because we see more than you..."

Howard Kurtz: I agree, except that Brian Williams is no news reader. He is the managing editor of the broadcast, writes his own copy, does plenty of reporting, and in fact is moderating tomorrow's Democratic debate in Nevada. And then there's the whole "Saturday Night Live" thing...


Boston: On the Politico's mea culpa, do you think Beltway journalists really will care and follow up? Also, why is your world ruled by right-wing nabobs like Drudge? Why Reporters Get It Wrong (Politico, Jan. 8)

Howard Kurtz: I give the Politico great credit for running that piece. Some of the journalists I spoke with for a piece the same day, including Tom Brokaw, were also very candid about the flaws of the media and the need for change. Do I think news organizations will suddenly become far more cautious about the way they cover campaigns? Not really.

Drudge can help drive a story because millions of people read his Web site, but to say that the MSM is "ruled" by him is silly. Plus, there are plenty of other Web sites these days that can drive a story as well.


Anchorage, Alaska: What is your perspective on the Major Garrett story on FoxNews regarding the hiring of Paul Begala to assist the Hillary Clinton campaign? Begala specifically contacted Garrett and tried to specifically deny the story; he was told by Garrett that he would take the denial "under advisement." Was this story treated somewhat like college football coaches changing jobs? I know I have seen situations where a coach specifically denies, sometimes repeatedly, that he taking a new job right up until the time he jumps on plane to the other school. But really, should Begala be given more due consideration than, say, Nick Saban? Begala Writes The Bourbon Room (, Jan. 8)

Howard Kurtz: As I write in this morning's column, Begala insists he had no conversations with the Clinton folks about joining the campaign and was not on a conference call with campaign officials, as Fox's Major Garrett reported. Garrett told me he redoubled his efforts after the e-mailed denial (he had not originally contacted Begala for comment) and still believes, based on sources, that his story is accurate. I can't resolve it definitively, but if person X told me that he didn't do something, I would feel I needed substantial and specific evidence to say, in effect, that he's lying.


Re: Springfield: Mr. Kurtz, you're right that in one sense -- Lee Cowan was fessing up, talking turkey about getting caught up in the crowds, in the enthusiasm of a rally. But he (and more dramatically, Brian Williams) greeted the controversy over their lack of objectivity by waxing more enthusiastically about how people were greeting Obama like relatives home from the war, and so on. Springfield is right, too. Doesn't this controversy make Williams look like an Obama cheerleader?

Howard Kurtz: Not at all -- they were saying the opposite, that it is important for journalists to resist being caught up in the excitement surrounding the Obama campaign. Would it have been better if they just remained silent, rather than talking candidly about the need to remain objective?


Kettering, Ohio: Good afternoon Howard. I haven't watched the podcast of Reliable Sources yet (I was traveling; your podcast is a great way to catch the show) but I hope you weren't too tough on the pollsters. Obama came in pretty close to where most had put him, but the undecided went to Hillary in a rush in the last 24 hours, which changed the dynamic enormously. Whether it was the faux sniffle -- my take -- or a genuine wave of support will not be known for a few more days. I can't fault the reporters too much for making such a big story out of it. It was a big story. It was a big story when Geraldo said that he was going to open Al Capone's secret safe, too.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't blame pollsters at all. Like weather forecasters, they can't always be right (especially in primaries where turnout is never clear). No one forces journalists to take those polling snapshots, treat them as gospel and use them to make predictions or strongly suggest a certain outcome -- especially because we know from experience that a sizable chunk of primary voters make up their minds in the last 36 hours, after the pollsters have stopped polling.


Baton Rouge, La.: Howard, you say "I think it's fair for anchors and reporters alike to engage in analysis. We study this stuff for a living, part of our job is to sort it out, and we don't have much relevance in a wired world if all we do is regurgitate what happened that day." Well, in a wired world your analysis is no longer relevant. With so much information available online, any news consumer can provide their own analysis. Studying something for a living and actually being good at what you do are two different things, but because there is no accountability for analysis in your profession, I guess it doesn't really matter. If it did, William Kristol wouldn't have his perch at the New York Times.

Howard Kurtz: I'll let Kristol defend himself, and if you think the media's analysis is irrelevant, feel free to ignore it. Not everyone has the time to watch every debate, every candidate interview, look at every poll and blog and news story and commercial (most of which run only in the targeted states). Even as someone who does this for a living, I'm interested in the perspective of someone who travels with the Hillary or Obama or Romney or Huckabee campaigns. When I interviewed ABC's Kate Snow yesterday, she was in the coffee shop where Hillary had her choked-up moment, and therefore had a different vantage point than someone just viewing the tape. But if people want to be their own political analysts, more power to them.


Columbia, Md.: Howard, your Begala item in today's article was amazing, to say the least. I may be from a different planet but the facts lead me to conclude that either Garret lied or his "sources" lied. Why the dance around that fact? How can someone "stand by" by a story when the subject of the story flatly denies the whole story? Wouldn't you check back with your "sources" again and rat them out if what they fed you was a lie -- that is, unless you actually made up the whole story? Secondly, flatly disregarding Begala's denials by Garret is indirectly saying that he doesn't believe Begala at all, wouldn't you say? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I have no reason to believe that Major Garrett, a respected reporter, lied, and even Begala doesn't charge that. He says Garrett is repeating something from his sources that he, Begala, is positive is untrue -- because it involves, uh, him. It's certainly not unreasonable that the Clinton campaign would want to bring in a veteran like Begala, but that doesn't mean anyone talked to him about it.


Fairfax, Va.: Which reporter is actually asking the Democratic candidates what it is they want to change, why it is necessary to make those changes, and specifically what the candidate will do as president to effect those changes? These are questions reporters should feel free to ask and report on, don't you think? Aren't there any inquiring minds left among your colleagues, or are our political reporters so mesmerized by "horse-race" dynamics that they have given up on asking questions? Or could it be that Bush and company, in the past seven years, have crushed their curiosity?

Howard Kurtz: Again, I think that's painting with an overly broad brush. I have seen reporters ask the candidates questions about issues over and over, both in person, on television, and in newspaper and magazine articles. Tim Russert did it yesterday with Hillary. I wouldn't dispute for a moment that the daily back-and-forth (which often is rooted in issues) and horse-race chatter is getting top billing at the moment, but that's what happens when a whole lot of primaries are scheduled four to seven days apart.


Sewickley, Pa: I can think of 30 questions that would have been more interesting and illuminating than the ones Russert asked Hillary Clinton. What would you have asked her if you had the chance? "Meet the Press" hit a new low in my estimation.

Howard Kurtz: What exactly is wrong with these questions?

  • Casting your vote for conviction for the authorization for use of military force against Iraq resolution. That same week Sen. Obama gave a speech, and this is what he said: "I know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors. ... I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that ... invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale ... without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."
    Who had the better judgment at that time?
  • Again, learning from mistake, do you wish you had read the National Intelligence Estimate, which had a lot of caveats from the State Department and the Energy Department as to whether or not Saddam Hussein really had a biological and chemical and active nuclear program?
  • But, Senator, many people opted for those cheaper mortgages. They could've had a fixed mortgage at a higher rate, but they opted for a cheaper one. Should they not bear some responsibility?
  • _______________________

    Washington: Other than media competition with itself, do polls and predictions serve any good purpose at all?

    Howard Kurtz: It keeps the political addicts out there well-supplied with their drug of choice.

    Thanks for the chat, folks.


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