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Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 28, 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

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Here's why the Kennedy endorsements matter: Obama wins today's news cycle, and with Kennedy, Kerry and Deval Patrick all on Obama's side, his chances of winning Massachusetts may be higher -- let's see if Clinton goes to the state between now and Feb. 5. My guess is she doesn't.

Howard Kurtz: Obama definitely wins today's news cycle. (That was a smart rollout, with Caroline Kennedy's New York Times op-ed yesterday and word of the Ted endorsement leaked for this morning's papers.) But does that mean that additional hordes of Massachusetts Democrats who otherwise would have supported Hillary suddenly are going to switch to Obama? I think the value of Kennedy's endorsement lies more with reassuring certain Democratic constituencies (such as union members) who may have been wary of Obama.

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Baltimore: Re: Today's column on Obama and the press, when a reporter asks a presidential candidate a question more suited to the run-up to the Super Bowl ("are you letting Clinton get inside your head"), no wonder Obama remains aloof from the traveling press. Especially when, as you say, all he needs do is trot out Oprah Winfrey to get massive coverage.

washingtonpost.com: How Obama Finesses the Press (Post, Jan. 28)

Howard Kurtz: It was not the most substantive question ever posed in the history of presidential politics, but that's the kind of thing that gets blurted out when you have no access to a candidate. Had Obama spent 15 minutes talking to the press that day, the question might have been asked -- he could have brushed it off with a joke -- but likely it would have been overshadowed by other questions and answers. Instead the little incident with Jeff Zeleny took on a life of its own. Maybe there will be a little more interaction now that Obama isn't flying on a separate plane.

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Reading, Pa.: Does it strike you as a tad overdone with this pundit and that pundit rehashing the same old conventional "wisdom" about this election? I'm a real political junkie but even I have had enough.

Howard Kurtz: It would be one thing if the conventional wisdom was -- what's the word -- right. Instead, we had Hillary anointed, Hillary toast in New Hampshire, Obama expected to win South Carolina by a modest margin, McCain dead and buried last summer, Thompson certain to become a leading contender. ... Come to think of it, the list of what the pundits have gotten right is much shorter.

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Columbia, Md.: Interesting item in your notes today about Carville and Begala being sidelined by CNN because they are die-hard Clinton supporters. I've always had a problem with CNN having them on their payroll to begin with because it does add to the reputation that CNN is the "Clinton News Network." I do wonder though, will this policy remain in effect during a general election as well if Hillary Clinton becomes the nominee? If not, will CNN hire people with direct ties to whomever the Republican nominee is to balance out their staff? I don't mean just hire another conservative, but someone with a direct tie to the GOP candidate, similar to the relationships Carville and Begala have with Clinton. Seems like they will have to in order to claim to be an "objective" news network. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Carville and Begala (and other liberal pundits) virtually never appear without being balanced by the likes of Bill Bennett, J.C. Watts, Terry Jeffrey and other conservative commentators. The problem is in primary season -- they are identified closely with the Clintons, so if one of them fills the "liberal" chair Obama gets short shrift (as his campaign has complained). So CNN has come up with the idea of allowing Carville or Begala on only as Hillary advocates to be balanced by spokesmen for other Democratic candidates. (In reality, it means they've hardly been at all.) This is an improvement from the "Crossfire" days when liberals and conservatives who were basically campaign surrogates would play hosting roles (along with Pat Buchanan, in between his presidential campaigns).

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Santa Monica, Calif.: I enjoyed your show yesterday, but I thought Jim Axelrod engaged in some serious self-rationalization for why the press is correct to pursue political sniping. What scares me is the idea that he believes that. Anyway, what's your take on how many reporters are citing the poll question that showed something like 60 percent of South Carolina voters said Bill Clinton influenced their vote? It seems most are assuming it was a negative influence, yet the poll did not ask that follow-up. Should reporters be taking that next step in interpreting the responses?

Howard Kurtz: Axelrod was making the point that Clinton was very deliberately trying to inject negative messages about Obama into the campaign and that needed to be covered; therefore, it wasn't just about political sniping, as the former president claimed. (I'd add that because Clinton threw the first punches here, it's more than fair to ask about criticism of his tactics by another Democrat, which is what CNN's Jessica Yellin was doing.) Where I disagree with Axelrod is, of course journalists love to play the role of fight promoters by asking public figures about someone else's slam in the hope they'll respond in kind.

I do think that exit poll question on Clinton's role has been cited a number of times. Remember, we've only had that information since Saturday night.

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Washington: How will the press handle the nearly two dozen states that will vote on Feb. 5? For example, I think it's safe to assume that Clinton will perform well in places like New York and New Jersey, while Obama has the advantage in Illinois. Really the only big state up for grabs is California, but that still leaves about 18 states where I really have no idea who is going to come out on top.

Howard Kurtz: It will be a blur. Obviously the winner of mega-states like California will get a lot of media credit, but we're really going to have to get our calculators out and figure out who picked up the most delegates. If that figure is close, then "winning" this or that state won't matter as much.

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Rochester, N.Y.: I liked your piece about Obama and the press. There's one thing you didn't touch on, though -- hasn't Bush changed the rules on "courting" the press? The Bush administration has treated the press like dogs and they mostly responded by acting like lap dogs. Doesn't it make sense that any smart candidate would treat the press badly from now on?

Howard Kurtz: I think the only fair comparison is to candidate Bush in 2000, who spent a lot of time bantering with reporters on his plane, giving them nicknames and so on (I did a story on this at the time). Once a president gets into office, he gets to play by a different set of rules. Even a President McCain wouldn't be spending eight hours a day with reporters the way he does now.

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Washington: When is the media going to start covering the Asian vote in the Democratic primary? Asians make up a large portion of voters in California. I would like to know if they favor Clinton over Obama. It seems all too often the media still is stuck in a 1960s mindset of America mainly being black and white.

Howard Kurtz: I think there has been growing attention to the Hispanic vote. But in the states so far -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Michigan and South Carolina -- the Asian vote has not been a significant factor.

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Arlington, Va.: Not to question his objectivity (because I actually think he's quite good), but I've always wondered how George Stephanopoulos went from Communications Director at the Clinton White House to chief political correspondent at ABC News...

Howard Kurtz: Well, there was a stop in between, where Stephanopoulos was a liberal analyst on "This Week," before ABC decided to expand his role.

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Washington: Howard, I look at the campaigns and don't see particularly vicious or hard tactics. I see the same spin and sharp elbows from all candidates, Democratic and Republicans. So why the scores of articles and editorials casting the Clintons as pit bulls? Have there been layers of news articles analyzing McCain's shots at Romney? Does your paper have lead editorials decrying his tactics? Or is this just another example of the mainstream media lacking the discipline and professionalism to treat a Clinton like any other politician?

Howard Kurtz: It's one thing when the candidates take hard shots at each other (as Hillary and Obama did in last Monday's debate, and as McCain and Romney did over the weekend in Florida). But I never have seen -- no one ever has seen -- a presidential primary contest where a former president of the United States, who happens to be a candidate's spouse, has played such a prominent and aggressive role. For several days last week, Bill was the Clinton campaign in South Carolina as his wife was campaigning elsewhere. He and the campaign wanted all this coverage as he made the case against Obama and, in the critics' eyes at least, injected a racial dimension into the campaign. So while it's fair to criticize the way Bill Clinton has been covered, this is a new and very different spectacle.

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Just Finished "Reality Show": And I no longer abhor Katie Couric, although I still don't trust CBS News. They brought their credibility problems on themselves, which is why I can't believe they didn't settle with Rather out of court.

Howard Kurtz: Keep in mind that the Rather lawsuit is not about whether the Memogate story was true or not -- CBS has already retracted that story and apologized for it. The suit is about whether CBS lived up to its contractual promises when Rather moved from the anchor chair to "60 Minutes." So I'm not sure why network executives automatically should settle if they think they're right.

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Albany, N.Y.: Do you agree that Bill Clinton's "Jesse Jackson" remark seemed to make clear that in fact he was attempting to divide the electorate along racial lines with his behavior during the week?

Howard Kurtz: I was surprised that Bill Clinton brought up Jesse Jackson having won South Carolina in the 1980s, which seemed to minimize Obama's huge win by suggesting that black candidates do well in the state because of its large African American population. After all, Obama not only got a respectable 24 percent of the white vote, he was tied with Hillary among white men. Besides, the state already had voted at that point, so I'm not sure I see any upside to the former president's remark.

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Fairfax, Va.: So which cable news network is going to eat up time first with an hour-long special about delegating counting?

Howard Kurtz: Zzzzz. Trust me, within a few weeks, if this thing isn't over, you will be so sick of hearing about delegate counts that you will run screaming from the room when anyone mentions it.

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Seattle: Howie, thanks for having us. Which network called the South Carolina Primary for Obama first? CNN had the graphic up at 2.1 seconds after the polls closed, but I think it should go to Keith Olbermann on MSNBC because he said it quicker. (Note: Sarcasm.) Hey! There's another Pretty White Girl Missing!

Howard Kurtz: They all did it at 7 p.m. eastern, within 15 seconds of each other. No mystery there: it was such an Obama blowout that it was easy to project the victory. The networks were only waiting for the polls to close so they could tell the world without violating their promise not to make such predictions while the voting still was going on.

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New York: This is probably the least substantial question you'll receive all month, but I've always been curious about it, so here goes: What time do the Sunday morning chat shows tape (or air live), and how are they staggered to allow one guest to do all shows?

Howard Kurtz: "Meet the Press" and "Fox News Sunday" go live at 9 a.m.; I forget if "This Week" starts at 9 a.m. or is live at 10 a.m.; "Face the Nation is live at 10:30 a.m. and "Late Edition" live at 11 a.m. To accommodate guests making the rounds (remember when Hillary did all five?), they all do pre-tapes, recording the interviews before their shows begin.

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Missoula, Mont.: Enjoy your show and column, but was disappointed in your Olbermann interview. For example, you let him get away with the silly claim he's not a liberal. He does this by saying he's also tough on Democrats, implying that he comes at them with the conservative critique. As you know, this is bogus -- any criticism of Democrats he makes is from a far-left perspective, as, for example, his criticism of those who weren't aggressive enough in pushing for a withdrawal from Iraq.

I don't know how he can keep a straight face when he makes this argument, but he should have been pushed on this. (His regular comments on Daily Kos emphasize his far-left credentials.) Also, Olbermann he should have been asked why he doesn't believe in one of the fundamental principles of journalism -- giving people you attack a chance to respond or explain themselves. He criticizes Fox News for lack of quality journalism, but at least Fox does give people a chance to respond -- and he never does. It would have been interesting to know why a man with such a huge ego is so afraid to confront people who disagree with his viewpoints.

Howard Kurtz: I asked Olbermann about both points -- whether he is a liberal (he admits he's perceived as one) and why he doesn't have conservatives on his show who disagree with. My job is to ask the questions; I can't control what people choose to answer. Viewers get to make up their minds about that.

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North of Boston: I find the back and forth about the primary coverage interesting because it seems to be a kind of healthy challenge to the media. My take on it is that as much as Obama may not have been covered as critically as some would like, the very real, fact-based ambivalence that exists about Clinton -- the dynasty and generational concerns -- also often gets short shrift in discussions about the "fairness" of how the former president is covered. It's just not 1992 or 2000, so all of us -- journalists included -- are having to think on our feet and be more analytical. I think it's a good thing overall. Do you agree?

Howard Kurtz: The media ought to strive to hold all candidates to the same standard; unfortunately, that's not always the case. Beyond that, I don't think a former president is going to be covered the same way that, say, Michelle Obama or Elizabeth Edwards is covered, and I don't think he would expect to be.

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Conway, Ark.: Why is it that the networks' coverage of nominating elections can't or won't explain the delegate selection process and instead gets fixated on who "wins" a state? And I'm not talking about, "well CNN did a good feature on this a few weeks back." The tenor of every network's coverage is fundamentally wrong -- especially on the Democratic side, where every state awards delegates based on proportion of the vote and half the nominating delegates are super delegates, the coverage is worse than useless. It's as if we tuned in to the Super Bowl and the commentators were talking about pitch outs and squeeze bunts.

Howard Kurtz: Up until now delegates didn't matter all that much. Iowa and New Hampshire had small numbers of delegates. The race was all about the "momentum" of winning an early state and riding the resulting media wave. That's how John Kerry and Al Gore won the past two nominations; both contests were essentially over after New Hampshire. Now that the Democratic contest is turning into a longer battle, and with proportional representation, the delegate count becomes crucial. Same thing on the Republican side if neither Romney nor McCain emerges with a knockout after Feb. 5.

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Fairfax, Va.: I'm sure you've seen the video with Mitt Romney singing a snippet from "Who Let the Dogs Out" and commenting that someone was wearing "bling." This all makes me wonder: Do you think Mitt Romney is black enough to be president?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure he's a good enough singer to be president.

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Pittsburgh: When The Post (and other media) reports Florida's primary results tomorrow, how soon will they be able to give a breakdown based on how many of the votes were by mail ahead of time? Do you suspect the early voters will prove to be far more strongly pro-Rudy?

Howard Kurtz: I think we'll be able to get those numbers. It stands to reason that Rudy will do better among those who voted early, when his standing in the polls was higher, than those who vote tomorrow, when even those who like Giuliani may conclude he has little chance of winning the nomination. And I think it will be difficult for Rudy to survive a poor showing, given that his entire strategy has been built on winning Florida.

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Chantilly, Va.: What's your take on Bill Clinton's remark on Obama's win in South Carolina? In my humble opinion, Bill is hurting Hillary's candidacy by aggressively campaigning as though he were running. On the other hand, I heard from a number of people that they would not vote for a black presidential candidate. So would the Dems risk losing the presidential election by nominating Obama and/or risk losing by nominating Hillary with Bill hovering as co-president?

washingtonpost.com: Super Surrogate (Post, Jan. 23)

Howard Kurtz: I originally thought that Clinton, as a popular former president, would be a big asset to his wife's campaign. The exit polls strongly suggest that in South Carolina at least, that was not the case. Interesting that Kennedy, in this morning's accounts, is citing Bill's tactics as a prime reason why he is endorsing Obama -- which he is within minutes of doing.

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Olbermann: One problem I have about asking Olbermann if he is a liberal is, what has he said -- other than bashing the Bush administration -- that is liberal? I watch his show and I have not seen him express an opinion about taxes, abortion, spending on social issues, immigration or any of a host of so-called liberal causes. Heck, I know a lot of conservative who bash Bush. By the way, I consider my self a liberal.

Howard Kurtz: Try fervent opposition to the war, and to what he would describe as the Bush administration's assault on civil liberties. I don't throw labels around, but they are certainly fair questions.

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Washington: Thanks for being the only guy on CNN who bothers to be critical of not just a specific errant poll, but the tendency of journalists to overvalue this tool. The polling madness has go to stop ... lead the way!

Howard Kurtz: Don't hold your breath -- it's worse than being addicted to crack.

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Cynicism vs. healthy skepticism: What role does cynicism play? Aren't many journalists infected with too much cynicism (I know, I went to grad school)? It's simply pervasive and becomes a modus operandi as some sort of shield against humiliation and degradation, doesn't it?

Howard Kurtz: I'm all for skepticism in journalism. The line toward corrosive cynicism is sometimes a narrow one. It's good to avoid crossing it.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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