Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 11, 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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Maryland: Howard, I really feel for the MSNBC reporter, David Shuster. Did he make a "gaff" at the expense of Chelsea Clinton? Yes. He also apologized. Now "mommy Clinton" has made a federal case out of nothing, resulting in David's suspension for who-knows-how-long. So much for free speech. By the way, Chelsea is 27 years old and should be mature enough to speak up for herself.

Howard Kurtz: I certainly don't suggest that Chelsea Clinton, as a young professional playing a visible role in her mother's campaign, should be immune from criticism -- but "pimped out" is just not a phrase that should be aimed at anyone, let alone a candidate's daughter. Clearly, as I wrote this morning, the Hillary campaign has decided to keep this alive as a political issue, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a bad mistake on David Shuster's part.

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Atlanta: I have a real beef with the media! I'm in Georgia, and I voted for Huckabee, just because he's for the FairTax. That's why he won this state. Not because of the conservative thing that the media keeps telling us, not because of anything else (do you really think anyone here really thinks he'll win the nomination?). It seems to be a combination of the media for whatever reason not wanting to talk about the FairTax and their bias against the South. I'm so tired of it...

Howard Kurtz: As I wrote this morning, the media twice have made the mistake of marginalizing Huckabee, both before Iowa and again before Super Tuesday. The guy has won seven states in the last week against the GOP's presumptive nominee. The national sales tax is clearly one of Huckabee's top issues, but no one can say that's the only reason he's winning these states. He's also a Baptist minister who has campaigned on a number of social issues, and he's a funny and talented candidate to boot.

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Anchorage, Alaska: If there is one, what is the organization chart at NBC news? Does Brian Williams have any oversight authority over MSNBC people like David Shuster and Chris Matthews? If so, should he be held responsible for setting standards and disciplining them for poor reporting practices or demeanor, or are guys like Matthews and Shuster stars and are only subject to the authority of off-the-air news executives?

Howard Kurtz: Brian Williams does not, but MSNBC is ultimately part of NBC. The man who now runs the cable network, Phil Griffin, is an NBC News executive, and his boss, NBC News President Steve Capus (who received that letter of complaint from Hillary), is the man ultimately responsible -- though obviously he doesn't manage things on a day-to-day basis.

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Rockville, Md.: In your opinion, when the mainstream media covers elections, how often do reporters and analysts fall prey to the artificial "expectations game" of primary/debate results that the campaigns have set beforehand (as opposed to seeing them for the political ruses that they are)?

Howard Kurtz: We're all about the expectations game, to an absurd degree. It's like the stock market -- it's not how much money a company makes, it's whether it does a penny better than Wall Street has been betting. If Obama had not been expected to do well on Super Tuesday, his showing would have been hailed in the media as a triumph, rather than a draw. If Hillary had not been expected to lose New Hampshire, her three-point victory would not have been the huge deal it was. In fairness, the campaigns also play this game -- I got an e-mail from the Clinton camp at 6 p.m. Saturday, saying, well, the Obama camp had long been predicting victory in Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington state. So what? He won all three (not to mention Maine yesterday), and that's what counts.

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Ridgefield, Conn.: Last week you quoted Rush Limbaugh on the topic of his favored candidate dropping out of the presidential race and whether it was a defeat for Limbaugh as well. He complained: "The media never applies this template to anyone else in media. Not to anyone in cable news, not to any of the endorsements of the major newspapers. Why are the New York Times and Washington Post not asked about the setback they both suffered when George Bush beat both their endorsed candidates in 2000 and 2004?"

I'm shocked you let that quote stand unchallenged. You know that The Post and the Times don't endlessly campaign for a candidate like Limbaugh and other talk-radio hosts do, and the average newspaper reader doesn't really understand the separation between editorial boards and reporters, and that a paper's endorsement -- especially at The Post or the Times -- does not influence the daily coverage. You needed someone in there explaining that Rush's point, while his perspective, was based on an inaccurate premise.

washingtonpost.com: Limbaugh on McCain: It's Better to Be Right All the Time (Post, Feb. 5)

Howard Kurtz: I think it's a fair point -- no one says the New York Times or The Washington Post "lost" if their endorsed candidates get beat. My readers know that editorial endorsements are separate from news coverage and that newspapers don't pound away for or against candidates the way a radio talk show host does. And I think readers are capable of deciding for themselves whether Rush's point is valid or not. By the way, the interview was published on the morning of Super Tuesday, so it was before Mitt Romney dropped out.

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MSNBC: How many times now has Tom Brokaw chided his MSNBC colleagues on-air about their bad behavior? I think at least twice. Maybe these kids should pay attention to their elders!

Howard Kurtz: I think Brokaw was including all of the media, not just MSNBC, in his indictment of the rush to embrace conventional wisdom. But good for him for pointing it out.

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New York: In the past two weeks, you have claimed in your own voice that Giuliani wasn't treated fairly by the press, McCain wasn't treated fairly, and now Romney wasn't treated fairly. Aren't these crocodile tears?

Howard Kurtz: First of all, I don't root for or against any candidate. Second, you've mischaracterized me on all three. I don't say Rudy was treated unfairly; I did quote him on what he sees as the liberal media challenging his conservative positions, and the handling of the Judi/security story. On McCain, I've written the opposite -- that he gets pretty good press, largely because he gives reporters unfettered access. I do think there's a very heavy focus on the conservative hosts and activists who oppose him, but that's certainly a legitimate story. On Romney, I've questioned whether too many stories were written about him being a Mormon and how many journalists concluded when he dropped out that he was not "authentic" -- suggesting to me that reporters didn't like him very much. But I don't say his coverage overall was unfair.

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Washington: Howard, would you agree that the big losers this campaign season have been political reporters? It seems as if nearly every storyline that they have spun -- from McCain being done during the summer to Clinton being finished after Iowa -- has been wrong. Now, I know that reporters aren't psychic, but you would think that they would learn from these mistakes and start exercising some caution in their stories. But I really don't see that.

Howard Kurtz: Short answer: yes.

I listed a number of the blunders in this morning's column: burying McCain last summer, blowing off Huckabee for most of the last year, being dead certain that Obama would win New Hampshire, being even more dead certain that most races would be over by Feb. 5. No one expects journalists to be able to predict the twists and turns of a campaign season; the question is why they have to predict at all, based on polls that sometimes are flawed and the amount of money raised, which sometimes means little. The last two men standing on the Republican side, McCain and Huckabee, both have spent relatively little especially compared to Romney, who of course poured in about $50 million of his own cash.

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The New York Times on Obama's drug use: Howard: I read the story on Saturday regarding their investigation of Obama's past drug use, which best can be summarized by this paragraph: "Mr. Obama's account of his younger self and drugs, though, significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use. That could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic."

How does any legitimate reporter or news organization get away with that many assumptions in a major story regarding a person who might be the next president of the United States? How do their editors justify this?

washingtonpost.com: Friends Say Drugs Played Only Bit Part for Obama (New York Times, Feb. 9)

Howard Kurtz: I see that as a series of caveats. It says: We interviewed all these people from Obama's youth, they don't remember him being much into the drug scene at all -- contrary to Barack's autobiography -- but here are some alternate explanations as to why that might be the case.

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Washington: Loved your column this morning. I too get so fed up with the prevailing media narratives that develop when many news organizations are covering the same thing. A sort of media echo chamber ensues, in which everyone asks the same things of the same people. I fully expect at the next Democratic debate a question about whether the two candidates would consider running as a team, even though it is not the time to ask such question. I thought Tim Russert was like a dog with a bone trying to get Huckabee to talk about his vice-presidential considerations. It all reminds me of when JFK Jr. was alive, how every interview seemed to require a question along the lines of "will you run for president?" Are reporters taught to never consider a question to have been asked and answered? Is everyone hoping for a gaffe or a scoop?

Howard Kurtz: Gaffes are good, scoops are better, but I've never understood asking the same question that a candidate has answered dozens of times (such as, "Gov. Huckabee, will you agree to be John McCain's running mate?") and expecting a different answer. Wolf Blitzer already asked Clinton and Obama, at the last debate, if they'd be willing to run together. Of course no candidate still battling for the top prize can answer that. Time then did a poll on it and ran a composite photo of Hillary and Barack, arms raised, as if at the Democratic convention. "Why Not Both?" the headline said. Talk about pushing a story line.

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New York: I'm surprised you don't take MSNBC's repeated misogynistic slurs seriously -- maybe it's because Shuster (and Matthews before him) "apologized" ... albeit at a speed so manic that the words barely were understood, or in Shuster's case so obliquely referenced that no one knew what he was apologizing for until Clinton responded.

I'm surprised you didn't mention Olbermann's reaction, which was the only one that seemed in the least apologetic and mortified. As for Ms. Althouse and her urban dictionary excuse, what would her response have been if Obama had been accused of pimping Michelle or their little daughters? I'm beginning to hate this campaign more every day.

Howard Kurtz: Not taking it seriously? I wrote a story about what Matthews said, I wrote three online updates Friday on what Shuster said -- a story for Saturday's paper and an item in today's column. That isn't serious enough for you?

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Howard -- I'm a regular MSNBC watcher and always have liked David Shuster, but I agree, it was a very poor choice of words that showed bad judgment. That said, what do you think will be the long-term impact on his career, given that he widely was seen as up-and-comer there (there were rumors that he even was going to get his own show)? Can he pretty much count on sitting out the election for the foreseeable future, just as it's getting really interesting?

Howard Kurtz: It depends on how long MSNBC keeps him on the sidelines. I agree that he's a very good reporter who happened to say a dumb thing. Perhaps a year from now this will just seem like a blip. But the Clinton campaign is working overtime to make this a continuing issue, as with Hillary's letter over the weekend to the president of NBC News.

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Anonymous: Howard, are you actually supporting the Clinton critique of MSNBC? This is a blatant and baseless ploy by the Clintons -- why give substance to political games by campaigns when they harm fellow journalists?

Howard Kurtz: My job is to report both sides -- what Shuster and MSNBC say, and what the Clinton campaign says. My role isn't to protect "fellow journalists."

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Fairfax, Va.: Huckabee almost literally would require a miracle to get the nomination, so do you see the press pushing for him to get more confrontational with McCain, or will they devote more coverage to the Democrats?

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe the press is "pushing" for Huckabee to get more confrontational, but it's getting hard to ignore a guy who won seven states this week against the party's overwhelming front-runner. The Democrats have gotten much more coverage than the Republicans in this campaign, according to a series of studies, so it's a safe bet that Hillary and Barack will dominate in the coming weeks now that McCain is regarded as the presumptive nominee.

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Maryland: When Romney lost conservative states in the South, reporters asked the question of whether this was because he was a Mormon and the conservatives in the South somehow were opposed to electing a Mormon -- but when Romney cleaned up in Utah, no one asked if it was because Mormons were prejudiced against Baptists. I am not sure if that is because the media thought Romney the better candidate and therefore only a prejudice would cause someone to vote for Huckabee, or that somehow a Baptist voting for one of their own is a prejudice whereas a Mormon voting for their own is perfectly reasonable. I won't be voting for either of these men, but wonder what your take is on this.

Howard Kurtz: I think the media just wrote off Utah as a home state for Romney. But on your larger point: The journalistic take, backed up by polls, is that some people -- especially among evangelical Christians -- won't vote for a Mormon, while there is not widespread anti-Baptist sentiment in this country. Again, I think the Mormon angle was overplayed, but Romney did give a major speech about his religion, and Huckabee felt no reason to do so.

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Richmond, Va.: How many questions did you get on the David Shuster dustup? May I add this: From the comments from the blogworld that I read, it appears the "like Clinton/do not like Clinton" divide drives the reaction. Objectively, though, was that a remark that should have solicited "outrage" from the Clintons and a suspension of Shuster? I really felt the Clintons and MSNBC overreacted.

washingtonpost.com: Chelsea Remark Earns MSNBC Correspondent A Suspension (Post, Feb. 9)

Howard Kurtz: I've found journalists and bloggers split on this question. It's worth noting that the suspension was not announced until after the Clinton camp threatened to pull out of an MSNBC debate on Feb. 26. But public interest is high; when I first wrote about this online on Friday, within hours there were 350 comments about the story, with people arguing vociferously about whether it was a big insult or not.

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Rockville, Md.: What is your take on the media including "superdelegates" in their delegate counts? Given that every organization has their own estimate, it seems to make things more confusing. Also, because these superdelegates can change their mind (imagine a politician doing that!), including them in the counts seems to be incorrect. Why not just keep track of pledged delegates at this point?

Howard Kurtz: My take is that I almost failed trigonometry, so we're outside my area of expertise.

You can't not count the 796 superdelegates, because in a race this close, they could well decide the outcome. The problem is, how do you determine who these party insiders are for (except for Bill Clinton -- I think he's a safe bet), and how do you know they won't change their minds down the road if the political winds shift? It's a real dilemma.

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Laurel, Md.: The expectations game, though, is a lot like how results are projected on general election night. If a candidate gets 70 percent of the vote in a certain county, that might be great or terrible, depending on how "red" or "blue" that county is relative to whole state. Is there any measure of how pro-Obama Louisiana, Washington or Maine are relative to the rest of the country's Democratic Party, which would provide some context about the significance of the weekend's results?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know how you measure that, given that no one outside Illinois ever has had the chance to vote for Obama before. You can measure the red and blue hue of a state by looking at past presidential elections, but that doesn't tell you anything about the divide between Obama and Clinton supporters.

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Washington: It seems to me that the difference in recollection between Obama and his friends is reasonable. As someone the same age as Obama, my rather light drug use experience -- compared to what apparently was the norm -- had a rather profound effect on my life. I'm sure if I were to write an autobiography that the amount of space on my drug experiences would seem disproportionate to many of my friends of the time.

Howard Kurtz: I think that's the point the Times was trying to make. It's also possible that Obama embellished a bit for dramatic effect. But the story is far less damaging than one that says his friends remember Obama using more drugs than he has acknowledged.

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Fairfax, Va.: A lot of media pundits are now claiming Obama is the more electable based on the latest head-to-head polls, his wins in some of the red states and endorsements by red/purple state elected officials. But how much of a concern is there about the so-called Bradley Effect? Does the media want to ignore this possibility for fear of being seen as having racial motivations?

Howard Kurtz: In my view the Bradley Effect (named for former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, who fared worse in a 1982 gubernatorial race than polls had predicted) has been put to rest by Obama's performance in the past several states. In those contests, he won by more than he had been polling in the final surveys.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Interesting column today. I was surprised, though, that your discussion of overly optimistic press coverage did not include the Giuliani campaign, surely one of the biggest busts of this or any election campaign. It's interesting that Ron Paul, who found himself excluded from some debates and interview panels, is still in the race (although just barely) while Giuliani kept a high profile despite abundant evidence that the public was not joining the parade.

washingtonpost.com: Missing the Boat (Post, Feb. 11)

Howard Kurtz: You can't get everything into a single column, and I already had written a piece about Giuliani's coverage after traveling with him in New Hampshire, and blogged about him when he dropped out. The bottom line there, though, is that the media were right: you can't essentially skip the first four or five primaries and target Florida and hope to remain competitive. Rudy had other problems, though, one of which was that he wasn't a very passionate candidate and didn't particularly like pressing the flesh.

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Re: Superdelegates: How about having two counts -- one where it is only the pledged delegates, and another where superdelegates are included?

Howard Kurtz: Works for me.

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"Pimped out": See, here is another example of the past vs. the present. I'm 24, and "pimped out" isn't the horrible term that many older people think it is. To me, it means that she's being used, not being forced into prostitution. Hillary is showing her age and why older people are supporting her by getting all upset over it.

Howard Kurtz: We know what it means. No one believes that David Shuster literally was calling her a whore. But the language was totally inappropriate, and there are 25 ways he could have made the same point without using the P-word.

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Washington: What's funny to me about the whole Shuster/Chelsea thing is that Shuster has like a mini-cult following on the liberal blogs. He's viewed as one of the "good" reporters. I think he was critical of his former employer Fox News in the past.

Howard Kurtz: Shuster, who did work for Fox before joining MSNBC, is a very good reporter. Saying a dumb thing on the air doesn't change that. But it has made him a high-profile target in the heat of a presidential campaign.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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