Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 19, 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 "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."

He was online Tuesday, Feb. 19 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Arlington, Va.: I'm sick of horse-race, poll-based articles! Has The Post or any other media outlet bothered to ask any of the three leading candidates about their opinions on Kosovo declaring independence? This is the most significant, but underreported foreign policy event in years, and I can find no evidence that anyone has asked any of the three who might be our next president about it? If they support Kosovo, then why not an independent Kurdish nation? What logical basis would guide where they draw the line?

Howard Kurtz: Well, Kosovo just declared independence on Sunday. I don't know whether reporters have had a chance to ask the candidates about it or not. But I take your point: Every conference call I've been on with the Democratic campaigns in recent weeks has revolved around reporters' questions on polls, strategy and attacks.

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Fairfax, Va.: When Kerry changed his positions, the media landed on him again and again with both feet for flip-flopping; yet, when McCain changes his heartfelt anti-torture stand, the word flip-flop doesn't see the light of day next to McCain's name. How come, Howie, you and your colleagues who are neutral and unbiased can't seem to remember what you all did to the Democratic candidate while keeping McCain's truly craven flip-flop off the front pages? How come?

Howard Kurtz: A fair question. I raised this very point on my show Sunday. The Washington Post did do a story on the subject Saturday, four days after McCain's vote, and the New York Times on Sunday. But it hasn't been mentioned at all on the network news and barely on cable news.

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Chicago: I watched your show Sunday and was interested in the segment about the different media treatment given Hillary and Barack. Everyone seemed to agree that the press harbored ill feelings toward Clinton, in large part because of limited accessibility over the years. But, as you've written, Obama provides very limited media access. So why doesn't the press hold that against him? Won't that be a problem in a general election against McCain, who openly courts the press?

Howard Kurtz: On your last point, it may be. I was surprised when I traveled with the Obama campaign that I never got within 30 feet of the guy. He does seem to be doing more press availabilities at 30,000 feet now that he is traveling with the press corps on the same plane, which wasn't the case before. McCain might be less accessible than he was on all those New Hampshire bus rides, though he told me in response to a question that he didn't plan to reduce media access if he won the nomination because that would hurt his credibility. Obviously presidential campaigns turn on more than access for reporters, but I believe that is a factor in the coverage.

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Philadelphia: Are Clinton staffers now allowed to say anything that pops into their heads? There seems to be no message discipline. Or maybe I'm just playing the game two or three steps behind....

Howard Kurtz: In my experience, most of what they say is carefully thought out. It's not a campaign where people just pop off to reporters.

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Rolla, Mo.: The recent theme by some in the media of a "cult-like" aspect of the Obama campaign's followers is more than a little insulting to those of us who support the guy after carefully looking at all of our choices. Could it be simply that the electorate (particularly young people) haven't been this excited over a particular candidate in decades and the media doesn't know what to make of it? Has the media grown that cynical?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the media, other than a handful of columnists, really have grappled with this. Here is a candidate who fills basketball arenas with screaming fans where women sometimes faint, whose rhetoric is uplifting, and whose ads say we can change the world. It's a phenomenon that bears exploring. Interestingly, while the latest U.S. News cover asks whether Obama can transcend race, and the latest Newsweek cover is a glowing profile of Michelle Obama, a British magazine, the Economist, asks: "But can he deliver?"

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East Lansing, Mich.: I enjoyed your article about Chris Matthews, his show and his style. I find Chris to have a brilliant mind, but I get annoyed when he not only asks the questions, but then cuts off the other journalist and then pontificates and answers his own question. I don't so much mind it when he does it to politicians, but when he does it to experts in the field and other journalists (and quite often women) who I am intent on listening to, it seems more than just rude. By the way, I find him much more polite to his colleagues on his syndicated Sunday show. Curious about your response.

washingtonpost.com: Hardbrawl: Candid Talker Chris Matthews Pulls No Punches (Post, Feb. 14)

Howard Kurtz: I wrote a piece a few years ago when he launched his Sunday show on how he was more subdued on that program and actually let the guests finish their answers. As for "Hardball," Howard Fineman made the observation that Chris asks a question, answers his own question, and then asks you to comment on his answer. That's his style. Some people find him rude, and others like the way he cuts through the usual bull.

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Tucson, Ariz.: The Hillary campaign is spinning this notion that Obama has gotten a pass from the national media, but haven't the press been pretty easy on her as well, giving her a pass on that whole "I have 35 years of experience" and "ready from day one" stuff when she only has been an elected official a few more years than Obama, and President Clinton wasn't exactly "ready from day one" with just Arkansas under his belt? And no one seems to talk about any bills she's sponsored that have become law. Is that because there aren't any/many?

Howard Kurtz: I am not in the camp that believes the media have been easy on Hillary Clinton. The New York Times in particular has done stories about just what she did or didn't do as first lady, and particularly in the area of foreign policy.

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Norfolk, Va.: Yesterday Michelle Obama said "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country."

The implications of that statement are staggering. I'm an Obama fan, but even an apology won't undo the damage done by that statement. She's a wealthy woman married to a Harvard-educated U.S. Senator -- but there's nothing about America to be proud of until now? Talk about ungrateful! Talk about rude!

Howard Kurtz: It was clearly a misstep on her part. It's one thing to say "I've never felt this hopeful about America," and another to suggest that nothing your country ever has done -- except seriously consider your husband for the presidency -- has given you a single moment of pride. In fairness, for all her poise, Michelle Obama never has been on the national stage before, and mistakes like this are probably inevitable. I'll be interested to see how the campaign handles it.

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Elmwood Park, N.J.: I read your Matthews piece, and all I can think of is this: for years, Blacks and women complained over and over again about Imus, saying he had a hostile agenda, and folks like you said, "have a sense of humor, he offends everybody." How did that work out? Now women detect unrelenting hostility and misogyny from Matthews, and we get these excuses about how he blurts stuff out without thinking. Well, this Matthews Syndrome reveals what he's really thinking, and in the case of Mrs. Clinton he has about as much credibility and impartiality as Limbaugh. A little candor, please.

Howard Kurtz: Everyone has to make up his or her own mind. I don't think it's accurate to say "women detect unrelenting hostility and misogyny" from Matthews. He has worked closely with a number of female producers and has a sizable number of female panelists, most of whom view him as a hard charger who occasionally says the wrong thing but is a decent person. On the other hand, his continuing comments about women's looks are just odd. Remember, though, that he is in the opinion business. Interesting that, on Friday, Matthews lashed out against what he called the "knee-cappers" in the Hillary press office.

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Ocala, Fla.: Dave Barry has threatened to release compromising photos of you and a consenting manatee unless you take more note of his campaign. How do you answer this threat?

Howard Kurtz: Dave who? Is that guy still writing? I don't respond well to threats. Back off, brother. Sucking up works much better.

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Re: The Economist: Did you actually read the piece? It's pretty complimentary.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't say it was negative, but it includes such sentences as, "the Obama phenomenon would not always be helpful, because it would raise expectations to undue heights. Budgets do not magically cut themselves, even if both parties are in awe of the president; the Middle East will not heal just because a president's second name is Hussein."

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Mrs. Obama: Her words undoubtedly were taken out of their fullest context, but her words may have been chosen specifically to cement Obama's appeal to the angry lefties who populate their world. The words she spoke are not an uncommon sentiment on campuses and in coffeehouses, where the "blame America first" crowd rules.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see anything where Michelle Obama specifically blamed America, except by implication, in that she had no reason to feel proud before.

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Washington: I believe Michelle Obama was being honest and speaking from her heart. I always love my country, but I am not always proud of my country, or my country's government. Of course, many people don't make distinctions between pride and love, let alone the difference between their country and their country's government. How can you be proud of a government that tortures?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but the key word is "always." I wasn't proud of Abu Ghraib. But to say she is proud of America "for the first time" in her adult life? That's what has ticked off some folks.

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Prescott, Ariz.: From your "Is Hillary History" article I felt like the media have taken a decent man and made him a demigod, and taken a decent woman and made her a demon. I worry that the "pack" mentality I see in the media today will tire of the demigod and demonize him also. Am I wrong?

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't go that far in either case. I don't think we've elevated Barack to demigod status, though some pieces suggest he might walk on water, and I don't think we've demonized Hillary, although she hasn't been able to buy a good headline in weeks. And yes, anyone familiar with the media's history knows that once journalists give a public figure a huge buildup, there is inevitably a phase in which they try to take the person down a couple of pegs. That hasn't happened yet with Obama, but it's a long campaign.

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Ashland, Mo.: You recently suggested that the momentum theory might have some validity because people in primary states watched network news and other media. Was that an assumption, or do you have facts that support that statement? Isn't one of the problems with political reporting that reporters are no longer similar to voters in terms of interest in the campaign and tactics? Do the exit polls show voters are paying attention to the media rather than their neighbors, direct mail, television ads and the Internet?

Howard Kurtz: Um -- are you serious? I was quoting a Hillary spokesman as saying that voters in such states as Ohio and Texas wouldn't be "led around by the nose by the national media narrative" about Clinton. I merely suggested that voters in those states, like the other 48, also watch the network news and read the Web sites of papers like the New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, etc. I could get you ratings that show some Texans and Ohioans actually watch Gibson, Williams and Couric. How much influence do the national media have on candidates? Who knows? Maybe less than we think. But the campaigns are certainly devoting enormous effort to influencing what we write and broadcast -- and I don't recall the Hillary camp objecting when the "national media narrative" was that she was inevitable.

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Avon Park, Fla.: I'm concerned that if Barack Obama wins Wisconsin today that he won't get a big bounce out of it. Do you think that pundits have ridiculously high expectations for him in the state that anything less than a wide margin of victory will be seen as a plus for Hillary Clinton?

Howard Kurtz: As I wrote this morning, the media have may have been unduly influenced by the Clinton camp's spin that it wasn't seriously contesting Wisconsin and was making its stand in Ohio and Texas. She has campaigned there, she has run ads there, and I think the outcome is important. The Obama camp tried to make the case to reporters yesterday that Wisconsin should be a very favorable state for Hillary. Both sides are playing the expectations game, obviously, but I don't think we should fall for it.

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Washington: A philosophical question: whose responsibility should it be to point out the failings of political candidates, the media or their opponents? I sense often that many editors and reporters are afraid of coming off as activist or biased, and are reluctant to criticize a candidate, even if the facts warrant criticism, unless their opponent starts the criticism.

Do you agree? If so, is this a flaw in political coverage, or is this how things should be?

Howard Kurtz: We should talk about the strengths and shortcomings of the candidates, because there are some issues that the rivals don't want to talk about. In 1988, neither Bush nor Dukakis had much to say about a meltdown in the S&L industry that wound up leading to a zillion-dollar bailout, and most of the media ignored it as well. No candidate wants to get specific about cutting the budget to reduce the federal deficit. If journalists only report what opponents say about each other, they are doing the public a huge disservice.

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Chicago: Re: Kosovo, I don't know how hard Arlington, Va., looked for candidates' reactions to Kosovo declaring independence, but I found this by doing the arduous legwork of Googling the words Kosovo and Obama.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but there's a difference between candidates putting out statements on a subject and being pressed about it by reporters.

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Washington: Howard: a couple of questions. First, when does the media's use of the word "surge" to describe our seemingly permanent situation in Iraq become an oxymoron? In other words, is it still a "surge" if were still are surged through the summer?

I'm also wondering if you caught Kristol's op-ed in the New York Times this morning? He uses an essay by Orwell as a basis for castigating Democrats and their approach to the war. I was wondering, do you know him? Was he being intentionally ironic in citing Orwell and writing a phrase like "certain legal arrangements regarding surveillance abilities..." to describe the administration's defense of torture? Or has he just not read any Orwell other than the piece he sites? Because, that particular phrasing is so Orwellian, as it were, my irony meter was not just pinned, it blew up.

Howard Kurtz: I'll let Kristol fend for himself rather than trying to read his mind. The "surge" is journalistic shorthand for the additional 30,000 troops the president sent to Iraq at the beginning of last year. Troop levels are now gradually being reduced to pre-surge levels, which will leave the U.S. with about 130,000 troops there, the same level as before the surge. Journalists haven't suggested that the surge would hasten the exit of that much larger military contingent.

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Not really a question -- just need to vent: It seems like every week I read one of these chats and someone asks when the media is going to spend less time about personality and more time on issues. Early on in the season, reporters claimed that we needed to weed out the bottom tier candidates and then we'd get a more policy analysis. Now we're down to Clinton and Obama, and I still feel like I'm in the middle of a junior high shoot-out for class treasurer.

The second any member of the media uses the phrase "cult" or "creepy" to describe the Obama phenomenon, it completely denigrates any pertinent analysis of the issue (See the Situation Room coverage last week). If media outlets are going to make it about personality and not platform, let's at least try to keep it a little objective and not so "Mean Girls."

Howard Kurtz: Well, personality is a factor in presidential elections. When all the issue analysis is done -- and I've been beating the drums for more, including on my show Sunday, when I questioned why there was so little coverage of Clinton's and Obama's economic proposals -- people vote for a president they trust and with whom they feel comfortable.

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Maryland: Why do we never hear mention of McCain's older three children? I heard him interviewed several times and he talks about four kids -- two in the military, one campaigning for him and the youngest in high school. He gives kudos to Cindy for being a great mom. Really lovely stuff -- but what about the three from the first marriage? Is this a Reagan/Giuliani situation where the kids are not thrilled with dad for leaving mom for a younger woman, or is it the visual of the kids looking the same age as their step-mom that the campaign is hoping to avoid? I believe the oldest kid is nine years younger than Cindy, and though I have never seen his picture I cannot believe that he would not look older than her, or at least her age -- she is one lovely looking woman. This is not a sarcastic question. I'm genuinely curious.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know whether McCain's children from his first marriage are involved actively in his campaign, but the reason you don't hear more his two sons in the military -- one serving in Iraq, the other headed there -- is that the senator pretty steadfastly refuses to talk about them. He seems determined to protect their privacy. On primary nights I notice he talks about my children "who aren't here" or who "couldn't be here." It would be an easy applause line to mention that both are serving their country in the military, but McCain doesn't want to go there.

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Surrogates and press interviews: Given that Chelsea Clinton is now a bona fide surrogate for her mother, how can she still avoid the press? It seems like she is a complete elitist and wants it completely her way -- campaign vigorously on behalf of her mother, but disdain the press. She is someone with a six-figure income who may be as hard a worker as her mother, but she also has benefited mightily from many advantages. I fail to see how the press can let the campaign have a surrogate who doesn't interact.

washingtonpost.com: Mum's the Word: Chelsea Clinton Offers Her Candidate Mother Mostly Silent Support (Post, Jan. 5)

Howard Kurtz: The press shouldn't "let" this happen? What exactly do you propose we do -- tackle her? Chelsea Clinton is a 27-year-old professional, campaigning for her mother, who can talk to reporters or not talk to reporters as she sees fit. I think it's perfectly legitimate (as long as we avoid the p-word) to criticize her for refusing to engage with the press -- but it's her choice, and I'm sure most voters could care less.

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Fort McMurray, Alberta: Howard, with the lowest-common-denominator focus of so much TV election coverage -- the horse race et al -- even you've noticed how the limited number of themes predominate by showing that Newsweek cover of Obama on Sunday. When will the media start debating the policies of the candidates, and not their gender, color or mood?

Howard Kurtz: The Post had a good front-page story this past weekend contrasting the economic proposals of Clinton and Obama. I just think we need more of that. And television has been particularly guilty. I mean, everyone agrees, and the polls show, that the economy is the No. 1 issue, right? So how about a little more detail? How many voters know that Obama last week put forth a $210-billion plan to create construction and environmental jobs?

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Alexandria, Va.: Who, among the three leading presidential contenders, is more likely to write a blog while in office? And what would they call it?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe McCain. He's done regular calls with conservative bloggers during the campaign.

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Santa Monica, Calif.: I wanted to send you kudos for calling out Charlie Gibson on your show yesterday for his over-the-top description of that Hillary clip (I'd have added some criticism for that most-overused metaphor of the season, "taking the gloves off"). I'm wondering what kind of reaction you get from media colleagues after they are the subject of your show or column. Do you get the impression that they pay attention? If so, are they open to criticism, defensive or resentful?

Howard Kurtz: It's all over the map (and by the way, I think Gibson is extremely knowledgeable about politics and that the overstated introduction was an aberration, possibly written by a staffer). Some are open to criticism, some are eager to debate any points I make, others are defensive and still others probably aren't paying any attention at all. I try to be fair to everyone in the business, but I don't write for them -- I write for you.

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McLean, Va.: Did you act as a watchdog for just the news desks? There are plenty of business, economics and arts stories from The Post that really ould use your constructive critiques, but I hardly ever see you critiquing those kinds of stories.

Howard Kurtz: Sure, I've got a lot of spare time. Maybe I could give tours of The Post too, and help out in the cafeteria.

On a slightly more serious note, I've had occasion to write about controversies involving every section of this newspaper. But I cover the entire business and am not the ombudsman.

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Anonymous: Hey Howard, thanks for the chats. A question for you, the media or the punditocracy.

If Obama's following is cult-like, why not use that term to describe the 30 percent or so of the population that still seems to give the president the benefit of any doubt? I mean, seriously, isn't that as much a cult as anything Obama engenders?

Howard Kurtz: How did we get to the notion that all of the vast behemoth known as the media is calling Barack Obama the leader of a cult? A handful of columnists, such as Time's Joe Klein, have questioned whether his campaign has cult-like aspects. Obviously we have to examine the extent to which he's selling himself, his persona, as well as his policies. Some folks out there, by the way, think we're part of the cult.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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