Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 3, 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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Baltimore: Howard -- great column today laying out the fact that the mainstream media until recently has given Obama an incredibly free ride compared to other candidates. You're the expert on how/why the media does things. My question: Why has he been accorded this special treatment?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. My point this morning is that it gradually is starting to change. I've wrestled with this question in print for months. Some journalists have talked openly about resisting the pull of Obama's oratory and the huge crowds he's been drawing. Others say he's a new and exciting figure, while Hillary is an old story. He doesn't have a long public resume to pick apart. He and his team have handled the press well, while Clinton's campaign has had strained relations with reporters, to say the least. But no candidate can escape the laws of journalistic gravity forever.

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Port Ewen, N.Y.: Howard, with all the primary coverage, I am enthused about keeping up, but at the same time I am frustrated by the major cable TV shows. They use the same footage over and over, interrupt programming for "breaking news" that very often are simply stories they know nothing about yet (why not wait until they know what is happening?) and bring on so-called experts only to interrupt them before anything of substance is discussed. (Then they reuse the same tape over and over.) On top of that, the reporters often become more of the story than they should -- i.e. riding longhorns in Texas. Is this really news?

Howard Kurtz: It's certainly true that cable news shows use the same footage over and over; this is largely because the audience tunes in and out and most viewers don't sit there are watch for hours. It's also true that some prime-time hosts often interrupt their guests, but I don't think that's true of all of cable, and that some anchors and hosts actually are interested in what those they invite have to say.

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Arlington, Va.: A few days ago, the New York Times had a front page article dealing with the possibility that John McCain was not a natural born citizen under Constitution and therefore not eligible to run for president. McCain was born in a military hospital on a U.S. naval base to American parents in the Canal Zone, a long-time U.S.-administered area that was not deemed to be under the control of Panama. Although I have no intention of voting for McCain, I am disturbed that Times deemed such fluff worthy of front page coverage. Is there any news judgment left in New York?

washingtonpost.com: McCain's Canal Zone Birth Prompts Queries About Whether That Rules Him Out (New York Times, Feb. 28)

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe it was on the front page, and I didn't take it seriously as an issue -- more of a piece on a constitutional quirk. One interesting bit of fallout is that Sen. Obama offered to co-sponsor legislation making clear that anyone born to U.S. servicemen stationed overseas automatically is deemed an American citizen. Otherwise that would be horribly unfair to men and women serving our country.

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Chapel Hill, N.C.: I just submitted this question to the Brazile discussion and realized it belongs here: What's the deal with "Saturday Night Live" and their flagrant Obama bashing? Is there a Bloodworth/Thomasson connection to "SNL"? And aren't there any equal-time rules that prevent Hillary from making free targeted pitches to Texas and Ohio voters? When you think of all of the Hillary skeletons that most people (except right-wingers) have forgotten, I think the press has been ridiculously easy on Clinton.

Howard Kurtz: Gee, it seems to me that Amy Poehler's portrayal of Hillary is not exactly flattering -- kind of a clueless drone. Tina Fey certainly likes Hillary, even if she did use the B-word to describe her. And the "SNL" folks did let the senator come on the show on Saturday -- an appearance the Clinton camp deemed important enough that she left the Texas/Ohio trail to fly to New York, stranding her traveling press corps, which was not informed about the last-minute change.

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Arlington, Va.: Obama's a cokehead? Including that quote -- without comment -- seems way over the line. It's one thing to write about the press being too easy on Obama. I agree they have been; just as they have been too easy on McCain. It's quite another to "balance" that with scurrilous, defamatory spin and name-calling. Don't you owe your readers an apology?

Howard Kurtz: Part of my job is to tell you what's being said out there in the blogosphere and on talk radio, which is occasionally over the top. That includes those making an issue of Obama's adolescent drug use (which he was the first to disclose in his autobiography), the use of his middle name and so on. (Remember that some Hillary surrogates also made reference to Barack's past drug use until they saw it was backfiring.) I'm not endorsing this stuff, but it's not my job to pretend that it doesn't exist.

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Falls Church, Va.: Howard, what is up with the Charlotte Allen column today? It really ruined my morning. I should have stopped reading after the first few paragraphs, but I didn't.

washingtonpost.com: Women vs. Women: We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get? (Post, March 2)

Howard Kurtz: It was in yesterday's Outlook section, and was opinion. Not my opinion, but the writer's opinion. It does seem to have attracted lots of negative commentary and mockery.

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Washington: Howie -- with another round of primaries coming tomorrow, are we going to see jostling among the campaigns to "bump" candidates in the middle of their post-results speeches? It seems like it started when Romney started his speech about two minutes into McCain's speech after Michigan, and has happened several times since. Although it is late in the process, why don't the media come to some understanding with the four major campaigns left that they won't cut away for at least 10 minutes-15 minutes from the start of a speech? This would let the campaigns know that they can't time their speeches to bump an opponent. Campaigns gaming the start of these speeches looks like the media are playing favorites (which they probably aren't).

Howard Kurtz: I wrote a piece on this, as you may know, when Obama did it to Clinton after winning Wisconsin, and wound up with 46 minutes of uninterrupted prime-time exposure on all the cable news channels to Hillary's seven minutes. Because the move attracted little criticism, I wouldn't be surprised if we see a repeat. In fairness, Hillary wasn't exactly delivering a concession speech -- in fact, she refused to so much as mention the Wisconsin primary results.

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Bradford, Ill.: Sen. Clinton is currently running an ad showing small children tucked safely in bed. It asks the question "who do you want to answer the phone in the White House at 3 a.m.?" Given that Sen. Obama is the candidate with two small children, how does he feel this impacts his judgment in the matter? Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the point is whether you personally have children or not. The sleeping kids are a metaphor for who is best qualified to keep America safe. As I noted in my Ad Watch piece on Saturday, this is usually the argument an incumbent makes against a challenger -- Reagan used such an ad against Mondale, and Bush senior used it against Bill Clinton. Mondale himself had a red-phone ad that seems to be the model, which he used against Gary Hart. Of course, as Hillary acknowledged when questioned by reporters, no one who hasn't been president -- with the possible exception of those who have served in the military -- has had to make those split-second, life-and-death, 3 a.m. decisions.

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New York: You might be premature on Obama's Teflon breaking down -- this weekend the New York Times had an article about the Rezko indictment and Obama's relationship with Rezko (not the I-barely-know-him that Obama has said) and guess what page it was on? Page 25 -- hardly the same as the front page they have used to relentlessly attack Hillary Clinton, or to attack John McCain recently.

I was amused to watch Russert's cable program this weekend -- he sat around with a group of reporters and they talked about Hillary for 58 minutes (Obama was mentioned tangentially in reference to Clinton). At the 58 minute mark Russert asked what everyone thought of McCain's campaign. The mainstream media is going to miss Clinton (and it appears they are already bored with Obama).

washingtonpost.com: Scratching Obama's Teflon (Post, March 3)

Howard Kurtz: I disagree that the Times has attacked Hillary Clinton relentlessly. And that Rezko piece probably didn't deserve to be on the front page -- it was what's known in the trade as a set-up piece, a distillation of what we know as Rezko goes on trial today. The trial probably will generate more Rezko pieces, and there are signs -- as I reported -- that some news organizations are taking second and third looks at past Obama controversies now that he's inching closer to the nomination.

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Phoenix, Md.: I know he's pretty much out of the race, but has there ever been a candidate better at getting free press than Mike Huckabee? What kind of blueprint do you think his campaign has laid out for future candidates and how they handle the media, especially new media?

Howard Kurtz: Huckabee has been tremendously successful at getting on television -- and he had little choice, as he's never had much money in the ol' campaign treasury. It helps that he's a funny guy, and that various shows like having him on. I've lost track of how many times he's been on Scarborough (there he was again this morning), and he even got to play air hockey with Stephen Colbert. In the end, though, a winning candidate has to do more than just shuttle from studio to studio, as the current state of Huckabee's campaign suggests. And it can't be much fun when every interview begins with "why haven't you dropped out already?"

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Kansas City, Mo.: Last week under Wardrobe Wars you included a comment from Captain's Quarters criticizing a New York Times story on Obama's safety: "The Times makes it worse by releasing Obama's Secret Service code name, which has usually been considered confidential." So how did I know his code name if I hadn't even read the Times article? A quick search on Google of Obama and Renegade showed several articles last summer listing Renegade, including The Post. I've never thought Captain's Quarters was that informative -- why run his stuff if it is wrong?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't get the memo -- am I the only person in America who didn't know Obama's Secret Service code name? On a blog written in real time, I can't fact-check every point raised by every blogger. If I think something is baseless I won't use it, or if I think it's a weak argument I'll say so. The larger point, of course, was not about the code name but whether the Times should have published an article about the danger of an assassination.

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Virginia: The Charlotte Allen was great. It is popular among my stay-at-home friends, many who are educated too. Feminism hurt us a lot.

Howard Kurtz: That's the thing about strong opinion pieces -- people either love them or hate them.

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Re: Harry: Howard, what do you think about the U.K. press's agreement to not report on Harry's deployment? Aside from it being extraordinary, where do you fall on the ethics of it?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it's a close call. American journalists routinely withhold information about troop movements or, for example, a secret presidential trip to Baghdad, if that information would jeopardize lives. To report that Prince Harry was on the front lines in Afghanistan would have endangered not only him but his fellow soldiers as well. Still, now that the secret is out and Harry is back in London, the degree of British gushing over what a hero he is strikes me as a bit much. And certainly the British media were given a strong incentive to go along with the blackout: exclusive access to Harry for stories they would run once he completed his mission.

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The Prince and the Papers: Can you review the bidding on Prince Harry, the British media and Drudge? Am I supposed to be offended by how anyone acted in this case?

Howard Kurtz: Well, some people are angry at what Drudge did; he hasn't defended himself or returned my calls. But Sarah Baxter, Washington bureau chief of the Sunday Times of London, said on my show yesterday:

"We're kind of grateful to Matt Drudge and the Internet for sticking it out there so we could all run out with our 'quick, look at Harry, and aren't we the good guys for keeping it a secret?' But here he is, you can read page one, page two, page three, page 22 and see the full picture spreads. We love all that."

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Chicago: I just read on the Web that Clinton is asking reporters what they would have done with the NAFTA-Canada story if it had been her campaign making those kinds of back-channel comments to a foreign government. Howard, would you please weight in: What would the media have done?

Howard Kurtz: I can't definitively answer that, because it's a hypothetical, but I'm surprised the NAFTA flap involving Obama hasn't gotten more coverage -- especially given that a Canadian Embassy memo has surfaced backing up the original CTV report, at least as viewed from the Canadian side.

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Washington: Howard, in today's column you say Ms Clinton "angered" the press by not revealing her "SNL" plans. This, along with the frequent report that Mr. McCain gets good coverage with his bus banter with reporters, raises a question: How are media professionals so self-indulgent that petty stuff like this is not only influential, but is openly discussed as being influential and causally accepted as being being influential within your business. You don't even bother to shrug your shoulders at it. There are a lot of us in other professions who find this easy-going lack of standards to be bizarre.

Howard Kurtz: Journalists should rise above the back-and-forth with a campaign and report as fairly and objectively as they can, as most try to do. But the fact is, this stuff matters at the margins. McCain gains some benefit from the fact that reporters can spend hours questioning him each day. Clinton's campaign breeds resentment when her press corps flies to Texas and isn't informed that she's slipped off to New York for "Saturday Night Live," even two hours before air time, and has to learn that from the Obama camp. Commentators (who are in a different category) like Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson have been assailing the Clinton press office, described by Matthews as "kneecappers." There's no question that some of this can get petty, but part of running a successful presidential campaign involves managing your media relations.

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Arlington, Va.: Doesn't Jake Tapper asking Obama about these silly, stupid non-issues like lapel pins just give them more exposure and "legs" than they deserve? I mean, c'mon, can't we move past showy faux patriotism of things like whether someone wears a flag on his lapel? Aren't most people much more interested in real issues like the economy, the war, health care, etc.? All the right-wingers have to hang their hopes on is character assassination by implication as it is spewed daily on their talk shows and in their blogs.

Howard Kurtz: I put that question to him, and you can read his response in this morning's column. Should reporters have asked John McCain about the New York Times story on his relationship with a female lobbyist, even though it contained no proof of a romantic relationship? Should John Kerry have responded more quickly to the Swift Boaters? Sometimes reporters make too much of baseless stuff that's out there, but sometimes you need to ask about matters that, fairly or not, are becoming controversial in a campaign.

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Baltimore: Some of the responses here to the Drudge and Harry story reflect a general problem with stories like this. Too often, the story is the story -- it's all inside-baseball to the media. I just wonder how this story would have played if it were a British tabloid outing where John McCain's son was serving in the Marines.

Howard Kurtz: I made that very point on my show. I for one don't think Drudge would have done that, and if he had there would have been a pretty strong reaction in this country.

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Chewelah, Wash.: Hi Howard. I wonder how newspapers are planning on being around in 20 years. For the umpteenth time, my husband complained this morning about the lack of anything readable in our local paper, the Spokesman-Review. We used to turn to it for national and local news, then it was only for local news, and now I read it but go to the local television station's Web sites for local news it isn't covering.

I keep reading on Editor & Publisher about newspapers cutting back staff. The more they cut back, the less news coverage they have, and the more we turn to other sources. At some point, I'll just drop the subscription. How is cutting back on news coverage going to enhance the bottom line of a newspaper?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see the Spokane-Review regularly, but that was the newspaper that revealed the dealings of the city's mayor, Jim West, with young boys, which led to his recall by the voters. If there was no newspaper, would anyone have done that investigative story? The answer is, probably not.

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Chicago: For a media critic, you are not very critical of the media. Can you name three specific instances in this presidential campaign where you think the media failed to do its job?

Howard Kurtz: Gee, you must not read me very often. Where should I start? It was the press that all but buried John McCain as a serious contender last summer. It was the press that largely wrote off Mike Huckabee until a few weeks before he won Iowa. It was the press that told us Hillary was inevitable. It was the press that said there was no way Hillary could win New Hampshire. Just check the clips.

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St. Paul, Minn.: While I agree that Clinton has faced some tougher questioning than Obama and that there has been to an extent a double standard in reporting, the fact remains that if Clinton had won every contest in February with the same margins as Obama, the media would be treating Obama as if he were Mike Huckabee (an entertaining diversion, but not serious). If it were virtually impossible for Obama to take the lead in pledged delegates at this point (as it is now with Clinton), the media would be calling this for Obama. So, it goes both ways.

Howard Kurtz: Maybe, but the press certainly has portrayed Hillary Clinton, at least since Wisconsin, as someone who certainly barely is hanging on and could be out of the race after tomorrow. And some commentators, such as Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, already have called on her to drop out.

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Baltimore: Why hasn't the Obama/NAFTA/Canada story hasn't gotten more play? Probably because the mass of Americans think of Canada in terms of Sgt. Preston of the Mounties, salmon fishing and (if they are old enough) the Great White North from the "Second City" TV series. In short, Canada is seen as big, cute and inoffensive, rather than being a leading source of oil and timber for America.

And as to Obama getting a free ride and Clinton not, well, what would the pundits and press being saying about Obama if he had lost ten straight primaries to Clinton and still stayed in the race? Answer: He would be branded as a delusional loser who might wreck the party's chances. Clinton's longevity in American political life has gotten her a pass here.

Howard Kurtz: But it's not about Canada -- it's about whether Barack Obama is saying one thing about free trade while one of his advisers tells officials of another country that it's just rhetoric and they shouldn't worry about it. That, at least, is the allegation.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: I thought your discussion on Sunday about Prince Harry's Afghanistan deployment was excellent, and your guest was right on! Why should the press not protect information about such a deployment? The press does not have to reveal all these things and endanger safety. Glad you seemed to share that view. Comment?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see a strong argument on the other side. Imagine if some British tabloid had revealed the news and Harry's unit had been ambushed and many casualties resulted. Can you imagine the reaction? It wasn't like the story wouldn't come out eventually, given that his deployment was only for 14 weeks.

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Bow, N.H.: Flag pins? Seriously? Have we come to a point in history that is 180 degrees from Nazi Germany, so that now you are labeled as undesirable if you don't wear the proper badge?

Howard Kurtz: I think Obama quite properly has said that flag pins are hardly a measure of patriotism, and I doubt those who want to make an issue of this are going to get any traction.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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