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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 10, 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."

This Story

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Washington, City of Satan: Howard, on Friday McCain said: "In case you haven't noticed, we in Washington aren't functioning as we should be. It's getting harder and harder to do the Lord's work in the City of Satan." I haven't seen this reported in the hometown newspaper. Is this something that might have deserved some mention? Can you contrast the press treatment with Jesse Jackson's "hymietown"? Or am I not supposed to be offended by being called one of Satan's spawn?

Howard Kurtz: Guess I'll have to offer a devilish reply: I haven't seen that anywhere, on cable, blogs, etc. Even so, McCain is basically saying that hellish things go on in a Washington political culture that he sees as broken. Not quite the same as using a word that is a slur against Jews.

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Columbia, Md.: You played a clip of The New York Times reporter pestering John McCain about an old story involving whether he and John Kerry had a talk about McCain being a vice presidential candidate back in 2004. Many media outlets portrayed this as McCain losing his temper and/or getting angry, but I saw the entire clip and have to say I thought McCain was restrained, and that completely contradicted what these media reports were saying. To me, it showed a bias in tying to portray McCain in a negative light.

In addition, you cut off the clip right before the "objective" reporter asked McCain "why are you so angry?" Did you find that question unprofessional, and doesn't this type of question just add to the narrative that The New York Times is going to do whatever it can to defeat John McCain in November and elect a Democrat? To me, any reputable newspaper would have fired that reporter for asking such a question ... but then again, this is The New York Times.

Howard Kurtz: It was a perfectly legitimate question by Elisabeth Bumiller: Why had McCain denied to the New York Times in 2004 that he'd had a conversation (as he now acknowledges) with John Kerry about Kerry's desire to sign him up as a running mate? So I think Bumiller's job is safe. It was also a great example not of McCain losing his temper, but of him clearly being testy with a reporter as the cameras rolled. It was particularly interesting because McCain usually has -- and long has benefited from -- a friendly relationship with his traveling press corps, based on nearly unlimited access.

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Cannon Falls, Minn.: In light of the "media bubble" that Ana Marie Cox talked about on your show on Sunday, what should newspaper editors do to help their reporters not get so taken in by campaigns? We watched the media fall all over itself covering Bush in 2000. He did all the things that made them feel special -- good food, high access, etc. -- and in turn the wrote glowing reports. The same thing seems to be repeating with McCain. I realize that Democrats could do this too, but it seems like a press problem to fix. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Well, without buying into your characterization of the 2000 Bush campaign -- though he clearly charmed his press corps to a far greater extent than Al Gore did, as I wrote at the time -- professional journalists have to be careful about identifying with a campaign that they essentially live with day after day. Sometimes it's impossible not to lose perspective during weeks in the bubble. News organizations occasionally rotate reporters in and out to guard against this problem and bring in someone who can view the candidate with a fresh eye. Elisabeth Bumiller, in fact, had just joined up with McCain and was not embedded on his bus during the primaries.

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Seattle -- Home of Casey Knowles: Good show yesterday, Howie. We're seeing the story coming out about Casey Knowles -- the girl shown sleeping in Hillary's "3 a.m." ad, who is now of voting age and is a passionate Obama supporter -- go from local news to an appearance on the "Today" show this morning. I think her parents should book a room in Denver this August. Do you think this can get blown up even more? Also, does anyone know whatever happened to LBJ's "Daisy Girl"?

washingtonpost.com: Girl in Clinton Ad Supports Obama (AP, March 9)

Howard Kurtz: I never quite understand the media fascination with actors (or singers, in the case of Obama Girl) and their political preferences. I mean, who cares? But it's a natural for TV I guess, especially if the entertainer in question is attractive.

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Washington: Howard: thanks for the chat. A question ... though my bias might show. How does it happen? Clinton's people accuse Obama of being Ken Starr-like; an Obama aide accuses Clinton of being a "monster." Both seem pretty reprehensible ... especially among Democrats. The Obama aide quits; the Clinton Aide keeps on spinning. How? Better spin management from one campaign? Does the media help it? Is "monster" so much worse than calling a Democrat "Ken Starr"? I guess I'm looking for your opinion. How do these name-calling non-flaps become flaps that cost some their jobs (and she should have quit, it was a big screw-up) but not others?

Howard Kurtz: The two situations are totally different, and here's why: Howard Wolfson is the Clinton campaign's communications director. When he makes charges (such as likening Obama to Ken Starr), he is carrying out the campaign's premeditated strategy. Samantha Power is a Harvard professor and journalist who was an unpaid adviser to Obama; when she gave the "monster" interview to the Scotsman, it was about her new book, and of course veered into her role in the campaign. Power made what she now calls a "stupid" mistake and quickly resigned, but no one would suggest that Obama strategists sent her out there to deliberately call Hillary a deceitful monster.

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Rolla, Mo.: At the risk of sounding like I have no sense of humor, what the heck is going on with "Saturday Night Live"? Three shows in a row with a blatant pro-Hillary slant?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the one this past weekend did make Obama look like a boob, someone who was clueless during a crisis and had to call Hillary and beg her for advice.

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Arlington, Va.: I always am fascinated by the panel discussions on the weekly news shows because of the insights they give into the future that more often than not turn out to be wrong. Do any of the shows do what the estimable David Broder does at the end of the year -- acknowledge the mistakes made by their commentators?

Howard Kurtz: You're kidding, right?

They pray that no one will notice how wrong their esteemed commentators were.

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Washington: Ok...I know I'm biased, and I'm sure you've got all kinds of stories and explanations showing that the press has really covered the story ... but here goes anyway. It seems to me that there is a real distinction drawn by the media to perceived endorsement by the fringe for Democrats -- i.e. Farrakhan, and by the fringe for Republicans ... i.e. Hagee. Hagee has some crazy views, and has made some seriously provocative statements about Catholics, gays, Katrina, etc. McCain seems to get a pass for days on this, but Obama is forced to renounce, denounce and pronounce Farrakhan, if only to prove that he isn't some closet Muslim. But ultimately, what is the difference, save that Hagee is a Christian nut vs. Farrakhan's unique kind of nuttiness? Double standard? Farrakhan is just better press? Anti-Semitism is worse than anti-Catholicism? What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: I actually agree. While the situations are not totally comparable, there just wasn't much media focus on Hagee (and McCain welcomed his endorsement, in contrast to Obama's handling of Farrakhan's support). On Friday, a week later, McCain told the AP that he regrets statements by anyone, including Hagee, "if they are anti-Catholic." Obviously Hagee is far less well-known than Farrakhan, but I'm surprised this hasn't been more of a controversy.

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New York: When discussing the Power "monster" quote on your weekend show, the panel's consensus was that an American journalist wouldn't have run the quote in order to maintain access to the source. I find this incredibly depressing and a sad commentary on American political journalism.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I think it was a little more nuanced than that. Samantha Power's mistake was to utter the magic words "off the record" two seconds later, rather than in advance, which is a technical violation of the rules. I've talked to plenty of reporters who say they would regard it as unfair to publish a comment that the subject so clearly meant not for publication. Some of my panelists said they would be more likely to cut some slack to someone they have a continuing relationship with, but relationship or not, running the monster quote still amounted to a game of gotcha.

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The Bumiller Clip: This is a great example of what conservatives have been predicting since McCain's candidacy started succeeding: That the Times and its ilk would love all over McCain until he had the Republican nomination, then turn on him to try to elect the Democrat. Good to know the Times is following the script...

Howard Kurtz: That's a stretch (though I can understand the criticism more easily about the female lobbyist story than Bumiller's question). Why shouldn't reporters ask McCain -- or any other candidate -- about inconsistent statements? The Times ran a big front-page piece yesterday on how Obama's Senate record in pretty thin -- does that mean the paper favors Hillary? Well, if so, what about today's front-pager about disorder and dysfunction within the Clinton camp (a subject ably mined last week by The Washington Post's Peter Baker)? You have to judge the fairness of coverage over time, not based on one particular story or a question on the press plane.

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Bethsda, Md.: Howard -- love the chats and Reliable Sources. Have you ever done (or do you plan to do) a piece on the European or Arab Media? Do you have any sense of what the foreign press thinks of McCain, Obama and Clinton?

Howard Kurtz: I have not done such a piece, but from what I've read much of the world press seems utterly fascinated by Obama.

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Red Phone Girl: I think everyone realizes the Clinton red phone ad wasn't meant to reflect whom the little girl sleeping in the bed wanted to be answering the phone in the White House at 3 a.m.; the ad clearly was meant to imply whom the parents of that girl sleeping in the bed wanted answering that phone. The fact that she's all grown up now and a big Obama supporter is just a humorous footnote, and that's why she's getting her 15 minutes.

Howard Kurtz: We seem to specialize in humorous footnotes.

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Chicago: Mr. Kurtz, I think the answer to your question as to why the Hagee issue hasn't been a big story is found in the answer to your second question today: "And particularly interesting since McCain usually has, and has long benefited from, a friendly relationship with his traveling press corps, based on nearly unlimited access." If the press following McCain shows no desire to pursue the issue because they've been charmed by him, perhaps it is time to put new reporters on the beat.

Howard Kurtz: But the traveling press corps is just a small slice of "the media." There's nothing to stop columnists, cable anchors or just plain reporters sitting in the newsroom from writing pieces about Hagee and McCain's acceptance of his endorsement. By the same token, the Obama press corps wasn't making an issue of Farrakhan; that gained traction because Tim Russert pressed the senator about it at an MSNBC debate.

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Live from New York: Actually, I don't think this week's "Saturday Night Live" sketch was pro-Hillary. It opened with Amy Poehler as Hillary saying "I'm Hillary Clinton, and I approve this totally unfair message," or words to that effect. I took it as lampooning her recent resorting to fear tactics.

Howard Kurtz: Well, she looked Machiavellian and he looked hapless. That's fair and balanced, isn't it?

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Takoma Park, Md.: Media process question ... I used to work for a popular travel magazine, and their process for fact-checking monthly articles was extremely thorough. Every teeny tiny thing that possibly could be considered a statement of fact was looked at again and again to make sure that all stories were 100 percent accurate. How does a daily newspaper properly fact-check its articles with seemingly much less time to do so? Do newspapers depend too heavily on retractions and corrections (which most people are unlikely to read)? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Newspapers don't employ fact-checkers. Reporters and editors try their hardest to avoid errors, which are inevitable given the volume of copy we spew out and the tight deadlines we operate under.

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Esteemed Commentators GPA?: Some enterprising media critic might think about developing a grading system (or awards) for the pundit who is most consistently correct during the prior year. In fact, a grading system might be most appropriate, for then we'd know whom to trust and whom to "take with a grain of salt." In your opinion, whom are the pundits who deserve the most kudos for telling it like it is? (Of course, the fun award would be who is most consistently wrong, wouldn't it?)

Howard Kurtz: Sure, but I'd need a research assistant for that. Plus, while it might be easy to say "Joe Blowhard predicted that Hillary would lose New Hampshire," lots of pundit chat doesn't fall into the category of predictions, and therefore would be harder to score.

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Mistakes by their commentators?: Heck, I'd be impressed if they acknowledged their own mistakes and foul-ups! How likely is that to happen? (Which is why you must keep doing what you are doing, please! Will you?)

Howard Kurtz: Only if I can maintain my delegate lead over other media critics.

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Glenside, Penn.: I am a registered democrat living quietly in this fine commonwealth. Where can I go to hide for the next month? And who can I call at 3 a.m. when Ed Rendell maxes out my home phone voice mail?

Howard Kurtz: Paris is supposed to be nice this time of year.

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Anchorage, Alaska: On Reliable Sources Sunday it appears Jake Tapper brought you up short when you made a general statement to the effect of "well, the Obama campaign will responding likewise [making negative statement re: Clinton] in Pennsylvania in the next few weeks..." Tapper said wait -- that has not been the history of the Obama campaign -- reinforcing his earlier point that the Clinton campaign has been the most dishonest and negative. So the question: Were you perhaps too glib in an attempt to even out the discussion in general, or did you not respond because you thought Tapper had a point or for some other reason -- perhaps something as mundane as just keeping the show moving?

Howard Kurtz: Me, too glib? I beg to differ!

Actually, we both were making valid points. Jake was talking about how Hillary would be slamming Obama in the weeks leading up to Pennsylvania, and I felt compelled to point out that Obama and his campaign would be criticizing her as well. Tapper then argued that her side has been much more negative and personal than his. Maybe so, but that hardly contradicts my point that both sides are drawing sharper contrasts. The larger context was whether this race had become "ugly," as it's so often described by the media, and I maintain it's mild compared to some of the bitter campaigns of the past. Remember what McCain faced in South Carolina eight years ago? Or when he said of Bush, "he twists the truth like Clinton"? Now that's ugly.

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Helena, Mont.: Did you happen to see and compare all three profiles of the presidential candidates on "60 Minutes"? The McCain piece last night was interesting because Scott Pelley asked tough questions and covered a lot of issues. The earlier pieces on Obama and Hillary Clinton were boring as all get-out, I thought, because they amounted to little more than "girl talk" and "boy talk." The candidates barely were challenged, and were asked things like how they managed to hold up under the rigors of campaigning. What do you think accounted for the dramatically different approaches?

Howard Kurtz: Different interviewers, perhaps?

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Manchester, N.H.: Why don't major news organizations like The Post, Times, etc., rotate their reporters through the campaigns so that no one can be charged with getting too close to a candidate?

Howard Kurtz: Well, we do, sometimes. But the benefit to having one person over a long period of time is not just that they develop good sources, but they develop a good feel for the nuances of the campaign and can spot shifts and changes more quickly than a newcomer might. It's definitely a tradeoff.

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Washington: "Obviously Hagee is far less well known than Farrakhan, but I'm surprised this hasn't been more of a controversy." Howard, Obama's church and its spiritual leader openly have embraced Farrakhan for years, and even gave him an award. McCain doesn't go to this guy's church. Obama has a long history in the black seperatist movement that is being ignored by the media. It wasn't until he ran for statewide office, and now for president, that he disavowed these people. It's called pandering. I wonder how many of his old views he still holds.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't seen any evidence that Obama has any history in the black separatist movement. I have seen lots of evidence that the pastor of his church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whom Obama is close to personally, has embraced Farrakhan and made lots of comments about America being racist. I don't think we've heard the end of that story, particularly if Obama wins the nomination.

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Re: Hillary's strategy: It appears that Clinton had a new strategy going into this past Tuesday's primaries (Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island), to heavily criticize the media for its negativity towards her. It seemed to have worked, because since her attacks on the media there have been noticeably fewer anti-Clinton reports -- even when they were warranted (like mentioning her new tactic in Mississippi, to imply Obama would be a good vice president just to garner votes in that state). My question is this: This attack on the media was so blatant that I wonder why the media doesn't fight back: to see it -- and call it -- for what it is?

Howard Kurtz: The reason there were fewer anti-Hillary reports in the past week is that she revived her campaign by winning Ohio and Texas, landing her on the cover of Time and Newsweek. Her campaign, as I've reported, has been criticizing the media coverage as unfair for months, although Hillary has stepped it up, even invoking the "SNL" debate parody as evidence. That didn't stop The Washington Post and New York Times from running long, detailed articles on the anger and dysfunction within her campaign. A much more telling change, in my view, has been the media's more aggressive tone on Obama. That may be because of "SNL," as well as the Rezko trial, the mishandling of the NAFTA flap, Samantha Power's monster comment and Obama's losses last week. But no one wins a party's nomination without the kind of media scrutiny that, in Obama's case, has been quite mild until recently.

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Austin, Texas: Great job today by Joel Achenbach to dig into the "Bear DNA project" that John McCain has been highlighting as an egregious example of pork-barrel spending. My question is, why don't we see more of these? It seems like all too often reporters focus on laugh lines or the showy side of politics and don't delve into the substance of claims. I still think McCain has a point on pork, but after reading Achenbach's story I think he's unfairly picking on the grizzly bear project just because it is easy and gets a good laugh line.

washingtonpost.com: McCain Sees Pork Where Scientists See Success (Post, March 10)

Howard Kurtz: Well, it was refreshing to see one of my colleagues actually dig into this particular punch line, but the thing about pork is that many of the projects are defensible in that they provide money for worthy causes that are important to folks in the home district. What's not defensible is a system where a member of Congress can steer money to a particular project, even a bridge to nowhere, sometimes backed by the special interests that support him, and the result is tens of billions in spending that blows a hole in the budget.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Do candidate spokesmen suffer any credibility hits with the press to the extent they no longer are listened to (or should not be listened to)? My case in point is this Wolfson guy with the Clinton camp. It seems to me the guy repeatedly has dissembled, lied, stretched the truth and made outlandish statements, and that he doesn't have any credibility left. Yet he seems to be breathlessly quoted by the press, called by Brian Williams in a very fawning way "one of the best in the business." The guy would have zero credibility about anything with me. Or is this just considered part of the campaign ethos?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not familiar with any instance in which he has lied, but he definitely has thrown some punches. Some reporters like his style and some definitely do not (Chris Matthews, as you may recall, called the Clinton press office a bunch of "kneecappers"), but I guarantee you that Howard Wolfson is not out there freelancing on his own. He is carrying the message that the campaign wants him to carry, just as David Axelrod is for the Obama campaign. So if you don't like Wolfson's tactics, the blame most likely lies with those who employ him.

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Austin, Texas: Did you see the Wired article about the Sarah Lacy interview of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg? Apparently they used a tool called Twitter to form a real-time lynch mob against Lacy for asking softball questions. Is this going to happen soon in the political world?

washingtonpost.com: Zuckerberg Keynote Descends Into Chaos as Audience Takes Over (Wired.com, March 9)

Howard Kurtz: She wasn't criticized so much for asking softball questions as for interrupting Zuckerberg and injecting her views into the conversation. But she definitely got a thumbs-down from the cyber-mob.

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A compromise between rotating or keeping same: Why don't they (all you majors at least) do both? Rotate fresh reporters in on a regular basis to actually keep some objectivity and fresh perspective, and keep one in place for the kinds of insider views and "source" building that is prized more than objectivity? I'd feel a much higher level of confidence, which frankly I don't have at all based on what I've seen in this campaign more than any other. P.S. Are you working on a book about the press interference/impact on this campaign?

Howard Kurtz: I am not working on a book at the moment. I only recently published "Reality Show," about the television news wars.

Well, to some extent the big news organizations do both. But campaign travel is expensive; news outlets get billed far more for a plane flight, for instance, than if a reporter had flown commercial, so most organizations can't afford to regularly keep two correspondents with a candidate. But they also have to let their main reporter come home now and then for humanitarian reasons, such as acquiring some clean clothes and reminding their children that they exist.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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