Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 24, 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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Portland, Ore.: Mr. Kurtz, what is the media's role/responsibility in furthering the national conversation on race that Barack Obama suggests we need to have? I was struck Sunday as I watched "Meet the Press," "This Week" and "Fox News Sunday" that in each of their roundtables, it was the same: one black journalist and three white journalists. This is a pattern that has been repeated all week. Why not two black journalists, or three, or none?

It gave the appearance of tokenism, and it reminded me the media has a ways to go in moving race relations forward in this country. Or we can just play those same Pastor Wright comments ad infinitum and pretend we are having a discussion. (And by the way, are there no tapes of Pastor Wright giving the kind of sermons that Obama said kept him in the church?)

Howard Kurtz: Well, had you watched my show yesterday, you would have seen that I had two black journalists (CBS's Byron Pitts and Eric Deggans of the St. Pete Times) and one white commentator (Michael Medved). But the larger point is this: There isn't enough diversity in the news business, and that, in the view of my two African-American guests, has distorted coverage of the whole Jeremiah Wright controversy. The lack of diversity is most acute in the top management ranks and in the anchor ranks. Perhaps you've noticed that there isn't a single black host of a prime-time show on the three major cable news channels.

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Herndon, Va.: Immediately after the passport issue arose, we saw a huge hue-and-cry from the Obama Kool-Aid drinkers about how this was a Republican smear on their candidate. Of course, we eventually learned this was a few voyeuristic contractors taking a peek at Hillary, Obama and McCain's passport files. Now the Obama whining backfires: Not because of anything found in his file, but what's not found. Obama barely has been out of the country. He counts living abroad as a toddler as foreign policy experience. Given that the Obama-ites opened the door, shouldn't Hillary hammer him on this?

washingtonpost.com: Passportgate (Post, March 21)

Howard Kurtz: Hillary should hammer Obama because of the contents of his passport file, found through improper snooping by Bush administration contractors (who also improperly looked at hers)? Not sure that makes much sense. Hillary does regularly tout her foreign travels as first lady, which has triggered a debate (after her White House schedules were released) about how much of her work was substantive as opposed to ceremonial.

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Seattle: Thanks for taking our questions. I'm not willing to say Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech on Tuesday is as good as "I Have a Dream," but I'm a little bit curious as to how Dr. King's speech was received by the press at the time, and about how long it took before it was firmly in the "great" category? Conversely, do you remember a speech in the past 25-plus years of cable news that was this well-received by the pundits, but which turned out to go into the Dustbin of History?

Howard Kurtz: This is fascinating. On Aug. 29, 1963, The Washington Post carried this lead: "President Kennedy said yesterday that the great March on Washington had advanced the cause of America's 20 million Negroes and made a contribution to all mankind." King was not mentioned until the 11th paragraph, as having met with Kennedy, and nothing from his speech was quoted. Plus, the story ran on page 21. I'd say the paper blew it.

The New York Times lead: "More than 200,000 Americans, most of them black but many of them white, demonstrated here today for a full and speedy program of civil rights and equal job opportunities." King's speech was buried in the middle of the article but the Times did quote some of the "I have a dream" passages. And a sidebar by James Reston was headlined "'I Have a Dream...' Peroration by Dr. King Sums Up A Day the Capital Will Remember."

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Columbia, Md.: I had to chuckle at your Olbermann item in today's column, when you said Olbermann was holding himself accountable because he called himself the worst person in the world for making a mistake. I have to disagree with that if we use Olbermann's claim that Kristol should have been fired for making a mistake. Next time you talk to Olbermann, ask him why he believes Kristol should be fired for making a mistake, but Olbermann doesn't believe the same thing should happen to him. Seems like a double standard to me on Olbermann's part. Now that would be "real accountability."

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me accountability involves owning up to your mistakes and correcting them. If every mistake involved firing, there would be very few working journalists around.

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New Orleans: I see that Detroit mayor has been Kwame Kilpatrick has been charged with perjury by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. Worthy is the first African American prosecutor to serve Wayne county. How does the statement by Kilpatrick that he is being lynched stand up now?

washingtonpost.com: Detroit Mayor Charged With Perjury (AP, March 24)

Howard Kurtz: That was a charge the mayor threw at the press. He also called the coverage "bigoted" and said it relied on no facts and no research. I guess the fact that Kilpatrick was caught in text-messages carrying on an affair with his chief of staff that they had both denied under oath in a lawsuit was enough to convince the prosecutor to bring the perjury and obstruction charges.

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Acton, Mass.: Mr Kurtz, you have written about McCain's "gaffe of saying Iran was training al-Qaeda operatives, which the senator corrected a moment later." But McCain previously made that statement at least three times on his trip without correction. It is clear that this represents a severe policy misconception on McCain's part, not just a one-time "gaffe." So why are you (and the media in general) playing this as just a slip of the tongue?

Howard Kurtz: I was just recounting what happened. The fact that McCain has made this "mistake" before suggests that either that he believes Iran is actually training al-Qaeda operatives or is not being very careful about sticking to established facts.

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Chicago: Most press stories I read about the popular vote cite a "700,000" or so difference between Clinton and Obama. It was only the other day that I learned that this did not include the Michigan and Florida votes (including those two states brings the difference to less than 100,000). I understand not including Michigan and Florida in the delegate counts, but why not in the popular vote counts? What number has The Post been citing?

Howard Kurtz: All the media have been using the 700,000 figure precisely because the Democratic National Committee has decided that Michigan and Florida will not count and their delegates will not be seated. Numerous stories have noted that if the states did count (though I don't see how you could count Michigan without a revote, since Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot), it would enable Hillary to cut into Obama's popular-vote lead. That is one of the reasons the two states have been such a point of contention.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: During yesterday's Reliable Sources you showed a very brief clip of a reporter asking Sen. Obama about what would happen if a white candidate went to a church that was as racially charged as his apparently is, and he brushed her aside. It seems to me that if any white candidate went to a church where racism against African Americans and the United States was so overt, they would be labeled a white supremacist and forced to resign from the campaign or be marginalized. Why doesn't this get more discussion? It seems any questioning of Sen Obama always gives him a huge benefit of the doubt, yet other candidates would not get that gift.

Howard Kurtz: That was Terry Moran on "Nightline." I think your point has gotten some discussion. Those who are at least partially defending Rev. Wright's remarks, led by Obama, say we need to understand the full context, and the historical harm that African-Americans have suffered over the years. But to many whites, no amount of context can justify the U.S. of KKK-A, God damn America and claiming that the government invented the AIDS virus to kill blacks.

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San Francisco: Will you have an opportunity to review various media outlets' coverage -- or lack of same -- of yesterday's grim new milestone of 4,000 American deaths in Iraq? Or are there preachers and campaign consultant pie-throwing more deserving of your attention as a media critic?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Deaths in Iraq War Reach 4,000; Green Zone Is Shelled (Post, March 24)

Howard Kurtz: Over the last five years I have written and talked repeatedly about Iraq coverage. I've recently made the point that there's been an incredible shrinkage in the war coverage that is in my view hard to justify, even with the reduced levels of violence, because Americans are still fighting and dying there (along with Iraqis). We did a segment on this very question on my show last weekend. It shouldn't take an arbitrary marker (fifth anniversary, 4,000th death) to spur coverage of this war. It was newsworthy when 3,999 Americans had died and will be just as newsworthy when the 4,001st life is lost.

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Chicago: I thought I heard everything. Then, Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar posted an interesting tidbit about an Obama surrogate, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Apparently, after Obama's speech last week, Rep. Jackson went on the radio to proclaim that Obama was "approaching deity" status. I listened to the clip. Say what you want about his speech ... still, it's pretty astounding to hear one elected official talk about a political candidate in such terms. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: My position is that Barack Obama remains a politician. A talented one, to be sure, but still a politician trying to win an election. And obviously his election would mark a milestone in American history (just as Hillary's would, by the way). But all this overheated talk of him leading a spiritual revolution may not serve him in the long run because it sets up expectations that no human being can meet.

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Bloomington, Ind.: Good morning Howard, Recently, it has been reported that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dropped down in importance to the general public. Can this be partly because the media has decided it can't or shouldn't continue to cover the agonizingly insane consequences of a morally corrupt philosophy for the war on terror? Could the collective realization that the Congress has failed to reign in a dangerously out-of-control executive branch be part of the reason our country is in such a funk? What a mess we've gotten into, eh?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure I buy the notion that the wars have dropped in importance, and yes, I think the reduced media coverage has played a role in seeming to deflate the urgency of the conflicts. After five years of Iraq, there is obviously war fatigue among the public (and news organizations, for that matter), and mounting economic woes have pushed that issue to the top of the polls. But my sense is that Iraq in particular remains deeply troubling to most Americans -- both those who want to pull out and those who believe we need to stay -- and that it will make a comeback as a campaign issue this fall.

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Chicago: With the Indiana primary approaching, and pundits declaring that the new "must win" for Clinton ... I realize that the Washington/New York media aren't always clear on geography, but just so you know, Indiana and Illinois are neighboring states. In fact, northwestern Indiana (probably about 20 percent to 25 percent of the state -- cities like Gary, Hammond and South Bend) shares a media market with Chicago. In other words, Obama has a distinct advantage. Just so you know.

Howard Kurtz: That had occurred to me, in fact. I've actually been to Indianapolis, twice. But we can't get to the must-win Indiana primary until we make it through the must-win Pennsylvania primary. Perhaps the larger point is the media have decided that every major state is must-win for Hillary given the size of Barack's lead.

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New York: Re: Last Rites for Hillary?-- I am resigned to Hillary losing the nomination. She was my second choice after John Edwards. I will vote for Obama (holding my nose) because McCain is completely unacceptable to me. I must say that I feel completely frustrated by the tone and coverage of this campaign -- I know now that sexism definitely trumps racism (I learned that once again reading the "ism" article in The Washington Post as black women state their contempt for white women thus adding to the sexism pool).

I do wonder what the mainstream media will talk about when Clinton is gone. For all of Obama's "charisma" and "transcendence," there seems to be little of interest to talk about where he is concerned. This Wright matter has caused the most comment about the Obama campaign that I have seen. It's interesting to me that his tactical campaign never was discussed much -- that's how he won the most delegates, after all. That, and the monolithic voting of a population that always has refused to be perceived as "monolithic." I hope for the best where he is concerned, but I have little on which to base that hope. How ironic is that?

Howard Kurtz: Since 1992, it has been hard to imagine national politics without one Clinton or the other playing a major role. But I totally disagree about Obama. Whether you like him or not, he is a fascinating figure in so many ways, given his life story, his two books, and his ability to write speeches like the one he delivered on race (leaving aside whether it was politically effective). In fact, Newsweek has yet another cover story on him today, titled "How Barry Became Barack." I've covered plenty of dull pols. Obama isn't one of them.

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Minneapolis: If McCain is gaffe-prone or playing loose with the facts on Iran and al-Qaeda, who's calling him on it? Where's the saturation coverage of this that we would see if Clinton or Obama made such a statement? Where's Howard Kurtz leading his columns with it for multiple days?

Howard Kurtz: I have read numerous articles about McCain's mistake (The Post dealt with it again yesterday in a review of his trip abroad) and seen it debated on television as well. One reason it's not getting "saturation" coverage is that so much media attention is focused on the Clinton-Obama race that McCain, with the nomination in his pocket, has receded. This helps him a bit when he screws up, as he did in this case, but probably hurts him more in that he's not much in the news while the Democrats dominate the coverage.

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Portland, Ore.: If John McCain "believes Iran is actually training al-Qaeda operatives or is not being very careful about sticking to established facts," then why does he have a reputation as someone who knows what he's talking about, or as a "straight talker"? What, exactly, is his "bank" of foreign policy experience based on? And is simply having opinions on foreign policy -- even if they're blatantly incorrect -- a reasonable bar for the media to claim that someone has "foreign policy experience"?

Howard Kurtz: You're welcome to criticize McCain's foreign policy views, but I think to say he doesn't have experience in this area is simply not true. He has more than Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush combined when they were presidential candidates. He led a Navy squadron during the Vietnam War. He's been in the forefront of national security debates for two decades. He just completed his eighth visit to Iraq. He was a major proponent of the surge. Now experience isn't everything, as Obama frequently points out, citing the very experienced Cheney and Rumsfeld and how they botched the war. But McCain is not a newcomer to these matters.

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Regarding "approaching deity" status: Regarding your earlier questioner who mentioned Jesse Jackson's comment about Obama. People say dumb things with emotions running high. James Carville said on Good Friday that Bill Richardson was like Judas Iscariot. So who does that make Hillary Clinton equivalent to (hint: capitalize the word Who)? I had to laugh. On the Internet, there's a rule that the first person who makes a comparison to the Nazis or Hitler automatically loses the argument. Maybe we need to add a corollary for comparing one's candidate (Hillary, in this case) to Jesus Christ?

Howard Kurtz: The rhetoric has gotten quite overheated lately. There was also retired Gen. McPeak accusing Bill Clinton of McCarthyism, Samantha Power calling Hillary a monster, and on and on. It seems lately that the candidates spend as much time explaining away inflammatory comments by their surrogates as they do talking about the country's future.

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Washington: Howard, I agree with you that the media should not choose who the nominee is, or dictate the process. That said, the numbers just do not add up for Clinton. I agree that she has the right to see this through, but I just don't see how there is any light at the end of the tunnel for her, under any circumstance.

Howard Kurtz: Well, lots of reporters and commentators have pointed out that the math is definitely against the former first lady. But there is this little matter of the superdelegates. I just don't think it's our job to drive people out of the race. If party officials want to pressure Hillary to give up in the name of party unity, we should report that, and we shouldn't minimize the difficulty of her path. But stranger things have happened in politics. Who among the journalistic geniuses thought last summer that John McCain would win up as the Republican nominee?

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Arlington, Va.: I see that Detroit's mayor was charged with eight felonies today. He blames the media. When will you guys stop forcing politicians to have affairs and then cover it up by lying to police and the courts?

Howard Kurtz: I know, it's terrible. We're also to blame for Spitzer, Paterson and McGreevey.

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Richmond, Va.: Re: The newsworthiness of the 4,001 life lost in Iraq, it would only be newsworthy if Britney Spears didn't marry Michael Jackson on the same day. You've got to know which would get on the front page and which story would be pushed to the back. You have to sell advertising, after all, and the people want to be entertained.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think front-page decisions are made on the basis of entertaining people and selling advertising. Today's front-page, for instance, has serious stories about rising health care costs, patients' data on a stolen government laptop, Clinton and Obama both embellishing their records, and brutal tactics that are maintaining stability in Fallujah. But there are also stories on Georgetown getting knocked out of the NCAA playoffs and construction in the neighborhood surrounding the Nationals' new ballpark. All good editors try to provide a mix so that people will keep reading.

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New York: You wrote about how reporters are declaring that Clinton's candidacy is now dead. Are these the same reporters that declared that McCain's candidacy was dead?

Howard Kurtz: Some of them are. And some are the same who declared that Hillary couldn't possibly win New Hampshire. And who paid very little attention to Huckabee until he won Iowa. Great track record, huh? That doesn't mean they're wrong about Hillary, but it does mean you should take all media predictions with several grains of salt.

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Arlington, Va.: Any comment on the on-air scolding Chris Wallace of Fox News gave to the Fox News morning crew?

Howard Kurtz: Wallace said that two hours of Obama-bashing was excessive. Good for him for speaking out. I don't think anchors and commentators on a network should march in lockstep. Wallace also accused the "Fox & Friends" crew of distorting Obama's "typical white woman" remark about his grandmother, which they disputed. Regardless of who's right, Fox viewers got another point of view.

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Baltimore, MD: Hey, Gene Weingarten just said in his concurrent chat that you don't get paid enough for what you do: "And I don't even know what he makes." Just thought you'd like to use that for salary negotiations. (As if your bosses will respect his opinion on the matter.)

Howard Kurtz: Duly noted. Smart guy, that Gene.

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Minneapolis: What has been fascinating to me with the whole coverage of the Rev. Wright controversy is how much the media seems to struggle with the issues of both race and religion. Almost immediately, there were some really interesting comments from various media players about their own thoughts on race in America -- some very illuminating, some touching and some a little uncomfortable (anyone who saw Pat Buchanan on "Morning Joe" discussing reverse racism in civil service promotions and black-on-white crime knows what I'm talking about). The whole uproar about Wright saying "God damn America" is bizarre to me. Maybe they don't always use quite as blunt terms, but ministers/priests/whatever spend a significant time in the pulpit saying that the problems we face as a country are because of God's wrath for our national sins.

Howard Kurtz: But that is the nub of the debate: Is what Jeremiah Wright said from the pulpit within the mainstream of opinions forcefully voiced in black churches, or off the wall? Plenty of journalists and commentators have had different views on that question, and black journalists clearly have a different perspective. Nearly a week after Obama's speech, I think that, in some ways, this debate has been healthy.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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