Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 7, 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


Washington: Today's Couric article makes it seem as though she is in a marathon. What are the chances that she/CBS ever will take the lead in the nightly news race?

Howard Kurtz: Well, if she stays in the job for a number of years of course it's possible. Katie Couric is right that it took Tom Brokaw (and Peter Jennings, for that matter) years to reach the top spot. Who knows what the landscape will look like in five years? Charlie Gibson may have retired from ABC by then, and Katie will have had more time to establish herself.


Clifton, Va.: The problem with Couric is that when she was on "Today" she played cute and girl-next-door. This image did not translate well to her new job at CBS. And she is too old to compete with the Fox girls like Megan, Julie, Martha, Suzie and especially Go Go Gomez! She is over the hill. She needs to go. Like her compatriots in local news like Wendy Rieger, she is over the hill and no longer a babe. Hit the road, Jack! For Couric, an Uphill March (Post, April 7)

Howard Kurtz: Too old? Over the hill? No longer a babe? Are these your criteria for a successful network anchor? Would anyone say that Charlie Gibson is too old at 65?

Katie Couric recently passed the 50 mark. That is hardly ancient, even by television standards. And while she clearly was a more freewheeling and funny presence on the Today show, your description of her as merely being "cute" seems to overlook that she conducted hundreds of interviews with presidents and other political and business leaders, was on the air for hours on 9/11 and otherwise did plenty of serious journalism along with the fluff.


Bethesda, Md.: The Pulitzer prizes are to be announced today. Any chance Dana Priest and Ann Hull do not win for their work on the Walter Reed abuses?

Howard Kurtz: I'd say the chances are slim.


Arlington, Va.: I give great credit to the Los Angeles Times for their retraction and thorough review of how their story went so wrong. They even identified the source who gave them the bogus information and documents, but only after other sites identified him. Any chatter among media types as to if/when it is appropriate to identify a source who had been promised confidentiality? The Times retracts Tupac Shakur story (Los Angeles Times, April 7)

Howard Kurtz: It's not clear to me that the Times promised anonymity to the imprisoned con man, Jimmy Sabatino. But concluding that he produced false FBI documents in a publicly available lawsuit -- an assertion made by the Smoking Gun, which blew the whistle on this scam -- does not necessarily violate a promise of confidentiality. In any event, I'd say such a promise, if it is made, is no longer valid if you subsequently discover that the source has lied to you or provided bogus documents.


Fairfax, Va.: Don't you think it would help our major broadcast media to regain some integrity if they were to broadcast the Petraeus hearing this week live, especially with McCain, Obama and Clinton questioning him? What are the chances ABC, NBC or CBS will do it?

Howard Kurtz: Zero. The broadcast networks have long since ceded coverage of live events to cable. (NBC can say it is fulfilling its responsibility by carrying the hearings on MSNBC.) It costs the broadcast nets plenty of money to blow out their lucrative soaps and talk shows for a congressional hearing. They didn't even do that when New Orleans was under water. I don't know that the cable channels will go gavel to gavel with the hearings, but I suspect you'll see a decent amount in the coverage.


Cincinnati: I was appalled about the attacks on the Green Zone and another base in Iraq on Sunday that killed four U.S. soldiers, seriously injured many more, and injured to a lesser degree still more. But I also was astounded that The Washington Post and the New York Times led their online editions as of now (9:30 p.m. EDT) with Mark Penn's resignation, and the horrific news from Iraq was a secondary story. The Washington Times, however, had the Iraq story at the top of their list. What is going on here? With Petraeus and Crocker testifying before Congress this week, the Iraq news should be front and center. Between Iraqi Shiites, a Deepening Animosity (Post, April 7)

Howard Kurtz: I just checked the Web site and the lead story is "Focus of Iraq Hearings May Be on Candidates" -- a twofer, in a sense, in that it combines both the war and politics. At any given moment, something unexpected, like Penn being forced out, can get big play on a news site that constantly updates in order to draw readers back again and again. On the whole, though, I think the shrinkage of media's Iraq coverage over the last few months has been both dramatic and unwarranted. I put the question to Couric for today's column.


Alexandria, Va.: I know Katie Couric has used her cancer activism to boost her sympathy profile, but where are the media critics worrying about the potential conflicts of interest in her activism? One already can sense in it her boosterism of Michael J. Fox's crusade for stem-cell research. Poynter Institute poobahs went after Meredith Vieira for interviewing her husband about his MS; why are they giving Katie a free ride?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see the situations as comparable (nor is it unusual for a host's spouse to appear on a morning show). Other than interviewing Michael J. Fox in 2006 when he was campaigning for several Senate Democrats on the stem-cell issue and being assailed by Rush Limbaugh, how exactly has Katie Couric used her CBS job to boost him? It's not like the guy is popping up on the CBS Evening News every other week.


Washington: As the Jon Weisman's article in today's Post states, it seems likely that the coverage Iraq hearings will focus more on the presidential candidates than on the picture presented by Gen. Petraeus. It also seems likely that the Iraq "debate" through the next few months will be presented in terms of the presidential race -- option stay vs. option go.

If it does play that way, the American public loses. The picture is far too complicated to be captured in a simple two-sided debate, and whoever wins the presidency almost certainly will have to take actions he or she did not envision in April. Does horse-race coverage of the Iraq hearings today portend horse-race coverage of Iraq for the next six months? The Next Campaign Stop: Iraq Hearings (Post, April 7)

Howard Kurtz: I think the media need to pursue a vigorous debate about the Iraq war and all kinds of options for the U.S. -- not just the stay-or-go dichotomy -- but you can hardly blame the media for focusing on the fact that Clinton, Obama and McCain all will be participants in the Petraeus hearings. One of those three people is going to be launching a new Iraq policy next January that, in the case of the two Democrats, will be far different than what we have now. At the same time, it's clear that the Democrats don't have the votes to force President Bush to change his policy in the interim. So the attention paid to the candidates is understandable.


CBS-Less: I stopped watching Katie Couric when she gave the CBS microphone to Rush Limbaugh to do his faux "can't we all get along and be civil" shtick. I sent an e-mail to CBS and never have seen the evening news since -- and I won't watch again until she is gone.

Howard Kurtz: That sounds like a pretty slim reason for no longer watching. Limbaugh was one of many voices on the right and left who were given 90 seconds of airtime as part of Katie's "Free Speech" segment, which was dropped after a few months after the belated realization that having people sound off was squeezing out news and was too reminiscent of cable.


Richmond, Va.: I saw "Saturday Night Live" doing a spoof on the Clinton's tax returns money and how much they made. Any chance we'll see one on McCain and his wife's beer money? I'm sure they could do something with that -- or do they have to wait for the mainstream media to push it into nightly news before they can spoof it?

Howard Kurtz: Well, one difference is that McCain himself has no access to most of Cindy's family money under a prenup they signed when they got married. Another difference is that while he married into money, Bill and Hillary made theirs (as is their right) after serving as president and first lady. So "Saturday Night Live" might not have much comedic material to mine.


New Orleans: Hey Howie. Twenty bucks for the News Museum versus $18 for the Spy Museum? I know which one I am going to next time I am in Washington. At Sparkly Newseum, The Glory Of the Story Goes Above the Fold (Post, April 6)

Howard Kurtz: That sounded like a vote for the spy guys. Although I think the Newseum's admission fee is too high ($80 for a family of four?), there's much more to see there than in the Spy Museum.


Washington: Um, yeah, looks are a relevant criteria in who reads the evening news (which is mostly what an anchor does), along with unquantifiable impressions about whether they seem credible. I mean the traditional square-jawed anchor -- well, not Cronkite, but you get the idea -- presumably was picked partially because he was camera-friendly. So why wouldn't the viewers rather look at Lara Logan or Trish Regan than Katie Couric?

Howard Kurtz: Looks are hardly irrelevant in television, but I believe that journalistic experience still matters, certainly at the network level. Otherwise, why not hand over the job to actors and actresses?


Baltimore: Alexandria wrote: "I know Katie Couric has used her cancer activism to boost her sympathy profile..." Talk about cynical. Maybe it's possible that Couric is active in trying to raise cancer awareness because she genuinely cares about the issue? After all, a lot of people's lives have been affected by the disease. I say good for her for using her celebrity in a positive way.

Howard Kurtz: Good point. There was a big jump in people seeking colonoscopies after Couric had one on the air in 2000. And while she's not solely responsible for the University of Virginia cancer center being named for her late sister, that is a facility that has the potential to accomplish much for cancer patients and their families.


Washington: Are these often-discussed tracking polls really indicative of anything? (Where is Rudy Giuliani today?) I know it provides something to talk about on political TV and to lead news stories with, but I'd like to see how many of the polls are actually in agreement. And shouldn't news organizations stick with their own pollsters for consistency's sake? For instance I've heard that Clinton is still ahead by double-digits in Pennsylvania, but one poll Tim Russert showed yesterday had her ahead by only seven or eight percentage points. Because the gap could be seen as closing (gotta build that come-from-behind narrative!), this is the poll cited. Obviously there won't be universal agreement as to who's up and by how much, given how questions are asked and such, but I wish reporters/commentators would not rely on polls to buttress their own opinions when polling is not objective science.

Howard Kurtz: One thing we've learned this year is that the polls are often wrong. (Remember how they showed Obama as a lock to win New Hampshire?) And journalists are ridiculously overreliant on them, especially tracking polls that have smaller samples. But I do think if you're going to go down the polling road, you should report on other organizations' numbers as well rather than just hyping your own company's poll. The range provided by a number of surveys probably gives a better picture of where things stand than a single poll that may be significantly off.


Prince Frederick, Md.: When Couric mourns how "people have lost interest" in Iraq, isn't that easier to do when the network story count in Iraq has declined by half? Isn't there some chicken-and-egg philosophizing to do?

Howard Kurtz: I think there's little question that after five years, much of the public is suffering from war fatigue. But it's also true that the fading of the Iraq story from the newscasts and front pages (except for brief upsurges, such as the 4,000th American death or the recent fighting in Basra) contributes to a sense that the story has somehow gone away, which of course it hasn't. The reduction in violence (until recently) has also made it easier for news organizations to play down Iraq, since bombings and rising casualty tolls almost automatically draw coverage, especially on television. I still believe the war will be a potent issue in the election, even if it's overshadowed at the moment.


Over the Hill?: One step forward and two steps back. I am not a huge fan of Katie Couric, but I am appalled at the notion that she is over the hill. Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite and other older men have been the standard for network news anchors. To say that, at 50, Couric should leave the field because she is not "hot" enough, is a disgusting and juvenile application of what I hoped was an outdated double standard. Thanks for not letting it slide, Howard, but I had to point out how horribly sexist this comment was.

Howard Kurtz: I guess that fellow views anchors as little more than eye candy. Anchoring is serious business, given the huge megaphone that the three network newscasts still have. Nice looks and nice personality are part of the package, but unless you've got the whole package, it's meaningless. Katie Couric reported from Iraq last year (as did Brian Williams). Did her age really matter on that assignment?


Baltimore: Doesn't the very idea of a "Newseum" run counter to something at the core of professional journalism -- i.e. that what's important is the story, not the reporters?

Howard Kurtz: I think that's kind of an old-fashioned notion. But as I wrote in Sunday's review, the Newseum is actually a history museum disguised as a media retrospective -- a place where you get to see a chunk of the Berlin Wall, the mangled communications tower that had been atop the World Trade Center and the Watergate Hotel door that led to the burglars' capture. There's nothing wrong with recognizing what Edward R. Murrow and other pioneers did (and as long as we're talking about Katie Couric, there's a tape from CNN's early years showing a young Katie delivering a rather goofy report). But there are also hundreds of old headlines and books and video reports that are not so much about the people who made them as the historical events they record.


Bluffton, S.C.: Friday night's NBC Nightly News opened with Brian Williams interviewing John McCain, but it mostly was unintelligible because of the crowd in Memphis using loudspeakers in the background. Yet both the Obama and Clinton interviews later on the program had no interference. Am I the only viewer who noticed?

Howard Kurtz: The McCain interview was live, whereas the sessions with Hillary and Obama (Barack wasn't in Memphis, so that was by satellite) were taped. I didn't have any trouble making out what McCain said.


Re: One thing we've learned this year is that the polls are often wrong.: Well, if you only look at what happened in New Hampshire, yes. If you look at the entire campaign, though, the polls (at least in the aggregate) have been pretty accurate.

Howard Kurtz: Not exactly. I don't recall the polls, for example, showing that Obama was heading for a huge blowout in South Carolina. But it goes beyond that. Mike Huckabee was nowhere in the polls (and the news coverage) for a long time because he was a little-known ex-governor. Rudy Giuliani led the GOP polls for most of 2007 because he was a national figure after Sept. 11. Which won wound up winning Iowa and a bunch of other primaries, and which was was totally shut out? Fred Thompson got huge coverage as he flirted his way into the race because polls showed him as high as second. Then he totally flamed out. Those are just a couple of examples of how polls can drive news coverage in the wrong direction.


Katie, A Reporter?: Howard, you have to admit that Katie Couric didn't have a long, distinguished career as a beat reporter -- she had a cup of coffee at the Pentagon, and then was whirled into the "Today" set to co-host. Surely you can't compare Couric to a Candy Crowley or a Judy Woodruff. It had to be annoying to some of them that the gummy-grin morning-show host got the nod.

Howard Kurtz: The only one of the current three anchors who had a long, distinguished career as a beat reporter is Charlie Gibson, who covered the House for eight years. But he got the job on the strength of his 19 years at "Good Morning America." Brian Williams did a fine job as a White House correspondent for a couple of years -- about as long as Katie covered the Pentagon -- before becoming an MSNBC anchor, which put him in line as Tom Brokaw's successor. Brokaw also spent several years as a Today co-host, just like Couric, before taking over Nightly News. The fact remains that the people who tend to get the top anchoring jobs are those with lots of anchoring experience.


Bethesda, Md.: Howie, whatever happened to "Tucker" on MSNBC? Did he quit, or was he pushed out?

Howard Kurtz: "Tucker," the show, is no more. MSNBC pulled the plug a couple of weeks ago and replaced it with a David Gregory show. Tucker Carlson, the person, is still visible at MSNBC and has the title of senior campaign correspondent, or something like that.


Looking in the mirror: Howard, on your tour of the Newseum, to me the telling fact would be how big the sections devoted to the 2000 election and to the run up to the Iraq war in 2002 are. Are the slip-shod journalism and the journalists who aided and abetted these travesties given as much coverage as when the mainstream media wants people to view the Sept. 11 section or the Katrina coverage?

Howard Kurtz: There are a few headlines from the 2000 election that turned out to be wrong. There is no exhibit on the run-up to the Iraq war. As I mentioned, the likes of Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass each get a paragraph. Clearly, the Newseum missed an opportunity to devote much space or attention to journalistic failures and shortcomings. Instead, the building paints journalists in an overwhelmingly positive light.


Baltimore: Before the Democratic primaries got started, the press for the most part was fearless in its prognostication that Hillary would trounce everyone. Then Obama "surprised" everyone in Iowa, and Clinton "surprised" everyone in New Hampshire. After that (I hate generalizing, but what the heck) the political commentators pretty much refuse to speculate about the race and won't call it over, even though there is virtually no way that Clinton can capture the nomination. They just keep saying, "Well, anything can happen."

What bothers me is they were fine speculating when they had no data and no voters had actually started voting -- they were very sure of themselves. Now, with a lot of evidence, data, and results, they don't care to speculate. Isn't that kind of backwards? Also, do you think the way this race has played out will change the way primary season is covered in any substantial way next time?

Howard Kurtz: Pretty much refused to speculate? I must be living on another planet. To me, the speculation continued unabated -- maybe slightly more caution about forecasting outcomes -- and continues with all these Hillary-can't-win-and-why-doesn't-she-get-out segments.


Frederick, Md.: Now with the surging of the Internet, what is your best guess about how long The Post will publish a print version?

Howard Kurtz: At least till the end of the year.


Long Island, N.Y.: The drumbeat for McCain's medical records and a meeting with his doctors is fair only if the press is demanding a meeting with Obama's doctors and his medical records. As a lifelong and current smoker, with a mother who died very young from multiple cancers, why not the same scrutiny? It seems the media will not put forth anything that would harm Obama's image (a cigarette in the mouth would).

Howard Kurtz: Gee, I must be going deaf, because I haven't heard this drumbeat.

As we get into the fall, there will be media pressure on both nominees to release their medical records and be subjected to the quadrennial New York Times piece by Dr. Lawrence Altman. If anyone refuses, that's when you'll hear a drumbeat. Of course there is more concern for the health of a 71-year-old candidate who's had a bout with cancer than one who is 46, but there's got to be a level playing field.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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