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Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, April 15, 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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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. Let me talk about a hypothetical situation: A candidate wants the media to start discussing a particular issue about his/her opponent, but the candidate doesn't want to be the person making the charge directly. The candidate wants a "background" story, like the recent Politico piece about how the Clintons view the Obama campaign.

What is the process for that? Does the candidate farm it out to the media relations team, and they contact a likely media person? Does the candidate instead use an unpaid surrogate? Finally, what are the journalistic ethics at play here ... I mean, the story is going to be juicy, but at the same time the journalist pretty plainly is being used as a stenographer.

Howard Kurtz: You seem to view it as a one-sided transaction. Keep in mind that reporters and columnists are calling the campaigns every day, trolling for information, news and leaks. There are times, obviously, when campaign operatives try to put something out, but it's just as likely that they're responding to questions from journalists seeking to write about such-and-such a subject. And in Hillary's case, why she's staying in the race--which very much turns on her view of Obama's candidacy--has been Topic A for weeks now.

It would be nice, of course, if journalists felt some responsibility to get at least some of their sources to go on the record when denigrating an opposing candidate.

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Philadelphia: Molehill Politics -- that's as good a description as any for most media coverage of the the "utterances" of the candidates. At any rate, it's better than "job creation scheme by the media" -- a little less insulting, don't you think?

Howard Kurtz: We do have a tendency to blow things out of proportion, especially through the relentless megaphone of cable news. But it's a hard-fought campaign, these are Obama's own words, and Hillary and McCain have jumped all over him for those comments. So it's not like we dug up something that happened to him in high school. It is true, though, that the seven weeks between primaries have led to a whole lot of minor issues getting more than their allotted 15 minutes.

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Washington: Howard, I have been watching with some interest as the television media gleefully hypes the Obama statement about his thoughts about what motivates voters in small towns. Not surprisingly, the media short-shrifts the statements, and rather than discuss the merits of what Obama says, focuses solely on the word, "bitter." Thus, the media blows a chance to have a serious discussion about the way voters are manipulated by wedge issues, and instead contributes to the manipulation by framing what Obama said in a one-word sound bite. Do you wonder why so many of us are so disgusted by the major media?

Howard Kurtz: I do think that *some* of the commentary, in print, on the air and online, has attempted to grapple seriously with the issues and attitudes of economically distressed working-class folks. But I'd agree that has been drowned out by the ideological debate over whether this represents the "real" Obama and the political chatter about what this means for his candidacy. A few journalists, at least, have actually gone to the trouble of asking small-town Pennsylvania voters what they think, which is at least a move in the right direction.

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Louisville, Colo.: Interesting sentence from your column yesterday: "What are the ethics, by the way, of being an Obama donor -- which is how Fowler got into the closed event -- and surreptitiously taping the speaker?" Is this somehow different from telling a reporter what was seen and heard? I don't understand the distinction you were making unless attendees specifically agreed not to record or repeat what Obama said at the event.

washingtonpost.com: Sounding Bitter (Post, April 15)

Howard Kurtz: The Obama campaign says the fundraiser was off the record. Blogger Mayhill Fowler was allowed in because she has a maxed-out Obama donor. The campaign is angry that she then used her donor status to function like a journalist--tape Obama's remarks and write about them. I think anytime a presidential candidate addresses a roomful of people he should assume that what he says will leak out, even if traditional reporters are excluded. But it does raise an interesting question about what this particular blogger did.

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Chicago: Wanted to get your thought on Katie Couric's apparent problems over at CBS. A lot of the attention is on her, but isn't it the case that there is something wrong with the CBS News "brand"? To put it another way, I almost never choose CBS over ABC or NBC -- but I am not sure why. I don't think it's just the anchors; in part, I think it's because I don't think I know the reporters as well as ABC's or NBC's.

Likewise, of the three Sunday morning hosts (Russert, Stephanopoulos and Schieffer), Schieffer is probably my favorite ... but, I rarely choose his show either if they are all on at the same time. Again, something about CBS itself, I think. ... How much of a broadcast's success/failure is attributable to the anchor, how much to the reporters and how much to the overall network?

washingtonpost.com: Tough Question For CBS: Who'll Follow Couric? (Post, April 11)

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure there's anything wrong with the CBS "brand." Why people watch one newscast or Sunday show is a bit of a mystery, but surely the role of the anchor or host is huge. That person is not just the face of the broadcast but helps shape its content, along with the correspondents and producers. If Brian Williams took over the "CBS Evening News" tomorrow, would many of his fans refuse to watch because they don't like CBS? When David Brinkley left NBC after decades and started a Sunday show on ABC, the ratings soared. I don't mean to minimize the importance of news divisions, but CBS executives spent $15 million a year on Katie precisely because they thought she could single-handedly lift the newscast out of its third-place hole. So far, that gamble has failed.

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Philadelphia: How can we trust the press when McCain and Obama got very different reactions yesterday at the Newspaper Editors forum yesterday? They give McCain some donuts, and Obama has Associated Press Chairman Dean Singleton refer to him as Obama bin Laden. Kinda puts a lie to Bill O'Reilly claiming the media is liberal, doesn't it?

Howard Kurtz: The editors did give McCain a box of doughnuts--as a joke, since that's what he always served on the Straight Talk Express. (McCain took the daring step of dropping the donuts when his campaign ran into financial trouble.) And Dean Singleton, who owns a newspaper chain, made an embarrassing error by referring -- in a question to Obama! -- to Obama bin Laden, and immediately apologized. I don't think I would read anything into these incidents.

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Burke, Va.: Is the author of the retracted Los Angeles Times story about Tupac still working and writing for the paper? Has he been punished? What about the editors who signed off on this story?

Howard Kurtz: As I wrote yesterday, Russ Stanton, the editor of the Los Angeles Times, has refused to respond to my repeated requests for an interview. Editor & Publisher did grab him at the newspaper editors' conference, and Stanton said that Chuck Philips, the reporter on the Tupac story (and a Pulitzer winner, by the way), is still at the paper and they are trying to figure out what he should do next. Stanton was not asked about any disciplinary action.

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Baltimore: Frankly, considering the way the 24/7 news has covered some aspects of this campaign, I'm surprised the media hasn't made a bigger deal out of the fact that Hillary drank a shot of Canadian whiskey when she could have chosen any number of good ol' American Tennessee whiskeys or Kentucky bourbons.

Howard Kurtz: Jon Stewart went haywire over it.

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Kettering, Ohio: G'afternoon Howard! I was amused by Fox News on Sunday. Although I think they make a strong effort to be fair and balanced, as they like to say, they tarred themselves with the same brush they give the mainstream media. They trotted out someone to talk about how the media would negatively portray the Pope's visit and cited a Post article from the Sunday edition. Then, before the day was out, they put on their own story that could be perceived as a negative story on the supposedly dysfunctional flock in the U.S. Maybe they are fair and balanced after all?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the segment, but I can't fathom how an extensive piece about the views of Catholics in America could be portrayed as negative coverage of the Pope's visit, if that is what happened.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: In an article in today's Post, Keith Richburg states that the c-word is "every bit" as racist to Asians as the n-word is to blacks. How does a reporter determine that fact? No support is given in his article, so it appears to be more his opinion than an objection statement.

washingtonpost.com: Asian Groups Fight to Change Eatery's Name (Post, April 15)

Howard Kurtz: Uh -- by quoting people about Chink's restaurant?

"It's definitely a derogatory term," said Ginny Gong, national president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, one of several groups pressing for the restaurant to change its name. ". . . Maybe there is this feeling that Asian Americans will not express some degree of outrage. But we are outraged that there is this comfort level."

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Bronx, N.Y.: This just in: It turns out that three of Cindy McCain's "down-home" recipes were cribbed from The Food Channel! Interrupt all cable coverage, we're going wire-to-wire with this one! Can you figure out a way for the political coverage this year to get any stupider and more pointless? I think that the voters are more and more tuning out this nonsense. What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: Clearly, this requires a seven-part investigative series.

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Springfield, Va.: Now that McCain supports the Federal shield law, what are it's chances of passage? Would it cover bloggers, or just mainstream print, radio and TV journalists?

Howard Kurtz: Well, its chances are slim under President Bush. Not all bloggers would be covered. There is some language in there, as I recall, about including bloggers who regularly write for an established site, or something along those lines.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Howard -- thank you for your insights and for taking my question. I'm sure you're going to get this question a lot today, but it does seem tailor-made for you: What's keeping the Obama "bitter" story going? Is it the candidates? The media? While some people are offended, there also seems to be some evidence that, while he could have said it a lot better, many recognize the truth in his statement and wish the campaign would get back to more important issues -- like the economy, the war -- that people really care about, given how bad things are right now. What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: The media are clearly feasting on it, and the near-constant attacks from Clinton and McCain haven't hurt, either. Most journalists, I believe, know what Obama was clumsily trying to say--that economically distressed voters can be distracted from government's failures by other issues. But he said it badly, and as Obama, a master rhetorician, surely understands, words matter. Conservatives, meanwhile, are arguing that this reveals the "true" Obama. Is this flap the most important issue facing the republic? Of course not. But it erupted just before a handful of primaries that may well determine whether Obama can sew up the nomination.

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New York: I read your story about Katie Couric last week. When do you realistically expect her to be gone from the news program?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. My sources said it would be after the election or the inauguration, if her ratings don't improve significantly by then. There's been some chatter that she's now a lame duck and might leave sooner. But that would require two things: CBS lining up a successor and figuring out what to do with Katie, who would continue to get paid under her lucrative contract.

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Bethesda, Md.: Howard, why in your opinion is today's story about the outrageous expense account of the former Smithsonian official played on the front of Style, as opposed to A1 or Metro front? I fear this type of waste does not get treated as seriously by the reader when it's in the "features" section.

washingtonpost.com: Smithsonian Official Resigned In Wake of Ethics Probe (Post, April 15)

Howard Kurtz: But we don't view the Style section that way. Style carries all kinds of important news stories about entertainment, the arts and the media. (For instance, Style carried my stories about the Los Angeles Times publishing fake FBI documents and the tentative plan for Katie Couric to leave the CBS anchor chair. For that matter, I broke the Jayson Blair story in the Style section.) I could easily see the Smithsonian resignation having been on Page 1, but it wasn't in any sense "relegated" to Style.

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Re: Donuts for McCain: Don't forget that it's not just the donuts. There is a growing sentiment among those on the left that journalists have become just a tad bit too cozy with McCain. Things like the BBQ at McCain's house, the jokey gift of donuts and the standing ovation McCain received all help to reinforce that.

Howard Kurtz: Fair enough, and I regularly write about that subject. I just don't think a jokey gift and a verbal stumble at an AP luncheon proves anything.

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Vienna, Va.: From your column yesterday: "And yet, most people (and most journalists) know what he was trying to say. Not that small-towners are gun nuts. Or religious nuts, not from a regular churchgoer. Obama was trying to say that these folks voted on social issues, distracting wedge issues, when their real problem was economic. As he said a moment earlier, their areas have been losing jobs for 25 years, and "they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration."

Well, when you're imprecise in politics, you pay a price. Obama has played that game with John McCain's "100 years" comment. So it's little surprise that Hillary Clinton and McCain went after him, hard. But I do think journalists should try to paint a full picture here."

Almost none of the reporting or commentating I've seen has tried to give that full picture. In fact, most have totally misrepresented his comments to suit their own agenda. How can I not walk away from this without thinking the media would rather promote controversy and extend this race for their own benefit than provide something resembling journalism?

Howard Kurtz: I agree that when you're imprecise in politics, you pay a price. That's why it's a legitimate issue. When McCain spoke of staying in Iraq for 100 years, Obama wasn't reticent to jump on that as if McCain wanted to keep the war going all that time, as opposed to saying the U.S. could keep a military presence there as in South Korea or Europe. As for journalistic "agendas," I see plenty of evidence of that among the columnists and commentators -- less so among the reporters, except that by writing about it day after day they (and their editors) are obviously making a statement.

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"The Midwest" (home of religion, guns, etc.): A completely nonquantifiable comment on my part, but it does seem to me (from looking at the blogs over the past few days), that there has been more of a deliberate attempt by columnists to try to step in and explain "what Sen. Obama meant," as opposed to "what Sen. Clinton meant" when she spoke about LBJ/JFK, or when G. Ferraro said what she said, or the multiple times Bill Clinton has said something that caused a stir. Maybe Obama's are more justifiable? I am not sure. ... Still, I see more writers going out of there way to lend him a hand than I have seen in those other circumstances. What do you see?

Howard Kurtz: I see writers sympathetic to Obama trying to minimize the comments and writers hostile to Obama saying that his true feelings have finally been exposed. If there were fewer liberal columnists explaining what Hillary meant in various controversies, that may well be because most of the liberal columnists (and liberal Web sites, especially) are pro-Obama.

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Baton Rouge, La.:"Howard Kurtz: But we don't view the Style section that way. Style carries all kinds of important news stories about entertainment, the arts and the media. (For instance, Style carried my stories about the Los Angeles Times publishing fake FBI documents and the tentative plan for Katie Couric to leave the CBS anchor chair. For that matter, I broke the Jayson Blair story in the Style section.) I could easily see the Smithsonian resignation having been on Page 1, but it wasn't in any sense 'relegated' to Style."

I'll be sure to remember this the next time Robin Givhan writes about Hillary's cleavage and you try to downplay it by saying "oh, it was just an article in the Style section."

Howard Kurtz: Sorry to spoil your theory, but I never said that. If something's in The Washington Post, even in a fashion column or sports column or whatever, the paper is giving it The Post's imprimatur and has to take responsibility for it.

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Chicago: This is complete speculation, but how do you think the past six weeks or so might have been different if there had been more debates during this time? For example, this week's ABC debate will be the first one since the Rev. Wright flap began ... what if Sen. Obama had had to deal with a debate as that situation was unfolding?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know how many more debates the American public could have endured.

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Midlothian, Va.: What I think is most damaging about the Obama comments about "small town voters" is not that he made them ... it's that he made those comments to a bunch of rich San Francisco liberals in an ostensibly "private" setting -- e.g. "just between you and me, this is what's wrong with those people." Who likes finding out that someone is talking about you behind your back? Who likes being psychoanalyzed without your consent? I think that it has highlighted a particularly two-faced aspect of Obama's character, and he can't spin out of it fast enough.

Howard Kurtz: I agree that the San Francisco setting, with affluent donors, gave it more sting than if he'd said it in a beer hall in Altoona.

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New York: Howard, how long before the public gets tired of these gaffe stories? I mean, they seem to be happening on a weekly basis, and there's really no high road here. Today I heard that a Kentucky congressman referred to Obama as a "boy" ... so here we go again. Do you sense at all any public fatigue (like mine) with this coverage? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: A member of Congress should know better than to refer to an African-American presidential candidate as "boy," period. But it hasn't exactly been a huge story.

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Minneapolis: The media storm (swarm? kerfuffle?) over Obama's "bitter" comments has been a bit over-the-top, no? I mean, it's no doubt that what Obama said was awkward and has the potential to offend, but it seemed to me that, rather than get feedback from the very people Obama was discussing, the media just basically polled itself and high-profile supporters of both candidates. Does anyone doubt that the various Pennsylvania mayors who have endorsed Clinton are going to say that the comments were horrible? Or that those supporting Obama will say there was nothing wrong with them?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, but that's politics. When Hillary admitted the Bosnia sniper fire had been nonexistent, lots of Obama supporters got to weigh in, along with her defenders (including Bill, who mangled the defense and revived the story). As I mentioned, a few reporters have actually interviewed people in Pennsylvania about what they think, and reaction, not surprisingly, was mixed.

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Washington: Your profile of Fox News Channel anchor Megyn Kelly in Monday's paper was notably devoid of any reference to journalistic achievement. Has she accomplished anything other than combining Fox News Channel chief Roger Ailes's two favored prototypes for on-air talent -- blonde eye candy and right-wing blowhard? Just what about her merited a profile of such length?

washingtonpost.com: Megyn Kelly, Fox News's Fast-Rising Anchor (Post, April 14)

Howard Kurtz: The fact that a lawyer begging a Washington TV station for part-time work could become a successful cable anchor in four years is what caught my eye. I don't think it's fair to call Megyn Kelly a right-wing blowhard; as I pointed out, she mostly keeps her opinions out of her programs, except on the legal segments she hosts. Brit Hume acknowledged that both her looks and her view of the media as being liberally biased were factors in her hiring, and I made that clear.

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Phoenixville, Pa.: Has Hillary Clinton agreed to participate in Chris Matthews's "College Tour," as Sens. Obama and McCain have? If not, is there something she's afraid of being asked by Matthews or one of the students in the audience?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's fair to say that Hillary Clinton is not one of Chris Matthews' biggest fans. You'll recall, I'm sure, that he apologized for saying that she owes her entire political career to the fact that her husband "messed around." She made fun of Matthews when he tried to interrogate her at a New Hampshire campaign stop, and he responded by pinching his cheek. I wouldn't hold my breath about Hillary playing hardball.

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Franconia, Va.: I was surprised by the Politico piece along the lines of "what the Clintons would really like to say, but don't dare." Surely the Clintons (or their friends) said absolutely all of this to the reporter, assuming it was accurately reported. So what's all this about not "daring" to do what they just did? It's not exactly concealing your source to report on what a leading candidate is "secretly" thinking. This seems like a time when there's no journalistic rationale to run quotes from an anonymous source. It is pure, 100 percent spin, and the exact opposite of the whistleblower scenario that justifies anonymous sourcing. Do you agree?

washingtonpost.com: What Clinton Wishes She Could Say (Politico, April 13)

Howard Kurtz: I agree that it's heavily spin, and I don't think Politico pretended otherwise. But the way it should have been framed is, "Here is what the Clinton people would like to say about Obama, but they don't have the guts to say it with their names attached, so we'll retail it for them while protecting their identities." Too much political reporting goes down that road. I understand granting anonymity to allow campaign aides to speak candidly about their own boss, where there could be repercussions. I don't think journalists should grant anonymity so campaign aides can trash a rival candidate, which is what they're paid to do.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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