Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 21, 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


Hell's Kitchen, N.Y.: It was enlightening to read your story today about the manipulation of the media and American people by the administration. It always seemed fairly obvious to me that some of these "military experts" actually were Pentagon shills, but even I was surprised at the extent of the "program." Basically a huge confidence trick has been played on Americans and the media -- which is either very stupid, or maybe just looked the other way. By the way, have you checked through The Washington Post's archives to see just how many quotes and opinions by these same shills made it into The Post?

Howard Kurtz: I did check yesterday and found that none of the retired officers I mentioned had written anything for The Post, with the exception of one piece by William Cohen on the challenges facing Robert Gates. But a colleague this morning told me that some of them have been quoted in news stories repeatedly. That's hardly surprising - they are former military leaders, after all - and if they're one voice in a piece with many points of view I don't have a huge problem with it. I do think we fall into the same trap as other media outlets in not mentioning that these folks also work for defense contractors or are pursuing military contracts themselves. I don't think we had any way of knowing that some of them were getting written talking points from the Pentagon, but frankly I figured -- and most readers probably figured -- that they remained close to their former colleagues.


Anchorage, Alaska: Was AP's Singleton mistake really all that "honest"? Aren't some of Singleton's papers anti-Obama, pro-Hillary or pro-McCain? And he seemed to give the standard nonapology apology -- if I said that, I'm sorry. This seemed to be one petty story the press has let go of pretty quickly. Oh yeah, that's right -- because the guy involved is a big media baron, does the free pass get handed more freely? For Obama and McCain, the Bitter and the Sweet (Post, April )

Howard Kurtz: Come on -- who would want to stand before an audience and refer to OBAMA bin Laden, and be corrected by the senator? The idea that it was intentional is just silly.


Ocala, Fla.: Can ABC continue credibly to employ Torie Clarke as a consultant/commentator after it was revealed by the New York Times article that she essentially masterminded a scheme to plant moles in the various media entities? Spinning the message in front of the media is one thing, but she was embedding happy talkers with the media. Shame on the networks for not holding their "experts" to higher standards.

Howard Kurtz:"Masterminded a scheme to plant moles" is not what the article said. During the run-up to the Iraq war and especially afterward, all the networks rushed to hire former military types as commentators. When you hire a guy who spent his life in the service and rose to the rank of general, you are not expecting to get an anti-military critic. What the Pentagon did, as shown in these internal documents, was to stay in close touch with these alumni, have them over for briefings by Rummy and other top officials, and arrange trips to Iraq and Gitmo. The degree of cooperation is surely troubling for some of these men who are putting themselves out there as independent experts.


Princeton, N.J.: Ignoring the perfidy of the generals involved, but just looking at the shoddy, incompetent performance of the TV media, why isn't the lying generals story receiving more coverage? Why aren't the candidates and other politicians being asked about it? After all, it is precisely the job of media to get expert opinion to the public that is not propaganda and not compromised by conflict of interest. How can anyone ever hear an "expert" on TV again and trust them?

Howard Kurtz: I think "lying" goes a bit far for most of them who were naturally inclined to be Pentagon cheerleaders. But there were a couple who admitted that they had private doubts about how the war effort was going early on, even as they continued to offer upbeat assessments on the tube. In a larger sense, you should be wary of all "experts" you see on TV. Legal commentators often reflect the viewpoint of either former prosecutors or defense lawyers. Former athletes are usually pretty soft on those still playing the game. Political analysts, shockingly enough, frequently side with their team, depending on whether they came out of Republican or Democratic politics. And military men tend to be pro-Pentagon.


Arlington, Va.: I believe studying the connections between military pundits and the Pentagon is interesting, but maybe incomplete. You show Gen. Barry McCaffrey; he hasn't exactly been a cheerleader for Bush. Some military experts used by the networks even endorsed John Kerry. So there might be an excessive amount of assuming here without poring over transcripts. You cannot doubt that even the military experts have been largely negative in the last four years, right?

Howard Kurtz: I don't doubt the independence of Barry McCaffrey (who was cited as an example of someone who is also pursuing business in the national security/military area). And yes, some of the ex-generals broke with Rumsfeld or endorsed Kerry (one was dropped by CBS for taking sides). But I well remember (and transcripts back up) how supportive most of these retired officers were of the war effort, especially in its first three years. They remained optimistic, by and large, even as the situation continued to deteriorate.


Arlington, Va.: The article yesterday about John McCain's temper was angrily refuted by someone in his campaign who maintained that a lot of the information in the story was incorrect. How does The Post go about dealing with the denials -- another story, a retraction, or just ignoring it and waiting for the Ombudsman to deal with it?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know who you're referring to. But Mark Salter, McCain's longtime aide, was quoted extensively in the piece, as well as McCain's own writing on the subject of his temper. And every incident cited, as I recall, was supported by a first-hand account of someone involved. That doesn't mean the piece was perfect or deserved that kind of prominence, but it does appear there was a major effort to nail down the details.


New York: Howie -- thanks for taking my question. Do you feel George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson deserve the criticism they are getting? Seems to me that that they do, because they created a dynamic that did not allow for enough debate on the real issues, and have interfered in the campaign process. I am an Obama supporter but I have felt that the media (particularly MSNBC) have been completely biased against Hillary. The net effect of all of this is to force the campaign to be driven by the media and not by the candidates. Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: As I've written, I thought the first 40 minutes of that debate was totally unbalanced against Obama. That is really beyond dispute; the response of Stephanopoulos and others at ABC is, well, he's the front-runner.

But I don't buy into the notion that the "real issues" weren't discussed. First, the second two-thirds of the debate dealt with Iraq, Israel, taxes, gun control and affirmative action, among other subjects. Second, the early inquisition on Jeremiah Wright and the "bitter" remarks -- and Hillary's nonexistent Bosnia sniper fire -- are subjects that dominated the campaign coverage for weeks, and help shed light on the elusive question of character. I absolutely could have done without the flag pin question, especially since ABC used a woman who had told the New York Times that she could not support Obama because he didn't wear a flag pin.


Woodbridge, Va.: I think the real story regarding the military analysts is that all of these men have day jobs as executives or lobbyists for defense contractors. If they didn't parrot the Pentagon's spin, they would risk losing their inside connections to billions in contracts.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think "all," but clearly many. And one guy acknowledged to the Times that he was worried he would lose his military contracts if he took on the Pentagon. Retired colonel Bill Cowan, a Fox analyst, confirmed to me that he was "booted out" of a group receiving regular briefings from Don Rumsfeld and other top officials when he dared to say in 2006 that things weren't going well in Iraq.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon! Caught you on CNN yesterday. I don't watch that much at all, but I was interested in what you guys would say about the debate. I have to say, it seemed like you were up there just defending the media. I don't think you understood the issue. The issue (to most people, anyway) was not Gibson and Stephanopoulos going after Obama, it was them going after Obama on trivia. John Aravosis had it right ... there were tough yet substantive questions to ask Obama. Why did you accept the "horse race" frame for that issue, rather than the "media critic" frame?

Howard Kurtz: Here was my first question on "Reliable Sources":

"The first 45 minutes of that debate was strikingly unbalanced against Obama. But was it unfair?"

As I just said, I disagree that the issues Obama was pressed on were "trivial" (except for the flag-pin silliness). But there is simply no question that ABC gave Obama a harder time than Clinton, and that was very much the focus of our discussion.


Floris, Va.: So, have you gone back to your sources and asked them why they are right and Les Moonves is wrong? And if Katie Couric is still there after the election, will you still use them as sources, or maybe reveal their names?

Howard Kurtz: What I reported from sources about Katie Couric's situation and what Les Moonves said at a staff meeting on Friday are not in conflict at all. I originally reported that both CBS executives and Katie now consider it likely that she will leave the anchor chair after the election, but that could change if her ratings improve and no final decision had been made. What I reported on Saturday is that Moonves, faced with an apparently lame-duck anchor, gave her a vote of confidence, but that has not changed the fact that she is likely to relinquish the job after the election. Moonves put no time frame on his "Katie's-our-anchor" remarks. And no one from CBS is challenging the stories.


Columbia, Md.: As the news media critic at The Washington Post, I suppose you will be able to tell everyone what exactly was newsworthy in the "article" about McCain's "temper" that warranted above-the-fold front page treatment yesterday. Even Obama's "bitter" comments only made page four. McCain: A Question of Temperament (Post, April 20)

Howard Kurtz: I thought it was a bit overplayed, given that it's not exactly a new issue, but it was an extensive piece of enterprise reporting that goes to the question of how John McCain handles himself. And I learned some things from it.


Austin, Texas: Your analysis of ABC's debate is completely out of whack. The issues don't remain stable -- in fact, the questions that arose this week are fundamental. What do the candidates think about the torture issue, which arose when Bush said that he had approved "hard" interrogations? With food riots erupting around the world, should we make fundamental changes in our food policy? How should we regulate the financial industry, given the collapse in that industry and the Fed's apparent determination to give the banks easy loans and arrange mergers between investment banks (which are uninsured by the government)? What are we going to do about the $500 billion deficit?

You press people are out to lunch. Bored, petulant, overpaid, purveyors of trivia, and incredibly narrow and egotistical when defending yourselves, in denial about the conflict of interest between your ownership and your supposed objectivity, always willing to portray yourselves -- the $6 million-a-year TV newsman, the millionaire columnist -- as blue-collar, as if you have a single clue. The excellent reason circulation is dropping on newspapers and audiences are dwindling for TV news is the product is terrible. Performance By ABC's Moderators Is a Matter Of Debate (Post, April 18)

Howard Kurtz: On behalf of the "bored, petulant, overpaid, purveyors of trivia," I think you're overstating things just a tad. In every debate I could point to questions that weren't asked -- what, nothing on global warming? -- but foreign policy, taxes, gun control and affirmative action aren't trivial. (Anchors also try to avoid repeating questions that have been asked repeatedly at the first 20 debates.

As for the conflict caused by ownership, sorry, I'm not convinced. Were Charlie and George somehow carrying Disney's water? Did Brian Williams and Tim Russert carry out GE's agenda with their debate questions? Do I get talking points from the Graham family? There have certainly been instances of problems involving corporate ownership, which I've written about, but by and large, for all their flaws, these organizations have independent newsrooms.


San Francisco: Regarding the story about McCain's temper, in what ways did you find it imperfect or deserving of lesser prominence? Some of us have been waiting a long time for The Post to cover the Arizona Senator's temper, and other well-sourced examples were omitted from this article.

Howard Kurtz: I thought it was a fair and solid story. I'm just saying some of this ground has been plowed before, during the 2000 campaign and since then.


Washington: MSNBC has a "Green Is Universal" logo on its screen today during interviews. Have all the networks decided that being "green" is utterly apolitical now? I see even Fox is saying "Green It and Mean It" during "American Idol." Isn't the "moral weight" of Al Gore's argument taking over across the dial?

Howard Kurtz: I'm all for going green, but there are differing viewpoints on the subject, including how we should get there and what the costs and benefits are, and I think news outlets should stay away from sloganeering that makes them seem on one side or the other.


Winter Park, Fla.: I thought it very telling that one of your guests early in the show yesterday complained about the questions Obama got at the most recent debate, instead of focusing on the answers he gave (or did not give, as the case may be), which was pointed out by one of your other guests. There was a rabid-devotee quality to that first guest that is much more similar to what I am used to seeing from the pundits and talking heads on Fox and MSNBC than on CNN. Also, why do you think Chris Wallace is so hostile when he interviews Democrats and so friendly when he interviews Republicans?

Howard Kurtz: If you're referring to John Aravosis, he was on as a liberal blogger, balanced by Jim Geraghty of National Review, with former network correspondent and now George Washington University faculty member Mark Feldstein as a journalism veteran who is not pushing an ideology. But we focused on the ABC questions because that is the way I framed the discussion on a show dedicated to examining the media. Let a thousand other shows debate how Hillary and Obama did; our job was to examine whether ABC News was fair.


Palo Alto, Calif.: Kurtz: "What the Pentagon did, as shown in these internal documents, was to stay in close touch with these alumni, have them over for briefings by Rummy and other top officials, and arrange trips to Iraq and Gitmo." Wow. Talk about spin. "stay in close touch"? That's priceless. Did we read the same article? This was a program of "MindWar" conceived by the Pentagon to propagandize the American people. It was Goebbels to the max. And it worked.

Howard Kurtz: I've laid out the facts, talked to the people involved and criticized the program. Readers are smart enough to figure out what was going on. I don't have to throw out Nazi references.


Cambridge, Mass.: Do you think heavy criticism of the sort that ABC received after the debate has any effect on a network's bottom line? Do executives get concerned about this sort of thing?

Howard Kurtz: Television executives worry about everything, but I don't see the criticism of one debate, however strong, having a financial impact on a huge company like ABC. I do give ABC News credit for acknowledging the criticism on "World News" in a report that quoted some of the negative messages the network has been receiving, including "Shame on you, Charlie and George."


Washington: I had to tune in to ABC's "This Week" to see how Stephanopoulos would handle the debate controversy. He acknowledged it, but lo and behold, Sam and Cokie defended their network and their friends. What a surprise! While I agree with Donaldson's analysis that the Obama supporters are blaming the questioners mainly because the senator did not provide good answers, I find it very annoying to sit and watch the media elites tut-tut their critics.

Even reading this chat, sometimes I feel that those in the mainstream media are more likely to pile on with stories about the controversy and criticize others rather than themselves -- which is not surprising because it's plain old human nature to want to circle the wagons when besieged and give responses like "perhaps we could have done X differently."

I for one was annoyed not just with the questions, but the commercial breaks, the cuts to Chelsea, the Constitutional quotes that had nothing to do with the questions, and then using video of Pennsylvania voters to pose some of the "inartfully" worded questions. Imagine if Katie Couric had done what Gibson and Stephanopoulos did, by the way!

Howard Kurtz: Well, I'll say this--George Stephanopoulos got on the phone with me the next morning and was willing to answer questions about the debate, rather than hiding behind spokesmen or official statements. He probably should have had a critic on his show, however. As for commercials, I don't object to ABC paying some bills while providing two hours of precious prime time for the debate.


Potomac, Md.: I have this great new HDTV and our local cable company just added CNN HD to our system. I was looking forward to seeing your show on Sunday is stunning High Definition, yet was disappointed to only find it in standard Definition with bars on the sides. The only other show I watch on CNN is Lou Dobbs, and he is in high definition -- why isn't your show? Who do we have to talk to at CNN to make sure they upgrade your show to high definition in the near future? The best shows on CNN should get the best video!

Howard Kurtz: I will get on it right away! Although even my substantial makeup may not do enough to hide my flaws in high def.


Washington: Howard, your answer about Aravosis jogged my memory about a question I meant to ask you. Why, on the topic of the ABC debate, do you even find it necessary to get reaction from Laura Ingraham or other sources on the right? I understand a desire to balance your story, but wouldn't you be better served by getting a Hillary supporter and an Obama supporter and a neutral media critic? What do I really gain from knowing how a partisan on the other side viewed the debate -- won't they just be trying to paint it in the most partisan light possible?

Howard Kurtz: Simple: I believe in getting all points of view. I don't exclude conservatives just because it's a Democratic primary, just as I don't exclude liberals when writing about the media's coverage of the Republican race.


New York: You wrote negatively today about "the lack of disclosure by the networks of some of these government and business connections." So does that criticism extend to Fox News for continuing to refuse to label Karl Rove as an advisor to the McCain campaign when he appears on their network?

Howard Kurtz: I've asked Rove about this, and he insists he is not even an informal adviser to McCain, does not get on strategy calls, etc. He is, however, a maxed-out donor to McCain, and Fox should mention that when he's on. Same goes for other political analysts on all the networks who've given money to any of the candidates.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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