Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 28, 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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Washington: What did you think of the Post's article this morning about new/young teachers with racy or silly MySpace and Facebook pages? I was surprised to see individuals identified by name in the article -- I'm not sure adding the names and naming their employers gave me any additional insight, but it very well may cause the teacher's to fear for their jobs.

washingtonpost.com: When Young Teachers Go Wild on the Web (Post, April 28)

Howard Kurtz: I thought about whether I would have named any of the teachers involved. But the paper did interview those who were cited and gave them a chance to respond. None of them sounded terribly concerned. You can't really do a story like that without examples. Maybe the piece will prompt other teachers to be more cautious about Facebook and MySpace and save them from future trouble.

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Baltimore: Howard - Last week we heard and read constant distress in the media about the fact that 65 percent of white voters voted for Hillary in Pennsylvania. There was nonstop hand-wringing about the fact that this showed a severe racial divide and proved underlying racism. But there was none of the same concern -- and bare mention -- of the fact that 92 percent of blacks voted against a white candidate. Double standard in the media?

Howard Kurtz: I must not be reading the same accounts. None of the many pieces I saw blamed the voting patterns on racism (though there was the perfectly legitimate discussion on whether race is a minor factor that is hurting Obama). Instead, the focus is very much on why Barack Obama is having trouble winning white working-class voters (hence today's Newsweek cover on "Obama's Bubba Gap"). I've seen a couple of references to Hillary failing to hold Obama's black vote below 90 percent.

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Alexandria, Va.: So, what was Craig Ferguson's best line at the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday?

washingtonpost.com: Star Power Lights Up Correspondents' Dinner (Post, April 27)

Howard Kurtz: Maybe the alleged sexual tension in the slugfest between O'Reilly and Olbermann?

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The popular vote myth: Howard: Why have most media people bought the Clinton contention that the popular vote has some relevance in the current process? There are simple points of fact that show this to be not only foolish, but deceptive -- yet the media play along. Let me put you to the test: What was the margin of victory in the popular vote in Iowa? Your answer shows the true value of trying to use popular vote as a benchmark.

Howard Kurtz: I beg to differ: I don't think most media people have bought the line that the popular vote matters. Obviously, we've reported that this is the latest argument being made by the Hillary forces, and that it would be a talking point for her if she were to overtake Obama in popular votes. But it's all about delegates, delegates, delegates. Anything else is a sideshow.

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San Diego: Hey, Howie -- what's your opinion on how the media handled the situation with the North Carolina GOP's ad against whatever-that-Democrat's name was (though it really was against Obama)? Do you think the media has a responsibility to not just give free air time to some of this stuff? I agree the ad had initial news value, but did the nets have to play it over and over again? What about when the story became not the ad itself, but whether the North Carolina GOP used the media to get it to play an ad it never intended to air? Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: North Carolina GOP leadership divided over ad (AP, April 24)

Howard Kurtz: I think television falls into the trap again and again of providing free airtime to commercials that either aren't being aired, or araired in a minor way. (This is what originally happened, by the way, with the Swift Boat ads.) That North Carolina ad was a legitimate story because McCain had criticized the state party for making it, and there's nothing wrong with showing a few seconds initially to illustrate the story, but it was played on cable over and over -- basically a zillion-dollar gift to the state Republican Party.

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Changing the Equation?: Joan Didion once described the presidential campaign as a closed system staged by the candidates for the news media -- one in which the media judged the candidate by how well he or she manipulated them, and in which the electorate were bystanders. In this election, do you think the rise of the Internet and so-called "people-powered politics" has changed this equation at all?

Howard Kurtz: Sure -- look at all the YouTube moments that have attracted millions of eyeballs, regardless of what the big networks and newspapers and magazines do. Look at Obama's use of the Internet. Look at the role of Facebook. And bloggers never have been more successful at influencing the dialogue. If it ever was a closed system -- remember, for all the media's power, people get to make up their own minds and vote -- it's a lot more porous today, and I think that's a healthy thing.

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Helena, Mont.: Why do you quote Rich Lowry on the Democratic nominating process? Rich Lowry is a conservative, a Republican -- he has no voice in what Democrats do. Once the nominating process is over, then Rich Lowry can have an opinion on the Democratic nominee. At most, he is a concern troll.

Howard Kurtz: I have this revolutionary idea: I quote both conservatives and liberals on both the Democratic and Republican contests. I'm just as interested in what Frank Rich is saying about McCain as I am in what Rich Lowry is saying about Obama and Bill Kristol this morning is saying about Hillary. Even if you're a partisan of one side or the other, it's useful -- not to mention enlightening -- to know what the other side, fairly or unfairly, is saying.

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Military Wife: Now we all know that most of the "military analysts" employed by cable and network news during the run-up to the war really were contractors for the Pentagon (message force-multipliers) and viewers were the targeted population. Folks who have experience in and around the military spotted that a mile away. It seems the last people to get concerned about the situation are the TV execs -- after all, when you're getting the ratings with all that dramatic martial music and high-tech graphics and cool stuff blowing up (video supplied by the Pentagon) who cares if thousands of service members die? It's not gonna be their kids, right? Now we are going into an election in which the issues that most concern voters are the war and the economy. I say good luck sorting that out. Are there, in your opinion, any areas that the mainstream media covers more poorly than war and economics?

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree that the MSM cover war and economics poorly, but I do think their coverage of this important issue has been pathetic. I covered the controversy stemming from the New York Times story on "Reliable Sources" the past two weeks; yesterday I had Don Rumsfeld's former Pentagon spokesman and a retired colonel who was a military analyst for NBC. If there has been any coverage of this on CBS, NBC, ABC, MSNBC or Fox, I've missed it. The story makes the networks look bad -- and their response, by and large, has been to ignore it.

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Minneapolis: I'm worried that we are getting to the point where things become newsworthy or have a specific effect just because the media says it is so. For example, in this morning's "First Read" Chuck Todd says that Rev. Wright's media tour is hurting Obama and "hurting him badly." Now, this eventually may be true, but there is absolutely no way to know that at this point. If the vote in North Carolina tightens up significantly and Obama loses Indiana by a larger margin than the polls would indicate now, then yes, it has hurt him; until then, it's pure speculation. Of course, if Todd and others sit on MSNBC, etc., and keep repeating that it is hurting Obama, won't voters eventually be persuaded that there must be something bad about what Wright is doing?

Howard Kurtz: Actually, there is a way to know that. In a Newsweek poll out yesterday, 41 percent of registered voters said their opinion of Obama had declined because of Jeremiah Wright. Today on cable, all the political chatter is about Wright's appearance this morning at the National Press Club. It undoubtedly will be on the evening news and in tomorrow's papers. That's another day when Obama's campaign message is being overshadowed by his former pastor -- and that is not helpful at this stage of the game.

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Hell's Kitchen, N.Y.: Regarding the New York Times story about McCain using his wife's plane for campaign purposes: What took so long? I mean, his press coterie have been following him around like needy puppies for months, as commonly repeated reports about McCain "flying coach" floated around. Why didn't they report on it at the time it was happening?

washingtonpost.com: McCain Frequently Used Wife's Jet for Little Cost (New York Times, April 27)

Howard Kurtz: My calculated guess is that journalists didn't know about it. The Times had to go through financial records to establish not just that McCain was flying on a jet owned by an affiliate of his wife's company, but that what his campaign was paying for such travel was well below what it would cost you or I to rent a corporate plane. You can't run such a story based on a hunch.

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Rockville, Md.: I think that you missed the mark with your response in last week's chat regarding the Pentagon's program. The officers who appeared as military analysts were career military -- I expected them to represent the views of the career military, not the political appointees who run the Pentagon. I expected the military analysts to channel the views of those currently-serving officers who cannot speak out directly because of honor and duty. I was most disturbed by the cheerleader aspect of the analysts with respect to the Pentagon leadership. These analysts were serving as the mouthpiece for the spoon-fed propaganda of the civilian political leadership, not the career officers who can't speak out.

Howard Kurtz: Well, they weren't all serving as mouthpieces for the Pentagon, but too many were. Some were soliciting the talking points they should use. I talked to one retired colonel, Bill Cowan of Fox News, who said that when he dared criticize the Iraq war effort in 2005, he was kicked out of the analysts group and never invited to another briefing, never got another phone call or e-mail. That ought to tell you something about how the program operated. The Pentagon, by the way, suspended the program late Friday, successfully burying the news.

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Alexandria, Va.: Did Bush use any Iraq-based jokes this year? His previous "search for the WMD" skit was a hoot, so did he tell any legless or armless soldier jokes? I'm sure that his assembled media enablers would find such a routine hilarious, just as they all laughed at his WMD sketch, so could you tell us just how much fun everyone had?

Howard Kurtz: I can't, because I didn't go to the dinner. So I'm sitting here looking at photos of some of my journalistic brethren with Pamela Anderson.

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Chicago: "I'm just as interested in what Frank Rich is saying about McCain as I am in what Rich Lowry is saying about Obama and Bill Kristol this morning is saying about Hillary." The point is that in your column today, you quoted four conservative columnists on the Democratic race, and no liberals.

Howard Kurtz: Some days I quote mostly liberals. It all evens out. Anyone who reads the column regularly knows I include as many viewpoints as possible.

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Easton, Mass.: Thanks for taking my question. I often hear two different -- and conflicting -- explanations from reporters for their decisions about what to cover and when, decisions that have a huge impact on how presidential races unfold: first, that there will be time for covering some things later on, but second, that they can only report on what is happening as it happens (older speeches, gaffes, etc., are no longer "news" -- and thus only fit for a line or two in the occasional analytical piece).

For example, when asked why many of McCain's recent decisions, mistakes and policies aren't being given much scrutiny, reporters -- like Shailagh Murray in today's Politics Chat -- say "just wait, once the primary is over, Sen. McCain will get his fair share of scrutiny." Yet I would be shocked if Sen. McCain's Sunni-Shia confusion, for example, will get the same kind of intense coverage in September as it would if he actually had said in it September, rather than when all media eyes were trained on the Democrats. Doesn't this kind of "we'll get to it later" yet "we can only cover what's happening right now" thinking mean very distorted coverage? What do you think the media can do to fix this problem?

Howard Kurtz: We don't have unlimited resources, but I think we need to be covering McCain as vigorously now as in the fall. I mean, it's not like he's laying on a beach somewhere -- he's out there campaigning. One pet peeve of mine is when reporters don't cover an issue because the candidates are avoiding it, thus allowing them to set the agenda. I thought the New York Times had a smart piece yesterday on how all three candidates would worsen the federal deficit -- McCain primarily through tax cuts, Obama and Clinton primary through new spending. It's hardly shocking the campaigns don't want to talk about this, but journalists need to hold them accountable.

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Teachers on Facebook: Howard, I like that young teachers have revealing Internet pages. From what I can tell (in my mid-30s), it would not occur to many younger people to hide any aspect of their lives. They will post thoughts and pictures about volunteering as readily as items about hard partying. I'm seeing it as a sort of innocence, and exploiting it for knowledge about them. Since I don't have a Victorian mindset, I'm not appalled by evidence that a young teacher might have lovers or know how to enjoy a party. I'm much more interested to see if they've joined groups like "Academic Integrity is for Losers," or NAMBLA. These people are making initial background checks convenient and free!

Howard Kurtz: Well, I understand the fun aspect of it. The problem is, an employer or potential employer may not be so understanding. In a related development, as the ombudsman wrote yesterday, The Post canned a copy aide who posted a drunk picture of himself on a sports blog that carried obscene, sexist and racist comments.

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Re: Wright: In terms of "guilt-by-association" politics, do you think the reason the Wright controversy has "stuck" is because of the video? The stuff about McCain and Hagee just hasn't had anything close to this kind of attention, and now Tom Hayden has written a piece in The Nation about Clinton working for a law firm (which had at least two communist partners) that defended mainly Black Panthers and communists, but no one seems to be picking up on it. I mean, what is scarier to Middle America than communists? You'd think the media would be lapping it up! My thought is that it is the video that makes a difference.

Howard Kurtz: In the television age, the video is huge -- but equally important is Barack Obama's close association with Jeremiah Wright for two decades. I mean, this is the man who presided over his wedding and baptized his daughters. That puts him in a different category than some pastor who happens to offer an endorsement of a candidate (though I think McCain absolutely should be held accountable for the John Hagee endorsement, as he accepted it even as he tried to distance himself from Hagee). Also, the fact that Obama, while criticizing some of Wright's sermons, has said he could no more disown him than he could his grandmother naturally has some voters wondering about the extent of the pastor's influence on him.

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Seattle: Recently you had an item in one of your columns about ESPN spiking a couple of interviews with Obama. Was this justified, or do you feel that the ESPN president's political views (McCain contributor) were a major factor in the decision?

Howard Kurtz: I have no way of knowing, but I thought it was a missed opportunity. At the very least, the hosts could have asked about his basketball prowess.

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New York: Tough question: You are in a sit down with some respected former member of the Democratic Party -- let's say Sen. Sam Nunn or Sen. Dennis DeConcini -- and they say: "Sen. Obama is electrifying in speeches, but he achieved nothing at the state or national levels, and he has no new ideas except the phrase 'change.' I can't see, if he were white, that he would have been given a prominent spot at the convention, nor be an contender today." Is this a racist statement? Do you play up that angle? What if Jesse Helms said the same thing to you?

Howard Kurtz: Simple: I would report it and let readers decide. In my view you can make references to a candidate's race without being racist, but depending on the way the comments are worded -- see Ferraro, Geraldine -- some people are going to be offended.

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Re: Changing the Equation?: While the Internet has changed how the candidates and their campaigns have done in the actual election, doesn't Elizabeth Edwards's editorial in the New York Times underline that the media hasn't changed its coverage from a meta-analysis of the campaigns' media strategy to actual analysis of the campaigns' policies?

washingtonpost.com: Bowling 1, Health Care 0 (New York Times, April 27)

Howard Kurtz: We should be careful about painting with too broad a brush, but Elizabeth Edwards made some good points. I've said many times that the media were so fixated on a Hillary-Obama race that they gave short shrift to Biden, Dodd, Richardson and to a lesser extent Edwards. They justified this by saying these candidates (except for Edwards in Iowa) were way behind in the polls -- but without media oxygen, of course, it's very difficult for them to break through. Sometimes, as in the case of Mike Huckabee, a long-shot candidate can rise without much media coverage, but that's relatively unusual. Keep in mind that much of the MSM stopped covering McCain, too, after his financial and staffing meltdown.

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Centreville, Va.: Could it be said that the New York Times makes a rather large assumption without content analysis when it suggests that many generals were just unloading Pentagon talking points? CBS's expert Col. Jeff McCausland, who is quoted in the Times piece -- did anyone sit and read his interviews on CBS to see if he was a mouthpiece? What if he merely stated his opinion that things could be going better? And is it really shocking to see an anti-Pentagon piece from the paper with the publisher who makes commencement speeches about stupid wars?

Howard Kurtz: Having watched these analysts on TV for five years now, I think it's fair to say that most of them were cheerleaders for the war effort. It's fair to debate whether that was their honest view -- they are, after all, career military men -- or whether they were manipulated by the Pentagon or influenced by military contracts. It's telling, in fact, that when a half-dozen generals publicly broke with Rumsfeld in 2006, none of them were TV pundits.

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Minneapolis: Sure, there's a distinction between the Obama-Wright and McCain-Hagee relationships -- but it's also true that McCain actively courted Hagee's endorsement and held an event with him to announce it. It's not as if Hagee endorsed McCain out of the blue without McCain's knowledge. It has to count against McCain that he sought out Hagee, doesn't it?

Howard Kurtz: No question about it.

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Supporting Easton, Ma.: Here's another instance where McCain appears to get special treatment from the media: Like Bush, John McCain apparently likes to run around slapping the "al-Qaeda" label on everyone we're fighting in Iraq, even though it's completely false to describe them that way. Why won't journalists call him on this when he does it? Is this brand of bald-faced propagandizing by the "straight-shootin' Maverick" just going to be allowed to slide (or get explained away as nothing), like every other "misstatement" he makes?

Howard Kurtz: New York Times, April 19 (and yes, there should be more):

As he campaigns with the weight of a deeply unpopular war on his shoulders, Sen. John McCain of Arizona frequently uses the shorthand ''al-Qaeda'' to describe the enemy in Iraq in pressing to stay the course in the war there.

''Al-Qaeda is on the run, but they're not defeated'' is his standard line on how things are going in Iraq. When chiding the Democrats for wanting to withdraw troops, he has been known to warn that ''al-Qaeda will then have won.'' In an attack this winter on Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic front-runner, Sen. McCain went further, warning that if American forces withdrew, al-Qaeda would be ''taking a country.''

Critics say that in framing the war that way at rallies or in sound bites, Sen. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is oversimplifying the hydra-headed nature of the insurgency in Iraq in a way that exploits the emotions that have been aroused by the name ''al-Qaeda'' since the Sept. 11 attacks.

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Delmar, N.Y.: Hi Mr. Kurtz. I have been reading your daily columns and watching "Reliable Sources" for some time, and while I don't always agree with you, I have no doubt that you try to be fair. Late last week Rush Limbaugh implied that he would like to see riots at the Democratic Convention in Denver, and that this would help the GOP. Why was there little mention of this other than on Keith Olbermann's "worst person" segment? Is it that it is no surprise -- and therefore not newsworthy -- when Mr. Limbaugh makes outrageous comments? Why is there no political penalty for Republican candidates who go on his show?

Howard Kurtz: I think most people took it as a spoof. He said, to the tune of "White Christmas," that he was "dreaming" of such riots:

"Now, I am not inspiring or inciting riots. I'm dreaming, I'm dreaming of riots in Denver."

As for Republican candidates on his show, Limbaugh almost never has guests, beyond an occasional Bush or Cheney phone call. As one of McCain's biggest critics during the primaries, he certainly hasn't had the Arizona senator.

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Re: Wright: Howard, have you watched any of Wright's "offending" sermons in their entirety, or read the transcripts -- or any of his other sermons, for that matter? Yes or no?

Howard Kurtz: Yes. Several times.

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Fairfax, Va.: Most journalists do not seem to have any expertise in a particular field, such as economics, so that they would be able to pin down the candidates when they propose various plans they have for turning the economy around. Neither do they have expertise in the history of race in politics in America, so that they could put what is happening now with Wright into perspective. How did things come to this point when most journalists seem to be hacks repeating White House talking points or shilling for one party or another? Where is the factual reporting and ability to put things in perspective that would help educate the electorate so we could make informed decisions at election time?

Howard Kurtz: I respectfully will dissent from the view that most reporters are hacks and shills. The press, it turns out, has plenty of experts on economics, race, war and other issues. These, of course, tend not to be campaign or White House correspondents, who -- given the nature of their jobs -- have to be generalists. But there is more to coverage than the reporter on the bus or at the White House briefing.

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Arlington, Va.: The Madison Capital Times today abandoned the dead tree product, turned off the presses and put all of its 17,000 circulation online. Is that the future of newspapers, or a last-ditch gamble to save a great Midwest liberal voice in an area of entrenched conservatism? Will other newspapers be watching this, and if so, what will they be watching for? What are the new economic metrics for online newspapers? You don't give investment advice, but do you think that the economics of online newspapering works?

Howard Kurtz: At the moment, the online economics don't work for newspapers. Many of them, including The Washington Post, are garnering more revenue from their Web sites, which in an era of declining circulation is where the action is. But Internet revenue doesn't come close to supporting the large staffs of The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, etc., or even the staff required for a medium-sized metropolitan daily to cover its area. Sure, we could turn into a Web site and throw up some stories, columns and blogs, but for newspapers to carry out their mission, they need the size to do the kind of detailed reporting that no one else even attempts. Look at The Post's haul of Pulitzers this month, for the Walter Reed expose, the Cheney series, the Blackwater shootings in Iraq. You can't do that kind of journalism with a small Web staff.

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Fairfax County, Va.: During the long primary season I have enjoyed many regional newspapers and TV stations online. To me, live editorial board conference with Obama by the Indianapolis Star -- now available on their Web site in streaming video -- is head-and-shoulders above the rest, including any national media source. It provided a million times more information than any debate. I assume they will do the same with Sen. Clinton.

This is the kind of in-depth content the Internet can and should make possible. As a separate feature, the Star also has thought of a brilliant online moneymaker, with the ability to click on news photos and buy framed or unframed copies. Who wouldn't want to buy (on impulse) a fun or uplifting photo of their candidate or team? Amazing to me to see such new-tech creativity from Gannett. What do you think of it? I felt like I finally saw a rosier future for newspapers.

washingtonpost.com: Obama's opening statement to editorial board (Indianapolis Star, Aug. 25)

Howard Kurtz: Some very good ideas. And I'm sure the rest of us will be copying them soon.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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