Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 5, 2008; 1:00 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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Re: Why the press turned on Obama: Your paper had an article this morning about why the press "turned on" Obama. I think it missed the point. First, they "turned on" Obama, because they were "pressured" by the Clintons. And it appears the press is so vulnerable to any such concerted pressure. To wit. George Bush did the same kind of pressuring for almost his entire tenure, as in "if you're not with me, you're against me." And it worked. Bush was never "turned on" until the --public-- said they didn't like him -- or his war -- anymore. Second, "turned on" was totally accurate, because that is what the press does all the time. They attack, attack, attack, until they move on to something else juicy. How about deciding it was time to "examine" Obama's record, instead of throwing Obama under the bus, as "turned on" suggests. The business with Wright was a perfect example, while it was a "legitimate" subject, the media's endless coverage has almost destroyed this candidate.

washingtonpost.com: Why the Press Turned on Obama (Post, May 5)

Howard Kurtz: The press turned on Obama because we were "threatened" by the Clintons? What exactly do you think they did? Vowed to ban us from the Hillary White House? Run negative ads against us? Tell Chelsea not to talk to us anymore? She doesn't talk to us now!

No, my argument is that the media greatly intensified their scrutiny of Obama because he's lost three big states in a row; because he's nevertheless the front-runner, and this always happens with front-runners (belatedly, in his case); and because Jeremiah Wright and the "bitter" comments hurt him.

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Washington: Howard: so the press got tough on Obama. Good. If he can take it, even better. However, when is the press going to get tough on McCain? Yeah, I know, you're going to tell me they're tough, or The Post is tough, etc. But I'm not buying it. I'm sure he's one of your favorites, but DailyKos has an interesting review of videos where McCain says one thing -- you know the old straight talkin' express maverick (isn't that the mainstream media meme?) -- and than on video says he either didn't say it or doesn't remember saying it. Know, that's YouTube video ... the question is why isn't it mainstream media journalism? When are Russert (yes, he has done it a little bit) or the rest of them going to explore the inconsistencies of ol' Maverick McCain? The press can be embarrassed into being tough on Obama, but not McCain? Seems like something's wrong ... seriously, do you think it is because they're in awe of a war hero and afraid someone is going to question their patriotism?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think journalists are in awe of McCain (though everyone certainly respects what he went through in Hanoi) or that anyone is going to question our patriotism (lot of reckless motive-assigning in today's chat!).

I don't think the press has been particularly hard on McCain in the past two months (though The Post's front-page piece about his temper a couple of weeks ago was hardly a Valentine). I just think he's getting little attention while Hillary and Barack slug it out. But I think that will change once the Democrats finally settle on a nominee.

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Washington: Lara Logan on the evening news more in Washington! My heart sings! That breathy, earnest voice, that intense, nearly hypnotic gaze into the camera: Two thumbs way up!

Howard Kurtz: I'll tell CBS you approve.

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Anonymous: The new, record low poll numbers for President Bush seemed to elicit no more than a yawn from most media. Fox News, of course, was too busy with wall-to-wall coverage about Rev. Wright (as in leading virtually every news program for days with such stories). With the new low poll numbers, one might think that Sen. McCain would be asked more in what ways his policies would be different from those of President Bush, but the only story in this regard I saw receive much coverage was McCain saying the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was not handled well (something even Bush probably would agree with, and notably does not represent a real break from any Bush policies). Will McCain not be asked more questions about his differences with Bush until the general election?

Howard Kurtz: He'll certainly be asked that again and again -- or asked, as he has been, why he flipped on his earlier opposition to the Bush tax cuts. But the president has been in record-low territory for so long now that it's not huge news if he blips down another couple of points. Everyone takes it as a given that George W. Bush is very unpopular.

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Minneapolis: Why is the media only concerned with Barack Obama's failure to wear a flag pin? Hillary Clinton and John McCain don't wear them, either. Yet, no one questions their patriotism.

Howard Kurtz: I don't question Obama's patriotism, and most of my colleagues don't, either. It was Barack who raised the issue by announcing he'd decided against wearing such a pin because he regarded it as a phony symbol of patriotism. That was a gutsy thing to do, but it has gotten twisted up with false rumors about his refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag, and therefore has popped up in media accounts (and in the ABC debate). I'd be perfectly happy if another word about flag pins wasn't written or spoken for the rest of this campaign.

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Toronto: Hi Howard -- kudos for last Sunday's focus on the New York Times's Pentagon propaganda story. Why do you think the networks still are silent on this? The comments on Brian Williams's blog are at a boiling point -- I'm surprised NBC hasn't shut it down yet!

Howard Kurtz: I only can conclude that the networks are staying away from what would otherwise be a legitimate news story because they are embarrassed about what some of their military analysts did, or because they don't want to give the controversy more prominence.

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Winnipeg, Canada: When I saw "The Daily Show" mock the press coverage of Jeremiah Wright, comparing his coverage to any number of white preachers with loony views (including Billy Graham) who still have managed to stay in the mainstream. I wondered how I would feel if I were a journalist who had insisted that the Wright story was a big deal. Do you get a sense that your colleagues might be feeling embarrassed by the hullabaloo they helped create, or do they conveniently ignore it when satirists like Jon Stewart skewer them?

Howard Kurtz: Jon Stewart is very good at skewering, but I'm not buying the idea that Jeremiah Wright is not a major news story. Obama had a 20-year relationship with the pastor and wrote about him in his book. The videos of Wright's sermons prompted Obama to give a major speech on race. Wright's recent media tour (Moyers, National Press Club) prompted Obama to summon reporters to a press conference so he could denounce the man. Polls show that at least some voters are less likely to vote for the Illinois senator because of his association with Wright. Obama also went on "Today" and "Meet the Press" last week knowing full well that would be Topic A. All of that has made it newsworthy. Having said that, I don't think we need to keep flogging it week after week unless there are new developments.

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Hong Kong: In Dan Eggen's piece on the White House on Sunday he said: " 'Don't ever underestimate the leverage of the presidency,' said a senior White House official, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. 'Many of us here still believe there are a number of things that will get done.' " Why do Post journalists give anonymity for even such motherhood-and-apple-pie sentiments as expressed above?

Howard Kurtz: I had the exact same question when I read that. The short answer is "because most White House aides won't speak on the record." It's one thing if an aide is being more candid than he can be on the record, revealing inside information or even deigning to criticize the boss, but that one probably wasn't worth a grant of anonymity.

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Washington: But the job of the press is to report facts, not "turn on" someone, no matter the justification. Meh. If the press we're focusing on the issues and slamming Obama I'd be impressed, but they're not. They're looking for things to attack Obama on, to make their coverage fair. This is why newspapers are losing readers, and why TV is losing viewers -- the media simply isn't doing a very good job reporting facts.

Howard Kurtz: Of course the job of the press isn't to "turn on" any candidates. I think the press was so easy on Obama for more than a year that this more typical level of scrutiny seems like ganging up on him. But I'd add this: Dealing with media criticism, fair or unfair, is part of the pressure of running for president, and the Obama folks, to their credit, haven't complained about it. They do question whether Hillary is receiving a comparable level of scrutiny. The most intense media examination of Clinton took place back when she was cast as the front-runner.

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Savannah, Ga.: Is the story about the Pentagon connection to the media military experts getting any more traction, or is it just old news? I was really looking for some soul-searching on the part of the organizations that used them.

Howard Kurtz: You didn't miss it -- it's just not there. The networks are ducking this one, big time.

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Durham, N.C.: It was refreshing to read Mallaby's thoughtful column this morning, but I still am appalled at the coverage this issue has received in more traditional news and campaign stories. Obama is a member of a church with a pastor who has some crazy views (views that mostly seem to be more recent than not). This pastor also has a history of community building and even was esteemed enough in his profession and community to be invited to the Clinton White House. Obviously Obama's actions and policies don't match the crazy beliefs of Wright. I found Obama's initial response (denouncing the views, but trying to show respect to a complicated member of his spiritual community) to be grown-up, if not super-smart politically.

Meanwhile, John McCain, after years of denouncing the likes of Robertson and Falwell as "agents of intolerance," courts the endorsement of a figure like Hagee (who has some pretty crazy and repugnant ideas himself) -- yet the media still presents McCain as a straight-shooting maverick who breaks with his party in order to stand by his convictions.

So is the big problem with the Wright issue his beliefs and the implication that Obama honestly believes what Wright says? Or is the issue how Obama handled it? It's perfectly acceptable for the "maverick" candidate to cynically seek and accept an endorsement from a man he once denounced, but not okay for a candidate to have a sincere reaction to his former pastor? In your esteemed opinion, what is this controversy all about?

washingtonpost.com: Wright And Ridiculous (Post, May 5)

Howard Kurtz: I don't think Rev. Hagee has received enough media attention. I was surprised to read in Frank Rich's column yesterday that Hagee has called the Catholic Church a "whore" that drinks Jewish blood. The difference in Obama's case is that Wright is not just his pastor, but the man who married him, baptized his children and whose sermons provided the title for his book "The Audacity of Hope." But McCain willingly accepted Hagee's endorsement and should not get some kind of pass.

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Oviedo, Fla.: Came across a January issue of Time magazine with a story about how Sen Clinton was "over" and other deathwatch words of "wisdom." Here we are approaching mid-May with the same thing being said about North Carolina and Indiana. Is this "she's dead now" chorus impossible to mute? There doesn't seem to be any particular harm in the race going this way, does there? The fact that it isn't all preordained is less canned, less rote than normal. Good. Can't the bloggers and others just wait and watch?

Howard Kurtz: Some pundits have been writing Clinton off since she lost Iowa. Somehow she refuses to stay dead. Now, it's true that as we get closer to the end of the primaries, the math works against Hillary and the only way she can catch Obama is to persuade enough superdelegates to in effect overturn his lead among pledged delegates. But we should have learned by now about the danger of premature obituaries.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Any word on how the new Fox Business channel is doing? I haven't heard anything about it since it launched. And if it proves to be a flop, will Fox cancel the channel?

Howard Kurtz: I have no doubt that Fox will stick with it for at least a couple of years. At the moment Fox is refusing to release its Nielsen ratings; when some early numbers leaked out, it was averaging about 11,000 viewers. I doubt Fox Business ever will catch CNBC, but it's too early to say it's not a viable channel.

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McCain Went After Hagee's Endorsement: McCain didn't just "accept" Hagee's endorsement, as you wrote. He actively courted it! Now he's distancing himself from the man's statements, but won't distance himself from the man who made them. This is a clear media double-standard and it says more about the media's treatment of race, than it does about anything else, I fear.

Howard Kurtz: You are right that John McCain actively sought the endorsement.

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Arugula: Howie, how does a comment from last summer move so quickly from Michelle Malkin to the cover of Newsweek (and sadly, your second paragraph today)? And what should a candidate speaking to arugula farmers talk about? The price of Kit Kat bars?

Howard Kurtz: He was at an Iowa farm last year -- not speaking to lettuce farmers -- when he said "anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" That became shorthand for Obama's supposed inability to connect with beer-drinking lunch-bucket Democrats. I did notice that in Indiana last week Obama announced to a group of workers that "I'll have a Bud." As a candidate, you are what you imbibe, I guess.

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Kettering, Ohio: So you were only 34th on the list. Just wait until next year, when the swimsuit phase is part of the competition!

washingtonpost.com: The most influential US political pundits: 40-31 (The Telegraph, May 2)

Howard Kurtz: I'll start working on my abs now, just in case.

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Atlanta: Howard, speaking of "The Daily Show," is their demographic really the 18-25 crowd? I'm 50 and I watch everyday. So do all my friends in their 40s. I think the 18- to 25-year-olds who watch would have to be really well-informed, because Stewart (and Colbert as well) make all kinds of jokes about politics and politicians from 20 to 30 years ago. My age group "gets" the gags -- that's when we grew up. You really think the 18- to 25-year-olds get all those jokes?

Howard Kurtz: I think people of all ages enjoy "The Daily Show," but that among the 18-25-year-old set it practically has a cult following. But the notion that young people "get their news" from Stewart and Colbert is just wrong. As both of them have told me-- and as ought to be quite obvious -- if you didn't follow the news you wouldn't get most of the jokes, which are based on riffing off the news.

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Alexandria, Va.: Didn't you oversell how hostile the Newsweek cover story was on Obama? It seemed to me to be a lot of hand-wringing over how Obama somehow is running not just against the Republicans, but every historical demon from McCarthy to George Wallace. And didn't it read like an editorial instead of a "news" magazine article?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't say it was hostile, but it certainly wasn't a wet kiss. Beyond the arugula cover image, the story described how many people see Obama as strange and aloof. You wouldn't be reading that, in my view, if he had won Ohio or Pennsylvania. We do tend to cast winning candidates as geniuses with a common touch and losing candidates as out-of-touch klutzes.

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Minneapolis: You touch on it in your piece today, but I was wondering if you'd care to give more of your thoughts on what Clinton said to Stephanopoulos during the town hall about how she and George opposed NAFTA in the White House "back when he wasn't an objective journalist." It seems to me that she made George a part of the story when she did that. Should journalists ask him if this is true, or what he thought her opinion was at the time? It seems to me that she put him in a very tough position with that comment.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the main point is whether Stephanopoulos privately opposed NAFTA or not -- Hillary was there, she should know -- but that she was reminding the audience that he was a Clinton partisan at a moment when he was trying his best to be a fair interviewer. So it came off as a real jab. Apparently they had their share of clashes in the White House, according to George's own book.

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Boulder, Colo.: Hi Howard, in your April 30 column, you wrote: "Has Barack Obama been swift-boated?" Yours is the first reference I remember in the mainstream media to "swift-boating" by Democrats. Until now the stylebook seems to have defined "swift-boating" as any unfair, damaging attack by Republicans. Likewise, "Willie Horton" has come to mean Republicans playing the race card against Democrats.

Should the press use media-created pejoratives as shorthand for actual reporting, particularly when the references have no agreed upon definition? The issue of Willie Horton was first raised by Al Gore, not Republicans. The "swift-boat" issues raised about Kerry are still regarded by most Republican voters as reasonable political speech.

washingtonpost.com: Collateral Damage (Post, April 30)

Howard Kurtz: I never have regarded the term swift-boat as meaning attacks by Republicans against Democrats. It means attacks of dubious accuracy from a questionable source. The actual Swift Boat Veterans may or may not have been Republicans; they were a bunch of guys who couldn't stand John Kerry and were determined to torpedo his candidacy.

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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, is it true that Arianna Huffington has been disinvited from MSNBC because she criticizes Tim Russert? I read that she was supposed to go on "Morning Joe" and "Countdown," but her invitation was canceled.

Howard Kurtz: That's what Arianna Huffington says; I don't know if she was booked on those programs or not. I had seen her with Keith Olbermann and Dan Abrams, so it's a bit surprising if she's not on now. Fortunately for her, she's been able to promote her book on CNN, "Good Morning America" and elsewhere.

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Reston, Va.: I often see stories in which the only real action verb is this phrase "raises questions." This can be about a candidates judgment, experience, electability, etc. Unless there are other people raising the questions, this is just lazy journalism at best, and propaganda at worst. I don't think this should count if the person raising the question is the person writing the story.

Howard Kurtz: Sometimes other folks -- rival campaigns, political operatives -- actually are raising questions. And sometimes it's a fig leaf in which media outlets themselves are the ones pushing the story line.

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Kingstowne, Va.: Obama didn't seem to get many Wright questions on his rounds this morning, and CNN even declared themselves a "Wright-free zone." Might it be overdone that the media are somehow frying Obama now?

Howard Kurtz: The day before a primary, interviews with a candidate tend to revolve around the horse race -- but in this case it may also reflect a feeling that the Wright story played itself out last week (or at least that Obama was just going to repeat what he's already said about the reverend). Whether the Wright story slides to the back burner may depend on whether Rev. Jeremiah decides he already has had his 15 minutes.

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Minneapolis: Why is arugula considered elite? You can go down to Applebee's or the Olive Garden and get arugula in their salads right now. It seems to me that the notion of arugula as this inaccessible, elitist lettuce is wholly made up in the first place!

Howard Kurtz: I think part of the problem is that there isn't a Whole Foods in Iowa.

It's just symbolism, like when John Kerry ordered a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese in Philly, or when George Bush the elder asked for a splash of coffee. I mean, aren't there plenty of affluent, elite people who also drink beer? But symbols -- especially local symbols -- matter in presidential campaigns.

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Hey, Atlanta: I'm in the 18-25 age group and I get jokes based on things that happened in the past. That seems a little snobbish -- you would understand a joke about FDR, wouldn't you?

Howard Kurtz: FDR? Sure. And that Warren Harding was a real knee-slapper!

My point wasn't that younger people wouldn't understand jokes involving events before their time, it was that they wouldn't understand Stewart or Colbert joking about current events if they were completely disconnected from the news.

On that weighty note, thanks for the chat, folks.

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