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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, May 20, 2008; 10:00 AM

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."

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The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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St. Paul, Minn.: Isn't the battle between Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann emblematic of today's news commentator feeling he (she) is more important than the actual news they deliver? I can't imagine Huntley, Brinkley or Cronkite ever allowing themselves to let such a thing happen. Agree or disagree?

washingtonpost.com: Murdoch Diplomacy: Behind O'Reilly's Electric Attacks (Post, May 19)

Howard Kurtz: Well, that was a different era. The broadcasts of those years didn't do opinions, except for polite essays by the likes of Eric Sevareid. They were straight news shows. These days, cable talk shows are drowning in opinion. Still, even by cable standards, the O'Reilly-Olbermann-NBC-GE battle is extraordinarily bitter.

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Falls Church, Va.: Today's column had a really weird focus. According to you, the media has been increasingly critical of McCain, but that's not what makes their relationship "contentious." No, what makes it contentious is that McCain chooses to respond (quickly) to this criticism. Huh? In this day and age, is it really reasonable to think that a candidate is going to let criticism slide by unaddressed?

washingtonpost.com: John McCain's Rapid-Fire Responders (Post, May 20)

Howard Kurtz: Of course every campaign is going to respond rapidly to media criticism, and has every right to do so. What makes the McCain approach noteworthy is the harshness of the rhetoric and the contrast to the popular image of the senator having a grand time eating donuts with his journalistic pals on the bus.

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Chicago: Great article Monday on the NBC vs. Fox dustup. It's always amusing how bullies react when they get it thrown in their faces using similar tactics to those they use to push people around. But to may real question. I have a funny feeling that if one of the Democratic candidates had made the Huckabee point-the-gun "joke" regarding McCain or Bush and immediately apologized, we would have at least a week of hysterical news cycles led by the Fox/Drudge/wing-nut radio communication wing of the GOP, with the mainstream dutifully joining in. Apologies would not have sufficed. Am I missing something? Thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: The Trail: Huckabee Apologizes for Obama Joke (washingtonpost.com, May 17)

Howard Kurtz: I think the media should have made more of what was a striking lack of judgment on Huckabee's part. But I don't think it's a question of Democrat or Republican. Huckabee hasn't been a candidate for months, and the press is now intensely focused on Obama-McCain (and to a lesser extent Obama-Hillary), so the Huckabee gaffe was treated as a minor distraction.

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Pickerington, Ohio: Mr. Kurtz, love the chats. What is your take on the credence the media gave to critics of President Bush's speech to the Israeli Knesset last week? He criticized appeasement, which politicians of both parties in this nation have been guilty of, but only the Democrats in general -- and Obama in particular -- acted as though they were personally attacked. The view from here is that the media treated their firing back as legitimate, when it clearly wasn't. To quote Steely Dan, "the things that pass for knowledge I can't understand."

Howard Kurtz: Most reporters say it was quite obvious that Bush was aiming those words in Obama's direction. It's a common tactic for politicians to criticize "those who would" do such and such a terrible thing, without naming them. From a journalistic point of view, Obama made it easy for the media to cover as a spat between him and the president by responding quickly and aggressively. Maybe he was choosing to be offended because he thought it was politically advantageous to do so. Reporters, of course, were happy to cover the fight.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, thanks for yesterday's article. Count me as someone who really detests Bill O'Reilly, but I try to stomach his antics just to see what is important to him. Frankly, his show is unwatchable. What is it with that "body language expert"? Is she filler in case O'Reilly's bookers can't find someone for him to abuse on air? And O'Reilly is a subpar interviewer -- I watched part of his Hillary interview, and he came across as totally uninterested in her responses to his questions.

Howard Kurtz: I disagree on the last point -- I thought that interview was substantive, featured good exchanges on the issues, and was good for both O'Reilly and Hillary. I am not, however, a fan of body language experts. Someone must have concluded that this form of infotainment is good for ratings. I mean, why not just read the candidates' palms?

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Washington: Don't you think this Olbermann-O'Reilly fight is really just a ploy for more ratings? Television ratings are lower this year than last year, and my guess is that these two are making this fight more personal than it really is in order to stoke interest in their shows.

Howard Kurtz: Olbermann started the battle and made no bones about the fact that he was trying to draw attention against a show that dwarfed him in the ratings. Now the nightly attacks on "Bill-O" certainly plays to his base. O'Reilly never mentions Olbermann's name, but instead trains his fire on NBC and, now, GE. I suppose you could say he is playing to his base as well. But the escalation of these attacks, particularly now that GE's chief executive is being accused of contributing to American deaths in Iraq, makes the whole thing look out of control -- which is why top News Corp., Fox, NBC and GE executives have tried (and failed) to negotiate a cease-fire.

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Atlanta: Until last week, I thought the people who said they wouldn't vote for Sen. Obama because "he's a Muslim" were simply uninformed xenophobes. But on at least three occasions during the post-primary coverage (on NPR, ABC World News and CNN), when voters repeated the Muslim and flag rumors, they were left unchallenged by the reporter -- allowing those rumors to hang in the air and perhaps gain more traction. How do the media use the voices of regular people without becoming an echo chamber of misinformation?

Howard Kurtz: It's easy. Any time you mention an unfounded rumor, or quote someone as doing so, you have to say, clearly and unequivocally, that it's false. A failure to do so is a serious journalistic lapse, in my view.

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Bethesda, Md.: For a while it seemed the media was cycling high there for McCain, and now it's starting to be down on McCain for a number of problems, including his flip-flop on Hamas, and lobbyists' involvement in his campaign. Would you agree with that assessment?

Howard Kurtz: I think McCain was more or less off the media's radar screen during the height of the Obama-Clinton battle. Now that he's drawing more coverage, some of it is more critical. McCain has also put certain issues in play, such as putting restrictions on lobbyists working for his campaign after some initial embarrassments, which in turn prompted more lobbyists to quit, which in turn generated more stories on the subject.

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New York: As if on cue, the New York Post yesterday slammed Olbermann again (via the omnipresent "anonymous source") in their "Page Six" gossip section.

washingtonpost.com: Anchor's Adrift Again (New York Post, May 19)

Howard Kurtz: Right, I took note of that in this morning's blog. What a coincidence.

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Washington: Howard, why do reporters allow themselves to be doormats for critics? A lot of the negative comments about the media are well-deserved, but whenever someone accuses journalists of spreading lies or half-truths or promoting the views of one political party or another, there's either no response or something meaningless like "we stand by our story." Do they not defend themselves because there's so much truth to the accusations that they can't, or do they think that if they ignore the critics they'll just go away? I know that if someone constantly was calling me a liar I'd fight back -- unless I lied, of course.

Howard Kurtz: Some journalists that I interview are perfectly willing to roll up their sleeves and defend themselves. Others issue statements and retreat into the bunker (as the Los Angeles Times editors did after botching that story on the wounding of Tupac Shakur). I think news people should display the same level of accountability that they demand from political and business leaders.

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Springfield, Va.: I think Barbara Walters sold you a line of baloney on Sunday when she insisted that ABC did not pay Monica Lewinsky for her interview. Didn't the Lewinsky team retain foreign broadcast rights to the interview, which they sold for a hefty seven-figure sum in the U.K. and Europe? While she technically may be correct that ABC did not write a check, by allowing an ABC news product to be sold, ABC was complicit; Walters ensured that Monica and her lawyers still got paid well.

washingtonpost.com: The Woman's Network: Barbara Walters Airs A Life of Glass Ceilings And Romances (Post, May 6)

Howard Kurtz: She freely admits that in her book, and it was well covered at the time, including by me. ABC allowed Lewinsky to make a bunch of money (at a time when she was saddled with huge legal bills) by selling interviews to foreign organizations. But it remains true, as Walters said, that ABC News did not pay her a penny.

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Helena, Mont.: Back to Chicago's question on Huckabee -- I think he has a point. What if Kucinich had said such a thing? There would be media frenzy. And Huckabee is widely talked about being the vice president for McCain. So, I do think there is a bit of bias in the lack of "noise" about this.

Howard Kurtz: You can't prove a hypothetical, but I think it would have been a one-day story if Kucinich had said it. Same goes for Richardson, Dodd and Biden. Now Bill Clinton, that's another story.

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New York: Perhaps not surprisingly, you've given Republican "bloggers" closely tied to the Republican Party a pass for their attacks on Michelle Obama, often even amplifying them. Are you willing to behave similarly if Democratic bloggers bring Cindy McCain into the fray? I'm not talking about her being rich here (that's no crime). I'm talking about real crimes -- her criminal record.

Howard Kurtz: My daily Web column is designed to give readers a taste of what commentators on the left and the right are saying, not for me to constantly debate those bloggers. Obama's "Good Morning America" defense of his wife was all over cable news yesterday. But I have to say, while I don't like personal attacks on candidates' spouses, if a spouse goes on the campaign trail and then says something controversial -- like "first time I've been proud of my country" -- that is fair game. Spouses who don't want to be in the political crossfire can always choose not to campaign.

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Philadelphia: Why don't reporters challenge Clinton when she says she can win white voters? In fact it has been many decades since Democrats have won a majority of white voters. Carter only won 49 percent, and Bill Clinton won less than 40 percent. Her argument is bogus and needs to be challenged.

Howard Kurtz: What she says is that based on the primaries, she would be stronger than Obama in attracting white, working-class voters.

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Arlington, Va.: Where has Richard Engel been the last 8 years? Perhaps if he had been the one asking Bush questions all these years we wouldn't be in the mess we are now. Obviously Engel has been on the ground in Iraq talking to a lot more "real people" there than Bush has, so it would seem he has a lot more credibility on those issues than the president has.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Engel certainly has the credibility that comes with spending years in Iraq and risking his life as a journalist in the war zone.

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Re: Appeasement: Hold on -- every cable news network was covering the "Bush Attacks Obama" story hours before Obama made any statement. Obama very well may have been responding to that news coverage as much as to the statements themselves.

Howard Kurtz: My recollection is that it was only a couple of hours, but my larger point is that Obama fueled the fire, and boosted the story, by getting into the rhetorical arena with Bush.

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Sarasota, Fla.: Hi Mr. Kurtz. I have two quick questions. Don't you think that the e-mail from Gillespie at the White House to NBC was uncalled for? What have they got against NBC? Also, when that Stark guy from the Daily Kos confronted Bill O'Reilly in his driveway, what happened? It appears that O'Reilly just picked up his newspaper and ignored Stark. It seems out of character for O'Reilly not to have a few choice words for anyone connected with Daily Kos.

washingtonpost.com: White House Says NBC Distorted Bush Response (Post, May 20)

Howard Kurtz: The White House believes that the interview was edited unfairly, but given the compression required in television, it doesn't seem particularly egregious to me. As for O'Reilly, I think he knows that shouting at someone when you're confronted just makes better footage for the person chasing you (which he is happy to air when his producers stalk targets who don't want to talk). Simply walking away isn't very exciting, which is undoubtedly why he chose that course.

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McCain, the GOP and Ahmadinejad: Howie, the GOP spin team has worked hard to make the name Ahmadinejad synonymous with fear. Yesterday, when asked if he knew Ahmadinejad was not Iran's leader and had no role in its foreign policy, McCain said that he knew that, but that Americans wouldn't understand. I found McCain's answer expectedly cynical, but also remembered how 70 percent of Americans were convinced by the Bush administration and the media that Iraq was responsible for Sept. 11. Shouldn't reporters be a little more forthcoming on Ahmadinejad's place in the Iranian hierarchy? I understand the GOP and FOX News need to make Ahmadinejad a household name to fear, but any chance the rest of the media might be more responsible this time around?

washingtonpost.com: McCain's Savannah Press Conference (Time.com, May 19)

Howard Kurtz: I think the American media often fail to make that important distinction as well. But Ahmadinejad is, of course, the face of the Iranian regime.

Here's what Joe Klein posted:

He said that Ahmadinejad is the guy who represents Iran in international forums like the United Nations, which is a fair point. When I followed with the observation that the Supreme Leader is, uh, the Supreme Leader, McCain responded that the "average American" thinks Ahmadinejad is the boss. Didn't get a chance to follow up to that, but I would have asked, "But isn't it your job to correct those sorts of mistaken impressions on the part of the American public?" Oh well.

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Mount Laurel, N.J.: Was it just my imagination or did the MSNBC Obama cheerleaders,(except Chuck Todd) looked as downtrodden after the West Virginia primary results as Bill Clinton did during Hillary's victory speech in Indiana? They don't even make an attempt to hide it. I thought they were supposed to be objective. Shame.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see that at all. What I did see is that MSNBC (like the other networks) quickly discounted Hillary's 41-point win and went on to analysis about why the race is over and she can't win. If that's the case, why cover the primary at all? Just put the results in a crawl or something. Fox stuck with regular programming instead of special election coverage.

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Fort McMurray, Alberta: Howie, your interview and all the others I've seen with Barbara Walters have not addressed her links with Roy Cohn. Shortly after Cohn's death in the '80s, I read that she had acted as his beard. I understand she deals with this issue in the book -- Cohn helped get Walter's dad out of legal trouble. Covering for someone like Cohn is horrific enough, but legal favors, too? Why is Walters not being roundly condemned for these issues? Doesn't it say something about American society that an affair rates higher than something that would result in jail time?

Howard Kurtz: I mentioned the Roy Cohn connection in my Post story. Walters says in her book that at the time, she did not suspect that Cohn was gay. I didn't have the space to go into that particular subplot.

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Avon Park, Fla.: People keep talking about Barack Obama likely getting the majority of pledged delegates tonight. How important is that? Wasn't it apparent the he would end the contests the pledged delegate leader before now?

Howard Kurtz: Exactly! Nothing has changed except that he will reach this symbolic milestone. I don't blame the Obama folks for trying to exploit the moment and make the race appear over, but I think some media organizations are buying that spin. The superdelegates will still have to decide this thing, as has been apparent for weeks.

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Baltimore: Why is it fine for a news TV host to tell a sitting president "Shut the hell up"? Please explain why there has been no media reaction to this.

Howard Kurtz: I guess because Keith Olbermann has bashed Bush in his "Special Comment" editorials so often, and with such fervor, that it no longer seems like big news.

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Hamilton, Va.: In dealing with the press, McCain's people are following the lessons of the current administration -- accuse the media of bias and they just fold, every time. Even if the media have ironclad evidence behind them, they are so afraid of being accused of not being balanced.

Howard Kurtz: But I don't see where the media have "folded" in any of the examples I cited. Newsweek, The Washington Post, the New York Times and USA Today all stuck with their stories. That doesn't mean those stories were perfect. Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham admitted he wished the magazine's article on McCain had put some things differently, and Times Editor Bill Keller acknowledged that he was surprised by the public's criticism of the paper's McCain-and-the-female-lobbyist story. That's not backing off in the face of bias accusations, it's admitting when published stories have flaws.

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Fair Lawn, N.J.: How long have you been doing these chats? Assuming that it has been more than eight years, do you find that the degree of anger by Democratic correspondents towards the media has increased dramatically since 2000, or is it about the same?

Howard Kurtz: A number of years, and it's increased dramatically, no question about it. Fueled, I believe, by anger at the Bush administration and the war, and the perception that the media have not been aggressive enough in reporting on either. So now both sides distrust us.

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Herndon, Va.: In the Fox-NBC fight, Roger Ailes states that NBC is the most antiwar network. Is it his contention that the networks should be pro-war? Even after we learned of the duplicity that led us to war? Stating the facts of the disaster in Iraq is not ipso facto being antiwar.

Howard Kurtz: Ailes would say the networks should be fair and balanced in covering the war, as opposed to antiwar. I certainly agree that the picture of the growing disaster in Iraq painted by the media, amid constant criticism from the White House, turned out to be far more accurate than the rosier view peddled by the administration. At the same time, some news organizations were slow to report that the surge was having some modest success in reducing violence.

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Rockville, Md.: Why are so many saying they know how the super delegates will vote? I thought they were free to vote as they pleased in the convention. Is there a penalty for lying?

Howard Kurtz: Superdelegates are free to switch their votes -- and some quite publicly have, from Clinton to Obama. But by and large, it's reasonable to assume that the vast majority of these elected officials and party insiders are going to vote for the candidate they claim to support. So when more of them declare their intentions, we'll know it's over.

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Huntsville, Ala.: Actually in the eyes of Islam, Obama is a Muslim. His father was, so he is, and you cannot leave. That doesn't mean he is a practicing Muslim. It is similar in some ways to England in the 1700s -- you were Anglican or nothing.

Howard Kurtz: It seems to me if someone proclaims himself to be a Christian and goes to church for 20 years, we ought to accept that he is indeed a Christian.

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Conyers, Ga.: More comment than question. Regarding your story yesterday about the cable feud between O'Reilly and Olbermann, I was left with the impression that these two media figures were wallowing in the playground mud. A pox on both their houses. Meanwhile, your "competition" to the north was writing about the financial and personal problems of PBS News Hour, which to this curious mind was far more enlightening.

washingtonpost.com: Lehrer Says 'News Hour' Money Woes Are Worst Ever (New York Times, May 19)

Howard Kurtz: The importance of the O'Reilly/Olbermann story is not that they're sniping at each other but that the battle has escalated to General Electric, and that top executives from both corporate giants were calling each other in a futile attempt to ratchet down the rhetoric.

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Laurel, Md.: Howard, yesterday in a chat another view surfaced on "how did the press get the pre-invasion Iraq story so incomplete?" The question came up whether reporters understand sufficiently the way millions of voters are influenced by their purely religious views on things like biblical prophesy and Armageddon. Just as Pauline Kael didn't know a single person who voted for McGovern in 1972, are reporters from such a different background and mindset that they either don't know how to find out whether peoples' views on complicated issues like Middle East policy stem from supernatural beliefs, or do they not want to report something that might be seen as a criticism of religion?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. I do think we undercover religion. But I think the media's shortcomings on the run-up to the war had more to do with not sufficiently challenging the administration's flawed case on the non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

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New Orleans: Why is the Chinese earthquake recovery story getting so much more press than the Burmese cyclone recovery story? Is it because the Chinese disaster happened a week or so later? Is it because the press has better access to China, so there's more to report on? I'm not trying to pin two tragedies against each other, but the contrast is interesting. More people died in the cyclone, the Burmese people have fewer resources for recovery, and additional people will die in Burma because of the government's xenophobia.

Howard Kurtz: A huge factor is that the media have far greater access. In Myanmar, the military junta was actually deporting journalists and chasing those who had snuck into the country. The result was that there were not just few pictures of the devastation but few first-hand accounts. The lack of cultural affinity with the Burmese may also have been a factor. In China, where the press is also controlled, there has been an unusual openness in allowing foreign correspondents to report on the disaster, which has brought home the magnitude of the death and destruction.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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