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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 16, 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."

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The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Richmond, Va.: Tim Russert will be missed in so many ways. I went my first Sunday morning without him, and missed him terribly. Will NBC keep "Meet the Press" in its present format? It seems like such a hard decision. If they keep the name, the new person will be, perhaps "unfairly" compared (and who would take that on anyway?). Do you think they will have another politics show but under a different name?

Howard Kurtz: There's no question that NBC will keep "Meet the Press" in something resembling its current format. It is, after 60 years, the longest-running news show on television. Russert always described himself as a temporary custodian of the franchise established by Lawrence Spivak. Obviously, whoever inherits the franchise will tweak it in some ways, but it still will be "Meet the Press."

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Silver Spring, Md.: I wonder if "Meet the Press" shouldn't explore the multiple-host format that worked for it back in the day. Evolution shouldn't be off the table, even for a program with "Meet the Press's" history and success. Why force one host/moderator to carry so much baggage and try to fill Russert's shoes? Maybe one of Russert's legacies is to instead learn from his lessons about how to treat his guests and the issues at hand, and let those principles guide the next steps for the show, instead of the desire to land a big name or continue the artificial streak of unbroken Sunday morning "wins." Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: My view is that these programs work best with a single host. If you look at the others -- Schieffer, Stephanopoulos, Blitzer, Wallace -- there's one person at the helm. The only past exception I can think of was Sam and Cokie, which was all right, but you'll notice it didn't last. I think viewers respond to having one person set the tone for both the interviews and panel discussions.

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Arlington, Va.: It is clear how much Russert was respected by both parties. Is there any talk yet of a replacement (or replacements)? Is there anyone who can step into "Meet the Press" as we are coming up to the election and not be labeled partisan by one of the parties? My first thought was that Jim Lehrer could be a safe choice, and that any of the current MSNBC commentators would elicit outrage from the right.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Jim Lehrer is 74 and already has a show that he has built and is quite happy with. I feel safe in saying that the next moderator of "Meet the Press" won't be someone with strong opinions who is seen as leaning to the left (or right).

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Springfield, Va.: Howard, I watched literally hours of coverage about Russert on Friday and some more during the weekend, including "Meet the Press," and I read most of The Post's coverage. Unless I flat-out missed it in The Post, nowhere did I see or hear who Russert had interviewed for the "Meet the Press" show he apparently had taped before he collapsed. I found this really irritating. It seemed to be a relevant piece of news -- his last interview -- and I am wondering if we ever will see it. Do you know?

Howard Kurtz: He hadn't interviewed anybody -- "Meet the Press" is almost always live. He was just taping the introduction to the show. Obviously guests had been booked for yesterday, but I don't know who they are.

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Russert: I'm curious to get your take on something. With all of this weekend's memorializing of Tim Russert -- with global praise for the man as both journalist and father -- not once did anyone mention the Scooter Libby scandal, in which he played a part. Why do you think that is?

Howard Kurtz: I mentioned it in the piece I wrote for Saturday's paper. And I mentioned it on my show yesterday, even playing a clip from "Meet the Press" -- Russert had invited me on because I covered the trial -- in which I said he had been a hesitant witness and seemed uncomfortable. I think the first New York Times story mentioned it as well.

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My heart breaks for Big Russ...: going through the loss of his son, particularly only two weeks after his son had to point out to Terry McAuliffe that yes, in fact, he was still around!

Howard Kurtz: Right. And for this to have happened just before Father's Day can't have helped. But boy was Russert's son Luke poised and good-humored on "Today" this morning.

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Fair Lawn, N.J.: Mr. Kurtz, thank you for your time. One quibble with today's column: Lanny Davis is just the type of pro-war Democratic foil that Fox "News" would want to hire; he's in the Susan Estrich mold, a feeble spokesman for the party -- which is now led by Obama, not Clinton. Rather naive of you, I thought. Didn't Fox hire Wesley Clark for a while, and then stopped inviting him when he began obliterating their pro-war talking points? Too upsetting for the base!

Howard Kurtz: You may not agree with Lanny Davis, but he's as partisan a Democrat as I've met. Fox isn't hiring him for his views on the war, but because he's a Clintonite. The question is whether Fox will put him on regularly or just trot him out once in a blue moon.

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Washington: Can you share with us the arrangements for Tim Russert's burial? Is there any event like a memorial service planned for the general public prior to his funeral and burial? Do you know if these events will be held in Buffalo or Washington or both places?

Howard Kurtz: There's a public wake tomorrow at St. Albans school from 2  p.m. to 9 p.m. The memorial service is Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. It will be invitation-only, but carried on MSNBC.

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I don't watch the Sunday news shows...: but will miss his Friday morning chats on WTOP, and he was great last fall when Stephen Colbert came through Washington and did an "interview" and book signing at George Washington, and we were floored when Tim Russert came out to do the interview ... wow! He had a lot of fun with it.

Howard Kurtz: Russert had fun with everything. And yes, even people who didn't watch "Meet the Press" or any Sunday shows would find him popping up in other places.

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Houston: "Meet the Press" was to feature Sens. Biden and Graham to do a mock "debate" supporting their parties' nominees' positions

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the info.

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Silver Spring, Md.: How much of Friday's coverage was scripted? It was like each person was giving a eulogy off the top of their head. I was impressed no one ever broke down -- although there were some cracks. Do you think the evening coverage with Keith Olbermann was more "scripted" than the earlier coverage?

Howard Kurtz: None of it was scripted. How could anyone have a script for such an awful and unexpected event? That's why I kept watching -- because you saw people grappling with their emotions. I wasn't easy for me to go on CNN half an hour after learning the news. Even on my show yesterday, I threw out the scripts except for the top, and everyone just talked.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Has there been any fallout at FOX from their description of Michelle Obama as "Obama's baby mama"? So their children have been declared bastards by FOX? It's absolutely disgraceful and disgusting. I think it's worse than Imus's comments, because at least Imus never claimed to be fair and balanced. This wasn't one person acting stupid -- it was an entire organization.

Howard Kurtz: It was monumentally dumb, and written by some monumentally dumb producer. Fox has admitted that this was poor judgment. I don't know if there has been any fallout beyond that.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Much was made of Tim Russert's Buffalo roots in all the discussions this weekend. I found it interesting that Wolf Blitzer, also from Buffalo, newer mentioned that they shared a hometown, always referring to it as Russert's home. Do you think he has Buffalo shame?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know where you got that -- Wolf has talked a million times about being from Buffalo. He mentioned it every time he talked about Russert, including on my show, where he said Russert used to tease him about being from the "rich" section, North Buffalo, while Tim was from South Buffalo. Blitzer denied it was a rich area. But that was definitely a bond that they shared. And I spent four years as a college student in Buffalo, which I mentioned as well.

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Philadelphia: Don't you think Tim Russert would be saying "enough is enough" with the coverage of his death? What do you think the parents and spouses of fallen soldiers are thinking?

Howard Kurtz: I do think he would be saying "enough is enough." Obviously the only nonstop coverage is on MSNBC, but lots of people want a chance to weigh in. Because it happened late Friday, I notice a few columnists and bloggers sharing their thoughts today.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Where would you place Tim Russert in the pantheon of great journalists, present and past? And is it true, as I've heard rumored, that he may be beatified by the Catholic Church?

Howard Kurtz: No clue about that, although he did meet the last two Popes, so maybe he has an in. I'd say he was one of the top political analysts of his generation.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Chris Matthews was nowhere to be seen on MSNBC Russert coverage that had David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell front-and-center. Is it clear -- as New York Times Sunday Magazine stated -- that his contract won't be renewed and his Pennsylvania public office campaign can begin?

Howard Kurtz: He was nowhere to be seen because he was with his family in Europe. As soon as he got back, he joined the coverage. Sometimes there are simple explanations for things.

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Washington: While I doubt he will get the job, I think Chuck Todd would be a fabulous choice. To follow in Russert's big shoes, you will need to be as passionate about politics as he was. No one comes close to that description like C-Todd. He has been an animal this election season. Wouldn't he be about the same age as Russert was when he started? Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: He's a brilliant analyst, but he never has hosted a show, and he has been at NBC one year after a long career at Hotline. I don't know if he'd be a contender or not.

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Charlottesville, Va.: While I didn't always agree with his opinions or interview choices, I always admired Russert for his genuine enthusiasm for the topic of politics. A lot of talking heads on TV seem much more interested in themselves than the subject matter at hand. Tim seemed unique in not following that trend. Is he the last of a breed, or are there others still out there with that almost contagious love of their craft

Howard Kurtz: I think you've hit on something. I know the endless tributes seem over the top to some people -- journalists tend to get overpraised when they pass, because it's journalists who do the praising. But I do think Russert was different, in that lots of ordinary people -- not political junkies or Washington types -- related to him as the working-class kid from Buffalo, the Bills fan, the good-humored guy who took his questions seriously but not himself. All kinds of friends and neighbors who don't care much about politics are telling me how much they loved Russert. I confess that I'm surprised how deep a chord he struck with much of the public.

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Missing Tim Russert: On Saturday Matt Lauer said "Somewhere he is pounding his fists and howling with frustration at missing this election" (or close to that). Us mere mortals are no less upset at being deprived of his wit, wisdom and priceless analysis. It is very noteworthy that Tim is being praised at not only a great journalist but as a good man. We all only can hope for such a remembrance.

Howard Kurtz: I think his book "Big Russ and Me" had a good deal to do with it. By celebrating his father -- an ordinary man, a former sanitation worker -- Tim said a lot about his values and the importance of family. He could have written a book about what a Washington big shot he was and all the important people he'd interviewed, but he didn't.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Mr. Kurtz, could you clarify something for me? I am under the impression that Mr. Russert, during his testimony at the Lewis Libby trial, said something to the effect that all his conversations with government officials and other newsmakers were "off the record" unless explicitly agreed to otherwise. If that is the case, I am baffled, because that seems backward to what I would think would be good journalistic practice (the individual is on the record unless otherwise agreed to). Did I misconstrue or misunderstand Mr. Russert's testimony, or is this perhaps an example of where a journalist, no matter how respected, sometimes can become too close to or enamored of sources or potential sources?

Howard Kurtz: What he meant was that when a government official called him in his capacity as bureau chief to complain about something, that was considered off the record unless agreed to otherwise. Russert's conversation with Libby took place because Scooter was calling to complain about something Chris Matthews had said. It wasn't like they were doing an interview or even having a political discussion; it was a call to Russert as a manager. It was only because Libby later claimed they had discussed Valerie Plame that it became a centerpiece of the trial. The jury believed Russert when he said Plame never was mentioned.

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"He's a brilliant analyst, but he's never hosted a show": Wow, sounds a lot like ... well, Tim Russert when he started out. Sometimes it is refreshing when the media goes out of the box instead of plucking the same old boring talking heads from journalism schools around the country. Having said that, isn't Gregory the obvious choice? NBC has been grooming him for some time now...

Howard Kurtz: David Gregory has to be considered a strong contender. And you're right, Russert had limited TV experience and never had hosted anything when he took over "Meet the Press" in 1991.

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New York: I have to say it ... Russert was not that great of an interviewer. He was very smart, likeable, usually fair and certainly had some terrific interviews, but generally speaking his folksy manner and gushing over guests he clearly admired did not make him the second coming of Murrow. However, I think he was a terrific guy, and was delighted that the priest mentioned him in Mass yesterday at a church with no connection to him.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think he was big on gushing. But look, no one's saying he was perfect. Not everyone liked his style. What I admired about his interviews was that he made it about the guest, not what Tim Russert thought, and his preparation was always intense. Doing good interviews is more than just being glib or quick on your feet -- you've got to do the homework.

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Anonymous: Is MSNBC going overboard with Russert coverage because it's a valid news item, or because it's a brand issue?

Howard Kurtz: I think that's unfair. You certainly can say MSNBC is going overboard -- Joe Scarborough said this morning they were wrestling with how much more to do -- or that Russert's importance is being inflated because he was their friend and colleague. But the idea that this is some kind of corporate branding exercise is absurd.

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What do you think the parents and spouses of fallen soldiers are thinking?: Two things: His death happened in the afternoon on a Friday; I'm sure the news will ease off after today or the very most his funeral Wednesday. And for political junkies, we saw Russert a heck of a lot on TV. It is tragic when soldiers die during war, but the truth is they are strangers. For many viewers it was almost as if we knew Tim personally, because of his always being on political news programs. Just sayin', there are differences that should be pointed out.

Howard Kurtz: Well, this reminds me of what happened when Bob Woodruff nearly was killed in Iraq, and again when Kimberly Dozier almost was killed by a roadside bomb. They were the first to say that what happened to them wasn't more important than what happened to American soldiers every day, who were taking more risks for their country. Of course they got far more attention because they were on television -- but both have tried to use the experience to direct attention back to soldiers suffering similar injuries.

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Katie Couric for "Meet the Press"?: Is Katie Couric a very likely possibility for the next host, as I read somewhere online? Has her relationship with Russert and other NBC honchos cooled in recent years?

Howard Kurtz: Who knows? She still has 2 1/2 years on her CBS contract. I'd think she would want more than just an hour on Sunday morning. Plus she is very likely to stay in the CBS anchor chair through the election, by which time this decision already may have been made.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I enjoyed Tim Russert's work and will miss him. I know the staff at NBC must be devastated. I did find it interesting that Keith Olbermann, who I am sure was grief stricken, criticized other media outlets for reporting Russert's death before his family had been notified. He was correct that reporting the news that way was probably wrong. What organizations did that? Also, does NBC News have a policy of waiting for the family to be notified before reporting a death?

Howard Kurtz: Some news organizations broke it online; the New York Times may have been in that category. CNN and Fox jointly agreed to wait for NBC to break the news, and NBC was waiting until the family was notified. CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrmann says CNN was particularly cautious because Tim's wife and son were in Italy and might have heard the news on CNN International. The networks generally don't report military deaths until the next of kin has been notified (and the Pentagon usually delays the news for that reason). On other kinds of deaths, I believe it's on a case-by-case basis.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think it was appropriate for Washington Post employee Michael Wilbon to be photographed with porn stars while covering the NBA Finals for The Post?

Howard Kurtz: You kidding? I'm jealous.

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Vienna, Va.: A Linda Douglass question, if I could. It's rare for a high-profile reporter (as opposed to commentator) to move to a campaign, isn't it? And isn't it even rarer for a high-profile reporter to move to a Republican campaign?

Howard Kurtz: It is rare at the national level. Used to be more common 25 to 30 years ago, but we now live in an age of professional spinners. As for party affiliation, I can think of two New York Times reporters who became spokesmen in Republican administrations.

The practice is not so rare at the state and local level, though. One Texas TV reporter who decided to join Gov. Bush, the man she'd been covering, was Karen Hughes.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Does anyone in the journalism business have enough distance from the story to realize how excessive and counterproductive all this Russert coverage is? To most people out here, he is just another part of the mainstream media, which on the whole is not doing so great. This repetitive indulgence about the guy just reinforces the notion that the news is about you guys, not about us and what we need to be competent citizens. Every star journalist should sign a living will requesting the media to greet their deaths with utmost modesty and restraint.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I can't argue with anyone who thinks that. I'll just say that Russert's career was about getting information to people who wanted to be competent citizens. I do think he was somewhat unique in the kind of following he had -- in part, as I've said, because of his Buffalo background and great show of affection for his dad. I haven't seen a response like this since Peter Jennings died, and that was also unexpected if not quite as abrupt. But I don't doubt that Russert would be saying: "Enough already! Time to move on!"

I'm moving on. Thanks for the chat.

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