Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 24, 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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Annapolis, Md.: Thanks for the great appreciation of Len Downie. I am amazed at what he has been able to accomplish, all while following the unfollowable Ben Bradlee. Usually, people say that the future of newspapers is one of two things: move more to the Internet, or dry up and blow away. I don't think the latter is going to happen, because the whole rest of the mainstream media depends on legwork, and it's got to be newspapers that do it since TV and cable won't. Is there an alternative model out there for the future? I won't ask you to speculate any further on Downie's successor, but do you think that the next great executive editor -- whoever that may be and wherever she or he may work -- will come in with a developed vision of the future, or do you think he or she is going to build it as it comes along?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't yet figured out a model that enables newspapers to maintain their sizable reporting staffs and still make money online, and no one else has either.

The next Post editor, like all newspaper editors these days, will have to do so many things: be a solid journalist, inspire the staff, get the paper out, find ways to hook younger readers and keep innovating on the Web. And an ability to lead the troops doesn't hurt.

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New York: Last time anyone paid attention, The Post's executive editor was equal to its publisher, both reporting to the CEO of the company. Why is the editorial side now being diminished as a creature of the business side? Is this another effort to keep a lid on costs?

Howard Kurtz: That's not right -- the executive editor always has reported to the publisher, just like at 99 percent of newspapers in the country. In The Post's case there have been times, with Katharine Graham and Don Graham, when the publisher was also the person running the company. One of the perks of ownership.

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Seattle: Thanks for having these chats, Howie. I'm glad you took a look at the coverage of Tim Russert's passing. May I ask how you came to the decision that NBC may have gone too far in its coverage? Was there a formula to it (Russert> 75 percent of Reagan = too much) or was it kind of like Justice Potter Stewart "I know it when I see it"?

Howard Kurtz: I know it when I hear it. I thought the first few days were entirely appropriate, given that this was a news division that was grieving and that there was an outpouring of public sympathy for Russert. By days five, six and seven, when MSNBC still was running Russert segments on its talk shows, I felt like some viewers were starting to say "enough already."

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'm sorry to hear Mr. Downie is retiring. He sounds like a great boss to work for. What do you think will be the key qualities your publisher will be looking for in a new editor? What will be the newsroom reaction if the new editor is someone brought in from the outside?

Howard Kurtz: Depends on who it is, I guess. It certainly would be a change for this newsroom, which has been run by Bradlee or Downie for 42 years. (Bradlee was technically an outsider, having come over from Newsweek, but he was a familiar member of the corporate family.) I believe one thing Katharine Weymouth will be looking for, which was never a factor in past hiring decisions, is someone who gets the Internet and has dynamic ideas about beefing up the Web site. In sheer numbers, with 9.4 million unique visitors a month, that's where Post journalism has its biggest audience right now.

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San Francisco: I saw you on CNN this morning and would like to say that I did not find the coverage of Tim Russert too much ... I didn't watch "Meet the Press," but did watch his Saturday cable shows and admired him greatly. I wish MSNBC would have replayed his funeral on the weekend, and that they would have repeated his Saturday interview shows. I just bought People magazine for the story on Tim -- first time I've ever bought People. His death is a huge loss, and all the coverage (I wish there were more) has been comforting. Best regards.

Howard Kurtz: MSNBC did replay the memorial service at least once. I'm not minimizing the importance of Tim Russert's passing -- I tried to give him his due as a journalist and as a person -- but as some of his friends have told me, he would have been amazed by the volume of coverage.

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Bethesda, Md.: Howard, I think that NBC should not think about finding a replacement for Tim Russert. The show is called "Meet the Press" not "Meet the Moderator" (Mr. Russert of course was the exception). Why not have a revolving guest moderator each week with a balanced panel of reporters from different forms of media to weigh in on the weeks political news. I don't think that the usual suspects at (MS)NBC (Matthews, Mitchell, Olbermann, Gregory and others) could carry the show on their own. Brokaw's great, but let's face it the guy was in retirement and Russert wore so many "hats" at the network. Why can't NBC news take a cue from "Saturday Night Live"? They don't have a host but rather a team of players who help the host of the week.

Howard Kurtz: You know, a number of people have suggested that, but I just don't see it happening. All the Sunday shows these days have a single moderator. It helps to have one person who sets the tone. Bob Schieffer over the years occasionally has brought in a second journalist to help with the questioning, and that's okay. When "This Week" had Sam, Cokie and George Will all trying to quiz one guest, I didn't think that worked very well.

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Pincus on A16: Howard, Has Len Downie ever expressed any public regret with the way that reporters like Walter Pincus were relegated to the back pages with their pieces on doubts about the Iraq war, while pro-government, pro-war stories topped the front page? I'm just curious. I've never heard him say anything about that topic. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: In a front-page story by me, Aug. 12, 2004:

In retrospect, said Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., "we were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part."

Across the country, "the voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones," Downie said. "We didn't pay enough attention to the minority."

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Silver Spring, Md.: The timing of the Tim Russert reference in Tom Carson's GQ column on Chris Matthews was unfortunate, but doesn't make his comments and criticisms of Keith Olbermann any less valid. I don't think I've ever read anything that painted such a spot-on portrait of this sportscaster. Although I don't believe him that he didn't lobby for the job, Olbermann is right that he isn't qualified to host "Meet the Press." He shouldn't even have been allowed near the camera during MSNBC's coverage of Russert's death. His whoring for Obama during the primaries was shameful. How many times will he be able to award Bill O'Reilly the Worst Person in the World if Obama is elected? The complete antithesis of Russert.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's an unfair comparison. Olbermann is in the opinion business -- he never has tried to be Tim Russert, and was candid in saying he's not qualified for "Meet the Press." Given the fiercely liberal nature of his show, Olbermann has very passionate fans and equally passionate detractors. I just think it'd be a stronger program if he allowed conservatives on once in awhile.

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Baltimore: Put me on the "way too much Russert" bench, unlike your earlier questioners. I might have forgiven it if it had been a slow news week, but huge swaths of the Midwest were under water or about to be under water while the talking heads kept going on and on about how great Timmeh was. It came across as a great deal of narcissism. Now they can make up for it only by devoting a similar amount of time to George Carlin.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the floods got covered, especially on the hard news shows, but I take your point. Russert was an important journalistic figure and an extremely decent human being, but the coverage at times seemed to reach Pope-like levels.

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Fairport, N.Y.: With Russert's unfortunate death and Downie's retirement, we're hearing a lot about what great reporters/editors these guys were. Why aren't we hearing more about about both men's spectacular failure during the run-up to the Iraq war?

Howard Kurtz: I dealt with that in my Downie story today. As for Russert, he was a political analyst, not a reporter, so he wouldn't be the one to uncover the lack of WMDs. But he did press administration officials. Everyone remembers Dick Cheney predicting that we would be "greeted as liberators" in Iraq, days before the invasion. Here's how Russert followed up:

"If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist -- particularly in Baghdad -- do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly and bloody battle with significant American casualties?"

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Interesting that NBC is going with Brokaw, a man I can't imagine getting involved with the likes of Rove or Libby. They clearly don't see this as a place for their ideologues, Morning Joe, Matthews or Olbermann. Great move, huh?

Howard Kurtz: It's a very smart move for NBC. Brokaw was the anchor for 22 years, is a former White House correspondent, loves politics and has the requisite stature. What's more, as he told me, NBC executives need a little breathing room to figure out who the long-term successor to Russert is going to be, and Tom buys them some time in the middle of an election.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Is the reason that NBC named Tom Brokaw the interim host of "Meet the Press" because they don't really want to address their future now? They have people at the network who are qualified to permanently take over now, like David Gregory or Andrea Mitchell. I know they're still grieving, but why not go ahead and name somebody already at NBC?

Howard Kurtz: Besides the fact that they're grieving, these things are not done with the snap of a finger. Contracts have to be worked out, agents get involved, and so on. That's not easy to do in the middle of a presidential campaign when it comes to an opening you never expected to have. That's why Brokaw is stepping in.

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Paterson, N.J.: The excess over Russert's death is symptomatic of what generally is wrong with television journalism; excessive coverage of drama and a preference for nice stories to entertain us. It's not like he was the successful captain of a victorious team either -- the current precarious state of the media is depressing and not cause for celebration. One day of noting that he was self-made and successful, a very nice man who was liked and respected by his peers and who had lots of fans, would have done nicely.

Howard Kurtz: Well, keep in mind we're mainly talking about NBC and MSNBC, where Russert was kind of a spiritual leader. Other news organizations didn't do continuous coverage day after day -- and People, as someone mentioned earlier, certainly had no obligation to do a cover story on Tim. The current state of the media may indeed be depressing, but Russert had turned "Meet the Press" into the top-rated Sunday show, and when he pronounced the Democratic race over after midnight on May 6 -- a night I happened to be at "30 Rock" -- all the other pundits seemed to fall into line.

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Boston: The Daily Mail (U.K.) gave a rather startling report on McCain, his first wife and their break-up. Why do the Brits and others get to know this about the guy who is running for the U.S. presidency, but the U.S. media gives the story the short shrift?

Howard Kurtz: I wrote about this on my blog a couple of weeks ago. Nothing in there was new (except perhaps to British readers). McCain has said repeatedly that he was responsible for the breakup of his first marriage, and his ex-wife Carol continues to support him. I'm sure this all will get rehashed later in the campaign, and it's fair game for a presidential candidate, but it's not exactly breaking news.

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Auburn, Mass.: What do you think about Gwen Ifill as a replacement for Tim Russert? I realize she's not at NBC, but anyone can be lured away, right? Seems to me that she has the "zest" and the air of impartiality, in addition to her grasp of the issues and players. Any hope that this could happen?

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't rule it out, especially given that Gwen once worked at NBC (hired by Tim) and remained an occasional panelist on "Meet the Press." Of course, she has a successful career at PBS, where she knows something about moderating a weekly program.

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Re: Bethesda, Md.: I like the idea of revolving moderators. One thing that Sunday shows suffer from is that the show becomes about the moderator, not the people being interviewed. Also, as McClellan's book showed, a stable moderator means that savvy guests know how to spin the moderator to get out a message in the way they want.

Howard Kurtz: But savvy guests can spin rotating moderators too. Any decent interviewer must learn how to cope with a politician's talking points. Which reminds me of an interview I did with Russert four years ago.

"Q. Do you get frustrated when politicians launch into their talking points?

"A. Sure. Yeah. I try to anticipate them by saying, you know, 'Senator, I know you've said . . .,' and you take away at least the first time they say it . . . You instinctively want to lean across the table and choke 'em and say, 'Stop! We've heard it!'

"Q. That would be good television.

"A. The fact is, you would then make your guest enormously sympathetic to the viewing public. When a guest comes on and gives the same answer three and four times, the viewer says, one, 'He's not answering a question,' and, two, in the words of my dad, 'That guy's a phony.' And that's devastating. And it always amazes me that the guest would leave and all the handlers are giving high-fives that he had ducked the tough one. He didn't do anything. He made a terrible impression with 5 million viewers who are saying, 'Why won't you answer the question?' "

Also, I don't agree that these shows become all about the moderator. Is "Face the Nation" primarily about Bob Schieffer's personality, or is "Late Edition" about Wolf Blitzer's? I don't think so.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: What are your thoughts on Facebook a year in? Do you think it has changed the way you interact with readers? The way you report stories? Is there a future in this social media thing?

Howard Kurtz: Facebook is a remarkable place and is growing in popularity every day. I have gotten a number of tips and insights by being on there. People always are posting new links and creating new groups.

When I first joined early last year, it was mostly a way of checking out the youth culture, but within months I started to get friended by (older) journalists, congressional aides, business executives and a CEO or two. So I guess you could say it's become more establishment in nature, but more influential as well.

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Contracts have to be worked out, agents get involved, and so on: Isn't another reason NBC isn't naming a new permanent moderator for "Meet The Press" yet that they need to get research done on Q scores, likability, etc., of the potential candidates?

Howard Kurtz: Whaddya think this is, Hollywood?

I don't think NBC will be doing any focus groups on potential candidates for "Meet the Press." If you can't pick someone for that job without taking a poll, it's time to find a new line of work.

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The Other Side of the Wall?: I know he is on the other side of the wall, but Richard Cohen's column today was startling. McCain is a better person because he was a POW? Does this type of off-key thinking result in McCain's kid glove media treatment?

Howard Kurtz: Cohen can defend himself, but let's not oversimplify what he said. And this followed a recitation of McCain's various flip-flops:

"But here is the difference between McCain and Obama -- and Obama had better pay attention. McCain is a known commodity. It's not just that he's been around a long time and staked out positions antithetical to those of his Republican base. It's also -- and more important -- that we know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over. This -- not just his candor and nonstop verbosity on the Straight Talk Express -- is what commends him to so many journalists.

"Obama might have a similar bottom line, core principles for which, in some sense, he is willing to die. If so, we don't know what they are. Nothing so far in his life approaches McCain's decision to refuse repatriation as a POW so as to deny his jailors a propaganda coup. In fact, there is scant evidence the Illinois senator takes positions that challenge his base or otherwise threaten him politically. That's why his reversal on campaign financing and his transparently false justification of it matter more than similar acts by McCain."

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Coverage of Public Financing: I think that coverage of the public financing has been rather disingenuous. Many outlets, including an article on Friday in The Post, stated that Obama broke a "promise" or a "pledge" to seek public financing. However, the only reporting I've seen on the so-called promise is that he answered a questionnaire on the issue by stating that he supported the idea of public financing, and would work with the Republican nominee to broker a deal. Is there some other "promise" to actually take the funds?

Plus, far more troubling and rarely explained is McCain's attempt to opt out of public financing after using the forthcoming financing as collateral for a loan during the primary. His actions probably would have violated McCain-Feingold Act, ironically, if there were an FEC quorum to hold him accountable. Seems like a double-standard to me.

Howard Kurtz: Newspapers have pointed out McCain's finagling; television, not so much. But Obama repeatedly had said or suggested that he would take public financing, including in a February debate where Russert pressed him on whether he was breaking his word. The Obama campaign hasn't tried to deny that this is a change of position; instead, he and his aides have tried to justify the move by claiming that the system is broken, that conservative 527s might attack him, etc.

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"Olbermann is in the opinion business.": You wouldn't know it by asking MSNBC -- they label "Countdown" as a hard news show (no different than "The Situation Room" or Shepard Smith's show).

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure where this "labeling" is done -- and I'm not saying Keith doesn't deal with hard news -- but "Countdown" obviously revolves around opinion. MSNBC executives are the first to acknowledge that.

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Washington: For all those people who are suggesting that NBC find someone immediately to host "Meet the Press," I ask: "If the operating head of your company left on a moment's notice -- someone who was expected to remain there for the long term -- would you think it in the best interest of your company to find someone to take over on a moment's notice? Or would you think the company -- even if there were any number of qualified people available (from inside or outside the organization) -- should take a little time to ensure that successor be the right person for the (new) long term?"

Howard Kurtz: My point exactly. People are failing to recognize the human factor here. And given that "Meet the Press" brings in big bucks, this is not just an important journalistic decision for NBC, but a financial one as well.

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Russert: So you remember the interview you did with Russert four years ago, but don't remember when Olbermann told you two years ago that he doesn't have conservatives on his show because they are scared? Guess that wouldn't fit your demand that Olbermann invite some conservatives to be on his show.

Howard Kurtz: Where do you get this stuff? What Olbermann told me in an interview a few months ago was that he's concerned that having conservative guests would degenerate into talking-point debates with liberal guests. But, of course, he doesn't have to put them on at the same time. It'd be interesting to see him match wits with some smart conservatives. I'm sure Pat Buchanan could be persuaded to do it, and maybe a few others.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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