Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, July 1, 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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San Francisco: I'm wondering if there will be any reconsideration of The Russert Myth now that Gov. Schwarzenegger has shared with Tom Brokaw on "Meet the Press" that Tim told him he'd get the Constitution changed so that Arnold could be president. Besides illustrating Russert's novel understanding of the Constitutional amendment process, does this show objective news judgment about one's subjects?

Howard Kurtz: Here's what Ahnold said about Russert: "I remember when I ran for governor, he called me, and he says, 'If you make that, if you win, then I will take care of the rest.' And I said, 'What are you talking about?' And he says, 'I will get you to run for president. I will make sure that we change the Constitution.' "

Sounds to me like it was just banter. What power did Tim Russert have to change the constitutional ban on foreign-born citizens being elected president? And since Schwarzenegger was elected in 2003, had Russert ever spoken out on the issue? Not that I'm aware of.

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Columbia, Md.: Hey Howie, when is CNN going to give you and your TV show the respect you and your show deserve and upgrade your show to High Definition? I am tired of watching everything else on CNN in HD and then tuning in on Sunday to find CNN keeping your stuck back in the 20th century!

Howard Kurtz: I guess I'd worry more if I had a high-def TV myself. CNN is making the transition, like other networks, and I'm sure we'll get there eventually. At which point I will need even more makeup.

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Bremerton, Wash.: We've got "Fight the Smears" vs. PolitiFact vs. AM Radio when it comes to all sorts of rumors in the campaigns this year. Is there any way to get the truth to the people in Findlay, Ohio, who were written about earlier this week?

washingtonpost.com: In Flag City USA, False Obama Rumors Are Flying (Post, June 30)

Howard Kurtz: You know, I'm kind of down about that. I think the media could do a better job of knocking down rumors and smears of all kinds, but there was one woman quoted in the piece who said she told her friends that Obama is a Christian, and handed them his two books, but they refused to read them. "They just want to believe what they believe," she said. How do journalists deal with that?

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Frederick, Md.: In light of the anthrax settlement, do you think both media and law enforcement will stop hiding behind the fig-leaf characterization of someone being "a person of interest"? It seems the term came into use following the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing media snafu. Law enforcement can claim that a person is not a suspect, and the media can claim they are just reporting what law enforcement says, but it seems that suspects still are being identified as suspects no matter what they are being called.

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Settles With Scientist Named in Anthrax Cases (Post, June 28)

Howard Kurtz: What bothers me is not the media reporting on someone officially designated that way, but the stories based on leaks from unnamed officials that so-and-so is a person of interest. As we've seen time and again -- most recently in the Steven Hatfill case -- that often turns out to be wrong. It means the authorities don't have enough evidence even to brand someone a suspect.

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Washington Thanks for the chat Howard. In your column today, you write the following: "But Barack Obama frequently prefaces his criticism of McCain with a nod to his honorable service. Which raises the question: What was Wes thinking?"

Here is what Wes Clark said to Bob Schieffer immediately before his statement: "I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war, he has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility."

Two questions: Did you watch the exchange before writing? If so, what further deference would you recommend Clark providing to John McCain prior to discussing his qualifications to become president?

washingtonpost.com: Clark Misfires (Post, July 1)

Howard Kurtz: Yes, of course I saw it. But after that obligatory praise, Clark launched his attack about McCain not being qualified just because he was shot down. I don't think McCain would claim he's qualified to be president just because his plane was shot down, or because he was a POW, but it was a pretty dismissive way to go after McCain, and you'll note that Obama quickly disavowed the comments.

It has been good for Clark, though: He has been on MSNBC and "Good Morning America" and will be on CNN later today.

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De Kalb, Ill.: Mr. Kurtz, as a recent resident of Illinois, I'm surprised by the way the Chicago Tribune and local TV treat Sen. Obama with "kid gloves" while essentially ignoring both Sens. Clinton and McCain. I had just assumed this was a sort of home-field advantage, and not indicative of a larger media trend, but the national examples you have presented refute that. Do you think your writings will have any impact on the media's coverage of Sen. Obama? Or will "Saturday Night Live" and Jon Stewart have to bring the media back to a neutral stance.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I do think an imbalance in the volume of coverage is a problem. As I wrote last week, since 2006 Obama has been on the cover of Time and Newsweek 11 times, and McCain has been featured five times. (Nor have John and Cindy been on the cover of Us Weekly the way Barack and Michelle were a couple of weeks ago.) Obviously Obama got more coverage as the Democratic primary dragged on for three months after McCain sewed up the nomination, but the media no longer have that excuse.

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Washington: Howard, great column as always. Today, on a McCain conference call, one of the speakers said the following: "Gen. Clark probably wouldn't get that much praise from this group. I can't speak for them, but we all know that Gen. Clark, as high-ranking as he is, his record in his last command I think was somewhat less than stellar."

Do you think the press will question McCain on this attack on a fellow service person's record, which Clark did not do, or do you think it will be ignored because Clark is not the candidate? Has McCain's life story and coziness with the press allowed him to get away with hypocrisy, as Richard Cohen stated last week?

Howard Kurtz: Given the number of McCain flip-flop stories lately, including one in the Los Angeles Times today on his energy record, I don't think so. Clark did draw criticism as NATO commander and was relieved of his command, a matter that was well-scrutinized during his 2004 campaign. You hardly can blame McCain surrogates for sniping at Clark now that he's making the television rounds criticizing McCain's Vietnam record.

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Kansas City, Mo.: Regarding Flag City, if a reporter is told something untrue by someone he/she is interviewing, should they refute the falsehood, or does that make the reporter viewed as a partisan? Where do you draw the line?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's fine to report that people believe something false -- much of campaign journalism, after all, is about what voters believe -- as long as you make clear that it is false. If X percent of Americans wrongly believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that doesn't make it true, but it does constitute a political fact that he -- and the media -- have to deal with.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I doubt these people really believe Obama is a Muslim; they just don't want him to win. Kind of like how the jury in the O.J. trial probably deep down knew he murdered his wife, but couldn't stand convicting him.

Howard Kurtz: Not an analogy I would have used. I'm sure some people really believe it, while others are using it as a kind of shorthand for their doubts about Obama.

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Lincoln, Mass.: Hi Howard. What are your feelings about the Olbermann-O'Reilly (MSNBC-FOX) battle? Is network partisanship the future direction for broadcast news? By the way, I sort of like it as -- a vehicle for developing strong opinions -- much like I enjoy "Hardball" (though I'd say Matthews keeps his show pretty bipartisan).

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's great entertainment for the rest of us, but it really has gotten kind of nasty. As I reported a few weeks ago, Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Jeff Zucker, Steve Capus and GE chief Jeffrey Immelt have all gotten dragged into the ongoing dispute. Barely a day seems to go by without Murdoch's New York Post (on Page Six) printing some rumor about Olbermann, followed by Keith denouncing the paper (and its boss) on his show.

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Chicago: I would take the comments from "De Kalb" with a grain of salt. The Chicago Tribune is a Republican newspaper -- its founding charter says so, and I'm not sure they ever have deviated from that. Anyone who thinks the Trib has gone soft on Obama hasn't been reading it. They've covered the Rezko trial, any criticism lobbed at Obama from any quarter, anything McCain does, etc. Not to mention the daily reader comments they publish from people like "DeKalb" who attack him mercilessly.

Howard Kurtz: The Tribune (which is conservative on its editorial page) has broken a number of stories about Obama in the past couple of years.

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Hampton Cove, Ala.: Howie, are you reading The Washington Post's coverage of every Obama speech? Don't you think some writers are just too blinded by love to give objective coverage? It is amazing how the writers (who no longer qualify as journalists) are so much more skeptical of Republican speeches, but seem so gullible with Obama.

Howard Kurtz: No, I don't think our reporters (columnists aside) are too blinded by love, or even in love. You don't cite any specifics for me to respond to. When I think The Post and other outlets have been too soft on Obama, I say so. Most recently, I thought he got something of a pass in the coverage of his flip-flops on public financing and the D.C. gun ban. Instead, we had these analyses a couple of days later about how he gently was moving to the center. The Post, however, did put flip-flops in the headline of its follow-up piece.

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Charleston, S.C.: I was listening to Ed Schultz on CNN last night and he reiterated something I have heard him say before: The press had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton's campaign problems. (She made some of her own problems, but her press coverage left a lot to be desired.) I am curious -- do individuals who research journalism ever examine the tone of the speakers? I was wondering if anyone ever does a spectral analysis of the tone of speech? It was noticeable to me as a listener that Mr. Schultz had a contemptuous tone when he spoke of Hillary Clinton. The same thing is true of Stephanie Miller, Keith Olbermann, etc. -- individuals who would imply they were not against Clinton, but the tones of whose voices implied they were.

Howard Kurtz: Ed Schultz is a liberal radio talk show host. He's paid for his opinions. He slammed Hillary several times during the primaries for not coming on his show. I happen to think press coverage was a factor in Hillary's political demise, but not as big a factor as all the well-documented mistakes she and her campaign made.

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Austin, Texas: Why are some "unsubstantiated reports" different than others? I just spent several minutes watching CNN make a big joke out of Bill Clinton allegedly saying that Obama can "kiss my ass." Seriously -- there wasn't a single piece of solid reporting there, but they went on and on about it and made it a joke. What is your opinion on this? To me it seems to make CNN and the reporters look like asses, but what do I know -- I'm no journalistic professional like they are.

Howard Kurtz: That's the media echo chamber at work. The London Telegraph quotes some unnamed Democrat as saying Clinton made the "ass" comment and it ricochets around the airwaves and the 'Net. Who knows if it's true? Who knows if the source had first-hand knowledge? But if enough people hear it, they'll assume it's a fact.

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Arlington, Va.: Here's one from your own backyard: Local thug kills cop, it ends up on, what, page B38 of The Post? Corrections officer(s) kill local thug, however, and The Post pushes the story to the national media. Is this really a national news story? How many days of front-page news does it even deserve locally? It looks to a dispassionate observer like perhaps The Post needs to make a big deal about racism in white America -- deep-seated racism so vile that it only can be solved by electing a black president in November. Or is there another agenda at work?

Howard Kurtz: It would help if some of you checked your facts. Here's the original Post story: "Police Officer Killed In Md.; Suspects' Vehicle Struck Corporal In Prince George's." It ran on Page 1, not Page 38. The death of an accused cop-killer in custody is also big news, especially with this revelation that the guy was strangled. But the paper hardly underplayed the tragedy of the officer's death.

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Re: Bias: Is it possible that the media just doesn't do a good job of covering politics (for the most part)? I mean, both sides constantly are criticizing the media for bias or love of a specific candidate. For every Republican who complains about Obama getting a free pass on public financing, there is a liberal who will point to the media giving McCain a pass on the Bush tax cuts. D.C. gun ban meets immigration. Obama treated like a rock star vs. McCain treated like the maverick he was eight years ago.

Howard Kurtz: It's certainly possible that the media aren't doing a great job covering politics -- that's ultimately up to all of you -- but the fact that both sides are carping about the coverage doesn't prove it's lousy coverage, it just means each side is picking out stories or omissions that they view as hurting their candidate and criticizing the media accordingly.

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Columbus, Ohio: Howie: Do you agree with those who claim that golf commentator Johnny Miller would not have gotten off so lightly if he had made remarks about Tiger Woods similar to his comments about the Italian heritage of golfer Rocco Mediate?

washingtonpost.com: NBC's Miller apologizes for comments about Mediate (AP, June 22)

Howard Kurtz: For those of you who missed it, Miller said Mediate "looks like the guy who cleans Tiger's swimming pool." He also said that "guys with the name 'Rocco' don't get on the trophy, do they?"

That is pretty bad -- in fact, reprehensible. If the comments were meant to be funny, they weren't. Sure, similar slurs against Tiger would have been a bigger story, but Tiger is a much bigger name. Until the U.S. Open, most people (including me) never had heard of Rocco Mediate.

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Flip-Flops: Hmm. Didn't Lincoln flip-flop on slavery? Didn't Roosevelt flip-flop on deficit spending? How about Bush on nation-building?

Howard Kurtz: There's nothing wrong with a politician changing his position -- sometimes that is a sign of growth, or of accommodating a situation that has changed. What ticks me off is that pols do it all the time without admitting it -- without saying "hey, I changed my mind and here's why." Instead they try to slide by without admitting they have flipped.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why is business news reported in its own section separate from the political news when everyone knows that politics and business are totally integrated in America? Isn't it misleading if not downright dishonest for The Post to report them separately instead of connecting the dots and reporting on the relationships between, for example, legislative deals born of lobbying activity on behalf of corporate interests, and the political beneficiaries of such arrangements? Wouldn't you be doing a public service by clarifying those connections -- often unseen -- that impact public policy affecting us all, rather than helping to keep those connections out of sight and hence out of the public's mind?

Howard Kurtz: For the same reason that local, cultural and sports news run in their own sections: Because a newspaper is easier to navigate when it's carved up into separate pieces. The best and most important business stories land on Page 1; for the rest, you know every day where to find them. People who have no interest in financial news can avoid it, just as others can bypass the sports section.

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Washington: Howard, I'm curious how a story moves from being a local story to a national one. Just the other day, I read a horrifying item in a blog about a female soldier's death that was ruled a suicide by the Army. Now the local television station, KMOV, has reviewed the reports and found that her genitals were soaked with bleach, her face beaten up, the bullet wounds were too small to be from her weapon, she's right-handed and the wound was on the left, etc. so evidence indicates it was not a suicide. She's also African American. If she were white, would this get more attention?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see race as a factor here. The story has gotten a lot of attention; I've read about it and seen it on TV. What slowed the coverage at first, I think, is that she was just reported to be missing; then when she was found dead, it wasn't clear what the circumstances were or who might be responsible. I don't think that story is over by a long shot.

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Washington: Howard, with relation to your mention of Chris Matthews taking money from the union group for making calls on their behalf, but then claiming he was not violating NBC policy because he donates it to charity -- isn't this a distinction without a difference? I don't understand why his donating his payment to charity absolves him of what would seem to be a pretty blatant violation of the network's policy.

Howard Kurtz: It's a distinction with a very large difference. If none of the money goes into Matthews's pocket, that is considered by NBC to remove any conflict. The telephone message is one that he taped to promote his appearance before the Multiservice Food Operators. It's just funny to hear him use his "Hardball" cadence to hype a restaurant convention.

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The "Military Experience" Canard: Why does the media play into McCain's favored strategy of linking not just national security and foreign policy issues to his military record, but all issues he's challenged on? Remember that this is a man who linked health care to his POW experience not too long ago. Many things can be said about McCain's military service; that it automatically qualifies him for the presidency isn't one of them.

Howard Kurtz: I don't understand your objection. If McCain wants to work foreign policy or national security into much of what he does, part of our obligation is to report it. It's also our obligation to analyze his tactics and to say whether he is using it as a blanket to cover his approach to domestic issues.

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San Francisco: Really tired of watching media bloviators fill one hour after another with running-mate speculation, Howard. Do you think the cable hosts and guests will discuss FISA, or the president's odd speech crediting McCain on the new GI Bill, or Zimbabwe, or any of last week's torture hearings on Capitol Hill? It takes no money or expertise to speculate on running mates -- and it shows lately.

Howard Kurtz: The veepstakes thing is driving me nuts. Yes, it's easier to blabber about than Zimbabwe. The fact is, we have no new information about who either man might choose, and day after day on cable, I hear chatter about Romney and Hagel and Biden and Sebelius and Webb and on and on. Pure speculation, nothing more. And we could be facing two more months of this.

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Pittsburgh: "Regarding Flag City, if a reporter is told something untrue by someone he/she is interviewing, should they refute the falsehood?" I thought Kansas City was asking whether the reporter should inform the interviewee that what she/he has told the reporter is false. What is your opinion on this?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, if only to report the person's reaction when he or she is challenged with the facts.

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Arlington, Va.: Hello Howard. As I'm reading the comments, I can't help but see how the tendency to categorize everything media/politics into simple red/blue camps is getting out of control. People have been closing their minds to other points of view, and instead choose news outlets that confirm their way of thinking. Is it my imagination, or is this trend getting worse? This is not good for a healthy democracy.

Howard Kurtz: That has occurred to me now and then. Surely there are some people out there capable of saying, "I like Obama, but that was a fair criticism of him," or "I love McCain, but he should be pressed on such-and-such." What bothers me is the tendency to assume that if you don't like some story on your man, it's a conspiracy, that the media are in the tank for the other side and so on.

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New York: You "don't think race is involved" in the story of the female U.S. soldier? Okay, how much will you bet me that CNN will end up giving this story as much coverage as Ms. Holloway?

Howard Kurtz: Oh, I've criticized the cable networks again and again for their "missing white women" fixation, with special emphasis on young and attractive missing white women. But this story seemed to me in a different category because, until now, we've known so little about it.

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D.C. gun non-ban: Howard, wasn't the Washington "Bullets" a terrible name for a local sports team? Were there protests or editorials about it?

Howard Kurtz: I kinda liked it. I think we're too sensitive about these things sometimes. But the club changed it to Wizards because ultimately it was seen as an affront in a city with a substantial crime problem. Originally, of course, it was the Baltimore Bullets.

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New York: Howard, the other day I heard an NPR interview with an NRA official about the recent Supreme Court's rejection of the D.C. handgun ban. The interviewer mentioned that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome invited gun supporters to spend a few nights in an inner-city apartment to experience first-hand the effects of that decision. The NRA official then proceeded to call Newsome a name -- I can't remember it exactly, but the word "moron" was part of it. The NPR interviewer didn't miss a beat, just went on to the next question. Should the reporter have said, "excuse me, but why did you call him a moron" or something similar? Sometimes I think public discourse deteriorates because people aren't called on such things. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't hear the interview, but that would have been my reaction.

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New York: If Salter is to be believed, there's a pecking order in McCain's new campaign plane ("good" reporters get the nod to be up front with the "kewl kids"). What does Salter mean by "good"? Is it all just donuts with sprinkles, or is he hoping for editorial "goodness," too? Do you think "jokes" like this one can still have a chilling effect on what is reported (and how) by those on his campaign bus and plane?

Howard Kurtz: I think Mark Salter, McCain's longtime aide, was joking, and that we should all lighten up. Can you imagine the uproar if the McCain campaign actually had a policy of rewarding favorable reporters with access to the candidate on the plane, and shutting out those who dared to be critical? There would be a media revolt.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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