Critiquing the Press

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Former conservative commentator and White House press secretary Tony Snow has died of cancer. He was 53. Video by AP

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 14, 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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Rolla, Mo.: Doesn't the New Yorker cover show how much they actually don't understand the very people they are trying to lampoon, given that this picture will be used over and over during the rest of this campaign by those very people?

washingtonpost.com: The Trail: 'Tasteless and Offensive' New Yorker Cover Riles Obama Campaign (washingtonpost.com, July 14)

Howard Kurtz: When I talked to Editor David Remnick about this -- see my column today -- he was convinced it was an obvious satire and wasn't worried that people would take it the wrong way. But I knew it would be like throwing nitroglycerin on the campaign trail. Portraying Obama and his wife as Muslim terrorists may be a provocative way to get people buzzing about your magazine, but it also has the effect of putting all the ugly smears about the candidate out there in one arresting visual.

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Washington: Nice tributes to Mr. Snow this weekend. Because I don't watch Fox much, I really only became familiar with Mr. Snow after he became press secretary. Partisanship aside, it was clear that his style of communication made him far better suited to the job than Scott McClellan. Did the press corps ever wonder why the White House kept McClellan on for so long?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, like every other day. One prevailing theory was that Bush wasn't terribly interested in communicating with the mainstream press, so he put someone out there mainly to play defense. (This, of course, was before McClellan's belated realization that he was a tool.) Snow, whatever you think of his politics, had an ease before the cameras that enabled him to drive a message and take on reporters in a much more aggressive way. And, as I wrote this morning, he was an extraordinarily decent human being.

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washingtonpost.com: Photo Gallery: Tony Snow 1955 - 2008

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Arlington, Va.: What was David Remnick thinking when he green-lighted that New Yorker cover? For everyone like me who gets the cover (and likes or hates it), there were be 10 who will say "see, I told you he was a Muslim terrorist who hates America!"

Howard Kurtz: I can tell you what he was thinking, thanks to this old-fashioned technique called reporting. Here's what Remnick told me:

"It's clearly a joke, a parody of these crazy fears and rumors and scare tactics about Obama's past and ideology. And if you can't tell it's a joke by the flag burning in the Oval Office, I don't know what more to say...

"If I started self-censoring myself and my writers and artists because someone might take it askance, I'd publish nothing that wasn't bland and inoffensive. Satire is offensive sometimes, otherwise it's not very effective."

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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, Mark Halperin was on the other day lamenting how the media was talking about Jesse Jackson and Phil Gramm, because there are some really big issues to discuss in this election. Isn't it a bit ironic that a guy who gets his cues from Drudge is lamenting about the gossipy gotcha journalism?

Howard Kurtz: To say that Halperin gets his cues from Drudge is a gross distortion. He has written about the impact that Matt Drudge has on the political media. So, for that matter, have I. As for Jackson and Gramm, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss them as mere distractions. Jesse was covered mainly for the crudeness of his "nuts" comment, but his gripe that Obama was "talking down to black people" -- true or untrue -- represents a strain of thinking in the African American community that deserved more attention. As for Gramm -- a former presidential candidate who's the co-chairman of McCain's effort -- saying that the recession is "mental" and that America has become a "nation of whiners," what's more important than debating whether he's right about the economy or not? McCain disavowed Gramm's remarks to the Washington Times, but the two men are very close.

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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, with all of the Bush officials refusing to testify citing executive privilege, why has the media been so quiet? I remember during the Clinton years, all Executive Privilege claims were greeted with wall-to-wall cable coverage complete with outraged conservatives. Why the lack of coverage in the mainstream media?

Howard Kurtz: Because we're all off covering the campaign and Bush administration controversies that once would have been huge now are treated as decidedly back-burner.

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Clifton, Va.: Sorry Howie, I see the New Yorker cover as portraying Michelle Obama as either as black power/Black Panther activist or a member of Hamas or Hezbollah, with the fatigues with as a little Castro/Chavez symbolism! Obama needs to grow up and find a set!

Howard Kurtz: I guess there's room for different interpretations, but she wields a mean AK-47 in that drawing.

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Howard, please make it stop: I mean, the incessant replaying of a beauty queen falling on the runway! Are there not enough hard news stories that we have to be subjected to seeing this over and over? Why is this news? This is less important than the incessant coverage of Jolie-Pitt offspring. Do TV news producers have some kind of a thing about beauty contestants falling? Is this a male thing? This just doesn't compute for me. Am I too elitist, or too mature? I'm so confused...

Howard Kurtz: Cable producers have a fatal weakness for eye-catching video. It almost doesn't matter what it is, as long as it can be replayed repeatedly and cause water-cooler talk. Of course, it doesn't hurt if it's a beautiful woman in a bikini.

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Chagrin Falls, Ohio: Mr. Kurtz, you were upset when bloggers said cruel things about Ted Kennedy's cancer -- rightly so. What do you have to say about those doing the same thing with Tony Snow?

washingtonpost.com: As Good as His Words: Spokesman Tony Snow Earned Press's Respect (Post, July 14)

Howard Kurtz: I would say it's outrageous, but I personally haven't seen any examples. I'm not saying that Snow's life and career should be above criticism because of his death -- we don't need to sanitize the lives of those who pass away -- but crude and hateful comments about someone who has just died should be shunned.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Enough of Tony Snow. Is The Post getting any response to the prospective 12-part series on Chandra Levy, who is still cute and still dead and not exactly a major issue at this particular moment? I never have seen an American newspaper fall so far so fast. What next -- naked girls on Page Three?

Howard Kurtz: I certainly can understand many people saying The Post is going overboard -- I mean, a 12-part series on a previously unknown woman who was killed seven years ago? -- but one thing it is not is sensational. It's a serious attempt to examine a well-known Washington mystery, which of course did become the subject of an embarrassing media frenzy in the summer of 2001 because of her relationship with Gary Condit. But it's not like anyone expects a circulation spike because of this series.

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Indianola, Iowa: No question, just a comment: The press needs to be licensed. Period.

Howard Kurtz: Ah. And who exactly should do the licensing? The government? Some goo-goo commission? Who would appoint its members? You're familiar with the Bill of Rights? Check out one of the amendments, I think it's the First. Besides, anyone who doesn't like the mainstream media these days can hang out a cyber-shingle and share their views with the online world, and you certainly don't need a license to do that.

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Washington: How do I make this not sound like a critic of Snow? This is not the time for that, but this is about White House coverage. Didn't journalists cut Snow some slack simply because he seemed like "an extraordinarily decent human being"? McClellan and Snow got up every day and did the same job, yet they were treated differently by the press. One wonders if, had the Bush administration started with Snow, we'd have any real reporting on White House policy. Is it somehow different if a nice pleasant man sells you a bill of goods versus a mean, nasty one?

Howard Kurtz: It's exactly the opposite: Reporters didn't cut Snow any slack at all, because he was an experienced combatant. The arguments and confrontations he had with the likes of David Gregory, Martha Raddatz, Jim Axelrod and Ed Henry were legion, and sometimes very heated. He once thanked Helen Thomas for offering "the Hezbollah point of view." And yet when I interviewed these people, they would say that Tony was doing his job and they were doing theirs, and that they liked and respected him personally. Nothing wrong with that.

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Silver Spring, Md.: You said: "We don't need to sanitize the lives of those who pass away. But crude and hateful comments about someone who's just died should be shunned." This is a saying usually repeated by those who have just said something nice about someone with a dubious or at least conflicted story. It cuts off criticism not of the recently departed, but the commenter.

Howard Kurtz: My point was the opposite: No need to cut off criticism. I included some in what I wrote today. I was talking only about the fringe types who seem to enjoy dancing on someone's grave.

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Seattle: I know why your column, dedicated to the media, has covered the death of Tony Snow intensely, but why have so many other papers covered his death more than DeBakey's death? I mean, the former White House press secretary versus the man who practically invented heart surgery?

washingtonpost.com: Pioneering Heart Surgeon (Post, July 13)

Howard Kurtz: It's interesting to compare people across professions. Clearly, Michael DeBakey was the more significant historical figure, especially considering that Snow was the White House spokesman for just 17 months. I noted that the New York Times put DeBakey's death out front and Snow's inside.

On the other hand, DeBakey was 99 and had been out of the news a long time, while Snow, whose life was cut short at 53, was very much a public figure of our time who just left the administration last year. And some people in New York may have been more interested in the death of Bobby Murcer, the longtime Yankees player and broadcaster. So media judgments may involve more than just who will get the longer entry in the history books.

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Montpelier, Vt.: I have sympathy for his family, but has anyone pointed out that Tony Snow was a liar and an apologist for the war crimes and torture practiced by the Bush administration? Honestly, not too many people would take that job and say what he said because too many people are honest and don't want to be defenders of the indefensible.

Howard Kurtz: I am not familiar with any instance in which he personally lied. (I am, however, familiar with instances in which he went too far in offering his opinion and had to apologize or pull back.) If you want to hold him responsible for what you see as the crimes of the Bush administration, be my guest.

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Media Self-Interest?: Seems to me that today's media works very hard to establish and twist stories to fit their needs for headlines. It is in their collective best interest to keep this race close and assist McCain whenever they can to attract more viewers and listeners. If they investigate McCain too deeply and find too many skeletons in the old closet (like the Keating stuff and dear Cindy's erstwhile troubles) they risk a landslide election, which is never good for news. They desperately want an all-nighter, with lawsuits, voter intimidation, fraud and so on. A good clean landslide does nothing for their ratings and continuing ease in printing manufactured framing, if not entire plotlines.

Howard Kurtz: That's just silly. Yes, reporters love a good horse race, but the fact is that this is a fairly close contest, and we're reflecting that. There is no shortage of effort to examine McCain's record and mistakes. Just the other day, the Los Angeles Times had a long front-page piece on the collapse of his first marriage -- during which he started dating Cindy -- and how some of his public statements are at odds with the public record. The press also has scrutinized McCain's flip-flops on offshore oil drilling, tax cuts and other matters.

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San Francisco: I'm reading "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" by Hunter Thompson to get into the spirit of things. On page 84, he writes: "The prevailing attitude among journalists with enough status to work Presidential Campaigns is that all politicians are congenital thieves and liars. This is usually true. Or at least as valid as the consensus opinion among politicians that The Press is a gang of swine. Both sides will agree that the other might occasionally produce an exception to prove the rule, but the overall bias is rigid ... and, having been on both sides of that ugly fence in my time, I tend to agree..." Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Who you gonna believe, me or a guy who was on drugs half the time? Hunter Thompson was tremendously talented, but I don't believe that's true, or was even true in 1972. (Remember, he often wrote with comic exaggeration.) To the contrary, political reporters seem to me to believe that those involved in the process -- candidates and their staffs -- are mostly honest and dedicated people devoted to public service. They also think candidates are egotistical, slippery and insanely ambitious, but those two assessments are not necessarily in contradiction.

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Falls Church, Va.: Any thoughts on The Post's decision to show a squeamishness about Jesse Jackson's crude remarks that it did not about Dick Cheney's?

Howard Kurtz: An absolute mistake, especially from the newspaper that ran Dick Cheney's F-word blast against Pat Leahy. Why dance around it? Why devote a whole story to the political fallout without telling your readers what the offending line is? After all, most people saw it a few dozen times on TV. It's not even obscene -- I use "nuts" all the time, though not in that context -- though it was definitely crude. Sometimes I think we go so far in "protecting" readers that we just look out of it.

The New York Times was even more vague than The Post, which drew criticism yesterday's from the paper's ombudsman. The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times published the exact quote. And then there was Tribune columnist Clarence Page, who referred to Obama's "twin objects of male anatomy." I asked him about that on "Reliable Sources," and he confessed: "I'm just an old prude."

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Working Parents: From your column: "But I was equally struck by his domestic duties at the time. With his wife out of town with their 13-year-old daughter, Snow was shuttling their 10-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter between lacrosse practice and piano and guitar lessons." Wow. A father taking an active role in the daily lives of his children. Amazing. Sorry, you made me laugh out loud at that. Speaking as one of millions of working-couple parents, there's nothing awesome about this -- don't think that our schedules are less frantic just because they aren't public. I do express my condolences to his family, who have lost such a father.

Howard Kurtz: I wasn't suggesting there was anything extraordinary about it -- hey, I change my share of diapers too -- but there are too many high-powered, ultra-successful people in Washington who basically contract out their parental responsibilities. Because Tony happened to be playing Mr. Mom during those few days when I was in constant touch with him, I thought it was worth pointing out.

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Not Speaking Ill of the Dead: The problem with both Russert and Snow is that the media knew these people personally, they died young, and we have to share in the media's personal grief. The tendency is to be so melodramatic that people like me tend to want to tell all of you to grow up -- these people weren't saints when they lived, and dying young doesn't make them saints now.

Howard Kurtz: No one is nominating Tony Snow for sainthood, but he was a public figure, and part of our job is to tell you what public figures are like. I wrote some of this when he was alive, in a series of news stories and profiles. I did the same in chronicling the careers of Mike McCurry and other White House press secretaries.

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New York: I find it kind of amusing that the New Yorker is in hot water for the "satirical" cover. The New Yorker has been overwhelmingly positive about Obama in all of its articles (and was horribly negative toward Hillary Clinton throughout the primary). This morning I watched Hertzberg on "Morning Joe" and he was nonplussed (guess he assumed we all knew his magazine was in the tank of Obama). He was insisting that Obama had not flip-flopped on a thing (er, well, FISA he conceded). Maybe today he learned something new -- Obama has no sense of humor and he's a control freak (see Shailagh Murray's article from today's Washington Post).

washingtonpost.com: In Obama's Circle, Chicago Remains The Tie That Binds (Post, July 14)

Howard Kurtz: Yes, the New Yorker has been supportive of Obama (although there are plenty of details in Ryan Lizza's mega-piece about his Chicago rise depicting Obama as a deal-cutting politician). Perhaps that's why Remnick felt the magazine had the standing to engage in what he sees as satire. Imagine the reaction if the Weekly Standard had run the same cover and Bill Kristol tried to shrug it off as mere humor.

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Phil Gramm and John McCain: Yeah, okay, "gaffe bad" -- we get that -- but isn't there a more fundamental aspect to this that's going unreported? If John McCain's chief economic adviser thinks we're just in a "mental recession," how has that influenced his advise to McCain about the economy and what to do about it? How does McCain's platform reflect or reject that advice?

Howard Kurtz: That's exactly the point I was trying to make -- it's not about the words but the mindset. Especially when McCain said, as Obama noted, that the primary benefit of his offshore oil drilling plan would be "psychological."

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Baltimore: The New Yorker cover featuring Barack and Michele Obama is offensive. The fact that it is on the cover is problematic because plenty of people only will see that, not any commentary/coverage inside, and consequently may not pick up that it is intended as satire. Not everyone enjoys satire, and at its root is offense. It is so out of line, I'm shocked. It is a clear example of how the media goes too far in influencing (I would argue creating) the presidential election, as well as other major news events -- the War on Terror is another huge example.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if the cover will influence the election, but there is nothing inside -- no editor's note, no explanation, only a tiny line saying the title of the illustration is "The Politics of Fear." It would have made more sense for David Remnick, or the artist Barry Blitt, to have written a little essay explaining why such a drawing was being splashed on the cover.

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Dancing on Graves: After Russert, Snow and Kennedy's illness, it's apparent to me that we've become a nasty, scared and angry people. People didn't say these things about even a Joe McCarthy when he drunk himself to death, and he destroyed a lot of people's lives. We don't even get them into the ground before it starts. It's the opposite of instant gratification -- instant vilification? What's the fear anyway? A mild and euphemistic treatment of a racist senator who passes away, published on the day of his funeral, is not going to change history. Just relax, people.

Howard Kurtz: To be fair, only a tiny minority is making ugly comments.

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Thirteen-Part Story on Chandra Levy: Why is each story so short? Are the editors targeting a demographic that, collectively, has the attention span of a fruit fly? Have we entered the Readers Digestation era of newspapers? It just seems that, as soon as the story gets started, it ends. I applaud The Post for the story, I just would prefer the presentation to be a bit more adult.

Howard Kurtz: A full page inside is not exactly short. Yes, some past series have featured two or three full pages inside (and fewer installments), but that demands a lot of time from the reader in each sitting, and I often would put such opuses aside for later reading, sometimes getting back to them and sometimes not.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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