Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 21, 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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Plymouth, Minn.: Hello. My question is, what does a candidate do when his opponent has hogged the entire (world) news? I have a feeling the McCain camp will almost do anything at this juncture to defuse the news blitz from Obama. What, in your opinion, do you expect will happen here?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the first thing he does is go on all three network morning shows, which McCain did this a.m. I don't suppose that "Today," "Good Morning America" and the "Early Show" felt they could turn the senator down. A little guilt factor, perhaps?

Diane Sawyer asked McCain whether the press coverage of Obama's trip has been unfair. McCain said that would be up to the American people. I guess he sees no percentage in getting into a public argument about media treatment.

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Ashland, Mo.: Why is the media reporting the prospect of withdrawal from Iraq on the horizon as a "dramatic" shift by the Bush administration? The agreement basically contains no firm deadline and calls for withdrawal as events on the ground warrant. Hasn't that pretty much been the Bush position throughout? Just another example of the modern media's propensity to hype small differences as the end of the world as we know it?

washingtonpost.com: U.S., Iraq Agree To 'Time Horizon' (Post, July 19)

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it's been hyped; I think the coverage has been a tad understated. Every story has made perfectly clear that there is no firm timetable (linguists can debate the difference between timetables and "time horizons," between goals and "aspirational goals." But after five years of we-must-achieve-victory, this is at a minimum a tonal shift by the Bush administration. And it comes at a time when Maliki (though he later disputed the translation) is telling Der Spiegel that he agrees with Obama's plan for a 16-month timetable for withdrawal.

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You almost got it right...: I generally enjoyed your discussion on the TV show about the media overdoing it on Obama, but was dismayed that you neglected the other half of the story. If you break down the media into the Big 3 networks, non-Fox cable, Fox, talk radio, and the print media less the Washington Times and the right-wing weeklies, it is obvious that Obama has dominated coverage across the board. However, that coverage is not all positive -- Obama is under a microscope and he and his spokespeople always are defending his fitness to be president.

Except for most of the print media and the Big 3, McCain talking points usually are repeated verbatim as fact and Obama et al have to defend. I see very little coverage (except for Olbermann) of the many McCain gaffes, bad jokes, flip-flopping, inaccuracies, and other generally negative aspects to an otherwise abysmal campaign. By the way, try to find someone -- other than the Frums of the world, who add little except the tiresome rant -- who thinks that the media is always for the Democrat and against the Republican. Yawn...

Howard Kurtz: I did mention on "Reliable Sources" that more coverage is not always positive coverage for Obama. I don't agree that the mainstream media is repeating McCain talking points or giving him a pass on his mistakes. The flip-flop on offshore drilling, Carly Fiorina's Viagra moment and the flap over Phil Gramm's "nation of whiners" comment (the former senator would not have quit the campaign had this not remained a media issue) are just a few recent examples.

But there is simply no question that Obama is getting far more coverage, both positive and negative.

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To Plymouth: Let's just remember that everything positive that is happening for Obama on this trip -- the schmoozing of the media and the glowing coverage that will follow, the framing of Obama as capable to act on a world stage, etc. -- is a direct result of an unforced error on the part of the GOP and the McCain campaign. They were the ones who demanded he go there; they were the people who thought it would be cute to place a countdown ticker on their Web sites. Well, now he's gone and done it -- and Maliki has given him blessed political ammo. Be careful what you ask for!

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't say McCain "demanded" that he go there, but he clearly baited Obama by repeating that he hadn't been to Iraq in two years and had never been to Afghanistan. I don't know whether Obama would have at least done a European trip anyway, or included Iraq and Afghanistan, given his perceived need to shore up his national security credentials. But it makes it harder for McCain to criticize the trip after having chided his rival for not personally inspecting the much-mentioned "facts on the ground."

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Arlington, Va.: Hey Howard, how about I get half of today's questions out of the way: How come the media is so biased toward Obama? And how come the media is so biased toward McCain? Okay, we get it, everyone thinks the media is for the other guy! Now you can answer all the other questions.

Howard Kurtz: Haven't gotten too many "media biased toward McCain" questions lately, but I'm sure they'll be back. We did have one questioner who says the media repeat McCain talking points.

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Seattle: I heard at the recent Television Critics Association convention that there was a lot of talk about how coverage for Obama seemed to change after the infamous "Saturday Night Live" skit. Was it just that, or was it also Hillary Clinton complaining about it?

Howard Kurtz: Both. I've said many times I think the "Saturday Night Live" skits had an impact. Hillary working the refs probably had less impact. And Obama started getting kicked around more when his primary winning streak ended and news outlets just happened to start focusing on Jeremiah Wright. Still, mockery can be a powerful weapon.

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Obama's Trip: With all the coverage Obama is getting, wouldn't it make sense for McCain to go to Iraq and Afghanistan too? ... What? He's been there? I hadn't heard...

Howard Kurtz: As you obviously know, he was there in March (and also visited Israel and Europe), was accompanied by zero anchors and got precious little coverage. The media have a bit of an alibi in that the Democratic contest was still raging hot and heavy at that point while McCain had wrapped up the GOP nomination (though the imbalance between that trip and Obama's current journey could not be more evident). But how about McCain's recent trip to Colombia and Mexico, which came after Obama sewed up the nomination? Some networks didn't even bother to send correspondents.

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Hampton Cove, Ala.: On press bias, I am remembering the Sen. Allen/Jim Webb campaign of 2006. The Webb campaign frequently referred to Allen as "George Felix Allen" in press releases to stir up anti-Semitism among Virginia voters, and The Washington Post went on a "he's ashamed of his Jewish roots" campaign. Yet today, if we say Barack Hussein Obama, we are racist hatemongers. Are The Washington Post's reporters ever embarrassed by their lack of objectivity?

washingtonpost.com: Allen Says He Embraces His Jewish Ancestry (Sept. 20, 2006)

Howard Kurtz: Just to refresh your faulty memory, The Post didn't go on some "campaign" about George Allen's heritage. This is how it unfolded in 2006:

Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) said for the first time publicly yesterday that he has Jewish ancestry, a day after responding angrily to an exchange that included questions about his mother's racial sensitivity and whether his family has Jewish roots.

At a campaign debate with Democratic challenger James Webb on Monday, a reporter asked Allen whether his mother's father, Felix Lumbroso, was Jewish. He became visibly upset, saying his mother's religion was not relevant to the campaign and chiding the reporter for "making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs."

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Columbia, Md.: Great segment yesterday on the pro-Obama news coverage. Something that continues to irritate me, though, are the constant statements from reporters defending their coverage and coming up with a myriad of excuses, but never stating the obvious one. It seems like many reporters (including yourself), refuse to state that the real reason for the slanted coverage in favor of Obama is the fact that members of mainstream news organizations are overwhelmingly liberal, and they nearly all want Obama to win. Why can't they just admit that and stop making all these other lame excuses? David Frum tried to broach this yesterday but immediately was shot down by the other two guests.

Howard Kurtz: Well, we did discuss it, and I explicitly put the question to Michael Crowley of the New Republic after David Frum accused the media of being biased. I don't know whether most political journalists want Obama to win or not; remember, they've known McCain forever and it was not so long ago that they were being accused of a love affair with him.

ABC's Martha Raddatz made the point that with much of the Obama trip coverage likely to consist of photo ops, the interviews by the three anchors (and Lara Logan and, it turns out, ABC's Terry Moran) represent the only chance to ask him tough questions and hold him accountable. But the larger point is that with Brian, Katie and Charlie going on the trip, their newscasts will originate from Europe and the Middle East and certify that the trip is a major news event.

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South of the Border: A bit of hyperbole, but other than Nixon's trip in the 1950s, when was the last time the American media covered an American leader in South America?

Howard Kurtz: When was the last time a presidential candidate went to Latin America in the thick of the campaign? Campaigns, oddly enough, are usually fought out on U.S. soil.

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Long Island, N.Y.: After four years and God knows how many articles, the courts threw out the FCC's fines of CBS related to the "wardrobe malfunction" heard 'round the world. Is anyone surprised that these fines couldn't handle the court's scrutiny? It makes me wonder if Infinity Broadcasting should have litigated all those Howard Stern-related fines.

Howard Kurtz: Hmm: Does this mean the networks have an excuse to start running and rerunning footage of Janet Jackson's breast yet again?

Here's what happened: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said the U.S. Federal Communications Commission "arbitrarily and capriciously departed from its prior policy" that exempted fleeting broadcast material from actionable indecency violations.

I've always wondered how a network could be blamed for something that happened in real time where it had no advance warning.

But wait - it's just a federal appeals court. Bring on the Supremes! Team coverage! Janet Jackson exclusives! It could dwarf Obama.

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"Working the Refs": That's brilliant! Can we just use that, or even better just "WtR," every time somebody complains about biased coverage?

Howard Kurtz: Free of charge.

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Baltimore: What's the track record for memoirs by "recovering" alcoholic journalists? Do those usually sell? How are they critically received? I thought your article today was good, but in the end I think Carr still is trying to get one over on people -- this time, his readers. All I know after reading your piece is that I won't be giving him any of my money anytime soon.

Howard Kurtz: I disagree. First of all, it's a searingly honest book, and David Carr doesn't sugarcoat even his relapse, which occurred while he was working for the New York Times. Second, why expose yourself and all your ugly past behavior to the public in such detail? He couldn't fully answer that question. Obviously he wants to sell books, but believe me, there are easier books to write.

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Germantown, Md.: Hi Howie. I heard Gloria Borger say on CNN that the Obama/McCain difference in covering their foreign tours can be attributed to Obama's decision to offer sit-downs to all the anchors. Are others making this argument? How much do you think is the fawning of the press versus smart media relations by Obama's team? Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: Well, obviously it's smart press strategy by the Obama team, but I would wager serious cash that John McCain would have been more than happy to sit down with any and all network anchors on any of his foreign trips. Maybe he just didn't have the audacity to hope that they'd come.

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Rolla, Mo.: Okay, the press didn't make much of McCain saying "Czechoslovakia" in current terms twice in two days, but today we have him saying that Pakistan and Iraq share a border. Ugh. These gaffes should receive significant coverage because they get to the very heart of his candidacy -- his foreign policy expertise -- correct?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. Gaffes matter if they betray a lack of knowledge, especially if there's a pattern. An isolated flub, not so much.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Any plans to write a sordid tell-all memoir a la David Carr? You could sell a lot of books, Howie!

Howard Kurtz: I could barely fill a chapter. My childhood was disturbingly normal. I've had a series of respectable jobs, and I don't do more than the occasional glass of wine. So there's no deep, dark place for me to have triumphed over. Very frustrating.

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Bremerton, Wash.: I know the crew who wrote the 12-part series on Chandra Levy are going to be chatting later, but what has the talk been in The Washington Post's newsroom about whether this was front-page worthy or just tabloid?

washingtonpost.com: Discussion: Chandra Levy Series (washingtonpost.com, Live NOW)

Howard Kurtz: It's certainly fair to question whether 12 parts is excessive, but I wouldn't call the series tabloid. It was a sensational story that ignited a tabloid frenzy seven years ago, but now? The tone has been one of a sober look back at an unsolved mystery.

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Old-Fashioned: Don't TV networks still have morals clauses in their contracts with on-air talent? I've stopped watching CBS News in order to avoid Lara Logan, who while still married got pregnant by a man who was married and had a child. By the way, I would agree that if it were the man who was the reporter in a similar situation (although I realize he wouldn't be the adulterer whose belly would get swollen, so at least it wouldn't show), he ought to be sacked too -- so there's no double standard as far as I'm concerned.

washingtonpost.com: Back From War, Into Tabloid Territory (Post, July 8)

Howard Kurtz: You're entitled to your opinion. I would just point out, as the only reporter to have interviewed Lara Logan on the subject, that both she and her new partner were long separated from their spouses before the affair began. And that we should keep in mind that Logan has risked her life for years in a war zone, which is what prompted her marriage to fall apart, as has happened with many war correspondents. And I can think of very prominent (male) news executives who began affairs while married to their first wives, and it got a smidgen of coverage.

As for a "morals clause" -- are you serious? We live in a society where OK Magazine just put Jamie Lynn Spears on the cover -- and is reported to have paid her $1 million -- because she had a baby at 17.

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Somerdale, N.J.: "But how about McCain's recent trip to Colombia and Mexico, which came after Obama sewed up the nomination? Some networks didn't even bother to send correspondents." Why is going to Mexico and Columbia newsworthy? It's not a war zone, and from what I understand, McCain granted "60 Minutes" an exclusive of his trip and didn't offer the same to the network anchors. Obama offered them exclusives -- maybe that's why they are going. The Liberal Media myth just keeps on going and going and going...

Howard Kurtz: First of all, it's not very exclusive if Katie, Brian and Charlie each get an interview. Second, why is Obama going to Britain or Germany inherently so newsworthy? And third, McCain went to Latin America to talk about a controversial free-trade pact and the war on drugs, which are substantive issues.

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Seattle: In Sunday's Paper, Sophia A. Nelson wrote about how Michelle Obama doesn't seem to have any media models out there, and is thus thought of as "angry." Should we ask Phylicia Rashad if she can do a new sitcom just for this? (Maybe without Bill Cosby this time?)

washingtonpost.com: Black. Female. Accomplished. Attacked. (Post, July 20)

Howard Kurtz: I'd just note that the author mentioned her as the actress who played Clair Huxtable, pointing out that her run as Cosby's TV wife ended 16 years ago.

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San Francisco: When you wrote up your flattering portrayal of McCain's latest ad about Barack Obama, did you consider including the rebuttal statement by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.) that any Afghanistan discussions would be held by the full committee, not by the subcommittee that Sen. Obama chairs? That seems germane to the claim of "accuracy" you make about the ad.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but you can only cram so many facts into the small space allotted for ad watches. Since I pointed out problems with the ad, as I often do with commercials by all candidates, I'm going to assume you read it as a "flattering" assessment because you're an Obama fan.

Here's my oh-so-flattering lead:

This McCain commercial tries to paint Obama as inexperienced and anti-military, in part by taking a protest vote out of context. Obama has frequently voted to finance the war but was one of 14 Senate Democrats to oppose a war-funding bill last year -- after Republicans removed troop withdrawal deadlines -- saying he did not want to be "validating the same failed policy in Iraq."

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Media Ire: As a former member of the mainstream media, I always am sort of amused/saddened by the ire people show when a news outlet does something out of the box, like the Chandra Levy series. I think it's interesting, good reading, and well written and reported. But people seem be up in arms because there are serious, important and newsworthy things happening in the world -- as if the Levy story prevents the paper from covering other things, like the campaign. Last I checked, the campaign is front-page news every day.

The Post has a lot of pages to fill every day, and has a variety of readers who like to read a variety of things. Do people honestly believe that the world is so zero-sum? That Chandra is preventing The Post from covering all these important events that I'm pretty they would see in the paper every day if they actually bothered to look for them? Does this surprise you as well, or is it just me?

Howard Kurtz: Again, the Chandra series is fair game for criticism, but it hardly stopped the paper from covering other important things locally, nationally and internationally. We have a pretty big staff.

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Ellicott City, Md.: Hello. Is the new president of MSNBC really not a fan of Chris Matthews? Will he force Chris Matthews off the network? Is there any truth to the rumor of Matthews running for the Senate from Pennsylvania? Are there any nationally known pundits who have made the crossover from TV to the Senate? Thanks for the answers and for your weekly chats.

Howard Kurtz: It's actually the opposite. Phil Griffin, who was already running MSNBC before being given the title of president last week, is a huge Matthews fan. He was Chris's producer on Hardball for years. Matthews has handled questions about the Pennsylvania Senate seat by saying he always wanted to be a senator, but I'll tell you one thing: The job pays a heckuva lot less than what he makes now. About 25 times less.

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Anonymous: A question about a term that has been used often during this election season: Who exactly is an "evangelical" voter? I am a minority, native-born American who attends church on a semi-regular basis. I would categorize myself as a Christian, and I vote Democrat. Would you place me in the box marked "evangelical"? It seems that the media uses the term "evangelicals" to describe someone who is conservative, right-wing and religious, but there are people (like me) who are liberal, left-leaning and religious. Are people like me "evangelicals"? It just seems like a lazy and incomplete depiction of the people it is meant to describe. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think evangelical means conservative, although maybe it gets used erroneously as shorthand that way since evangelical Christians play a bigger role in the Republican Party than evangelical liberals do in the Democratic Party. It refers to someone's religious beliefs and the type of church that person attends.

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Washington:"We have a pretty big staff." Yeah, they're working on that too -- the last round was the last of the buyouts, but it wasn't the end of the downsizing.

Howard Kurtz: I've detailed my thoughts on the downsizing (which, unlike the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, has avoided layoffs). I sure hope it is the last round for some time to come. Believe me, it's painful. But The Post still has one of the largest newspaper staffs in the United States. (Maybe I shouldn't say that out loud, in case the bean-counters get any more ideas.)

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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