Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, August 18, 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: Inside 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."

He was online Monday, August 18 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. I saw a survey that indicated that the viewership of CNN is more left/Democratic than the viewership of MSNBC. I found that pretty surprising. The only explanation I could think of was that the non-"Hardball"/Abrams/Keith daytime and late night blocks moved MSNBC's numbers. What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: My recollection is that the difference between CNN and MSNBC viewers in that category, at least according to this survey, was within a couple of percentage points. So I'm not sure it's statistically significant. The contrast between both networks and Fox, however, is quite striking.

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Rolla, Mo.: Isn't it time the media stop repeating the line that McCain is "reluctant" to discuss his POW days? He brings it up, repeatedly. Moreover, he and his campaign bring it up where it sometimes makes no sense, gratuitously. In response to the speculation (now proven) that McCain was not in the "cone of silence" at Rick Warren's forum, Nicolle Wallace trots out "the insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous." What the heck does being a POW have to do with cheating?

Howard Kurtz: I guess she's trying to say he's a man of honor and therefore never, ever would cheat.

I believe McCain was mostly reluctant to bring up his POW experience in the 2000 campaign. That's clearly not the case in this cycle. He has talked about it, as he did at the Saddleback forum. It has been in his advertising. I guarantee you we'll see it at the convention. There's nothing wrong with McCain talking about what was a pivotal experience in his life in service of his country, but he certainly can't claim reticence any more.

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Laurel, Md.: Mr. Kurtz, with so much turmoil in the newspaper industry these days, we frequently see personnel memos and internal news about media companies leaked to sites like Romenesko and DCRTV. In your opinion, should newspaper companies just understand that this is the price of doing business in the Internet age, or should they spend company IT resources trying to track down how the information was leaked? Unfortunately, this is not a hypothetical question. Thank you for your time.

Howard Kurtz: Everything leaks these days. It's as much of a waste of time for media companies -- who, after all, thrive on leaks -- to be investigating who's giving out internal memos as it is for any White House. Plus, a lot of these memos I read on Romenesko look as though they're written for public consumption.

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Seattle: Thanks for taking our questions. If you were to guess the percentage of voters who are taking up every little bit of political coverage vs. those who are holding off during the Olympics and waiting for the conventions, how would you think they break?

Howard Kurtz: The Olympics would dominate, would just crush the campaign. I guess we'll get a little glimpse of that when we see how many people watched the games on Saturday night, the evening that Michael Phelps was going for his eighth gold, as watched the presidential forum carried on CNN, MSNBC and Fox.

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Baltimore: One big consequence of Washington bureau cutbacks: I can remember when the likes of Jack Nelson from the Los Angeles Times or the late Peter Lisagor (from the Chicago Tribune, I believe) or the late Charles McDowell from the Richmond Times Dispatch were regulars on the political chat shows. It seemed to me that, while they were highly knowledgeable about Washington's ways, they also brought real insights about how things were playing well beyond the Beltway. Now on shows such as "Washington Week," everyone who appears is from a national publication or a broadcast network. I think it has made commentary and coverage far more insular than it was 20 years ago. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Well, some bureau chiefs still appear on TV. Nelson's successor at the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus, is periodically on "Face the Nation" and other shows. But in those pre-cable days there were just a few, very prestigious political talk shows. Now these programs, and talk generally, are ubiquitous, and so a much broader range of journalists (not to mention younger than the old graybeards) get to sound off on the tube.

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Arlington, Va.: Mr. Kurtz: Thanks for taking our questions. I noticed your mention in Media Notes this morning of the position taken by Deborah Howell that The Washington Post front page has overweighted its coverage of Sen. Obama to the relative detriment of Sen. McCain. Do you suppose that The Post might begin to redress this imbalance with some front-page recognition of the recent scholarly efforts exerted by Mr. Corsi (in this instance, apparently an equal opportunity dispenser of slime) on worldnetdaily.com in regards to the funding of Sen. McCain's political campaigns?

Howard Kurtz: The Post ran a front-page story last week on Corsi's anti-Obama book and a couple of similar efforts. I do think we'll see the overall media coverage come into rough balance in the intense period of September and October. Not that Us Weekly, Rolling Stone, Ladies' Home Journal, People and others that did big covers on Obama and his family will necessarily be rolling out big John-and-Cindy packages.

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South Dakota: Good morning, Howard. I am an avid daily reader of washingtonpost.com. Is it just me, or have I not seen your good work presented as often lately? What has changed?

Howard Kurtz: I took last week off. Gotta pace myself before the conventions!

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Crystal City, Va.: You linked in today's Media Notes to the Post Ombudsman's (Ombudswoman?) column about the imbalance in coverage without adding your $0.02 worth -- has The Post been unfair in it's coverage of McCain since the primaries ended?

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe The Post's coverage of McCain has been unfair, but I do think the imbalance of volume in favor of Obama -- which we've seen generally in newspapers, magazines and television, as documented by the Project for Excellence in Journalism -- can't be defended.

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Arlington, Va.: How unprofessional was it for Andrea Mitchell and NBC News to air anonymous allegations that McCain had cheated and heard the questions in advance during Saturdays's event? Wouldn't an unbiased discussion have included denials from the McCain campaign? Instead of being a stenographer for the Obama campaign, shouldn't she have done some reporting on the subject (checking out the room, etc....) before spouting their spin on nationwide TV?

Howard Kurtz: Here's the exchange:

"Andrea Mitchell: The Obama people must feel that he didn't do quite as well as they might have wanted to in that context, because that -- what they're putting out privately is that McCain may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama.

"David Gregory: Right.

"Andrea Mitchell: He seemed so well prepared."

Mitchell's defense is that she was just repeating a charge made by Obama aides. I would not have raised it without evidence, or at least without someone from the Obama camp going on the record. Otherwise you're just giving them a free shot without his campaign having to back it up.

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Alexandria, Va.: I saw a online headline that The Washington Post "admits" to "three-to-one" Obama vs. McCain coverage. Can you fill in the rest of the story, or is it bunk?

Howard Kurtz: It's taken from The Post ombudsman's column that I cite in my online Media Notes today. Deborah Howell found three times as many Page 1 stories about Obama as McCain in The Post since June 4.

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Bremerton, Wash.: Love your chats and your show, Howie. It sees to me that people now watch conventions to see the speeches and the pageantry. In a way, it seems a lot like the Olympics: what the audience is looking for is right in front of them. So should the news media tone down their journalists and pundits and let the news reign? Or can't they help themselves and try to find controversy where there is none?

Howard Kurtz: Look, the parties already get four days of free air time, at least on cable, to showcase their candidate, the running mate and all its campaign themes. If hordes of journalists are going to go to these things, they ought to provide a dose of skepticism and some behind-the-scenes reporting on what is unfolding. Otherwise, what's the point?

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Washington: In the released memos from the Clinton campaign, Mark Penn refers to taking his press strategy to "Kurtz." I presume this was you? Comments?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't seen that memo and have no idea what he's talking about. I certainly wrote stories during the primaries that addressed the question of whether the media were favoring Obama over McCain, but I initiated those stories. Some Clinton aides occasionally complained to me about what they saw as examples of unfairness, but every campaign does that. I have not talked to Mark Penn in about a decade, so maybe he decided I wasn't worth the effort.

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Arlington, Va.: wouldn't the imbalance of coverage be a result of the fact that Obama is relatively unknown and everyone out there wants to know more about him? McCain is an old-timer who is well known. How much of the Obama coverage has been positive versus negative? And the same with McCain?

Howard Kurtz: That's precisely the argument many journalists make: Obama is more of an unknown, there's more interest in him, McCain has been around forever, yadda yadda yadda. But at what point does that become unfair? It's a presidential campaign. There are two major candidates. Surely we should try to hold both sides accountable. True, not all the Obama coverage is positive, but there's so much more of it. And the Us Weekly/People/Access Hollywood/Ladies Home Journal stuff is not exactly tough investigative reporting.

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Falls Church, Va.: I read enough to know that hyper-local, or local-local, is the mantra of the newspaper business these days. It looks like it began several years ago, so where has it been established for some time, and how is it working out? Does it result in increased revenues and ads for newspapers, and is it a viable form of supporting newspapers in the future, or is it (as I suspect) a will-of-the-wisp, and because it is not economically sustainable, sanity is being restored?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it hasn't been working all that well, because revenue and circulation continue to drop while layoffs and buyouts continue. That doesn't mean it doesn't make sense for smaller and mid-size newspapers to concentrate on what they do better than anyone else, and that's cover the hell out of their backyards. The industry's problems are larger than that, driven in part by the fact that we give it away free on the 'Net every day.

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Louisville, Ky.: Howard, thanks for an always thoughtful discussion. How can the New York Times print an unfounded rumor on the front page that John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, and then refuse to even investigate (let alone print) the rumor that John Edwards not only had an affair, but fathered a child? On a further note, why is no one in the media following up on the payoffs from someone high up on John Edwards' campaign staff that amount to a multimillion-dollar house and $15,000 monthly payments to his mistress and $20,000 monthly payments to his fall guy? On a related note, for $20,000 a month I will claim paternity. Granted, it may lead to some strained discussions with my wife, but $240,000 a year buys a lot of therapy. Or earplugs. If you are attending the convention, enjoy.

Howard Kurtz: You must have an understanding wife.

The Times, like other major news organizations, made only a half-hearted effort to confirm the Enquirer's allegations until Edwards admitted that he did have sexual relations with that woman. But the Times has done a good job since, especially with a story Friday that raised questions about whether $14,000 contributed to the nearly broke Edwards PAC by the wife of his finance chairman wound up as the PAC's final $14,000 payment to Rielle Hunter for making those Edwards videos. Keep in mind that the finance chairman is the guy who's shelling out thousands of dollars a month to help both Rielle and the man who claims paternity of her baby live in luxury houses in Santa Barbara.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Howie: Is it me or is this the first time in several Olympics that NBC has shared its video with ABC and CBS? I thought that in previous Olympics, NBC provided only still photos. I have another question: Do you think CBC would have shared its video of the Olympics had NBC decided not to share with its American counterparts?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the answer. I think NBC always has provided Olympic clips after it's aired the events, just as the networks routinely do after baseball, football and other events for which they have the exclusive rights.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Howard, last week Sean Hannity seemed to be saying that John McCain's experience as a POW basically gave him a free pass from being criticized for his infidelity in his first marriage. That is not something I have heard McCain say and am wondering what you thought that was a bit much. This comment got little play nationally. It seems to me that the right would be all over Obama if the roles were reversed here. P.S. Despite our reputation as a cold-weather state, you won't need mukluks for the Republican Convention in two weeks.

Howard Kurtz: Here's the actual exchange:

"Colmes: So Amanda, if that's true, you can't trust somebody who had an affair, how can we trust John McCain to be president of the United States, since he cheated, by his own admission, on his first wife? He didn't keep his marital vows. He didn't keep his pledge to his first family.

"Hannity: Thirty years ago after five and a half years in a prisoner of war camp."

I will say that McCain never has hidden this, including in one of his books, and brought it up at the Saddleback forum as an example of his greatest moral failing. Voters can decide for themselves whether infidelity that took place three decades ago is an issue.

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Re: John Edwards: Well, I'm glad that other person posted the Edwards question because I'm so disgusted with the whole thing ... but it does seem like it really needs further investigating. I have to say I read the Enquirer's posting that they were going to keep after this "forever" or something equally dramatic until Edwards come clean, 100 percent. It does just seem to people that journalists don't want to touch the story. I can't say that I blame them, but really ... isn't this story far from over?

Howard Kurtz: Since Edwards made at least a partial confession, the story has been all over television and in other media outlets as well, so I don't see on what basis you say journalists don't want to talk about it. Now that a friend of Rielle Hunter's and others have come forward to say they believe Edwards is the father of the 5-month-old girl, I don't think the story is going away until the paternity issue is resolved.

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Re: Press Balancing: What was the "balance" like during Obama's vacation? If it was not 1-for-1 with one candidate actively stumping and the other staying quiet, doesn't that show a clear sense of favoritism? I am being sarcastic of course, but how can you decide what's a fair balance in press coverage when the different candidates are doing different things? Obama was making a trip overseas (that McCain had ridiculed him for not making) while McCain was staying quiet after Phil Gramm's "nation of whiners" comment. How do you expect such divergence to really play out?

Howard Kurtz: In any given week - one candidate on vacation, one candidate on an overseas trip, one candidate embroiled in controversy - of course there can be an imbalance in the coverage. There's no quota system. Part of our job as journalists is to decide what's newsworthy. But when there's a major gap in the coverage over a two-month period, we've got a problem.

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Young's understanding wife:... I'd gladly be her, knowing the story wasn't true but reaping a fancy house and $20,000 a month in exchange for pretending it was.

Howard Kurtz: An interesting debate. I wonder how many women would take that offer.

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Los Angeles: What "imbalance"? John McCain has been around for a long long time. He's a familiar figure to whom no one who follows politics needs an introduction. Obama is a brand new political figure with a brand new story. It's only natural that he's gotten the lion's share of coverage. And coverage by no means implies approval. Look at the Jeremiah Wright business -- tons of coverage, and none of it good for Obama.

Howard Kurtz: McCain has been around a long time but not as the Republican presidential nominee. Do we as voters know everything we need to know about his role in the Navy, his Senate record, his involvement in the Keating Five, his employment of lobbyists while denouncing special interests, his change of position on issues such as offshore oil drilling and the Bush tax cuts? The New York Times had a very good piece yesterday on McCain's rhetoric against Iraq in the wake of 9/11, in an attempt to piece together his view of the military and foreign policy and how he might respond in a future crisis. We need more of that in this campaign, for both candidates.

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Frederick, Md.: How do networks choose whose comments to include on newscasts? Sometimes they have several initially, and then feature just one or two in subsequent newscasts. For example, yesterday Fox News led with a story on the Saddleback debate, then showed one comment (Huckabee saying Obama did a "good job" and McCain did a "great job"), then their own commentator. If a network does feature a comment from one party, do they usually feel they need to balance it with one from the other? Obviously Fox News did not in this case, but what about in general?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see that segment, but any good story should have comments from more than one side of the political spectrum. Mike Huckabee, by the way, is a Fox News commentator.

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Arlington, Va.: Because we were both on vacation last week, did I miss your take on the Paris Hilton Video? Isn't it a little frightening that it was the most interesting campaign video to date?

Howard Kurtz: I made that point in a piece I did for Reliable Sources. I gave her credit for both a sensible energy policy and possessing a sense of humor.

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Lost in Translation: Howard: By blending news, celebrity, politics and now religion haven't we gone over the line in the "Oprah-sizing" of our daily lives?

Howard Kurtz: But it is Oprah's world. The rest of us just live in it.

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Massachusetts: Frank Rich's New York Times column today reads "McCain frequently forgets key elements of policies, gets countries' names wrong, forgets things he's said only hours or days before and is frequently just confused" Are the gloves coming off on the senior moments?

Howard Kurtz: I wrote a story a few weeks ago questioning whether it was fair to tie these occasional stumbles to McCain's age, and whether the incidents were receiving too much attention. Having gone out with the McCain campaign a couple of weeks ago, I can report that the candidate did not look confused to me. Obama has also had a couple of verbal slips, which are inevitable given the long days, weeks and months of this campaign.

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Washington: Obama's "above my pay grade" response to the question on when life begins was sort of weak. He must have known it was coming -- technically, Supreme Court justices earn less than presidents, and morally it is without a moral response. Remember Clinton's old line that abortion should be, "safe, legal and rare"? I like my steak rare, but I think Bill meant infrequent. Some days Obama will just do better to rip off Clinton lines and reap the benefit of repetition in the criticism for it.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think Obama was referring to Supreme Court justices in that answer. My take is that he was referring to a higher power, or at least saying that he's no theologian and could not resolve the debate over whether life begins at the moment of conception.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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