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Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, August 26, 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 live from the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Tuesday, August 26 at noon ET to describe the media scene there and take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Baltimore: You know, I tire of all the continuous hype that claims that "the media" is positively rooting for Obama ... but when a National Public Radio affiliate here in Baltimore advised its listeners on Saturday that its later programming schedule would be delayed for/pre-empted by -- and I quote the announcer precisely -- "a very special press conference" by Obama ... I have to say that they have a point. What's next, an "After-School Special"? Also, can we trust that all these newspapers publishing special "Convention 2008" sections -- such as a certain Post in your city -- also will publish similarly-sized/detailed coverage for the Republican convention?

Howard Kurtz: On the last point, absolutely. We're all moving on to St. Paul, if we survive the week in Denver, and pubishing the same number of special sections. As The Post does every four years.

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Anonymous: Good afternoon. Why do journalists all adopt a couple of cliches and then beat them to death before moving on? "Game-changer." Ugh.

Howard Kurtz: Because we're not convinced Barack Obama has the fire in the belly and can close the deal during the fog of war.

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Chicago: Why did you let an official Fox spokesperson get away with anonymously slamming Jon Stewart? What about The Post's own policy on attributions and sources that says "sources who want to take a shot at someone in our columns should do so in their own names"? And the part of the policy that says you should explain why sources aren't being named?

washingtonpost.com: No Joke: Jon Stewart Takes Aim At 24-Hour Cable News 'Beast' (Post, Aug. 26)

Howard Kurtz: The esteemed Jim Romenesko, who does such a good job, is wrong about this. First of all, I push as hard as any reporter to get everything on the record. In recent years I've basically gotten out of the business of quoting people on background except in rare instances.

Second: While the spokesman I quoted responding to Jon Stewart did not want to be named, this was not some anonymous source. This was not "one Fox executive said," which could be anyone who felt like popping off. This was the spokesman delivering the official response for the network, a person in the PR department who is authorized to speak for Fox News. That, in my book, is different than just quoting some random person who is speaking for himself or herself. I had several discussions with my editors about this. It's hardly unusual for us to say, for example, "a Pentagon spokesman said" without naming the person.

Finally, while it would have been better if the person had agreed to be named, Fox was authorizing the comments in response to a pretty hard slam from Stewart, rather than initiating an attack.

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Arlington, Va.: Why have Democrats declared war on the traditional mainstream media? One example was issuing the Biden announcement at 3 a.m., after deadlines for most papers are past and TV networks don't have an audience, and using new media to disseminate it by e-mail (who was the idiot who felt they would reach people with a 3 a.m. e-mail?).

Obama's campaign also has been openly hostile and unhelpful to reporters covering him, with quotes I read from spokesmen who say they know nothing. As an outsider, I think this is a historically big mistake. Since when has the media not been kind to Democrats? Unnecessarily alienating reporters traditionally has been how Republicans operate their campaigns, in my humble opinion, because GOP voters like their candidates to take on the "powerful press."

It also didn't work because the dead-tree mainstream media got the Biden call first, and New York Times columnist David Brooks (normally Republican-leaning) wrote a marvelously prescient piece wishing Biden would be the choice. So what's the new politics behind why is the Obama campaign doing this? And will there be payback?

Howard Kurtz: I've written frequently about the tensions between the Obama campaign and the press corps, but you're way overstating the case. No "war" has been declared on the media. Some reporters were definitely ticked by the 3 a.m. announcement, but a campaign has the right to stage-manage a veep rollout any way it wants. It is true that Obama aides often don't help us out on what they consider "process" stories, but they're absolutely not "hostile," and again, their job is to win the election, not make the press happy. Perhaps the biggest sticking point is the lack of regular access to the candidate. That, I think, is a mistake, if only because Obama is skilled at fielding questions. But as I wrote a few weeks ago, the McCain campaign has scrapped the Straight Talk Express model that worked so well for him in the past and is increasingly keeping their man away from national reporters. He did do Leno last night, though.

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Henly, Texas: It seems that the folks wringing their hands the most over whether Clinton (and "her people") ultimately will support Obama are mostly the Republican talking heads. The Pat Buchanans et al constantly are pointing out how "mistreated" Hillary has been (without identifying such mistreatment) and pontificating about how impossible it will be for the party to unite. In the meantime, strident Hillary backers like Rep.. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who said last night that she had "rocketed through the five stages of grief" and was now fully on board with Obama, seem to be much more typical of "Hillary's people". Seems to me that the "party split" is primarly wishful thinking promoted by the Republicans. No?

Howard Kurtz: No. I happen to think that story line may be overblown, but even the Obama camp concedes that there are tensions. As I wrote this morning, it was a piece in Politico that set off a day of Web and cable chatter about lingering bitterness between the Hillary and Obama forces. So the MSM is definitely pursuing this line.

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washingtonpost.com: Link correction: No Joke: Jon Stewart Takes Aim At 24-Hour Cable News 'Beast' (Post, Aug. 26)

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Pittsburgh: Doesn't the new commercial blasting Obama for not picking Hillary for running mate (because she garnered so many votes during the primary season) sort of paint McCain into a corner to choose Romney?

Howard Kurtz: Well, but the earlier McCain ad recycling some of Joe Biden's criticism of Obama could just as soon be read as opening the door to similar ads against McCain if he picks Romney after their bitter primary battle. I don't think that will affect his decision, and I don't think such ads are very effective. Voters understand that harsh things get said in primaries and that poiticians know how to bury the hatchet afterwards, preferably not in each other's backs.

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Washington: Do you know who wrote Michelle Obama's speech (I mean who really wrote it, as opposed to getting credit for writing it)? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I've got no inside scoop on that. It was reported that Michelle wrote the basic draft and that her husband's speechwriters helped polish it. Given the personal nature of the speech, I have no trouble believing that.

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Tampa, Fla.: Do you know how many media/press have been credentialed for the convention? With all those folks in town, along with the delegates, speakers, etc., where are all those people staying? How easy/hard is it to get around? What has been your favorite part of the convention so far? The worst? Sorry for the glut of questions, but inquiring minds want to know.

Howard Kurtz:15,000 media types are here. They are scattered at hotels across the area (my hotel, for instance, is in Outer Mongolia, with the downtown skyline looking as far away as the Rocky Mountains). It is extremely difficult to get around, with not enough taxis and so many roads blocked off. Worst feature by far: the waste-filled port-o-potties outside the dark and depressing tent we work in. You don't want to know the details.

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Chesapeake Beach, Md.: It was a big deal four years ago when barely-a-Democrat Zell Miller blasted the Democrats from the podium at the GOP convention. Last night a well-respected Republican -- former Rep. Jim Leach, did a similar (though more soft-spoken) number on the GOP. Why was one notable, and the other buried deep in Jonathan Weisman's story this morning, without even a sidebar of its own?

washingtonpost.com: Obama's Family Night Out (Post, Aug. 26)

Howard Kurtz: Mainly because it wasn't one of the speeches featured on television. Zell Miller was the keynote speaker at the GOP.

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New York: Speaking of "ads," the past two McCain "ads" were curious for the campaign being unable to name a single time they bought air time for either. Isn't the corporate media breaking election law by running these ads for free for McCain as though they were "news" items?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if it's breaking the law but we are totally being hosed, and this is true of ads on both sides. I have complained about this on the air. Television news outfits should not give free air time to campaign ads, or Web ads, where there's no real bad.

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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, the GOP is doing everything it can to distract attention from the convention. Was always like this, or was there a gentleman's agreement not to step on the other party's convention? John McCain's possible announcement of his vice president on the day of Obama's acceptance speech seems a little low-class to me, but I may be wrong.

Howard Kurtz: Four years ago, both parties did the same thing, sending contingents to Boston and New York to try to get ink and air time. The Dems are planning a similar offensive in St. Paul. As for McCain, he plans to announce his running mate the day AFTER Obama's speech -- unless he leaks it! -- but in fairness, his convention starts the following Monday, so he's running out of time.

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Arlington, Va.: I agree with Stewart that virtually all of the people who opine, both right and left, seem to be falling into their version of the conventional wisdom. All I can discern is that they read and listen to each other and regurgitate without attribution.

Howard Kurtz: There are way too many talking-point debates on cable. I think everyone is sick of them. Sometimes I think even the debaters are sick of them.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Why is there a need for four members of the press for every delegate at the convention? This is a predetermined event, and there are no surprises at all. It's like sending thousands of sports reporters to cover a pep rally.

Howard Kurtz: There isn't. We're here for the parties.

(My column yesterday addresses this very subject.)

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washingtonpost.com: Not Much News, but Journalists Can't Make Themselves Scarce (Post, Aug. 25)

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Re: When Fox News Attacks!: I thought the Fox News spokesman's response was petty. Why go to a personal level (a response of "he's a comedian" would have been much more effective)? Why respond to Stewart at all? It's not like he's the first person to refer to Fox News as less than fair and balanced

Howard Kurtz: Well, Jon wasn't exactly playing pattycake either. I reported that he called the fair-and-balanced claim an insult to people with brains. What he actually said was that it was "a [blank] you to people with brains."

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Yardley, Pa.: Gov. Ed Rendell's excoriation of MSNBC as openly biased toward Obama seems to have brought he issue of MSNBC's glaring partisanship to critical mass. MSNBC continues to allow Olbermann and Matthews to anchor political event coverage, and they continue to wear their partisanship on their sleeve. All journalists have their political views and their prejudices, but we "old school" types were trained to lean over backwards to compensate when on the job. Doesn't NBC News management deserve condemnation for abandoning a basic jouranlistic principle of "first, be fair"?

Howard Kurtz: I and others have certainly questioned how Keith Olbermann can rip McCain on his show and then co-anchor the coverage on primary nights and at the conventions. Olbermann says, and MSNBC says, that he puts aside his commentary role during news events. I guess viewers will have to decide whether that's a problem. But it's worth noting that Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity were part of Fox's coverage last night.

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New York: When Howard Wolfson lets it be known that Bill Clinton is miffed at his assigned task at the Democratic convention, does it not occur to those who report it (Politico) that Wolfson is now employed by Fox, which have interest in fomenting discord among Democrats? This is but one example of the mainstream media (yes, Politico couldn't be more mainstream) never questioning the motives of those who spin. Honestly, I think the MSM is worse than ever.

Howard Kurtz: Howard Wolfson may have worked for Fox for a few weeks, but he's worked for Hillary far longer. I think it's fair to assume he's saying what he thinks from the perspective of a longtime Clinton loyalist, not because of his new TV role.

Gotta run - thanks for the chat, folks.

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