Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, September 2, 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 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, Sept. 2 to describe the media scene there and take your questions and comments.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


Arlington, Va.: Hello Howard. Even though the mainstream media ignored the John Edwards affair and possible love child while he was a presidential candidate and potential vice presidential/cabinet nominee, I see no time's been wasted covering a pregnant 17-year-old girl. Way to go, media!

Howard Kurtz: Might I point out a couple of inconvenient facts? While the media may have taken too long to grapple with the Edwards story, it was reported the day that Edwards admitted he'd been lying and did have sexual relations with that woman. The media reported on Sarah Palin's daughter the day that she put out a statement about Bristol's pregnancy--which, by the way, was four days after McCain picked her to be his running mate. Before that, there weren't a whole lot of reporters looking into the Alaska governor.


Knoxville, Tenn.: Mr. Kurtz, last night on Larry King's "the midnight fight hour" edition, Ed Shultz brought up an interesting point concerning the GOP's hand-wringing on the media coverage of Gov Palin's daughter's pregnancy. He used the "left-foot" argument -- that if this had happened to say Chelsea Clinton, the nonstop, 24/7 screaming from Faux News and Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly and the rest of hate radio about the lack of her and her parent's moral values would be unimaginable.

Howard Kurtz: I do think that conservatives would be leading the mockery if Obama had chosen as his running mate a woman who three years ago was the mayor of a tiny town (although some commentators on the right have been so bold as to criticize McCain's selection). I don't know how they would have reacted to the pregnancy issue.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. Has there been a more challenging story for the media to not "cross the line" on than the pregnancy of Sarah Palin's daughter? There are legitimate questions here. Did McCain know? What does it say about his judgment, and hers too? How is this related to Palin's views on abortion? And then there are the marginal or worse questions, which I won't list. My sympathy to you guys on this one.

Howard Kurtz: It's a tricky minefield. I hate seeing kids being dragged into the political crossfire. But of course there are legitimate questions about McCain's vetting process, especially considering that he barely knew Sarah Palin and made the decision at the last minute. I wonder what was going through the governor's mind, knowing if that if she became the running mate her daughter's pregnancy would get 500,000 times more attention than would otherwise be the case.


Equal treatment: Hi Howard, I get your point about the mainstream media's jump to ask McCain about the Kos reports. As someone who was disgusted by Edwards, I wish it was pushed out there earlier. But I sort of understand why it wasn't. But moving to another recurring theme in this campaign ... the Alaskan Independence Party's founder says he is "not American" and is "an Alaskan" and has no use for "America or her damned institutions." Do you think this will get 24/7 coverage on the cable news shows? Do you think Palin will have to make a special speech on her patriotism?

Howard Kurtz: I think the fact that Palin once belonged to a party that advocates a vote on Alaska seceding from the nation is something that she'll have to explain. (Was she thinking of running for president of Alaska?) I think her speech tomorrow night is an important test for her, only because most Americans know so little about her.


Washington: A good lookin' woman who knows how to use a rifle -- I mean, you'd have to be cautious about philanderin', but other than that, Palin is a redneck's idea of the perfect woman. Why is the media suggesting Palin was chosen to attract the Hilary voters? Isn't she really much more likely to appeal to Reagan democrats who hunt and live in swing states?

Howard Kurtz: The perfect woman, maybe, but a perfect potential president? The perfect running mate for a candidate who's been saying for a year and a half that his VP had to be ready to become commander-in-chief? As for appealing to Hillary voters, it was Sarah Palin herself who invoked the former first lady when McCain introduced her on Friday.


Bethesda, Md.: Okay, so CNN says Obama did not get a "post-convention bounce" while USA Today says he did. Why the disagreement?

Howard Kurtz: Because there's a whole bunch of polls and no one knows what to think. We'll go through the same thing when this convention wraps up.


Kettering, Ohio: Good afternoon Howard, hope you had a great holiday. Did you see the shot on MSNBC under the guise of "Breaking News" which then had a tagline that was denigrating to Mrs. Palin? It is pretty clear that MSNBC is in the bag for Obama, but isn't there anything left of their news division that would allow such nonsense to be placed under the guise of breaking news? I left CBS as a viewer for NBC more than ten years ago because it seemed to be biased, and now I have to wonder what is happening to the network of Brokaw et al.

Howard Kurtz: Holiday? There was a holiday?

I didn't see the headline in question but keep in mind that these on-screen lines -- like the Fox headline about "Obama's Baby Mama" -- are often written by 22-year-old kids. I wrote again yesterday about complaints that MSNBC's top anchors are openly pro-Obama. And while NBC is a separate operation from its cable channel, the distinction has definitely been blurred by the constant appearances of Brokaw, Brian Williams, Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory on MS.


Baltimore: Do you think the press will use this as an opportunity to ask Governor Palin for specifics on policy ideas based upon the philosophies she espouses? For example, some news outlets have noted she has a crib in her office and "discreetly breastfeeds" while on the job. Why doesn't someone in the media ask the legitimate questions that would automatically follow -- does she support changes to employment law that would mandate such family friendly policies in all workplaces? Why does she support a party platform that seeks to weaken rather than strengthen the Family Medical Leave Act? Why wouldn't she support tax breaks for companies that "do the right thing" for working mothers, such as providing on-site day care? Call me a cynic, but the developments about Palin and her personal life could be quite relevant if we didn't have a press corps that was asleep at the wheel.

Howard Kurtz: I think there's a long list of questions, from policy to politics to personal, that journalists would like to ask Sarah Palin. So far, we haven't had the chance.


Why didn't they see this coming?: I'll tell you why: Every baby is a blessing from Jesus! Only the liberal media would try to turn such a blessed event into a cause for derision.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think anyone is being derisive about a teenage pregnancy -- which is not exactly an unknown development in America, unless your mom happens to be running for vice president. But it's certainly fair to question McCain's vetting process. And some of the women I interviewed yesterday said her family is a proper subject for coverage because she's a self-proclaimed hockey mom who put her kids out there on the day she was announced as the VP pick.


Washington: Gustav will be a net negative for Obama because it stepped on his bounce harder than the Palin announcement. But take heart, Democrats -- there are several storms preparing to hit the United States's East Coast that could mess up McCain's post-convention bounce too. My own belief is that the Palin pregnancy is a big waste of political effort on behalf of the Democrats. They're attempting to Quayle Gov. Palin, and McCain is going to slip away unscathed.

Howard Kurtz: I think Palin stepped on Obama's bounce before Gustav swept away the potential McCain bounce from the opening of his convention. If there is such a thing as a convention bounce.


Baltimore: Has Donna Brazile recovered from getting tear-gassed? Have you had any run-ins with the riot cops? How would you contrast police presence in Denver and in St. Paul?

Howard Kurtz: My only run-in with a cop was yesterday, when I asked one for directions and he insisted on my following his squad car to get to the right freeway entrance.


Farmington Hills, Mich.: Howard, given your answer to Baltimore, is it possible the Republican party will keep Palin in a bubble, only speaking to friendly crowds and with little or no press availability, so that she can't mess up?

Howard Kurtz: It's possible. McCain has certainly been less accessible to reporters than he was, famously, in the old Straight Talk Express days. But how can the campaign sell her as a successful running mate and potential president if she can't deal with the press?


U.S.: Are you confident that Palin won't have to withdraw?

Howard Kurtz: Seems extremely unlikely.


Bethesda, Md.: The weather people were cracking me up yesterday. It was like watching a spoof of weather people, all of them out there in the wind yelling into their microphones. It really will be sad when one of them gets injured from flying debris. Why do they do that?

Howard Kurtz: Because it makes for good footage, I guess. I've interviewed some of them about it and they are a little sheepish. Then again, covering a hurricane provided Dan Rather's big break in 1962.


Anchorage, Alaska: There seems to be a lot of misinformation by the media, and in fact you stated something incorrect -- Gov. Palin always has been a Republican, and never was an AIP member. Why doesn't the media stop and look for multiple sources? I also am interested in your take on the level of sexism we have seen, for example from John Roberts?

Howard Kurtz: What I reported was that ABC News says it confirmed that Palin was once a member of the Alaska Independence Party. Jake Tapper is an excellent reporter. If the story turns out to be wrong, I will certainly report that.


Boulder, Colo.: In their Gustav coverage, it appeared that the TV networks actually were hoping for destruction, death and government mismanagement. There was a palpable sense of disappointment that they could not report on something horrendous. Are ratings the only thing that matter in the world of TV news?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think anyone was hoping for death and destruction. I think there was great fear that this could turn into another Katrina, when, by the way, there was some great and courageous reporting. But there's no question that cable TV and local TV get pumped up over hurricanes, just as they do over wars. Which doesn't mean they want war, either.


"My only run-in with a cop was yesterday, when I asked one for directions and he insisted on my following his squad car to get to the right freeway entrance. ": He obviously recognized you from the numerous TV appearances and sought to impress you with the good work they were doing...

Howard Kurtz: Trust me: the guy had no clue who I was, other than a confused-looking media type.


New Brunswick, N.J.: Did you notice the circus on Friday when Palin was announced? The morning talk show hosts were all taking on-air phone calls from "sources within the McCain campaign" or "sources in the Republican Party" or "sources from within the (pick your vice presidential candidate)'s office" that it was/was not X! No it's Y! No, it can't be Z! This went on for about 90 minutes. It was juvenile -- even Andrea Mitchell called it "cutesy" -- and virtually every host called the Palin pick a lesser choice. But they are all on board now! Joe Scarborough was really negative on Friday, saying it was a terrible foreign policy pick; he clearly got a message over the weekend, LOL!

Howard Kurtz: I wrote about the absurdity of the guessing game on Saturday. But let me assure you, the reporters weren't "taking" calls from their sources. They were desperately dialing their sources to try to figure out who McCain had chosen, which turned out to be a game of elimination. (CNBC's John Harwood wound up with the scoop.) Scarborough, I thought, was quite candid about Palin.


Washington: This whole chain of events was planned from the start. In the next few days or hours, Palin will withdraw because "I need to spend time with my family" or "the media attention is too hard on my daughter," etc. She looks good because she put family first. McCain looks good because he at least tried to pick a woman vice president. And his real pick (Romney, Lieberman, or otherwise) gets a break because the media and public just wore themselves out on the Palin thing.

Howard Kurtz: Great movie plot. Don't think it bears much relation to reality.


This Just In: So I'm getting a little sick of everything being "Breaking News" these days. I turned on MSNBC late Friday evening to see the bright red banner of "Breaking News" that Palin was the vice presidential pick. The "Breaking News" banner was on all day for Gustav, with any new info prefaced with the accompanying " New Information" banner just above "Breaking News." Are things more breaking than they used to be or am I just noticing it because I may watch more cable news than the average person?

On a separate note, I know there's an organization that lists banned words every year based on their overuse in pop culture ("under the bus" comes to mind). Can we compile a list and circulate it to all the news media? "Game-changing," "flip-flopping," "on the ground" and "3 a.m." are my first nominees to encourage a more diverse media vocabulary. Any others?

Howard Kurtz: You would leave us speechless!

I think "breaking news" is fair for a hurricane that involves a mass evacuation. The story isn't over when the storm is downgraded. But there's no question that all the cable nets abuse the "breaking" moniker to try to get people to stay tuned.


The clincher: Howard, forget the baby scandals and the Alaska Independence Party, here's the last straw in Palin's career. There's a report in a St. Louis newspaper that another woman claims she was really Miss Congeniality in the Miss Wasilla pageant of 1984! I mean, if you can't tell the truth about your beauty pageant career, how can you be trusted to run the country! Palin was a high school star, says schoolmate (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 30)

Howard Kurtz: That allegation definitely requires a special prosecutor.


Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Hi. I am a liberal Democrat and an Obama supporter, but, I disagree with Sen. Obama -- once any candidate puts their children on the stage with them or takes them to campaign events, as have the Obamas, they are all fair game for the press or voters. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I lean more toward the Obama view--Bristol Palin isn't running for office. But in the modern media world, of course such things are going to become news. Even if Obama privately wanted to make it an issue -- which, as the father of young daughters, I don't think he does -- he doesn't need to utter a syllable. The media are putting it all front and center.


Vetting The Post's reporting: In their story on Sunday, giving the "behind the scenes" account of the choice of Sarah Palin, Dan Balz and Robert Barnes reported: "Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager and the person at the point of the vice presidential process, said there was no abrupt change of course in the final hours. Nor, he said, was Palin selected without having gone through the full vetting process that was done for other finalists. That process included reviews of financial and other personal data, an FBI background check and considerable discussion among the handful of McCain advisers involved in the deliberations."

Given that we now know that the FBI has denied that a background check was done, and that McCain's team arrived in Alaska one day before the announcement was made (according to the New York Times), this paragraph seems to be totally bogus. Did Balz and Barnes do independent reporting to confirm the claims given them, just accept them as true, or limit themselves in their reporting in some way to get the exclusive? Because what was a very "soft" story now looks dangerously underreported. Palin Made an Impression From the Start (Post, Aug. 31)

Howard Kurtz: I'm not aware of the FBI denying a background check. Nor does a team have to be on the ground in Alaska to begin vetting a nominee. But part of our job is to report what the candidates and their aides say. If we can challenge that through reporting, we do so. Sometimes it takes a day or two to gather the right facts. Keep in mind that the pregnancy story just came out yesterday.


Anchorage, Alaska: Why did you put the radio recording so low in your column? Doesn't that clip go straight to the heart of her Palin's candidacy?

Howard Kurtz: Had a lot of other stuff to get through, including my own reporting, and that seemed like a good kicker. Not reacting when radio guys call a political opponent a "bitch" and a "cancer"?


Albany, N.Y.: Mr. Kurtz, given that the McCain campaign's stated reason for releasing word of Palin's daughter's pregnancy to dispel the Internet rumors about the mother of Palin's fifth child, shouldn't there be some analysis of whether the rumors are plausible based on the facts as we know them to be -- i.e. Palin's curious flight from Texas while in labor, the daughter's absence from school, living with her aunt, etc.?

Howard Kurtz: There should be *reporting* on those questions. But we should only publish what we can verify.


Wake Forest, N.C.: I am listening to Amy Goodman on Tom Hartman. She and her producers were roughed up and handcuffed by police and detained. Amy had her credentials grabbed from her by the police. So now journalists are considered "anarchists"? What do you, as a journalist, think about this?

Howard Kurtz: I am firmly against journalists getting arrested for trying to do their jobs! I reported last week on how Denver authorities had arrested an ABC producer trying to film corporate donors, on a public street outside a hotel, as they came out of a meeting with a group of senators. But I don't know the details of the Amy Goodman incident.


Washington: Maybe Anchorage needs to get out more -- here is a quote from the Telegraph: "Lynette Clark, the chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party (AIP), confirmed to ABC News that Mrs. Palin and her husband Todd had both been both members and attended at least one party convention."

Howard Kurtz: Hey, it's easier to blast the media than to do actual research.


Ashland, Mo.: I had not watched "Meet the Press" for many years, but saw the interview with Gov. Pawlenty. Is it now accepted practice that when the guest suggests Sen. Obama's experience is not any greater than Gov. Palin's, that the host offers a rebuttal but doesn't solicit a response to the rebuttal? Is this done with all guests now? Is this the technique that made Mr. Russert famous?

Howard Kurtz: Didn't see the interview, but every host has his or own style of questioning, and Tom Brokaw's is different from Tim Russert's.


New Boston, N.H.: Is anyone, other than the National Enquirer, covering Palin's Trooper-gate, Baby-gate or Bridge-gate? Or McCain's Vetting-gate?

Howard Kurtz: Let's see: the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, CNN, MSNBC... The list goes on.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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