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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 8, 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."

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He was online Monday, Sept. 8 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


San Diego: Good morning, Howard. I have a question about MSNBC dropping Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann as anchors for upcoming big political events. I understand that the network has a lot of infighting (both on- and off-camera) but given the timing, how is this going to be seen as anything but caving to the McCain campaign, or at least to its more Republican/conservative corporate ownership? Also, as a matter of appearance, I get why it's not great to have Olbermann anchoring; although he's not as over-the-top in that role, his bias is clear. Matthews, on the other hand, practically gushes about both McCain and Obama. Why is he a problem?

Howard Kurtz: I have no evidence that MSNBC's move is a caving in to the McCain campaign. There has been criticism for months (including from me) that opinionated talk show hosts could not be seen as fairly presiding over primary nights or conventions as neutral anchors. And there was a substantial push for a change from NBC News veterans who felt their reputation for fairness was being tarnished. Olbermann is the network's preeminent liberal symbol, but he and Matthews were co-anchors, so if MS was going to make a change, it had to affect both of them.


New York: Howard, thanks for taking questions. I asked this in the politics chat, but its likely more up your alley: This morning at my local newsstand I saw Sarah Palin's face smiling up at me from the cover of the latest edition of the National Enquirer with the promise of the revelation of "dark secrets." Normally I'd roll my eyes and move on to get my newspaper, but after the Enquirer was right on the money with the John Edwards scandal (long before the mainstream media) and, if I recall distantly, was right about the Lewinsky saga back in the day, I have to wonder if there's something there. Is The Post going to follow up? Or did the Enquirer get lucky with Edwards but is off-base here. It's weird to consider the Enquirer a legitimate political news source, but these days I have to wonder. What's your take? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: The Post ran an item by me last week in St. Paul, Minn., saying that the McCain campaign had denounced the Enquirer story about Sarah Palin as a vicious lie. The piece is pretty thinly sourced, so I don't know whether or not it's on target, despite what turned out to be the tabloid's accurate reporting on John Edwards.


New York: Regarding Charlie Gibson's big interview with Sarah Palin, the AP reported that the it actually will be "multiple interviews with Gibson in Alaska over two days." Is it common to do it this way instead of one longer interview? Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but something seems fishy here.

Howard Kurtz: But that seems better to me, not worse, from a journalistic point of view. You can only get to so much if you're given 10 minutes. The more time, the more ground that Gibson can cover. And I'm sure ABC wants to run extended portions not just on "World News" but on programs like "Nightline" and "This Week."


Washington: Your newspaper finds itself in the odd position today of excoriating Alberto Gonzales in an op-ed for his reported carelessness in handling sensitive records, while also offering excerpts from a book by Bob Woodward in which he seemingly obtained nonpublic, sensitive information orally or in documentary fashion outside the regulatory and statutory processes.

(Under the Presidential Records Act, outsiders such as Woodward cannot start requesting unclassified or classified records White House under the Freedom of Information Act until five years after an administration leaves office, so that option for accessing info is not yet available to Woodward or to any other reporter or researcher.)

Just to complete the trifecta, there also is a report by Christopher Lee today on a lawsuit to be filed today regarding the handling of vice presidential records under the Presidential Records Act. Doesn't The Post's promotion of Woodward's books undermine Fred Hiatt's ability to speak with credibility on issues related to the handling of sensitive information?

If Gonzales acted wrongly in placing information at risk, so did anyone who shared nonpublic information orally or in document form with Woodward. As someone familiar with the standards for handling archival materials with integrity, I find Woodward to be a terrible drag on your newspaper. Does the publisher realize how Woodward undermines some of the newspaper's op-eds, such as the one on Gonzales? I say officials must respect the rules -- period.

Howard Kurtz: I don't follow the analogy at all. There are laws that public officials must follow in the handling of classified material. Those laws don't apply to journalists, who don't have government security clearances. The only question for reporters obtaining sensitive material is whether national security secrets or confidential informants would be compromised by publishing the documents. Woodward's been doing this a long time, and it's interesting to note that President Bush granted him two interviews for this book, even though his last book, "State of Denial," was quite critical of the president and the administration.


Washington: Sarah the Mysterious: Howard, I was troubled to read this morning that the McCain campaign expects the media to show Gov. Palin not only respect but deference (?!) before they will make her available for interviews. Give me a break! Do you think she is taking a lead from the current vice president's book? If so, she should be aware that the American public will draw their own conclusions about why she's reluctant to take questions (the way all other politicians do) -- and they won't be favorable to her.

Howard Kurtz: She'll get the same deference that every other politician gets -- basic respect and fairness -- but no more. We'll have to see whether Palin does more interviews after Gibson or even (gasp) holds a news conference.


Washington: This pertains to both sides making the argument: Why does the media give voice to the people on both sides who try to denigrate it when it has does its job -- aka finding out the stuff about a candidate that they don't want to talk about? Instead of letting yourselves be the whipping boy, why not just ignore people who spew that kind of garbage?

Howard Kurtz: This is a free-for-all kinda forum. Let people have their say and you all can judge whether their arguments are valid.


Baltimore: Howard, on multiple occasions you have made statements similar to this one in your column today: "She began by showcasing her five children. She can hardly turn around and argue, then, that her family ought to be totally off-limits." As if that's justification for the maniacal mauling of her and her family by the media. Haven't the Obama children been at the convention and in magazines? Aren't they rightfully treated as off-limits? It seems a cheap shot to claim that because the Palin children appeared in public, they're available for target practice. Should she have locked them in a closet and not let anyone see her family?

Howard Kurtz: If you read my column a little more closely, you'll see that I'm quite critical of the media's performance. The lead says she was "mauled, minimized and manhandled" by the media establishment. But it is an undeniable fact that Palin not only has trotted out her kids, but has made her role as a mother central to her political narrative. She can't then expect only positive coverage of her family. That does not justify many of the cheap shots we've seen, as I've made clear, and this whole how-can-she-be-a-mom-and-run-for-VP debate seems to me to be something out of the distant past.


Akron, Ohio: When Tucker Carlson left MSNBC to the rude ones Matthews and Olbermann I found another station to watch. I think he and David Gregory, if he doesn't go back to his bully ways, would make a great team. What do you think? Also you don't seem to be on CNN as much Sunday morning, and I miss you!

washingtonpost.com: MSNBC Drops Olbermann, Matthews as News Anchors (Post, Sept. 8)

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I was back on yesterday. We did only segments from Denver and St. Paul, Minn., the previous two weeks.

Tucker Carlson hasn't left MSNBC, but his role has been greatly diminished since his show was canceled in March. I think the chances of him being paired with David Gregory are basically nonexistent.


The flip side of multiple interviews...: A problem could arise if the first interview goes in a direction the campaign doesn't want to go. Then suddenly Palin could be "unavailable" for round two, the campaign could leak a story about Gibson being unfair, and the "media is biased" story gets played out over the weekend again. Granted, it could be a huge gambit, but in picking a relative unknown, the McCain camp has shown they aren't afraid of gambling.

Howard Kurtz: Charlie has been doing this a long time. He has moderated presidential debates. I don't think he's going to pull any punches out of concern that the campaign might yank the subsequent interviews. And if that happened, wouldn't it look like Palin couldn't withstand tough questioning?


Darien, Conn.: Can we attribute some of the chaos at MSNBC in their political coverage to the void left by Tim Russert?

Howard Kurtz: No, I don't think so. Some of these same tensions and complaints were raging while Tim was still alive.


Parallel universe?: After the MSNBC removal of Matthews and Olbermann as unseemly news anchors, will Fox News follow suit by ditching their opinionated political analysts as anchors of election coverage?

Howard Kurtz: Fox did something interesting during the conventions -- it kept the "O'Reilly Factor" and "Hannity & Colmes" on, then had Brit Hume anchor the rest of the night, beginning a little before 10 p.m. eastern. So it got its most opinionated hosts on the air, but without labeling them "anchors."


San Diego: Howard, are the journalistic expectations different for Fox than for MSNBC or the main networks? I ask that because you questioned some of the comments from the morning programs on Gov. Palin, yet those judgmental comments are run-of-the-mill for Fox morning shows. For the past few weeks I've been watching Fox, more to see the differences between them and MSNBC and wonder if the problem is that people expect MSNBC to play the news straight while Fox is, well, Fox, and and can be a GOP cheering squad?

Howard Kurtz: Expectations are in the eye of the beholder, I guess. I expect all the news networks to be fair, or at least make clear the difference between straight reporting and commentary.


Trenton, N.J.: Hi Howard. Would you agree that a lot of this campaign is pure theater, and that we voters, however much we are aware of it, still just take it all in? The worst part is that it works -- and we all know it.

Howard Kurtz: When has American politics not had an element of theater? Television and the Internet make it a constant stage, but even the early pamphleteers, and the debaters in the Lincoln-Douglas mold, knew you had to entertain people to get them to pay attention.


Rolla, Mo.: Thank you for calling the "Palin-opposing-the-Bridge-to-Nowhere" ad for what it is, a whopper. Now, can we expect The Washington Post's editorial board to pen something on Palin's earmarks history, just like they did today with her relationship with big oil?

washingtonpost.com: Ms. Palin's Pipeline (Post, Sept. 8)

Howard Kurtz: Dunno. The Post's editorial board is completely separate from the working-stiff reporters like me.


Hampton Cove, Ala.: Howie, I am still waiting for your correction that Elisabeth Bumiller and Jake Tapper are not great reporters (as your proclaimed) and got it wrong that Sarah Palin was a member of the Alaska Independence Party. Seems you are very one-sided in who you give the benefit of the doubt. Most Americans realize Pulitzer Prizes are given out by left-wing professors who do not share their values, so using that to give credence to liberal mainstream media types is losing its luster.

Howard Kurtz: Left-wing professors? The prizes are given out by journalists.

Both Tapper and Bumiller did something quite reasonable: said Palin had once been a member of the Alaska Independence Party based on on-the-record comments by the chairwoman of the party. (Bumiller should have attributed the information, as she acknowledged in an ombudsman's column yesterday.) The chairwoman later said she was wrong and had given out erroneous information. That, too, was reported. It's why journalism is in fact a first draft of history.


Washington: Howie, I am guessing that by putting David Gregory at the helm of MSNBC's political coverage for the last two months of this year's elections, that they are priming him to take over NBC's "Meet The Press," after Brokaw moves aside after November. Your thoughts on this?

Howard Kurtz: I honestly don't think that decision has been made. It certainly won't hurt Gregory if he's seen as doing a good job. The skills involved in anchoring a live event are very different from hosting a Sunday morning interview show; Russert, of course, was never an anchor. But it could boost Gregory in the stature department.


Washington: On Sunday, I woke to read excerpts from Bob Woodward's latest book posted washingtonpost.com. Needless to say, Woodward is not very complimentary to Bush or his party. Then, continuing my browsing, I went to wsj.com and read an article with this excerpt: "According to Rasmussen, fully 68 percent of voters believe that 'most reporters try to help the candidate they want to win.' And -- no surprise -- 49 percent of those surveyed believe reporters are backing Barack Obama, while just 14 percent think the media is in the tank for Sen. McCain."Meanwhile, 51 percent of those surveyed thought the press was 'trying to hurt' Mrs. Palin with its coverage. Perhaps most troubling for the press corps, though, was this finding: '55 percent said media bias is a bigger problem for the electoral process than large campaign donations.' "

Would you like to take a shot at convincing me that posting Woodward's latest anti-Republican polemic in the middle of the presidential campaign was "just coincidence" and not part of a campaign to help the Democrats in the election? I mean that sincerely, because right now I am finding myself on the majority side of those who view the mainstream media as being in the tank for Obama. I'm finding it hard to see where washingtonpost.com draws the line between op-ed and news. Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Political Diary: What Sarah Knows (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 7)

Howard Kurtz: Piece o' cake. The Woodward excerpts were published, beginning yesterday, for a pretty fundamental reason: the book is being published this week. Other publicity for the book (such as a "60 Minutes" interview yesterday) also have gotten under way. Woodward may or may not have decided to bring out the book during the election season to have a greater impact, but The Post has no control over that. You also might remember that Woodward's first book in this Bush-at-war series was quite positive for the president. That volume dealt with Afghanistan.


Granger, Ind.: Thanks for taking questions. Help me out with something, will you? Why do so many in the media seem to regard the Palin pick as evidence of McCain's "maverick" personality? As I understand it, the person McCain wanted to pick, Joe Lieberman, essentially was vetoed by the Christian Right. Rather than stand up to such "agents of intolerance," McCain decided to bow before their wishes, choosing a committed social conservative. For this, he's hailed a maverick? What am I missing? Wouldn't a true "maverick" have told them where to stick it and made his own choice?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's not quite right to say that anyone "vetoed" the choice of Lieberman. McCain weighed the pros and cons of picking a lifelong Democrat and concluded that his party would revolt. The maverick label that some have applied to the Palin pick is not about her staunchly conservative views. It's about the fact that she was virtually unknown in the other 49 states and has been a governor for just 20 months.


Kansas City, Kan.: Campbell Brown of CNN in her interview with the McCain flak did the best job of television journalism I had witness in quite some time (deference to the great Tim Russert). She pinned him down and would not allow him a "non-answer." Looking flustered and outmatched, the young flak seemed to be saying to Campbell: "You're not playing by the rules! You ask your question and I get to answer whatever question I want based on my talking points." I shudder to think what would become of our lush political landscape if all journalist followed Mrs. Campbell's example. Perhaps we may have even avoided a war? Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: It was a good. solid interview in which Campbell tried to get Tucker Bounds to name one decision Palin has made as commander of the Alaska National Guard. It also resulted in the campaign canceling a McCain appearance on Larry King, which I found quite puzzling.


New Orleans: Howard -- do you think the talking heads who gushed over Palin's speech were being genuine, or just overcompensating to counter the criticism over their treatment of her? It's hard to believe they really were so impressed by such a nasty, snide display.

Howard Kurtz: In my view, they genuinely believed it was a boffo speech. But I do think there's been a bit of a makeup call, to use a basketball term: some pundits feeling sheepish that they had jumped all over Palin initially while knowing very little about her. Whoa, they seemed to say, this woman has some political skills.


El Paso, Texas: As a former Washingtonian I am grateful for The Washington Post online. As a supporter of another party's residential candidate, I was not emotionally involved with the recent Republican and Democratic conventions. When I heard of Gov. Palin's nomination, my first sympathy was for newsroom budgets in this difficult economic era for good newspapers: it can't be cheap to send reporters to Alaska. Good luck. Thanks for your daily work, and for the daily work of other Washington Post reporters.

Howard Kurtz: It will cost some bucks, no doubt about it. And I'm sure some journalists would have preferred a running mate from Hawaii.


Wasilla, Alaska: You write: "Bumiller should have attributed the information, as she acknowledged in an ombudsman's column yesterday." Yet in your column today, you claim that the McCain camp was "deluged" by the press with personal questions about Palin's pregnancy. The claim is completely unsourced. "Sourcing for thee, but not for me" is your motto, Howee.

Howard Kurtz: If you look at the story I broke last week, Steve Schmidt, McCain's top strategist, told me that on the record as he ripped what he called the media's scurrilous reporting on Palin. So I was just summarizing something I had already reported and attributed.


Seattle: Howard, I want your reaction to this. I found it quite insightful on why I am so disdainful of how the modern media operates: The media is incapable of admitting itself to be an actor. They shape the public's understanding of politics, but pretend they are a mode of transmission rather than an agent in control of information. That gets you the consistently confusing coverage where the very people who will decide how the public understands an event makes that decision by speculating how they think the public will understand an event.

It is the pretense of objectivity at the expense of honesty. But it reaches new heights of absurdity when the subject is not politics, but the media itself, and the media must answer questions about itself by asking how they imagine viewers are judging their coverage. And it is sad, too, watching people who once wanted to be Carl Bernstein reduced to moderating a focus group that exists only inside their heads.

Howard Kurtz: Anyone who covers politics knows full well that the media are a major player. I think there's more recognition of this, and the Internet's growing role, than there was 10 years ago. What are the stories about Palin's coverage (and not just by me) if not an explicit recognition that the fourth estate plays a huge role in shaping perceptions of candidates, especially those who were previously unknown to the vast majority of the country?


Seattle: Howie, can I get your take on Peggy Noonan and her live-microphone slip? It seems to me that she was caught lying in her column, and that she should be fired. She will not be, unless I miss my guess. Won't this just abet in the general discrediting of the media?

washingtonpost.com: The Trail: Hot Mic Picks Up Noonan and Murphy Dishing on Palin (washingtonpost.com, Sept. 3)

Howard Kurtz: I don't think she was caught lying. She has not been an unabashed cheerleader for McCain in her Wall Street Journal column. She was caught saying something far blunter (and with what she called, in her subsequent explanation, a barnyard epithet) than she would have if she'd known the mike was on. Definitely embarrassing, no question about it.


Washington: How do you think the press and pundits would have reacted if one of Obama's daughters was pregnant and unmarried. What about Biden?

Howard Kurtz: It would have been reported as a medical miracle, since Obama's daughters are only 10 and 7.


Crestwood, N.Y.: So Mr. Woodward has confirmed what those of us who don't rely on the American media have known for months, namely, that the surge was one of many things that had an effect on diminishing violence in Iraq, including one factor that he doesn't mention -- the ethnic cleansing that our glorious "liberation" set off. Our successful bribery of the Sunnis, who have stopped fomenting violence for the present, actually pre-dated the surge. So what are the odds that the media will stop talking simplistically about how the surge "succeeded," a half or one-eighth truth that has given McCain an undeserved leg-up with the electorate? I'm not holding my breath on that one.

Howard Kurtz: Woodward or no Woodward, the media have reported before that the decrease in violence in Iraq is due not only to the increased number of troops but to cooperating with Sunni tribal leaders and other factors. Still, politics is about results. If Bush (and McCain) suffered politically when violence in Iraq was spiraling out of control, obviously they're going to claim some credit when the death toll declines.


Nome, Alaska: Personally, I love the idea of a bunch of liberal East Coast journalists having to bundle up and head off to Alaska to dig through Sarah Palin's garbage. It gets cold in October in Alaska. Bundle up, liberals!

Howard Kurtz: Good -- they can see how the real America lives! Besides, it isn't exactly balmy in Iowa and New Hampshire at primary time, so we've already got the parkas.


"The Daily Show":"The Daily Show" seemingly has patented a technique of finding old video clips of politicians directly contradicting themselves and highlighting those contradictions. It's especially illuminating to see the words coming out of their mouths -- that's harder to refute than a printed story. Why don't we see this more on actual news shows? Isn't that a good way of finding truth in a world of spin -- or at least of pointing directly at the spin and making it more obvious?

Howard Kurtz: We are starting to see more of that on actual news shows, which are taking a page from the "Daily Show" playbook. Jon Stewart didn't invent the technique, but he's used it to great effect. It helps to have a small army of TiVo researchers, as he does.


Concord, N.H.: The McCain campaign's complaints about the media coverage of Gov. Palin are clearly intended to "work the refs", a successful Republican strategy in the past. Will members of the mainstream media allow themselves to be bullied by the right yet again? Or will they do their jobs and fully investigate and report Gov. Palin's background and public record, so that voters can make informed decisions about whether Gov. Palin is suited to be our next vice president (and possibly our 45th president)?

Howard Kurtz: You know, it is entirely possible that two things are true. One, that the McCain campaign is trying to work the refs (as every campaign does to some degree; the Hillary campaign complained vociferously about her coverage). Two, the coverage is sometimes flawed or unfair. We need to be able to examine what we're doing and correct our missteps and mistakes, even if campaign operatives are yelling at us at the same time.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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