Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 22, 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, Sept. 22 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Montreal: The McCain campaign has decided to make it impossible for the electorate, via the press, to get any kind of real and direct examination of governor Palin. Even when she does choose to do an interview or answer a question, the campaign picks who and when. What does this kind of strategy say about the role of the Fourth Estate in modern American democracy? It sure seems like a direct attack on the concept of an informed electorate and an inquisitive press.

Howard Kurtz: Well I hate to disillusion you, but every campaign decides when, whether and with whom its candidates will talk to. Palin has been an extreme case, although she's scheduled to sit down with Katie Couric tomorrow. She has held no news conferences and taken a grand total of one question from the traveling press (offering a convoluted answer about AIG). If this is the way McCain and his strategists want to treat their vice presidential nominee, they have a right to do it. It doesn't exactly proclaim that they have full confidence in the governor to deal with normal interaction with the media. The question is whether voters will conclude that she's being shielded for a reason.

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Wheaton, Md.: So I saw a piece on Fox News Channel yesterday, explaining the AIG, Fannie and Freddie meltdown. They said it was because of a l999 law that relaxed the regulations that banks have to follow, and showed pictures of President Clinton signing something. Is this the usual FNC disinformation campaign (blame Democrats for everything bad) or was Clinton instrumental in deregulation of the banking/mortgage/insurance industries? How much blame does Clinton get for the mess we're in now?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the piece, but that's not disinformation -- the Republicans (led by Phil Gramm, McCain's confidant), pushed the 1999 law removing barriers between banking and insurance companies, among other things. There were Democratic objections, a compromise was reached, and Clinton signed the bill into law. To the extent that law contributed to the current crisis, the Democrats bear some responsibility -- but a lot has happened since 2000, and the Bush administration has to answer for its inaction as more and more mortgages were sliced and diced into risky and exotic instruments to avoid federal regulation. This created a shadow banking system that was great when home prices were soaring but ultimately collapsed like a house of cards.

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How about Will?: I guess George Will is also the "left's favorite righty, too, uh, Howie? "I suppose the McCain campaign's hope is that when there's a big crisis, people will go for age and experience," said Will. "The question is, who in this crisis looked more presidential, calm and un-flustered? It wasn't John McCain who, as usual, substituting vehemence for coherence, said 'let's fire somebody.' And picked one of the most experienced and conservative people in the administration, Chris Cox, and for no apparent reason. ... It was un-presidential behavior by a presidential candidate."

Donaldson then jumped in: "It was two days after the he said the fundamentals of the economy were strong. His talking points have gotten all mixed up. And I think the question of age is back on the table." ... The whole, painful, episode crested with Will leveling an even harsher blow. "John McCain showed his personality this week," said the writer and pundit, "and made some of us fearful."

Howard Kurtz: Yes, I mentioned the ABC exchange in this morning's blog.

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Winston-Salem, N.C.: I'm wondering how the recent financial meltdown will affect the questioning during the upcoming presidential debate. It seems to me that one key to doing well for Obama is to psychologically tie the economic burdens of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to instability at home.

Howard Kurtz: For the first debate, on Friday, the answer is "not much." That's because it's devoted to national security issues. I'm guessing that moderator Jim Lehrer will find a way to sneak in a couple of banking questions by tying them to the global financial crisis, but under the rules it seems that the main focus will be elsewhere.

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Laurel, Md.: Hi Howard. With the first debate being on foreign policy, do you think that either candidate may change the subject and discuss the economy, given all the incredible happenings in the past week or two? How much of an impact do you feel the debates will have on the election, and will the vice presidential debate matter much in the end?

Howard Kurtz: The presidential debates will be huge. In a close election, it's hard to think of another event as important as tens of millions of people getting to watch the two contenders face off three times.

I don't know if the candidates will have the leeway to make the first debate more about the economy. I'm sure Obama would like to try, especially given that national security is seen as closer to McCain's turf.

I'm sure the vice presidential debate will draw the biggest audience that any one of these running-mate face-offs ever have. In the end, I suspect most people will vote for the top of the ticket, as they always have.

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Washington: Howard, historically, how does the public react to candidates who clam up and don't engage with the press? Thanks for taking questions!

Howard Kurtz: Generally voters don't care that much unless the media make it a major issue, and even then that is sometimes dismissed as self-interested whining. But the point isn't that Sarah Palin is avoiding journalists -- who aren't all that popular these days -- it's that she is, except for a handful of exceptions, not communicating her views to American voters except through carefully staged and controlled appearances.

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Boston: I've read several stories talking about Gov. Palin's previous political debates -- most seem to contain anecdotes where Palin refers to papers or note cards she has brought with her. Has she ever done a debate without these aids? Will the vice presidential debate allow them?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. She hasn't debated all that many times. I think notes are allowed at the presidential and vice presidential debates, but I'm not positive.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Why does the press believe that it is proper to scrutinize the comments of a family's religious leader (i.e. Rev. Wright), but that the political comments of a family's political leader (i.e. the Alaska Independence Party leadership) are less relevant?

washingtonpost.com: Sliming Palin (FactCheck.org, Sept. 9)

Howard Kurtz: They're both fair game -- but because Gov. Palin, unlike her husband Todd, was not a member of the Alaska Independence Party, I don't see how it's fair to call that person the "family's political leader."

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Conyers, Ga.: This is an unashamed plug for the man-in-the-street article by Joel Achenbach. Speaking as a homeowner with a conventional mortgage, I agree with almost all of the people he interviewed and the responses he elicited. The proposed deal is "Cash for Trash," as the headline on Paul Krugman's New York Times column had it. And I and the rest of us with up-to-date mortgagees get nothing but a debt to pay off, and the worst excesses of congressional and executive "leadership." My one hope is that the lawmakers will read it and have it influence their coming negotiations.

washingtonpost.com: A Sense of Resentment Amid the 'For Sale' Signs (Post, Sept. 22)

Howard Kurtz: I don't blame anyone who handled their finances responsibly, declining to buy homes they couldn't afford, from feeling burned at having to bail out these huge corporations that acted recklessly and now are begging for a government rescue. The counterargument, of course, is that if the credit crisis isn't solved quickly, it will so devastate the economy that all of us will be hurt. That doesn't make the pill any easier to swallow.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Has the Post done on analysis of Obama's plans to deal with the current financial difficulties? Why he has chosen to neither support nor oppose the ongoing bailouts?

Howard Kurtz: He says he wants to proceed cautiously, given the magnitude of the problem, so there has been nothing to analyze. Obama is supposed to unveil his proposals today.

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Southeast Washington: When Obama and the talking heads mock McCain for saying the fundamentals of our economy are strong, why doesn't some smart reporter ask them about those fundamentals? Inflation is low, unemployment is very low by historical standards, productivity is up, and we're not in a recession (check the growth figures for the past year!). But you sell more papers predicting disaster than proclaiming everything's not too bad!

Howard Kurtz: The first point is certainly fair (although McCain backed off the comment with notable speed). The "fundamentals" could be sound, even in a recession or crisis -- anyone want to trade our economy for another country's? -- but I hardly think anyone is trying to sell papers by predicting disaster. There is a disaster unfolding, from Fannie/Freddie/Lehman/AIG to this $700-billion bailout that could end up costing even more, and we are covering it. In fact, news organizations would have been doing their duty if they had sounded a louder alarm in recent years about the risks of this shadow banking system now essentially that has collapsed.

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Dunn Loring VA: Is Page A3 of the Post considered more or less prominent than B1 (Metro front page)? I ask because it seems strange that a Biden rally with just 700 people gets inside front cover treatment but a McCain-Palin rally with 24,000 is just considered worthy of the local section.

Howard Kurtz: I'd say being on the Metro front is somewhat better display, so it makes sense that a local rally drawing 24,000 people for a vice presidential candidate would get the section front.

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Fair Lawn, N.J.: Don't want to mention "Brand X," but there was a moment to make every American shed a patriotic tear this morning in the Times, where left-of-center Paul Krugman and right-wing neocon Bill Kristol united in their opposition to the Paulson bailout. Makes me want to fly the flag today!

Howard Kurtz: It's actually a leading indicator of the fact that neither the left nor the right is ready to swallow this Paulson proposal whole, even though there is incredible pressure on Congress to act quickly.

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Bethesda, Md.: "Tens of millions of people getting to watch the two contenders face off three times." Let's not go overboard there -- I would be surprised if the debates can exceed 10 million each. These debates are so hokey, corny and 20th Century -- much like the flailing news industry, which is probably why they're being given so much attention by news outlets.

If we had a proactive, forward-thinking Fourth Estate, these silly, stilted presidential debates would have gone the way of the dodo 10 years ago. There are far better ways to test our candidates on the issues instead of standing them up in front of some television cameras and tossing them softballs. This country deserves better than this antiquated format propagated by a bunch of old fogies who think a newspaper is still worth the paper it's printed on.

Howard Kurtz: You've got a boatload of facts wrong. First of all, past debates have drawn as many as 70 million or 80 million viewers, so 50 million is hardly an unrealistic expectation this time around. Second, the media ain't in charge here -- the debates are orchestrated, in conjunction with the parties, by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which also picks the moderators.

And in my humble opinion, debates are a good way of seeing the candidates tested and challenged to think on their feet, just as they have been since the days of Lincoln-Douglass.

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Falls Church, Va.: Its seems to me that both Katie Couric and Sarah Palin have much to gain and/or lose in the interview. Certainly, Katie can get an immediate bump in the ratings, but if she goes too hard or too soft, she has the potential of hurting herself with voters. Similarly, Palin has to show that she can handle herself with one of the nation's nightly anchors. How do you expect the interview to play out?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. I don't think the stakes are quite as high as when Charlie Gibson sat down with Palin, if only because this is her third television interview, not her first. Does Katie have more leeway to ask certain questions because she is a woman? Not sure. I agree, though, that it's a big moment for both of them.

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TV Ads: There's been a lot of talk about the truthfulness of the campaign ads, with some even accusing Sen. McCain of outright lies (something that didn't occur when there pretty egregious ads back in 2004). But shouldn't the system be better than forcing one campaign to respond and refute lies? Shouldn't they not be aired in the first place? Why can't the FEC or some governmental body regulate ads so that it's actually the truth and not just a shade of the truth?

Howard Kurtz: You don't want the government regulating political speech -- for one thing, it would be unconstitutional; for another, how would it be fair to have a group of commissioners appointed by a president of one party rule on the acceptability of commercials made by candidates of both parties?

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Deregulation: Has McCain been questioned about his past positions as a free-market advocate? He's all for more regulation and accountability now, but he has a fairly consistent, long-term view towards deregulation. Obama's campaign made a statement about it, but has the press questioned him about it?

Howard Kurtz: He was questioned about it on "60 Minutes" last night. I believe that was his first national interview since the Wall Street crisis exploded. He hasn't talked to his traveling press corps for more than a month, so there was no opportunity there.

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Fossil, Ore.: If the debate is confined to foreign policy, I think many of the avid followers simply will tune out. The debate should be open, and should cover the current economic problems.

Howard Kurtz: Well, blame the Commission on Presidential Debates. I'm not a big fan either of limiting a debate to one set of topics.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Obama's "Dos Caras" ad would have been a smear had it been directed at Rush Limbaugh -- by targeting McCain by insinuating the Limbaugh is one of McCain's Republican friends, the truth was turned on its head -- yet the media reaction was, with a few exceptions, quite muted. In more than few outlets, McCain received more criticism for his spinning of the poison-pill amendments (ridiculous as it was) than Obama did for what was little more than a reciting a litany of falsehoods. If McCain's venial sins draw harsher criticism than Obama's mortal sins, what is the motivation for either campaign to change?

Howard Kurtz: Every fact-check piece I read (and the one that I wrote) pointed out the misleading aspects of that Obama ad. (Maybe it got less attention because it was a Spanish-language spot, so you couldn't play it over and over for viewers.) And if you want to read a piece that is tough on Obama's ads, check out Ruth Marcus' Post column today.

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New Royalton, N.J.: I don't envy this news media covering the financial crisis. You could sit a dunderhead like me in front of a television set, prop my eyes open "A Clockwork Orange"-style, and still couldn't explain this crisis to me. And I'm educated. Perhaps that explains why some of us are so incensed at this bailout proposal. We (and by "we" I mean people like me, not everyone) don't really understand how we got into this mess, and don't know what would happen if the market took its course, and so are furious at this bailout.

Howard Kurtz: It's incredibly complicated. How many of us understand credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations? The problem is, many of the people who created these exotic instruments to evade federal regulation don't fully understand them either. Very reminiscent of what happened at Enron.

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Re: Brooks: Might I ask two questions about your Brooks piece today? First, do you believe the New York Times is absolutely allergic to opening its op-ed pages to a conservative voice who is open to pro-life views or opposed to gay marriage? Second, why no focus on how conservatives feel Brooks is insufficiently conservative to hold up the "conservative" end of debates on "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer"? Not enough space?

Howard Kurtz: I made quite clear that some conservatives are unhappy with Brooks -- in fact, that was the theme of the column, beginning with his criticism of Sarah Palin last week. As for the Times's choices, well, William Safire was pretty darn conservative for 30 years. But I think it's fair to say the Times does not now have an op-ed columnist as conservative as Safire, the old Nixon hand.

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Boston: So now that Obama has sat down for an interview with Bill O'Reilly, will McCain sit down with Keith Olbermann?

Howard Kurtz: Ah -- don't hold your breath. McCain has been interviewed a number of times by Chris Matthews, though.

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Princeton, W.Va.: It appears that the national media has, since the conventions, decided to pay attention to important presidential campaign issues instead of silly, unimportant snippets. I hope it keeps up. We need to understand where these candidates are coming from ... the future of America depends on it. The fact-checking is valuable. It was sadly missing in the past two presidential elections.

Howard Kurtz: I agree, but you're letting us off the hook. What about the two days we wasted on lipstick on a pig? It's only since Wall Street institutions began to crumble -- and everyone (including journalists) took the hit -- that the coverage has turned decidedly more serious. And, as you say, it's about time.

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Re: False advertising: Sorry, Mr. Kurtz, but I do want the government regulating political speech given that the alternative is that candidates air blatant, bald-faced lies again and again. I know the media has come out strongly against McCain's recent tactics, but all I hear from the media is that no one watches the news or reads the paper anymore. Do you think that more of America gets its info from the media column in The Washington Post, or from an ad they saw during "American Idol"?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I suggest you draft a Constitutional amendment that would, among other things, repeal the First Amendment.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Howard, what was your take on the "60 Minutes" interview that featured McCain and Obama. I thought that Steve Croft's segment was quite balanced and asked the tough questions of Obama. Scott Pelley, on the other hand, was a little passive toward McCain. I'm not sure if it is a question of interview styles -- perhaps Croft is from the Mike Wallace school of tough interviewing. Why not have one correspondent -- Croft or Leslie Stahl -- interview both candidates?

Howard Kurtz: I thought both the Kroft and Pelley interviews were pretty good.

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Washington: Is there a way for the press to take a politician to task for not answering questions? This goes for all of the politicians. Instead of a guestimated number of people at yadda yadda yadda rally, maybe "after a campaign rally at yadda yadda yadda, candidate John Q. Public refused to answer any questions about their policies or their running mate's policies." There's gotta be some way to use the power of the microphone to hold them more accountable. Alternately, the press as a whole could just not cover someone who doesn't talk to them or tries to use the press as a straw man.

Howard Kurtz: We do it -- perhaps not enough -- but I'm not sure most people care. And in Palin's case, if she continues to sit down with the likes of Gibson and Couric, it will be hard to make the case that she's avoiding serious interviews altogether -- even if she is stiffing the rest of us on a day-to-day basis.

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Alexandria, Va.: Howard, what will you be looking at in particular during the first presidential debate?

Howard Kurtz: Which candidate sighs the most.

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Crystal City, Va.: I don't understand your Media Notes column today. Is The Post guilty of flimsy sourcing for two reports and an editorial citing ties between Raines and the Obama campaign, or are you arguing that The Post reported limited, unsubstantial ties between Obama/Raines and the McCain ad stretched these connections into more than actually was there?

Howard Kurtz: I simply am saying that The Post accurately quoted Franklin Raines several months ago as saying he had offered some advice to Obama's campaign. Neither Raines nor the Obama camp ever asked for a correction. But for the McCain camp to then label Raines an Obama adviser, as if he were part of some inner circle, is a real stretch -- especially given that Obama himself says he only briefly met Raines once.

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Arlington, Va.: Regarding the New York Times and conservative columnists, although Brooks has evolved, he was a conservative when he was selected to write a column. And of course there is Bill Kristol!

Howard Kurtz: And Brooks still would describe himself as a conservative.

Kristol is a different case. His main job, of course, is as editor of the Weekly Standard, and my understanding is that the Times gig is just for this election year.

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Washington: Is AIG being called a bailout? Because it really isn't a bailout. The money lent by the government must be repaid with interest, and the government gets control of the company.

Howard Kurtz: It is absolutely, positively a government bailout that gives the feds effective control of a company that otherwise was going under. Chrysler repaid its money eventually, but that didn't make it any less of a bailout.

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Comment and question: Though the media apparently did not come up with the term "First Dude" to describe Sarah Palin's husband, making him appear folksy, they have used it extensively as though it's clever. At first, perhaps; now it's tiring -- real tiring. Also, did you see last week's Sean Hannity interview with Sarah Palin? Opinions? He did feed her lots of leading questions/comments, though others have done the same with Obama (e.g. Jon Stewart).

Howard Kurtz: It was incredibly soft -- the friendliest interview I've seen since Keith Olbermann sat down with Obama.

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What?: You say McCain hasn't talked to his traveling press corps in a month? Isn't that big news, given that he portrayed himself as being at the helm of the "Straight Talk Express," and that the access he granted to his press corps is what gave him so much favorable ink in the first place? Next thing we know, you'll tell us that he's stopped having barbecues at his "cabin" near Sedona.

Howard Kurtz: It's medium news. I wrote that he had stopped talking to the press several weeks ago, when I traveled with the campaign. Others have mentioned it. The Straight Talk Express is dead.

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Friday?: Why is the debate on Friday? In 2004 the Friday debate had around 46 million viewers, compared to around 62 for the first debate. Seems like a poor choice. Isn't TV viewership down on Fridays?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, and I can't understand it. I think Friday night is a terrible choice.

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Detroit: "What about the two days we wasted on lipstick on a pig?" I am sure you miss those days.

Howard Kurtz: Not me -- the whole thing made me cringe.

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Anonymous: So it would take repealing the First Amendment to not allow a politician to do things like accuse his opponent of supporting sex ed for kindergartners? Couldn't just have a requirement that if you are going to take federal money and use the government-supported airways, you have to tell the truth?

Howard Kurtz: Folks, listen up: Who exactly is going to determine what the "truth" is? Unelected bureaucrats? That's why the media's role is so important here in fact-checking ads that either stretch or obliterate the truth. People can argue with our analyses, but at least we raise the questions and provide the background and context. At that point the political marketplace can sort it out.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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