Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 29, 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. 29 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Jacksonville, Fla.: "And the worst may be yet to come for Palin; sources say CBS has two more responses on tape that likely ill prove embarrassing." Care to expand on this Howie? It already has some of the blogosphere jumping.

Howard Kurtz: The answers that are on tape are part of a "Vice Presidential Questions" series, with Joe Biden having been asked the same questions. Katie did the same sort of thing with Obama and McCain. CBS plans to air the vice-presidential nominees' responses on Wednesday and Thursday. I am told that Palin struggled with at least one or two of them.

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New York: I swear I read somewhere on The Post's site that there is a third part to the Couric/Palin interview coming out today, but now I can't find anything about it. Is there more to come?

Howard Kurtz: Katie Couric was scheduled to interview Palin again -- with McCain -- today and/or tomorrow. As of this writing, I'm told that is still the plan, despite all the criticism of Palin's earlier round with Katie and the inevitable Tina Fey send-up.

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New York: Howard, I can't tell you how many times I switched channels when watching Katie Couric's early days on the CBS News, but lately I've been watching more -- even the entire program. The format seems more businesslike, less gimmicky, and Couric really has a grip on the big issues, I think. Her Palin interview will be viewed as pivotal. Am I alone in my reassessment?

Howard Kurtz: No. I wrote about a year into her tenure that the "CBS Evening News" had become a better, harder-edged broadcast, jettisoning some of the features and gimmicks that it had used when Katie first jumped there from the "Today" show. But she has continued to struggle with third-place ratings, so a lot of people never went back to sample the revamped broadcast. Couric did have a good run at the conventions and is drawing some favorable attention lately.

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The debate spin war: So, why exactly do you think the McCain camp won the spin war? Especially given that virtually every poll that tracked reaction to the debate showed Obama winning?

Howard Kurtz: I don't mean to suggest that the McCain spinners changed the American public's verdict on the debate (as best that can be measured by polls), but in the 24 to 48 hours after the debate, television in particular picked up with the McCain argument that it was significant that Obama had said 11 times, "John's right" or "Sen. McCain is absolutely right." By itself, that's pretty meaningless, but because it lent itself to a video montage -- which the McCain operation helped along by rushing out a Web ad -- a number of anchors and pundits bit.

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McLean, Va.: Are there any plans to replace Tom Brokaw on "Meet The Press"? He can't hide his bias.

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree with the second statement, but Brokaw only has agreed to do "Meet the Press" through the election season. So he will be replaced, but that was always the plan after Tim Russert's death.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Mr. Kurtz, you have long been one of my favorites, but this election cycle Sen. McCain and mainstream media are at war, and you have been uncritically on the side of media in my view. The reason those of us on the right like to close ranks is because of the bias of the MSM. The fight is never a fair one in the media world with the field heavily tilted in favor of the left. For this year's coverage, bias is not a strong enough description. Journalistic malpractice is what I call it. Tony Blankley hit every nail in the hardware store on the head with his column earlier this week. Is the softball coverage of Sen. Obama journalistic malpractice?

washingtonpost.com: Media covering for Obama (Washington Times, Sept. 24)

Howard Kurtz: So Tony Blankley, a fine fellow -- and former spokesman for Newt Gingrich -- is your gold standard for objectivity? There's no one in the media who has made an issue of Obama's coverage in the past two years more frequently than I have, and I repeatedly have quoted top McCain aides as complaining about the coverage their man is getting, and explored when those complaints are justified and when they're just working the refs. You could look it up.

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Fair Lawn, N.J.: I've got the perfect ending for this election. Obama has about a five point leading going into the last week, but Palin announces that her daughter's wedding will be held just before Election Day. The media covers the wedding like it was Princess Di, and about ten percent of the most mentally-challenged independents shift, throwing the election to McCain! Wouldn't that make you question your life's vocation? Uh oh. This might actually happen.

Howard Kurtz: Good treatment for a Hollywood script, maybe.

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Austin, Texas: How is it that reporters kept saying that John McCain had "suspended his campaign"? What facts were there to actually back that assertion up? Or were they solely going on the campaign's words and not actions? And if the facts weren't there, aren't reporters guilty of being nothing but stenographers?

Howard Kurtz: To the contrary -- the media consistently questioned from the start whether McCain really was "suspending" his campaign, which he did not. News organizations reported on how he had made a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative and did an interview with Katie Couric, and how his field offices remained open and his ads were on the air. Obviously we had to cover the drama of whether he would attend Friday's debate -- when I drove to the airport that morning to go to Ole Miss I didn't know whether the thing was going to come off -- but there was a lot of journalistic skepticism on McCain's week.

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New York: Are there any facts to back up your assertion that McCain won the "spin war"? Relatedly, you cite a poll favoring Obama 52-37 in terms of Obama "may" have an advantage. What is your own margin for error of a poll?

Howard Kurtz: I think the USA Today poll today is a little more definitive than the 90-minute surveys Friday in showing that more people thought Obama won the debate than believe McCain finished on top. But again, winning the short-term spin war doesn't mean you completely change public opinion.

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Washington: Who are you reading, both in terms of current news and books, to keep abreast of the economic crisis? Never before have I felt at such a loss to understand a political issue -- abortion, gay marriage, health care, off-shore drilling, the war in Iraq. I understand enough to form an opinion. I just do not understand 90 percent of what is being said.

For the first time (I'm fairly young and a bit naive) I truly doubt that the majority of the Senate or House truly can understand the legislation they are being asked to vote on. Given months to research, gather opinions and think this through, maybe most of them would be there -- but turning it around in days/weeks seems so crazy to me.

Howard Kurtz: Read Steve Pearlstein's columns in The Post -- not only is he a sharp-eyed analyst who punctures a lot of the hype, but he was out there a year ago warning that the financial system was getting overextended. He won a Pulitzer for those columns.

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Southwest Nebraska: What does the New York Times have against McCain? From the bimbo warning in January to this weekend's gambling coverage -- I don't get it.

Howard Kurtz: Some of the stories on Palin's Alaska record have been very good. Some of the McCain stories have been very good, such as revealing the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac payments to the lobbying firm of McCain's campaign manager. And I most definitely was not a fan of the female lobbyist story from February.

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CBS and Palin: Wednesday and Thursday? Why are they waiting so long to air them?

Howard Kurtz: That was always CBS's plan -- to air them just before the vice presidential debate, which as you know is Thursday night.

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Bluffton, S.C.: From today's Media Notes: "Now we can all start debating how Palin will do in her debate this week." Are you kidding? Everyone in the news business already has decided on the story line.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the story line is that she has struggled in her two network interviews -- which is to say, her only interviews this side of Sean Hannity, so far. But it's also fair to say that expectations for Gov. Palin are rather low, so she might surprise people.

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Seattle: Howie, I've read analyses that say that Obama was addressing the American people but that McCain was addressing the commentariat with his responses, precisely to win the "post-debate spin war." Would you care to comment along that line?

Howard Kurtz: Stylistically, Obama looked at McCain at times, while McCain either stared into the camera or looked at Jim Lehrer. I was in the hall, and McCain's approach looked a bit more awkward than it came across on television. That's what some of the pundits mean when they say Obama was playing more to the home audience -- which is, of course, the only audience that counts.

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Long Island, N.Y.: Howard, is it possible that Tina Fey's portrayals of Palin on "Saturday Night Live" are more damaging to her public image than her actual words? It's almost to the point that the public thinks it's Fey's character who running for vice president, and that can't be good.

Howard Kurtz: I think Fey hasn't just been funny, but that when you look at Palin, you think about Tina. (Some of the punch lines on Saturday night were lifted verbatim from the governor's answers to Katie Couric.) This is the problem that Al Gore had in 2000, when Darrell Hammond portrayed him as a sighing, eye-rolling politician, to the point that Gore's own aides made him watch the skits so he would see how he was coming off. Palin, weirdly, said she had watched Fey's portrayal of her, but with the sound turned down.

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"High Functioning Moron": Howie, I love ya man, but your tut-tutting of the Begala remark in this morning's Media Notes is silly. Didn't you read your man Woodward's book? In case you missed it, Woodward quoted this president as having no regrets about the two or three years it took him to realize the war was failing and to do something about it.

Can you understand what that means -- that so many brave Americans may not have died or have been maimed if he had acted promptly as a commander in chief would be expected to? Howie, Bush's lack of insight/compassion and utter faith in his own terrible instincts are worthy of Begala's remark, if not more so. If only media pundits had been brave enough to say this then rather than now. Please get off your tut-tutting high horse.

Howard Kurtz: I am not questioning the substance of the criticism -- as a commentator, Paul Begala is free to say whatever the heck he wants about Bush's flaws. I simply think calling a president a "high-functioning moron" is over the line. If you want to cheer, be my guest.

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Fort Lee, N.J.: Do you think MC Cain was showing contempt for his opponent by not making eye contact for 90 minutes? I thought there was overtly contemptuous treatment of Obama by Bill O'Reilly, who never would have talked over and interrupted any other U.S. Senator. Compare that interview with the two interviews of Palin -- somewhat aggressive questioning, but polite. Couric even threw her a lifeline when she couldn't think of a word. I think there's the mother of all double standards going on here, and it doesn't make the media look very good. By contrast, Jim Lehrer showed how it's done -- he doesn't have to go around proclaiming how much honor he has in his character, he shows it through the way he conducts himself. I hope the other moderators have observed and stop the grand-standing and foolishness that we saw before, particularly in the ABC debate.

Howard Kurtz: On the contempt question, I honestly don't know. McCain simply may have wanted to stay focused on his own answers by staring at the camera, but I do think it came off as a bit condescending. I don't agree that Couric threw Palin a "lifeline" when she suggested the word "mocked" -- that's not exactly defining the Bush doctrine for her. As for Lehrer, this was his 10th presidential debate, and he always manages to keep the candidates on the issues without calling attention to himself.

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Thursday? Friday?: Please explain to me why the Presidential debate was on a Friday night. I made sure my plans included the debate, but it is a difficult night for many people to be at home. Obviously, it is a low-ratings night in general. Should not the goal of the Debate Commission be to maximize the eyes and ears that see the debates? What's next, midnight?

Howard Kurtz: I thought it was a dumb idea. Apparently it has happened before, but it's just not a great TV-viewing night. I do know there often are scheduling difficulties this time of year to avoid conflicting with the baseball playoffs or Jewish holidays.

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Washington Metro: Hi, Mr. Kurtz. I just saw a clip from one of McCain's spokespersons (Pfotenhauer, I believe, on "Fox and Friends") where she said that vice presidential debate moderator Gwen Ifill will have to "answer for herself" if she asks too many foreign-policy questions. Did she just brazenly threaten Gwen Ifill? That's just unacceptable. She's basically admitting that Gov. Palin cannot answer a range of questions, and putting the responsibility for dumbed-down questions on Ifill. Again, unacceptable. If Palin can't answer questions, then she should be replaced. Period. This is over-the-top thuggery, even for the McCain campaign.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see it, but journalists -- even debate moderators -- are hardly above criticism. What's a little strange is to be chided before the debate.

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New York: What's wrong with the Times's piece on McCain's gambling? Time magazine reported on it back in July. The press corps has known about it for years. Was there something untoward in the New York Times's reporting? If so, please let me know what it is. I thought it was a fair piece, based solely on the facts. Do you disagree, Howard?

washingtonpost.com: For McCain and Team, a Host of Ties to Gambling (New York Times, Sept. 28)

Howard Kurtz: I think the implication was that the Times seems to be publishing a striking number of investigative pieces about McCain. To which I'd note that the paper ran a front-page story this past the weekend on false or misleading statements in Obama's ads, after having previously run such a piece on McCain's ads.

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Kansas City, Mo.: When the McCain campaign makes statements like "the New York Times is in the tank for Obama," any idea of what the campaign reporters think of that statement? Also, when they make that kind of claim, has anyone asked them if they think Fox News is in the tank for the GOP and is no longer a credible news organization?

Howard Kurtz: Here's what Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told me after the McCain campaign denounced the paper's story about the lobbyist in February: "They're trying to change the subject to us" and attempting "to use the New York Times as an opportunity to rally the base."

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Albany, N.Y.: I don't want to speak ill of the dead, but the difference between having the late Tim Russert up there springing his "gotcha" questions and Mr. Lehrer conducting himself as a journalist and not trying to prove that he's more clever than the candidates is wonderful indeed. There's a reason why the debate itself got good reviews, irrespective of party. When you don't notice the umpire, he called a good game, right?

Howard Kurtz: That's certainly the way Lehrer prefers it. Interestingly, he told me during the Republican convention: "The pressure is extraordinary. You can ask something, say something, do something that affects the outcome of the election."

Tim Russert was the first to agree that he had a totally different style, the more pugnacious approach you saw on display on "Meet the Press" as well as at the debates he moderated. Sometimes it seemed like he was debating the candidate, but he got results.

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Gwen Ifill: So the McCain camp says "you better not ask too many questions on international issues." Okay, fair enough. I would be very interested to hear about her view on domestic matters. If Ms. Ifill asks too many domestic-based questions will she get in trouble with McCain's talking heads?

Howard Kurtz: Gwen has a thick skin. I'm sure she's not worried about that. She already has done one of these, between Cheney and Edwards in 2004.

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Menomonie, Wis.: For once, I actually agree with you. I am not sure if Begala is aware of it, but "high-functioning moron" is actually a derogatory term for those with Asperser's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. The irony here is that those with Asperser's actually are very intelligent but socially inept. Begala should not have called Bush a "high-functioning moron" because while Begala may have intended to insult only Bush, he insulted many with Asperser's Syndrome by using that term. By the way, I'm a Democrat and do not like Bush myself!

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for your view.

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Springfield, Va.: Robin Givhan hosted a chat about Gov. Palin's style earlier today; has she ever hosted a chat about Obama's choice in suits, Biden's shoes, or McCain's selection of ties? Why does The Post encourage sexist reporting like this?

washingtonpost.com: Givhan hasn't done discussions on the other candidates, but has written articles on the styles of Obama and McCain.

Howard Kurtz: She also wrote a piece about the allegedly inappropriate parka that Vice President Cheney once wore to a state funeral.

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The debate knockout myth: Howard, one of the many overblown stories that media pundits, such as Howard Fineman in this case, love to promote is the idea that one of the candidates should win a debate by "knockout." In this instance, it's Obama, and because he didn't, he "missed an opportunity." What opportunity? How many debates can you think of that were won decisively by a candidate? In most cases, if one candidate has a "good night," that really means the other guy had a bad day. Most debates aren't won or lost, but the ones that are decisive aren't won, they're lost.

Besides, how many examples do we need to point out where the candidate who wins the debates still loses the election (see Kerry, John; or Bentsen, Lloyd)? I think this is a case where the media projects their fantasies onto reality Kind of like the idea that we were going to have a brokered convention when, if you actually understood and reviewed the process, you realized Obama had won the nomination in February.

Howard Kurtz: Debates almost never end in knockouts. But to say that one candidate or another missed an opportunity is not saying the same thing. Monday-morning quarterbacking is easy: Obama should have been more aggressive toward McCain, not agreed with him as much, McCain should have been less acerbic, etc. Each candidate approached the debate with a different mission in mind. McCain wanted to show that Obama is an unqualified neophyte on foreign policy. Obama wanted to show that he could go toe-to-toe with McCain on the Republican's perceived area of strength. He may have avoided insulting McCain because he is trying to practice a less openly partisan brand of politics. Ultimately the voters, not the pundits, will decide.

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Arlington, Va.: Some of Palin's answers to Katie were troubling, but so are many of the gaffes coming form Sen. Biden that never seem to make it into the print version of The Post. Why the double standard?

Howard Kurtz: We have reported on virtually every gaffe Biden has made, and there have been a number of them. These probably should have been pulled together into one larger piece.

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McLean, Va.: Re: Cheney's Parka -- if I recall, it wasn't at a state funeral, but at an outdoor (winter) memorial service at one of the Nazi death camps; I agree with Givhan that it looked inappropriate, but on the other hand, Central Europe in winter really is cold.

washingtonpost.com: Dick Cheney, Dressing Down (Post, Jan. 28, 2005)

Howard Kurtz: Right on both counts.

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Gainesville, Va.: A couple of quick thoughts on the events of last week. First, I thought Couric was totally disingenuous when she brought up the term "Great Depression" during the Palin interview, got the governor to use herself, then hit McCain by saying that Palin had likened the current situation to the Great Depression. Sure, Palin should have been smart enough not to fall into that trap, but Katie definitely set it.

Second, I seem to be alone in having been thoroughly unimpressed with Lehrer's performance at the debate. I can understand why the financial crisis would be a topic, but he devoted more than a third of the time to it, which was way excessive to me. I saw his continuing to press the candidates for their views on the bailout plan -- it was still being negotiated, and therefore it was inappropriate for them to comment at that point -- as useless, rather than holding their feet to the fire. I thought most of his other questions were pretty lame as well, especially the last one. And I say this as a big fan of his, someone who primarily watches PBS during the conventions and other big political events.

Howard Kurtz: I disagree on, let's see, every single point. I thought Couric was pretty straightforward in her questioning, but even if she wasn't, if you can't handle Katie, how are you going to handle Putin when he invades Alaskan air space? Lehrer did exactly the right thing in devoting that much time to the financial crisis -- it was the absolute dominant issue of the moment, with huge stakes for everyone. And if the congressional negotiations were important enough for McCain to supposedly put his campaign on hold, wouldn't it be important enough to ask two sitting senators for their positions on the legislation? Both sort of ducked, but that wasn't Jim Lehrer's fault.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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