Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 6, 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, Oct. 6 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Tempe, Ariz.: Howard, after making a big stink how much more coverage Obama has received in The Post as compared to McCain, have we done the same thing with the vice presidential candidates? Seems like Palin has dominated so much, yet because she's a Republican, it's a nonissue. Thanks,

Howard Kurtz: No question, Palin has received far more coverage -- not just in The Post but throughout media land. She's back on the cover of Newsweek today. The explanations are similar to what we heard about Obama during the primaries -- she's a fresh face, we know less about her, she's a trailblazer (on gender, not racial grounds), she's a better story. But unlike in the early months of Obama's candidacy, a good bit of the Palin coverage has been skeptical to negative. Case in point, Newsweek's subheadline accusing her of "mindless populism."

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Germantown, Md.: Hi Howie. During the vice presidential debate, CNN divided their "insta-feedback" tracking lines into "men" and "women," as opposed to the division for the presidential debate -- Republicans, Democrats and independents. I was shocked at this -- was this to imply that women and men respond differently just because one person on the stage is a woman? Am I overreacting, or was this a poor choice on CNN's part? Maybe if they had done it for one of the three presidential debates, it would have been different, but to use it for the one debate with a female? I watch CNN 24-7, but was so offended I changed the channel.

Howard Kurtz: I thought CNN had done it for the first presidential debate (I was in the hall so couldn't watch). I don't know if the reactions were split along gender lines. I'm not a huge fan of the whole genre -- how much does it really tell us what a bunch of wired people in a focus group say?

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New York: Do you ever see a time when the partisan cable gabfest screaming-contest show dies out? Don't all types of shows fall in and out of fashion, like reality shows and variety shows and sitcoms and what have you? Everything has its day, and then it's replaced by something new, or something recycled. Are people starting to tire of these types of shows, which add nothing to the public discourse and in fact subtract from it, or do the ratings indicate that they will continue to plague us for some time to come?

Howard Kurtz: I personally know a lot of people who are tired of talking points and shouting matches, but the ratings say otherwise. The most opinionated prime-time shows on Fox and MSNBC are also those with the strongest ratings. They tend to attract (though not exclusively) partisan viewers who already agree with the host.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Howard. So, are the three networks going to play all the negative campaign ads tonight? I never will understand why nightly news does not simply mention the fact that negative ads have been released (a legit news item) instead of actually playing the ad(s) -- providing a free service to the campaign!

Howard Kurtz: I have no problem with television playing the ads in a box if the correspondents subject the charges to some kind of critical analyses, as opposed to acting like mindless conduits for propaganda. We also have been used repeatedly, by both sides, to get attention for ads that air three or four times and are nothing more than video press releases. But it's hard to know in advance which ones have "real" buys.

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Rolla, Mo.: After last week's dramatic build up, it seems that we have had no one willing to play the "expectations game" for tomorrow night's debate. Is it just the sign of the immediate times (financial crisis dominating everything right now)?

Howard Kurtz: What's that? The market is down another 500, so I wasn't paying attention.

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Tampa, Fla.: Hi Howard. I was reading the Post Magazine article about how Barack and Michelle met and romanced; although it was a fair piece, I was reminded about the recent Rasmussen survey that found half of Americans believe that the media is basically in the tank for Obama. Have you talked to your colleagues about how so many believe that the media is not credible? If so, does anyone care?

washingtonpost.com: When Michelle Met Barack (Post, Oct. 5)

Howard Kurtz: Whether the media are collectively in the tank or not, I don't think this article is an example of that. It's an excerpt from a forthcoming book about Michelle Obama.

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Bluffton, S.C.: Re: Today's Media Notes, I subscribe to Newsweek (don't ask me why) but the copy doesn't arrive until tomorrow. Because I was curious as to who wrote the Sarah Palin article, I visited their Web site. Had pretty much figured out it was either Evan Thomas or Jon Meacham. Sure enough it was the latter. I feel it's very important to read the byline in magazine and newspaper articles to see where the writer is coming from. Mr. Meacham touts his Tennessee connections when he appears on MSNBC, but he is more of the Brahmin, the patrician, the Washington establishment, the St. Alban's elite.

Howard Kurtz: I have great respect for Jon Meacham as a journalist and author, and his piece is, as you would expect, an intelligent examination of Sarah Palin's political persona. Indeed, the question of whether an average Joe Six-Pack type is what we want in a vice president or president is a fascinating topic. But I never would have allowed "mindless populism" in the headline (the phrase is drawn from the piece). That's practically an announcement that you disapprove of the governor and her approach to politics.

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Kudos for Anne Hull: Howard, those of us who write in to this chat usually spend all of our time criticizing you media types (and you usually deserve it, don't you?). But I wanted to praise Anne Hull's story on the impact the economy is having on voters in Michigan, in Sunday's paper. She did a brilliant job of telling an individual's story without making anyone into a caricature or laying on too much symbolism. Really well done.

washingtonpost.com: Politics at the Five-and-Dime (Post, Oct. 5)

Howard Kurtz: We only deserve it sometimes!

That was an excellent piece. Political reporters would be well served to spend more time talking to voters and less to strategists, spinners and assorted insiders.

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Seattle: I loved Gwen Ifill and her PBS show for many years and I hope her ankle gets better, but I think she lost control of the vice presidential debate on Thursday, allowing for nonanswers and going off the question. Do you think it was more because of the format, or that she needed to stop them when they were straying?

Howard Kurtz: I thought Ifill's questions were too generally worded, giving the candidates a license to roam, and that she rarely tried to pin them down with follow-up questions. The format was constricting, but I don't see why she couldn't have framed her questions more around each candidate's record as opposed to just asking what they think about climate change, for instance.

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When Michelle Met Barack: Byron York over at the Corner is already whining that the article shows Michelle Obama is full of grievances, because she wanted her first law firm to give her only interesting and exciting work as a second-year associate.

Howard Kurtz: People are entitled to read into it whatever they want. That's how it works -- we report things, and columnists and bloggers get to weigh in as they see fit.

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Trying to make a virtue out of a deficiency?: Do you think the sort of people who watch candidate debates will be favorably impressed with Sarah Palin's defiant attitude toward moderator Gwen Ifill -- namely Palin's refusing to answer questions put to the candidates in favor of speaking "directly" to the people? Or do you think this will have the unintended (by the McCain-Palin campaign) effect of turning toward the Obama-Biden ticket those viewers who might perceive this as a Palin ploy not to reply to questions she doesn't want (or is unable) to answer?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think most viewers care if a candidate is defying a moderator or not. I do think some might care if the candidate repeatedly seems unable to answer the questions. All candidates, to varying degrees, pivot off questions they don't want to answer (this is true in interviews and press conferences as well as debates) to subjects they do want to talk about. Palin was just more blatant about it. I was more surprised that she didn't respond to most of Biden's criticisms, instead trying to blow them off with a there-you-go-again approach.

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Glenside, Pa.: What does it say about expectations when both viewers and media "flock" to watch another predictable Tina Fey impression on "Saturday Night Live"? Not much ... they seem more interested in this three-minute bite than reality.

Howard Kurtz: Satire is as old as politics. And SNL has had an impact on campaigns before, most notably with Darrell Hammond's devastating impression of Al Gore, which Gore's aides made him watch so he would ease up on the sighing and eye-rolling in the second and third debates in 2000.

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Alexandria, Va.: Howard, you objected this morning to Newsweek calling Palin's rhetoric "mindless," calling it "biased." You quote Newsweek: "Yes, she won the debate by not imploding. But governing requires knowledge, and mindless populism is just that -- mindless." And then you comment: "Doggone it, maybe her rhetoric is simplistic, misleading or irrelevant. But mindless?" Actually, simplistic, misleading and irrelevant all sound pretty mindless to me. I'm not making a rhetorical point here, I'm really asking: What makes the words "simplistic, misleading, irrelevant" unbiased, but "mindless" biased? How do you decide what constitutes an objective as opposed to a subjective term, especially when doing something like analyzing the truth and intelligence of someone's language?

Howard Kurtz: I just think those other words are less loaded. "Mindless" strongly suggests that the person is an idiot, or acting idiotic.

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Chicago: I thought the problem with Gwen Ifill's moderating was that her questions tended to be multiple choice, rather than essay questions -- e.g., something like "who is responsible for the financial meltdown: subprime borrowers, lenders, Wall Street CEOs?" That type of phrasing benefits someone who doesn't know much and is inclined to wing their way through an answer (not mentioning any names, of course). I cringed when she asked that question.

Howard Kurtz: Again, a question about Palin's and Biden's past statements or actions related to the financial meltdown (or McCain's and Obama's) would have been harder to duck with vague rhetoric.

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Re: Newsweek article: I've read that in newspapers, the writer does not always have control of the headline. Is that true in magazines as well?

Howard Kurtz: Yes. But Jon Meacham is the editor, so he'd have more control than the average hack.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Howard, if the media devotes space to reporting the negative, partisan attacks launched by candidates against one another (for instance, the now-discredited story about Obama being a "pal" of Ayers; the link between McCain and Keating, which is pretty old history), is the media complicit in transforming the political arena from a site for discussion of substance to a mud-throwing contest? How much attention should the media pay to this back-and-forth, and how much can/should repeated (often unsubstantiated) attacks simply be ignored? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Part of our job is to report what the candidates and their campaigns do and say every day. We should analyze and fact-check what they say and do, but we can't simply ignore it.

In the case of William Ayers, it was the New York Times that revived the controversy in a front-page story Saturday. The story accurately described the slight acquaintanceship between Obama and this former terrorist and concluded they never had been close. There's nothing illegitimate about that, but I found it puzzling because the story was reported widely earlier this year and the Times's account didn't seem to add much. Sarah Palin then seized on the piece (suddenly the McCain camp likes the New York Times!) to charge that Obama is "palling around" with Ayers. That is false -- there has been no recent contact -- but then, campaigns are not always big on nuance when they go negative.

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Washington: Thanks for your column today on how the business press failed to cover the current financial crisis. Probably more than one poster will note that -- as was the case with the run-up to the Iraq war -- the press again failed in its responsibility to report objectively and not simply accept what it was fed ... let alone be curious about the supposed truth involved. Similar also are the apologies in hindsight. Is it any wonder people turn to bloggers when the press has so ill-served the public understanding of important events? How does the mainstream press regain its stature?

washingtonpost.com: The Press, a Few Dollars Short (Post, Oct. 4)

Howard Kurtz: It was a complicated, difficult story to nail, but a failure nonetheless. It's not as though business journalists were unaware of the risks at Fannie and Freddie, or the explosive growth of subprime loans and other details of the increasingly shaky financial system. But with a few exceptions -- remember Jim Cramer shouting how the Federal Reserve didn't get how bad things were -- these warning signs were ghettoized on the business pages and not pulled together and reported with any sense of alarm. I think the failure to report on how federal regulatory agencies were negligent in reining in this risky behavior -- which everyone is now doing in retrospect -- was particularly egregious.

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"Saturday Night Live" moment: Mr. Kurtz, you have used the Hammond-Gore comparison a few times now and I think you are doing it to imply that "Saturday Night Live" does not favor one ideology. However, "SNL" has been much, much more critical and "sharp" with Republicans in the last 15 years, so I think it's important to know why the media -- e.g. the Tribune, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, etc. -- continue to trumpet the caricaturing of politicians by a comedy show as if this was major news. You seem to be ducking the issue much in the same way "SNL," for the most part correctly, portrayed Gov. Palin ducking questions.

Howard Kurtz: I'm just citing it because it's a prominent example. Hammond used to skewer Bill Clinton, but didn't Dana Carvey effectively mock Bush ("wouldn't be prudent") Sr.? Didn't Will Ferrell portray Bush 43 as rather clueless? In any case, it doesn't matter whether we report on it or not -- "Saturday Night Live" has a big audience, and these days people can watch the clips endlessly online.

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Rachel Maddow: I tuned into her new show after reading your article about Ms. Maddow. I do not typically watch news shows on TV -- I am more of a reader of new. There were, as predicted, liberal guests. However, a scroll ran on the screen at one point listing all the Republican representatives who were asked to be on the show. The next night there was a Republican Congressmen, and I have read -- though did not see -- that a McCain representative was on the show on Friday. I found this to be interesting. Did Ms. Maddow force the conservatives' hand by calling them out for not being on her show? Not being a purveyor of these shows, I am not sure if this is typical or not.

Howard Kurtz: She did have on a McCain campaign spokeswoman and they went at it. I think the more Maddow does of that, the better. "Countdown" largely is limited to guests of the liberal persuasion as well as reporters. It's just more interesting to watch someone as smart as Rachel Maddow fence with someone (beyond Pat Buchanan) who disagrees with her.

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Boulder, Colo.: Good column this morning on the "financial mess." I was surprised on the Sunday shows that the financial Armageddon story took a back-seat to Sarah Palin/Tina Fey and the regular who's up/who's down. It strikes me that if the financial crisis was as dire as portrayed, it should be front-and-center. Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Covering the financial crisis is complicated, and isn't as sexy as the final weeks of a hard-fought presidential campaign. Even the prospect of O.J. going to prison for life has gotten blown away by this campaign. But the credit crisis is all too real and is costing Americans untold billions of dollars.

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Chattanooga, Tenn.: Chevy Chase's depiction of Gerald Ford in the run-up to the 1976 election didn't exactly help the GOP, either.

Howard Kurtz: Good point. He was the first in a long line of presidential imitators on "Saturday Night Live."

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Long Island, N.Y.: Lost in the noise surrounding Tina Fey's Sarah Palin was an equally hysterical Jason Sudeikis playing Joe Biden during the debate bit on "Saturday Night Live." Even as a Biden fan, I found his lampooning his talk about growing up in Scranton, etc., a scream. Apparently "Saturday Night Live's" mocking of Biden is not nearly as devastating to the audience as Fey's Palin.

Howard Kurtz: They nailed Biden. But doggone it, Tina Fey's resemblance to Six-Pack Sarah puts that impression over the top.

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Bayville, N.J.: Last week, Prize-winning journalist Steve Pearlstein held a similar chat. Pearlstein, along with most of the mainstream media financial reporters/columnists, enthusiastically supported the $700 billion bailout and wrote with disdain about those who were "skeptical." Since then the Dow has plummeted 750 points, Europe's financial markets have tanked and California is asking for a $7 billion loan from Treasury to pay the bills. At what date, will these "experts" such as Pearlstein start writing their mea culpas on this bailout package?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think we can conclude from the market tanking that the bailout package was a bad idea. Maybe the Dow would have gone down 1,500 points without it. And the package already may have been priced into the stock market when it had those big rebound days in the expectation that Congress would approve some kind of bill. It may turn out that the bailout bill is a terrible idea, or was totally inadequate for the magnitude of the problem -- but because it only passed Friday, it's a little early for a definitive judgment.

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Princeton, N.J.: But Steve Pearlstein was right years in advance!

Howard Kurtz: That's why he won a Pulitzer Prize in April. Which is not to say he was 100 percent right about everything, but he certainly was asking the right questions at a time when much of the media was not.

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Anonymous: I will admit "Saturday Night Live" was absolutely right in regard to its description of Scranton, Pa.

Howard Kurtz: Anyone from Scranton want to rebut the "hellhole" answer?

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Rolling Stone piece on McCain: Have you read the Rolling Stone write-up on McCain? It's fairly devastating, though I thought overly loaded with unnecessary descriptors. I'm wondering if any of this is going to bleed into the general consciousness through follow-up by reporters -- there are valid points regarding McCain's history of having poor judgment and the way he has packaged himself into something different than history shows.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't read it, but keep in mind that Rolling Stone has endorsed Barack Obama, that owner Jann Wenner has been granted interviews with Obama, and thus you wouldn't expect McCain to get terribly sympathetic coverage.

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Mindless Populism: Nice show yesterday. I loved how your guest Kathleen Parker started out with all of the vitriol the right-wing bloggers said of her. Could you repeat that? And what do you think Sarah Palin's Fox News vs. Anyone Else Interview Ratio will be?

Howard Kurtz: As Parker began her follow-up column: "Allow me to introduce myself. I am a traitor and an idiot. Also, my mother should have aborted me and left me in a dumpster, but since she didn't, I should off myself."

All for the sin of daring to say that in her opinion Palin is not qualified to be vice president.

On the second point, I don't know. But since the Katie debacle, Palin has spoken to Fox News, radio hosts Sean Hannity and Hugh Hewitt, and Bill Kristol.

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Medina, N.Y.: The "media elite" criticism -- is it something journalists are concerned about?

Howard Kurtz: We were just joking about that at a Georgetown cocktail party! Who cares what the unwashed masses think?

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Ayers and the New York Times: I'm not sure about your timeline, Howie. I thought the New York Times article -- which surely had been written and ready to go for a while -- was published because the McCain campaign was saying by the end of last week that it was planning to make a big negative push in October, with a particular emphasis on the Ayers connection. So it wasn't the publication of the article that spawned the campaign attacks (though Palin did cite it to support her point), but rather the reverse.

Howard Kurtz: I don't see it that way. It was an independently reported piece that did not seem to be pegged to any campaign development. By that standard, we should all go out and rehash the Jeremiah Wright story right now because Sarah Palin told Kristol she thinks it's a legitimate issue for the campaign.

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Burke, Va.: According to polls, blacks support Obama 95-2 percent. Yet most media talk is about hidden white racism against Obama. Maybe I missed it, but I have seen no in-depth analysis by your paper of any black racism against the white candidate, McCain. Or have your reporters decided that the 95 percent support is explained solely by an admirable racial pride? Should whites be able to vote on the basis of racial pride as well?

Howard Kurtz: There is a long history in this country of Italians voting for Italians, Irish voting for Irish, blacks voting for blacks (when that became possible), and so on. No one would dispute that racial and ethnic pride plays a role in voting behavior. The question of prejudice arises when someone votes against a candidate solely because of race or ethnicity. If voters who have always voted Democratic suddenly vote for McCain, that doesn't mean they're racist -- they might just think McCain is a better or more experienced candidate than Obama. But racial attitudes certainly could play a role.

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Greatest Generation: Interesting how no one on the left is whining about Brokaw as a moderator. The man has written books, given countless interviews and appears to genuinely believe that the Greatest Generation of Americans were those that survived the depression and served during WWII. A generation with an inarguable belief in segregation. A generation which I firmly believe would not elect a black man to the presidency. This to Brokaw is the greatest because of the other accomplishments of the generation. Amazing how the left can see this as a belief that Brokaw has, but that he will remain a fair and unbiased moderator. Unlike the right, which went nutty over a yet unwritten book by Gwen Ifill.

Howard Kurtz: It's a ridiculous stretch to say that Brokaw, who covered the civil rights movement as a young reporter, is somehow endorsing the segregation and prejudice of that earlier generation in hailing them for winning World War II. And of course, many African-Americans fought in that war.

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Houston loves Howie: Mr. Kurtz, I don't get to watch your TV show, I only read your columns. Are you having fun writing this election season?

Howard Kurtz: It would be very hard not to, with all the crazy twists and turns of this race.

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Princeton, N.J.: I think with all this talk about the biased press, we should go to that great philosopher Stephen Colbert who said: "Reporters must report just the facts. They must not be biased. But what do you do when the facts are biased?"

Howard Kurtz: Now that is a real problem facing America.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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