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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 13, 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 "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, Oct. 13 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

A transcript follows

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Boston, Mass: Howard, thanks for taking our questions. Are all partisan spokespeople required to say the campaign speaking points all the time? I saw time and time again this weekend that when a Republican was asked about the economy, they would talk about William Ayers. Is there any insight on how these people prepare for the news and talk shows?

Howard Kurtz: Yes. They will be taken out, tarred and feathered if they deviate from the company line. But the same shouldn't be true of pundits, who aren't on the payroll.

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Glen Burnie, Md.: Howie, I found this quote from the Saturday story about journalists being cut back in Iraq interesting:

"It remains important and it remains interesting," said Alissa J. Rubin, the New York Times's acting bureau chief in Baghdad. "But what's in front of us now is almost a static situation. There's not a clear narrative line. The stories are more complex."

I know the overall point of the story is that news budgets are tight, but Rubin seems to imply it's easier to report black-and-white superficial stories. Is that reading an overreach?

Howard Kurtz: 'Twas a perfectly fair comment. When bombs are going off every day, that's an easy story to cover. When violence is down and the stories are about reforming government and rebuilding neighborhoods, you can see why such pieces aren't jumping to the front page or the top of the evening newscasts. Iraq remains a terribly important story with 140,000-plus American troops there, but after six years it definitely has taken a backseat to the presidential campaign and the global financial crisis.

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Annandale, Va.: Going into this week's debate, do you think that Obama and Biden are setting a trap for McCain by challenging him to raise the connection between Obama and Bill Ayers face-to-face. It seems to me that if McCain falls for it, he has opened the door for Obama to bring up McCain's connections to The U.S. Council for World Freedom (with its Iran Contra connections) and the Keating 5, let alone Palin's connection with the Alaska Independence Party and its radical founder. With this in mind, do you think McCain will fall for it?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. It doesn't seem to me the Ayers attacks are getting much traction, at least based on the latest polls. Nor does Obama need an excuse to bring up anything he wants about McCain's past. But these he-was-friends-with-a-bad-person tactics seem to have less resonance at a time when people are truly worried about their jobs, their homes and their retirement accounts.

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Anonymous: I thought "Good Morning America" did a pretty good job reporting on Palin's claims regarding the Troopergate report. I went to the Fox News Web site to see their take on the matter, and found NO stories on the report. Did I just miss it or are they possibly burying the story?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know, but because the report was released Friday night, it's now three days old for Web sites (and newspapers), while the morning shows and some of tonight's cable shows are getting their first crack because it broke just before the weekend.

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'Nuts' at the rallies: We understand how any campaign might be embarrassed by cranks trying to draw attention to themselves at rallies. But isn't saying every campaign has them setting up some false equivalence of bad behavior? The reports from the McCain rallies seemed to suggest that the anger and hostility came from the stage, and that the crowd fed off of that. Seems like a fundamental difference to me.

washingtonpost.com: Anger Is Crowd's Overarching Emotion at McCain Rally (Post, Oct. 10)

Howard Kurtz: I'm not setting up a false equivalence. There seems to be more anger and more fringe people yelling ugly things at McCain rallies. What I question is the degree to which it's fair to blame McCain for this, and whether these whack jobs represent a small percentage of the crowds. Yes, McCain and Palin are attacking Obama on a daily basis, but it doesn't follow that they're responsible for one idiot yelling "kill him" or another shouting a racial epithet at a black journalist.

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Re: Today's Column: I think the insight that is missing from your column is that you are no longer information-collators and collectors. Anyone with the Internet or cable TV can do that. Journalism now is about information assessment and analysis, which requires journalists make judgment calls. The Internet and cable news, rather than tools, no matter how useful, are really earth-changing events that require a total re-examination of journalism.

Howard Kurtz: But print reporters have always been analyzers of information. And the cable/Internet revolution didn't exactly start this year. What's changed is not just the technology but the way the campaigns conduct much of their business through e-mail attacks, conference calls and YouTube. I certainly think there's value in being on the trail, but that value is changing, and probably diminishing, as less of the real campaign takes place at rallies.

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New York: Why has nobody launched a missing persons search for Carly Fiorina? First Phil Gramm and now Ms. Fiorina. Why is the media so insensitive to their plight?

Howard Kurtz: I'll suggest a milk-carton campaign. Guess Carly really got disappeared after saying that McCain and Palin (along with Obama and Biden) aren't qualified to run a major business. I'm thinking that probably wasn't in the talking points.

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New Brunswick, N.J.: I don't think the anger at Republican rallies is being overstated. Because the policy differences are being downplayed by McCain in favor of who represents the "real America," the possibility of an election loss threatens many rank and file Republicans' identities as "the real Americans." It's an intolerable challenge to their "gut feelings."

Aren't you in the media feeling this? I was angry at the way Gore was treated, but not enraged.

Howard Kurtz: I think there's a lot of frustration among Republicans right now because they believe the election is slipping away. There was some lusty booing about 45 minutes ago when McCain told a Virginia crowd that the national media are writing him off. Of course, the fact that he said it in Virginia speaks volumes about the difficult landscape that McCain finds himself playing on.

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Burke, Va.: Now that Biden and Obama basically have taunted McCain about not having the (ahem) stones to bring up Ayers at the last debate, do you think McCain will be able to resist this time around? And how would that play with the alleged positive campaign reboot?

Howard Kurtz: It depends on whether McCain's strategy is to keep up the negative personal attacks. At this point, enough people have heard about Ayers that I'm not sure there's a huge advantage to bringing it up in Wednesday's debate. On the other hand, it's the last debate and McCain needs to shake up the race, so I look for him to be very much on the offensive.

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Debate moderation: Is it that hard to moderate a major campaign debate well? Neither Gwen Ifill nor Tom Brokaw -- both respected journalists -- did a very good job of keeping things on track in their respective appearances. Will the format for the last presidential debate work more effectively with Bob Schieffer's folksy manner?

Howard Kurtz: We'll have to see. The truth is, the best moderator in the world can't rein in the candidates if they want to ignore time limits, decline to engage each other or otherwise act in ways that work against a good debate. The moderators also are restricted by rules that, as Brokaw kept reminding Obama and McCain, were negotiated by the two sides for several months.

I think Roger Simon had the best comment about this, on my show yesterday: "The rules say you can only go five feet from your chair; they'll go 10 feet. What, is Tom supposed to wrestle them to the ground? If it says you can't respond to your attacker, they'll respond to your attacker. What, is he going to stuff his tie in their mouths?"

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New York: Isn't it a dangerous game -- not only for the media, but also for democracy -- that McCain/Palin are running so hard against the press these days? They are instilling in their "base" the notion that nothing reported by the establishment media (or MSM, as they call it) can be trusted. Only right-wing propaganda sites can be trusted to bring them the "truth" ("fair-and-balanced," eh Kurtz?). So ... where does that put journalism and the truth? In a very precarious position. No?

Howard Kurtz: You know what? We're used to it. Remember the 1992 bumper sticker, "Annoy the Media -- Re-elect Bush"? His son's White House has been beating up on the press for years. And it's not just the right: Hillary and her aides constantly complained about unfair and sexist treatment during the primaries. We in the media are quite good at dishing out criticism, and we ought to be able to take it. Sometimes our detractors are right, but more often they're just trying to score political points at our expense.

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Re: Today's Column: Actually, you could have fooled me, considering the reporting during the Bush administration, Fox News, WMD, etc., largely has been stenographic. A lot of stories in The Post and Times are either process or "he-said-she-said" articles that report back-and-forth accusations without any assessment into the facts of the situation.

washingtonpost.com: Bus to Nowhere (The Post, Oct. 13)

Howard Kurtz: Well, White House coverage is a very different animal than being out on the campaign trail. But remember: What you've learned these past eight years about electronic eavesdropping, secret CIA prisons and other Bush administration practices has come from the Old Media.

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Ellicott City, Md.: Of course the candidate isn't really responsible for some idiots screaming "Kill him" at a rally, but don't they have a responsibility to tone it down before it gets that far? To McCain's credit, he's started doing this, but I think he did let things get out of hand.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know that the candidates have heard every idiotic comment shouted from the crowd. But McCain foster the impression that he was letting the crazies take over his rallies without speaking out. He started to reverse that impression on Friday, when he told that woman in Minnesota that Obama is not an Arab and deserves our respect.

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Evanston, Ill.: Hey Howard, do you think this country could take another disputed election like 2000?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the journalists could take it. Most of my colleagues in the business have enough gas in the tank to get us to Nov. 5. We've been covering this thing since January 2007. So I am strongly against any recount.

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Cheyenne, Wyo.: I believe in an expanded view in the First Amendment, but Justice Holmes also famously observed that the First Amendment does not extend to yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. Lately, it seems as if some "commentators" -- including even some relatively mainstream folks like Sean Hannity -- are coming close to that standard of inciting a riot with allegations that Obama is somehow preparing to fraudulently steal an election in order to set up some sort of radical, anti-American regime. We have seen this type of rhetoric really stir up some on the right, to the point that there is a real fear expressed by many of some potential act of violence. I know where your gut reaction is, but answer this as a serious question: When does free speech end and criminal behavior begin?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think mainstream conservatives are accusing Obama of trying to steal the election. What they're doing is trying to tie Obama to allegations of registration fraud in several states by ACORN. The evidence seems to be that Obama represented ACORN in a case 13 years ago and once conducted training sessions for an ACORN affiliate. Ergo, he must know all about this voter fraud! It's a real stretch.

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Los Angeles: Wrestling them to the ground would be very entertaining, but when Sarah Palin announced that she was going to ignore the question posed to her and talk about something else instead, Gwen Ifill should have cut her off by declaring she had no answer to the question and moving on to the next one.

Howard Kurtz: Candidates ignore the moderator's questions all the time. They give a one-sentence answer and pivot to what they really want to talk about. Palin simply announced that she was doing it.

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Pittsburgh: Hello and thanks for doing these discussions. I lived in the Old Dominion for 20 years -- out in the countryside north of Richmond. You could have fit all the Hanover County Democrats in a phone booth. I never thought I would live to see the day when Virginia went Democratic while Ohio stuck with the Republicans. Do you think this is a huge watershed election (if the polls are correct and hold through Election Day)?

Howard Kurtz: If Obama wins Virginia, or a state like North Carolina, it would redraw an electoral map that for decades now has ceded the South to the Republicans (even when Southern Democrats are running). In fact, it's no coincidence that the only successful Democratic candidates of the past four decades are from Arkansas and Georgia. The same would be true if McCain were to take a traditionally blue state such as Pennsylvania, but that doesn't seem very likely.

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Kettering, Ohio: I think a good test of how much in the tank the MSM is for Obama will be the current revelations about the massive voter fraud that has apparently been perpetrated by ACORN. If they were done by the Republicans, they would have been all over it already. For the record, I am a former Democratic officeholder (county prosecutor).

Howard Kurtz: The media have started to carry stories about the ACORN-related fraud allegations in several states. We should be all over it. I just don't think we should buy the line that Obama is somehow responsible if volunteers are padding their numbers by signing up the likes of Daffy Duck.

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McCain "told that woman in Minnesota that Obama is not an Arab and deserves our respect": And, boy, did she look ticked off at McCain! Do you think this will have an unintended backlash effect of demoralizing his base, who might stay away from the polls on Nov. 4?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know, but McCain needs more than the base to win the White House. At this point he should be worrying more about appealing to swing voters. If he can't carry the Republican base while taking exception to mean-spirited falsehoods like "Obama is an Arab," he's in deeper trouble than I thought.

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Boston: I think that the moderators getting out of the way is the best way to run debates, rules be darned. So what if they are breaking the rules if it is leading to productive discussion? The moderator should be there to cut off debate when its becoming repetitive or ridiculously nonresponsive, but other than that, let the candidates argue.

Howard Kurtz: Which is exactly what Jim Lehrer tried to do. He kept encouraging the candidates to argue between themselves, and they kept ducking that invitation.

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Re: Talking Points: How would you react, and how should reporters react, when a political operative's talking points are blatantly wrong? I don't mean that the talking points are wrong but what if someone with only sons was to say to you that his daughter was really excited about Sarah Palin being on the ticket?

Howard Kurtz: Um ... point out that it's false? That works for me.

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Sewickley, Pa.: I have heard a number of commentators saying that Gov. Palin is now a rising star in the Republican Party and that she will have a bright political future even if the ticket loses. How do you see it Howard? Will the hard-right wing of the GOP hang on, or will the moderates reassert themselves? I suspect that Gov. Palin will get a show on Fox.

Howard Kurtz: It depends on whether she's seen as having shined in a losing effort or as bearing responsibility for dragging down the ticket. I don't see a Fox show in the near future because, unlike Mike Huckabee, she's got two more years as governor, and probably wants to run for re-election if she has national plans for 2012.

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Up is down, black is white...: Howard, great show and column -- I never miss it. I'm an independent who voted for Bush in the past two cycles but am leaning to Obama this time around. I have been pretty disgusted with Fox, right-wing radio, and the mainstream media through the years. This past weekend did it for me. Most of the media talking heads on the Sunday news shows were saying that both campaigns have gone negative; that McCain and Obama have run equally negative campaigns. Somebody pinch me. Does the media really think we are that stupid? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know who said that, but it's demonstrably untrue. Yes, Obama has made his share of negative attacks and his ads have stretched the truth on some occasions, but not to the degree that McCain has been on the attack, and with questionable claims.

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Registration Fraud vs. "Voter Fraud": Howard, ACORN issues are "registration fraud," not "voter fraud." While there have been problems with a small percentage of the voter registration forms submitted by some ACORN workers, it has nothing to do with the non-existent "problem" of large-scale voter fraud. None of these suspect ACORN registrations is connected to a real voter. If some poor ACORN employee decided to pad his registration numbers and turned in Bugs Bunny, do you really think old Bugs is gonna show up at the polls?

Howard Kurtz: Right, registration fraud. Except for early voting states, no one has voted yet.

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Providence, R.I.: Howard, I thought the McCain campaign's answer to John Lewis was over-the-top. Sure, you can disagree with the Wallace connection, but the response was a full-blown attack. I view Lewis as a hero; he fought for civil rights when one risked one's life to do so. Lewis commenting on the violent effects of hate speech is like (the old) John McCain speaking to torture. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I can't really blame the McCain campaign for striking back when a Democrat compares him to George Wallace, a man who built his career on defending segregation and stoking anti-black prejudice. That's pretty tough stuff.

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Gwen Ifill should have cut her off by declaring she had no answer to the question and move on to the next one: Tempting though that scenario sounds, it simply would have played right into the Republicans' hands as they continue to try to vilify the mainstream media.

One only can hope that enough viewers and listeners recognized Palin's behavior for what it was, and vote accordingly.

Howard Kurtz: People are smart. They know when politicians are answering the question and when they're ducking. Journalists don't have to jump up and down to make the point.

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Minneapolis: Sure, much of what we have learned has come from the traditional media, but that still doesn't mean they've performed well. The New York Times had the wiretapping story before the '04 election and held it. The run-up to the Iraq war was an all-around disaster. There has been precious little attention paid to the missing White House e-mails (compared to the FBI files that went missing in the Clinton era).

Howard Kurtz: I didn't say the media had performed well, I'm just not going to let someone wave away eight years of coverage without acknowledging some of the fine investigative reporting that has taken place. And by the way, the Times said it held the wiretapping story because it didn't have enough evidence. I don't know whether the campaign calendar was a factor or not.

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Re: Today's Column: Yes, I'll grant you those stories, and Walter Reed that The Post broke, after a lengthy, investigative process that was a front-page special. That's analysis and assessment that didn't involve daily stories about he-said-she-said, which is what a lot of the filler in today's papers feels like.

Howard Kurtz: Well, some he said/she said is unavoidable, and you don't break investigative stories like that every day. It's not immediately apparent who, for example, bears the greatest blame for the financial crisis or whose plans would be most effective in rescuing the credit markets. (Remember when the $700 billion federal bailout was touted as a solution to the problem?) Sometimes good reporting takes time to develop.

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New York: Howard, here's a scientific survey: Dana Milbank got plenty of hugs from McCain supporters on their way in to a rally. While a few gave him attitude, most seemed to find him cute. Maybe once inside they got surly, but outside they mostly seemed like regular folks.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but it was a bit of a stunt because he was carrying an "mainstream media" sign. And how lovable is that?

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washingtonpost.com: Video: Milbank Wants To Hug It Out (The Post, Oct. 11)

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Washington: Has anyone talked to poor Bill Ayers? Not that I feel sorry for his Underground days (I lived two blocks from the infamous Greenwich Village bomb disaster and heard it go off), but he apparently did rehabilitate himself -- but seems to be pretty invisible throughout this awful foofaraw.

Howard Kurtz: Ayers does not seem to be doing interviews. I think, with Richard Daley vouching for him, he seems to be accepted in Chicago's education establishment. It doesn't mean he's rehabilitated himself, at least not in my view -- that would have required an acknowledgement and apology for the bombings he engaged in.

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Fairfax, Va.: Howie, why does it seem like Bill Kristol's column in the New York Times is a spoiler for the strategy (or tactics!) the McCain campaign is about to implement?

washingtonpost.com: The Wright Stuff (The New York Times, Oct. 5)

Howard Kurtz: Kristol long has been friendly with McCain, and he hasn't been a fan of the kind of campaign the McCain staff has run (in marked contrast to 2000). So what he's saying in today's column is that it hasn't worked, that McCain should stop trying to recast himself as an attack dog and go back to granting interviews every day and being himself. In other words, "if only they'd listened to me, they wouldn't be in this mess."

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Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Kurtz, there has been a lot of talk about how Obama has been vague this election season, particularly with his plans to help our ailing economy. Is such criticism fair? In 1932, all FDR promised was a return to balanced budgets, instead of the deficit spending he eventually would pursue. In 1952, Eisenhower said he would go to Korea, but he had no concrete plan on how to end the war. In 1968, Nixon had his secret plan to end the war. And in 1992, Clinton promised universal health care, but didn't exactly get into specifics. So is Obama being any more or less vague than his predecessors?

Howard Kurtz: Probably not. If you go on Obama's Web site, you'll see all kinds of details about his tax plan, his health care plan and so on, but when it comes to the financial meltdown of the past several weeks, both candidates have been deliberately vague (though McCain has made more proposals). I think that's in part because of a natural caution in the final weeks of an election and in part because an honest assessment would include the recognition that pain is coming and we're not going to be able to afford many of the promises they've made in a year and a half of campaigning. And that is tough to say in October -- though I believe that if either one did, he'd get credit for ... what's the phrase ... straight talk.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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