Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 20, 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."

He was online Monday, Oct. 20 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

A transcript follows

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Akron, Ohio: As an undecided voter in Ohio I'm not impressed with Mr. Powell, being a conservative ,supporting Sen. Obama. He is quoted as saying" an African American president would be electrifying" so guess he is supporting him because Obama is black. He appears to be just like Mr. Lewis who certainly put a knife in Sen. Clinton's back who seems to be supporting Obama because he is black. Over the week-end on our T.V. there were so many negative ads from Obama maybe I'm not undecided. What a waste of money !

Howard Kurtz: I think that's a really unfair assumption. Powell carefully laid out the reasons he was breaking with McCain despite a 25-year friendship: He doesn't like the tactics McCain has been using, such as harping on Bill Ayers. He thinks Sarah Palin is unqualified. He's troubled by the GOP's shift to the right. He thinks Obama has been steadier than McCain in the financial crisis. You can never totally remove race as a factor in voting or endorsements, and you're free to dismiss Powell's reasoning, but to simply reduce it to race strikes me as simplistic.

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Tuckahoe, N.Y.: The claim by Sarah Palin that she said "no" to the bridge to nowhere has been exposed as false many times, but isn't it true that she's still out there, day after day, delivering this same line to rapturous audiences as if it were true? What can reporters do if candidates abuse the process like this; mention in every article covering the candidate that he/she has told a falsehood? If they do nothing, where is the incentive for a politician to stop lying to the people?

Howard Kurtz: Usually, when so many major news organizations debunk a politician's claim, as in this case, he or she will at least modify the language, if not drop it entirely. Sarah Palin has steadfastly refused. Charlie Gibson pinned her down, and she still kept repeating it in her speeches. She could have said she used the money for something else, rather than falsely claiming she had said "thanks but no thanks" in the first place. All journalists can do is repeatedly point out when someone is misstating the facts, and it's up to voters to judge whether that's the case and whether it's an important distortion.

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New York, N.Y.: It seems to be common wisdom by both sides that Obama will be the most left-wing president since LBJ, if not FDR. That being the case, why is it "intolerant" for National Review to drop Christopher Buckley's column as a result of his endorsement of Obama? Obama's political plans and ideology are 180 degrees from National Review's outlook. Why on earth should they not get him go? Do you think The Nation would continue to publish a columnist who endorsed McCain? Why should they?

Howard Kurtz: Without adopting your "common wisdom," I'd just say: What's wrong with a little intellectual debate in National Review, or any other opinion magazine? Does everyone have to march in lockstep? Buckley told me on Reliable Sources yesterday that his father would have devoted six pages of NR to voices denouncing him for embracing Obama, and it would have been good journalism. For the record, Buckley offered to drop the column because of the negative reaction, which he said included a donor vowing not to give the magazine any more money as long as he was associated with it. The resignation was quickly accepted.

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Fairfax, Va.: So is it time to lambaste Colin Powell now? Buchanan and Rush have already started with the "if he was not black theme."

Howard Kurtz: Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. I think a better route is to take on the arguments that Powell carefully laid out on Meet the Press and in his press conference afterward. This guy was a hero on the right. Is he now to be denigrated simply for deciding that Obama would make a better president than McCain? If a white liberal came out for McCain, would we say that was because they're both white?

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Boston, Mass.: Howard

With regards to the Robocalls, my guess is that this happens during every election cycle. Is it Obama's strategy to utilize the press to shine a light on it, and therefore diminish the results?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. These calls do happen every election cycle - the Obama camp has not denied doing its own robocalls - and the offended party always tries to publicize them as a way of neutralizing their impact. The question is what is in the recordings and whether the message is distorted or unfair. In this case, they include William Ayers and the claim that Obama has an extreme position on abortion. I assume the latter refers to McCain's debate charge that Obama would not support a ban on partial-birth abortion, which Obama rebutted by saying he was only insisting on an exception for the life of the mother.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I'm trying to figure out if we live in one of the pro-American areas of the country or if we have unwittingly settled in an anti-American enclave. Seriously, with all the polls indicating that voters have shifted steadily away from calling themselves Republicans and are identifying themselves as Independents or Democrats, how does the GOP expect to get votes by insulting us?

Howard Kurtz: Pittsburgh, huh? Big city. Probably plenty of union members. You're definitely suspect...

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Falls Church, Va.: It was very interesting seeing Powell say that there would be nothing wrong with a Muslim president. I'm pretty sure 80% of Americans would not agree with that. Not very helpful to Obama.

Howard Kurtz: Whether it was politically helpful or not, it was an honest statement on Powell's part. And why should it hurt Obama, who, scurrilous rumors to the contrary, is a Christian?

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Arlington, Va.: How can papers like the New York Times or the Washington Post claim to have a firewall between the newspaper and editorial board when the Chairman and head editor sit in on important editorials like endorsing a president. Also these papers have never endorsed a republican for president (at least in the last couple of decades). There is always an excuse as to why the democrat is a better candidate in their mind, but at some point the facts speak for themselves. The people running these organizations support liberal candidates.

Howard Kurtz: I'm afraid you have little conception of how newspapers work. The "head editor" - the person who runs the newsroom - has absolutely, positively nothing to do with the editorial page or any candidate endorsements. The publisher does, which is fine, because the publisher is not involved in day-to-day newsroom decisions about coverage. The Post's editorial page, by the way, does not only take the Democratic side of political battles, as underscored by its strong support for the invasion of Iraq. And in 1988 the editorial page made no endorsement rather than support Michael Dukakis for president. The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, has just endorsed the first Democratic presidential candidate in its history.

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Kurtz: "scurrilous rumors": I think it was Powell's whole point is that "rumors" of somebody being of the Muslim faith should not in any way be considered "scurrilous."

Howard Kurtz: My point is the following. There is nothing wrong with being a Muslim. We have a Muslim member of Congress. But if you are not a Muslim, and are accused in a rumor-mongering campaign of being a Muslim, that is dirty politics, simply because it is a lie.

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Alexandria, Va: There are reports suggesting that the crowds at Obama rallies also make ugly, inappropriate remarks about Palin and McCain, along the lines of what the McCain/Palin crowds are saying about Obama. Is the reporting about what happens at Dem. rallies an attempt at even handedness or is the hostility as bad on the left as it is on the right?

Howard Kurtz: I think the ugliness at the McCain-Palin crowds has been overblown as a news story. And the same standard should apply to Democratic crowds. There are always a few whack job jobs at rallies. One difference is that McCain actually called on several people who made intemperate statements, including the woman who insisted Obama is an Arab, prompting the senator to correct her.

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Berryville, Va.: The Akron poster seems all too typical, on the question of race.

What, are we to assume that all endorsements of white candidates by white followers are race-based, too?

We have to get past this ugliness, and I am glad that General Powell took the time to discuss issues and candidates and the needs of the country. Too bad that some refuse to listen to what he said, and would rather judge his endorsement by his skin color. He took great care to make certain his endorsement was not based on irrational factors. Too bad it's being taken the wrong way.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it's unfair to point out that Powell must feel great pride at the prospect of an African-American president. But to say that is the *only* reason he made the endorsement strikes me as unfair and dismissive.

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washingtonpost.com: President Obama? ( Post, Oct. 20)

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Re: lambasting Colin Powell: I suspect what really ticked off Buchanan, Rush, etc.,. was when Powell said that the truly correct answer to whether or not Obama was a Christian was to reply not just "Yes, Obama's a Christian," but words to the effect that the U.S. is the sort of nation where even a young native-born Muslim child could dream of growing up to become President. While I'm sure it didn't change the right-wing based from supporting McCain, I wonder if you've seen any polling of undecided-voter reactions to this statement?

Howard Kurtz: That would be difficult, since Powell made the comments only 24 hours ago. I have long argued that the media overplay political endorsements, and I don't know whether this one is in a different category. It could provide reassurance to some wavering Republicans or independents who are leaning toward Obama but unsure whether he has the experience to be commander-in-chief. One thing I know: Powell's move has dominated the last two news cycles, and that is a setback for McCain, who has a limited number of days to play catch-up.

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Florissant Valley, Mo.: A pleasure to chat with "Reliable" Howard! here's a question that's been bothering me. It was amazing how quickly Joe the Plumber got on national news. Why has there been no comparable effort by our supposedly balanced media to contact and interview William Ayres? You would think that at least the Washington Times or Chicago Tribune would have sought him out. It does make you wonder whether the Obama campaign has him under wraps. What's the story? Thanks

Howard Kurtz: William Ayers has repeatedly refused to do interviews for the past year, since his association with Obama became known. He could talk to the Chicago Tribune; he could hold a news conference and everyone would cover it. But he has chosen not to, and there's not a shred of evidence the Obama campaign has had anything to do with that. Joe the Plumber, by contrast, has been happy to do interviews with Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Mike Huckabee (for his new Fox show), and held a news conference outside his home. So Joe has not exactly shied away from the limelight.

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Chicago, Ill.: Fox News has now another special investigation special on Obama, I guess Hannity's didn't have enough impact. After all the questions on Hannity's main source and the one-sideness of Greta's, why does the press concentrate on any failings of MSNBC. Does the media itself not respect FOX and figure "it's just Fox"?

Howard Kurtz: I think there has been a focus on both Fox and MSNBC. The New York Times, to cite one example, did a big piece on the anti-Obama commentator with a history of anti-Semitism who was the centerpiece of that edition of "Hannity's America."

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Judith Miller: I got a kick out of your scoop that Judith Miller will be joining Fox. Do you think they will team her up with Oliver North on Afghanistan/Iraq reporting? That would be awesome! They could call it "The Jail Bait Fantasy Newshour" or something like that.

Howard Kurtz: I'm told Judith Miller will be an on-air analyst but will not be doing reporting for Fox News. It's a part-time gig.

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New York, N.Y.: I'm guessing the home stretch McCain campaign whine will be that it's unfair that Barack Obama has so much money. This will likely resonate with the press -- and they'll compensate. Fortunately that compensation will largely involve giving more free media to McCain and Palin which will be of no help to their campaign.

Now tell me, Howard. Which part of that is wrong?

Howard Kurtz: To the contrary, I think if McCain had raised $150 million in one month and Obama was limited to $42 million a month in public financing we'd be seeing a number of stories questioning whether McCain was trying to buy the election. That is especially true since Obama went back on his word in promising to negotiate a public-financing agreement with McCain.

I put that question to Time's Mark Halperin on my show yesterday, and this is what he said:

"We'd also see a lot of stories about his going back on his word saying that he would accept the public money and would reach out to Senator McCain to try to work out a deal. So I think this is a case of a clear, unambiguous double standard, and any reporter who doesn't ask themselves -- why is that, why would it be different if it's a Republican? -- I think is doing themselves and our profession and our democracy a disservice."

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Powell's endorsement: Ordinarily don't tune into political talk shows (and I don't have cable, so sorry, Howard!) but I did turn on Meet the Press in time to catch Powell's endorsement.

You are right about people needing to see the full context of his comments. I was struck more by his comments about the direction of the Republican party ("my party") than about either candidate. And addressing the "Obama is a Muslim" question: he brought tears to my eyes talking about the mother embracing her son's gravestone -- the one with the crescent and star of Islam. That was a commander speaking, mourning one of his own.

Declaring that Powell's endorsement is only about race is an insult.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the comment.

Now go out and get cable!

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Journalism: What does it say about the state of your profession that the only guy who saw fit to confront McCain with the laughable hypocrisy of the Ayers business by mentioning his continuing association with the unrepentant criminal Liddy was ... David Letterman? Remember "head shots!"? Where's the apology?

Howard Kurtz: A ticked-off David Letterman is a fearsome sight to behold. Other journalists have questioned McCain about his use of the Ayers issue, including, at last week's debate, Bob Schieffer. But McCain hasn't been giving a whole lot of interviews, and has talked to his traveling press corps exactly once in nearly two months.

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washingtonpost.com: Obama's Personal Ties Are Subject of Program on Fox News Channel (New York Times, Oct. 7)

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Baltimore Md.: Re the "undecided" voter from Akron: My question is, since this race has been going on hot and heavy since January '07, how can anyone who has a pulse possibly be "undecided" unless they really have no interest in politics at all, never read a newspaper and never see the news. No matter which side you might favor, the differences between the two candidates are stark, as they have repeatedly told us. Are people who call themselves "undecided" at this stage not likely to vote at all, or will they go in the booth and make their choice with their eyes closed?

Howard Kurtz: Look, a lot of people tune into these things late. They have lives. They question whether politics affects their lives. Or maybe they just want to get on TV in one of those "undecided" focus groups.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Hello Mr. Kurtz, thanks for chatting today. What exactly is newsworthy about Judith Miller going to work for FOX News? Isn't the news actually that it's taken her this long to be absorbed by the neo-con mothership?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it seems to have been picked up by lots of blogs. I would say it represents a return to journalism by one of the best-known and most controversial reporters in the business, both because of her flawed WMD reporting and because she wound up going to jail before acknowledging that Scooter Libby had been her source in the Valerie Plame case.

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Re: Cable: "Now go out and get cable." Who pays the bills in your house -- since no one can restrain the monopoly of a few cable stations with their out-of-sight cable costs, lots of people can't afford it. And many now, are giving it up to put food on the table. My cable company just raised its already high rates, higher.

Howard Kurtz: I was being a little tongue-in-cheek. Everyone's so sensitive these days!

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Falls Church, Va.: So, Joe the Plumber asked Barack Obama a critical question while on a rope line, and the press immediately swung into action to destroy him. Quickly, the media dragged out his marital history and his tax problems to discredit him, which presumably serves to intimidate any other ordinary citizen who might criticize Obama. As bloggers on the right have pointed out, the media has arguably gone after this particular Obama critic harder and faster than it has gone into elements of Obama's own life.

Whatever happened to speaking truth to power, afflicting the comfortable, etc.?

Howard Kurtz: I would quarrel with the word "destroy." Joe put himself out there to a certain extent. It was his home-state Toledo Blade that first discovered he doesn't have a plumbing license and had unpaid taxes. Then everyone else piled on. My biggest problem with Joe is that McCain is using him to make the case against Obama's $250K-plus tax increase, when in fact he makes $40,000 and would get a tax cut under Obama. It's fine for him to say he hopes to one day buy a business and make enough to be hit by Obama's higher taxes on the affluent, but there's nothing wrong with news organizations pointing out the discrepancy.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Howard, On election night, how will the networks report on the results? Will they call state by state as polls close and their exit polling projects a "winner"? If so , won't some key states where the polls close early --Va., N.C., Pa., N.H., Fla., etc. -- pretty much give us an idea of who the winner will be nationally even while people are still voting out West? How do the networks make the decision to declare a winner?

Howard Kurtz: They project a winner in each state after that state's polls have closed, based on exit polling and other factors, if one candidate has a big enough margin in that state to make network staffers feel comfortable with such a call. When one candidate gets to 270, they call the election. To be sure, if Obama carries, say, Virginia early, you will know it's going to be a good night for him well before the electoral math falls into place. But the networks haven't forgotten the debacle of 2000, so they're likely be cautious.

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Anonymous: The hate among McCain supporters toward Obama is far greater than the reverse. McCain supporters are bringing stuffed monkeys labeled Obama to rallies. That's akin to carrying a doll wearing prison garb and labeling it McCain.

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps, but how many people are doing that? A tiny fraction of 1 percent? I just think we have to be careful about making these generalizations?

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Phoenix, Ariz.: Howard,

It appears that factional talk radio has played little to no role in this campaign. Are we finally seeing its demise in the face of serious issues we all face in common?

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree with the premise. When Rush Limbaugh and others opposed McCain in the primaries, it definitely had an impact. Now Limbaugh, Hannity, Ingraham and others are hammering Obama daily. Just because he's ahead doesn't mean it has no impact. And while conservative talk radio is a far stronger force, Obama does benefit from Ed Schultz, Stephanie Miller and others on the left.

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Ashburn, Va.: Double standards exist. It's all about the degrees. Republicans complaining about campaign money just doesn't warrant. Imagine if Michelle Obama showed up to the convention in a $300K dress. Or if she advocated the separatist movement like Todd Palin. Elections are full of hypocrisies. Its what sticks that counts.

Howard Kurtz: A $300,000 dress? I'd like to see that!

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Un-Joe the Un-Plumber : The right wing has never been shy about attacking anyone, even a kid who appeared in an ad about health care a couple years ago, and Joe the Plumber is giving so many interviews that he doesn't have time to worry about how media scrutiny is 'destroying' him. (I wish the media would destroy me like this). It would be journalistic malpractice to ignore the many discrepancies in his story, because he's still being used as a poster boy by the campaign to support its arguments, and his situation doesn't support those arguments at all. That's a story.

Howard Kurtz: I figure Joe either ends up with a book deal or he can jack up his rates.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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