Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 27, 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. 27 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


Holland, Mich.: I enjoyed the Hannity-Olbermann piece you did, and I wonder whether the appeal of (one of) these shows to me is typical. For a sober presentation of the news, I read The Washington Post and The New York Times, and I watch CNN and the nightly news shows on the major networks -- not all of them all the time, but a representative sampling. But I've been very unhappy with the Bush presidency, and for the past several years I've watched Olbermann not so much as a news source as a way to vent my feelings about the news.

I feel that he has helped preserve my sanity -- the satirical touch lets my anger express itself in a smile, and in general the show has served as a safety valve for me. I assume folks who lean differently find FOX shows that serve a similar purpose. Isn't this a valuable function for programming to perform, provided the viewer is self-conscious about what he's doing and reasonably critical? Worlds Apart: The Great Hannity-Olbermann Divide (Post, Oct. 27)

Howard Kurtz: Preserving one's sanity is as good a reason to watch a cable show as any I can think of. You seem to have a good attitude about it -- you know where to get your news (not that the "news" is perfect by any means) and where to get your opinion. Olbermann's views and Hannity's views are hardly a secret, but the contrast is so striking night after night that I thought it was worth examining Obama's contention that they represent two different realities.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Are you aware of any Post reporter who has asked either Biden or Obama a series of questions as tough as the local newscaster in Orlando did?

Howard Kurtz: Oh, you mean the woman who went easy on McCain and then asked Biden whether Obama is a Marxist? No, I'm not aware of anyone who has been that blatantly biased.


Baltimore: I was watching MSNBC this weekend and they had a story on the Gallup Daily Tracking poll, noting that it had tightened from an 11 point Obama last week to 5 point lead. Now, I obsessively follow this poll and go to daily (I know, I'm obsessed). It didn't seem right to me so I went to the site and sure enough, she had been comparing Obama's 11 point lead among registered voters to a 5 point lead among Gallup's traditional likely voter model.

This is not the first time I've seen anchors and news networks compare incorrect samples or note poll differences without looking at samples. A recent poll that showed a narrowing gap, for example, had a high number of evangelicals (more than 40 percent) while some of the polls that show a 12-13 point Obama lead include cell-only user responses. Do you think the media has an accurate grasp for statistics and polling? Do you think they could do a better job of parsing what polls actually mean, or at least comparing apples to apples?

Howard Kurtz: Could we do a better job? Absolutely. (The latest Washington Post tracking poll, for you junkies, gives Obama a seven-point lead, down from 11 last week.) I think the overreliance on polls, regardless of the type of sample, is one of the biggest problems in political reporting today. Polls are ephemeral; they change -- especially tracking polls, which rely on smaller samples. In the case you cite, it may not have been the anchor's fault; a producer may have provided the wrong comparison.


Atlanta: I'm surprised you're taking questions today. I thought that after Sen. McCain guaranteed victory, you media types would start your much-deserved vacation early. I mean, McCain's a man of his word, right?

Howard Kurtz: Candidates guaranteeing victory are like pro athletes guaranteeing victory: a good way of firing up the base and, beyond that, meaningless.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Much was made of Palin's refusal to address the press, but now that it's been a month since Obama has faced a press conference and Biden has shown he will cut off any station that asks him tough questions, The Post has ignored the issue of press accessibility. Why the different standards?

Howard Kurtz: I said on Reliable Sources yesterday that the press has absolutely been negligent in failing to make an issue of Joe Biden failing to take questions from his traveling press corps since Sept. 10. Now that Palin, who had been in something of a bunker, is giving more interviews (Brian Williams and the Chicago Tribune last week, and several instances of talking to the reporters traveling with her), where are the stories about Biden's inaccessibility? It smacks of a double standard. Obama, by the way, did take questions from reporters last week before going to Hawaii to visit his grandmother.


Olbermann and Hannity: I don't think these two commentators represent not different realities, but rather different perspectives, each of which fails to understand the other. I'm more in Hannity's camp than Olbermann's, and I appreciate (while not always agreeing with) his perspective, mostly because I find him a welcome antidote to what I see as a liberal bias to the mainstream media. (I also enjoy the silly rivalry between MSNBC and Fox, and the transparent way they quote selective viewership numbers to prove their "popularity" relative to the other.) Anyway, here's my question: Do you think that there will a move to revive the "fairness doctrine" as a way to tamp down conservative voices on radio and TV?

Howard Kurtz: No. I don't see that getting anywhere. I know some conservatives are warning it could happen if Obama is elected, and I know some Democrats on the Hill favor it, but I don't think there's enough support for it. Nor do I think most of the public would support legislation that would force many talk show hosts off the air because their stations would have to grant equal time to those with contrary views. Let's let them battle it out in the marketplace of ideas.


Northville, N.Y.: So Ted Stevens has all this stuff in his house that he doesn't own, and Palin has all these clothes in the campaign plane which she wears but doesn't own. What is it with these Alaska politicians -- are they all a bunch of socialists?

Howard Kurtz: Well, in fairness to Sarah Palin, her designer wardrobe is courtesy of the Republican National Committee, which is based in Washington. It's not like she bought that stuff in Wasilla.


Laurel, Md.: I'm a regular reader of Media Notes and these chats, and have a question you may be uniquely suited to answer. I am confused and discouraged about the arguments for the need of "neutral" journalists. A baseball umpire is neutral. His decisions essentially are binary (ball or strike, fair or foul, safe or out) and have no implications beyond the game before him.

I was taught since I can remember (which is a considerable amount of time, except in geologic terms) that journalists were to be "objective," to impartially lay out the necessary information the reader needs to form an opinion. An example: Candidate A says Candidate B's tax plan sounds good for a brief stump speech, but will cost you money in practice. Candidate B replies that's not true, and Candidate A is a wife-beating pedophile besides. A neutral journalist reports both with equal weight. An objective journalist reports both, and adds that an impartial, nonpartisan organization has found Candidate A's claim to be very close to the truth, and that no evidence exists to support Candidate B's claims. The reader may then make up his own mind. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I don't want to get hung up on semantics. I'll simply say that mindless he-said/she-said journalism is a waste of time. Yes, a journalist has an absolute obligation to report the views of all sides -- but also, in my view, to assess the available evidence and give readers and viewers a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments. Now, some policy disputes are muddy: Just how many people will get health insurance under Obama's plan? It depends on a number of variables that have to be laid out. But I don't think journalists should be in the position of saying one side says the Earth is round and the other side says it's flat, end of story.


Philadelphia: I may have not watched enough cable to properly make this observation, so please correct me if I am wrong: A major difference I have noted between watching MSNBC and Fox is that MSNBC comes across as opinionated discussion, while Fox comes across as news. Thus I am more disturbed about the Fox format, as they appear to attempt to pass off what I would consider commentary as news, whereas at least on MSNBC I know they are discussion opinions. Am I correct on this observation?

Howard Kurtz: Well, both networks do news during the day. Prime time is when they air their opinion shows, just as a newspaper has op-ed pages. I don't see one channel trying to pass off opinion as news more than the other. The evening shows sometimes have a news format -- the anchor reads an intro, tosses to some videotape, and then interviews guests. And the guests may be neutral experts or journalists. But the trend on Fox and MSNBC is toward a growing number of partisan guests along with partisan hosts.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Could you explain how The Washington Post can justify sending plane loads of reporters to Alaska to investigate Palin while refusing to review past Obama radio interviews where he discusses his desire to redistribute Americans' wealth?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what radio interviews you're talking about, but let me make two points.

One, can we stipulate that it's responsible journalism to send reporters (actually a handful, who wouldn't even fill up a two-engine plane) to look into the record of a vice-presidential nominee who was largely unknown to the vast majority of Americans until two months ago?

Second, the progressive tax code has been redistributing the wealth since its inception, because the wealthier pay more. Some contend that the Reagan and Bush tax cuts redistributed income toward the wealthy. It's fine to criticize Obama's plan to rescind the Bush cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, but that hardly amounts to socialism.


It's not like she bought that stuff in Wasilla.: Are you accusing the good people of Wasilla of not being stylish?

Howard Kurtz: I simply am saying I don't believe there's a Nieman Marcus there.


Rolla, Mo.: Yesterday CNN's Alan Chernoff had a segment with the chyron saying "Liberal Landslide?" Why would they say this, instead of "Democratic Landslide?" We elect Democrats or Republicans, not liberals or conservatives, right? It seemed a little provocative to me.

Howard Kurtz: Maybe they're addicted to alliteration.


New York: "I don't want to get hung up on semantics." You're a print journalist (at least in here) -- what more is there than "semantics"?

Howard Kurtz: I just mean that labels like "neutral" and "objective" mean different things to different people. So I took the novel approach of just telling you what I think.


Rockville, Md.: Mr. Olbermann reminds me of the critics who called our President "Ape Lincoln." How far is too far? It is fine to have an opinion, but when does it actually do harm? I dislike having policy decisions seen as treason. I can't watch either Olbermann, Hannity or O'Reilly.

Howard Kurtz: Apparently you're not receptive to Keith's brand of humor. But if all these kinds of shows turn you off, you have every right to vote with your remote control.


Reston: Don't you think tracking rally attendance numbers would be just as effective as tracking poll results for determining public opinion? Do you know of any outlet that is keeping a running tally of these numbers for McCain, Obama, Biden and Palin? Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: Actually, I don't. Obama might draw 100,000 people in St. Louis but still lose Missouri. Younger people or those without jobs might be more free to attend a midday rally. It's surely a gauge of excitement -- I've never seen a presidential candidate attract crowds of this size -- but it would make a lousy basis for predicting elections.


Fairfield, Conn.: Hi Howard -- thanks for taking questions today! I've noticed that several cable outlets - CNN and MSNBC in particular -- have been showing the entirety of both McCain and Palin rallies, and only showing small snippets of Obama and Biden rallies. That was especially glaring this morning, when there was nearly 45 straight minutes of the Republicans and less than five minutes of the Democrats. What gives?

Howard Kurtz: Based on my monitoring -- which is hardly scientific -- I think the cable networks are devoting roughly the same amount of airtime to Democratic and Republican rallies. Usually, by this stage, the vice-presidential nominees draw little live coverage of this sort, but there's so much interest in Sarah Palin that she has been getting plenty of cable exposure, and then the channels feel obligated to carry some of Joe Biden's appearances as well.


Bowie, Md.: Why does the media almost always consider it bad news when the stock market and real estate prices drop? Is it because the advertisers are beholden to the baby boom generation that were hoping to fund their retirements by selling at high prices? The people in my office who are under 35 are starting to look seriously at buying their first homes, and are noticing their 401(k) deductions are getting a lot more shares than they used to.

Howard Kurtz: I think you have half a point -- on housing prices. Sinking prices are obviously bad news for those who own homes or might want to sell them (and, if steep enough, can hurt the broader economy as well), but the housing bubble priced lots of folks out of the market (at least those who didn't go for subprime loans they couldn't afford), so more modest price tags definitely would help buyers.

By contrast, a plummeting stock market doesn't help anyone except the small community of short-sellers who bet against stocks. People find their net wealth and retirement accounts shrinking. Companies that suddenly are deemed to be worth less have to cut back, or have trouble getting financing. The ripple effect spreads through the economy, as we are seeing, and state and local government have to reduce spending because of sinking tax revenue. I don't think the media should be cheerleaders for the stock market, but there's no sense in pretending that what's happening now isn't painful for an awful lot of people.


Re: "Radio interviews": There's a long story on this in Politico. The interviews are from 2001, he's speaking legalese with a panel of three other lawyers and talking about civil rights and funding schools, not taxes. And incidentally, he's taking the conservative side that there was too much reliance on the courts. He thought it would be better if the advances were more legislative. (That is where the quote comes from -- he says that the courts have no legal standing to redistribute for schools, so he thinks those should be legislative initiatives instead of lawsuits.) Redistributive (Politico, Oct. 27)

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the clarification. It's interesting the way some people seize on these things and then accuse the mainstream media of suppressing information.


Ashley Todd Question: I have a question about Ashley Todd -- the imaginary-backwards-B-race-baiter. I live in the neighborhood that she claimed the attack happened in, and everyone I knew immediately was sure the whole thing was a hoax. I actually know people who were driving and walking by the ATM at the time she claimed the attack happened who (obviously) saw nothing.

I'm relieved the hoax was outed, but I'm curious what you think the follow-up will be by the media. The fact that reports showed up on Drudge and FOX before any local media outlets says a lot to me. Now some people in the media are claiming that Republican National Committee folks gave quotes to the press about what the imaginary attacker said before they really should have had any information on it. Was this hoax perpetrated from a higher level than just Todd herself? Will there be more stories about this in the media, or will it just die a quiet death? At least one good thing came out of the whole incident: I now have the easiest Halloween costume ever!

Howard Kurtz: I think the media showed rare restraint in that suspicious-sounding case. Most organizations didn't touch it, even with the big Drudge headline, although just about everyone jumped on it after Todd was exposed as a hoaxer. It is true that a McCain campaign official in Pennsylvania tried to spread the word to reporters in an effort to hurt Obama, and that's pretty troubling given that the woman's allegations hadn't been confirmed by police.


"Morning Joe": Host Scarborough seems is not only a partisan, but an increasingly bitter one. I know he has many fractious relationships at MSNBC. What do you hear about the future of his show?

Howard Kurtz: I think the future of his show is fine. Joe Scarborough doesn't make any bones about the fact that he has strong opinions; he's a former Republican member of Congress, after all. At the same time, he has been sharply critical of his party in the past year. A lot of political junkies love Morning Joe because of the open-ended format and the high quality of the guests.


Washington: I was watching Chris Matthews yesterday morning, and one of the guests said Obama is farther along picking his team than you might suspect: Lawrence Summers will be Treasury Secretary. Now that's interesting if it is true, but what is the effect of that announcement on the election? Did the Obama campaign leak this as a selling point? Is the reporter leaking this because he thinks it will create a brouhaha? I mean, it's news (again, if true), but the announcement of it is not neutral, maybe? Your take?

Howard Kurtz: The Obama campaign didn't leak it. Not only has Barack Obama undoubtedly not decided who he would want running the Treasury, but the last thing his campaign wants is to project a sense that he's measuring the drapes, in McCain's words, and picking out which offices his aides will occupy. This was pure journalistic speculation -- reasonable speculation, perhaps, but also depending on Obama actually, you know, winning on Nov. 4.


Washington: One of the things I have been struck by this cycle is that there have been some reporters who have done an unusually good job of reporting on what the campaigns are whispering to them and other reporters, which enables people who don't get whispered to to understand what is being pushed by the campaigns -- and what, in contrast, is a real fact that emerges independent of those whispers, which clearly are efforts to shape the media narrative. Don't you think reporters have an obligation to ensure that their own stories report on and are not passively shaped by the campaigns' efforts? (I recognize that it is hard to do!)

Howard Kurtz: Sure, but it's a fine line. You don't want to be used to push phony narratives, but you do want to be plugged-in enough to report authoritatively on how decisions actually are being made and in what direction the campaigns are headed. You have to decide who is reliable in these background conversations and who simply is parroting the spin. A number of reporters, and some bloggers as well, are very good at walking this tightrope.


Real America: The comparison of MSNBC and Fox provides an interesting starting point ... however, this concept of "objective" journalism is just too much. With seemingly endless options to search and receive information (albeit all filled with some combination of conventional news, opinion, entertainment and advertising), I resolve to decry any source that does not completely comport with my worldview.

I feel that I should not have to perform any analysis, balancing, contemplating, or filtering, but -- of course -- I refuse to "turn it off." Please contact me when you can provide everything that I want to hear and agree with in a condensed and aesthetically-pleasing format. Reassuring platitudes would be a nice touch. Until then, please consider yourself shamefully biased.

Howard Kurtz: Look, there are people who want an accurate picture and people who want their own opinions reinforced. In today's media world, it's easy to find outlets that satisfy both urges -- and it's equally easy, if you have the inclination and the time, to go beyond what journalists and opinion-mongers tell you and do your own research by checking transcripts, video and other raw material.


Roseland, N.J.: Re: Biden taking questions from his "traveling press corps," I was under the impressions there was no press traveling with Biden, or at least not enough that you'd bother calling a press conference.

Howard Kurtz: There is definitely a small but steady group. Plus, every time you stop in Tampa or St. Louis or Seattle, it's easy enough to call a news conference that also will be attended by local reporters.


Washington: What frustrates me is that the media insists on equality of sin. I believe that Olbermann, Franken and Maddow, while liberal, have yet to be called out on inaccuracies. Fox, Hannity, O'Reilly et al regularly are found to be misleading and/or untruthful. Heck, Franken wrote a whole book on it, and none of his targets challenged him on veracity, just on the Harvard letter stunt. So how is it you, as a media critic, can treat Hannity like he is the same? Shouldn't your job be to point out the trouble with truth? And please, don't give me the "Colmes is the liberal voice" shtick -- even suggesting he presents a contrarian view does a disservice to your readers...

Howard Kurtz: People call out inaccuracies on both sides every day. Just as Al Franken (in his pre-Senate candidate days) wrote a book attacking Rush Limbaugh, lots of conservatives have written books slamming the so-called liberal media.

I do blow the whistle on major inaccuracies. For instance, Fox executives acknowledged to me for the first time that (in today's column) it was a mistake to book on "Hannity's America" this fellow Andy Martin, who made unsubstantiated charges against Obama and has a history of what I'll call controversial statements. They said they had not sufficiently checked out Martin, and they're right.

But most of what is said on these programs falls into the realm of opinion. Hannity keeps talking about Obama's relationship with "unrepentant terrorist" Bill Ayers. Well, Ayers is a terrorist who never has apologized for the bombings he was involved in, and Obama did allow Ayers to host a political reception for him in 1995 and they served on a couple of charitable boards together. Is that a relationship? Is it enough of a relationship that it should be a campaign issue, or is it a distraction? These are the kinds of questions that viewers must decide for themselves.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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