Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 3, 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, Nov. 3 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


Bluffton, S.C.: Your Media Notes blog today was spot-on, but I don't understand why you waited until the day before the election to point out this kind of blatant favoritism toward Obama that has existed for the whole year. Starting on Wednesday I have to wonder what these chat shows -- not to mention all sorts of pundits, columnists, etc. -- will do for Topic A the next four years when they can't find any Republicans to bash.

washingtonpost.com: Softer Shows Hard on McCain (Post, Nov. 3)

Howard Kurtz: Well, most of my attention has been on the political shows, as with last week's column on the parallel universes inhabited by Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann. (Nice take on that in Sunday's New York Times; I liked it better the first time.) So while I repeatedly have talked about the impact of "The View" and Letterman on my show (and played the clips), this was the first chance I had to write about it.

"The View" ladies sounded a tad defensive discussing the column this morning. Whoopi even went negative on me! But it was smart for them to tackle it head-on.


Fort Myers, Fla.: Thanks for quantifying what we already knew: The decline of the political process, led by the increasingly irrelevant Letterman and those harpies on "The View."

Howard Kurtz: But they're not irrelevant at all -- they draw big audiences. Letterman's audience dwarfs that of most cable shows, and "The View" has been a pop culture phenomenon. I have no problem with them, or Ellen, sounding off about politics -- they're all entitled to their opinions -- but the pattern in which a number of these shows have been rough on McCain and easy on Obama is unmistakable.

Whoopi Goldberg, by the way, made the point this morning that Obama's he's-so-sexy interview came in the spring, while McCain's your-ads-are-lies encounter came in the general election, and that Obama has refused to come back. I quoted the show's executive producer as making that very argument.


Hampton Cove, Ala.: Maureen Dowd gets kicked off McCain plane, it makes front-page news; three reporters get kicked off Obama plane and they are called pawns of radical right-wing newspapers. Joe the Plumber gets destroyed by government employees and he is called a fraud; Obama's aunt is living illegally in government housing, illegally collecting government benefits, illegally donating to Obama, and The Washington Post portrays it as a violation of her rights as a citizen (which she is not). A British newspaper broke the story, yet the The Washington Post blames Republicans. I never have seen such bias in my life. How can the public trust the media when it has turned a blind to any transgression by the Obama campaign?

Howard Kurtz: Your examples are wayyy off. As the guy who was first to report that the McCain camp had barred Maureen Dowd from its plane, I gave it one sentence in a column; no one put it on the front page. My story last week on the Obama campaign kicking off reporters for the Washington Times, New York Post and Dallas Morning News ran as an item in the Trail column. And no one described their employers as radical right-wing newspapers; I simply quoted the editor of the Washington Times as saying that the Obama campaign did this three days after his paper's editorial page endorsed McCain, and that the other two newspapers recently endorsed McCain as well. The Obama camp claims it was a space issue.


Medina, Ohio: Why any person would care what Whoopi thinks is beyond me. That people even think "The View" has any influence is just plain dumb.

Howard Kurtz: Well, then put me in the dummy category. Shows "like The View" are important because they reach a different (and in this case heavily female) audience that isn't necessarily watching "Meet the Press," "Hardball" and O'Reilly. They also allow the candidates to show a lighter side of themselves. And I guess Obama and McCain must be dummies, because they took the time to appear on the show (and Michelle and Cindy did as well). And Sarah Palin must be in that camp as well, as she was happy to have Elizabeth Hasselbeck join her on the campaign trail.


Seattle: One of the problems with Wolf Blitzer subsuming your show into his is that my TiVo doesn't catch it. I got the last part, though. In the end of all this, could you answer the question of which media really matters? Do the TV networks influence more voters than the cable 24-hour jobs? Does a 30-minute infomercial hit better than robocalls? And what should we think about newspapers?

Howard Kurtz: Well, we'll be back next week. You know, it's hard to rank one form of media over another. Blogs, talk radio, TV ads, robocalls, YouTube -- they all play into the mix. But I think it's fair to say that much-maligned newspapers still do the deepest and most extensive reporting on political campaigns (or any other subject, for that matter), and that TV shows, Web sites and just about everyone else often feed off the facts they uncover.


Pittsburgh: Why haven't the mainstream media pressed Sarah Palin harder on releasing any of her medical records yet, as she promised? Or is this essentially an admission that Palin will lose, so why bother?

Howard Kurtz: The press has raised this several times, and the Palin campaign promised it would do so. Then, on Friday, Palin aides said they needed more time. (How much more? Till Nov. 5?) Because we don't have subpoena power and the election is tomorrow, there's not much more we can do.


Laurel, Md.: Have there been any particularly nasty or unfair weekend-before ads? The kind the candidate hopes only reach the desired audience before they can be dissected?

Howard Kurtz: Not really, at least not from the campaigns. Obama put up a last-minute ad Sunday that touted his endorsements by Colin Powell and Warren Buffett and then said McCain had been endorsed by ... Dick Cheney. There was even a sound bite from Cheney. No distortion there. But it's pretty amazing that a vice president -- to no one's surprise -- backs the nominee of his own party, and it winds up in a commercial for the other side.


Prescott, Ariz.: Could you thank your buddies at the Sunday talk shows for not having any women guests on their programs the weekend before the presidential election? I am glad to see that the traditional media feels (like most of flyover country) that a woman's place is in the home.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the shows, as I was in New York doing CNN. But two of my guests were Gloria Borger and the Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar, and then I was on a panel with Borger and Campbell Brown. So you can't say that about "Late Edition." And come to think of it, Donna Brazile was on "This Week." I haven't had a chance to check the others.


Kettering, Ohio: Good afternoon Howard. Did you see the Michael Malone post on ABCNews.com? He took the media to task for what he considered over-the-top bias toward Obama. Is this the rant of a conservative-leaning reporter, or the real deal?

Howard Kurtz: Michael Malone, according to his bio, is an author and Silicon Valley technology writer who also has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Fortune and the New York Times. So he's an opinion guy, but also someone whose work has appeared in some fairly prestigious outlets.


Montreal: Hi Howard, as the campaign comes to a close, are there any stories that you feel the media, in general, did an especially good job on? And the reverse? Thanks for chatting, it's always a pleasure.

Howard Kurtz: We were all over that lipstick on a pig thing. And the Paris Hilton ad? We ruled on that one. McCain's seven houses? Edwards's $400 haircut? Hillary's laugh? Palin's wardrobe? It was hard to beat our intrepid coverage.


Burke, Va.: Your column about media coverage makes the typical invalid assumption that the two sides are roughly equal. There has been nothing on Democratic side on par with a vice-presidential candidate who, when pressed to name a newspaper or magazine that she reads, cannot do so. Or a candidate who claims that the proximity of her state to Russia (and Putin's rearin' head) gives her some kind of foreign affairs expertise. Or spending $150,000 on clothes while posturing as Ms. Hockey Mom -- $150,00! John Edwards is still being lampooned by Fox for his $400 haircut.

Howard Kurtz: I don't quite see the connection between the obvious difficulties Sarah Palin has faced -- and which I've written about extensively -- and the way McCain and Obama have been treated on some of these entertainment shows. Even if you believe that Palin's inexperience is so glaring that it justified the way Letterman grilled McCain about his running mate, is there no issue involving Obama that Dave could have pressed equally hard when Barack was on?


Alabama: You did a good job of debunking some of the charges made by your chatter from Alabama, but failed to address the coverage The Post gave to the illegal release of information about Obama's aunt compared to zero coverage about the search by government officials into Joe the plumber's files. Care to expand upon your comments?

Howard Kurtz: The Post should have run something on the Wurzelbacher search. Here's the latest: Toledo Police have confirmed that a TPD records clerk is accused of performing an illegal search of information related to "Joe the Plumber."

Julie McConnell, has been charged with gross misconduct for allegedly making an improper inquiry into a state database in search of information pertaining to Samuel Wurzelbacher on Oct. 16.


Boston: I enjoyed the Rachel Maddow interview of Obama and thought of the "Meet the Press" of my childhood with several distinct voices asking the questions. Why not have a "Meet the Press" with Maddow, Tucker Carlson and David Gregory, for instance, so that the questions could come from left, right and center?

Howard Kurtz: You get all kinds of opinion on cable. Sunday morning shows ought to be a place where the moderator (or moderators) has no ideological point of view in attempting to interview guests, or at least tries as hard as humanly possible to keep personal opinions out of it.

The left-right combination pioneered on "Crossfire" still exists on such programs as "Hannity & Colmes," but largely seems to have fallen out of favor. Viewers apparently like watching a host who agrees with them.


Women on yesterday's talk shows: Michelle Norris was on "Meet The Press."

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. Looks like that questioner's survey was, shall we say, less than complete.


Boston: In your column today you imply a double standard, and I am sure both sides agree with you -- they just think it is the "other side" that is getting the good treatment while the media abuses their candidate. As an Obama supporter I see a lack of coverage on McCain's pal Keating and hardly a mention of most recent Palin ethics violation as some "you hate us" moment from the press. Do you think by this time both sides are a little crazy?

Howard Kurtz: The Washington Post ran a lengthy, front-page story on McCain's role in the Keating Five and how the episode changed him about two weeks ago. I'm not sure what you mean by Palin's latest ethics violation, but certainly there was plenty of coverage of the so-called Troopergate scandal (despite the report's release late on a Friday night). The other story, about charging the state of Alaska for taking her kids on trips, was reported but got overshadowed by the Republican National Committee's $150,000 shopping spree on her behalf.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: Lumping "The Daily Show" in with the others is a bit of a stretch -- they lampoon everybody. If it's more fun to lampoon Republicans, it's not their fault. But I remember specifically they spoofed Obama as "the chosen One," just like our boy Milbank.

Howard Kurtz: I did not lump in "The Daily Show," which indeed pokes fun at everyone. But Jon Stewart's views are no secret. He said he was voting for Kerry four years ago, and did a very soft interview with Kerry in the final days. His interview with Obama last week also was quite friendly. But in fairness, Stewart has had McCain on close to a dozen times, and although they went at it about a year ago, Jon certainly has treated him with respect and given him a platform. He also had Bill Kristol on last week to make the case for McCain.


Alexandria, Va.: One more woman on yesterday's shows: Mara Liasson on Fox News Sunday.

Howard Kurtz: I wonder what shows that person was watching.


Midland, Mich.: Everyone's talking about McCain's QVC skit on "Saturday Night Live," but I loved the way they spoofed Olbermann. I admit to being in Obama's camp, and I've watched a lot (too much) of MSNBC. That 8 p.m. hour is getting kinda hard to take.

washingtonpost.com: "Countdown" With Keith Olbermann ("Saturday Night Live," Nov. 1)

Howard Kurtz: Ben Affleck's satire was devastating. Olbermann tells Time's Ana Marie Cox that he found a note from the actor saying: ""Keith -- Remember, a) I didn't write this; b) it took years of study -- fondly, Ben."


Philadelphia: These are entertainment shows, right? So, it's not as though the nightly news program is coming out slamming one side/endorsing the other (the news part of it, not the editorial part). Anyway, Bush is unpopular, to say the least, so he'd be the normal target of late-night jokes and commentary, but he's lying low so the target shifts to his party flag-bearer, who is McCain.

Also, McCain has selected running mate who has made it so that writers can be lazy and just pull up transcripts of her quotes, spit them out, and they're hilarious. With the way things are looking at this moment, the writers are going to have four years to kick around Obama and Biden. I for one am looking forward to seeing the writers have to work a bit harder to find a way to skewer our politicians than they've needed to in the past 20 years or more.

Howard Kurtz: On the comedy front, it's certainly true that it's easy to make McCain age jokes and that Palin has been a godsend, not just to Tina Fey but to anyone who makes people laugh for a living. It's equally clear that the comedians haven't quite gotten a handle on Obama yet (although Jon Stewart has done some nice Messiah stuff). But I largely was focused on programs that actually have interviewed McCain and Obama, as opposed to just poking fun at the candidates.


Ames, Iowa: I would not argue that Obama has been treated better on some shows, but I agree with some of the comments on your story: There are consequences to constantly ridiculing the mainstream media to gain votes from your base. There are also consequences to running a nasty, "scary" negative campaign (as I sit here listening to the commercials on Rev. Wright -- yeah, McCain had no idea any group would run those and he can't do anything about them, not even a phone call -- and earlier, the "chicken button" commercials).

Howard Kurtz: Say what you want about McCain's campaign -- and I have chronicled its war on the press more extensively than anyone, and pointed out the distortions and falsehoods in some of its ads -- but John McCain lived up to his word that he would not make Jeremiah Wright an issue in this election. The truth is, he can't control whether some independent group drops a last-minute commercial about the reverend, any more than Obama can rein in left-leaning groups making ads. In fact, the law prohibits any cooperation between these groups and the campaigns.


San Diego: Do you see the difference in the "soft media" coverage as a problem? If so, is the difference in the talk radio coverage a problem too?

Howard Kurtz: It's not a "problem" in that Ellen DeGeneres, David Letterman, Joy Behar, Elizabeth Hasselbeck and company can say whatever they want. They're not journalists and they don't have to adhere to any standard of balance. (The same goes for radio talk show hosts.) But I certainly think it's noteworthy that the tilt has been so sharply in Obama's direction, especially from people who don't primarily make their living yakking about politics.


Santa Maria, Calif.: It should be extremely alarming that one of the candidates wishes to censor the media. Do the American people wish to elect a president that needs to censor news coverage and control his public image? We already know too little about Obama's actual beliefs and ideology, not to mention his associations, his resume, the gaps in his memoirs, and his experience or lack thereof -- and the more details that we come to know about him raise many more questions than answers.

I hope this media censorship causes outrage even among the media that supports this candidate. The job of the president is too important and there is too much at stake not to ask very tough questions. The American people have a right to know, it is the media's job to ask, and any candidate that does not welcome that should be denied access to the Oval Office.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure what censorship you're referring to. Perhaps you've read that some Democrats want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine? I haven't seen Obama talk about that and I doubt it's going anywhere. As for knowing "too little" about Obama's policies and associations, the man has endured 22 months of saturation media coverage in the white-hot crucible of a presidential campaign. Perhaps you don't like his positions, and perhaps some outlets have been soft on him, but he clearly has been put through the American media wringer, participated in 25 televised debates, and somehow he's still leading.


Fairfax, Va.: I keep reading stories about papers losing ad revenue and subscriptions. papers becoming web-only, etc. Who is going to do the original reporting that blogs and cable news comment on if newspapers go out of business?

Howard Kurtz: The answer: No one. Obviously good journalism is practiced elsewhere, but newspapers are really the last line of defense for serious and sustained reporting, especially at the local level. So here's hoping they can figure out a way to not just stay in business but to thrive in the new media environment that is transforming the world we all live in.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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