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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 10, 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."

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He was online Monday, Nov. 10 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Reston, Va.: Hi Howard. During the Chris Matthews/Joe Scarborough exchange, Matthews said it was his job as a journalist to help Obama succeed. I don't know which I found more astounding -- that Chris Matthews said that it is the job of a journalist to help Obama succeed, or that Chris Matthews considers himself a journalist! Do you think others in the Fourth Estate share his interpretation of their role?

Howard Kurtz: Uh, no. Well, there may be some liberal commentators who view their role that way, just as some conservative commentators were Bush cheerleaders until they soured on the president. Matthews is a commentator and talk show host and entitled to his opinions, of which he has many. What was striking was that Scarborough was asking him about a relatively minor point -- whether the leaking of Rahm's name before he had accepted the chief of staff job showed disorganization on the Obama team's part -- when Chris saluted the president-elect and declared that he wanted to help Obama succeed.

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Chicago: Can you think of one (or more) topics where the media gave Obama a pass?

Howard Kurtz: A major one, in my view, was Obama's decision to blow off public financing after indicating he would stay within the system. Now maybe any politician who had the ability to raise hundreds of millions of dollars would have made the same hard-headed calculation. But the media accepted this with barely a whimper, even though campaign finance reform has long been viewed as a liberal cause. And if John McCain had unlimited funds and was outspending Obama, who was limited to public financing, by 3 to 1, there would have been a number of stories questioning whether the Republicans were trying to buy the election. So I viewed that as a sin of omission.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: We have a president-elect who is ten weeks away from taking office, and we're getting this ridiculous overkill coverage of every single thing, including the type of dog they might get. Do you see any effort to pull back from this saturation coverage before viewers get "Obama fatigue" -- before he has even assumed office!?

Howard Kurtz: If it continues at this level, we may feel like he's completed a full term before he's sworn in.

There's always huge media and public interest in a new president-elect. I remember that being the case when Reagan won and when Clinton won, when stories were written about Socks the cat. It's even more true in this case, because Obama's election represented a moment of racial reconciliation in this country -- and because he hasn't been a Washington insider forever, we still don't know Barack or Michelle all that well.

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Boston: How soon will the punditocracy declare the Obama presidency a too-partisan failure? Do they feel obliged to wait until he actually takes office to render this judgment?

Howard Kurtz: I do think he gets at least a couple of weeks in office before fair-minded journalists start assessing his tenure. (We used to write those pieces after 100 days, but I guess that's old-media thinking.) I was surprised, therefore, by how some commentators teed off on Obama for daring to appoint Rahm Emanuel -- a congressman, former White House aide and all-round aggressive guy -- as his chief of staff.

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Unnamed Sources vs. Palin: Howard, I'm a Democrat and think Gov. Palin, as a national-level politician, is a joke -- but I think it's highly irresponsible for journalists to rely on unnamed sources to report the things they're reporting about her right now. To me, they're casting deeply personal aspersions about her, with no one named as the source of the charges. Shouldn't the nature of the reporting make using anonymous sources even less acceptable in the eyes of an editor?

Howard Kurtz: Yes -- I've been beating this drum for weeks now. Newsweek, Fox News and Politico all have reported harshly critical allegations about Palin without the McCain campaign sources having the guts to come out from behind the curtain of anonymity. I have sounded off about this every week on my show. It is fundamentally unfair to let unnamed sources trash a politician without their names attached. In the case of Politico, which quoted an anonymous source as calling the governor a "whack job," at least the publication knows who the source is -- but that insult was repeated again and again on television by correspondents and commentators who have no idea who the source is. I'm all for reporting on whether she was utterly unqualified for the vice presidency, but this was different because the attacks were so personal. Palin says the unnamed snipers are "jerks," but it's the media that have acted as a conduit for this stuff.

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Devil's Advocate: Do you think it was more Chris Matthews wants the next president of the United States to be successful, or that he wants Obama to be successful? There is a difference between critical analysis that hopefully advances your position versus criticism that is designed to diminish your subject.

Howard Kurtz: If Matthews was making a distinction between the man and the office, he did not make it in that MSNBC interview. And he hardly has tried to ensure that the Bush presidency is successful.

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Re: Campaign Finance: You write that the media gave Obama pass on campaign finance. Didn't they give McCain an even bigger one? He opted out of it it in the primaries after being in it, something that wasn't obviously legal (ultimately the FEC decided that it was, but it required a ruling for clarity)?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, McCain did get something of a pass on that too. But for the general-election nominee to blow off public financing and raise zillions is a bigger deal. I don't think any future presidential nominee will dare take public financing again.

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New York: I think the press corps itself can make the presidential press conferences relevant again. People stopped watching them through the years because they became less and less informative and more and more sycophantic. More often than not the press seemed unprepared (not entirely their fault when Bush gave 30 minutes notice), preening (see Gregory, David) and not well-informed about the topics that were discussed (thus more likely to accept false or boilerplate answers from the president). Even as a political junkie, I found the pressers hard to watch because they were so vapid. I think Obama should have regular press conferences, and that they should be at night when people can watch them.

Howard Kurtz: I agree with you on regular press conferences, but except on rare occasions they won't be at night, because the networks won't provide the time as they did in the Reagan era. I don't agree on the sycophantic part (though I can't mount much of an argument against the preening). To my eye, most White House correspondents are reasonably well-informed and, on the whole, ask pretty good questions. But the format favors the president, and any president can duck, dodge and finesse the questions as he sees fit. And you know what? Viewers are smart and can figure this out for themselves.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: What did you think of the CNN hologram gimmick? It was so absurd, and frankly the hologram illusion is significantly diluted -- if not eliminated -- when seen via a TV set. And what is the advantage to the hologram ... that we can see their feet? But I must commend Wolf Blitzer who managed to conduct these interviews with something of a straight face.

Howard Kurtz: I poked fun at it yesterday on my show with Jessica Yellin -- appearing, I should add, in non-hologram form. It was a bit of a gimmick -- Wolf just as easily could have talked to her on a video screen, as we all do with remote interviews -- but it sure seemed to attract a lot of attention, including from Jon Stewart.

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New York: On Tuesday, Americans chose as their next president an African American named Barack Obama who campaigned on a near-universal health-care plan, allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, and a move away from the belligerent foreign policy of the past eight years. Republicans, and some journalists, had spent months (falsely) saying Obama is the single most liberal member of the U.S. Senate -- and maybe even a socialist. The American people responded by electing him in a landslide. But all of a sudden in print and on TV, I see pundits and magazine editors (Meachem et al) saying America is "still a center-right" nation. Upon what evidence are they basing this apparently false belief?

Howard Kurtz: The main evidence seems to be national polls in which many more people identify themselves as conservative as compared to liberal. But what exactly do these labels mean when a Republican administration has broken spending records and essentially nationalized the banks? My own view is that most people are in the middle, which helps explain how the country can elect Barack Obama four years after re-electing George W. Bush.

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Evanston, Ill.: This election season had a lot of wacky characters who deserve their own talk/reality show. Huckabee already has one, but who do you think should be next: Sarah Palin, Rielle Hunter, Jeremiah Wright, Father Pfleger, Lanny Davis, Obama Girl, Lynn Forester de Rothschild, Ron Paul, Cynthia McKinney, Ralph Nader, Bob Barr, John Hagee, Rod Parsley, Nancy Pfotenhauer, Tom Tancredo, Rudy Giuliani or Dennis Kucinich? Any other whack jobs I left out?

Howard Kurtz: Joe the Plumber?

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Arlington, Va.: Can you explain this apparent contradiction in today's Post to me? Article 1: "No matter what the economic climate, greater Washington has long been able to rely on at least one major tenant to lease up space: the federal government. The coming year will likely be no different as federal rescue efforts add to the demand for new office space."

Article 2: "Leasing of commercial office space in the Washington area had its biggest quarterly drop in more than a year as financial markets slid into crisis and economists predicted a deep national recession. ... The market will continue to be slow as long as concerns over the future of the economy exist, they said."

Howard Kurtz: I don't see them as contradictory at all. The commercial market is bad right now, even with the federal government as a major tenant. The growth at agencies dealing with the bailout may help somewhat, but given that office space was likely overbuilt during the housing boom, it's not a panacea.

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Washington: Don't all Americans, including Chris Matthews, have a patriotic obligation to rally around the president in time of war and economic crisis? Obama will be making decisions on troop movements and levels in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus making decisions on major corporate bailouts. Who does not want out president-elect to succeed, except al-Qaeda?

Howard Kurtz: Do most Americans want Obama to succeed in rescuing the economy and dealing with Iraq? Of course. But there will be great battles on the details, as there should be in a democracy. Republicans will oppose many of Obama's proposals, just as Democrats resisted most of Bush's. When Clinton was a newly elected president, Republicans in the House and Senate provided not a single vote for his first big budget and tax bill, which they predicted would lead to recession but in fact helped fuel an economic boom.

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Memphis, Tenn.: My favorite new presidential media overkill moment was 1974, when we learned President Gerald Ford made his own English muffins for breakfast. Preview of great things!

Howard Kurtz: That was the morning after he was sworn in, and the country was so worn out by the Nixon scandals and impeachment that it was a great symbol that a decent man had taken office and perhaps would dispense with the trappings of the imperial presidency. Today we'd have cable pundits debating whether it was a phony photo op, "did the president ever do this before," "had he received contributions from the English muffin industry" and so on.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Could you explain why the Post choose to run a front page article praising Obama for "allowing" three government officials to serve out their statutorily-defined terms of office? What is it that Obama is doing that past presidents haven't done?

washingtonpost.com: Sometimes Continuity Trumps Change (Post, Nov. 10)

Howard Kurtz: The piece didn't say Obama was "allowing" this. It said it was a challenge for him, as indeed it is for every president following an administration of the other party.

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Reston, Va.: What's with the automatic slide show that has replaced the relatively stationary main picture on The Post's homepage? I noticed they did it when Obama won, but haven't changed it back to the way it was before -- it only changed when or if you refreshed the page. I have to say I don't like the slideshow. It's too much movement and distraction.

washingtonpost.com: Executive Editor Jim Brady says it's something we'll use more often but not all the time. It allows us to promote more material on the site that we feel is worth surfacing.

Howard Kurtz: There's your answer above.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Any thoughts on the degree to which the "change" mantra is going to be scrutinized? It seems like the country is torn between pragmatic continuity (good) and promised change (potentially good). It also seems that the GOP is dismissing even pre-inaugural decisions as "not change" whenever possible. Does the country have the patience and fortitude to wait (and even sacrifice) for solutions to problems years and decades in the making?

Howard Kurtz: Well it better, because as Obama cautioned on the night of his victory, these problems aren't going to be solved overnight. Especially given the magnitude of this financial mess.

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New York: Given his star power, will the networks rethink their policy of not giving prime time for Obama's press conferences? Also, will marginal figures like Les Kinsolving retain their seats at White House press briefings, or are the prior assignments wiped out? Will bloggers be let into the room for the first time?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the networks will rethink their policy because it costs them big bucks to give up 30 or 40 minutes of prime time by preempting their lucrative entertainment shows. As for who gets seats and whether that includes bloggers, those decisions are essentially made by the White House Correspondents Association, not the administration in power.

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Boston: I keep hearing journalists and pundits talk of a kumbaya nonpartisan world for Obama. In case they missed it, the guy in charge of the GOP today is a fellow by the name of Rush Limbaugh, and you have to give it to him and his minions on cable and the Web for their clarity and honesty: if Obama extends a hand, they plan to chop it off!

Howard Kurtz: I think it would be news to Rush that he's the leader of the GOP. He's an influential guy, but he's also a radio talk show host. And you may recall that he was vehemently opposed to McCain during the primaries, when Republicans nominated ... John McCain.

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Ashland, Mo.: Karl Rove indicated the national exit polls overestimated Sen. Obama's vote by more than 15 percentage points. If that is true, shouldn't one question the validity of all the explanations about the vote derived from these polls? And in any event, shouldn't those offering such analysis have an obligation to tell the viewer/reader the extent to which the poll missed the question of who one voted for, so one can assess the validity of the analysis?

Howard Kurtz: The exit polls have been screwed up for the past several elections. They were so bad in 2002 that they were thrown out; in 2004 they were so off that they pointed to a Kerry presidency. So you are right to be skeptical about all the demographic results, but I believe their weighting is adjusted after the actual vote is in to produce more precise results. I'm not an expert on this.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Is there any word on who the next host of "Meet the Press" will be and when they will be named? I think that Gwen Ifill or Andrea Mitchell should get it. In light of the election it would be appropriate to have a non-white or woman in that seat. Both of these women are highly qualified.

Howard Kurtz: If I knew who was going to get the job, I would be happy to share it with you, but I don't believe the decision has been made yet. Tom Brokaw certainly wants to end his temporary stint soon, so stay tuned.

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Kensington, Md.: What should The Post do to address the pro-Obama tilt in coverage that the newspaper's ombudsman identified in her Sunday column? Should she have offered her observations before the election? She wrote, after all, that "Obama deserved tougher scrutiny than he got," and that certainly was obvious before Nov. 4.

washingtonpost.com: An Obama Tilt in Campaign Coverage (Post, Nov. 9)

Howard Kurtz: Deborah Howell weighed in on this subject several times during the campaign. On Aug. 17, she said Obama had a three to one advantage over McCain in front-page stories since clinching the Democratic nomination, and a big lead in the number of photos as well. She later questioned the magazine's decision to run a book excerpt from a biography favorable to Michelle Obama, and other aspects of the coverage as well.

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Washington: Do you think reporters should treat Obama with the same level of skepticism they treat Bush? Or less? Or more?

Howard Kurtz: The same level of skepticism would work for me. I don't think we should adjust the level of skepticism depending on who occupies the Oval Office. Now obviously, the media give a little breathing room to a new president who is just beginning his term and assembling his administration. But before long, journalists want to know whether he is fulfilling the promises he made in the campaign. That's what I tried to address in this morning's column: both how the press will treat President Obama and how he will deal with a media establishment that he often kept at arm's length during the campaign.

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Ashland, Ore.: Hi Howard -- thanks as always for your chats. I've been waiting for an opportunity like this for months. When some disgruntled media critic writes into a Post chat asking why the media isn't covering such-and-such, the go-to answer is always "where did you hear about the story, and if the answer is the media, what are you complaining about?"

Well Mr. Kurtz, earlier in this session you cited a lack of coverage of President-Elect Obama's declining of public funding. Mr. Kurtz: Where did you hear about this story, and if the answer is the media, what are you complaining about? I for one feel quite certain that every question I have about that decision was answered in well-sourced reporting. What would you like to know about it that wasn't reported?

Howard Kurtz: I'm afraid you're missing my point. I didn't say it wasn't covered, or even repeatedly cited. My point was that there was very little criticism of the decision. The media didn't make it into an issue that Obama should be held to account on. In tone, many of the money stories in the past few weeks were more admiring of how he was able to raise such unprecedented truckloads of cash. Hardly anyone raised the question of whether this vast imbalance was unfair to McCain, and it got a couple of paragraphs after McCain himself started to hit the Democratic ticket for buying the election.

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Author, author: Gone are the days when Teddy White wrote the official history of the campaign. How many campaign retrospective books will there be (in a down time for the publishing industry)? I've heard of ones by Ifill, Balz and Halperin, and surely there are others fomenting on laptops now.

Howard Kurtz: Newsweek's Richard Wolffe is doing a book on Obama. And there are undoubtedly others I haven't heard about.

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Night Owl: I meant to post this last week. Craig Ferguson identified the reason why John McCain was the subject of more jokes by the late-night comedians: "It's because he can't hear us."

Howard Kurtz: You've made my point. Now McCain can go back to being funny, and the comedy establishment can try to figure out how and whether to poke fun at Obama.

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Re: Kensington, Md.: So what good did it do for the Ombudswoman to point out bias in election reporting? The Post did not change, and the bias persisted right up through Election Day. Why wasn't something changed? Why wasn't some editor fired?

Howard Kurtz: The ombudsman, by design, is an independent critic appointed to a fixed term. She (or he) plays no role in news coverage, and editors often disagree with the ombudsman's criticism. Her role is really to be the readers' advocate and call the paper on its flaws, mistakes and biases (as well as recognizing any good that the rag does). That doesn't mean she is always right, but I'm glad to work at a paper that employs such a person and gives her complete freedom. With the economic crunch squeezing the industry, the number of ombudsmen at American newspapers -- never much higher than 30 -- sadly is dwindling.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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