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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 8, 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, Dec. 8, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments.

A transcript follows

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Washington D.C.: Howard, No doubt that there will be a lot of discussion today about the Meet the Press passing of the torch from Tim Brokaw (temporary custodian) to David Gregory the new moderator. The last portion of the show Tom Brokaw mentioned something about the show being a sort of platform for "younger generation of journalists". How does David Gregory do this?. As a person of the "younger generation" most of my contemporaries depend more on the Internet Political sites than traditional big three networks. Is relevant Meet the Press to the young generation?. Your thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: Even at 6-5, Gregory Has Big Shoes to Fill at 'Press' (Post, Dec. 8)

Howard Kurtz: Well, just by showing up, for starters. David Gregory is 38 years old, two decades younger than Tim Russert when he died and three decades younger than Tom Brokaw. And even in the Internet age, 3-1/2 million viewers is nothing to sneeze at. But NBC, and every other network, is aware that it's got to play on the Net. In fact, at the end of "Meet," Brokaw said that a longer discussion between him and Gregory -- they chatted for 5 minutes on the air -- would be available online.

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Shepherd Park, D.C.: Howard,

In your column Thursday you talked about how much more positive the coverage of President-elect Obama's policies and proposals was than of McCain's. You said, or at least implied, that this is evidence of media bias. Why shouldn't Obama get more positive coverage if his policies and proposals were actually better than McCain's, (as the voters seemed to believe)?

Howard Kurtz: First, that was based on a study. Second, John McCain won about 47 percent of the vote, so by your logic, the coverage should be have been a closer call if based on how much Americans "liked" each man's proposals. Finally, even in a blowout we owe both candidates balanced coverage for their proposals and ideas. If one side is running a better campaign, as Obama did, the coverage should reflect that, but the substantive reporting should be fair to both candidates no matter what the polls say.

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Minnesota: I was watching Reliable Sources on CNN the previous weekend and your segment on the bias of the press coverage of Barack Obama caught my attention. You posed the question on whether the "liberal media" was already treating Obama as the president. Then you went to air segment showing a number of pundits and shows including ABC Charlie Gibson, This Week with G. Stephanopoulos, CNN, and I believe NBC. Do you consider these outlets liberal ? I mean these are outlets with the likes of George Will, Joe Scarborough, Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck. I follow your column regularly and occasionally watch your show and you regularly refer to the "liberal media". Yet I don't recall you actually naming these liberal news outlets. The worst part is how often you cite these straw men "left wing media" or "liberal bloggers" (hardly monolithic) in your column and shows without citing sources. Now both sides engage in this intellectually dishonest practice of "branding" a critic without actually debating the merits of their arguments and that is why I am surprised you not only failed to call them on it but actually echoed their terminology. Isn't it your responsibility as a media critic to actually name these outlets? Rather than just referencing the "liberal media". Isn't this just the minimum criteria for objective journalism let alone a media critic? Sorry I realize this is not something unique to your show or your column but it just amazes me how pervasive the practice has become in even very reputable journalism media outlets.

Howard Kurtz: Here's what I actually said:

"We all treat him as if he is president already. We want to know the details of his economic plan because of this unusual situation, this transition where the economy is falling apart."

I don't see any L-word in there. Perhaps you need to adjust the volume on your set.

In fact, I don't think the press is treating Obama as de facto president because of any ideological bias. It's the urgent nature of this transition period and the fact that he's had to step up and become more visible in the face of an economy that is sinking and an auto industry that is clinging to life.

Most journalists lean left on some issues. The more cogent debate, in my view, is to what degree that affects their coverage.

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Green Bay, Wisc.: I was confused by CNN's release about John King taking over Sundays, in that it said your "Reliable Sources" would continue "as part of that block." Good news? Or are you just going to be a face on King's Magic Wall?

Howard Kurtz: "Reliable Sources" will continue as an hour-long media program at 10 a.m. eastern on Sundays, just as it had been. It will be part of this broader, four-hour block of programming anchored by John King (who, I might point out, was a heckuva reporter for the AP before he made the transition to television). So the core identity of my program will remain as it is, and I hope a few more people may check us out.

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Boston, Mass.: On David Gregory and the younger generation. I was a little surprised by all the anti-Gregory vitriol on your Facebook page. I'm indifferent. However, Gregory comes off as a very empty person. As a viewer I never get the sense that he believes in anything (which love him or loathe him, you couldn't say about Russert). Is that what drives the online antipathy against Gregory?

Howard Kurtz: I have no clue. He's a reporter at heart, so it hasn't been his role to espouse political views. I know he became a divisive figure in 2005 and 2006 when he repeatedly clashed with President Bush, Scott McClellan and Tony Snow, mostly over the war, but aggressive reporters aren't known for being excessively polite. Gregory told me yesterday he plans to treat the Obama administration the same way he did the Bush administration. I'm sure lots of people will be watching to see if he lives up to those words.

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Fairfax, Va.: As a young person, can I just say that I do not need to see people in their mid-30s to mid-40s for that news program to appeal to me. I enjoyed Tim Russert because he was incredibly knowledgeable, good-natured, and generally a tough questioner. I was also very disappointed when Bob Schieffer's interim tenure came to an end as anchor of the CBS Evening News, as he had this grandfatherly appeal. David Gregory, however, strikes me as smarmy and more interested in scoring cheap political shots, as has become increasingly common among the younger, more telegenic "journalists." Needless to say, I'll be checking in more with This Week and Face the Nation.

Howard Kurtz: The guy starts on Sunday. Perhaps you should give him a week or so to prove himself?

Gregory wasn't chosen BECAUSE he's 38. He was, in the judgment of NBC executives, the best available candidate.

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New York, N.Y.: I thought the most telling, if inadvertent, insight into the media revealed on the program Sunday was Jane Velez-Mitchell's repeated comment (she must have said it 3 or 4 times)that the media's lack of focus on the OJ sentence was due to the fact that the matter involved middle-aged men who were not "glamorous". I would like to think this whole thing was largely ignored simply because it's not very important, but I suspect she is right. If the cast of characters had been 20 years younger and were super-photogenic, it would probably have been the lead story. As a middle-aged man, I resent this, but more seriously, it does serve as another example of our culture's twisted values.

Howard Kurtz: Well, that was her opinion, that O.J. and his cronies were seen as a bunch of unattractive losers. She also noted that younger people who barely remember the double murder trials don't really care about Simpson.

Another factor in the brief and modest coverage, in my view, was that there was little debate over what went down in that Las Vegas hotel. The planning, the bungled heist and the aftermath were all tape-recorded.

Still, this was a guy whose case utterly transfixed America in the 1990s and utterly changed the media, giving rise to a generation of legal commentators and a new focus on celebrities and crime. Now he is going to prison for at least 9 years. That strikes me as pretty big news.

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Washington, D.C.: So what's the deal with Chris Matthews? Is he signing a new contract for Hardball as I read yesterday online? Or is he really leaning towards running for office in PA? Was the Senate rumor all a ploy for contract negotiations?

Howard Kurtz: The one thing I can tell you is that it wasn't a rumor. Matthews has consulted with Pennsylvania Democratic officials about a possible Senate run, including Gov. Ed Rendell and Arlen Specter's opponent last time, Joe Hoeffel, who told me about his conversations with Chris. It may be that Matthews will wind up signing a new deal with MSNBC, though the contract doesn't expire till June. But there is no question he has been seriously testing the waters for a Senate run.

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Maryland: Shepherd Park: "Why shouldn't Obama get more positive coverage if his policies and proposals were actually better than McCain's"

I am really getting tired of this canard that has been used extensively this year to "justify" the coverage levels of the candidates. First, "better" policies are in the eye of the beholder, aren't they? Secondly, if you want a real gut check on this assertion, let's go back to 1988, where Dukakis ran a terrible, nay execrable, campaign against Bush I. If this assertion has merit, then Bush should have gotten the more favorable coverage. But did he?

Howard Kurtz: I agree that "better" policies are in the eye of the beholder. And it is inevitable that, in hindsight, we always say the winner ran a better campaign. But that may involve public judgments on his character, his running mate, his party and what qualities voters feel are needed at the time, as well as the substance of his proposals. For instance, even if you strip everything else away, including the terrible state of the economy and the profound unpopularity of President Bush, it is unusual for voters to award one party a third consecutive term. That factor may have helped Kennedy in 1960, Nixon in 1968 and Bush in 2000 (but not Dukakis in 1988).

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Washington, D.C.: What happens to 1600 PA Ave., formerly Race for the White House now that Mr. Gregory is the new Meet the Press moderator? Is that a slot to be possibly filled by Chuck "Chuckie T" Todd?

Howard Kurtz: It's possible, or possible that Chuck Todd could anchor an MSNBC program at another hour. The 6 p.m. hour is a tough time slot for cable, up against local news and network news in many markets.

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Chicago, Ill.: As someone who makes Meet The Press his Sunday morning ritual and was a huge fan of Tim Russert's, I have to ask this: Who and where are the legions of David Gregory fans? You have quotes from his rivals and the insiders at NBC, but I have yet to read a single viewer who is excited about this decision. As a media guy, tell me -- are the ratings for his MSNBC show really that good?

Plus, I read that NBC gave him the MTP gig because they really want to give him the Today Show after Matt Lauer leaves and don't want to risk losing Gregory to GMA. So they gave him MTP as a placeholder for a future fluff job? Kind of a slap in the face to Russert, wouldn't you say?

And lastly, I don't care what people say about his hard questioning as a member of the WH press corps. If you were a reporter in that room during the run-up to the Iraq war, you are at least partly culpable for that mess. Unless, of course, your name is Helen Thomas.

Howard Kurtz: No one's suggesting that the public rose up in unison and demanded that NBC install David Gregory at "Meet the Press." But framing it that way is a little unfair. Was there a groundswell for Chris Wallace at "Fox News Sunday" or George Stephanopoulos at "This Week" when they were named? For that matter, most of the public was unfamiliar with Tim Russert when he took over "Meet" in 1991. It's only after these journalists are in a high-profile platform that they have the opportunity to develop a big following.

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Chicago, Ill.: Regarding media bias, in a race like Sen. Stevens vs Mark Begich, should the media treat them equally? If so how do you balance out Steven's trial? 50/50 coverage is a great idea but as Mark Halperin pointed out in 2004 that 'equally' accountable wasn't right when the facts don't warrant it. The media shouldn't provide equal coverage when the facts aren't there. McCain's campaign was a train wreck and having reporters say it wasn't only causes a further loss in media credibility.

Howard Kurtz: McCain's campaign had a lot of problems, which were hardly ignored by the media, but he was not, at last check, a convicted felon. It seemed to me that, among other things, McCain never settled on a consistent campaign theme, and never recovered, at least among Democrats and independents, from the choice of Sarah Palin. But he still managed to win 47 percent of the vote.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I am balancing the hiring of a "younger" journalist to host Meet the Press with today's article on the closing of "Boston Legal", which appealed well to people over age 50 which seems to not be the target audience of today's TV networks, to Gene Weingarten's article on being over age 50 and having younger bosses at the Post. I note my generation, the people around age 50, went from being too young to too old overnight. Our bosses stayed in their jobs longer than retirement ages of yesteryear, and now that they retire, we are losing promotions to younger people because they supposedly better identify with today's market. Yet, I wonder if David E. Kelly has some arguments: we have the spending power, we have the experience and institutional knowledge, yet people my age are being pushed aside. More an observation, but you might have some insights to add.

Howard Kurtz: In television, at least, everything is based on the coveted 25 to 54 demographic. The day you turn 55, you're irrelevant.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Kurtz: I'm a big fan of yours. As a moderate who often sees both sides of an issue, I think you take a terrifically balanced view of the media. Having said that, I now have a dumb question: what is a "news cycle"? I hear the term all the time but don't know what it represents. Is that a 24-hour period? Would you please clarify? Thanks so much.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. A news cycle used to be considered one day. Then there were two news cycles a day--morning (strongly influenced by newspapers) and evening (dominated by the network newscasts). Now, with things moving a hyper speed, no one is sure how long the cycle lasts. Six hours? Two hours? Twelve minutes? It's however long it takes for a story to take hold before the story changes again or the media move on to something else.

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Alexandria, Va.: I noticed that Ana Marie Cox is leaving Time blog Swampland, and her magazine Radar just went under.

Any chance MSNBC will give her a shot at a show? 6pm is open with Gregory leaving, and they still run reruns at 10 against live shows at CNN and FOX. I've enjoyed her appearances on Rachel Maddow's show, and think she would be a good fit.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure she'll be happy to take a call from anyone who wants to make her a TV star. In the meantime, I put her on my show yesterday.

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Sewickley, Pa: Okay. I'll step up for David Gregory. I thought all along he is the perfect choice for Meet the Press. He has experience as the White House correspondent and seems to have the command necessary for doing a credible job. The only other person I might have liked to see in the position is Gwen Ifill.

Howard Kurtz: Gregory, you need to place a call to Sewickley, Pa. and start building your base.

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Albany, N.Y.: Howard,

In many elections there is some screwball citizen out there who brings a lawsuit challenging the outcome as illegal. Why are the patently frivolous Obama lawsuits deserving of even one second of media time.

Howard Kurtz: They're not getting one second of my time. Oops, I guess I just violated that.

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Liberal Media: Howie, you are NOT going to start this again are you. The "liberal media" card was ruse is a ruse and always has been a ruse used by the republicans when they don't get their way. If the media is so liberal how did we end up with eight years of this dim wit in the White house?

Howard Kurtz: The media don't rule the world. By the way, my in-box is also stuffed with complaints from people who feel passionately that the media aren't liberal enough.

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Fawning coverage: "The guy starts on Sunday. Perhaps you should give him a week or so to prove himself? Gregory wasn't chosen BECAUSE he's 38. He was, in the judgment of NBC executives, the best available candidate."

Oh, it is ok to fawn all over David Gregory but not ok to judge him until he "proves himself"? Ahem. Maybe you could give Obama a bit of break here too, don't you think? You know, give him a chance to prove himself!

Howard Kurtz: I agree with that. I plan no critical columns about Obama until he's been in office at least a week.

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Washington, D.C.: Although I've known for some time that the newspaper business is in a heckuva lot of trouble, I was still surprised by the Tribune news. If they are forced to declare bankruptcy, what do you think will be the result? Will the Tribune and the Times fold? Who would buy the company at this point, considering that the current owner has only had the property for a year? Should we expect to see media organizations tumbling like the banks?

washingtonpost.com: Debt-Ridden Tribune Co. Considers Bankruptcy (Post, Dec. 8)

Howard Kurtz: Even in a business that seems battered by bad news, the Tribune news is stunning. I knew, of course, that Sam Zell had taken on a huge debt load to buy the company, but this is sobering stuff. Even if Tribune does declare bankruptcy, and even if Zell is forced to sell, I don't see the Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, Baltimore Sun and the company's TV stations going out of business. They could be hurt, of course, but Zell is already slashing staff and budgets at these media outlets.

But with the simultaneous news that McClatchy--which, as you'll recall, bought most of the Knight Ridder papers--is putting the Miami Herald up for sale, this is one grim time for people who love newspapers.

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Media Demographic: Why is 25-54 a demographic? 25 year olds don't necessarily watch what 35 year olds watch. And, at 52, I don't watch anything that my 25 yr. old nephew does.

Howard Kurtz: Ask the big advertisers. They're the ones who set it up. It's obviously a bit arbitrary. And people over 54, it seems to be, spend a heckuva lot of money in this country.

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"Running a better campaign": This is a legitimate question and I apologize if it sounds curt, Mr. Kurtz. But what is your definition of "running a better campaign"? President-elect Obama certainly ran a tighter ship than Senator McCain, just as President Bush did versus Gore and Kerry. It seems like the candidates that are able to shut out the press more gets an advantage, though I know journalists often wrote about Obama's insulation from the media. But it seems like if a campaign leaks more about in-fighting, then they are doing worse regardless of the strength of their ideas or their record (for the record, though, I did vote for Obama).

Howard Kurtz: There is more to a presidential campaign than how much access journalists get (and by the way, the captain of the Straight Talk Express almost completely shut out his traveling press corps in the final months, to a greater degree than Obama, once his team became convinced that the old policy of unfettered access was hurting McCain). There is, for example, the choice of a running mate. The three debates. And not changing your position on the financial crisis from the fundamentals of the economy are "sound" one day and calling for a 9/11-style commission the next and then "suspending" your campaign to dive into the bailout negotiations.

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Dallas, Texas: How's Morning Joe doing in the ratings? Steadily increasing or maintaining the same audience? I personally love Morning Joe -- I think it's smart and goes much more in-depth than any other show.

Howard Kurtz: The audience has been steadily increasing and is now significantly larger than the Imus show it replaced on MSNBC.

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Cameron, N.C.: I'm 59 and I don't watch any network TV other than sports. I find network prime time to be littered with prurient garbage. So if they want to cater to under 55 viewers, let them. I enjoy watching PBS & non network TV and support those advertisers.

Howard Kurtz: No wonder the big advertisers don't bother with you.

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Portland, Ore.: I was reminded by my employer today that it is time for our annual diversity training; perhaps I can get the NBC News brass to join me. Amazing that we can elect an African-American president, have three women secretaries of state, yet television news still seems as un-diverse an industry as there is. Yes, David Gregory is younger at 38, but he is white, male and, with his premature gray, looks middle-aged. What is the rationale for TV being so conservative and resistant to putting a different type of face on a Sunday talk show? Gwen Ifill would have been a terrific choice with better chops than Gregory.

Howard Kurtz: It's too bad that all the Sunday hosts are white men. There hasn't been a woman in one of those chairs since Cokie Roberts, and she was a co-host at "This Week." But I don't think it's fair to blame only NBC for that state of affairs. Besides, the network deserves credit for giving a cable show to Rachel Maddow, who is the first openly acknowledged lesbian to head a news show in prime time.

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Role of Ombudsmen: I would like to know if you believe that newspaper ombudsmen actually have a lasting effect on how newspaper report the news after receiving criticism (e.g. the NYT article on Angie Jolie's contract with People magazine). I get the impression that most of the time, the reporters and editors just dig their heels in, but I'm sure you have a better feeling about this. Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I think the role of ombudsmen has been crucial in holding newspapers accountable and forcing editors and reporters to think hard about what they do and to defend it in public. You can see this at the New York Times, which refused to have any kind of ombudsman until the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003. Unfortunately, given the industry's financial woes, the trend is in the other direction and a number of newspapers are abolishing the position.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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