Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 15, 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, Dec. 15, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments.

A transcript follows

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Ocala, Fla.: Can we expect American journalists to follow the lead of their Iraqi colleague and get tougher with the president?

Howard Kurtz: I knew it! I was telling people yesterday, just wait, some folks will say this is how American reporters should have been treating the president.

Perhaps you're being sarcastic. Television has had a grand time replaying the footage, and I suppose it's humorous, and Bush handled it well. But it still makes me uneasy. What if the shoes had been laced with something dangerous? I find it fairly amazing that this guy could get so close as to hurl something hard at the president.

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Columbia, Md.: Howard, I no longer believe that the 'Media' has a duty or responsibility for anything -- it is my responsibility to get the facts -- but isn't anyone going to expose this canard about 3.5M jobs being lost if the Big Three file for bankruptcy? There is NO REASON to believe this information but I read and hear that in every report about the bailout money requested by the car makers. Do reporters feel ANY responsibility for verifying talking points? What is your take?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't seen that particular figure and don't know where you got it from. But there's little question that hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost, given the network of suppliers, finance companies and the like that depend on GM, Ford and Chrysler. That doesn't mean there should be a government bailout. But the intensity of the argument over this $14 billion -- a mere rounding error compared to the vast sums given to the likes of AIG -- is really striking.

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Minneapolis, MN: Dumb question -- in your column this a.m., you talk about how the Wash Times broke an embargo given by the Catholic Church. What happens when a news organization does that? Will places like the church leave the Wash Times off its next big announcement? Is there a "warning" system? Why do news organizations agree to embargoes? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Jumping the Gun (Post, Dec. 15)

Howard Kurtz: Usually, nothing happens. I've written some version of this story again and again. The organization in question vows to be more wary in dealing with the offending news outlet but little changes. I wonder, though, whether folks will give up on the idea of embargoes and just put stuff out. The idea is that on more complicated stories, it benefits everyone if journalists can take time to research and digest the facts rather than slapping something online for competitive reasons. But maybe it's no longer feasible in a digital world.

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Medord, Ore.: Good morning, Mr Kurtz. May I inquire as to why you apparently felt compelled to belittle Iraqi reporter Muntather Zaidi by referring to him as a "reporter" (ironic quotation marks yours)? I read carefully that section for context and saw no justification offered for that demeaning and belittling use of pejorative quotation marks. I don't know what he did to earn your ridicule -- especially when you actually refer to people like Blanquita Cullum and Jane Hamsher as journalists without the dripping sarcasm. I am genuinely curious. Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Jumping the Gun (Post, Dec. 15)

Howard Kurtz: I happen to have a master's degree in journalism, and in my studies, I have never encountered our professional duties being defined as including throwing shoes at public officials. Someone who does that is not, in my humble view, as "reporter."

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Alexandria, Va.: Howard,

MSNBC is now getting tagged as liberal, but it has more hours of solid right wing hosting (3 for Morning Joe) to solid left wing hosting (2 for Keith and Rachel).

Has MSNBC considered expanding the hours given to liberals to at least equal that given to conservatives? If not, I don't see how it can be tagged as "liberal."

Howard Kurtz: Well, you're off on several fronts here.

First, Joe Scarborough, while unquestionably a former Republican congressman, is no knee-jerk right-winger, and has criticized the GOP constantly and, at times, harshly over the past two years.

Second, since the Olbermann and Maddow shows are both replayed, they amount to four hours of airtime.

Third, they are preceded by Chris Matthews (who is also replayed), and while Chris is no knee-jerk liberal, he is, at the moment, exploring a run for Senate in Pennsylvania, as a Democrat.

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Weston, Fla.: Hi,

Re: Madoff financial scandal: As a Jew I take offense that many articles in the mainstream media keep mentioning Madoff being Jewish and his ties to things Jewish.

I don't recall the articles about Enron or even the current Gov of Illinois mentioning their Christianity.

washingtonpost.com: Alleged Madoff fraud has worldwide exposure (AP, Dec. 15)

Howard Kurtz: I'm not offended. Madoff was a major figure in Jewish philanthropy circles and many of his wealthiest and most prominent investors were Jewish. It's simply a fact, not one that reflects badly on anyone but the perpetrator of this $50-billion fraud.

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Avon Park, Fla.: This is nothing against David Gregory, but I think that NBC should have given the Meet the Press job to a non-white male. Gwen Ifill and Andrea Mitchell are just as qualified as he is. Why wasn't there more consideration in that direction and why haven't more people pointed out the fact that you're having another white male in that position?

Howard Kurtz: This was certainly discussed while NBC was weighing the decision. And you can certainly argue that someone else would have been better. But to decide in advance that David Gregory shouldn't get the job BECAUSE he is, undeniably, a white male, to me reeks of reverse discrimination.

By the way, he got off to a good start yesterday, but crammed in more guests than Russert ever did. He had the attorney general and lieutenant governor of Illinois but let them go after a few minutes so he could bring on a panel with Chuck Todd. I don't know if this means the show will be moving to a faster format with more guests and away from the 20- and 30-minute interrogations that were Russert's signature.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think that the majority of daily newspapers will survive this economic recession or will more than 50 percent fail? Right now my bet with a friend is that about 50 percent will cancel one or more printing days, but he is swearing that 50 percent will be Internet-only or shuttered by 2010.

Howard Kurtz: I think some newspapers will not survive, or will reinvent themselves as Web sites, but I can't imagine it will be anything close to 50 percent. I hope I'm right.

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Job Losses: Howie, you might want to tune in to a replay of Sunday's Meet the Press. The governor of Michigan repeatedly stated that the failure of the Big Three would result in the loss of three million jobs.

washingtonpost.com: Meet the Press (MSNBC)

Howard Kurtz: Okay, well, the governor of Michigan is desperately seeking federal aid for her state's biggest industry, and it's hardly surprising that she would make the most dramatic case. That doesn't mean the figure has been adopted by the mainstream media.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: The Tribune Company has recently filed for bankruptcy protection. In your opinion, has that signaled a panic in the media that many large cities could soon be without a daily newspaper?

Howard Kurtz: I think the concern was there all along. But Tribune is a special case. Sam Zell, the Chicago real estate magnate, bought the company one year ago under a deal in which he risked little of his own money but loaded down the enterprise with $13 billion in debt. That is a staggering burden, even if the economy was faring well, which it is not. Zell talks about the downturn in newspaper ad revenue amounting to a perfect storm. But as Lynn Sweet put it on my show yesterday, it might be a perfect storm, but Zell knew it was raining when he bought the company.

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Arlington, Va.: I am not going to complain about the Post raising its price to 75 cents but I don't recall any notice being given. Usually there is a box about the rate rise on the front page for a few days before the actual increase. I can't even recall any announcement when the Thanksgiving Day paper was hiked to $1.50.

Howard Kurtz: I was surprised there was no front-page box either. But I'd argue it's still a bargain even at 75 cents. The Post has long been among the cheapest of the major daily newspapers. It was 25 cents, and then 35 cents, long after most big papers had hiked their prices.

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New York: Howard, shouldn't Chris Matthews take a leave of absence until he decides whether to run for the Senate? If he decides no and returns to the network, he should assure his employers that's the end of his political ambitions. If he still harbors such ambitions, he should find another line of work. While no one should expect him to be impartial, as long as he holds out hope for a political career, the network could be seen as a means of flacking for him. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I wrote about the Matthews situation 10 days ago. At the very least it presents a perception problem for MSNBC. The network dismissed the story as based on rumor, but that's a dodge. Matthews is actively exploring a Senate run and has consulted with Ed Rendell and some of Pennsylvania's top Democratic politicians, one of whom I quoted in my story. It would be best for everyone involved if Chris makes up his mind quickly.

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Laurel, Md.: Howard, to your knowledge, has anyone written a book similar to your "Fortune Tellers" about the housing bubble? In hindsight, it seems obvious that the praise given to some lenders for adopting flexible lending standards that helped more people qualify for mortgages played some role in deprecating loan quality. But I haven't seen much self-examination in the press about this.

Howard Kurtz: Not to my knowledge. Perhaps there has been a good academic book about the boom and bust in the housing market, but none that examines the role of the media and Wall Street during the roller-coaster ride that was fueled, we now know, by a staggering failure of federal regulation.

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New York, N.Y. : Meet the Press has got to be kidding. What the devil is this Farina woman doing out in public? She's a poster child for greedy failed CEOs, and up she pops again. Apparently, once you get on the panel list, you have to commit a major felony to get off it.

Howard Kurtz: That would be Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. And the former economic adviser to the McCain campaign, until she was disappeared for making politically dumb statements.

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Washington, D.C.: Even if the car manufacturers get a bailout, what would prevent other rust-belt industries from coming to Capitol Hill to plead for their companies? For example, why wouldn't the steel, mining, agricultural firms, retailers, etc., ask for bailout money, too, if their companies went belly-up and the workers became unemployed?

Howard Kurtz: Nothing. That is one of the arguments against the bailout: that if you expand the aid beyond the financial sector, everyone and his brother will have the tin cup out.

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A bargain at 75 cents?: Mr. Kurtz, I have to respectfully disagree about the print edition of the Washington Post being a bargain at 75 cents. Given that there is a free version of the paper available on the Internet, and a smaller print version is also given away for free, it is not a bargain. The free versions are the bargains. Personally, I don't think that charging for what I get for free is a viable business model over the long term, but I don't run the Post's parent corporation.

Howard Kurtz: Well, what if there was no Post Web site? Would a newspaper of this size and quality be worth 75 cents? Of course it would. But we and everyone else have to play online, even though, at the moment, that is eroding if not destroying the traditional business model for print publications.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you elaborate on your mention this morning of the Wash Times breaking the news embargo on the recent Vatican document? The USCCB spokesperson sounds like she thought she made herself clear, while John Solomon's response made it sound like she didn't fully explain the terms.

washingtonpost.com: Jumping the Gun (Post, Dec. 15)

Howard Kurtz: Solomon, the Times editor-in-chief, says the paper didn't check carefully enough with the church about the terms of the embargo. The spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told me that she explained the embargo details to Times staffers.

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Kettering, Ohio: I agree with your assessment of David Gregory. And I can well understand how Ifill and Mitchell didn't make the cut: the former lacks gravitas for this most important position of positions at NBC (although she will make a great pinch-hitter)and Mitchell is too partisan. Andrea could not get the guests on the show like Gregory will. Her performance in the run-up to the election probably shot her chances. She should stick to MSNBC, since they have decided to make that network a liberal showpiece.

Howard Kurtz: I disagree with your assessment. Either Ifill or Mitchell would have made a fine MTP moderator. In television, though, the viewers get to decide who they like and dislike, whether it's Sunday morning hosts, cable commentators or Brian, Charlie and Katie.

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Arlington, Va.: Then shouldn't Mike Huckabee also take a leave of absence?

Howard Kurtz: Huckabee should take a leave of absence because he may run for president in 2012? Since that campaign won't get under way for a couple of years, I'd be willing to give him a pass for his Fox work for now. Plus, Huckabee has a weekly show, while Matthews is not only a nightly host but a mainstay of MSNBC's political coverage.

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Tina: I am very glad to see Tina Brown back in circulation (pun intended). She has an eclectic mind and a good sense of humor. Right now she's got a few hacks on board but I suspect she will invite many new people and the Buckley types (yes, I know Washington loves him) will recede. I suspect she may benefit from the people who initially enjoyed Huffington Post but got exasperated when it turned into a bulletin board for Obama's fans. I know I used to read it regularly but got burnt out with all the cheerleading.

washingtonpost.com: Tina Reinvents the Web (Post, Dec. 15)

Howard Kurtz: Tina is a smart editor, no question about it. And there's no question that Arianna's Post has evolved into an unabashedly liberal corner of the Net. That, of course, helps drive traffic. Brown tells me she is determined not to have the Daily Beast lean left or right, and it remains to be seen whether she can find a mass audience for a site that is not driven by ideology.

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Washington, D.C.: Re the Post having to "play online." Seriously, I have never understood this argument. The Post, Times, etc., for reasons I cannot fathom, decided to put all their content online before figuring out how to make it pay. What if the Post had taken the position, look we are not going to give our product away for free to people in Texas, Tashkent and Tegucigalpa? How would that have hurt the paper's reputation or business model?

Howard Kurtz: You know, others have tried this. Slate charged for awhile and gave up. Salon charged for awhile and gave up. The NYT charged for access to its columnists and gave up. The ethos of the Net is that everything should be free, even though free doesn't support the kind of sizable reporting and editing staffs that newspapers need. I suspect many Post readers would be willing to pay 10 or 20 bucks a year to get all the content online, but I doubt enough of them would to offset the loss of ad revenue caused by the reduced traffic.

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Fairfax, Va.: While looking for some info on the City of Chicago's Web site, I came across the follow headline:

Chicago to host 30th Annual Governmental Ethics Conference

Too precious.

washingtonpost.com: City of Chicago

Howard Kurtz: D'oh!

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Last word on the "shoe" incident: If it were an Iraqi politician who threw the shoe, I could understand; that's not saying I condone it, just that I could understand how, in an environment where politicans throw things (including punches), it could happen. However, a journalist, regardless of where they are from, should have a higher, impartial standard in which they cover the news, even if they represent a news organization with a political "bent"; they should not be making or even be part of the news they're covering.

Howard Kurtz: Well said.

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Falls Church, Va.: You presumably saw that the WSJ is reporting that Fitzgerald's investigation of Blagojevich was tanked and forced into early action by the Chicago Tribune's decision to publicize the wiretaps on the governor's phone. Obviously, the decision to publish was legal, and presumably there's no ethical barrier to compromising a criminal investigation. But do reporters ever feel 'personal' qualms about the potential harm from their reporting in situations like these?

Howard Kurtz: Well, no less a figure than Patrick Fitzgerald thanked the Tribune for holding its story, at his request, for eight weeks. I'm not clear why the Trib, having sat on the story, decided to publish it on Dec. 5. Maybe it resulted from conversations with Fitzgerald's office. But it does seem to have caused an early end to the probe, and the Tribune has a responsibility to explain its decision.

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Throwing Shoes: Throwing one's shoe is not something we are familiar with in this country or society, Howie, but it is something Iraqis are very aware of and this act was done as a form of "freedom of speech." The fact that it came from a journalist or "reporter" as you say, doesn't take away from this guy being a professional correspondent as he is. Just because you don't agree with his form of speech it is his custom and you cannot judge whether he is a journalist or not.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, I can. If an Iraqi citizen had done this, fine. But someone who claims to be a journalist? Imagine what the reaction would be if some disgruntled American reporter threw a pair of shoes at President Obama.

I might be more sympathetic had this guy simply tossed the shoes, as a way of making his symbolic statement. But those shoes were hurled pretty hard.

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Montana: This fellow Madoff has apparently given tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and causes, including $100,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Committee and donations to Rangel, Schumer, Lautenberg, etc. This has been barely mentioned in the press, but shouldn't it be covered more extensively? Would it be if he had given that kind of money to GOP candidates and causes?

Howard Kurtz: It should be mentioned. But there's no suggestion, as far as I know, that politicians did anything to help his company or that he sought any favors, which would make it more relevant. Maybe there's more to learn on that front.

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75-cent Post: Yes, but aside from the lack of notice, many single-copy buyers get a copy at the Metro station boxes. (I also get home delivery for my wife.) I now have to make sure I have 75 cents IN CHANGE each and every day to read the Post. It's not the cost, but the amount of change I have to carry around with me in a now mostly cashless society.

Howard Kurtz: I agree it's a hassle. I feel the same way about the soda machines here in the office, which just went from $1.25 to $1.35. (See? Even a diet Coke is more expensive than The Washington Post.) I'm surprised that snack machines didn't long ago convert to accepting credit cards.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Re: the value of the paper WaPo: I would much rather have my copy of the paper at 75 cents (or whatever the daily out-of-town subscription rate is) than a daily overpriced cuppa joe at $2-$5. Reading the Post on-line is nice, but it's a hassle to try to read it completely. I'd rather turn a paper page and click-click-search again for the story-click-click. Too much good news gets missed if you're just reading on-line.

And speaking of joe, I love Morning Joe! I agree with you completely on the show. I'm a sorta liberal Democrat, but I like the humor and balance and intelligence they have in presenting top stories. It's displaced the Today Show.

Howard Kurtz: All right! Post 1, overpriced coffee 0.

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Newspapers losing money: I understand that the Web is offering more challenges for the newspaper industry, but I don't understand why there isn't an effort to simply improve the existing revenue stream in the form of advertising. As I write this I see an add for a movie theater with an IMAX screen. While smaller publications may not be able to increase their asking price for these ads, established entities such as the N.Y. Times and the Post should be able to ask for such increases (thereby increasing the market for advertising). This may not be the best time to increase the asking price, but why are these banner ads that I see so often so cheap?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not an expert on Web finance, but as in any other realm, you charge whatever the market will bear. If lots of comparable Web sites are charging X cents per 1,000 page views, you can't unilaterally decide to charge double or triple that.

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New York : If a few Chicago pols had 'paid to play' and gotten embroiled in the Blago scandal, wouldn't Fitz himself been criticized for holding off too long? I thought that Blago forced his hand by expanding the story from illegal fundraising, through shaking down the Trib, and then to auctioning off the senate seat. With the gov this out of control, Fitz probably thought he was going to get criticized if he let it go on.

Howard Kurtz: Fitzgerald seemed to imply that he had to act before Blagojevich did something irrevocable, such as appointing a senator, possibly as part of a corrupt deal. From a legal point of view, he would have been better off waiting until the deal was done, but prosecutors don't always have that luxury.

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Texas: Mr. Kurtz, During Obama's run we saw the effectiveness of small campaign donations to increase the strength of his argument. When I go to Wikipedia there is a fundraising request at the top of the page. When is the Washington Post going to ask for a voluntary commitment from those of us who read online? I would sign up for some kind of small online donation monthly to support what I believe to be the best source for news, discussion, and opinion.

Howard Kurtz: You know, that's an interesting suggestion. If nothing else, it would be a nice vote of confidence.

Memo to management: It will now cost 5 cents to ask a question during my chats. Please arrange a weekly direct-deposit to my bank account.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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