Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 13, 2009; 11:00 AM

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."

Today's Column: 43's Strange Farewell (Post, Jan. 13)

He was online Tuesday, Jan. 13, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments.

A transcript follows

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Columbia, Md.: In Monday's blog, you mention the debate about adding more minority voices to the White House Press Corps. It's clear in your piece that minority equals non-white. However, nowhere does anyone mention the lack of women's voices (of any color). Minority should mean minorities of any kind -- race, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc. The fact is, most reporting is done by white, middle-aged men. When talking about minority representation, people should not just focus on race.

washingtonpost.com: A Pale Reflection of America (Post, Jan. 12)

Howard Kurtz: I agree. But gender is not a problem in the White House press corps. In recent years, Martha Raddatz, Claire Shipman, Suzanne Malveaux, Ann Compton, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Julie Mason and many others have covered the president. The imbalance is much starker when it comes to race.

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Winnipeg, Canada: What do you think of President Bush refusing to take a question from Helen Thomas at his last press conference?

Howard Kurtz: He's the president(for another week, that is). He can call on whoever he wants.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Howard:

Good stuff as always. But I have a simple media-related question: why is anything "Joe The Plumber" says given consideration by any serious journalist's time? The man has no journalistic track record of any shape or form. Yet he is given room in your column (and others around the country) to wax poetic on war coverage and the media in general.

Why?

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't say he is allowed to wax poetic; today's item featured sharp criticism for his absurd attack in declaring that journalists should not be allowed to cover wars. Joe has become one of those famous-for-being-famous figures because of the way John McCain touted him as emblematic of working-class America; now he's trying to stretch his 15 minutes into other gigs. I was willing to allow the possibility that he might be an interesting citizen voice (just as many bloggers I read are, quote, ordinary people). But his tirade about the press was simply ludicrous.

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Boston, Mass.: Hi Howard,

I notice more and more stories quoting from the Washington Times. I have never even seen that paper, but always thought of it as sort of a right wing rant rather than a legit newspaper. Opinion based on nothing, but just curious as to your opinion on it.

Howard Kurtz: The Washington Times has always been a legitimate newspaper, but it's gained in respectability since my former Post colleague John Solomon took over as executive editor. In past campaigns, I found the paper's coverage blatantly tilted toward the Republicans; in 2008, while I found things to criticize, I also saw an effort to be fair.

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Anderson, S.C.: You mentioned during your coverage of Sarah Palin and how the media covers Caroline Kennedy that Palin wanted to be vice president and Kennedy wishes to be one of a body of 100 lawmakers.

However, I haven't seen anyone make the point that in the case of Palin -- who sought the second highest office in the land -- that the voters had the final say on whether she would obtain it.

The voter has NO say on who will replace Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate. That choice is up to one man.

Doesn't that warrant strong press scrutiny and, for lack of a better word, "vetting."

Howard Kurtz: Caroline Kennedy should get sharp press scrutiny, just as Palin did, and the New York media in particular has been pretty rough on her. She has, you know, been portrayed as a strikingly inarticulate woman who didn't even, you know, vote in several elections.

The whole system, in a majority of states, of having governors fill Senate vacancies is a terrible throwback to an earlier era, and fundamentally undemocratic. We saw what happened with Blagojevich. Press coverage may be only a minor factor in David Paterson's decision, but in the end, it's his decision. New York voters won't get a crack at the appointee until 2010.

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D.C.: Oh my goodness, The PI! What is going to happen to our papers if they keep going under? We have problems all over the country, from the Detroit papers cutting back on delivery to this mess in Seattle. What is the future of print journalism? (Please tell me it's not running Obama on every cover to boost sales!)

Howard Kurtz: The newspaper business is hurting right now. Seattle is one of the few remaining two-newspaper cities, and even if the Post-Intelligencer is folded, it will still have the Seattle Times. But that prospect is yet another sign of the dire straits facing the industry.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Do you think that Keith Olbermann's show would have even higher ratings if he had on people who disagree with him? Say what you will about Bill O'Reilly, but he always have on people who disagree with him, and look at his ratings.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what the impact on ratings would be; Olbermann's huge jump in ratings would suggest that some viewers like seeing a host and guests who agree with their point of view. I have said and written several times that "Countdown" would be more interesting if Olbermann had at least some guests from the conservative side. But the trend seems to be in the other direction. Last night was the debut of Hannity Without Colmes, leading off with a segment featuring Hannity and Newt Gingrich. In the second half was a panel consisting of one conservative, one liberal (Al Sharpton) and one strange guest (Meat Loaf).

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washingtonpost.com: Meet Joe The Reporter

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Columbia, Md.: It seems like every time I watch the news or read a newspaper, including The Washington Post, there is much more emphasis on civilian casualties among Palestinians and rarely a mention of the civilian casualties among Israelis. I don't think I have yet to see a story on the toll on Israeli civilians on the front page of The Post, yet day after day are huge pictures of civilians in Gaza.

It seems there is a bias among the press in general and The Washington Post specifically in favor Hamas and against Israel? Would you agree?

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree. I think the American media coverage (hampered by Israel's continued ban on foreign journalists in Gaza) has made clear that Israel attacked Gaza because of years of rocket attacks from Hamas. At the moment, there are far more Palestinian casualties (about 900 at last count) than Israeli casualties, so that is drawing a lot of media attention. I also think most stories have made clear that while many Gaza civilians are being killed in the fighting, Hamas has adopted a strategy of hiding in neighborhoods and storing weapons in places like mosques.

I would fault the media in one respect. The Hamas rocket attacks received little coverage over the years because they were small-scale and killed few people at any given time. When Israel responds with a large-scale military offensive, that naturally gets huge coverage, but it also means the earlier, relentless attacks on Israel were greatly overshadowed.

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York, Pa.: Mr Kurtz, I was rather disappointed when I saw you on "Reliable Sources" today. In referring to the upcoming Marvel Comics Spiderman issue that has President-elect Obama as a featured storyline, you stated that this was evidence of the media being in the tank for Obama, since he's portrayed as a superhero. I knew right away that you had not done your homework, because if you had, you'd know that Obama is not a superhero in the Spiderman comic book is SAVED by Spiderman from being taken out by a clone. Please try and be a more "reliable source" next time.

Howard Kurtz: You're serious?

Really?

I was being tongue-in-cheek in accusing Spider-Man comics of being in the tank for Obama. I'm a Marvel fan from way back. Why shouldn't Spidey capitalize on the inauguration like everyone else?

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New York : I don't understand the hysteria of right wingers with Olberman, or that of liberals with Coulter or O'Reilly, or whoever; these people are there to entertain. They are not journalists, and they have no obligation to be factual, but to get ratings, or sales. If you take anything that people like this say at face value, without checking it with reputable sources, you're as dumb as they think you are. Meanwhile, real papers are crashing. Why are we wasting time talking about clowns?

Howard Kurtz: But they do have an obligation to be factual. And most of them are quite smart. They can also be relentlessly ideological. And that, for the moment, seems to be what sells on cable. Fox and MSNBC are increasingly unapologetic about that.

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Deflation land: The LAT is raising its price. Now? Can that possibly not backfire?

Howard Kurtz: Newspapers usually take a hit in circulation when they raise the price. But many papers are in dire straits and need the revenue. The L.A. Times, you may recall, is owned by Tribune, which is, at the moment, bankrupt. But I'm of the view that newspapers have been ridiculously low-priced. A smorgasbord of news, sports, business, arts, photos and advertisements, freshly produced every day, for 50 or 75 cents? Far less than the cost of a Starbucks latte? Newspapers, in my view, are a bargain.

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Washington, D.C.: I recently read (on the Internet, of course) that the New York Times Web site averaged (during the election) about 20 million "hits" each day, compared to its almost 1 million daily circulation of its dead-trees version. Let's assume these figures are fairly accurate, and that other national papers have about the same ratio of Web hits to paid circulation. Can you please explain to me why, with these figures, a newspaper would continue publishing a print version? Is the latter the only viable source of revenues (from ads, I assume)?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, you answered your own question. Print advertising has, until recently, supported sizable newspaper staffs; online ads, for now, produce only a fraction of the revenue. But keep in mind that each "hit" online may be someone spending only two minutes on the site, often coming to a specific story through a link on another Web site and not sticking around the look at anything else. There's no guarantee that people who buy the paper look at every page, but it's fair to assume they flip through the sections to see what's inside.

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Follow-up on JTP: You said: "I was willing to allow the possibility that he might be an interesting citizen voice (just as many bloggers I read are, quote, ordinary people). "

Howard, I love your column but I have to take issue with this comment. JTP was in the limelight during the campaign during the last month -- what did he ever say that would lead someone to believe he had any particularly sharp insight into the "common man's" thoughts? That a vote for Obama would be "the death of Israel"?

IMO JTP makes Jeff Gannon's work for Talon News look objective.

Howard Kurtz: Was just trying to keep an open mind. Joe has said some incredibly dumb things.

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RE: Columbia, Md.: Women as minorities: I'm going to offer my two cents, I am a black woman. Often in the discussion of women as minorities, what is left unstated is that the woman is white. I don't want to start "Woe is me" contest, but in my experience, when I walk into to room full of professional people, (white) women are usually present. It is not uncommon for me to be the only non-white in the room, however, I am seldom the only woman.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the comment.

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Olbermann and Hannity: Even 'This Week with George Stephanopoulos' is getting into the ideology act? Did you see the roundtable on Sunday? Right-wingers George Will, Peggy Noonan, and Newt Gingrich. They were balanced by pro-war free-trader Tom Friedman. Good thing Democrats control all three branches of government huh?

Howard Kurtz: I did not see the whole show, but keep in mind that a major chunk of it was devoted to an interview with Barack Obama, Democrat.

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Ellicott City, Md.: In regards to diversity in the White House Press Corps, how about a closer look at the lack of ideological diversity? Will we ever have a day where the balance among liberal and conservative journalists is more along the lines of what the general public is at large instead of the heavy tilt to the left we currently have?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know why you assume that White House correspondents (as opposed to columnists and commentators) lean to the left. Is it because they have been rough on President Bush in recent years (in contrast to the more placid approach in the run-up to the war)? I would remind you that it was the MSM that hammered Bill Clinton throughout his presidency over a wide range of scandals, from Whitewater to Lincoln Bedroom fundraising, from Paula Jones to Monica Lewinsky. That was not exactly a left-wing conspiracy in action.

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West Windsor, N.J.: Part of the attractiveness of the printed Daily Miracle is coming across the gem of a story you had no idea you wanted to read or would read. But it's so interesting you don't stop until you reach the end. Sort of like Forest Gump's box of chocolates. How can that spontaneous discovery -- for lack of a better term -- be replicated in news presentation on the Internet?

Howard Kurtz: By and large it can't, which is why I like holding a newspaper in my hands. I read the NYT, WSJ and USA Today online in the morning, for example, but still take them home at night and find stories I had missed online.

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Princeton, N.J.: Why don't papers charge for their online editions? I read the New York Times and The Post every day online and would be delighted to pay something. I paid the Times when it was possible. Al least have a button where we could voluntarily donate. I would give you at least $10 a month and more when the economy improves.

Howard Kurtz: This seems to come up every week now. I think it's a great idea to at least accept voluntary contributions from readers who appreciate their Web work. But the papers don't seem inclined to do that.

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Factual ideology: It is really easy to look up some of Republican Joe Scarborough's recent gaffe's (e.g. his fact-free rants about Al Franken "stealing" an election, or his fascination that Obama and Blagojevich have some sort of close relationship). I don't MSNBC's embrace of ideology is going as smooth as you think.

Howard Kurtz: "Morning Joe" (a show I like) is the only MSNBC program hosted by a conservative, albeit one who spent plenty of time criticizing his Republican Party over the last two years. Tucker Carlson has been banished. The evening programming is handled by Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, who just got finished exploring running for the Senate from Pennsylvania as a Democrat.

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Baltimore, Md.: Re papers raising their price: I agree that daily newspapers are a great bargain. But many of them (not the Post) are raising their price while reducing their product. The Baltimore Sun, part of the crumbling Tribune empire, went to 75 cents and has done nothing since then but make ridiculous economic moves. My favorite? Moving the Sunday comics into the TV section, so you need an electron microscope to scan the panels. Molly Ivins said it best: newspapers are the only industry that reacts to economic stress by making its product less useful.

Howard Kurtz: The combination of raising prices while cutting the product is not an attractive one. But some papers are running out of options.

Speaking of the Tribune Co., the Chicago Trib just announced that it is switching to a tabloid format for newsstand sales. I don't see how that is going to help.

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Tolland, Conn.: Hi Howard --

A general question, as we change administrations and media readjusts to new circumstances. How much deference do you think the media owes the president and congressmen? I have heard that as citizens we should respect the office, therefore should not be rude or confrontational. On the other hand, these guys aren't kings or clerics, they are regular folks we elected to do a job, and I am not sure why being "deferential" is helpful. I have a sense that presidents, senators, etc., get a highly inflated sense of self-importance, and it might be in the national interest to occasionally deflate that a bit...

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree with deferential. I also don't agree with rude. In my view, journalists should be skeptical and aggressive toward all politicians of whatever party. That's our job. A president in particular has a pretty big megaphone; we need to act as a check against White House spin and propaganda.

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Game Over !: Dude: Newspapers are nonsustainable. They waste energy and other vital resources and they leave your hands all smudgy with ink. Newspapers are going the way of the doodoo so thank God you still got the gig on cable.

Howard Kurtz: I assume you mean dodo. Dude.

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A bargain at 50 cents: I agree with you that the street price for print newspaper is quite low for the value, but the price for Internet news is even cheaper -- and rather than being locked into the views of one newspaper, you can get an almost endless number of viewpoints (or biases, if you prefer). I have to admit that I vastly prefer getting my news via the Google news page, which allows me to read a wide variety of newspapers' takes on a subject rather just reading WaPo's or the WSJ's.

Howard Kurtz: And where do you think all the news on Google comes from? Google does not employ a single journalist; it is simply an aggregator of content from news organizations. I too love the Internet and the instant availability of a zillion publications and viewpoints. But that information can't be free forever if the journalists who produce it are to earn a living.

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Washington, D.C.: The Chicago Tribune is becoming a tabloid? Didn't you just write about how they backed off their redesign because the public was so thoroughly disgusted by all the big pictures and bright colors. Not sure how this will help. But isn't the Sun Times a tabloid? Are they sharing printing facilities?

Howard Kurtz: The Trib is modifying its redesign but ardently defending it. Now it will be putting out a separately sized paper for newsstands. Yes, the Sun-Times is already a tabloid, which makes me wonder if this will make the Tribune less distinctive. And no, they won't be sharing printing facilities.

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Fairfax, Va.: Is it possible that the newspaper market is simply over-saturated and once more regional papers like the P.I. and the Detroit papers go under, it will allow the big names like the New York Times, USA Today, WSJ, and hopefully The Washington Post to pierce new markets with less competition?

Howard Kurtz: It will probably help the big papers, but what a void there would be. If you live in Kansas City or Detroit or Orlando, you want news about your mayor, council, schools, hospitals, businesses and sports teams. No national paper could fill that gap.

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Paying for online content: I agree that I wouldn't mind paying for magazines and newspapers I read online. But I seriously don't want the paper clutter of the dead tree editions coming to my house. And I'm not the only person I know my age (late 20s) who feels that way. But we aren't really given an option to do anything else.

Howard Kurtz: I really should pass these sentiments on to the Post power brokers.

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New York, N.Y.: You say that Morning Joe is only MSNBC show hosted by a conservative, but neglect to mention that it is three hours long. Even so, Fox News has zero shows hosted by liberals and yet you harp on MSNBC's leftward tilt far more than Fox's rightward slant.

Howard Kurtz: No, I point out both of them. The MSNBC move, however, is more recent. By the way, Scarborough has a co-host, Mika Brzezinski, who is certainly to his left. And the three hours are filled with guests from both parties and both sides of the media spectrum, from Peggy Noonan to Gene Robinson.

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Banished!: Tucker Carlson was not "banished." He had poor ratings and his show was canned. That is called the free market working. Ask a right winger like Tucker Carlson about how the free market works sometime. In fact, some would look at Carlson's long-term history of anemic ratings (or Glen Beck's) and use it make the argument that right wingers are given way more of chance to succeed than a liberal ever has (see Donahue, Phil).

Howard Kurtz: Why could Tucker, a smart guy, not have continued as a contributor and commentator? MSNBC just didn't have much appetite for his services.

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Ellicott City, Md.: Howie,

When is CNN going to give you the respect you deserve and film your show in High Definition? I'm tired of watching you be demeaned by being stuck in standard definition while others get the glory of high definition!

Howard Kurtz: HD magnifies all your flaws. Trust me, I'm in no rush.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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