Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 21, 2009; 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 Wednesday, Jan. 21, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the inauguration.

A transcript follows

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


Washington, D.C.: I did not watch MSNBC's coverage of the Inauguration Day events, but based on your column today about Chris Matthews' commentary, how could anybody expect MSNBC to approach its coverage of the Obama administration with any objectivity, candor or journalistic integrity? Mathews came off as a fawning sycophant, as awestruck as a 12-year-old Jonas Brothers fan in the presence of her idols. I am actually embarrassed for the network. Is this what we have to expect for the next four years? In that case, it's definitely a good thing that we have conservative-leaning Fox News for balance. Pageantry and Poignancy (Post, Jan. 21)

Howard Kurtz: It wasn't a full Jonas Brothers. That would have required going to the White House to meet Sasha and Malia, as the boy band did last night.

For those who missed it, Matthews said: "Well, it sure as hell helps to be on MSNBC today. Let's talk straight here: This is the network that has opened its heart to change. To change and its possibilities. Let's be honest. These people watch this network out here."

Chris is a commentator and an Obama booster; I think everyone gets that. But he should be wary of trying to position MSNBC as the official network of the Obama administration.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard,

I was down on the Mall yesterday. As impressive as the cheers for Obama was the amount of boos for Bush. When I watched the evening news coverage, I didn't see any mention of this. Is this because it is not newsworthy or was it done out of respect for the office?

Howard Kurtz: It was reported in some places. (I certainly heard Keith Olbermann talking about it.) I don't think the anchors could hear the boos from their booths. Correspondents on the frozen ground could, but the logistics of covering this unbelievable mob scene were difficult.


Kansas City, Mo.: Howard: I saw yesterday that Rush Limbaugh said he "hopes Obama fails." Asked why, he said he is a liberal and liberalism has led us to the mess we're in (paraphrased). Earlier, he was referring to our current problems as the "Obama recession." Doesn't he even try to make sense anymore? How can this guy have an audience?

Howard Kurtz: One of the reasons this is a great country is that we encourage and tolerate all points of view. If Rush Limbaugh wants to oppose Obama on grounds that he disagrees with what the new president stands for, that's his right. (Remember, 47 percent of the country voted for John McCain.) He's got an audience of up to 20 million people, so obviously some folks agree with him, or find him entertaining. To use a phrase like the "Obama recession" when the guy's been president for 10 minutes strikes me as

a real stretch, even by the standards of partisan rhetoric. But I think if little progress has been made in 6 months, the economy will become Obama's albatross, fairly or unfairly.


The Boos: The random boos and chants got a lot more coverage this year than the widespread protests got in 2001.

Howard Kurtz: I guess it depends on what you were watching, and reading.


Washington, D.C.: Fox News succeeded during the Bush years as the official news network of the GOP. News with attitude sells. It isn't surprising to see MSNBC attempt to expand its viewership the way that Fox did. Of course, doing so would make CNN appear to be the non-partisan news and I don't fully believe that they are dead center.

Howard Kurtz: You're entitled to your views. I don't think it's fair to judge Fox, MSNBC or CNN by what Hannity, O'Reilly, Olbermann, Matthews and Dobbs say. They are all opinionated commentators. The cable networks also have reporters who cover the news and at least try to be fair, though their work should certainly be scrutinized as well.


Washington, D.C.: Just read the article about the "four to five thousand" ticketed individuals turned away for the inauguration. Is the Washington Post planning on following up on this, or are they just going to take officials at their word? I can attest to the low police-and volunteer-presence at the parade route gates; the 13th Street gate was a mob scene due to the lack of any officials at all, and the 14th Street gate was barely better. When I mentioned to a cop near the security gate (around the block from where the line started) that there were no volunteers or cops providing any guidance or keeping linejumpers from doing their thing, he shrugged.

I can easily believe that they didn't do their job with respect to getting blue and silver ticket holders inside, but the article almost makes it sound like they were heroic in the face of murderous crowds or something. So will you lot do any actual reporting, or will you just act like you're made of carbon copy paper? 'And Then We Knew It Was Too Late'

Howard Kurtz: We much prefer actual reporting.

There is a separate story in the paper about the disappointment and frustration of ticket-holders who were turned away or couldn't get processed in time. I'd be bummed, too. But we do have to consider that in the context of unprecedented crowds that made even simple movement extremely difficult. At least no one got arrested. That was the day's good news.


Potomac, Md.: Yesterday, when Ted Kennedy fell ill, CNN brought on Sanjay Gupta to describe what might have happened and to give his thoughts. As far as Gupta goes, I have no problem with him personally and take his thoughts seriously as he is a doctor and appreciate his reporting.

However, Wolf Blitzer never once disclosed that Gupta is an official nominee of the Obama administration. While Gupta is technically is still a private citizen until he is confirmed, it seems to be a somewhat gray area to have someone who is nominated to be a part of the Obama administration acting as a official reporter on CNN at the same time.

What are your thoughts on whether Government officials or soon-to-be official government should be acting as reporters on a news network and whether the news network should disclose this fact even if it is unrelated to the topic at hand? I guess I wouldn't have had much of a problem if Blitzer mentioned this fact either before or after Gupta spoke, but he didn't even bring it up at all when Gupta came on the air.

Howard Kurtz: I think Wolf should have mentioned it, even though Sanjay was talking about a senator's health and not anything related to policy or the Obama administration. But he is not the official nominee for surgeon general. I've reported, and others have confirmed, that he has been offered the job and has accepted, but my understanding is that the vetting process is still under way. Still, I think it would have been better to mention the situation.


Anonymous: Why do you continue to forget that MSNBC has former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough on for three hours a day to tell us how Al Franken is stealing an election? Or that former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanon isn't given four hours or so a day to tell us how the extreme right wing thinks about things. Pretending that MSNBC is an unofficial liberal organ simply because Obama gets some occasional good press from them is laughable. P.S. Liberals like me think Chris Matthews is a sycophant who will jump on any bandwagon. Please read his gushing over Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech the next time you want to accuse him of being liberal.

Howard Kurtz: Key phrase: "liberals like me."

Yes, as I've noted frequently -- in fact, I recently profiled his co-host, Mika Brzezinski -- Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who hosts a three-hour morning show. He is not shy about offering his views (which have included some sharp criticism of the GOP in the last two years). But that show has so many guests from across the spectrum that it is far more than a vehicle for Morning Joe's views.


Inaugural Ball Attire: Mr. Kurtz, What's your opinion of news reporters wearing formal gowns to cover the various balls? I understand not wanting to stand out, but the "participation" of reporters -- genuine news reporters, rather than entertainment reporters -- dressed to the nines really made me wonder if the press has become too much a part of the story in this situation.

Howard Kurtz: I think formal gowns are okay if they're not too low-cut.

It's important that journalists, even those covering the parties, not be seen as part of the celebration. But just as you don't wear the same thing to cover a hurricane as you do to a news conference, it's okay to vary the attire (as Ed Henry did with his board shorts during Obama's Hawaii vacation). Also, let's face it, some of the women wear these gowns, as they do at Oscar time, because it's all about looking good on TV.


Boston, Mass.: People who complain about Chris Matthews being in love with Obama have a perfectly valid point. But until Bush really became unpopular these last couple years, he loved Bush too -- I remember a quote about how everyone likes Bush except the real left wing crazies and fawning over Bush being a real man. Chris Matthews just likes to fall in love with America's leaders. Annoying in a commentator. But sort of cute too.

Howard Kurtz: "Annoying but cute." I doubt MSNBC will be using that in future promos for "Hardball."


Arlington, Va.: Why did they sell the rights to the Sunday concert to HBO? If they wanted that event to be "inclusive," couldn't they have sold it to a channel that doesn't require premium cable access?

Howard Kurtz: The inauguration committee says it was trying to defray the costs of staging the events. But I do think it should have been broadcast for anyone who wanted to see it. HBO did make it available to Comcast, for instance, but only on digital channels, so to see it you had to be a Comcast customer and a subscriber to the extra tier of channels.


New York, N.Y.: What's the story on Reliable Sources? Am I still going to be able to watch it without watching all the rest of the stuff -- frankly, I get a headache after watching CNN for any length of time -- their graphics are (literally) mind boggling and, indeed, unnecessary.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for asking. Reliable Sources will still be on at the same time, 10 to 11 a.m. eastern on Sundays. But (possibly except for yesterday), CNN recently went to a much cleaner graphic look. And it has finally dropped the distracting and often silly crawl at the bottom of the screen. That in itself is a step forward.


Alexandria, Va.: I was extremely disappointed in the networks' disorganized and uninformative coverage of the parade. The units weren't being shown in any kind of understandable order, or even identified for viewers. When it became clear that the broadcast networks were quickly going to go to local news, and that CNN was fixated on showing us its fancy crowd-picture technology rather than the units who'd been awaiting their big moment in the freezing cold for hours, we switched over to C-SPAN and stayed there. I don't know if the networks got any better as the parade wore on, but they sure did start off badly.

Howard Kurtz: It was rather disorganized, I'd agree. But I'd cut them some slack because the whole area from the Capitol to the White House was so gridlocked that the frigid reporters were having a hard time. And the anchors were trying to impart lots of information on a big day beyond the details of the marching bands.


Washington, D.C.: I know it is the nature of the beast, but just want to comment that CNN, MSNBC and others don't have to fill every second of air time with their blather. I was particularly struck last night as CNN's camera was on Obama at the Commander in Chief's Ball talking to the crowd, but Anderson Cooper (who I usually like) continued to spout on about nothing from his rooftop perch, rather than let us hear what Obama was saying. Perhaps one future for news coverage is to do more of letting events go for longer un-commented on so that we who could not be there can use our own eyes a little more.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know about that particular instance, but I would agree that sometimes less is more. Sometimes it's better to just let the pictures tell the story. But as the Obamas went from one ball to the next, the pictures did get a little repetitive, so there was a need for some color commentary.


Arlington, Va.: I get that there was money to be made on the inauguration and that the Post managed to charge two dollars for both yesterday's and today's paper. Unfortunately, this rendered the corner paper boxes useless and possibly limited street sales. I hope that the Post gives sufficient and highly visible warning if it chooses to do this stunt again. Some of us leave too early to depended upon home delivery.

Howard Kurtz: On the other hand, there were complaints when The Post didn't print enough extra copies of the day-after-election issue, which sold out early and led to long lines at the 15th Street building throughout the day. I don't think an extra buck 25 for today's jam-packed edition is out of line, but I hadn't considered the problem of the newspaper boxes.


Columbia, Md.: Other Web sites have pointed out that CNN, eight years ago, showed Bill Clinton's farewell speech on inauguration day live. Yesterday, however, CNN did not show President Bush's speech live.

What other explanation other than pure pro-Obama bias by CNN could explain why CNN refused to show President Bush's farewell speech yesterday? Couldn't CNN have taken twenty minutes out of the wall-to-wall Obama coverage to at least show this speech live, especially since they did so for Clinton eight years ago?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think you mean farewell speech. CNN and all the other broadcast and cable networks carried Bush's farewell speech last Thursday night. You're undoubtedly referring to the Drudge headline that says the networks (except for Fox) did not break away from the Obama festivities when Bush made some remarks to a small rally upon landing in Texas. On the one hand, there was nothing particularly newsworthy in the now-former-president's good-to-be-home remarks. But there were so many hours of Obama coverage that I think the networks should have carried at least some of Bush's comments live, or replayed them moments later.


Columbia, Md.: Over the weekend, Bob Woodward had an editorial in the opinion section of the paper. He, of course, also writes articles in the news section on occasion.

What happened to the "wall" that is supposed to exist between the news and editorial page? Does Bob Woodward get some special exception and doesn't it completely discredit the claim by you and others that there is a "wall" between the news section and the editorial pages? Outlook: 10 Take Aways From the Bush Years (Post, Jan. 18)

Howard Kurtz: I don't see anything wrong with a Post reporter writing an analysis piece for the Outlook section. I've done it many times. New York Times reporters routinely write for the Week in Review section. Beyond that, Woodward wasn't taking an ideological stance, he was offering his take on lessons learned from the Bush administration, about which he wrote four books. And Woodward isn't really a news reporter any more. He took a buyout last year and is basically an author who occasionally contributes to The Post.


Obama at the C-I-C Ball...: I was watching CNN as well and it appeared that the pool camera feed went out just as Obama arrived on stage.

It looked as though both CNN and FNC (I have FiOS and don't have MSNBC at home) had to quickly switch to their individual reporter's camera (from low angles) to provide their coverage of Obama's comments, dancing, etc.

Howard Kurtz: Trust me, this stuff is harder than it looks. As I learned broadcasting from the very cold roof of the Newseum last Sunday.


Rockville, Md.: 2 Things I wished were different regarding the inauguration coverage on TV:

1. That so much screen was taken up by scrawls, schedules, and more disappointingly, station logos. I wanted to see as much of the event as possible, not the name of the station I was watching.

2. So many cutaways to other locations during the actual inauguration. CNN kept showing us people in L.A., Chicago, etc. I understand doing it once or twice, but I wanted to see the speakers!

Howard Kurtz: Other networks also cut to people watching the festivities around the country and, in one instance, Kenya. These are always judgment calls. Producers want to convey that people are watching this around the world without detracting from coverage of the event itself. I switched from NBC during the speech because there were so many crowd reaction shots that I began to find it distracting. It's a balancing act, and there's no approach that will satisfy everyone.


Bluffton, S.C.: Whenever there's a really big event in Washington and I dread having to hear the network or cable commentators I watch C-SPAN instead. Yesterday was no exception. USA Today printed the parade participants as well as the program so I was able to follow all that was going on and simply developed my own impressions of the day.

Howard Kurtz: That's why C-SPAN is such a public service. But we don't want to put all the TV pundits out of business, do we? Do we?


New York...: FYI -- The Times was still 1.50 for today's edition but it was VERY difficult to find on a newsstand this morning (thank God for me there's a hotel next to my office with a newsstand in the basement no one seems to know about).

Howard Kurtz: On the other hand, it's already $1.50 during the week, to The Post's 75 cents. And 4 bucks on Sunday!


Avon Park, Fla.: Are you as troubled as I am that MSNBC had Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews actually anchoring their inauguration coverage? They're not reporters. Fox didn't have Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity anchoring their coverage. Why does MSNBC do that? Those three should be commentators on occasions like this.

Howard Kurtz: You know, I repeatedly raised this issue during the campaign. How could the very opinionated Olbermann and Matthews anchor the coverage on primary nights? The criticism reached a crescendo when the duo anchored MS's convention coverage, after which the network announced that the anchor for the debates and Election Night would be David Gregory. Keith and Chris would still play prominent roles but a journalist would be in the anchor chair. I don't know why MS reverted to the liberal pundits (including one man who had been exploring a Senate run as a Democrat) for the inauguration. It was a largely ceremonial day, yes, but it had plenty of political content, including the analysis of Obama's speech.


Baltimore Md.: Re the issue of Fox and MSNBC partisanship: I know that both networks do solid non-partisan reporting, but the fact is they make their money on partisan commentary, not on the news. Hannity and Olbermann are two sides of the same coin -- it's what characterizes both brands, so neither should get defensive when tagged as being Republican or Democrat-leaning. CNN, on the other hand, has largely staked its claim with news. It's why Glen Beck was such an ill fit. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Glenn Beck, who was on Headline News, was an odd fit, as he observed himself. He seems happier with the gang at Fox.


Seattle, Wash.: MSNBC interpreted every scene or crowd reaction as an indictment of President Bush. It was the exact opposite of Obama's message of working together. I had to go to C-SPAN.

Howard Kurtz: Well, when some folks are chanting "Nah nah nah nah, hey hey, goodbye," it's hard to offer a different interpretation. But that wasn't the majority of the crowd. And if you want to watch events largely unadorned by pundits and pontification, C-SPAN is the go-to channel.


Washington, D.C.: Re: Inauguration coverage

You could have done what I did. I watched one network's coverage until I got tired of their POV, then I switched to one of the other 20 channels covering it.

Howard Kurtz: That's why the remote control is the greatest invention since the printing press.


Sewickley, Pa.: Regarding cable news coverage, all I can say is thank goodness for C-Span. I watched the entire parade and heard all the bands play!! I think every red state must have sent three marching bands -- how cool is that. Finally, a nuts and bolts question for you: How do you reach the figure of 20 million listeners for Rush? Doesn't he actually get a few million listeners each day who cumulatively add up to 20 million for the week? And aren't the same few million listeners also watching O'Reilly and Fox?

Howard Kurtz: Various surveys have put the Rush audience as high as 16 to 20 million -- he's on 600 stations. O'Reilly, by contrast, got as high as 4 million during the fall campaign.

C-SPAN certainly seems to be popular with our chatters today. It's a wonder that Brian Lamb's outfit didn't beat all the other networks (although technically we don't know, since C-SPAN has never paid for ratings).


Columbus, Ohio: Howie: How can newspapers expect readers to put any credence in editorials on current events when papers are failing financially? It's the pot calling the kettle black!

Howard Kurtz: I've criticized the media's coverage of business in the years leading up to the credit meltdown. But I fear I must tell you that the people who cover the economy -- reporters and editors -- are not the same people as the corporate executives who run these companies and make the financial decisions. In other words, I don't see why the Chicago Tribune's coverage should be any less credible because Sam Zell bought the parent company a year ago, took on $13 billion in debt and led the place into bankruptcy.


Washington, D.C.: How embarrassing do you think it is that Brian Williams confused Michelle Obama's brother for President Obama's assistant Reggie Love? This happened on live TV after the swearing-in but before the parade yesterday. He corrected himself about 5 minutes later.

Howard Kurtz: You try anchoring for hours at a time without a flub. I don't think it's a big deal. The important thing is that it was corrected pretty quickly.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: O'Reilly and Olbermann may be two sides of the same ideological coin. There is one big difference -- Olbermann corrects himself when he makes factual errors during his broadcast. Not so with the Bill the perfect one. I watch Olbermann regularly but do not enjoy him when paired with Matthews for news coverage. So for that I go elsewhere.

Howard Kurtz: It's a media democracy -- people get to vote with their remotes.


Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, I remember when the GOP controlled all three branches of government, that Democrats got very little airtime in the MSM, Now will that policy continue or will we now see a more balanced amount of pundits.

Howard Kurtz: Let's not confuse "Democrats" with "pundits." On the Sunday shows in particular, the big gets will no longer be Bush, Cheney and Rice; they will be Obama, Biden and Hillary. Plus, the leaders of the House and Senate are both Democrats. It's the nature of television to book the most powerful people, and that favors the party in power. That said, I think it's important to include Republican voices, just as it was important to include Democrats during the years when the GOP controlled the White House and the Hill.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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