Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 26, 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. 26, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the inauguration.

Early to Rise: Camaraderie Remains the Key to Top-Rated 'Today' Show's Morning Glory (Post, Jan. 26)

A transcript follows

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


Kent Narrows, Md.: For how long will the media's starry-eyed infatuation for Barack Obama continue? Can we expect any tough questions to be asked of Obama during the next four years? The one I'd ask is how a heavily indebted country gets an economic "jump start" from piling on vast amounts of pork spending?

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me that every day I read good, substantive articles about the stimulus debate, with plenty of attention to Republican arguments that the Obama package has too many elements that won't produce jobs. There is some pork in there, as there has been in every big bill that Congress passes, and it leaves the Democrats vulnerable to the charge that they're loading the thing up with Christmas tree ornaments. And there is obvious resistance from those who say Congress gave Bush $700 billion that wasn't used as advertised. But the coverage has been pretty smart overall.


Bellingham, Wash.: Howard,

Is anyone looking at the effect media coverage is having on the economic meltdown? We constantly hear comparisons to 1929, 1982, 1987, etc., but one big difference between now and then is the ubiquitous 24/7 constant drumbeat of bad economic news. I listen to NPR in the AM and I would bet that 75 percent of the content during the morning show is relentlessly negative economic coverage. I can only guess what it must be like for folks glued to cable news. Nothing keeps folks out of the Mall better than 4 stories in a row about job layoffs.

I would never advocate for Pollyannaish news coverage and I realize the news IS dire but our consumer economy is nothing if not a confidence game. I am interested in your take on how much the coverage may be driving the economy, and whether anyone is studying the issue. Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: You know, there is always a chicken-and-egg debate over whether media coverage of financial problems saps public confidence or simply reports what everyone already knows. Given what has happened in the last six months in this country, I don't see an alternative. Major banks and brokerage houses collapsing, a $700-billion bailout, frozen credit markets, a rising tide of foreclosures and growing unemployment. I think most people grasp the seriousness of the situation without having journalists spell it out for them. If anything, it would have been better if we'd had more critical and even alarming reporting on the housing and credit bubble that led to this mess before the stuff hit the fan.


Rhode Island: Here's one thing I don't get about the Caroline Kennedy almost-appointment: presumably, she had highly-skilled, experienced, highly-paid advisers throughout this process. It appears that at no point did said adviser(s) ever walk her through a mock interview or press appearance, or prepare her for a lucid response to a predictable question (such as, "Why do you think you're qualified to be senator?")

I still believe that she is an intelligent, accomplished woman, but it's a mystery to me how this rollout proved to be such a disaster, when you consider the seasoned political types she has access to.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know who was advising her, but she didn't get very good advice. I don't know if they staged any mock interviews, but she could hardly have done worse. And, in fact, Caroline's botching of the situation continues to this day. She pulls the plug on her Senate bid after midnight with a vague statement about "personal reasons," while rumors, political accusations and irresponsible reporting swirl around her? She doesn't go before the cameras? She grants no interviews? As I wrote last week, Kennedy's Senate bid ended the way it began--badly. Which doesn't let the press off the hook for some of the unsubstantiated allegations that have been published about her.


Seems to me that every day I read good, substantive a: Ben in the previous chat:

Ben Pershing: It's true that there is no official report from the CBO yet "scoring" the entire stimulus package. What the agency did is run a portion of the stimulus through it's standard formula and then gave the basic data to some members of Congress, and it's those results that we've seen written about in the press. The coverage has been a bit misleading.

Howard Kurtz: I agree that the media coverage should have made clear that 1) this wasn't an official CBO report, and 2) this was spoon-fed to the media by Republicans to make their case. That doesn't mean it's not worth reporting, but the reporting was incomplete.


Warrenton, Va.: I feel that the Post almost completely and deliberately ignored Bush in articles about getting Congress to release the second 350 billion dollars of approved bailout funds the week before Obama's inauguration. Bush was still president at this time, and his Treasury officials asked Congress to release the funds in order to help Obama move his economic program forward. But the Post slighted Bush's role in this, in my opinion.

Howard Kurtz: Washington Post, lead story, Jan. 10 (a story the paper actually broke, and that accurately envisioned what happened):
Bush Prepares Request for Rest Of Bailout Funds
Senior Bush administration officials, consulting with the Obama transition team, have prepared a plan to ask lawmakers for the second half of the $700 billion financial rescue package despite intense opposition in Congress, sources familiar with the discussions said.
The initiative could create an unusual political scenario straddling the Bush and Obama administrations. If Congress were to vote down the measure, either President Bush or Obama would have to exercise a veto to get the money.
Obama officials would prefer that Bush exercise any veto rather than leave the new president with the unsavory task of rebuffing his fellow Democrats in Congress to advance a widely unpopular program, sources said. The White House has declined to say publicly whether Bush would be willing to issue the veto.


British Columbia: Re: my earlier comment. Sorry, I just now had a chance to read today's column and you covered everything in it I asked about!! Thanks Howie! Early to Rise: Camaraderie Remains the Key to Top-Rated 'Today' Show's Morning Glory (Post, Jan. 26)

Howard Kurtz: All in a day's work.

_______________________ (Caroline Kennedy) The Princess Abdicates (Post, Jan. 23)


Alarming reporting on the housing and credit bubble : Hi Howard and thank you for the chats! You ROCK!

My question is -- with all the talk about the mortgages being the lynchpin in all of this -- WHY don't the Powers that Be (Congress, etc.) really try to do something for all of the mortgages that need help? Wouldn't it be just a lot more inexpensive to pay off these mortgages than have all of the stimulas go to people at $1,000 (couple)? Seems to me they should stop the bleeding first.

Howard Kurtz: Some of the $700 B bailout money was supposed to be used to help at-risk homeowners, but wasn't, and the Obama administration says it's trying to change that. But where do you draw the line? Who is eligible for the aid? Why should my tax dollars bail out someone who bought a house he couldn't afford, or a loan he couldn't possibly repay, when I've been diligently making my payments on a smaller house? Do you encourage banks to make reckless loans in the future if the federal government is just going to pick up the entire tab? As they say on Facebook, it's complicated.


Reston, Va.: "with plenty of attention to Republican arguments that the Obama package has too many elements that won't produce jobs."

Which the Washington Post referred to as a return to partisan politics. It seems like "bipartisan" is being redefined in some media outlets (the WaPo article and some of the Sunday talk shows) as agreeing with the Democrats lock, stock and barrel.

Howard Kurtz: Do some of you folks read the paper every day?
Washington Post, Friday:
Just days after taking office vowing to end the political era of "petty grievances," President Obama ran into mounting GOP opposition yesterday to an economic stimulus plan that he had hoped would receive broad bipartisan support.

Republicans accused Democrats of abandoning the new president's pledge, ignoring his call for bipartisan comity and shutting them out of the process by writing the $850 billion legislation. The first drafts of the plan would result in more spending on favored Democratic agenda items, such as federal funding of the arts, they said, but would do little to stimulate the ailing economy.


Washington, DC: How many people attended Bush's Second Inauguration? If Obama's four years later and serving many, many more people cost the same I think that is pretty good. I know throwing a party cost me significantly more than it did four years ago. I would venture to guess every vendor has raised prices. I am just not sure how the media could have sold a negative story about the cost. "For the same price, millions more served" does not sound all that incendiary.

Howard Kurtz: I think the point of the L.A. Times critic I quoted today was not the exact dollar amount of the Obama inauguration, but that almost no one raised the question of whether it was bad symbolism to raise $40 million for inaugural parties at a time of sacrifice, as some in the media asked about Bush's 2005 inauguration. The much larger crowds for Obama last week mostly translate into huge security costs, which are picked up elsewhere.


Dallas, Tex.: Hi Howie,

How does Slate magazine stay afloat? It's an entirely online magazine, right? Is it the Washington Post that pays for it?

Howard Kurtz: How does any online magazine that doesn't charge for content stay afloat? Salon, Huffington Post, etc.? Through online advertising. The Post Co. bought Slate from Microsoft a couple of years ago. I don't know if loses money or not since the company doesn't break out those costs.


Economic coverage: The problem isn't the reporting of negative economic facts, it's the tone the media takes. Evan Thomas raised this on Inside Washington several weeks ago. His example was a report of a two percent "plunge."

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure there are instances of hyperbole and excessive negativity. The 7.2 percent unemployment right now, for instance, is far below the 10 percent level that was hit during the 1981-82 recession. But things are pretty bad, not just in the United States but around the world, and the coverage reflects that reality.


DeKalb, Ill.,: Dear Howard, I'm curious, you have mentioned that some people at NBC were not happy about the fawning coverage of Matthews et. al., at MSNBC towards the president, are there any similar feelings within MSNBC proper? Do the comments of Matthews upset any of the front line reporters?

Howard Kurtz: The feelings by NBC News people about the MS tilt toward Obama -- not just by Matthews but Keith Olbermann as well -- have been well documented, by me and others. Even Tom Brokaw spoke publicly about it. With few exceptions, MSNBC doesn't have its own correspondents. It relies on NBC corresppondents who appear as guests on various shows when they're not reporting for Today, Nightly News etc. They are good and experienced journalists. But they often find themselves on a network that, except for Joe Scarborough, has clearly and indisputably moved to the left. Fox News reporters face a similar problem because their network is defined in the public mind by O'Reilly and Hannity (now without Colmes).


"the question of whether it was bad symbolism to raise $40 million for inaugural parties at a time of sacrifice": I think the Democrats have learned from Jimmy Carter that the symbolism of sacrifice can backfire badly. Wasn't this sort of a no win situation?

Howard Kurtz: I think a new president is entitled to have a nice inauguration, and Obama did veto such displays as fireworks. The question raised by the L.A. Times columnists is whether the same standards were applied to Bush and Obama, or whether members of the media got swept away by the excitement surrounding the Obama festivities.


Global unemployment reporting: Comparing the current recession to '81 bears a little further comment though: most of the areas covered in the Post article about eastern Europe's meltdown were under Soviet rule in '81, and of course the "worker's paradise" didn't have unemployment. So we don't really know how this compares except for the doom-and-gloom reporting.

Howard Kurtz: If there are street demonstrations about the rocky economy in Latvia, I want to know about it. My reference to the 1982 unemployment rate was solely about the domestic economy. I remember the figure because there was a great drama during the '82 congressional campaign about whether the rate would hit double digits by Election Day (it did) and hurt Reagan's party (it did). Though I remember thinking that 9.9 percent unemployment was just about as bad.


Blind Sources: This is such a pet peeve of mine. While I understand the need to sometimes have a blind source most of the time it is simply a way to make an unsubstantiated claim. The L.A. Times piece about the Hudson landing is an egregious example of this. The piece contained a quote from a pilot who stated that the double bird it was unlikely and often pilots turn off the wrong engine during training. Fine if it is true but have the courage to put your name to this quote. This lead to lots of speculation about pilot error that seemed unfair. Why was there a need to have this blind quote?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the story, but the idea that you need an unidentified pilot in that instance, when there are so many experts available, is for the birds.


Atlanta and MSNBC: Good Afternoon,

I will try to keep this brief but I totally disagree with you on MSNBC. The reason why is because it is the only progressive/liberal voice in my metro area. On the radio, I can get Rush, Dave Ramsey, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, Shaun Hannity, Michael Savage, Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, Hugh Hewitt and Bill O'Reilly. Which one of these is the progressive voice? We have no Air America or Ed Schultz or Stephanie Miller or any other progressive you can name. On TV, it's more of the same as the radio. And with all this conservatism on my airwaves, you are telling MSNBC to play fair and give both sides and interview more conservatives? Puh-leeze.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not telling anyone to do anything. If you think MSNBC is a welcome respite in providing liberal voices that you can't get elsewhere, great. If that's how MS wants to market itself, more power to those folks. But that's not what MSNBC says. It says it's a news network that happens to have opinionated people on at night.


Inauguration: Fireworks would have been a better bang for the buck -- so to speak -- because so many more people could have enjoyed them. The inauguration itself is a public event, so security had to be provided for the expected number of attendees, regardless of cost. And if people wanted to give money for inaugural balls, I don't see how it's anyone's business to tell them how to spend their money --although perhaps they should have been charged for security, as is normally done for festivals and similar events.

Howard Kurtz: I don't have any problem with the government picking up the security costs for a huge public event. It would have been nice, though, if security hadn't led lots of people with tickets, as well as some journalists, into a tunnel from which they could not get out in time for the inauguration.


Fairfax County, Va.: Your paper's "Sleuth" reporting on the dangerous near-tragedy with crowds of unticketed attendees at the inauguration has been the first time I've seen the Web used for actual reporting of a story that would otherwise have been missed. I believe it will save lives at future events. We got through this one safely but it makes sense to learn lessons for the next time.

The usually pointless Comments section over the weekend was filled with detailed eyewitness accounts that had the ring of truth and "the Sleuth" (Akers) herself has been reporting directly through interviews with the Facebook group of people affected, pushing the story to the point of getting officials to meet with them and change their response. This is more than a print paper publishing itself online. This is a shift to Web 2 journalism. Congratulations to her and the Post. The Sleuth

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for pointing that out.


Re: The Blagojevich Blitz: Please explain to me why the TV shows are falling all over themselves to interview Blagojevich? This man is an "alleged" criminal, with a history of corruption that, while not unique in American politics, is certainly right up there as among the worst. He sounds and acts ... um ... quite loony, and, really, it is shameful (and Illinois looks laughable) that he is able to take his corruption and turn it into celebrity. Are the media just as loony for allowing him to use them? And BTW, what does he think his appearances on TV will accomplish? That the public will pressure the Illinois legislature to "forgive him his trespasses"?

Howard Kurtz: He is the governor of Illinois. He is at the center of a huge scandal involving Barack Obama's Senate seat, among other things. He has been impeached and is facing removal from office. What journalist wouldn't want to interview him? Blagojevich also happens to be colorful, self-absorbed, quotes poetry, compares himself to Mandela and Gandhi, and says he considered naming Oprah to the seat. By interviewing him, you're giving people some insight into the personality of this man who was caught on federal wiretaps saying all kinds of bleeping things, and who would rather go on The View than defend himself at the Senate trial in Springfield.


Nokesville, Va.: David Gregory claimed today that MSNBC's content has no influence on NBC News, that they're just doing what they do. Isn't that odd, considering Gregory was an MSNBC host a few eye-blinks ago? It seems to me the interchangeable parts of this news operation are a constant blur in the minds of most viewers. Don't you think?

Howard Kurtz: I think Gregory was a fair-minded host when he had the Race for the White House show. The program wasn't about his opinions.


Washington, D.C.: Is it my imagination or is the media doing more stories on itself over the past few years? And I don't mean the kind of stories you do -- you are the media critic. I'm talking about Anderson Cooper showing a clip of himself on that morning's Regis and Kelly.

Also, why is DL Hughley on CNN?

Howard Kurtz: A little comic relief mixed with more serious interviews, I guess.
It does seem like more news anchors are working the entertainment circuit and using that to promote themselves. I don't think that should be a felony. I've never danced on Ellen -- fortunately -- but I have played clips of myself on the Daily Show and Colbert. Journalists often take themselves too seriously, and there's nothing wrong with lightening up now and then. Brian Williams hosted SNL and regularly appears with Jon Stewart. If you do it too much, of course, you blur your image as a Serious Journalist. Not that that's such a great image these days.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think there should be some sort of professional license journalists should be required to get? Something like what real estate people have to do? I've never really thought of this before Joe the Plumber was sent to Gaza to report that wars shouldn't be covered.

I mean, this guy had to get licensed and bonded just to fix someone's sink, right?

Howard Kurtz: Who should be in charge of deciding who's a journalist and who isn't? Some board? Who would appoint the board's members? Especially in an age when anyone can start a blog, I don't think we need some kind of official certification. You're all smart enough to figure out who you trust and who you don't without some Good Housekeeping seal of approval.


Washington, D.C.: I really like David Gregory on MTP! At first I thought it would be hard to get used to someone else in that chair, but he asked great and succinct questions of Summers yesterday, a very good pace to the interview.

Howard Kurtz: The longer David Gregory is in that job, the less he'll be compared to Tim Russert, which is inherently unfair, and the more he'll be judged on his own merits.


Richmond, Va.: I watched your show the weekend before the inauguration and you seemed to suggest that the press must have an adversarial relationship with Obama. Why? Can't the press cover a president without trying to cut his throat? Also, you seemed to give Bush a lot more grace. Also, why? I think most Americans believe in a strong press but also believe Obama should be given a chance.

Howard Kurtz: Of course the president should be given a chance. I just think the media should be as aggressive and skeptical toward President Obama as toward other administrations. And I do think the tone of the questioning at the first White House briefings has been more challenging than much of what I saw during the campaign.


Anonymous: Shep Smith´s 'hectoring' of Gov. Blog during the latter´s strange speech was itself bizarre. Smith seemed to become unglued. It seemed like he was yelling at the monitor, like an irate fan yelling during a football game. Shepard Smith Snarks on Rod Blagojevich (YouTube)

Howard Kurtz: It was one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen. As I said on the air, it was outrageous, rude and very funny. Definitely worth checking out on YouTube.


Fullerton, Calif.: Why is "Reliable Sources" not part of the schedule on its own? I record the program every week and don't want to have to record four hours of the John King program. Cam something be done about this?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for asking. We are working on that and I'm hoping it will be fixed this week so anyone can record just my show or any one of the hours on CNN that morning. I mean, who has that much space on their TiVo?


Well, that was embarrassing: I'm just glad the inauguration coverage has ended (it has ended, right?), so the "news" organizations can resume their role as the defender of democracy.

Howard Kurtz: I double-checked, just to be sure, and the inauguration has ended. So "news" organizations, as you so respectfully put it, can go back to doing whatever it is that they did before.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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