Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 2, 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."

Today's Column: Flubbing Their Media Moment (Post, Feb. 2)

He was online Wednesday, Jan. 26, 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

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Daschle's "glitch": Howard, here's the headline from Sunday's Post: "Daschle Delayed Revealing Tax Glitch." Glitch? I'm a Democrat, Obama voter and supporter, and even I'm not convinced that "glitch" is the right word to describe this. Your thoughts and/or insight into that choice of word? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: "Glitch" was a bad choice for the headline. Failure to pay $140,000 in taxes is a heckuva lot more than a glitch. And "Error" certainly would have fit.

But the story, which led the paper, was pretty tough:

Thomas A. Daschle waited nearly a month after being nominated to be secretary of health and human services before informing Barack Obama that he had not paid years of back taxes for the use of a car and driver provided by a wealthy New York investor.

Daschle, one of Obama's earliest and most ardent campaign supporters, paid $140,000 to the U.S. Treasury on Jan. 2 and about two days later informed the White House and the Senate Finance Committee, according to an account provided by his spokeswoman and confirmed by the Obama administration.

Although Daschle had known since June 2008 that he needed to correct his tax returns, he never expected the amount to be such a "jaw-dropping" sum and "thought it was being taken care of" by his accountant, spokeswoman Jenny Backus said.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last night that Obama stands behind his friend and confidant. "The president believes nobody's perfect but that nobody's hiding anything," Gibbs said.

The disclosure of Daschle's tax problems coincided with the release of the financial statement he submitted to the Office of Government Ethics, which details for the first time exactly how, without becoming a registered lobbyist, he made millions of dollars giving public speeches and private counsel to insurers, hospitals, realtors, farmers, energy firms and telecommunications companies with complex regulatory and legislative interests in Washington.

Daschle's expertise and insights, gleaned over 26 years in Congress, earned him more than $5 million over the past two years, including $220,000 from the health-care industry, and perks such as a chauffeured Cadillac, according to the documents.

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Air America: I was disappointed to read that Lil Dan is yanking Air America off the air. Yes, the ratings stink, but so does the signal. Maybe if he put it on a station that could be heard throughout the area he would discover the market. Or if AA could find a more powerful outlet.

Howard Kurtz: It's not Air America. The reference, for out of town folks, is to my column item today on Redskins owner Dan Snyder dropping the progressive talk format at one of the D.C. radio stations he bought last summer. The station, which had been renamed OBAMA 1260 (just so you know where it's coming from), is dropping the likes of Ed Schultz, Bill Press and Stephanie Miller and switching to a financial news format. No such change at the conservative talk station that Snyder bought at the same time. His program director blames sinking ratings at the liberal station.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Is there a reason I should care about the weight gain of Jessica Simpson or consider it to be a "controversy"?

Howard Kurtz: No, and no.

Life is too short.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

Watching last night's Super Bowl, I was struck by the fact that Matt Lauer was appearing in movies. Is it appropriate for a journalist to be doing something like that? Does it make them more of a celebrity than journalist? I had this same thought when Brian Williams did SNL as well.

washingtonpost.com: Land of the Lost Commercial

Howard Kurtz: From clicking on the link, it appears that Universal Pictures (which is part of NBC) is using an actual Lauer interview with Will Ferrell on "Today" in a promotional trailer for Ferrell's latest movie. I don't have the impression from the trailer that Lauer is actually in the movie. I'm sure someone will let me know if that's wrong.

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Herndon, Va.: The media correctly took Bush and FEMA to task for their failure to respond adequately during Katrina, so why have none of the networks or major papers reported on similar failures by FEMA and Obama to respond to the ice storm that has devastated Kentucky? This story indicates that FEMA has been a no-show days after the storm hit, despite widespread devastation and overwhelmed shelters Many pleading for faster response (Courier-Journal, Jan. 31)

Howard Kurtz: Leaving aside the difference in scale between the two disasters, Obama has been in office for 13 days. I don't believe he has a director of FEMA in place, and he's hardly had time to put his stamp on the agency. So it strikes me as kind of a cheap shot to demand why he hasn't reformed that badly battered agency. If the same thing happens in six months, then the Obama administration is absolutely fair game.

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Princeton, N.J.: I look to newspapers for in depth reporting, but I have yet to see an article or graphic comparing the efficiency of our health care system with those of other countries. I want to see how we compare in all the basic public health statistics(not only life expectancy, but life expectancy after 60, not only infant mortality, but birth weight, etc.). Then I want to see what we pay per person compared to the other countries.

Have I missed this article?

Howard Kurtz: No, but Obama's plans for health care reform haven't materialized yet. I read such articles with regularity during the health care battles of the '90s. But you also have to get into the complexity of what is lost in countries with government-run health care such as Britain and Canada (less choice, longer waiting times for medical procedures) versus the percentage of the population that is covered.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Great show yesterday, Howard, although I'm getting a retro feeling from Michael Medved. What planet (or decade) is he living in where it's OK to cheat 51 percent of the population out of a fair and equitable salary? And, he excuses it saying 'It's not business friendly'. Was that part of a company's business plan -- to factor in however many females in the head count, then deduct 25 percent in salary cost, because it's legal to do so? It reminds me of when Ilie Nastase was caught coaching from the stands during a major tennis event -- the sportscaster explained it as "That Eastern European ethic -- whatever you can get away with is fair." Sounds like Medved and the Repubs ascribe to this theory. If we can get away with paying women less, it's fair. Disgusting.

Howard Kurtz: I was the one who said that the television networks (except for NBC) didn't provide the other side on the fair-pay law that Obama signed. That doesn't mean I'm opposed to women getting the same pay for the same work as men, which I feel strongly about. There was opposition to this bill -- all but three House Republicans supported it -- and opponents said it would lead to more frivolous lawsuits years after the fact and wouldn't necessarily help women. Those arguments may or may not have been valid, but I think the media should have reported them along with the remarks by Barack and Michelle Obama at the signing ceremony.

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New York, N.Y.: I've been surprised by the interest Caroline Kennedy's ill considered "run" has had for the national media. Here in New York City we have a fuller perspective on the matter -- we knew that Mayor Bloomberg's team and the political press were orchestrating much of this effort and attempting to dictate their choice to the governor, that Caroline had chosen (perhaps with the aforementioned team's advice) a political fixer from Lieberman's senate campaign who is much disliked and that the N.Y. Post reporter who wrote the most critical stories is a Republican hack. New Yorkers like Caroline but we had never seen her as a captive or co-conspirator with so many political fixer types and when we did her popularity fell sharply. Chris Matthews may feel protective of the Kennedy dynasty but New Yorkers are concerned about their own needs.

Howard Kurtz: I understand the local politics involved, especially the backlash against the Bloomberg operation for pushing Kennedy. But the fact remains that had Caroline smoothly handled her initial media interviews, seemed comfortable as she made the rounds upstate and interacted with actual voters, she would be a United States senator today. The appointment was hers to lose, and she lost it. And to this day, the woman who told New Yorkers she wanted to represent them in the Senate still hasn't spoken about why she withdrew, beyond the terse statement about "personal reasons." Which opened the door for what I view as irresponsible reporting and speculation, based on unnamed sources, about her personal life.

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Land of the Lost: Howard, if that's an actual interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show it's MUCH WORSE in my opinion.

It's one thing if a journalist pokes fun at himself in a film. I don't really see a problem with famous journalists having a bit of fun off the clock. Isn't it much worse when a journalist uses his own show to conduct a fake interview with someone who's in-character that can have no possible purpose other than the promotional?

I'm surprised you'd think purely promotional fake interviews are okay, even if it fits with Today show's infotainment style.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know why you say it's a fake interview. Ferrell was on to talk about his new film. Do you think morning show interviews with movie stars about their new projects are generally confrontational and hard-hitting? (Okay, leave Tom Cruise aside, since he's the one who was confrontational with Lauer.)

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Hollywood, Calif.: What do you have to say about the collapse of Pajamas Media, whose founder, Roger Simon, blew through $7 million in far right venture capital to subsidize right wing bloggers? After his backers pulled the plug, Simon said that the conservative bloggers in the PJ network had been on "the dole" for Pajamas' full three years.

How much of the $7 million in right-wing welfare did Simon personally pocket? And how do you feel about Simon telling you that Pajamas would be doing "actual reporting" when it did nothing of the sort in its three-year existence?

Howard Kurtz: Something tells me you're not a fan of conservatives. I did see some bloggers on that site who did original reporting.

My reaction is it's too bad that Pajamas couldn't find a way for advertising to support its bloggers. I'd like to see a model emerge that would help pay for online commentary on the left as well as the right. The Huffington Post, for example, is very successful, but doesn't pay the vast majority of its bloggers a dime, which makes it hard to earn a living.

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Boston, Mass.: Hi Howard,

I see all of appointees and any other elected official blame the complicated tax code for their problems and it is reported along with mention of how tricky the tax code is. If it is so tricky and these guys are just making "honest mistakes" why is it that none of them misunderstand the code in the direction of overpaying their taxes?

Howard Kurtz: I'd add this question: If the tax code is so complicated that even affluent power brokers who can afford the best accountants keep tripping up, why don't they do something to make it less complicated for the rest of us, including taxpayers who can't afford accountants?

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Blacksburg, Va.: What is going on with the "Reliable Sources" podcast? It hasn't updated in almost a month! Did it disappear into John King's magic wall or something?

Howard Kurtz: Ha. I didn't know anything had happened to it. Will check into it.

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Too Much to Ask: I know it would not happen but I would love to have seen a headline after the Senate passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed that read "Only White, Male Republicans Vote No to Lily". The Post provided the data in the very handy clickable charts. Arlen Spector being the only male Republican to vote yes.

It is laws such as this when the votes come out on gender lines as well as party lines that make the growing diversity of our government seem so reasonable and fair. I only wish there were more racial diversity in the Senate on both sides of the aisle to see how that affect votes.

Howard Kurtz: I had the impression from the coverage that the law had passed easily, which was not the case. So it's important to focus on both sides to hold them accountable.

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Daschle issue: I would like to know how a taxpayer in the same circumstances but without Washington connections would have fared (e.g. fines, jail, etc.) Has any media outlet looked into this issue? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: It's hard to answer that as a hypothetical. Usually the IRS is satisfied if you repay the back taxes, unless there's some evidence of criminal intent. But reporters should call tax experts and see what the consensus is.

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Washington, D.C.: RE right wing bloggers...they can't keep up with the left wing attack machine funded by George Soros...

1. Moveon.org 2. People for the American Way 3. Media Matters

you could go on and on

Howard Kurtz: Leaving aside your pejorative description, Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Americablog and others aren't getting money from big left-wing donors, as far as I know. And there are some good sites on the right. But conservatives will be the first to tell you that they feel outhustled and out-organized by the liberal blogosphere.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Any idea why the Post is relying on the AP to report on the Midwest power outages? Would the Post send a reporter if the lack of federal response happened in a Republican administration?

Howard Kurtz: You're serious? You think we sit around here and make coverage decisions on a local disaster based on who's in the White House?

The Post has a handful of national correspondents around the country -- fewer than it used to, thanks largely to the declining revenue that afflicts most newspapers today. We can't cover every flood, hurricane and power outage in America. In a situation like this, the AP does a very good job and it makes little sense for us to duplicate those efforts unless we can somehow improve on the coverage.

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Columbia, Md.: Is there any way you can convince CNN to revert your show back to an independent show and separate from John King's show. In order to DVR your show, I have to DVR the entire four hours of John King's show instead of just being able to DVR your show by itself and then spend time fast forwarding through just to get to your portion as well as taking up extra space on my DVR.

Plus, when are they finally going to put your show in HD?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know about the HD part -- I may not look so hot in HD -- but by this week, you should be able to TiVo or record Reliable Sources just by setting the machine to State of the Union- 10 am eastern, or State of the Union- Reliable. That way you can just record the hour you want.

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Arlington, Va.: On the Kentucky ice storm, just to be clear -- if North Korean troops start pouring across the border into South Korea, when does Obama become responsible?

It's an exaggeration, to be sure, but the Obama administration is responsible for FEMA now, lots of people have died, and we've heard nary a peep from the White House.

Howard Kurtz: Obama's responsible now, and if the administration (not necessarily the president himself) has said nothing about this, that is a misstep. I just found some of the questions about this politically contentious. I mean, Obama hasn't solved global warming yet, either.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it only me that doesn't read blogs (or people's Facebook or My Space pages)? Most bloggers seem to me to compile what the print media has actively reported (by paid staff) and then the blogger tells you 1) why I should believe his or her opinion, and 2) why the print media is dying in favor of bloggers (who, to me, wouldn't survive if there was no print media because they have no staff, no journalists, no reporters).

Howard Kurtz: Lots of people survive without reading blogs, but they are increasingly influential in my view. That's because the best ones not only offer opinion but also digging or fresh analysis that seeps into the mainstream media and influences the national debate. (And that's leaving aside local blogs.) They're also widely read by newspaper columnists, television commentators and talk radio hosts, who can provide a megaphone for some of what the bloggers say.

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Bristow, Va.: On the new Sarah Palin footage you saw: when you suggest she has a thin skin for being asked repeated questions on abortion, wouldn't it be fair for Palin to note that Barack Obama doesn't get pressed to the mat on abortion questions, despite a rather extreme record of supporting abortions in almost every circumstance? Instead, Matt Lauer's showing him Us magazine covers?

Howard Kurtz: You're entitled to your view of Obama's position on abortion, but the guy ran for president for two years, did hundreds of interviews, held news conferences and participated in 25 debates. The voters got to take his measure. Sarah Palin was a national figure for nine weeks, held no news conferences, did two major interviews (plus Sean Hannity and a handful of local TV stations) and was largely inaccessible to the media, which she now describes as a mistake imposed on her by the McCain campaign. So of course the few reporters who got to question her were going to press her on issues. In the example I cited, Katie Couric kept following up on a question about her view of the morning-after pill because the governor kept avoiding a straightforward answer.

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Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act : Has there been any coverage of her former employer's reaction to this? I believe she worked for Goodyear. Did they offer her a settlement? I've seen nothing on this aspect of the case. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I have read that it's too late for her to recover any money from Goodyear, but she pursued the legal case to help other women.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why can't Larry Fitzgerald Sr. cheer for his son in the press box? It seems a bit silly for him not to be able to show his emotions even while covering the game. I am sure his readers wouldn't mind.

Howard Kurtz: He can do whatever he wants, but he chose not to. I interviewed him on Reliable Sources and, despite my amazement, he said it was important to him to maintain his objectivity as a sportswriter and not openly root for his son. When Larry Fitzgerald Jr. scored the first of his two touchdowns for the Cardinals, NBC cut to the press box and dad was sitting there, stone-faced.

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Blogging vs. radio: In a contest of wills, which exerts more influence in American political discourse, left wing Internet bloggers or right wing talk radio (which occupies all the airtime on my local Clear Channel station)?

Howard Kurtz: That's an interesting philosophical question. I think talk radio is pretty influential, especially at the local level. The biggest radio host in Seattle or Boston or Chicago certainly has far more clout than the biggest local blogger.

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Chicago Ill.: Just curious -- of the questions you receive, what percentage are actual substantive inquiries about the media? It seems that the overwhelming majority of questions these days, especially from conservatives, are just complaints about alleged partisan biases in reporting, like asking why Woodward and Bernstein aren't in Kentucky. Do people actually ask you things to try to learn, or are they merely asking for confirmation of their existing assumptions? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I think it's all over the map. I try to deal with the most substantive and, failing that, at least give us all a good laugh.

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Washington, D.C.: After your response to why bloggers are important maybe you should consider your opinion on the Jessica Simpson weight gain. Coverage by newspaper columnists, television commentators and talk radio hosts does not make an issue important, only noisy.

Howard Kurtz: Clearly I have fallen down on the Jessica Simpson front. I will have to do some intensive research to make up for it.

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Perspective: I thought all the talking head shows avoided calling out the Republican men about Lily Ledbetter because this plays so poorly. Coming out against Fair Pay looks terrible to most women. McCain did not help himself at all during the campaign by opposing this law. Really I would love to have heard any of these senators state "Women will file frivolous lawsuits so we have to protect corporate interests against the frivolity of the American female." There's a sound byte no one wants on YouTube

The side by side pictures posted on many liberal Web sites of the signing of this law compared with the signing of the abortion law by Bush were striking. Obama was surrounded by women decked out in their red suits smiling brightly and Bush was surrounded by men in their gray suits looking smug. This issue was not explored in the mainstream media.

Howard Kurtz: You may be right about the GOP shying away from the politics of it, but that didn't stop all but three House Republicans from voting against the bill.

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Arlington, Va.: I have no problem with Matt Lauer appearing in films because (pause) he's not a journalist! The Today show has long been relegated to Puff-story-ville. Now if Jim Lehrer appears in a Will Ferrell movie, then I think there is a problem.

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree, and not just because I watched him in action when the Today show was here for the inauguration. In fact, Lauer conducted a pretty good interview with President Obama that NBC aired yesterday before the Super Bowl. Morning shows certainly have their share of cooking, fashion and other fluff but that doesn't mean they don't do news. Lauer's response to me was that they can't just put on a program that is a steady diet of grim news.

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Somerdale, N.J.: When the GOP controlled all three branches of government, the majority of guests were Republicans, now that the Dems have all three branches. How come we still see a lot more republicans than Democrats discussing the stimulus?

Howard Kurtz: This question grows out of a report by the liberal group Think Progress showing that over a three-day period, many more Republicans than Democrats were interviewed on television talk shows. I do think there's a trap, that TV shouldn't fall into, in believing that the Obama administration provides the Democratic position and therefore we only need Republicans to balance that. Democrats on Capitol Hill are a separate power base, and its members are not always going to agree with the White House. The coverage should reflect that.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you have a guess on how the failure of liberal radio in Washington, D.C. will impact any discussions of a "Fairness Doctrine," or will liberals need regulation to keep them afloat in the marketplace of ideas?

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe there is any serious effort to revive the Fairness Doctrine. So if liberals are going to carve out a niche in conservative-dominated talk radio land, they're going to have to do it with their own talents.

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Such a Unique Point-of-View: I know that with only his omnipresence on Fox News and his dad's magazine, Bill Kristol does not have enough outlets on which to share his singular, always unexpected and thoroughly thought out opinions. Thank you to the Washington Post for helping bring this man to light!

Howard Kurtz: The editorial page decided he's an interesting voice to have once a month. We'll see whether Kristol remains as much of a lightning rod on that publishing schedule as he was with his weekly NYT column.

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Anonymous: Any idea why NBC calls on Lester Holt to do the weekend morning shows and the Nightly Nnews? What does he do hang around and drink coffee all day ?

Howard Kurtz: Huh? Being the co-host of Weekend Today is an important job. And being the backup anchor on Nightly News is an important job, along with other appearances that Holt makes. So I don't think that leaves a huge amount of time for caffeine consumption.

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Inauguration Security Run Amok: Sorry this is so late in the hour. But I have seen no media play whatsoever on how the crowd on the Mall for the inauguration was herded into pens like so many cattle in a feed lot.

I'm all for security and crowd control, but based on the satellite photos of the crowd at 11 a.m., there was tons of grass and open space between the pens that could have accommodated many more of the crowd kept away at the Washington Monument and beyond to the Lincoln Memorial. What's up with that?

More importantly in this discussion is why no news outlet has even reported on the treatment of the crowd. Any ideas?

Howard Kurtz: It was an outrage, particularly for the ticket holders who were herded into a tunnel and stranded there. But The Washington Post was all over that story.

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Speaking of FEMA: Bush had been office for 8 plus months when 9/11 happened and they immediately tried to blame the entire thing on Clinton. So I think we should at least give Obama a least a couple of more days to solve all the problems of America.

Howard Kurtz: I vote for giving him a couple more weeks.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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