Critiquing the Press

Video
In his first prime time news conference in office, President Obama spent most of his time defending the proposed economic stimulus package.Video: Associated PressEditor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com
Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 10, 2009; 2:00 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: Obama's Prime Time Talkathon

He was online Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 2 p.m. 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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washingtonpost.com: Time has changed for this chat. It is now at 2 p.m. Please join us then. Thank you.

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Columbia, Md.: Is The Washington Post ever going to bring on a new Ombudsman? Is the lack of one due to budget cuts or reporters asking the Post not to hire one?

Howard Kurtz: Ever? It's only been a month since Deborah Howell left. In fact, The Post has already hired Andy Alexander, formerly of Cox Newspapers, as the new OMB. He just hasn't started yet.

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Clarendon, Va.: Last week, CNN.com listed the items in the the House stimulus package that the GOP considers wasteful and, well, unstimulating.

I added up the cost of the items. It came to just 2 percent of the total value of the package!

Did anyone in the media point out that puny fraction? Not doing so allowed the GOP to label the whole package as pork.

Maybe reporters aren't good at math.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, a number of journalists have pointed out that the biggest "pork" items and silliest-sounding items amount to a tiny fraction of the stimulus package, perhaps as little as 1 percent. But then, the Democrats were courting trouble by including such items that could be easily ridiculed. Politics is about symbolism as well as substance, and if you include treatment of sexually transmitted diseases in a stimulus measure, you've put a big fat bulls eye on the thing.

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DeKalb, Ill.: Dear Howard, Was a question about A-Rod really appropriate during the President's press conference last night? Why not also ask about Jessica Simpson's weight gain or the fact I missed House.... I would expect that question from a sport reporter, but I was shocked a "serious" reporter would ask it based on the topic at hand.

Howard Kurtz: You know, there are different views of this, but I didn't have any problem with Michael Fletcher's question. A-Rod is not only the biggest star in baseball, he's a huge celebrity. I mean, he hangs out with Madonna! He had just admitted the past steroid use, which clearly and irreparably tarnishes his record, that day. The story of past baseball cheats -- Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi -- has badly hurt the sport. So it's hardly in the same category as Jessica Simpson (which Obama has already opined on, when asked -- I believe by Matt Lauer -- how he felt about her weight gain, and not him, being on the cover of Us Weekly.)

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Pork City, D.C.: Have any of the opponents of the stimulus, the ones who are on TV all the time, come out and said they would not accept the stimulus money?

It seems they may gain credibility if the Congressmen and Governors said "thanks but no thanks."

Any chance?

Howard Kurtz: If anyone has said thanks but no thanks, it has escaped my notice. And anyone -- corporate leader, governor, mayor -- who accepts federal bailout money loses the standing to complain about it, at least in my view.

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Fletcher's Question: I actually don't mind Fletcher's question about A-Rod but I think that it should have been more focused and/or have had a point. Major League Baseball has a specific exemption from federal anti-trust legislation, which could have been the point. That MLB was operating under a voluntary enforcement procedure and the voluntariness of the enforcement was a problem. Something other than "Your general reaction to a 6-year-old incident involing a celebrity."

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps the question should have been more pointed. But Obama likely would have given pretty much the same answer. And even if Rodriguez weren't being paid $265 million, I don't think it's a bad thing to have the president on record about his betrayal of the game that has made him wealthy.

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New York: Thanks for the chat, Howard. Do you think that Obama's new procedure for press conferences, in which reporters know ahead of time who will question the president, causes them to be better prepared in some way? Because last night's questions, I thought, comprised a nice mix of subjects and degrees of aggressiveness.

Howard Kurtz: You know, I think professional journalists are perfectly capable of coming up with good questions for a president whether they're notified the day before or simply show up with the hope that they might be called upon. I'm not wild about this advance notification system. If I were a reporter for the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune or Wall Street Journal -- all of whom were not slated to be called on -- I wonder if I would have bothered showing up.

Another observation: More reporters would get questions -- only 13 were called on last night -- if Obama would give answers shorter than some of his marathon responses last night.

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Chicago, Ill.: It was so refreshing to watch an actual presidential press conference. I actually heard substantive answers to the questions being asked! I'd forgotten what that was like.

For the most part the press did a good job. But I hope we don't see a new trend of "gotcha" questions based on some obscure comment Joe Biden may have made; there were a couple of those last night and they came across as blatant attempts to manufacture controversy. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Some obscure comment? The man is vice president of the United States. I think, over the next four years, you will see some gotcha questions and showoff questions; that is what happens when you have television cameras rolling. But the questions last night were clearly substantive, and their tone, I think, matched the national mood of serious concern for an economy that is in a tailspin. In that sense, I thought the press showed the appropriate degree of skepticism without being prosecutorial.

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Washington, D.C.: During Obama's press conference, did you notice the disgusted reaction on the face of NBC's Chuck Todd, who was sitting behind your own Washington Post reporter that asked a A-Rod/Steroids question? Do you think other people in the media have the same reaction to Mr. Fletcher's inane choice of a question?

Howard Kurtz: I did not notice that, and as I've said, I didn't find it inane at all. This wasn't some "how 'bout them Yankees" question; it concerned the use of illegal substances by the biggest and richest star in baseball. And it came at a point when the president had already been asked a slew of economic questions.

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Fletcher's Question: The use of steroids is a political issue -- remember Bonds, et. al. up there on Capitol Hill testifying. I remember Bush being asked about Barry's use of steroids.

Howard Kurtz: Precisely.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Sir -- The press coverage of the building blaze in Beijing has been feeble. Had this occurred in New York, it would have been a 24x7 story. Could it be that the Chinese Government is suppressing the media? I'm shocked! Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think Chinese authorities are giving out a whole lot of information, and I agree it's a big story. But you can take virtually any development, from a plane crash to a scandal, and say, had this occurred in New York it would have been a 24/7 story. The big media corporations are based in Manhattan. The openly gay mayor of Portland, Ore. has admitted that he lied, and asked an 18-year-old man to lie, about their sexual relationship. Heard much about that? Now imagine that the mayor in question lived in Manhattan.

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Kurtz Demands Sound Bite Answers: C'mon, Howard! You're getting on Obama for giving long answers to important and intricate questions that affect our very lives (and the lives of our children)? All so even more of your colleagues can grandstand? I thought his media strategy was brilliant: He kept it up right up to 9 p.m., so much of the media wouldn't have time to put their GOP spin on things afterwards, dontcha think?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if that was deliberate or not. And I'm not "getting on him" for giving long answers. The question is what is the most effective form of political communication. During the campaign, some of his aides told me they had worked with him on his long-windedness. But it's his first press conference and I'm willing to cut him some slack.

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Baltimore, Md.: How many reporters were pre-notified? I'd be really bummed if I were number 14.

Do you think the president spoke until 8:58 or so in order to minimize the commentary? Or, like me, did he just not want to miss the start of Two and a Half Men?

Howard Kurtz: Ha. I assume that he knew he had an hour and wanted to use the time as effectively as he could. And if that meant more airtime for the president and a quick hook for the network pundits, so be it.

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The one or two percent stimulus: Howard, Like your show on CNN. I have been puzzled by the news media when they often do not correct clearly misleading items presented by guests on shows. Like the percent of pork in the stimulus bill. Is it considered rude for a particular host or reporter to discount these items, or just allow he narrative to take shape, even if incorrect or frivolous. This seems to happen very often and almost always applies to the political reporting

Howard Kurtz: I certainly think anchors and other journalists should put things in perspective by pointing out the relative level of spending for controversial items in the bill. But that doesn't mean they should be discounted. After all, with a package this size, 1 percent amounts to more than $8 billion, which, even by Washington standards, ain't chicken feed.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: For all the talk of McCain's strength with town halls during the campaign season, both during the second debate and now I feel that Obama is actually very good with town halls. What are your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Having watched him both in person and on the tube, I think he is pretty good at the format and that it plays to some of his strengths. And a town hall is a valuable tool for presidents because it brings the media focus to ordinary people and their problems, as well as making the commander-in-chief look like he's connecting with voters rather than sitting in the White House bubble. As an added bonus, such sessions get huge local coverage, as I'm sure happened yesterday in Indiana and today in Florida.

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More reporters would get questions -- only 13 were called on last night -- if Obama would give answers shorter than some of his marathon responses last night. : Why do longer answers trouble the media so? There was the same sort of complaint about Clinton's State of the Unions. It seems the American people don't have the attention span problems the media has.

Howard Kurtz: I have no problem with longer answers. Obama held my attention, even if Slate likened his performance to that of the constitutional law professor he once was. But I think more questions allows for a greater give and take.

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New York, N.Y.: "But then, the Democrats were courting trouble by including such items that could be easily ridiculed." I'm sorry, but this is a cop-out. When the media spends 90 percent of their time talking about 2 percent of the stimulus bill, the media has failed to do its job, regardless of what the Democrats did or didn't do.

Howard Kurtz: To say the media have spent 90 percent of their time talking about 2 percent of the bill is a huge exaggeration. I would say the biggest elements of the coverage have been a) whether it will work, b) the politics of getting it passed, and c) the fate of Obama's effort at bipartisanship, with all House Republicans and all but three Senate Republicans opposing the measure.

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Oviedo, Fla.: Why is so little attention being paid to the low number of women at the highest levels of the administration? His cabinet numbers are bested by W. and Clinton. Working photos almost always show him surrounded by men, often white men. I am discouraged by this, and the lack of notation it gets. Did he want the gangplank to power for just him? Not women, as so many feared by his staff's HRC diss?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe because of the symbolism of Hillary's appointment, and because the major women's groups, which support Obama, haven't made a big deal out of this. Plus, you do have important women on the White House staff, such as Carol Browner, and Janet Napolitano as the first woman to head Homeland Security.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: Chuck Todd (comment)

Chuck Todd was asked about his expression on "Morning Joe" and said that he couldn't hear the question and he was trying to find out what was being said, not expressing disgust at the question.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for that, re the A-Rod question.

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Hell's Kitchen, NYC: Per your column a few days ago: That the members of the pundit class have secure gigs while actual reporters have their paychecks on the line is a pretty big hint as to why the print media is in trouble. But I warn you: Watch your back. There is no shortage of grumpy guys with opinions about the media. Good, well-written reporting is hard to come by, though. When push comes to shove, isn't that where the investment should go?

What's It Worth To Ya? (Post, Feb. 6)

Howard Kurtz: This is why I concentrate on good, solid reporting as opposed to bloviating.

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Media bashing: the chatter wrote -- "When the media spends 90 percent of their time talking about 2 percent of the stimulus bill, the media has failed to do its job, regardless of what the Democrats did or didn't do."

Depends on the media you pay attention to. There are good sources of information out there that don't scream and shout from a television.

Howard Kurtz: That is true. Too many people's comments seem to focus so heavily on cable pundits that they forget there is plenty of substance in newspapers, magazines and some Web sites.

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Your take on the media/reality disconnect?: Doesn't the "widespread opposition" to the stimulus bill we keep hearing about on TV exist primarily in the minds of GOP politicians and cable news pundits? It sure isn't borne out by polling. Robert Gibbs recently said, "there's a conventional wisdom to what's going on in America via Washington, and there's the reality of what's happening in America." What's your take on this disconnect?

Howard Kurtz: I think the Washington press corps showed this disconnect by 1) assuming that Daschle would be confirmed and missing the significance of his tax problems, and 2) assuming the stimulus would sail through and missing the fact that it was unpopular not just with Republicans but some members of the public understandably skeptical after the banking bailout didn't accomplish much. As for polling, it has bounced around. I cited one survey the other day that had the stimulus bill down to 37 percent approval. The thing about this bill is that while many people see it as necessary, given our dire economic circumstances, nobody really loves it.

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Bipartisanship: What is the operational definition of bipartisanship as it applies to media coverage? If the Democrats conceive a bill, work on it within their party but get Republican votes, is it bipartisan? Alternatively, if Democrats get GOP input, put in GOP-requested provisions, take up their amendments, but the bill passes without a single GOP vote, is the bill bipartisan because of the process or is it partisan because of the vote?

Howard Kurtz: The short answer is that it takes two to tango. I don't think there's any question that Obama has reached out to the Republicans, and they have largely snubbed him on this bill. Their complaints are more focused on congressional Democratic leaders and how they have pushed the legislation -- which is ironic, since if anything, Republicans ran even greater roughshod over the Dems when they controlled the Hill. Bottom line: you can't have bipartisanship if one party refuses to play.

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Louisville, Ky.: Hello, Howard. Thanks for taking questions today. I enjoyed reading your analysis of Obama's first press conference. Granted, I'm slightly bitter with the lack of questions that WP reporter Michael Fletcher takes during the political chats, but do you believe that A-Rod is one of the top 13 issues facing this nation? I watched the press conference and thought it was serious and professional. And all of a sudden this question came out of left field.

washingtonpost.com: Obama's Prime Time Talkathon (Post, Feb. 10)

Howard Kurtz: Left field -- an appropriate metaphor. Yes, I could make an argument that instead there should have been a question about health care or immigration or dealing with the Russians. But the Rodriguez fiasco has been a front-page story and there's plenty of public interest in it. So I rule it in bounds.

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"good solid reporting": You reported that Tucker Carlson had been "banished" from MSNBC and he showed up on Morning Joe a few days afterward. I don't think "good solid reporting" means what you think it does.

Howard Kurtz: How about some good, solid reporting by questioners? Here's what I actually reported in September after the Democratic convention, as opposed to what you imagined I reported:

"Tucker Carlson, the Weekly Standard alumnus whose show was canceled in March, went to Denver expecting to be on 'Hardball' every night. But only the morning show hosted by former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough would use him."

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Rhode Island: Your colleague Robert Barnes, and other sources, have stated that constituent calls to congressional offices are largely against the stimulus.

Has anyone ever investigated how effective this tactic is in truly gauging public opinion? I am reminded of the immigration debate, and the first bank bailout, when congressional phone lines were being flooded with negative reaction. Much of it seemed funneled from Limbaugh and other right-wing talk radio hosts urging listeners to call their congressmen.

It could well be that the majority of their constituents agree with the need for a stimulus, but either don't call or can't be heard through the noise. Do congressmen tend put a lot of stock in phone calls and emails when deciding which way to vote?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's quite clear that a flood of calls to the Hill is hardly a snapshot of public opinion on an issue. Opponents may be ginned up, sometimes spurred by talk radio, while supporters remain silent or aren't passionate enough to call their members of Congress.

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Bluffton, S.C.: Howie - what happened to your blog the past two days? I depend on your discerning comments and excerpts from other commentary to get my daily political fix! As regards the press conference last night, how did a radio talk show fellow rate a front row seat?

Howard Kurtz: I've posted my blog the last two days. Just search for my name. Today I led with the story on the presser that I had to crash for the dead-tree edition last night, but included plenty of Web reaction afterward.

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GOP Tactics vs. Obama's Strategy: Howie, One thing that I think that has been under-reported is how strategic Obama's plan has been. Polling, even in this short-term, has shown the public like his approach and doesn't like the GOP's approach, despite the GOP winning the talking-heads-battle on cable news. Doesn't this all drive home the ironic and iconic line from the presidential debates about understanding the difference between strategy and tactics?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe. But we're still talking about 800 billion dollars and an ailing economy. A year from now, no one will care if Barack Obama was tactically brilliant in pushing the legislation. The only thing that will matter, as he has acknowledged, is whether the economy is improving and the stimulus is seen as having helped.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I am a big fan of "Reliable Sources" on CNN. However, the podcast no longer downloads (and hasn't since early January). Can you please have someone look into this?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. We're trying to get it restored.

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Falls Church, Va.: "At His First Prime-Time News Conference, Obama Is Serious and Expansive"

Howard, the copy people screwed up the headline for your article today. I assume it was supposed to read, "...Obama Is Seriously Expensive"

Howard Kurtz: Everybody's a comedian!

Actually, both are true.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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