Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; 1:00 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 Tuesday, Feb. 17, at 1 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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Long Island, N.Y.: Howard

As always, thanks for the chat.

Maybe I'm living in a vacuum out in the 'burbs, but I didn't hear anyone complaining about the timing of Obama's signing of the stimulus bill over the weekend.

Based on the segment I saw on Fox News, by not signing the bill over a holiday weekend, Obama was pulling a Nero and was fiddling while Rome burned by waiting.

Howard Kurtz: You know, I initially thought it was odd, given the great urgency in getting the bill passed, and it's become a conservative talking point. But the fact is, not one dollar would be spent on Saturday, Sunday or a federal holiday, with government offices and banks closed. And politically, of course, the president didn't want the news of his victory to be lost over a holiday weekend. The fact that he's signing this bill in Denver and not at the White House shows that his team has thought carefully about the stagecraft.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Howard, I read an item on the blogosphere to the effect that TV talk shows' coverage of the stimulus package relied almost entirely on spokespeople from the two factions, and that none have used economists to comment on the package. This seems incredible, but I do not make a habit of watching TV, so could you tell me if that's your impression? I think I've seem a couple of clips of Paul Krugman on the Net, but otherwise I've drawn a blank.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the item and haven't done a survey. Certainly newspapers have quoted plenty of economists and other experts in stories about the stimulus bill. But I can't recall seeing an economist (other than Krugman) on any news show I've watched, except in a brief clip--excluding CNBC. I'm sure I missed a couple, but this also suggests that the networks consider economists to be dull as talking heads, and that the bulk of the coverage has focused on the politics of the debate, rather than whether the $787 billion will succeed in jump-starting the economy.

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Manassas, Va.: An AP story about Obama signing the stimulus bill says: "The setting, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, is meant to underscore the investments the new law will make in "green" energy-related jobs."

He flew across the country to emphasize "green" jobs? Who is advising this guy?

Howard Kurtz: Seems entirely reasonable to me. Presidents routinely go to factories when they have an economic message, national parks when they have an environmental message, etc. I remember being in New Orleans when President Bush spent a few minutes helping some volunteers put up wooden frames for post-Katrina housing. Presidents (and presidential candidates) make great use of symbolism. And if they get out of the White House bubble and talk to real people on these trips, all the better.

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Prescott, Ariz.: Hi Howard. I'd like to agree with you regarding the disconnect between D.C. punditry and the public at large. After reading today's Media Notes I did an informal survey of 10 of my coworkers (a community college in Central Arizona) and only two knew who Judd Gregg was, and only one knew of his stepping down from the cabinet post. We are worried about our homes, our jobs, and our kids. The intramural stuff seems petty, much like rich athletes complaining about how many millions they'll make.

washingtonpost.com: Was Obama Misunderestimated? (Post, Feb. 17)

Howard Kurtz: Your informal survey sounds about right to me. Clearly, it's a significant news story when a Republican senator agrees to join a Democratic president's Cabinet and then abruptly backs out. But to hear all the chatter and read all the stories about how this was a "blow" and a "setback" and an "embarrassment" to Obama reminded me that those of us inside the Beltway often get too wrapped up in political process. The bottom line for the president is going to be whether this bill works, or is perceived as working. What always amuses me about these nomination flaps is that the media gave the Gregg story a thousand times more coverage than the Commerce Department will receive once a secretary is confirmed.

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Re: Pundits vs. everyone else: There was an article on the Huffington Post and Daily Kos yesterday that talks about the D.C. pundits awarding winner and loser status to members of Congress on the stimulus package that directly contradicts what the American people think about the package. How come such a disconnect? DC Journalists Love GOP Obstructionists, But Americans Don't (Huffington Post, Feb. 16)

Howard Kurtz: Whether the stimulus battle was good or bad for the Republicans is a subject of legitimate debate, and the piece you cite is one liberal's view of that debate. There is no question in my mind that the battered GOP was unified during the battle, and had more influence on the outcome that anyone might have expected (thanks in part to Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter). The final package tilted more toward tax cuts and cut what many Democrats see as important spending to accommodate Republican concerns. But I don't know how much this helps the GOP in the long run. A year from now, if the economy starts bouncing back, Obama and the Dems will take the credit. If the economy is still in dire shape, the GOP will be able to boast that it opposed a hugely expensive measure that didn't accomplish much.

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SW Nebraska: Regarding the trip to Denver, a popular program among those in my office has been about Air Force One and the extravagant cost of traveling about in it. While I'm glad Obama is in Denver 'cause it's a great city, the cost is exorbitant. Staging is nice but at what point does it look like a dramatic and unnecessary landing in San Diego harbor?

Howard Kurtz: Presidents need to travel, and they need to travel with top security and communications. The cost of Air Force One is a small price to pay, in my view, for having the leader of the country get out and visit some of the voters who elected him. Complaints about the jet fuel or whatever strike me as small-time carping.

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Obama's press conference: Last week you seemed to say you didn't like Obama's lengthy responses to questions. I, on the other hand, found it refreshing to hear him answer complicated questions thoughtfully and thoroughly without sound bytes. Did you really intend to suggest that politicians should aim only to give quick, dumbed down answers to important questions?

Howard Kurtz: You know -- guess what? -- I didn't intend to say that. Obama's ability to discuss issues in a thoughtful and nuanced way is one of his great strengths. Whether you support him or not, it is nice to see a president with that intellectual agility. But news conferences are also part theater. By going on and on after each question, Obama risked boring his audience and diluting his impact. I predict that as time goes on, you won't see him routinely giving 13-minute answers to reporters' questions.

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Gregg 2012: Perhaps Gregg becomes the poster boy for fiscal responsibility, and with increased "loyal opposition" to the administration, sets up for a presidential run in 2012. A moderate New England Republican maybe couldn't get reelected to his Senate seat, but what about nationwide?

Howard Kurtz: Judd Gregg for president? Forgive me if I don't hold my breath. He hasn't made much of a mark in the Senate. He may be a good lawmaker, but I've never heard him mentioned for national office. And how would the GOP's conservative base feel about a candidate who, however briefly, agreed to join a Democratic Cabinet?

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Gregg Who?: My informal surveys always show the same, that the people don't care about 95 percent of what gets people so riled up in these chats. We're all, right, left, and center, like hobbyists. Perhaps, in addition to Obama making time to leave the capital to talk to real people, that the Beltway crowd do the same?

Howard Kurtz: I just hope they don't all leave at once. The traffic jam would be monstrous.

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New York : So Obama should ration jet fuel? Does anyone remember that Bush set an all-time record for vacations, something like 1/6 of his time being spent on vacation on the public purse? This is just getting silly, and a huge compliment to Obama, if this is the best that the critics can come up with.

Howard Kurtz: Next we'll hear that the cost of protecting him in Chicago is too great and the process too disruptive. But he doesn't have a ranch or a beachfront compound, so get used to it. I for one think it's healthy for a president to spend his down time in a real city, and help the economy by eating in real restaurants.

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SW Nebraska: "small time carping" -- Howard, this is a Republican state. Small time carping is what we are about. The economy hasn't hit us out here, yet. But, please, don't mention the farm bill.

Howard Kurtz: Every state, regardless of its politics, is hurting right now, and every governor -- including several Republicans who supported the stimulus bill -- is going to be grateful for the billions that will limit the number of layoffs and service cutbacks he or she will have to impose. Aid to state governments isn't sexy, but it will probably wind up preserving as many jobs as any other comparable part of the package.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: "A moderate New England Republican maybe couldn't get reelected to his Senate seat, but what about nationwide?"

No chance whatsoever. There's a reason McCain had to hold his nose and give the Moosehunter the VP spot, versus Lieberman.

Howard Kurtz: I think the other reason was that Lieberman was, whaddya call it, a Democrat.

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Seattle, Wash.: Good Morning!

Hopefully, this will be your only Octomom question: Do we know if NBC paid Nadya Suleman any money for those interviews with Anne Curry?

Howard Kurtz: Yes. We know that NBC did not pay a dime. Nor did NBC do what networks sometimes do and fork over cash to the Octomom in the guise of buying her personal photos.

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Hamden, Conn.: Why aren't transcripts for the most recent "Reliable Sources" programs available from CNN?

Howard Kurtz: They are now available on the State of the Union page. I'm going to see if we can get our separate page restored.

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Rochester, N.H.: When Gregg removed himself from the Commerce post just about every "pundit" said that it was Obama's failure. I'm trying to wrap my mind around this -- Obama reaches out his hand to Gregg and Gregg slaps it. It's Obama's failure?

Howard Kurtz: My feelings are similar. Obama proposes, Gregg accepts, Obama gives him a ring, they set a date, and he jilts the president at the altar. And this is the president's fault? Huh? How could any "vetting" have foreclosed that option? And this media narrative persisted even after Gregg said it was entirely his mistake to have accepted the post. In fairness, though, some of the journalists and pundits did fault Gregg, or blamed both sides.

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Washington, D..C: " Next we'll hear that the cost of protecting him in Chicago is too great and the process too disruptive."

Actually, SNL already covered this ground last week, with the GOP (headed by Dan Akroyd) planning on attacking Malia's extravagant sleepovers. Can't be any weirder than some of the stuff they went after Clinton over.

Howard Kurtz: I saw that. Personally, I'd leave Malia out of it, even for comedic purposes. Even though it wasn't a knock at her, the kids should be off-limits.

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Economists on TV: The NewsHour on TV has had lots of them. Rivlin, Feldstein and others. Just have to know where to look and be willing to listen for more than a few seconds.

Howard Kurtz: An excellent point. Jim Lehrer thanks you.

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Who, then, in 2012?: The punditry thought McCain was too centrist to get the nomination. I get that "fiscal conservative, social liberal" is not what the GOP base can get fired up about, but at some point don't they have to consider the general election?

Howard Kurtz: The fact that John McCain did get the nomination shows that many Republican voters were more concerned with winning the election than with ideological purity. Although McCain lost, he arguably ran a stronger race than many of the also-rans would have been able to mount against Obama.

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Seatttle, Wash.: I have no issue with Obama using Air Force One to travel...he needs to for security reasons.

What I can't stand are these political junkets used by members in Congress. The latest and greatest is the trip to Europe by 5 Dems and 5 Reps and their spouses. For what...seeing the nice cities in Europe? I am a civilian employee....and I cant fly first class for work in any way shape or form -- can't even use a mileage upgrade.

Howard Kurtz: Some of these are actual fact-finding missions -- I don't think lawmakers go to Afghanistan for the scenery -- but yes, congressional junkets are often a huge waste of taxpayers' money.

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Charleston, S.C.: Howard,

One of the biggest dangers of politicians making moral right/wrong declarations is how it opens them up to charges of hypocrisy. Obama has been clear that he views corporate trips/meetings as a wasteful and "shameful" expense that they should not bear at this time. These trips benefit the economy and the middle class workers at these resorts and hotels. How does an unnecessary "junket" to Denver to sign a bill help the economy? Any chance the press will pick up on this hypocrisy?

Howard Kurtz: Read my lips: It's not a junket. Obama is not going there to ski or play tennis or dine in the city's excellent restaurants. It's a political trip with Denver as the backdrop, after which he will turn around and go on to his next stop. To suggest that it's comparable to corporate executives spending three or four days at some resort is just silly.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: I"ve noticed that conservative pundits are going out of their way to avoid using the term "President Obama" when writing about our newly elected president. He is simply Barack or Barack Obama without the title. Sometimes it's worse -- name calling. Is this unconscious sour grapes? (I did a 30-day Google word search on this and Barack Obama" come out five to one over "President Obama".) Comment?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't noticed that, but lots of people, including me, called President Bush "W," especially in his first year. I can't get too worked up about it.

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GOP's dirty work on CNN?: GOP operative Alex Castellanos was on CNN throughout the presidential campaign, which makes some sense since he was in the capacity of "Republican campaign consultant." But what business did he have being on television commenting on the stimulus and reinvestment package -- or really anything other than dirty campaign tactics, which is where his expertise lies? Why is CNN still giving this guy a platform from which to do his dirty work for the GOP?

Howard Kurtz: I don't get why you would single him out. CNN has a long list of both conservative and liberal pundits -- on the left there is James Carville, Paul Begala and Donna Brazile, to name just a few. There was a great political debate over this stimulus fight, so naturally CNN -- like every cable news channel -- had political commentators on to argue about it. It might have been better, as we noted earlier, for the networks to have more economists on. But to my knowledge Castellanos, like all the CNN pundits, is never on without being paired with someone from the opposite side.

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Calabasas, Calif.: Howie:

I'm a big, big fan of Reliable Sources!

A few weeks ago you mentioned that the Reliable Sources segment would have a definite starting time, so I did not have to search through four hours of John King's show. Has one been assigned?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's always had the same starting time, 10 am easter on Sundays (sometimes a couple of minutes earlier). The confusion arose from the TiVo and DVR listings. Reliable Sources can now be recorded under State of the Union- 10 am or State of the Union-Reliable. Thanks for asking.

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The Leader of the Modern Conservative Movement: In your informed opinion, is the current leader of the modern conservative movement Rush Limbaugh or "Joe the Plumber"? Enquiring minds want to know.

Howard Kurtz: I was under the impression it was Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.

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Senator from Ohio: Did the Republicans really force a senator from Ohio to leave his mother's wake to vote on the stimulus bill? They wanted to filibuster so badly that not even a funeral would get in there way? The majority was in favor of the bill had passed the bill that last vote was simply needed to break a filibuster. Why is this good politics? This is the party for years jumped up and down proclaiming to be focused on "family values". I just do not get why this way thought to be a decent thing to do.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know that it can be blamed on the Republicans. Sherrod Brown wanted to vote on the bill, and the Democrats held open the vote so he could do so. He was leaving not the funeral but some kind of memorial service for his mother, who had died the previous week. And the Democrats had 60 votes without him, so strictly speaking, he didn't have to fly back to Washington.

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President Gregg : Actually, Mr. Gregg even seems to be closing the door to running for reelection, and he may be joining the ranks of GOP senators who will be ex-politicians soon. New Hampshire doesn't look like a good base for that party anymore.

Howard Kurtz: Small states usually aren't. Harder to raise money, for one thing. And the Republican Party's base is in the South and West, as is evident from the fact that there are no GOP House members from New England. It's no accident that the party's most recent presidential nominees were from Arizona, Texas, Kansas and California.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Howard:

Great stuff as always. I'm puzzled by something, however. How is it the right wing talkies are getting so much attention as "new leaders of the right wing" these days?

The presidential candidates they pushed the hardest for last year (Giuliani, Romney) were among the first to be eliminated from the Republican race.

That tells me the public is saying, "We like listening to you but that doesn't necessarily mean you speak for us." So, outside of being loud, why are Limbaugh, Hannity, etc., considered so relevant by the other media?

Howard Kurtz: For one thing, they have a big audience. For another, there's kind of a vacuum right now in a Republican Party that got whipped in the election and controls no branch of government. That makes the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity more prominent than they might be otherwise. Plus, the media loves chattering about them.

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Subject of legitimate debate?: Take a look at today's Gallup polls. All of the sudden Americans are really liking Democrats in Congress and really hating on the GOP. But, at least the GOP keeps winning media cycles!

Congress' Approval Rating Jumps to 31 Percent (Gallup, Feb. 17)

Howard Kurtz: The poll doesn't quite say that. The improvement reflects the fact that Democrats are feeling more positive about Congress. That's hardly surprising, since both houses passed in record time a stimulus bill that both holds the promise of helping an ailing economy and funds Democratic priorities such as education, health care and renewable energy in a major way. Says Gallup:

"Democrats' average approval ratings of Congress more than doubled from January (18%) to February (43%). Independents show a smaller increase, from 17% to 29%, while Republicans are now less likely to approve of Congress than they were in January."

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Reagan's Tax Cut(s): I repeatedly hear media folks talk about Reagan's Tax Cuts, as if there were more than one. Reagan had a historic tax cut in 1981. After that he had the historic tax increase of '82 and the increases of '84. '86 and '87. The guy was serious enough to deal with economic conditions with a variety of tax policies.

Howard Kurtz: Many Republicans prefer to dwell on 1981, it's true. And for all his conservatism, Ronald Reagan did not appreciatively cut the level of government spending.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard,

This is a bit late, but I've missed your past couple of chats. You had a comment a few weeks ago regarding licensing of journalists, which I believe you disagreed with, and which I do as well, except...

If a federal shield law were passed, I would definitely support some sort of licensing/registry for journalists. Maybe they could be exempt if they work for a set of organizations (established newspapers, networks, blogs, all that may have to seek some credential granting credential themselves), and if not, they need to pass an exam that includes ethics and best practices (don't source anonymous unless absolutely necessary, etc.). I know, I know, this opens up all sorts of questions, like what would the criteria and curriculum be, but hey, we've done it with doctors and engineers -- heck, even hairdressers have to be licensed. It's just, with what I've seen the past decade, I no longer buy this portrayal of journalists as this altruistic group, just looking to illuminate the truth. Too many have shown they either have an agenda or just want to get ahead, or both, and sometimes they're putting my family at physical risk.

Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Who would draw up the exam? Who would be in charge of administering it? I understand the need to define journalist for shield law purposes and the debate over whether bloggers should be covered. But passing some test doesn't ensure that journalists would be more fair than they are now.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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