Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 23, 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: Anchors Twittering Their Lives Away

He was online Wednesday, Feb. 23, 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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Washington, D.C.: I have been watching quite a bit of those Political Cable News shows this year what with the election and there isn't a whole lot of diversity when it comes to the pundit shows you see on MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News. In the case of MSNBC for example, there appears to be an underlying prequisite to getting your own show -- you must be Male, Irish (Catholic optional) to be a host. Any efforts from the networks to address the lack of diversity?

Howard Kurtz: The pundits with shows are mostly men. All men on Sunday morning, mostly men in prime-time cable. But MSNBC has proven that you don't have to be a man, or a heterosexual, to host a program, since Rachel Maddow has enjoyed some quick success with her new show.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Just as Twitter is largely content-free form of blogging, I find the recent trend of "live-Twittering" an event to be a largely content-free form of covering an event. Reading one of Chris Cillizza's live-Twitterings is a truly mind-numbing experience (and I otherwise like Cilizza's blog). Contrary to what is said in the article, it seems to me this fad is just a way for the Washington elite to chatter amongst themselves more so than really reaching out to understand what the rest of America thinks. We don't care if David Gregory is going to have a bagel before the show. We care if he's going to ask questions (and get answers) relevant to our lives.

washingtonpost.com: Today's Column: Anchors Twittering Their Lives Away (Post, Feb. 23)

Howard Kurtz: Well, I care deeply whether he has a bagel. Gregory even twittered about the lox served after the show.

Look, Twitter may turn out to be a fad, and I noted in my piece that it has an incestuous quality. But I've got 2,900 people following me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/HowardKurtz), and they aren't all Beltway insiders by a long shot. I happen to think it's good that big-shot TV anchors are making an attempt to engage with their viewers. Politicians, pro athletes and CEOs are among those posting on Twitter. It has its limitations, but it's also an intriguing form of communication.

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Arlington, Va.: You wrote another article last week about the financial conditions of newspapers and the problems with "giving it away" on the Internet. How does the free Washington Post Express fit into this analysis? I know the articles are shorter but since the Express involves other expenses that the Internet does not have, I wonder why it makes economic sense to give it away. For 75 cents or thereabouts I get the Post delivered to my home, which to me is a great deal. Would it make sense to do away with home delivery and give the Post away for free? P.S. I miss Book World.

washingtonpost.com: How Low Will Newspapers' Ad Revenues Go? (Post, Feb. 19)

Howard Kurtz: I miss Book World too, although Outlook had three pages of book reviews yesterday in its reincarnated form.

I've never fully understood the business model of free papers such as Express (obviously they produce some ad revenue, and the theory is that they reach young people who otherwise wouldn't bother to buy The Post or other large metro daily). But in my humble opinion, The Post is a bargain at 75 cents. This is not the time for newspapers to be giving up a key part of their revenue. People who spend lots of dollars on lattes or iTunes or cable or satellite radio or whatever have to decide whether the reporting and writing in a daily newspaper is worth a few bucks a week.

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Re- Condit: Howard, I wish you would have spent a little more time yesterday talking about Gary Condit.

Fact is, many cable talking heads and others all but, and in some cases out and out did, accuse this man of murder or covering up a homicide.

Why do I doubt we'll be hearing any apologies?

And I don't think your "he wasn't very forthcoming" is an excuse for the shameful way he was treated.

washingtonpost.com: In 'Condit Country,' Wounds Are Reopened (Post, Feb. 23)

Howard Kurtz: Not a single talking head that I'm aware of accused Gary Condit of murder. What they accused the then-congressman of was not being forthcoming about his relationship with Chandra Levy or fully cooperative with the police investigation. No doubt some unfair things were said in the embarrassing media frenzy that surrounded the Chandra case, but we've known for eight years that Condit wasn't the killer. Nor, for that matter, was he a choir boy. He was, after all, a married man carrying on with a congressional intern.

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Alexandria, Va.: So, are now all editorial cartoons with drawings of monkeys/chimps/apes racist?

I could have looked at that cartoon a hundred times and never thought the "chimp" was Obama.

It was a stupid cartoon. Not because it was racist but because it was stupid.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the New York Post saw fit to apologize, and the paper isn't in the habit of apologizing for material that is merely stupid.

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Northville, N.Y. : I find the cable and network coverage of the financial crisis to be close to unwatchable. No matter what your political stance is, there are serious economic issues and complex problems involving a diverse variety of industries and countries, but the nets and the cables view everything as if we were still in the campaign. The whole financial system may be in the process of collapse, but it's vital that we know who won the last news cycle. And the 'analysis' is basically on the fourth grade level. I'm starting to wonder: do you think that we have now reached the point where our country is too decadent, too intent on entertaining itself, to save itself? This is a serious question.

Howard Kurtz: The paucity of economists or financial experts on the air discussing the crisis (except on CNBC) is pretty depressing. I don't think anyone knows the answer to whether the stimulus will work, whether major banks will have to be analyzed, etc. But the people who traffic in political strategy sure don't.

At the same time, you can't talk about this in a vacuum. The way that Obama conceived, sold and compromised on the stimulus package, the near-unanimous opposition of the Republican Party, the carping by GOP governors, the public anger at Wall Street, all of these are important parts of the story. So political analysts have something to contribute here as well.

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Stunned in Florida: After working on renovations all day Saturday, we collapsed onto the couch and began looking for local news. Unable to move, we wound up watching NBC's newscast with Lester Holt. We were stunned to see a story about how much better life is for Iraqi women than it was a couple of years ago. A positive story about Iraq? On NBC? Wow.

Howard Kurtz: There have been a number of positive stories on Iraq in the last year since the surge helped lead to a drastic reduction in violence. But there haven't been that many stories on Iraq overall. Television in particular has grown tired of the war and pulled correspondents out of Baghdad. As long as there's not a major resumption in violence -- especially the kind that results in American deaths -- I expect Iraq to continue to be a back-burner story.

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Evanston, Ill.: Hey Howie, Can you tell me the last important thing Bernard Goldberg has said? This guy is a total hack who has only one thing to say. It seems like the radical leftists and radical right wingers can't grasp how vastly the media landscape has changed and are peddling the same media narratives as they did 25 years ago. Do you take him seriously or do you realize he is just doing schtick?

Howard Kurtz: He's a former CBS correspondent who has written a number of best-selling books. My job, when he comes on my program, as he did yesterday, is to press him on what he writes and whether he has made the case for pro-Obama bias in the media or is simply pushing a conservative line through selective evidence.

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Port Ewen,NY: In an earlier discussion, S. Murray was asked "I keep hearing from prominent Republicans like Bobby Jindal that the stimulus money is going to a high-speed rail line from L.A. to Vegas. Yet I've read other reports that this is not true, and the high-speed rail money is not earmarked for that project. Which is true?"

Shailagh Murray: It's not true. The high-speed rail money will be awarded through a competitive process run by the DOT. There are a number of proposed high-speed rail lines around the country; I imagine those in the most advanced planning stages will have an advantage, and I honestly don't know if Las Vegas-L.A. qualifies. It may -- and in fact it may be a worthy project. But reports that portray this money as earmarked for specific projects are inaccurate."

My question is, if it is so apparent that what the governor is saying is untrue, what responsibility is it for the media to report this...not just on a blog, but as news?

Howard Kurtz: We have a responsibility to point it out when politicians say things that are provably untrue, and not just on blogs.

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Washington, D.C.: I have been thinking about this lately as the Chandra Levy case has re-surfaced into the conscience of American society -- Anytime I see a national case about the disapperance of a young woman or child, they always seem to be caucasian. Now, don't get me wrong, I think ANY help that can be afforded to any missing person can and should be done. However, I can honestly say, that I cannot recollect one case about a young African-American or Hispanic woman/child going missing. (Locally, yes. Nationally, no. i.e. the Pamela Butler case in which she has been missing for more than a week). I'm not saying there have been none, I just cannot personally recall any.

Could you help me understand why the media fails so miserably in this arena? What is the rationale, or do you think that this doesn't even seem to be an issue amongst those controlling the make-up of the news?

Howard Kurtz: It's what I've called the Missing White Women syndrome on cable news and the morning shows. And not just any missing white women. They generally have to be middle class, and it helps if they're attractive. There is little question that television takes these sad, isolated cases and pumps them up into national melodramas: Natalee, Stacy, Laci and the rest. What made the Chandra case noteworthy in 2001 -- but does not excuse the out-of-control media frenzy that followed -- was that she was a former congressional intern having an affair with a member of Congress. But in the spate of MWW soap operas that followed, the media didn't even need that fig leaf. There was nothing in the subsequent cases that made them anything other than local crime stories hyped for a national audience. Same seems to go for television's coverage of missing or murdered children, a la Caylee -- they almost never seem to be minorities.

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Baltimore, Md.: I liked your column today. I always thought Twitter wasn't all that useful for journalists except for tips which could be sent via e-mail or described through a phone call, but it seems I was wrong. Thanks for some good examples.

On your lead subject, however. Now, I realize it's early days on MTP for David Gregory, but I thought Gov. Bobby Jindal just ran all over him yesterday. And when David Gregory did get to do a follow-up, it seemed to me it lacked immediacy. The worst for me was when Gov. Jindal stated "...I work for the taxpayers of Louisiana". Seemed to me that was a seminal statement and ripe for follow-up. Doesn't a governor work for all citizens of their state, not just taxpayers? Is this why there seems to be such a disconnect between Republicans and the populace right now, in that Republicans only want to see "taxpayers" and not people? I was disappointed to not see David Gregory ask a similar question. Frankly, MTP just served as a forum for Jindal's 2012 campaign rather than a thoughtful discussion and interview. Nothing seemed unscripted. So, do you think we'll be seeing a new MTP anchor next fall?

Sorry this is so long -- please feel free to edit if you want to use it.

Howard Kurtz: I did not see the interview; perhaps I'd better check Gregory's Twitter feed to see his take on it. But "I work for the taxpayers" seems like a commonly uttered political cliche; would Jindal suggest that he doesn't work on behalf of the children of Louisiana, who don't pay taxes? I would have trained my fire more on Jindal saying he's rejecting part of the stimulus money -- a tiny fraction, as it turns out, which would benefit those in his state who are unemployed.

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Re: Northville: Howard, the coverage on CNBC is worse than anyone else's. Yeah they bring on Nouriel Rubini and Nassim Taleb and then the idiots hosting the programs start asking for stock tips. I know its mission is to create conflict entertainment out of financial news, but really this is a time to be serious, even if you are CNBC!

Howard Kurtz: I've seen some serious coverage of CNBC (leaving Rick Santelli's rant aside for the moment). The problem is, why should we believe the Wall Street analysts and fund managers who talked up the economy during the bubble and provided no clue of the hugely risky behavior that has now decimated the banking system and much of the country?

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Washington, D.C.: I recall hearing that the cost of the newspaper is supposed to cover production and distribution (ink, paper, distribution, etc.), while the advertising covers salaries except for pressman wages which are part of physical production and distribution. I also know that charging a nominal fee for something is an easy way to impose a control mechanism on tracking readership. Eventually, circulation fraud will work its way onto the balance sheet through reader revenues, not just ad revenues, and so tracking dimes and quarters makes it tougher to exaggerate. Charging for newspapers also limits their circulation just like charging even $5 co-pay for a doctor's visit will control costs on use. It kicks the decision into the economic side of the brain where the default setting is against spending.

I don't understand why no one is speaking about the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia papers last night. There is a lot of stuff melting down these days though.

Howard Kurtz: The Philly bankruptcy story broke at 10:30 last night; I managed to get a story into our later editions.

Charging for newspapers limits their circulation? You could say the same about charging for food. I'd get new cars more frequently if dealers didn't have the annoying habit of charging many thousands of dollars for them. No operation that employs reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists, critics, sportswriters and the like -- not to mention one that maintains bureaus around the country and world -- can give away its product for free and stay in business.

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Crisis Coverage on CNBC: Howard --

Unfortunately for every economist on CNBC, there's about three talking heads, some who are on the borderline of hysterical on some issues (e.g. Santelli's rant on the mortgage plan with his trading floor guys -- who aren't exactly blameless in this mess -- agreeing with him).

There are things that CNBC does well, but the eight people on the screen stuff borders on the inane.

Howard Kurtz: I was simply making the point that while financial "experts" -- and I use the word guardedly -- are a rare presence on other news programs and channels, they are usually front and center on CNBC.

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Nosy Parker: Most annoying innovation lat night: Interspersing clips of the Best Movie nominees with snippets of supposedly comparable scenes from classic films; this seemed just plain confusing, at least for a viewer whose bedtime it was already past (yawn).

Howard Kurtz: Every year we hear that the Oscars show is going to be new and improved and more interesting, and every year it's...not.

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Please Make It Stop: Please, Mr. Kurtz there simply must be something you can do to stop the impending avalanche of Chandra Levy-related stories. It was awful when she went missing, hideous when her body was found and this arrest is going to be even worse. In a time of economic gloom and let's face it reading about how awful things are does not sell well, the murder of a young women will be exploited beyond any sense of decorum, appropriateness or good taste. This has to be stopped before it starts. Each paper may have one well done story about the case and arrest and then stop.

Howard Kurtz: I think there's enough interest in the case that it should be covered. But I truly hope we're not headed into Round 2 of the frenzy.

Of course, one of the reasons this story has gotten traction, even before any arrest warrant is issued, is Chandra's parents, who have been making the morning show rounds and providing information about the investigation to reporters. They've adopted a strategy of trying to keep their daughter's case in the news, so this is not a case of callous news organization invading their privacy or being indifferent to their feelings.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Howard It seems that we have been saturated with "coverage" about the impending "arrest,, "charging," whatever of the alleged killer of Ms. Levy. How did word of this get out several days BEFORE any action is to occur? The Levy family, throughout this entire terrible ordeal, has been pretty media savvy. Did they release this latest story after a call from authorities last week that an arrest was about to be made? I can't imagine the police would have done this until they actually served the papers/made the arrest. Your thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: D.C. Police Believed Close to Arrest in Levy Case (Post, Feb. 22)

Howard Kurtz: As I noted, the Levy family has been telling reporters about what is being reported as the impending arrest warrant, and journalists are confirming this through law enforcement sources. Last year's Washington Post series on the case, which named the imprisoned Salvadoran immigrant as the likely killer, also seems to have been a factor in the police work.

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Alexandria, Va.: Howard, will so called paparazzo outlets like TMZ ever be charged with some form of invasion of privacy charges -- after the release of those horrific photos of singer Rhianna after being beaten by her so-called boyfriend Chris Brown? It's no wonder women who are victims of domestic abuse find the courage to leave their abusive partners when they too can have their pictures broadcast in public for all to gawk at it..

Howard Kurtz: I thought the leak of the LAPD photo of Rihanna was terrible. I mean, her badly bruised face made clear the severity of the assault. But imagine if that was your daughter?

TMZ, which has broken some good stories (the Mel Gibson and Michael Richards tirades), doesn't deny that it pays for pictures and footage. If there's a major prosecution that has taken place in this country based on privacy laws, I'm not aware of it. But in any event, TMZ didn't take the picture; the Web site obtained it from some source.

But you know what? Every news organization that carried that Rihanna photo, or plastered it all over television, is just as culpable as TMZ. They got the fruits of a despicable leak without getting their hands dirty, and they used it to drive the story.

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Affair with Congressional Intern: Just a clarification, Levy wasn't a congressional intern. Not excusing his behavior though.

Howard Kurtz: Right - she was an intern with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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washingtonpost.com: Special Report: Who Killed Chandra Levy?

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Woodbridge, Va.: I agree with your points about missing white women and kids. Nancy Grace is the current queen of that genre of media exploitation -- have you ever seen any alleged news show so single-mindedly devoted to an issue as her "Where is Caylee" headlines night after night? The other night, I saw "Where is Haleigh" on the screen, so I guess she's found another family's tragedy to leech on now.

I'm the father of three adorable, blond, blue-eyed girls. If, God forbid, one of them ever went missing, and Nancy Grace or anyone showed up at my house, I'd go ballistic.

Howard Kurtz: All I can say is, she's not alone. And it's not just cable television that goes haywire over these missing or murdered women and girls. The network morning shows do it too.

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Kensington, Md.: Regarding your article on the financial troubles of papers:

I just wanted to point out that for most of history, the press operated on small scale and SPECIALIZED. The model of the large newspaper that does a bit of everything is I think the anomaly, and is clearly no longer viable. The Internet makes it simple to get a lot of information from multiple sources.

No amount of revamping of Web sites or clever marketing is going to change that. Scale back and do what you're good at. That's why the WSJ can charge for its online content -- at the core, what it's charging for it does better than anyone else.

For what it's worth, Pearlstein was asking the same questions a few months ago, and he agrees with me.

Howard Kurtz: The WSJ is an excellent newspaper, but it can charge for its Web site mainly because it has a very affluent audience, many of whom charge the subscription fee to their corporate expense accounts.

The Internet, with its seemingly endless variety of sources, is a wonderful tool that benefits everyone, including journalists. But you miss this central point: Most of the original reporting--especially at the local level--that is recycled, redistributed and chewed over on a zillion Web sites comes from newspapers. Not all of it, but a significant chunk. If newspapers vanish -- and the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News yesterday became the latest to slide into bankruptcy -- all those Web sites will lose a primary source of information.

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Falls Church, Va.: So how vindicated is the Washington Post after that 12-part Chandra Levy series it ran last summer?

Howard Kurtz: The latest events should certainly silence the critics who accused the paper of dredging up a seven-year-old case for reasons of sensationalism. That front-page series may or may not have been overplayed, but Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham did dig up new information.

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Bizarro World: You hit the nail on the head about financial coverage: what are the traders and financial manipulators who have ruined us with their greed doing on the air telling us about their pet ways to solve the problem? After Pearl Harbor, was Charles Lindbergh all over the radio publicizing his isolationist world view? After the Iraq disaster, were neocons all over the media talking about how important it is for the U.S. military to spread democracy throughout the world? Okay, bad example.

Howard Kurtz: Point taken.

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Fairfax, Va.: HK: No operation that employs reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists, critics, sportswriters and the like -- not to mention one that maintains bureaus around the country and world -- can give away its product for free and stay in business.

Uh, what about broadcast television and ad-supported Web sites run by media organizations (e.g. espn.com)?

Howard Kurtz: Television and Web sites are built on a different model, one that relies on advertising to pay the bills. Take away the ad revenue and they're outta business. That's why networks are so quick to cancel any show whose ratings (especially in the key ADVERTISING demo) drop significantly.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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