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Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 2, 2009; 11:00 AM

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."

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Today's Column: ABC's Man in a Hurry

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


Honolulu, Hawaii: Fox and CNN gave Rush Limbaugh an uninterrupted hour plus to demonize President Obama and the new administration on Saturday. Can you name any other unelected person who has had such free access to two networks? I can see why he opposes the fairness doctrine.

Howard Kurtz: Do you know how many hours of Obama speeches the cable networks carry (as they did Bush speeches and Clinton speeches before that)? I don't have any problem with the cable channels giving Rush an hour late on a Saturday afternoon, when nothing was going on except the CPAC conference. And Limbaugh's speech has certainly generated plenty of reaction.


British Columbia: Good morning Howie, and thanks for the chat. I'm not a conservative but Tucker Carlson said something the other day that I wish people from all political spectrums would read: Do some digging for information, don't just go along with opinions and punditry. Too often cable news and pundits throw out opinions that aren't based in fact and people suck it up like it's the gospel truth. Since most media outlets' fact finders seemed to disappear after the election, Tucker is calling for us to be our own fact finders. YAY! What a good idea! Take responsibility for insuring you are getting the best and truest information, not just turning on the TV or computer and "receiving." Your column helps with this too, Howie, and thanks for that.

Howard Kurtz: I totally agree on the digging front. To be fair, there are plenty of TV reporters (as well as newspapers) who work the phones and develop sources and break stories. Because we all pay so much attention to the nighttime cable shows, there's a tendency to assume that the pundits and loudmouths on during those hours are the face of journalism. They're not.


Re: Paul Harvey: Howard, I think the Post did Paul Harvey a grave disservice and in fact owes him a correction for this sentence in the obituary that ran this weekend: "'Paul Harvey News and Comment' was a distinctive blend of rip-and-read headline news, quirky feature stories and, usually, a quick congratulation to a couple who had been married for 75 years or so."

Paul Harvey did not "rip-and-read." His scripts were clearly written not only specifically for radio but specifically for (and in most cases, by) him. Putting aside whether you agreed with his politics (I didn't) or considered him folksy and old-fashioned, Paul Harvey was one of the best writers for radio in history.

In journalism class in college in the 70s we were encouraged to listen to his newscasts for the quality of his writing. My teacher, by the way, was a Washington correspondent for a major Eastern newspaper, so he wasn't exactly part of Paul Harvey's natural audience. Even he respected Harvey's writing.

I really think the Post should correct that obituary in some way. It's not only factually incorrect, it's virtually an insult to Paul Harvey. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I would not have used rip and read. When he read items that were in the news, it was always in his inimitable style.


Knoxville, Tenn.: CNN's new double standard : It was interesting waiting for the end of "hate-talk" radio's Rush Limbaugh's speech Saturday at CPAC. I was expecting to hear a 15 or 20 minutes of fiery debate between conservative and liberal voices after the 85 minute vitriolic ramblings of Limbaugh...the scandal- ridden voice of the GOP. But imagine my surprise when the speech ends and CNN has no liberals on to refute or comment on Limbaugh only conservatives and reporters nodding their heads in unison. Every time Pres. Clinton or VP Gore speak CNN always is ready with 2 or 3 conservative voices to criticize their words but apparently this is the new CNN policy: let conservatives say anything they want to CNN will not complain.

Howard Kurtz: Your description of Limbaugh as representing hate radio shows your strong views on the subject. And the notion that CNN unleashes conservative commentators after the president, any president, speaks is just wrong. CNN prides itself on bringing on balanced teams of pundits from the left and right. Check out the Situation Room or Campbell Brown or Anderson Cooper and that's what you'll see. The likes of Carville and Begala are generally paired with the conservatives.


"Class-warfare" media bias?: Just read on 538.com (Sean Quinn) reporting that a reporter said after Gibbs's press briefing the other day, "Did you notice all the questions about taxes came from reporters making over $250,000 a year, especially the TV guys?" My question to you, Howie, is how much do you think the fact that certain reporters make a lot of money has to do with the questions they ask & how they report the news?

LINK: BREAKING: Press Corps Incredulous That Obama Budget Reflects Campaign Promises (FiveThirtyEight, Feb. 26)

Howard Kurtz: I raised this on my show yesterday. I noted that Bill O'Reilly (who makes $10 million-plus a year) and Neil Cavuto were sitting around talking about how they were going to get hammered under the Obama tax plan. I do think if you make over 250K and many of the people you know are in that category it can have a subtle influence on your reporting or commentary. (Not in all cases, obviously.) The same was true when Bush was cutting taxes in a way that disproportionately helped the affluent.


Slidell, La.: Concerning the issue of showing the coffins of the military arriving in Dover, Del., what is the big issue with this? This seems to me to be another inside the Beltway or purely journalistic issue. The Pentagon has released pictures of an aircraft full of remains which tells the story. This picture is put up on the TV when the story needs a visual. The casualty count with the names is widely published. Why were some journalists so livid that they could not have the possibility of a picture of every set of remains to match? What value, incremental or otherwise, does it serve to have a "fresh" picture that will be the same?

I don't know that the general public or I would benefit by having additional pictures of this sad event. I do know that the families may rather have their privacy. As one of your panelists said yesterday, once the first set of remains is photographed by the press, what will happen when the next set arrives in 6 hours?

Howard Kurtz: The issue, quite simply, is that the government was censoring these pictures, and I have no doubt that the intent was to minimize coverage of American casualties. Keep in mind that families could decide (and can still decide) whether they wanted coverage or not. Of course, now that the Obama administration has reversed the policy, I wonder how many of these ceremonies for the fallen the media will actually cover, at least after the first one or two.


Savannah, Ga.: Jake Tapper seems determined to make himself the story. I'm disappointed you would feed into his narcissism by devoting a column to him.

Howard Kurtz: Tapper is one of the most aggressive reporters covering national politics, and one of the few who was willing to challenge the media's soft treatment of candidate Obama, on the record, during the campaign. It's hardly unheard-of for network correspondents to attract attention. But Jake is a digger, and it's interesting that people in both parties told me that while they get ticked at him on occasion, they regard him as fair.


The Disconnect?: Howie, TV reporters covering the Obama budget seemed to be talking their book. Do they realize their clients/audience don't have the same concerns as personalities with seven and eight figure contracts? The coverage was so focused on the misrepresented expiration of the 2001 tax laws, and so little on the payroll and health care issues that matter to me and 99 percent of Americans.

Howard Kurtz: I think most of them realize it. I don't want to overstate the critique here. But the fact that Obama would reverse eight years of Bush policy by proposing to raise taxes on the 250K-plus crowd -- not just income tax rates, but limiting their deductions -- is clearly newsworthy. Yes, the president is doing what he said he would do during the campaign. But there's a legitimate debate over whether this would hurt the recovery, and how "rich" is a couple with four kids who make 250 and live in, say, Manhattan.


Lost in the Beltway: Are conservatives inadvertently pushing themselves to the margin of the populace by getting lost in the beltway chatter? If you read insider blogs and watch cable news you would think the republicans were on the march (see Limbaugh at CPAC) when poll after poll shows they are out of step with the country. Are they too focused on "winning the news cycle"

Howard Kurtz: Maybe, but winning the news cycle -- or influencing coverage in general -- is important when you don't control the White House, Senate or House. With the Republicans shut out of power for now, conservatives have to try to wage a war of ideas, hope the Democrats overreach and that the pendulum swings back in their favor in 2010.


Soldiers Decision : Not to get to anthropological but the returning of war dead has been ritualized and celebrated in many cultures for 1000s of years. Taking this ritual away or forcing it to be private seems contradictory to a large part of human nature. Why not simply ask the soldiers before they depart for a war zone if they want their remains photographed upon return? How the soldiers want to be treated is very important. It is not as if warriors headed to battle do not realize they may return dead.

Howard Kurtz: I think leaving it up to their families is a fair way to handle it.


New York, N.Y.: I fully agree with Alessandra Stanley's description of Twitter as a gateway drug to further media narcissism and David Gregory (your twitter-boy of last week) seems a textbook example of that trait. I really don't get the current need to overshare constantly. As for Tapper -- he's kind of obnoxious and lacks Donaldson's humor. Your phrase garden variety college liberal seems a little discordant with the Dartmouth I remember from the 80s -- that was the era of the famous Dartmouth Review which spawned more than a few of the young conservative creeps who now [are] all grown up enjoy their spots in talk radio and other ultra right outlets. They were pretty hateful and very aggressive . . . not unlike Tapper. And, since when did writing for Salon make you a liberal (Camille Paglia is certainly no liberal)?

washingtonpost.com: What Are You Doing? Media Twitterers Can't Stop Typing (The New York Times, Feb. 22)

Howard Kurtz: Well, the idea behind Twitter -- where I also hang out -- is not just to bloviate but to engage in a dialogue with readers and viewers and give them a chance to talk back (not unlike these chats). For those who find it silly and self-indulgent, well, no need to click on the site.

I meant that Jake Tapper was, by his own description, a typical college liberal, not typical for Dartmouth. And I think I made the point that while Salon is undoubtedly a liberal magazine, Tapper was a reporter -- respected by the McCain side -- who fought his editors' efforts to beat up on Republicans. As he recognizes, some see the label "former Salon writer" as tantamount to being a left-winger, but it ain't necessarily so.


Great Falls, Va.: Howard,

Your column on March 1 was very disturbing to me. You seem to indicate that most major newspapers across the country are in a death spiral. The implications are tremendous, and I certainly am not one to recognize all that may be included. However, as veteran reporters are put out to pasture, as feature such as the weekly book reviews are dropped, as newspapers die, who will be left to report the news? Who and how will reporters be paid to perform investigative reporting like, e.g., Watergate? Can newspapers survive only with free on line editions? More importantly, what are the implications for the nation if politicians, bankers, and the AIGs of the world do not have to account for a free press?

Howard Kurtz: Who will be left to report the news? That is exactly the right question. Newspapers, love 'em or hate 'em, provide the bulk of original reporting in this country, especially at the local level. I don't think they're in a death spiral, but I have never seen, in my professional lifetime, anything like the wave of bankruptcies, layoffs and cutbacks we're now seeing, and I doubt the Rocky Mountain News will be the last paper to shut down this year. Newspapers have to find a way to make some money from the online products or they will wind up as a shell of what they were a few short years ago.


Bluffton, S.C.: I LOVE Jake Tapper. He's to Robert Gibbs what Helen Thomas, David Gregory, and Bill Plante (among others) were to Tony Snow and Dana Perino.

Howard Kurtz: The comparisons aren't exact -- Jake doesn't bellow like Sam -- but if you mean the guy in the pressroom who holds the press secretary accountable, he does seem to be one of those filling that role.


Falls Church, Va.: Tapper may be a good reporter, but the fact that he went from Salon, a liberal opinion magazine, into purportedly objective reporting without anyone raising an eyebrow says something about media bias. You know perfectly well that there would be an outcry if anyone tried to join the mainstream press out of the Weekly Standard.

washingtonpost.com: ABC's Man in a Hurry (Post, March 2)

Howard Kurtz: I think he should be judged on what he's written, not on the reputation of the magazine. And I would have the same view of anyone who'd written for the Weekly Standard. Many journalists on the right, though, seem more drawn to commentary.


Arlington, Va.: MSNBC has turned up its criticism of Fox News and Republicans to the point where Fox News basically said "I told you so" to its viewers over the weekend. Does MSNBC still claim to be balanced, or does it fully admit there is no break between its news and opinions programs?

Howard Kurtz: MSNBC absolutely claims to be balanced, and I make a distinction between the NBC reporters who go on its air and the commentators. If you watch Olbermann and Maddow, you're seeing shows built on unabashed liberalism. My issue is when MS allows Olbermann or Chris Matthews to serve as news anchors for special events, as the network did last year on primary nights and at the conventions before deciding that was a bad idea.


Re: Twitter: The most dangerous part about Twitter and Facebook as a means of communication is that they are not secure. These Web sites are often compromised and the hackers are looking for people with large followings to send out either fake news or malicious software. What can the media do to make sure their message is authentic. Twitter is not the answer.

Howard Kurtz: Well, nothing is secure these days. But Twitter needs to do more to stop impersonators. Shaquille O'Neal started a page called the Real Shaq because of an impostor.


Chicago, Ill.: Why did Sarah Palin force Bristol to do an interview with Greta? I say forced because at one point Bristol claims she wants to be an advocate for abstinence (which sounded extremely canned) but then says abstinence is unrealistic(which sounded extremely candid). Sarah Palin shouldn't keep exploiting her family.

Howard Kurtz: I have no indication that Sarah Palin forced her daughter to do anything. In fact, Bristol told Greta Van Susteren that she had only informed her mother the day before that she was doing the interview. I'm a little skeptical on that point, but clearly Bristol wanted to do the sit-down.


Tapper: Aggressive does not make a narcissist. Tapper also went after Bush in the same manner but was younger and had less clout. I do not see narcissism in his style but certainly tenacity which may be unseemly to some but I think would be well appreciated when this or any president starts to take the country down the wrong path. I would have given a lot to see Jake Tapper question Bush on the run up to Iraq.

Howard Kurtz: Good point. Though Tapper was not a White House correspondent then, so he had no opportunity to question President Bush as far as I know.


The Death of Newspapers?: One thing that bothers me about these stories is that newspapers, in my opinion, do have a perfectly reasonable response to the fall in circulation. Simply start charging for online access. A number of papers do this, including your esteemed colleagues in N.Y. If newstands purchases are on the decline why not charge for access to the Web version? I'll frankly admit, that I don't know the economics of it, but wouldn't that at least help to defray some of the loss?

Howard Kurtz: I wish it were that easy. Many attempts have failed, including those of Slate and Salon. The New York Times abandoned an experiment of charging 50 bucks for access to its columnists. The problem is that while you bring in some revenue, you drive away readers who can get free content elsewhere, and that hurts you on the advertising side. Only the WSJ has succeeded so far. Now Newsday and Hearst are talking about charging for content. I do think a significant number of people would be willing to pay small amounts for access to the Web sites they like and respect if there were an easy way of doing so.


Fort Wayne, Ind.: Can anyone in the news media suggest Obama talk to Warren Buffet about spending money. Buffet knows a lot more than Obama and maybe could stop throwing good money after bad. Only an idea.

Howard Kurtz: Funny you should mention that. Buffett (who is a director of the WP Co.) was an adviser to Obama during the campaign. On the other hand, Buffett just put out a letter to investors saying that he and others had made major mistakes over the past year. So even the Oracle of Omaha is fallible when it comes to this economy.


MSNBC: I watch because of the bias. NBC gives it viewers two options for free on network television I can watch unbiased boring coverage. For the fee I pay for basic cable I can watch biased coverage of events with goofy yet incredibly intelligent Pat Buchanan for a minimum of balance. Now if the reverse were true the Matthews and Olberman's on the network coverage I would have a problem with that but on a small cable outlet let me have my bias. I read my news all day and do not even attempt to get actual information from the TV during the day. So I have no idea if MSNBC is biased or not during those times.

Howard Kurtz: If that works for you, fine. But MSNBC executives insist they are not running a liberal channel. I think most viewers get the distinctions.


Tapper's McCain-lovin' writings: Okay, I'll bite:

The title of this Jake Tapper post is "Did Obama Accuse McCain of Running a Racist, Xenophobic Campaign?" He then goes on at length to extol the virtues of John McCain, who does not have a racist bone in his body, we learn. The piece would have been embarrassing for the stupidity alone, but the shameless boot-licking really put it over the top.

CITE: Did Obama Accuse McCain of Running a Racist, Xenophobic Campaign? (ABC News, July 30, 2008)

Howard Kurtz: I just read it and it seemed a balanced treatment of the controversy that Obama kicked off by saying of the Republicans: "The only way they figure they're going to win this election is if they make you scared of me. So what they're saying is, 'Well, we know we're not very good but you can't risk electing Obama. You know, he's new, he's... doesn't look like the other presidents on the currency, you know, he's got a, he's got a funny name.'"

Tapper concluded that Obama's language had been "pretty inflammatory." Agree or disagree, but the column gave both sides.

In this chat, at least, Tapper seems to have some people accusing him of being a left-winger and others painting him as a right-winger. That ought to tell you something.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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