Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, March 10, 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 "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War," "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 will be online Tuesday, March 10, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Bolingbrook, Ill.: Howie, You are THE media critic so why does Jon Stewart seem always to be able to point out mistakes made by the media and not you? Look at his shows on the problems CNBC has had on the economy or how the MSM bought into the Iraq war, shouldn't that be you?

Howard Kurtz: Gee. I'm hurt that you forgot -- or even worse, MISSED -- my groundbreaking work on this subject. It may not have been as funny as Jon Stewart, but I was out there early. You could look it up.

From my column last Oct. 6:

As news organizations chase exclusives about the Wall Street meltdown, they also are grappling with a troubling question: Why didn't they see this coming?

"We all failed," says [CNBC's Charlie] Gasparino, a former Wall Street Journal and Newsweek reporter. "What we didn't understand was that this was building up. We all bear responsibility to a certain extent."

The shaky house of financial cards that has come tumbling down was erected largely in public view: overextended investment banks, risky practices by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, exotic mortgage instruments that became part of a shadow banking system. But while these were conveyed in incremental stories -- and a few whistle-blowing columns -- the business press never conveyed a real sense of alarm until institutions began to collapse.

"Did we not accent that enough? Put it above the fold, or on the cover of Fortune, or lead off the television shows?" asks Fortune Managing Editor Andy Serwer. "Yeah, that's probably true." At the same time, he says, "if we had written stories in late 2000 saying this whole thing's going to collapse, people would have said, 'Ha ha, maybe,' and gone about their business."

After being burned by years of cheerleading before the dot-com collapse, the media warned repeatedly that the surge in housing prices might turn out to be a bubble. But the emphasis was generally on the potential toll on homeowners, not the banks that would be left holding bagfuls of bad loans. As in the savings-and-loan scandal of the late 1980s, the press was a day late and several dollars short.

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Chaska, Minn. : Your article was good on the John Stewart CNBC video that went viral. It struck me as real interesting that the defenders of CNBC did not really address the central point to the video. Which was that one of the reasons that these guys kept getting things wrong is that they limit their own information. An economy is based on business, labor, regulations and resources(usually capital but not limited to that). Yet how often are the labor leaders interviewed, how often are regulators interviewed? Apparently a bunch of print folks were seriously worried about the fundamentals, morgtages, jobs, credit, etc. Yet the focus as Stewart pointed out was on these uber rich CEOs. Stewart then mocked at how ill informed these experts were and the reality was not pretty.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the experts were necessarily ill-informed. I think most financial experts have a vested interest in talking up stocks (which they trade or analyze) and the economy in general. This is an inherent problem for those who use them as talking heads.

Covering regulatory agencies may not be sexy, but it is crucial. If journalists had spent more time looking at the lack of enforcement at the SEC (which slept through the Madoff scandal and others) and how federal banking overseers allowed banks and investment houses to create these new unregulated securities and pour zillions into risky subprime loans, we all would have been better off.

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London, U.K.: There was a factual error in yesterday's Washington Post headline, "Obama Aims to Shield Science From Politics." While I realize that this was an analysis piece, by its very nature, government funding of science is political. It was a set of political beliefs that led President Bush to put a ban on stem cell research, and it was another set of political beliefs that led President Obama to lift the ban. Will the Washington Post correct this error?

washingtonpost.com: Obama Aims to Shield Science From Politics (Post, March 9)

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it's a factual error, but I do think, as I said in this morning's column, that more skepticism was needed. It's certainly true that Obama said he is trying to take politics out of science, and that many scientists welcomed the pronouncement and the stem-cell decision. But it is also true that Obama's own political views on the subject led him to reverse the equally political Bush ban on embryo research. Journalists should be wary of portraying any presidential decision -- even one that sounds perfectly reasonable to them -- as being above politics.

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Hyattsville, Md.: I watched the Jon Stewart/Daily Show CNBC story when it ran live. What struck me the most about it was that I didn't find it all that funny, and I usually laugh all the way through the Daily Show. This segment felt different: more newsworthy, more serious maybe? Afterword, I felt angry, not humorous.

Howard Kurtz: I've long argued that while Jon Stewart primarily sees himself as an entertainer, he uses humor to make absolutely serious points. As someone who's interviewed him a number of times, I can tell you that he feels very strongly, among other things, about the media's shortcomings. So when he skewers, say, CNBC's coverage of business, it's not just about laughs. And after watching a parade of pundits assure us that the likes of Bear, Lehman and Merrill were safe, the natural reaction would be not just to chuckle at the wrong-headedness on display but to get mad.

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Long Island, N.Y.: Howard --

As always, a pleasure.

The blogosphere picked up a point where you stated that Rush's ratings had "doubled" since January, based on a claim by Michael Harrison at Talkers Magazine.

Considering that he's a radio insider with the highly subjective "Talkers Heavy Hundred" list, which ranks radio personalities without any hard survey data to back it up, isn't citing him as the (apparent only) source of the "doubled" claim questionable?

Howard Kurtz: Harrison's estimate to me -- and I provided the figures -- was based on research by his outfit. He may be off somewhat on the numbers -- as a followup piece indicated, it is difficult to measure Rush's audience across 600 stations -- but I don't believe he is wrong that Limbaugh enjoyed a huge spike in listeners during a week when the Rush vs. White House story line all but dominated the news.

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Providence, RI..: Howard, this may be a question for Gwen Ifill, but maybe you have the answer. I noticed on one of the blogs (538.com, I think) that PBS doesn't have a seat in the White House briefing room. (NPR does.) I know that the NewsHour reports on the White House, so why don't they have a seat? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe PBS, unlike National Public Radio, has a fulltime White House correspondent.

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New York : Why is what the CNBC crew engages in not considered stock-manipulation? Can you think of an analogous set of behaviors that business reporters in The Post or the Wall Street Journal would be allowed to engage in without attracting attention from the SEC or the U.S. Attorney?

Howard Kurtz: Stock manipulation is something else entirely. That is a crime that involves deliberately trying to push up or push down the price of a stock that you own so you can benefit from the market movement. For a pundit to make a wrong prediction or offer incorrect analysis about a company or stock isn't remotely in the same category. Besides, CNBC staffers (but not guests from the financial world) are barred by company policy from engaging in short-term trading.

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Florida chick: CNBC has been tarred and feathered in straw man position. If they had understood more about the pending crash they would have reported it. There were regulators who see inner workings, analysts who have proprietary numbers to crunch and big dogs with millions of their own on the line who didn't see this coming. How were mere broadcasters supposed to. Cheap shot by Stewart. BTW -- you should mention that your own Steve Pearlstein called the high and specifically suggested cash as a haven, pre-crash. He's one in a million. Wish I'd listened to him, down six figures here.

Howard Kurtz: Pearlstein was ahead on a number of fronts, but I don't expect financial journalists to call a bottom (or top) to a stock market that even billionaires and professional traders can't successfully game. I do think it's their job to report on risk, on regulation, on balance sheets, so that the rest of us can make decisions with eyes wide open.

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Fairfax, Va: I recently watched your Washington Post colleagues Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser on their sports talk show. Toward the end of the show they had a fact checker rattle off a quick list of errors they had made during their debate. Is there any way this format could make the jump from sports punditry to politics?

Howard Kurtz: That's an intriguing idea. But the fact-checker would need an iron-clad contract.

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RE: Bolingbrook: The big difference between Jon Stewart and the legacy media is RESEARCH.

The Daily Show is meticulously researched and it shows. The legacy media places a much greater value on "Access" and it shows.

Research is hard but can lead you to answers. Access is easy (Believe me, I was a regular guest on CNBC and other broadcast cable and major print news). I will happily grant interviews and come up with clever 8-second long quotes on the dime, but I'm there to tell your audience the story I want to tell.

Howard Kurtz: I think that is way oversimplified. The Daily Show does a great job in vacuuming up what's been on the air and making fun of those who got it wrong. Covering Wall Street, corporate America and Washington regulation in real time is far more challenging. While it's true that some journalists rely too much on access, there are all kinds of smart reporters who work the phones and develop the sources and break financial stories. Indeed, you could read here and there about subprime risks and credit default swaps and Fannie and Freddie before the system imploded. The failure, in my view, was that journalists didn't connect the dots they themselves had drawn, and only rarely trumpeted the risks on the front pages or on television--in a way that would have gotten public attention that a very large bubble was in danger of popping.

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Pennsylvania: Howard, great piece today. What's interesting about the Stewart piece is that you could pretty much do that today. The same people who told us to "Buy, buy, buy" are now chanting, "The sky is falling. The sky is falling." Witness Ben Stein on CNN the other day. It was a bit much. I was at a party the other night and most people there said they know it's bad, but they're starting to tune these people out.

washingtonpost.com: No Laughing Matter (Post, March 10)

Howard Kurtz: With even Warren Buffett (who owns up to his own share of financial mistakes this past year) saying the economy is falling off a cliff, it is hard to know precisely how bad things are. I suppose it's possible that one day we will look back and say the pessimism was overdone. But by every available measurement -- jobs lost, banks not making loans, housing prices falling, car sales falling, bankruptcies and foreclosures -- the American economy is in terrible shape right now.

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DC: I think what is missing is the context that led Stewart to that piece...now all the CNBC folks (Cramer, Santenelli, etc.) are all coming out angry and blaming Obama as if this was all his fault. Meanwhile, their analytics prove they know very little. And they come across as idealogues instead of true experts (which Mornin' Joe accused Jon Stewart of ironically this morning).

Howard Kurtz: It's just not true to say they know very little. Cramer was a Wall Street trader and hedge fund manager for two decades. Santelli has been stationed at the Chicago Board of Trade for a long time. But they both have a point of view, and that is that Obama's response to the crisis is making things worse. (Cramer is paid for his opinions, Santelli is supposed to be a reporter.) Neither one, by the way, blames the entire mess on the president. But they see the market dive (before today's bounceback, although the Dow remains under 7,000) as the markets delivering a verdict on Obama's policies.

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washingtonpost.com: Warren Buffett - The Economy Has Run Off a Cliff Pt. 1 (YouTube)

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Funny Money: Anyone who invests their money based on anything the comedy performers on CNBC say deserves to lose his money; there's actually a strong analogy here with basing your knowledge of news on what Jon Stewart's comedy news show reports. It might be accurate information, but it's purely coincidental if it is. It's entertainment, people, not business news.

Howard Kurtz: Stewart and Colbert are the first to say that they're in the entertainment business. But they also point out -- and they're right -- that people watching the show wouldn't get the jokes if they didn't have at least a basic knowledge of what's in the headlines.

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Falls Church, Va.: Isn't the big question for "The Daily Show" whether they will be willing to assemble takedowns like that of public figures on their side of the political spectrum? When the opportunities present themselves, will they attack the press coverage of Obama like they are willing to attack the coverage of Wall Street (or Bush)? I think it's fair to say that that jury's still out.

Howard Kurtz: Yes. That's a question I've raised myself, given Stewart's years of ridiculing Bush. But the show has made fun of Obama on several occasions. It's early, but I don't see how that kind of show can continue to thrive unless the president is included in the mockery. Of course, much depends on how much material Obama gives them.

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St. Louis, Mo.: Watched last night's TDS and Stewart answered his critics. First, the bit on CNBC was NOT done because Santelli canceled, it was done in HONOR of his visit. Also he also came up with a couple of clips of Jim Cramer actually recommending Bear Sterns stocks.

Howard Kurtz: He did. That was because in the original clip he showed, Jim Cramer was not telling people to invest in Bear Stearns, he was saying if you had a brokerage account there you didn't have to pull your money out because your money would be safe. Which turned out to be true.

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Princeton, NJ: The following exchange on today's political chat may interest or amuse you (or not):

Earmarks, Smermarks!: The "earmarks" account for less than 2 percent of the bill. Chump Change. Come on guys! Keep your eye on the ball!

Ben Pershing: Earmarks definitely do get a disproportionately large amount of press coverage, given the relatively small sliver of federal spending they represent. I bet if you asked the average voter how much of federal spending is earmarked, they would guess a number a lot higher than it actually is. Which I suppose is the fault of us in the political press for doing a poor job explaining.

Maybe I should switch jobs with Howard Kurtz.

Howard Kurtz: He is right, but considering that Democrats lambasted the Republicans over earmarks when the GOP ran Congress, but are now clinging to their own pet projects, it's a salient political issue. Obama, too, pledged earmark reform. Some of the earmarks are for perfectly legitimate projects, but you also have your share of bridges to nowhere. And if the Hill is passing $700-billion bank bailouts and &700-billion stimulus bills, shouldn't that same sense of emergency extend to hometown projects?

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Making fun of Obama: By the way, Stewart has definitely ridiculed Obama already -- just 50 days in -- for things silly, and for things "important." Two jump to my mind: Gibbs being the same exact robot as all the others (at least 2 times now) and Obama reiterating the same talking points on Iraq. I think he might have done something on torture too. And as a huge Obama supporter, each time I think "you tell 'em Stewart"!

Howard Kurtz: That's right, he compared Obama's speech to Bush's speech, and he had Gibbs using the same sort of I'm-not-gonna-respond-to-a-hypothetical dodges as the likes of Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan once used. So he's not exactly giving the new president a pass.

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Vienna, Va.: Kurtz: "Journalists should be wary of portraying any presidential decision -- even one that sounds perfectly reasonable to them -- as being above politics."

This is the only intelligent thing I've ever heard you say.

Howard Kurtz: Maybe I can come up with something else semi-coherent and go for two in a row.

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Boston, Mass.: Do you think it's time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, reduce and limit the number of TV, Radio and Cable stations under a single owner, and put teeth back into the FCC? Otherwise the media will continue to be overly driven by corporate profits, and there will be fewer opportunities for independent minded, critical news programs, which were sorely lacking in the run up to Iraq War.

Howard Kurtz: First, I don't want the government mucking around with deciding who is fair and who needs to be "balanced" by a commentator with a different view. Second, there is zero chance of that happening. Obama has said he's opposed to reviving the Fairness Doctrine (which expired in the late '80s), and the Senate last week voted to ban any such move.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you think the federal government should help out the ailing newspaper situation? Would that cause too much a conflict of interest? How can the further demise and death of the American newspaper be stopped?

Howard Kurtz: That's a complicated subject which I've addressed many times, but government involvement is not the answer. Much as I love the business, if a newspaper can't survive without taxpayer money, it doesn't deserve to live.

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AARRGGHH!!!: Bush did NOT say that there can be no stem cell research -- he said there can be no FEDERAL FUNDING for stem cell research. The research has been going on -- even through the 8 years of Bush -- it's just that it was privately funded.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, of course (except for research on the few stem cell lines that existed in 2001). But that had the effect of greatly limiting the level of such research, even with a few states such as California and Maryland jumping in to fill some of the gap.

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Tuckahoe, N.Y. : Actually, The Daily Show did a piece last week with John Oliver on the White House press room, which made fun of both the reporters and of Gibbs pledging a new era of transparency with much the same obfuscation and avoidance. Clearly not a pro-Obama piece.

Howard Kurtz: Making fun of reporters=shooting fish in a barrel.

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re: Market Dive: What I don't understand is why the media is freaking out about the stock market. We all know the economy is bad and, because of this, the stock market should be going down. It's an effect of the bad economy, not a cause. If the market were still at 10,000 plus, it wouldn't mean the economy was in good shape. It would mean that the market isn't a rational actor. If the market starts to steadily (and slowly) go up, it would probably signify that the economy is getting better, but that is going to take a while.

Howard Kurtz: In a nutshell, because many Americans have lost millions and millions of dollars in the market meltdown. Because their 401-K holdings have shrunk to the point that their retirements are threatened. Because some will not be able to send their kids to college. Because some have lost their houses as a result. Because corporations have been driven into bankruptcy, or laid off tens of thousands, as their stock prices nosedive. The market is an abstraction, but it also represents a vast amount of wealth in this country, so the consequences of the Dow and S and P plunging are all too real and all too painful.

That's a sober note to end on, but there it is.

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