Critiquing the Press
Monday, March 16, 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."
He was online Tuesday, March 16, at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the inauguration.
A transcript follows
British Columbia: Thanks Howie for your great show on Sunday. Your D mark for TV coverage was spot on. A successful presidential candidate once said, "It's the economy, stupid", and the MSM would be wise to remember this. Media-driven supposed controversy does not draw and keep viewers anymore, period. People want calm, cool, and informative news, not ranting and raving, bombastic, discredited personas trying to sell their political agenda. Dan Froomkin has noted this, having paid attention to the posters on his White House Watch. Thanks, as always, Howie, we need you to keep telling like it is.
Howard Kurtz: I appreciate the comments. I did say that newspapers had done a good job on Obama's stem-cell and merit-pay policies, but television news barely covered the first and all but ignored the second. Had Republicans been jumping up and down, denouncing the decisions, maybe these would have been more than one-day wonders. But can you think of two subjects that can potentially affect the lives of most Americans more than promising research for combating diseases and better schools?
Richmond, Va.: Thank you for your thoughtful article this morning. A reporter from the nation (granted, a liberal publication) said a while back on Keith Olbermann's show (granted, a liberal show) that while the public had elected a new progressive government the institutions of Washington including the media still are conservative and are insulated from change. While this was a liberal point of view on a liberal show I think it has a kernel of truth and also explains why the public seems to have a dramatically different picture of the president. I would be interested in your thoughts. Thanks for the chat.
Howard Kurtz: I don't know that the media are conservative, but I do think we now live in a culture in which many journalists, and lots of other folks, demand instant answers to every problem. I'm all for supporters and detractors sizing up President Obama, who is, after all, pushing a very large agenda. But to blame him for the stock market slide (until recent days) and to make sweeping judgments after 50 days in office sounds a tad unrealistic to me.
Raleigh, N.C.: When the Enron scandal hit, the accountants were held partially responsible. News on the current banking mess never mentions the accounting firms. Aren't they the ones that report on the financial state of a business? So why isn't the media looking into their culpability?
Howard Kurtz: Good point. But in this particular case, the credit rating agencies are among the prime culprits--agencies that get fees from these giant banks, assuring us that their debt was manageable when in fact they were awash in spectacularly risky loans and derivative bets that would soon bring them crashing down.
Herndon, Va.: Howard: Your work as a guardian and watchdog of the journalistic profession is extremely valuable and greatly appreciated by this reader. Media Notes and Reliable Sources are mandatory items in my household!
I know you've written and spoken about this topic ad nauseum, but I am interested in knowing whether you think we're seeing a typical news-cycle reaction to the Jon Stewart/CNBC confrontation, or is this some kind of watershed. Also, what kind of developments should we be evaluating to determine the current direction of business journalism and the general population's perception?
Howard Kurtz: I think it was an important moment (which is why I devoted a front-page story to it) for several reasons. For one, Jon Stewart was channeling a good bit of public anger in demanding to know why the financial media didn't do a better job (with some exceptions, I might add) of warning us about this mountain of risky loans and exotic market debt that could, and did, bring the economy to its knees. Second, CNBC should be held accountable for its role, though I hasten to add that while it's a great pinata for Stewart, the business channel has plenty of company on this front. Finally, while I and a few others have questioned the media's performance, news organizations love to point fingers but rarely examine their own shortcomings. So for a popular television satirist to make this his crusade draws more attention to it than 100 Media Notes columns.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Have to say that with the advent of Fareed Zakaria and, surprise, surprise, John King's Sunday show, CNN is redeeming itself and showing a return to quality of old. Harvey Levin's appearance, I believe, on your show a week ago and his crass statement that broadcasters have to give audiences what they want was another revelation of why and how cable media has sunk so low. Fortunately, sufficient numbers of the public are now rising above this attitude and starting to demand that the media show responsibility for digging out the news and truth and not being a passive conduit for ideological messaging. Maybe the media will stop saying glibly that certain issues are "too complicated" for the public to explain when they really mean they, the reporters, don't understand the issues and don't want to go to the trouble to research them and ask probing questions.
Howard Kurtz: Agreed. But there are a lot of good reporters out there, plugging away at their sometimes complicated beats without fame, fortune or their own television shows. My suggestion would be not to judge the profession by the high-profile hosts and commentators you see on the tube.
Seattle, Wash.: Good Morning, Howie. That was a good in-depth segment yesterday on the Cramer/Stewart Showdown.
Some persons on another thread said that the fact that SNL did not mention it on last Saturday's show meant that they were told by the network not to make fun of their sister network. I say it happened on Thursday and they couldn't figure out a way to make it any funnier. What's your opinion?
Howard Kurtz: I have no inside knowledge here, but SNL has certainly skewered other NBC personalities, including Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann (devastatingly portrayed by Darrell Hammond and Ben Affleck). So my guess is either that the show couldn't find a way to make it work, or didn't have time to throw a sketch together because the interview aired on Thursday night.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I read the mention that Don Imus has more stations carrying his show now than before his controversy that got him booted off WFAN and MSNBC. I am wondering if there are statistics as to how much of an audience he reaches now as compared to his peak?
As an aside, as I admit I was a listener of his on MSNBC and even back when he was on WNBC who did not always agree with him or his attitude but who could appreciate his show, I do believe that regardless of what anyone thought, we all hope he recovers and soon will be in fine health.
Howard Kurtz: Well, you can look up the list of his radio stations. WABC, to take one example, is a powerhouse station far larger than his old New York station, WFAN. I join in wishing him a speedy recovery.
HoCo, Md.: Hi Howard,
Jim Cramer's Tuesday appearance on Today (during which he made some negative comments about Jon Stewart), was aired during one of the program's first segments. This implied that it was a top story. What a contrast with Friday's broadcast of Today! The morning after Stewart torched Cramer on The Daily Show, there was not a peep about it on Today (unless it was buried much later in the show). Either way, I thought it was telling that NBC would choose to ignore the significance of the thrashing of sister network CNBC and its poster boy. I guess CNBC isn't the only feather in the peacock that doesn't feel compelled to perform its journalistic duty. I watched Reliable Sources on Sunday, but didn't see any mention of Today's non-coverage. Did I miss it, or was it not worth mentioning for some reason?
By the way, Tucker Carlson came off as a bit vindictive on your show. I expect he's still upset about Stewart's "unfunny" appearance on Crossfire in 2004.
Howard Kurtz: Well, we reminded folks about Tucker's previous clash with Stewart, so viewers could factor that into their thinking.
I have no evidence that NBC executives ordered the non-coverage. But even if individual programs, and MSNBC, made those decisions on their own, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they didn't want to dwell on their own guy getting roughed up on the Daily Show. Does anyone really doubt that if it had been, say, Jon Stewart vs. Lou Dobbs or Jon Stewart vs. Neil Cavuto, that MSNBC would have played clips and debated the thing all day long?
50 Days, USA: 50 Days! Did all of the news pundits decide they couldn't wait to 100 and so they had to make up a new "Milestone Number". Should we expect a 25 Day Milestone in the next presidency? Or will they jump the gun at twelve and a half?
Howard Kurtz: 50 days: pretty ridiculous. I think the next president will get 50 hours before the pundits start pronouncing that the patient is ailing.
New York, N.Y.: Jon Stewart's takedown of CNBC was the most cathartic moment I've seen on TV. For all of us who have lost value in our 401ks that we may not have time to recover, for people who have lost faith in the institutions of finance, government and the wisdom of saving this was the only opportunity we may have to see someone ask why and not back down. The Salon writer is wrong when he asserts that the only people who watch CNBC are traders. Ordinary people who no longer can rely on a pension (and possibly Social Security) have to make investment decisions on their own so they watch as well. The overpaid press who constitute the pundit roundtables on Sunday TV cannot begin to deal with this reality.
Also, you're right that Iraq has disappeared. I worry that the thousands of seriously (and permanently) injured soldiers will fall down the rabbit hole of our national memory just as the Viet Nam veterans did. Both were unnecessary wars that the greater population turned against. Oddly, this time it's likely to be those who opposed the war who will stand up for the disabled. Those who supported the war are more likely to regard them as people seeking entitlements.
Howard Kurtz: As Tom Ricks and Martha Raddatz noted on my show yesterday, there are still 140,000 American soldiers in Iraq. So I find the shrinking coverage to be unjustified and depressing. The Post did run a front-page piece last week, quoting an Iraqi as saying no one seems to care about his countrymen dying. And Raddatz, just back from Iraq, said soldiers there feel abandoned by the media.
CNBC's audience is primarily made up of affluent investors, but of course ordinary folks watch, and the channel is influential. CNBC features a parade of corporate executives, fund managers and investment analysts with a vested interest in talking up stocks. But I don't believe the network should bear a disproportionate share of the blame for the shortcomings of the financial media in recent years.
Chicago, Ill.: Do you think the media is living in a bubble themselves and are in danger of becoming more of an opinionated view rather than informative and investigating reporting?
Howard Kurtz: I don't think most media folks are living in a bubble -- if only because their companies have been hard hit by layoffs, downsizing and a shrinking news product. But it is hard, when the Dow is hitting 14,000 and housing prices are soaring and everyone is making money, to be the skunk at the garden party. Certainly financial journalists reported to some extent on subprime risks and Fannie and Freddie problems, but too many tend to lionize the CEOs, some of whom led their megacorporations to bankruptcy and practically brought down the economy with them.
Falls Church, Va.: Isn't it also possible that SNL decided that the Stewart/Cramer encounter is inside baseball that wouldn't be familiar to a broader audience, let alone funny?
Howard Kurtz: I doubt it. Do more people know who Keith Olbermann is than Jon Stewart? The man has hosted the Oscars twice.
50 vs 100: Howie, in your show yesterday I believe you mentioned that the "100 Days" is an artificial media construct. Where did the 100-day timeline come from? I seem to think it was first attached to FDR.
Howard Kurtz: After FDR accomplished a great deal in his first 100 days -- though he'd not yet put in place many of the pillars of the New Deal -- journalists started measuring future presidents by that benchmark.
Naive: You're not really going to compare the light weight SNL caricatures of Matthews and Olbermann to real satire, are you? My feeling is that SNL couldn't comment on the Stewart/Cramer demolition without going into the very basis for the skit, i.e. the disreputable nature of the programming carried by CNBC in the guise of real, objective news. They were warned off doing anything of the sort, and if I'm wrong, you'll see something tonight by Matthews, Maddow or Olbermann on the topic. Don't hold your breath on that one.
Howard Kurtz: Well, we can have fun speculating, but the truth is I don't know.
Amanda, Ohio: While watching your show yesterday, concerning the Cramer/Stewart media spat, there were a couple of things that I felt should at least have been pointed out, or challenged by you, the media critic. First, letting Tucker call Stewart a "left wing hack." While I think it is obvious that Stewart's sympathies are definitely on the liberal side, he also has many conservatives on his show, and respectfully debates or at least lets them share their views. Ken Mehlman, John Bolton, Karen Hughes, Jonah Goldberg, William Kristol and John McCain are just a few who come to mind. Also, although the piece on CNBC definitely featured Cramer on several snippets, to let Carlson get away with saying it was about about Cramer criticizing Obama's budget and not about Santelli's rant about the mortgage losers was really something I thought you should have been all over. Finally, about Cramer not defending himself or his network, don't you think after seeing himself on tape talking about illegally starting rumors to influence the market, maybe he thought the wisest course would be to try not to further damage his reputation and get out of there as quickly as he could? On an unrelated subject, put me down as one of the few that would definitely pay for content, (I even ponied up the $50 for the Times) and I really enjoy these chats. Thanks
Howard Kurtz: I see no problem with Tucker, an acknowledged right-winger, making the argument that Stewart's humor is viewed by his liberal views. (Of course it was Jon, in his famous "Crossfire" appearance five years ago, who called Carlson and Paul Begala partisan hacks.)
I did not let Tucker "get away" with charging that Stewart went after Cramer because Jim had attacked Obama; I immediately challenged him on that.
I think Cramer simply miscalculated. He expected that he would take a few lumps on the "Daily Show," josh around with Jon and emerge with his dignity intact. But it quickly became clear that Stewart planned an interrogation. I was surprised that Cramer didn't come armed with more examples to defend himself and CNBC, which, whatever its shortcomings, also has a track record of breaking important stories.
Arlington, Va.: I understand the economic constraints that the large newspapers are operating under, but it seems that shrinking the Sunday newspapers as the Post is doing is robbing us of that former pleasure of spending all day reading the multitude of sections that only the Sunday paper provided. As the Post continues to consolidate sections, you have to wonder if it's worth the price of double what the daily charges -- and which will no doubt go up soon. If you want to see the future, look at how skinny the Baltimore Sun has become.
Howard Kurtz: Well, the Business section will continue to be published on Sunday. The Sunday shrinkage has consisted of killing the Sunday Source, which was not exactly renowned for investigative journalism, dropping Book World as a separate section and combining the Style and Arts sections.
Although the editors say the total volume of business coverage will remain about the same -- minus the stock tables that few newspapers publish anymore in this digital age -- I'm disappointed by the decision. A section front is an important way to display good journalism. But if the company has to save money, combining sections sure beats laying off reporters, which The Post, although it has done three rounds of voluntary buyouts, has not done.
Washington, D.C.: After seeing Jon Stewart, a comic, expose CNBC and Cramer- I wonder why the "real" media hasn't done the same. It's truly sad that even given a blueprint for exposing bad policy you in the media will focus on ... Mrs. Obama's arms instead of challenging someone like Dick Cheney or seeking a response from the AIG execs. It's time to step up or move on.
Howard Kurtz: No newspaper, magazine or television broadcast could look at CNBC's performance in the run-up to the meltdown without looking at their own as well. As CNBC's Charlie Gasparino put it when I wrote about the financial media's shortcomings last October, "we all failed." Most media organizations, you may have noticed, are not real big on self-scrutiny.
Is the war over?: Since this whole thing started with Santelli shrieking about bailouts of undeserving home owners, do you think the Stewart-CNBC feud continues until he gets the guy he wanted in the first place, Santelli?
Howard Kurtz: I think Rick Santelli should go on other networks and defend himself. He's a big boy. For CNBC to book him on the Daily Show and then yank him is not a brilliant strategy. After the now-famous rant, a CNBC public relations guy called and offered me Santelli for my show. I said sure. Ninety minutes later, the offer was rescinded.
Fairfax County, Va.: By the way, re Stewart and Cramer: Rachel Maddow covered it, in depth, on her Friday show, including the widespread public response to it on Friday, larger context, etc. Her willingness to address it stood out to me as brave and professional.
Howard Kurtz: I did not know that. Thanks for pointing it out. That underscores my earlier point that each program makes its own decisions rather than responding to some 30 Rock edict.
Montana: Jim Cramer and CNBC certainly have their flaws. But Jon Stewart, I think, is off base in trying to pin the sins of journalism on them. As far as I know, he's never asked a tough question of any business journalist at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Time or Newsweek magazine, or the networks, etc. -- any of which have far larger audiences and perhaps even great clout than CNBC. So I think there's something to Tucker Carlson's argument that Stewart's problem is more about Cramer's criticism of Obama than it is not holding business executives' feet to the fire. (By the way, even Obama backers George Soros and Warren Buffett got burned betting on the market, so it is not as though all this turmoil was easy to predict.)
Howard Kurtz: I agree with your first point but not your second. Stewart is, as he himself notes with some regularity, a comedian. It's easier to make fun of a business channel -- and a highly manic TV commentator who shouts "booyah" and throws plastic cows -- because you've got video clips. Reading from NYT, WP or WSJ stories wouldn't be quite as hilarious. So Jon chose to make CNBC the poster child for poor financial journalism. And, since it's on every TV at stock exchanges and investment bank offices, it's quite influential. But it's not the whole game by a long shot.
Re: Business Press: Print journalism has done a pretty good job reporting on the economy but you have to be willing to dig. The WaPost, The Economist, the NY Times and others do a pretty decent job and looking back there were lots of warnings if you were paying attention. But cable and network news are just awful. Do you think the current meltdown will cause Americans to alter fundamentally their newsgathering behavior?
Howard Kurtz: I don't know. Even the best TV journalists will tell you that you can't get a full diet of news on the tube. And that's leaving aside how much television news is based on original print reporting.
Arlington, Va.: Howie -- I watch "Reliable Sources" every week, and I know you usually bring on pundits from both sides of the ideological spectrum when discussing various issues (you don't always have pundits, but if you do, you are even about it). However, this week I think you could have made a better choice than Tucker Carlson as the conservative pundit for the Jon Stewart segment. I usually like Carlson even though I rarely agree with what he says, but in this particular case I think he was too biased against Stewart because of their personal history, and he ended up sounding non-sensical. Stewart didn't go after Jim Cramer individually, at least at the start -- he went after CNBC in general and Rick Santelli individually after Santelli stood him up, although he mentioned Cramer as one of the CNBC blowhards. Cramer was the one CNBC-er to respond, and THEN Stewart went after Cramer. There is no evidence for Carlson's contention that Stewart went after Cramer for Cramer's criticism of Pres. Obama. The other panelists tried to make this point, but the whole conversation ended up on a diversion that probably wouldn't have happened if another conservative pundit had been in the discussion rather than Carlson. What did you think after the segment was finished?
Howard Kurtz: I thought it was a lively discussion of an important topic. Again, I challenged Tucker on his it's-all-about-Obama thesis, but others may disagree. He was balanced by the liberal radio host Stephanie Miller, and Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik. So we battled around many views, including my own.
Washington, D.C.: If only SNL would parody YOU, Howard!!
Howard Kurtz: I'm clearly so funny that it would be hard to improve on the original.
Arlington, Va.: Howard, I have a question regarding the financial problems that newspapers are currently dealing with. Is the problem primarily a decline in advertising revenue, or a decline in subscribers? I personally see the value of having thriving newspapers, but for a variety of reasons I prefer to read the Post online and I don't want a physical paper delivered to my house. So I would be happy to pay for a subscription if I had the option of not having the paper delivered to me. Or the option of having it delivered to a non-profit or other worthwhile organization that could use it, such as homeless shelters and school libraries. I think there are others who feel as I do. Would this be at least a partial solution?
Howard Kurtz: Someone offers this in every chat. I think it's a great idea. Newspapers are suffered from both advertising and circulation declines, in part because we give away the stuff for free online.
Santelli?: Why would CNBC keep Santelli under wraps but let Cramer go everywhere, including cooking shows? I'm sure you were going to be your usual polite self, and weren't going to go all Stewart on him.
Howard Kurtz: Hey, if I was in trouble, I'd go on Martha Stewart too and smack little mounds of flour with a roller. She's got to be the easier Stewart. Of course, that enabled Jon to play a clip of Cramer playing cook and say, "Haven't you destroyed enough dough already?"
Thanks for the chat, folks.
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