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Critiquing the Press

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From the AIG bonuses, to the economic meltdown, to the war in Afghanistan, it has been an eventful two months in office for President Obama. Steve Kroft has the behind-the-scenes interview. Video by CBSNEWS.com

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 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."

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He was online Monday, March 23, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the inauguration.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Washington, D.C.: Howie, any idea if in the hundred year life of the show, anyone ever laughed through an 60 Minutes interview like President Barack Obama? Sad.

washingtonpost.com: Making '60 Minutes' Tick (Post, March 23)

Howard Kurtz: I didn't find it sad at all. It was mostly a serious, substantive conversation. There was certainly an odd moment when Obama laughed while citing how unpopular the auto bailout plan is. Steve Kroft called him on it ("Are you punch-drunk?") and the president attributed it to "gallows humor." In any television appearance, a president has walk the line between being serious and sober and showing his more personable side.

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washingtonpost.com: Obama on 60 Minutes, Part Two (CBS)

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Norfolk, Va.: Howie, thanks so much for your columns, chats and your show.

What happened with D.L. Hughley? I thought he had a great show, poking fun, yet also talking about serious issues with important people. I'm sorry to see that it's gone.

Howard Kurtz: CNN dropped the show a couple of weeks ago, saying that Hughley wanted to stay in Los Angeles and that they couldn't reach agreement on continuing it. I don't know whether that was the whole story--he lived in L.A. when he agreed to do the show--or whether it was considered an experiment that didn't quite work.

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washingtonpost.com: Obama on 60 Minutes (CBS)

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Alexandria, Va.: Have the dinners like the Gridiron, Alfalfa Club, White House Correspondents Dinner, et. al., outlived their purpose? It just seems downright silly to read about these skits and jokes that project a chumminess among politicians and media elite that is at best counter-productive. It's like the SEC hosting a funny dinner for CEOs of the Fortune 500. It's just downright weird.

Howard Kurtz: I've never been to a Gridiron dinner, which is where the skits take place. I've only attended the others a couple of times. I know the dinners may project an image that we're all just a bunch of cozy Washington insiders, but I don't think they're that big a deal. There's such a built-in adversarial relationship between the press and the pols that spending a couple of evenings in a kind of light-hearted cease-fire doesn't strike me as a terrible thing. Even when Bush's and Clinton's press relations were at their nadir, they usually showed up for the dinners, poked fun at themselves and at their media hosts. I don't blame Obama, though, for blowing off the Gridiron in favor of spending spring-break time with his daughters. Biden was apparently pretty funny as his stand-in.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: In your Kroft story you state that Kroft told Douglas Feith that Tommy Franks had described him as "the dumbest guy on the face of the planet."

Your quote leaves out an important word, which cannot be printed in the Washington Post (unless Vice President Cheney says it on the floor of the Senate.) You shouldn't put those words in quotes, however, unless the quote is accurate. Why not use "expletive deleted"?

Howard Kurtz: The reason I didn't use the F-word--which was indeed part of the original Tommy Franks quote--is that Steve Kroft didn't use it in that television interview. In other words, he cleaned it up slightly for television, and I was quoting what he said on the air to Feith. I suppose I could have then added a sentence indicating that a word had been dropped, but F that.

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Washington, D.C.: When Walter Pincus revealed off-record discussions between Josh Block and three reporters, did he rat out any of his Post colleagues?

Intelligence Pick Blames 'Israel Lobby' For Withdrawal (Post, March 12)

If one reporter at the Post, sitting in his cubicle, promises a source confidentiality, and a reporter in an adjacent cubicle overhears the conversation and can figure out who the source is, can that second reporter write a story free of that privilege?

Howard Kurtz: Reporting on an overheard conversation would be flat-out unfair. But there are times when journalists have had to report on the confidential sources of other journalists, even in their own newsroom. I, for instance, had to question who Washington Post reporters had used as sources in the Valerie Plame affair (as well as those used by Bob Novak, Matt Cooper, Tim Russert, Judy Miller et al). I did not know who the sources were until that information emerged in the court proceedings and Bob Woodward eventually acknowledged the administration source who told him about Plame's CIA role.

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New York: Howard, how do you think the MSM has handled the AIG bonus scandal? Fanned the flames of anger or injected a dose of perspective? (Cable bloviating aside, of course.) My one beef: Do we know it's true that all toxic asset culprits have left the company? As far as I know, CEO Ed Liddy is the only source for this. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I happen to think the media abandoned any pretense of neutrality and fanned the flames of bonus outrage. Obviously, those bonuses touched a nerve, the administration kept changing its story (and its strategy), and it was an important story to cover. But there was a maelstrom of media emotion that blew this up into a huge scandal (yes, $165 million is a lot of money, but we're just learning where some of the $170 BILLION in AIG bailout money went). Cable routinely ran headlines like "AIG OUTRAGE" and "AIG ARGGHH!" On my show yesterday, several journalists argued that the bonuses became a shorthand, and a conduit, for public anger over the whole Wall Street mess, but is it our role to feed that storyline? It fell to business columnists like Steve Pearlstein and Joe Nocera to point out that even though the bonuses were pretty outrageous, the attempts to undo them could hurt the whole recovery effort by driving away the big investors whom the administration wants to buy up the toxic assets.
AIG, by the way, is still pretty toxic.

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Kingston, Ontario: Steve Kroft is getting some stick in some quarters for his handling of the interview last night. How do you rate him? He struck me as serious and professional.

Howard Kurtz: What was the nature of the criticism? Kroft pressed Obama repeatedly on AIG, the banking bailout, Afghanistan, Dick Cheney's criticism and other issues. There were a few minutes during a tour of the South Lawn on his family and life in the bubble, which is fine. But mostly it was a substantive interview.

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New York, N.Y.: The Post used a lot of breathless language last week in an article by Kane and Shear (link below) to announce the scandal over the AIG bonuses was "increasingly blowing back on Obama" and "threatening to derail" the young administration's agenda. But how in the heck does the Post know the Obama White House is paying a stiff political price? The Post doesn't (can't?) actually point to anything to suggest "the public" is taking its anger out on Obama, or that the public has decided he's to blame for Wall Street's greed. (Greed the president has, in fact, denounced.). There's no polling data cited, and the article provides no anecdotal evidence to suggest Obama's entire agenda is now threatened. I suppose it's just a coincidence that the RNC thinks the exact same thing, right? So... why does this article appear as a "news" story and not in the op-ed section?

Anger Over Firm Depletes Obama's Political Capital (Post, March 17)

Howard Kurtz: I didn't think the piece was opinionated but it's fair to question just how sharp the public reaction has been. The story did say the bonus uproar was "threatening" to hurt the administration as "politicians in both parties flocked to express outrage." Clearly, the administration did a 180 from Larry Summers saying the government can't abrogate contracts to Obama saying he would fight to get the money back and ratcheting up his rhetoric as the week went on. It sort of descended into a Washington game of who could express the most outrage in the most forceful terms. As for public reaction, I think the larger point is that there is considerable anger and resentment about the whole sense that the high-flying bankers and insurers that got us into this mess are being rewarded in the bailout. Which is basically true. It may also be the only way to rescue the financial system.

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Tampa, Fla.: Do you think that any of the morning news shows actually provide news? I find myself wanting to throw coffee at my TV during all of them.

Howard Kurtz: In the first half hour, sure. Once the 8 am hour rolls around, they gravitate more toward feature stories, especially those that appeal to women.

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Washington, D.C.: Could you explain why, in your suggestion that Kroft has angered critics on the right and left, you excluded the fact that CBS News used its Kroft interviews in a DVD it put up for sale in the booming Obama-fan merchandising market? Doesn't that suggest CBS isn't so much challenging Obama as honoring him? (at least before last night)

Howard Kurtz: I was unaware of that, but you know what? Several networks have done that, and all the major newspapers and newsmagazines (including The Post) have been peddling special commemorative issues about Obama's victory. I'm not defending that, but clearly these companies see a marketing opportunity and are trying to make a few bucks.

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Outside the Beltway: Any idea exactly what the president is trying to accomplish with all his television appearances. Where I live all I hear about is "Special Olympics" and laughing.... The president should stay home and do some work.

Howard Kurtz: It is certainly debatable whether Obama, with the banking crisis unresolved and the AIG debacle unfolding, should have gone on Leno and ESPN. But can anyone seriously question the degree to which he is working hard on the country's problems? It's a question of what kind of media image he wants to project, not whether he is a slacker.

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Kroft's Interview: We wound up watching 60 Minutes after the relentless promos during basketball, and three things surprised me:

1) 60 Minutes may still be a watchable show. 2) Given CBS "News"'s overt corporate bias, Kroft was surprisingly forceful and non-fluffy with Obama. 3) It's possible, and this is the most surprising of all, that Hillary Clinton might have made a better president.

Howard Kurtz: The last point is entirely subjective and remains hypothetical. And whatever your views on CBS's corporate culture, I feel safe in saying that it doesn't affect the journalism of "60 Minutes."

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Soft Steve: It's nice to see that "60 Minutes" has a young star now (under 80). But don't these cozy Kroft interviews with Obama stand in stark contrast with the reputation of "60 Minutes" as a hard-hitting, politician-pummeling show? What happens to CBS when its politician interviews and its interviews with Hollywood celebrities are indistinguishable?

Howard Kurtz: I would reject your characterization of the Kroft interviews as "cozy." The one in November was not particularly confrontational, but then, Obama hadn't taken office yet. I thought Kroft pushed back pretty aggressively in the segments that aired last night. And you should judge him on the body of his work, including his reports on the financial crisis and from Pakistan in recent months. As for Hollywood, profiles of performers used to be a "60 Minutes" staple in the old days, to balance the harder-edged pieces by Mike Wallace and others. But as I mentioned, "60" hasn't done a single movie star this season. Executive producer Jeff Fager told me there were some preliminary discussions about interviewing Kate Winslet, but the scheduling didn't work out.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it sexist for you to note in your 60 Minutes piece that Kroft's father was a "Union Carbide plant manager", but not tell us what his mother was? If not, why not? Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Making '60 Minutes' Tick (Post, March 23)

Howard Kurtz: Steve told me his mother did not have a career outside the home, so I didn't mention that.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Howard:

Terrific piece this morning. I thought the "60 Minutes" interview was excellent journalism -- good give and take without Steve Kroft overly partisan. The president's answers can be judged on their own merits.

Which leads me to this question: are we hitting the exhaustion point with cable talk shows that are clearly advocating a specific political point of view? I find myself tired of hearing the same old, same old spiel everyday by the reps on either end of the political spectrum. Am I by myself in this view or do you sense others are starting to feel the same way?

Howard Kurtz: I've grown somewhat tired of the predictability of some hosts and some programs, and I believe many others have as well. But many viewers like to have their own views reinforced when they watch cable news. The popularity of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity on one hand, and Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow on the other, would suggest that this is a winning formula. In cable, where 1 million viewers is considered a strong showing, you don't need "American Idol"-type numbers to be successful.

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Herndon, Va.: Does the president, or any subject for that matter, get to decide who interviews them? Or does the network decide?

Howard Kurtz: The network decides. In this case, Kroft made the pitch because he had interviewed Obama during the campaign and after the election, so he had developed a relationship with the Obama team. In the last administration, it was Scott Pelley who interviewed President Bush.

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Striking a balance: President Obama has been criticized for being too grim, and painting an economic picture that further exacerbates the nation's economic doldrums. Following the calls to "lighten up," he does so, and is criticized for not taking seriously the nation's pitiful economic state. How does he strike the elusive mid-point on the concern continuum?

Howard Kurtz: I would say you just summarized the no-win nature of the presidency. Of course, if the economy was rebounding, this would look very different. At the moment, the Dow is up 312 following the latest Treasury bailout plan unveiled by Tim Geithner. But as Obama himself says in almost every appearance, we're in a deep hole and we're not going to dig out way out overnight.

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Speaking of the Leno joke: Is the clip the news is showing from the actual show feed or just one mike's feed? The reason why I ask is that I heard that it happened before the show so was keeping an ear out for it. But on the show, you could barely hear him say it, as the audience laughter covered it. But on the news clip, it's perfectly audible. Given all the people more upset that people laughed at the joke than the President telling it, this seems rather important.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think anyone fiddled with the audio. Obama's line was audible when I watched, including the replays, but was so quickly followed by audience reaction that if you blinked, figuratively speaking, you might have missed it.

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Albany, N.Y.: We have a special congressional election next week and we are up to our armpits in ads. The NRCC has just started running ads tying the Democrat to the AIG bonuses, saying that since he supports the bailout/stimulus plan he must be in favor of handing money to Wall Street fat cats. Our election may turn out to be a barometer of whether the AIG charge has legs... or it may not.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure some pundits will interpret it as such, but House races also turn on such factors as the personalities and records of the candidates, how much money each side had and, in a special election, who had a better turnout operation.

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Philly: Howard -- Nice piece on the S. Kroft interview and "60 Minutes" in general. I have watched the shows since I was a kid and my dad had it on. My question is this -- you mentioned Steve Kroft is thinking of going Part Time in the near future -- who would step up and be the #1 reporter for the show at that point. I like Mrs. Stahl and Katie... but that is about it. Anderson Cooper maybe?

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps Scott Pelley, or Lesley. Anderson Cooper was always an occasional contributor and I don't think that arrangement is still current. CBS could always add a new correspondent, but longevity seems to really count on that program. Kroft is about to hit his 20th anniversary as a "60" reporter.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I saw Duke's Coach 'K' criticism of President Obama's NCAA Bracket for ESPN, saying may be he should focus on the economy. Coack 'K' is a significant Republican fundraiser and a West Point graduate as I am. My response is where is his criticism of President Bush's record setting vacations during a time of war?

Howard Kurtz: Well, Bush certainly got his share of criticism for spending too much time at the ranch clearing brush. As for Coach K, I wonder if he wasn't miffed that Obama didn't pick his team to go all the way.

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Roanoke, Va.: Howie, I thought you had a point yesterday on Reliable Sources when you suggested that the media was to some degree leading the mob. Certainly some are trying to do that, particularly those who believe that this will undermine President Obama. However, I believe that there is also a significant degree of pandering to the audience in order to increase ratings. It's sort of like if the next story isn't about some even more outrageous bonus that the audience will desert the network in droves.

Please comment.

Howard Kurtz: There was some pandering involved, I believe. But the media also love simple morality tales and scapegoats. In other words, reporting on the administration's effort to scrub toxic assets from bank balance sheets is important but complicated. Demanding to know who knew what and when about the AIG bonuses is a much easier subject with identifiable villains (even if the current CEO is a dollar-a-year man brought in to clean up the mess). At this very moment CNN is running a headline, "Should Geithner Resign?" That is easier to grapple with than, "Will Geithner's Plan to Have Government Join with Private Investors to Buy Distressed Assets from Banks Succeed?" But which one, in the end, is more important?

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Helena, Mont.: I guess I just don't take the NCAA bracket with Obama and Coach "K" very seriously -- I thought the coach's comments on Obama's bracket analysis to be more tongue-in-cheek than political. Just as I thought Obama's bracket analysis to be more fun than serious.

Howard Kurtz: You know, it was kind of an offhand crack, but it got widely reported with the utmost seriousness.

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Washington, D.C.: What happened to Lara Logan as a regular on 60 Minutes?

Howard Kurtz: Lara is currently on maternity leave after having given birth a few months ago.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: If we're in a 24-7, 7 days a week world, why is it that TV news organizations still slack off on the weekends? They put in their second string bench warmers to present the news; stories are usually lighter and more featury.

And the cable news nets often have a completely different format -- i.e., for some reason MSNBC has profiles on serial killers every weekend. Then on Monday they play catch up. When will they learn that news doesn't stop on the weekends?

Howard Kurtz: The answer: ratings are lower on the weekends. The Sunday morning shows are the main newsmakers, unless there's some big breaking story.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Howie: With all the bad news about newspapers going out of business, it has me scared for the Washington Post. I admit I don't get the print edition, except for Sunday. The reality is that I don't have time to read it during the week and it's a waste of paper. That said, I'd be happy to buy a subscription to the online site, and I know many of my fellow readers would do the same. Has the Post ever considered this course?

Howard Kurtz: My weekly question! I think this is a great idea. The Post, like most papers, has shied away from charging for online content, but I think it should have a mechanism for loyal readers to contribute something for its excellent Web site. So far, no one's taken me up on it. So maybe you should just send the checks to me.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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