Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 30, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washingston Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, March 30, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.

Today's Column: Fox Ferreting Out Fans (Post, March 30)


Washington, D.C.: How is President Obama's insistence that the CEO of GM step down very different from the actions in recent years of Mr. Putin and Mr. Chavez's actions in Russia and Venezuela, respectively. I also recall the Post condemning such actions by those (supposedly authoritarian, perhaps now no less than Mr. Obama) leaders?

Howard Kurtz: When you take government bailout money, you give up a large degree of control. It's basically as simple as that. GM would now be bankrupt if it weren't for the taxpayer rescue. And whether the ouster of Waggoner is a smart move or not, the administration has to decide whether to sink more tax dollars into that company, and Chrysler. AIG, of course, got a new boss after its bailout (albeit one who wasn't adept enough to clamp down on the huge bonuses).


Baltimore, Md.: Howard: I saw Reliable Sources this weekend. While Gloria Allred normally gives me hives, I found myself totally on her side during the Octomom discussion. The one thing I did not catch was the name of the heavyset guy whose only counterarguments seemed to be "Gloria Allred is a publicity hound." Who was he and why was he involved in that discussion? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: He is Ray Richmond of the Hollywood Reporter, there to discuss the media coverage of the Octomom saga and the high-profile role of Dr. Phil and Gloria Allred. The decibel level and interruptions got a little out of hand as he kept criticizing Allred, despite my efforts to keep things civil.


Love for the Shrill: Paul Krugman probably batted well over .900 in his criticisms of the Bush administration. Yet from '99 when he began numerically demonstrating falsehoods in Bush budget promises to 2008 he may have gotten a handful of TV appearances. Now because he is critical of Obama's tentative stimulus he is on my TV in the morning, at noon and night; he gets the covers of magazines; is an establishment and media darling. Do you see anything wrong with that picture?

Howard Kurtz: I disagree with the premise. Krugman was on a whole host of TV programs during the Bush administration, including mine on at least two occasions. He could have done more, but 1) he is based in Princeton, where it's sometimes hard to get a studio, and 2) as a fulltime professor as well as New York Times columnist, he's a busy guy. Sure, it's the added zing of a liberal columnist criticizing a Democratic president that landed him on the cover of today's Newsweek. But Krugman is also the recent recipient of a Nobel Prize, which gives his opinions added resonance as well.


Arlington, Va.: When Jon Stewart ripped those at CNBC he was hailed as a genius, mainly by liberals in the media. However South Park's recent parody of the economic situation was far more in-depth, far more clever than just putting together sound bites. It, however, did focus much of the problem on Obama's administration being clueless. I didn't see a single mainstream article about the episode of South Park, which probably gets as high or higher numbers than TDS. Is this because of the so called "liberal slant" or is there some other reason?

Howard Kurtz: Uh--we don't devote quite as much attention to cartoon characters? I for one did not see the episode. Also, in Stewart vs. Cramer you had a real debate between two big-time cable commentators, which added an undeniable element of drama. And by using clips of CNBC talking heads, Stewart, whether you agree with his take or not, was employing actual video evidence.


Arlington, Va.: Saw Reliable Sources over this weekend, and the segment with Gloria Allred and the Hollywood Reporter was absolutely mesmerizing. Did you know going in to that discussion that there would be such animosity?

Howard Kurtz: No, I had no idea. Disagreement, sure, but not what it turned into. My general approach to the show is that guests are welcome to disagree with each other but there's no need for shouting or personal attacks, which I think people are sick of.
Those who are interested can check out the video on the Reliable Sources page on Facebook.


Teleprompter debate: What is up with this stupid teleprompter debate? It is obvious to me that Obama doesn't actually need a teleprompter but why not use it?

Howard Kurtz: Makes little sense to me. All modern presidents have used them; Obama uses them more, but so what? He wants to deliver the words as smoothly as he can. And anyone who has watched him answer questions for up to an hour, whether at news conferences or with the likes of Steve Kroft and Bob Schieffer, knows he doesn't need a script to make his points cogently. (Not to mention picking NCAA brackets, though I hear his picks haven't fared all that well.)


Annapolis, Md.: No fair! I demand that President Obama give up all the electronic prompting devices and learn how to read his speeches from a paper script, or good old-fashioned notecards, like I had to in college. I would have gotten better marks for "eye contact" if we had a teleprompter in the room.

Teleprompters should only be allowed for soap operas and the evening news.

Howard Kurtz: And Sunday morning talk shows.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I get the feeling that a lot of opinionators are just not in the "swing" these days. I don't mean in the sense of, do I agree or disagree with them. I mean, it's like when Maureen Dowd lost Bill took her a while to find her voice again. These people surely rely on finding a "groove," and in a time when it's very hard to tell which way is up, when change is even faster than usual, when it's very tough to pigeonhole the president -- these are challenging times for columnists, no? I see David Brooks, Richard Cohen, Andrew Sullivan, a whole heard of them, veering this way and that, trying to figure out where they stand.

The exception today is Krugman, who knows just where he stands, likes his position and will be clearly right or clearly wrong when all of this is said and done...

Howard Kurtz: Personally, I find it interesting when the cards are thrown up in the air and commentators on the left and right have to feel their way to new positions. David Brooks is a good example, a conservative who fell for Obama, then turned more critical, then was invited to the White House after a particularly tough column on the financial crisis, schmoozed by the president and top officials, and wrote a followup piece reflecting (but not endorsing) their views. I find columnists far less interesting when they are utterly predictable.


New York City: I realize you're not the Ombudsman, but you do call yourself "Media Critic," so hoping you'll comment on this one: The Post used a lot of breathless language a while back 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 reporters don'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 doesn't offer up even 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?

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

Howard Kurtz: I didn't think the story was opinionated or served up RNC talking points by any means. But I do think it got out a little bit ahead of the available facts.


Baton Rouge, La.: I disagree with the premise. Kurgan was on a whole host of TV programs during the Bush administration, including mine on at least two occasions.

Wow, twice in 8 years. Is having Paul Krugman on your show an Olympic event? It can only happen once every 4 years?

Howard Kurtz: I asked several other times and was turned down, either because he was busy or there were logistical difficulties. He's certainly done Sunday shows and weeknight shows that focus more on the economy than I do. But as I say, he's not one of those pundits who organizes his life so he can be on TV as often as possible.
I also wrote a lengthy profile of Krugman in 2003. Here's how it began:
He doesn't look particularly fearsome, a bearded professor in a pullover sweater and thick-soled shoes. He spends part of his time preparing to teach Economics 101. He also writes a New York Times column in which he repeatedly, loudly and unambiguously calls the president of the United States a liar.

Paul Krugman says he just sort of stumbled into his role as perhaps the harshest journalistic critic of the Bush administration.

"I certainly am angry," he says in a quiet monotone that doesn't quite match his rhetoric. "I just resent being lied to. We've been lied to a lot, and I'm scared. I think we're talking about levels of irresponsibility here that have real consequences."

And why have few other commentators, even those as liberal as Krugman, been so ferocious in denouncing George W. Bush?

"It's a very uncomfortable thing to question the honesty and motives of your leaders," the Princeton academic says. "I'm saying that the men who are controlling our destiny are lying. Not many journalists or many people want to confront them. . . . I probably have a bloody-mindedness that a longtime journalist wouldn't."


Menomonie, Wisc.:

Sir, yesterday, on your show, you discussed President Obama's press conference and interviewed several reporters who questioned him. Yet, in your clips, you only showed the questions. You never showed his answers. Was that really fair?

Howard Kurtz: We did show Obama's response to Ed Henry, the one where the president said he had not spoken out earlier on the AIG bonuses because first he likes to know what he's talking about. But unlike every show on TV, we don't sit around analyzing the president's answers. My job is to hold the journalists accountable for the questions, which is why I assembled a panel of CBS's Chip Reid, ABC's Ann Compton and Ebony's Kevin Chappell. From there we talked about the broader media issues involving White House coverage.


Washington, D.C.: RE Paul Krugman: A quick search of the WP online reveals that that since Obama took office there were more references to Paul Krugman than in the year and a half prior to that.

Howard Kurtz: Don't know what database you're using. According to Nexis, Krugman has been mentioned in 202 Post articles, only two of which were after Obama took office--and one of those is a TV listing which says he was going to be on ABC's "This Week."


Minneapolis, Minn.: I think you missed the most notable thing about the Krugman Newsweek piece.

Namely, the honesty with which Evan Thomas acknowledged his role as part of the mainstream media -- saying "If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. ... By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are."

Howard Kurtz: Since I've known Evan a long time, that didn't surprise me at all. And he gets points for candor.


N.Y., N.Y.: Once again, I must take exception to the depiction of MSNBC as left- leaning. Rachel Maddow is certainly a progressive "left" leaner and Olbermann, while appearing left-leaning, is actually a libertarian with personality leanings (i.e. he likes Obama and does not like Bill O'Reilly -- I'm sure you can recall how much he did not like Hillary Clinton who was to Obama's left on many issues). Matthews and Shuster are center right with Matthews having a particular fondness for D.C.'s homegrown insular conventional wisdom as dispatched by folks like Howard Fineman (Morning Joe is big on this, too). I would be delighted if there was a progressive news channel but MSNBC is definitely not that channel.

Howard Kurtz: You're entitled to your view, of course. But one way to measure it is by criticism of the two administrations. Olbermann and Maddow criticized the Bush administration virtually every day, and have clearly been more sympathetic to Obama. Hannity has ripped the Obama administration, and O'Reilly has been skeptical to critical, almost every day, and both were more sympathetic to Bush. The same applies to the vast majority of their guests. And Democratic politicians are far more likely to show up on the two MS shows, and Republicans on the two Fox shows.


Krugman's 15 minutes: Krugman's 15 minutes is going to be a lot more than 15 minutes. But he's hot now not only because of his Nobel Prize, or his criticism of the Obama administration.

The economy is in the toilet, so everyone wants to hear from economists. He was far more outspoken about Bush policies, but it didn't resonate until our 401(k)s became 201(k)s.

I don't know if he's right or wrong about the best (practical) way out of this mess, but I'm glad he's getting heard.

Howard Kurtz: It's certainly true that financial commentators (especially if they happen to be Nobel-winning professors) get more attention when the overwhelming issue in the country is the flailing economy. Political reporters thrive at campaign time and foreign affairs and military specialists are suddenly in demand when a war is launched.


State of Dyspepsia: Folks, Krugman is getting more notice because he's a world class, Nobel prize winning economist who explains macroeconomics very well. It seems there's a bit of demand for that these days...

This fan of both Krugman and Obama welcomes the intellectual dialogue, if not the petty sniping.

Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I welcome all intellectual dialogue. The media seemed initially to rally around Hank Paulson during the first bank bailout, but when that flopped, and kept changing shape beyond the way it was originally sold, many of the cheers turned to boos. The commentators I respect are the ones who were as skeptical during the Bush bailout as they are now that Obama is running the economic show.


Atlanta, Ga.: Howie -- I was excited to have an opportunity to watch TV on Sunday morning and, after skipping over a Meet The Press segment with John McCain because I just wasn't in the mood for him, I found you on CNN! I was excited to watch -- it's been too long. However, the minute my wife and I saw that you were talking about that moron woman with the eight kids we immediately went back to John McCain. I know you're focused on media coverage of things, but at some point you feed the problem when you continue to expose it. Do you feel that way? Is there an internal debate about whether to address a topic when it is clearly something that no one should spend 5 minutes thinking about, but it's received dozens of hours of coverage?

Howard Kurtz: We did five segments yesterday -- on Obama's news conference and coverage of the White House; how news organizations were soliciting questions for the president as a way of generating online traffic; the North Dakota floods; a conversation with former White House aide Ed Gillespie about media bias; and coverage of the Octomom saga. Obviously people tune in and out, but I think it's fair to judge the program as a whole.


Toronto, Canada: There is no official Web site called The CNN Nation or The MSNBC Nation.

However, there is an official Web site called the Colbert Nation.

In a similar vein, in today's Times article, Glen Beck said he recently rewatched "Network" and said that he reminded himself of Howard Beale.

Does Beck realize that Beale was nuts? Does he remember how that movie ended? Or even what that satire was about?

Howard Kurtz: I guess the whole mad-as-hell thing has worked for him in the ratings. I'm not sure how many people these days remember the character Howard Beale.


Washington, D.C. : Re the Evan Thomas comment: I regularly watch Gordon Peterson's show on which Thomas often appears and I am always impressed about how candid he is. And his comment about being part of the establishment, while certainly true, is a little funny historically, given that his grandfather was Norman Thomas, the American socialist leader who rant for president and number of times.

Howard Kurtz: Yeah, but that was before cable.


Baltimore, Md.: I don't want politics on my sports pages or entertainment section, but the two major papers in my area -- Washington Post and Baltimore Sun -- have very highly partisan TV columnists who seem to write more often about their political opinions than about entertainment. Is that typical of major papers in the country? Do you think it's appropriate?

Howard Kurtz: Without adopting your characterization, I think TV columnists are paid for their opinions. They are not pretending to be neutral reporters. I don't think they should use those platforms as a political soapbox, but I do want them to be free-wheeling critics.


MSNBC: I have to say, I am an anti-Bush/Cheney huge Obama supporter and I can't get through Olbermann. While he might not be an officially Democrat, he has very distinct stories that slant anti-GOP. And though I don't fundamentally disagree with some of them, I just want the news, and sometimes a little analysis. Instead he, O'Reilly, and all those at Fox just yammer on. I do think Maddow, while clearly a leftie, makes an honest effort to allow both sides to be heard, and the emotion is dialed way down.

Howard Kurtz: Rachel has a very temperate and inclusive style that viewers seem to like but does not water down her strong opinions. As she told me last summer, just before launching her show, "I am a liberal. I'm not a partisan, not a Democratic Party hack. I'm not trying to advance anybody's agenda."
But if you want "just the news," O'Reilly and Olbermann are not a good fit for you. Both are paid big bucks to shape their programs according to their opinionated view of the world.


Chicago, Ill.: Hey Howie, the Financial Times has really stood out throughout this financial and economic crisis. Martin Wolf, Gillian Tett, Krishna Guha, Wolfgang Munchau, among many others, have been way ahead of the curve. If you compare the FT to the WSJ it is really no contest. Have you written on the FT lately? Obama claimed today that he has been reading it since the 80's.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't, but you can't get a better endorsement than one from the president of the United States.


We already know this, but...: Best part of Newsweek's Krugman piece was something your readers and viewers know, but establishment media personalities are loathe to admit:

"By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring...If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am) . . ."

Much of the scalding tone many of your writers on these chats are subjected to from readers is based on this premise. We know that the Post, the Times, the networks are working to support the establishment at all cost. (In Broder's famous and haughty dismissal of Bill Clinton "this is not his town"). But the problem is that you guys don't like to portray yourselves as defenders of the establishment. You are the "little guy." No you are not. Be honest with your audience.

Howard Kurtz: Talk about sweeping generalizations! Evan Thomas declares himself part of the establishment and suddenly every member of the major newspapers and networks are pillars of that establishment as well?
That would be news to Brian Williams, who was a volunteer fireman as a young man and washed out in his first job at a tiny Kansas station. And news to me, a guy who went to a state university. And news to Katie Couric, who started out on the University of Virginia's student paper and washed out in her first national job, at CNN. And news to longtime Post editor Len Downie, who went to Ohio State University and started here as an intern. And also news to me, a kid from Brooklyn who never met a professional journalist until my junior year at a state university.
If you want to say these are big corporations, if you want to criticize what they do, be my guest. But let's not assume that everyone in the business grew up in the bosom of the establishment.


Fair Lawn, N.J. : Why do Obama and Gibbs always, always call on the three network reporters? Do they think that eliciting hostile (at worst) or aggressive (at best) questions from Henry, Tapper and Todd help them with their base?

Howard Kurtz: For the same reason that Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 called on the network reporters: because they work for important news organizations that reach a large audience.
Thanks for the chat, folks.


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."

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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