Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, April 7, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washingston Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, April 7, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Howard, what was Levi Johnston thinking going on Tyra Banks' show? Or is that the point -- that 18-year-olds DON'T think? Her questions/his answers were TMI, and I'm guessing he's doing this only for the money. What do guests like that get paid on talk shows?

Howard Kurtz: They usually get paid zilch. I don't believe Levi got a dime for appearing with Tyra Banks.
It's easy to bash him -- he was not the world's most articulate guest, and his initial insistence that he and Bristol Palin practiced safe sex is belied by the evidence. But if Bristol can give an interview about the baby to Fox's Greta Van Susteren, where is it written that her ex-boyfriend has to maintain a vow of silence? The oddest thing, of course, is the statement that Governor Palin put out, accusing the young man of lies and distortion and not caring about the baby.

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New York, N.Y.: I found it interesting that Susan Rice was a guest on This Week. I did not realize until the interview was over that husband is a producer with the show. Doesn't ABC open themselves up to the favoritism charge when she appears on that show? How do the Sunday morning shows book their guests is probably the bigger question? Thanks

Howard Kurtz: ABC did the right thing by disclosing the marital relationship. How can the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations not be considered a newsmaker? It would seem unfair for Susan Rice to be able to go on every other Sunday show but not This Week.

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Clarksville, Tenn.: How did Michelle Obama return to the U.S. before the president? Did she travel by military plane or what?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know for sure, although I'm reasonably certain it would have been a military plane, just as is used for traveling members of Congress. You certainly wouldn't want the first lady to have anything but maximum security. It was reported that she returned home to be there for her daughters at the start of the school week. Maybe she also didn't want to go to Iraq. But I'm not buying into the joke making the rounds that Michelle came home because she ran out of clothes!

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Ames, Iowa: Jake Tapper was the subject of an adoring article in the National Review (by Mark Hemingway) last week. Prior to that, he was in a tiff with liberal blogger Josh Marshall wherein he banned Marshall from following Tapper's Twitter feed.

At what point does one start to question Tapper's objectivity?

Howard Kurtz: That doesn't make sense. A National Review writer says Tapper is fair, and that automatically makes him unfair? (The Twitter ban lasted a few hours and didn't involve Marshall himself.) Or should we conclude that Tapper is biased to the left because he spent several years at Salon? How about we judge him by his work? I profiled him a few weeks ago and noted that he was tough on Obama during the campaign, but was also tough on Bush during the 2000 campaign.

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Michael Kinsley: Has he formally returned as a Post columnist? Does he no longer write for Time Magazine?

Howard Kurtz: Kinsley has formally returned as a weekly Washington Post columnist, yes. I don't know if he still has some relationship with Time or not. I'm glad he's back; his column is usually thought-provoking, whether I agree with him or not.

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washingtonpost.com: Jake Tapper Isn't Letting Go (NationalReviewOnline, April 6)

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Fort Smith, Ark.: How do you know Levi Johnston wasn't paid a dime? Do you really believe that?

washingtonpost.com: Rising Above It All (Post, April 7)

Howard Kurtz: Talk show guests aren't usually paid. You know, it's possible that Trya Banks' show is different and he got 500 bucks. But imagine how much he could have gotten if he had "sold" the "inside story" of his relationship with Palin's daughter to the Enquirer or the Star.

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Downtown D.C.: It seems with the incredible uptick in the popularity of the new First Lady you seem much more free to criticize her through criticism of her media coverage. I don't remember any criticism of fawning coverage over Laura Bush. Care to comment?

Howard Kurtz: If you think I'm criticizing Michelle Obama, you don't understand the nature of my job. What, exactly, is there to criticize? (Other than some of her wardrobe choices, and that's outside my area of expertise.) But the gushing nature of the coverage last week -- the reports on Laura Bush never came close -- were worthy of analysis. I think, on one level, it was easier, and more fun, to report on Michelle and what she was doing and wearing than to assess the complicated issues surrounding the president's G-20 meetings--especially on television.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: I'm just shocked, shocked, mind you, that Fox and company would take a quote from President Obama out of context, (and given what he said at the end of his sentence it's hard to believe it wasn't on purpose) except for the fact they did the exact same thing a few weeks ago using a quote from Joe Biden that not only was out of context but was said during the campaign and passed off as being spoken just recently.

If you spend a lot of time insisting the "press" is liberally biased, you probably should make you aren't even more bias coming from the other side.

Howard Kurtz: My view is simple: Give a balanced report on what the president or any other public official said, and then you can say whatever the heck you want.

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Hannity: Howard, Could you truly never imagine that Hannity would deliberately distort something Obama said in order to try to make him look bad? There is no way you can watch cable news channels and come to that conclusion. Do you seriously believe that? The media does that type of thing all the time and I'd expect the nation's preeminent media critic to know that and denounce it when it occurs.

Howard Kurtz: Cable land has become a pretty partisan place, with conservative pundits tossing around words like socialism and fascism. But still: What Obama said -- criticizing first the U.S., then Europe -- was only two sentences. It wasn't some debatable nuance deep in the text. Show both sentences and then exercise your First Amendment rights.

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Helena, Mont.: So, the Bristol-Levi thing was just for show at the Republican convention -- and the media missed the story! This seems to be an apt analogy for the way the media covers Republicans -- they buy into the Potemkin ranch, the faux engagement between unwed parents, etc., if they are Republican. So much for a liberal media.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it may not have been just for show at the time. It's possible that last summer the relationship was fine and the two were planning to eventually get married. We don't predict the future around here, you know. But you can't trot the kid out at the convention and then try to airbrush him out of the picture and act horrified that he went on a talk show.

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Anonymous: I thought it was a mistake, unnecessary, and frankly mean of the governor to use Bristol and Levi as props last summer on the campaign trail and none of the current situation is a surprise.

After her comment it appears the only thing left is for the Palins and Johnstons to show up on Jerry Springer.

Howard Kurtz: Let us fervently hope it doesn't come to that.

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Columbia, Md.: What's up with the Washington Post Ombudsman column in the print edition? The last two weeks, his column has only appeared online, but was not in the Sunday opinion section at all. Is this a new policy?

Howard Kurtz: No. It's just on a different page than you're accustomed to seeing -- an extra editorial page that precedes the usual two on Sundays.

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Confused: Howie, there are two related things in punditry I'm confused about and I hope you can help me understand.

First is the sheer number of Bush aides who now write some weekly, some with great frequency for the Post, the Journal and the Times. I don't recall the same thing with either Clinton or Reagan staffers. (I don't watch TV/cable news much).

The second is the ever-present nature of Newt Gingrich. The guy served as speaker for only four years and resigned in ignominy over ten years ago, yet his every pronouncement seems to become a media moment. Why? (maybe a better question is how does he do it!?!)

Howard Kurtz: The Clintonites tended to go into TV punditry rather than print--most notably James Carville, Paul Begala, Dee Dee Myers and George Stephanopoulos (plus Dick Morris, who's become one of Bill and Hillary's biggest critics). As for the Bush people, Karl Rove does both (Fox News and the WSJ), and The Post has former speechwriter Michael Gerson. I'm not aware of any former Bush aide writing for the Times.
You know, this is the free market at work. I don't think you can argue that the Bush folks have had more success in the media than the Clinton crowd.

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Reliable Sources: Howard -- Have you ever considered doing a show as part of your CNN show on the poll numbers of the media and why it is so? Not the usual passing mention of how low they are, but why? I have seen countless analysis of why a politician's numbers are what they are, but never an in depth, why the media is not trusted -- and based on most of your questions you get here, it is about time to do this no?

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me we talk about the unpopularity of the media and the reasons for distrust all the time. I sometimes incorporate polls when there are good surveys plumbing public opinion on these questions--which happens most often during campaigns, when the split between Republican and Democratic views of the media's coverage tend to get the most attention.

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Conservative Response: I find it fascinating how quick conservative participants in these Q and A's are to jump over anything the media says good about Obama. There is such a knee jerk response, 'you never would have allowed Bush to get away with this'. It just bugs me to see any positive comments about Obama, or his wife, in the press as proof positive that there is a liberal bias in the media.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that's true of everyone. But there are some out there, professional pundits and ordinary folks alike, who thought the media were too soft on Bush, and another group that thinks the media are too soft on Obama. Needless to say, I try to apply the same standards no matter who's in office.

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SW Nebraska: Has anyone pitched a sitcom about the governor of Alaska and her family? I would totally watch that.

Howard Kurtz: Who needs a sitcom when we've got this entertaining reality show?

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Washington, D.C.: I personally would not go sleeveless as much as Mrs. Obama does. Is the press trying to drop a hint to her that too much is too much by publishing all those photos of her arms?

Howard Kurtz: I would say the press publishes a lot of photos of Michelle Obama no matter what she's wearing. Surely you don't want us to censor her arms if she happens not to be covering them.

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Richmond, Va.: I love the washingtonpost.com and would love to subscribe. I would likely put it on perma-vacation hold as others have suggested. Unfortunately, it is not an option as I live too far. How can I financially support the paper short of sending checks directly to reporters?

Howard Kurtz: I will pass on the suggestion for voluntary contributions, which people make every week during these chats.

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Leesburg, Va.: Howard, you're the media guy. Does that extend to so-called "New Media?" If so, what's your take on the VA RNC Chair essentially Twittering himself out of a job?

Howard Kurtz: From reading the coverage, it seems like the dissatisfaction that led to the ouster of the party chairman in Virginia went well beyond Twitter.

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Helping Confused: You didn't answer his question on the ubiquity of Newt Gingrich, but I'll hazard a guess -- it's because there isn't any Republican in power who is definitely speaking for the Republican party, so the media gives a microphone to anyone who claims to speak for Republicans. Michael Steele doesn't have the cachet to promote Republican ideas and the media, using their shorthand, have always thought Gingrich = ideas. Shows the paucity of the Republican bench, though.

Howard Kurtz: I'll answer it now. First, Newt is on the air several times a week as a Fox News contributor. Second, there is a vacuum, which is not uncommon for the party out of power, and Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are not seen as the world's most exciting television personalities. But perhaps more important is that Gingrich, who honed the skill before he became speaker, is quite adept at drawing media attention. He knows how to frame an issue or ratchet up his rhetoric in a way that will generate headlines. And he has a big platform to do that with his regular appearances on Hannity and O'Reilly, where he always appears alone and therefore is never challenged by another guest.

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Seattle, Wash.: If you were a media advisor to Gov. Palin, what would you have told them to put out in a statement before Levi's interview? Because what they did put out seems angry and petty.

Howard Kurtz: Leaving that aside, it probably doubled or tripled Tyra's ratings. Might have made more sense from Sarah Palin's point of view to wait until the interview had aired. I mentioned the Tyra interview on my show Sunday after seeing the governor's statement. Without that, I probably would have let it go.

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Boston, Mass.: Hi Howard,

What do you think of Boston Globe's latest move of demanding union concessions with threat of closing? Will Globe or Herald be the first to go under in Boston?

Howard Kurtz: The Globe is in a far better financial situation than the Herald, which I wrote about last year, but then, it has a far bigger staff. I suspect the shutdown threat by the New York Times Co., the Globe's owner, is a negotiating tactic to wring concessions from the union, as Hearst recently did by floating the idea of closing the San Francisco Chronicle. But the Boston unions certainly seem to be taking the threat seriously.

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New Carrollton, Md.: In light of Hannity's distortion by omission of the full context of Obama's comments, I'm wondering if Fox News has any type of ombudsman on the staff?

Howard Kurtz: No, but neither do the other television networks.

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Greater Green Bay, Wisc.: RE: Michelle Obama ... doesn't the Second Amendment give her the right to bare arms?

Howard Kurtz: I would have to check the Constitution.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: What's your take on Fox News throwing "FNC Tax Day Tea Parties" and having Hannity, Beck, Greta and Cavuto host them across the country? Seems to cross the line, even if the folks involved are "opinion" hosts.

Howard Kurtz: They're free to stage whatever kind of protest they want. I only complain when talk show hosts join fundraisers for the Republican or Democratic parties, or become part of candidate rallies. That says to me they have relinquished any semblance of independence.

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Elmhurst, Ill.: Re: politicians' and especially journalists' Twitter feeds -- I can't help but wonder what percentage of their subscribers are just other politicians and journalists. Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Journalists are certainly disproportionately represented on Twitter. There are a lot of PR people as well, along with pols, entertainers and cultural figures. But there are also plenty of ordinary folks, amateur bloggers, moms and others who either want to be heard or connect with their friends. And the growth since last year--I think there are 9 million users now--has been phenomenal.

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Somerdale, N.J.: Talk show guests aren't usually paid.

Howie, I assume that he got airfare and put up at a nice hotel. Wouldn't this be a form of payment, a nice vacation to the big city?

Howard Kurtz: That part is true. The show might even have sprung for dinner. I'm not saying it was a selfless act of altruism for Levi to go on the Tyra show. It's just that you don't get rich from it.

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Santa Monica, Calif.: I'm worried that hard reporting is disappearing before our eyes. Increasingly, I see pieces in both the print and broadcast media that eschew actual facts for sheer speculation. You know the stories -- they're the ones laced with words like "may," "might" and "could." And this is not at all limited to items labeled as analysis or commentary. These are often presented as news. I consider these pieces, and their writers, to be irresponsible, lazy and, at times, sensationalistic (I'm talking to you, Politico). I certainly don't consider it journalism. It's simply meaningless speculation that comes with no accountability.

So is real reporting -- based primarily on, you know, facts and shoe leather -- on the way out?

Howard Kurtz: That may -- or might -- be true.
Seriously, I don't think it is. Too many people these days judge "the media" based on some big-mouth pundits and a few Web sites. There is real reporting every day in every sizable newspaper in America, often focused on local issues, as it should be. At the same time, there is no denying that as newspapers increasingly cut back, the resources available for real, in-depth reporting are shrinking. And that is a troubling development for anyone who cares about journalism.

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Elmhurst, Ill.: But my question about these Twits regards their followers--who is reading the Tweets?

Howard Kurtz: Based on my experience, a very wide range of people. I have accumulated more than 5,000 followers, and they include journos, bloggers, tech types, PR folks, stay-at-home moms, people with strange nicknames, and one movie star.
That, of course, increases the pressure to have something reasonably enlightening to say every day.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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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

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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