Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 13, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, April 13, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.


Anonymous: Is there any reason a paper such as the Washington Post should dedicate a front-page story to the White House DOG? Is there nothing more importatnt to report with two wars going on, and a fairly substantial economic crisis that the choice of the dog by the presidential family is front-page news?

Howard Kurtz: You know, I predicted on the air yesterday that the dog story would get the most hits on, and I was right. Everyone in the CNN green room was buzzing about the dog's alleged cuteness. It's obviously a feature story, but there seems to be enormous public interest (since I've now seen Bo's mug everywhere). But The Post didn't just do a wow-they've-gotten-a-dog story. It was a light-hearted examination of the White House attempts to manipulate the news, how the "newspaper that broke Watergate" had been promised the scoop, and how, inevitably, it leaked out online.


Kingston, N.Y.: Hi Howie, Yesterday, CNN interrupted, then preempted GPS for the breaking news of the pirate ship. I can understand why the program was interrupted to state the one fact that they knew, but as the hours wore on they repeated, speculated, brought in the same talking heads, spent a lot of time telling people they only had a few minutes for their answer and then corrected previously reported information. I have two questions. Who makes these programming decisions? and two...when will they realize that they have morphed into an entertainment channel making up the "breathless" news, rather than reporting a wide range of stories? CNN is not the only cable channel that does this, it was just so painfully obvious yesterday.

Howard Kurtz: Not a close call in my view. A dramatic Navy rescue of a captured American captain versus a taped program? Live news always trumps taped discussions. A senior news executive made the call at every network, and it was the right one. I know it can get tedious in these breaking news situations when anchors and correspondents repeat the few facts that are known while waiting for more information. They stay with the story in part because people are tuning in and out. In these circumstances you're seeing the raw news-gathering process, which moves in fits and starts, because cable news doesn't have the luxury of waiting for hours until all the information has been neatly assembled.


Geez -- Re First Poster: Lighten up, Anonymous. There's plenty of serious stuff on the first page of the paper, too. Don't we deserve a smile with our morning coffee?

Howard Kurtz: Yeah, lighten up!


Dog News : Promised the scoop huh? Well, you got it.

Howard Kurtz: Well, yes and no. Readers of TMZ could see many of the details on Saturday, including a picture of the Portugese water hound that had been obtained by a mysterious new site called FirstDogCharlie. The Post had the most details, and told the White House it could not wait until Tuesday for the official doggy rollout once the story had leaked online.


Bethesda, Md.: Hi Howard - Question about the production of Reliable Sources. I think two Sundays ago, the first ten minutes were taken up by a big news story... you then started the show around 10:10. When there is a delay like that, is the time made up for by less commercials? Or do you have to trim some of your material?

Howard Kurtz: We have to trim some of our material. In that case it was in reaction to the North Korean missile test. There are smaller things we can do to keep the bulk of the program intact (not playing some tape, truncating intros on the fly) but one of the challenges of live television is that you sometimes have to make do with less time.


D.C.: Thanks for the question is about when news organizations cross the line and become the story.

It seems to me that Fox is pushing as much as covering these "tea parties"...regardless of their success, both with Fox and CNN (the Dobbs program), certain news programming seems to be more about advocacy than accurate information.

Has Fox broken with all semblance of objective reporting with its seeming anti-Obama activism?

Is there any way back to when news organizations at least pretended to be "objective?"

One further question, why, when interviewing Gingrich as a spokesman for the GOP, and he talks about Obama's lack of family values or "Catholic" values, don't reporters ask about his serial infidelities? Yes, there are a lot of commentators post-hoc doing the hypocrisy watch, but don't reporters who know that story have a obligation not to defer when the hypocrisy is so blatent?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the Fox folks leading the tea party charge are Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto and Greta Van Susteren -- all commentators who are paid for their opinions. It makes me a bit uncomfortable the way the channel has turned these April 15 protests into something of a crusade, complete with the drumbeat of advance publicity and the above-named hosts planning to attend various tea parties. But it's not fair to say that Fox's reporters are jumping on this bandwagon, although we'll see how much coverage it gets on Thursday.
On your other question, if Gingrich has criticized Obama on family values, I don't recall hearing it.


Birmingham, Ala.: The right-wing talking point of the day was to be that Obama was impotent because he failed to respond to the pirates. Unfortunately, with the captain rescued and three pirates dead, that talking point won't fly.

What's the next talking point?

Howard Kurtz: That he took too long to respond to the pirates.
But not everyone on the right in saying that. Some are giving the president credit for authorizing the Navy to use force if necessary.


Washington, D.C.: Here's my suggestion for charging for Web site access. One of my favorite Web sites has content on a free site with ads (rather obtrusive ads, in fact) and a subscription site that has the same content minus all ads, plus additional features that are well worth the price. Using the same pattern, the Washington Post could put the newspaper on line with ads, but provide the newspaper plus lots of other features on the subscription site. It would still be part of the ongoing Web dialogue, without losing too much money. One of the big sites, Washington Post or NYT, is going to have to go first --- if it works for one, all the newspapers will follow the lead of #1.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure that would work. Most people would probably put up with the ads to access the free site. Some people even like ads. The only draw would be the extra features on the paid version of the site, but then the question becomes, how much of your content do you want to wall off? The NYT tried that with its $49.99 fee for reading the columnists and eventually dropped the experiment.


N. Manchester, Ind.: Good afternoon Howard! I know you dislike criticisms of biased reporting, but I am struck by the pass that Biden has received after his comment last week on his alleged private meeting with and putdown of Bush 43. Yes, some of the media outlets reported his comments and even a few reported on the expressions of disbelief by former Bush aides. If it had been Cheney saying something like that about Clinton, the press would have been all over it, seeking confirmation, even the video tape. Do I have it all wrong or is Biden receiving another pass for another of his frequent "quaint" witticisms?

Howard Kurtz: You have it largely wrong. The dispute between Biden and Rove over the vice president's comments was widely reported in newspapers and on television. The Post devoted a story, based on the dispute, to Rove's evolving role as perhaps the highest-profile critic of the administration, using his Fox News and WSJ platforms. Even SNL made fun of it! The one thing we haven't been able to resolve is whether Biden actually told President Bush that his attempt at leadership was producing no followers, as the VP's office maintains, or the incident never happened, as Rove argues.


Bethesda, Md.: "Some are giving the president credit for authorizing the Navy to use force if necessary."

Who is saying this? All I've heard from the presidents opponents are that:

1. He took too long, or 2. The Navy did everything and he deserves no credit.

Howard Kurtz: I'm rounding up the reaction and will have it for you tomorrow.


Manchester, U.K: Do you think in terms of economics, the press is covering Obama unfairly? At the beginning of the administration everyone kept blaming him for the fall in the stock market, and now that it has gone up in the past 5 weeks I have heard no one from CNBC mentioning his name

Howard Kurtz: Well, I haven't monitored every hour of CNBC, but I have made the point that Sean Hannity and some others pounded away at the theme that the market was voting no confidence in Obama during the Dow's nearly 2,000-point slide, and have moved on to other arguments since the market has rebounded. I personally think it's slightly absurd to blame the president for short-term declines in the market -- though it's fair over time -- but if you're going to do that, then he deserves credit when stocks bounce back. We've seen the Dow rise from 6,500 to roughly 8,000 in recent weeks (though it's down 85 today as I type).


"Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure that would work. Most people would probably put up with the ads to access the free site.": Well, that's essentially the same model newspapers have used for years, not to mention broadcast TV and if you aggregate enough eyeballs, you should be able to charge for them.

Take out the resource-costly paper edition, and you have a business.

Howard Kurtz: Sigh. Take out the resource-costly print edition and you've got a Web site that can support a newsroom about 10 percent of the size we have now. Until online advertising rates grow, that's not a solution to the problem that newspapers are facing.


Burke, Va.: It sounds like the reporter finally got his equipment back from the VA, and the VA will look into its media policies, but I wonder why the Post's initial report on this incident appeared in the Style section? What editor decided that the government infringing upon free expression (by a patient) and freedom of the press was a style section puff piece?

Howard Kurtz: Why do you equate Style section placement with puff pieces? Most of my reporting is published in Style. It's the section of the paper where we cover the media, including serious media issues such as a government clown thinking it's a good idea to halt an interview and seize a radio reporter's tape recorder.


Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, You said you had no problem with the opinion guys at Fox promoting and attending the teabag parties. However since they are promoting it on the Fox News Channel itself, doesn't it then give the protests the Fox network seal of approval? What other network has PROMOTED a protest on their channel with their star anchors? I think if MSNBC had promoted the antiwar protests with their star anchors, the reaction would be a little different.

Also why has no one pointed out that these protests are being organized by astroturf organizations like Freedom Works and aren't actually grassroots organizations.

Howard Kurtz: I think there are a number of organizations involved. And yes, Fox has seemed to give the tea parties its stamp of approval by having its hosts not only talk up the events but agree to grace the parties with their presence.


Washington, D.C.: "Water HOUND"? Actually, it is not as wrong as it seems. The American Kennel Club misunderstood that "hund" means "dog" generally in German and thought that "hounds" were a particular type of dog, i.e., dachshund and applied to name to a limited group of dogs. The new White House resident is a "water dog."

Howard Kurtz: I stand corrected. Journalism school clearly didn't prepare me for this.


Gingrich, Notre Dame, Obama: Gingrich twittered: "it is sad to see notre dame invite obama to give the commencement address since his policies are so anti catholic values"

Matt Cooper actually had a good Twitter response: "Famed thrice divorced pro death penalty Jesuit @newtgingrich is "sad" notre dame invited BO to speak despite his "anti Catholic" values"

Howard Kurtz: Sounds like Newt is referring to Obama's support of abortion rights, which is what the Notre Dame protest is basically about. But somehow such schools don't object to appearances by presidents who support the death penalty, which the Catholic Church also opposes.


Philadelphia, Pa.: If I may please have a say: Put me down for keeping the Web access to newspapers free and I will put up with the ads. I put up with ads in my hard copies, and I know you need to make money somehow to keep going. If you charge, though, there are too many other free sites to go to and you'd lose me as a reader.

Howard Kurtz: Of course, that would change if all major news sites began charging for content. But that ship may have sailed years ago.


Lansdale, Pa.: Forgive me if this question sounds stupid, but can you please define the term "reporting" as used by journalists? I always thought that you go investigate a certain topic and report back on your findings. And I thought that this act of reporting back is what is meant by "reporting". But I have heard some journalists use the term to refer to the whole investigative process.

Howard Kurtz: Every news story, whether it's a routine city council meeting or a yearlong investigation, is based on reporting. It is, quite simply, the gathering of information, whether through interviews, observation or database searches. The level of reporting obviously varies greatly depending on the nature of the story and the amount of time allowed.


Laurel, Md.: Your ombundsman wrote yesterday about how the Post will no longer write stories about the Baltimore Orioles as if they were a local team. What's going on about that partnership between the Post and the Baltimore Sun? It would seem that baseball game stories would be a good candidate for shared coverage, if you don't want to send another reporter. Some of your subscribers (note address above) live in BOTH the Baltimore and Washington areas. O! Why the Orioles Are Less Seen in The Post (Post, April 12)

Howard Kurtz: As the ombudsman noted, The Post will rely on the Baltimore Sun for coverage of the Orioles' games. (Under a content-sharing agreement, which extends beyond sports, the Sun will use Post stories for Washington Nationals games.) I guess this is a reasonable solution for an era of diminished resources, but it doesn't mean I have to like it. I did, however, expect this to happen from the day the National League awarded D.C. a franchise after a 33-year dry spell. I knew the Nationals would come to be seen as "our" home team. But a lot of our readers live in Maryland and remain dedicated Orioles fans.


London, U.K.: Wait, what? Tea parties? I thought that your 'big' tea party (the Boston one) was primarily an exercise opposing taxation without representation (at least, the political arguments supporting the tea-tossing). I'm aware that residents of Washington, D.C. don't have a vote in Congress, but am puzzled that Fox News would really care about people in a heavily Democratic-leaning city not having voting representation. Have I missed something?

Howard Kurtz: Yes - the tea parties have nothing to do with D.C. or representation. They are basically a protest against Obama's tax and budget policies. I find the "take back our country" rhetoric interesting, though, since it's only been three months since the Bush administration left town. Also, 95 percent of taxpayers are slated to have their taxes cut by the Obama budget. But the highest earners will face the increase that Obama promised during the campaign--a group that undoubtedly includes Sanity, Beck, Cavuto and Van Susteren.


Breaking news: "Breaking news" decisions (and your opinion of them) usually seem to be based on reporters' desire to report rather than viewers' interest or need to know. If I'm watching a television program -- however casually -- I only want it interrupted by "breaking news" that I NEED to know -- like the September 11 attacks or the sudden illness of the president. Otherwise, update me at the top of the hour (oops, that would cut into commercial time) or leave it until the next scheduled news program. I didn't NEED to know that the ship's captain had been rescued; I was glad to hear about it at 11 p.m., but if continuing coverage had been going on when I tuned in to watch the Masters Tournament, I'd have turned the TV off.

CNN is a little different, since they can assume their viewers are tuning in for news programming. But even then, those who tune in to watch scheduled, topic-centered programming probably aren't pleased to have it preempted in favor of watching an unrelated story develop in real time.

Howard Kurtz: Cable news IS different. The channels are not cutting into lucrative entertainment programs when there's breaking news. And frankly, a lot of Sunday afternoon programs on the cable news channels are reruns. I don't like it when my show is cut into because, say, someone is holding a news conference about a local crime -- that seems to me to be the kind of news we can catch up on later. But a Navy rescue of a captured American on the high seas? That is breaking news under any possible definition. It is, after all, the lead story in every major newspaper today.


I think you missed the "scoop" joke earlier...: That commenter seemed to be implying (at least to me) that you 'did' get the scoop, just not the kind a newspaper would want. It was a weak reference to dog owners "scooping" up their pets' business.

Howard Kurtz: Yuck.


Polarized, USA: Considering the polarized nature of our politics today (congressional districts gerrymandered to a particular party base, very few old-style moderates in Congress), is it possible to have a president of any party who isn't a "polarizing" figure? I read many pieces over the last week decrying Obama for being a polarizing president.

Howard Kurtz: I wrote about this last week. Karl Rove and Michael Gerson, among others, have been leading the Obama-is-a-polarizing-president charge. (Some people may not like his policies, but does he seem like a polarizing figure to you?)
This was based on a Pew poll finding that Obama had 88 percent support among Democrats and 27 percent among Republicans--the biggest partisan gap in modern times. But there are explanations for this. Almost exactly the same percentage of Republicans supported Bill Clinton at this stage of his presidency, but Dem support for Obama is much higher. Also, the number of self-identified Republicans is smaller, and its adherents more conservative, than they used to be. So I don't think the polarizing charge holds up.


Montana: I used to think David Shuster was a pretty good reporter, but as I have been watching him anchor, it seems to me that he has becoming increasingly sharply partisan, despite what he told you. He's right that the Media Research Center is conservative, but that doesn't change the numbers in the group's report on how many times he's criticized liberals and conservatives (34 versus 4).

(P.S. I think you might have missed the point of Manchester's question: That the press hasn't asked Biden to produce the date when he supposedly said this to Bush)

Howard Kurtz: Ah - well, I don't know that the press has had a crack at Biden since he made those remarks in a CNN interview last week. Reporters have certainly asked his press office about Rove's criticism.
David Shuster once worked at Fox and I've always considered him a fair and aggressive reporter. But the 34-4 statistic does raise the reasonable question of whether, as an anchor, he has tried to fit in with MSNBC's leftward drift on the opinion side.
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

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company