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Howard Kurtz Critiques the Press and Analyzes the Media

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 27, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, April 27, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.

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Baltimore, Md.: Howard -- In your column today re the Bradley dinners -- the list of invited journalists is almost exclusively left wing. No Krauthammer, Will, Kristol, etc. Are conservatives not welcome or do they choose not to attend?

washingtonpost.com: At These Dinners, Candor Is The Entree (Post, April 27)

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure David Brooks of the New York Times would vigorously object to your observation. Although if you look at the list of those who are commentators, the right does seem underrepresented.

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Washington, D.C.: Re Christopher Buckley. While I love tell-it-all articles/books and was not a political supporter of WFB, I found the NY times excerpt of CB's memoir over the top. As though he is trying to revenge himself against his parents. Your opinion please.

washingtonpost.com: Growing Up Buckley (The New York Times Sunday Magazine, April 26)

Howard Kurtz: If you read my interview with Chris Buckley, you'll see that he considered it a loving portrait that attempted to paint his mum and pup as real human beings with ordinary human flaws. In doing so, though, he shared an awful lot about William and Pat Buckley that is not exactly admiring. It was painful, for instance, to read about his dad's declining health and mental acuity during his last year of life. Buckley also told me there was even worse stuff in the first draft--which he took out at the urging of relatives.

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Louisville, Colo.: Hi Howard,

On Reliable Sources yesterday, you showed the "follow the money" clip from "All the President's Men." But during the past week, TV news media chose to ignore the "follow the money" testimony before Congress by the Inspector Generals trying to keep-up with bailout money.

From Frank Ahrens blog in the Post, The Ticker: "Auditor: 'Hundreds Of Billions' Of Bailout Could Be Lost To Fraud

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general at Treasury for the bailout program, warned of "hundreds of billions of dollars in fraud" if the government bailout funds are not closely monitored"

Why wasn't this a major story?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe we need a new Deep Throat. Of course, saying that money "could" be lost to fraud is not as dramatic as saying it has been lost to fraud. But it's also true that television struggles, and always has struggled, with complicated financial stories that are abstract and not particularly visual.

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Washington, D..C: Why does the Post constantly print letters complaining about the selection of stories for the front page? Each letter-writer seems to think that a newspaper's front page must consist solely of that day's most significant hard news. How long has it been since that was truly the case for most papers... 30 years? Newspaper front pages reflect the full spectrum of the paper's content, including features, sports and other (relative) fluff. Can't readers accept this? Can't the Post stop printing their tedious complaints?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's good to give readers their say. I think most of them get that Page 1 is not simply a collection of the day's most vital events. But when you don't think much of a certain feature, it's a good rhetorical argument that it didn't "deserve" to be on the front page. One prominent example was the unveiling of Bo, which was, yes, just a dog story, but also got the most online hits that day. It also happened to be a Post exclusive, so critics should bark up some other tree.

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Boston, Mass.: Here is my idea for the first 100 days coverage: NO Democrat or Republican voices...only independent. It's obvious in this day and age that Dems will say the 100 days has been successful and Repubs will say its been a failure, so please spare us.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, I don't see many Republicans saying flatly that the first 100 days have been a failure. But while I don't like an overreliance on partisan voices, should we really ban them from the coverage? Should we not quote White House officials as defending the president's record? The place is, after all, populated by known Democrats.

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Fullerton, Calif.: Howard, I never miss your show and really get bugged when it's cut short for so-called "Breaking News," etc., but when they changed the name again and made it "John King's Reliable Sources," it didn't record as my DVR didn't recognize it. Please, please, can we have some consistency here? I know I can download the podcast, but it's not available immediately and takes ever so long to download. Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I'm just glad Reliable Sources is in the name. John King is doing an excellent job, by the way, and I'm sorry for any confusion for those who just want to TiVo my 10 am hour. It is listed separately if you take the time to look for it. Thanks.

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NYC: So this swine flu story as been with us for about a day or two now. Last night I saw one of the most alarmist stories I've ever seen on Yahoo. It asked whether this flu was the big one. It teased about how scientists have predicted an epidemic that could kill millions and asked: is this it?

What's your opinion on stories like this? It seems the main intention was to create fear. Just like here in NYC whenever a big hurricane hits somewhere, they talk about what would happen if that same hurricane hit Manhattan (it's always massive devastation).

Howard Kurtz: I can't comment on the Yahoo story because I haven't seen it. I will note that cable has covered little else since yesterday. While this is obviously a serious and troubling story, I worry that we're getting into the fear-spreading business. There are still only about 20 confirmed cases in the U.S. Of course, the White House gave the story a big boost with a lengthy news conference with top officials yesterday, which is quite unusual for a Sunday.

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Mooresville, N.C.: re: Buckley: I've read and heard numerous reviews and interviews on the book. The junior Buckley repeatedly gives his parents, father especially, a pass because of their "greatness," comparing him to Churchill. They sound like selfish monsters to me and I hardly think hosting Firing Line is on a par with helping to save Western Civilization. Does Rush Limbaugh's "greatness" likewise excuse his abominable behavior?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think anyone reading "Losing Mum and Pup" -- which is a compelling read, by the way -- will conclude that Christopher Buckley gives his parents a pass. He told me they were both "impossible," went through a period of not talking to his father and wrote scalding letters to his mother about her behavior.

For me, the power of the book is in conveying that despite the Buckley's wealth and influence, their family was like many families, filled with fighting and resentment and various pathologies.

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Arlington, Va.: This business of correcting older stories seems to be overdone. This appears to be something that could be done online with the dead tree version pointing readers toward it.

Howard Kurtz: Well, the rule has always been that the mistake should be corrected in the venue in which it occurred. So I agree with running even way overdue corrections in the paper. This also is noted in Nexis for people who might look up the original story.

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Washington, D.C.: I read a story within the past week or so about a meeting of "a senior administration official" with a group of reporters on the subject of Obama's first 100 days. It seemed rather clear (to me, and I'm not in the politics biz) that it was Axelrod. Now, I understand why "ASAO" is used and accepted by the press when the WH wants to say something about foreign policy to send a semi-official/deniable signal to another country, and otherwise when the WH person is speaking to one reporter, but when briefing a group of reporters on the first 100 days, it seems strange, at best. Is this unusual, or have I just missed it being done in the past? Any thoughts on it? If you think it's wrong, is there anything that can be done? Will be done?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see that particular story but the practice seems ridiculous. Axelrod, Rahm, Gibbs and others have all been on the record for these first-100-days assessments. We're not talking about Iraq military policy or even swine flu here. What possible justification would there be for keeping such a session on background?

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Obama coverage: While the media does seem to have a love affair with Obama, his biography still makes him an incredible story so naturally the media wants to cover the "new President smell" angle.

But I think Obama may be getting more coverage simply because no other recent president faced so many problems at a comparable time. A financial crisis combined with a war fought on two fronts means people want to hear from the president.

Howard Kurtz: That part is certainly true. Even in a placid time, Barack Obama would be a big story because of the excitement of the campaign and the historic nature of his presidency. But the fact that he took office during an economic meltdown--not to mention two wars--made his earliest moves hugely consequential and fueled public interest even further. The economy, after all, is a story that affects every American.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Today's article "Washington Post Cuts Weekday Circulation Losses" showed that the WP is stemming losses M-F and Sunday but that the Saturday paper is still losing money. The Saturday paper is the one day per week that I want to pay for. However, I either have to get Mon-Sat or Sat and Sun. I offered to pay the Mon-Sat rate if they only delivered the Sat paper. No deal so rather than pay to kill trees I'm now reading for free on line. If there was a way to pay something online I would.

I know all these are familiar complaints, but until the WP starts offering customers a customer-friendly way to pay for services please stop publishing woe-is-me articles. They have the same ring as Chrysler complaining about losing market share when they were cranking out the K-car.

washingtonpost.com: Washington Post Cuts Weekday Circulation Losses (Post, April 27)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if other papers allow Saturday-only delivery. It's usually bundled with Sunday for those who don't want or need the weekday paper. It's possible that one-day-a-week delivery may not be profitable for the paper. (Almost all newspapers, by the way, have their lowest circulation on Saturday.)

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi Mr. Kurtz -- You seem to think it was wrong of Perez Hilton to ask Miss California about gay marriage. The contest claims to be about humanitarian goals and improving the lives of others, and it would certainly seem worth knowing if a contestant is biased against gay people. And as a journalist, don't you support the idea of a topical question that elicits an insightful response? But instead you attack Hilton.

Howard Kurtz: What I did, in my Reliable Sources interview with Perez Hilton, is to ask why he asked the question; why he lowered Miss California's score because he didn't like the answer; why he proceeded to call her the B-word; and whether he was stoking the controversy to draw attention to himself and his gossip site. Those all seem like fair questions to me.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard, I've noticed a ton of corrections in the Post in the last week dating back to 2006, 2007. Some seem exceedingly trivial (like today, about misidentifying a cemetery Mayor Fenty passed on a tour in 2006.) What's going on?

Howard Kurtz: What's going on is that the new ombudsman, Andy Alexander, has made this an issue and has prodded The Post into dealing with its backlog of unresolved correction requests.

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Forty confirmed cases -- not 20.: Media guy, you might stay up on the news.

Howard Kurtz: It was 20 as of this morning's paper. I am not covering that particular story hour by hour.

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Swine flu: Do you think that cable news and the Internet force stories that in the 70s or 80s would have been "page 2" into the mainstream important news? My husband and I wonder just how badly the stock market would have fallen if we could not check every moment of a company's earnings statements or watch pretty remarkable votes in Congress that may have been delayed if not for all the internet and cable news attention. Today we wondered if we should send our children to school and no swine flu has been reported here.

Howard Kurtz: I think that's true with missing white women stories and other local crime tales or weird news that might not have landed high on the national radar. I don't think it's true of the economy. With the current level of banking paralysis, unemployment and foreclosures, this would be a constant front-page story even if cable news and the Net didn't exist.

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Bethesda, Md.: How is it that senior Obama admin officials/federal employees (as Ruth Marcus quoted them them anonymously last week) such as Geithner, Emmanuel, Petraeus and Summers are making presentations and Q/A sessions with journalists at a tony D.C. dinner party and no notes or minutes are provided. They aren't invited to these dinner parties because they are interesting people but because they are high-ranking government employees. I guess this is the change we can believe in. I guess changing the way Washington works didn't include the Washington cocktail parties.

Howard Kurtz: Because, as I reported this morning, these are off-the-record dinners hosted by the Atlantic's owner, David Bradley. You don't have minutes for off-the-record meetings. Whether top officials should be attending such dinners is up to you. But even if they didn't exist, top officials in every administration talk to journalists all the time either on background or off the record. I think they get away with it far too often, but in this case, the guests were asked to speak off the record rather than imposing the ground rule themselves.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: So Howard, am I wrong or are we in the midst of a completely media invented event, the 100 Days? I don't think how a president acts in his first 100 Days tells us much of anything about what kind of president he will be, but you have the networks, newspapers, and cable news pontificating as though it is some kind of momentous event.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, it is a totally media-invented event. It is, in addition, artificial and arbitrary. And if you look at the 100-day assessments of Reagan, Clinton and Bush, among others, you will see that the early snapshots did very little to capture the ultimate shape of their presidencies.

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Black Mountain, N.C.: It's been hard to miss how the Post's coverage of the day's hotter political events -- torture, Iraq occupation, etc. -- comes in two flavors, one with foreign and domestic reaction and another without. People are beginning to think this means an editorial decision, too. It's ranking right up there with the Post's now long-standing tradition of reserving many of the most DOD-rankling stories for Saturday's edition. Your thoughts on that?

Howard Kurtz: I'm afraid I have no clue what you're getting at. And if The Post has been deliberately running controversial Pentagon stories on Saturday, that has remained a secret, even from me.

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Evanston, Ill.: Hey Howie, What's your take of the Jane Harman fiasco? After supporting and defending illegal warrantless wiretapping she is denouncing and condemning legally authorized wiretapping that just so happened to catch her making a quid pro quo with an alleged Israeli agent. Why is the Washington establishment not commenting on this? I don't think I heard a word of it on any Sunday show. Why is she not cooked?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know why you conclude the Washington establishment isn't commenting. That story was all over the newspapers (including the front page of the New York Times and, the next day, the front page of The Washington Post) and all over cable news for days. The Sunday shows are not the only barometer of what's news.

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Franconia, Va.: I don't think the "100 days" thing is media-inspired. Isn't that the standard way we were all taught about the Franklin Roosevelt administration's early stages in high school and college? If anything, I say blame the historians (or the history teachers). They came up with the concept.

Howard Kurtz: It is true that FDR's fast start in launching the New Deal set the template for future presidents. It is also true that the media have made this into a big, fat, inescapable ritual pegged to an arbitrary date on the calendar.

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Wheaton, Md.: Howard, I realize the fate of nations does not rest on this issue, but during your discussion with Perez Hilton yesterday, no one, especially not PH himself, seemed to realize the fact that he routinely uses the 'b' word when describing women is totally insulting and hateful.... as a 56-year-old female, I'm more than tired of the disrespectful treatment by males and the entitlement that people like PH seem to have to degrade and insult us. And ironically, he's upset because he thinks HE'S being treated as a second-class citizen? He (and anyone else who continually uses that word) should look in the mirror first before they start whining about how THEY are being treated.

Howard Kurtz: Understood. But my role wasn't to police his language overall, it was to ask why he used that word against Carrie Prejean, Miss California, after becoming angry over her gay-marriage answer. Perez told me that her answer was not inclusive because it alienated gay Americans. But by that reasoning, had she said she supported gay marriage, she would have alienated those who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. The other finalists, meanwhile, were asked softball questions.

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New York, N.Y.: I read Broder's horrifying "don't prosecute war criminals" column on Sunday and almost unswallowed my breakfast. It's finally clear to me that the Post and the rest of the American establishment, views itself as immune to the moral and ethical rules it applies to every other country in the world. How depressing.

Stop Scapegoating (Post, April 26)

Howard Kurtz: I don't see why you would not view that as the opinion of one David Broder, as opposed to "The Post and the rest of the American establishment." That's what columnists do; they take stands on issues.

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Falls Church, Va.: I saw "State of Play" this weekend, and as you know, it's full of journalistic sins:

- Protecting political friends. - Personal conflict of interest with the subject of a story. - Withholding evidence of a crime from the police. - Misrepresenting a reporter's identity to a potential source. - Surreptitious taping.

Be honest now: Which of these happen all the time, and which more rarely?

Howard Kurtz: They're all extremely rare. In fact, R.B. Brenner, a Post metro editor who acted as a consultant to the film, said on my show yesterday that it was based on a British screenplay, and some of what goes on in the British media culture would amount to a firing offense at The Post. He pushed, with mixed success, for changes to the script so that Russell Crowe wouldn't be doing things that would be considered flatly unethical in American newsrooms.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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