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Howard Kurtz Critiques the Press and Analyzes the Media

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 18, 2009 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, May 18 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.

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Washington, D.C.: Howie, Maureen Dowd was caught stealing from blogger Josh Marshall over the weekend, and yet you haven't gone scorched earth, like you did in the case of Jayson Blair. Why are you holding back? Surely you're not afraid of Maureen.

Howard Kurtz: Well, let's see. First, I'm on vacation. Second, what Dowd did, while clearly an embarrassment, hardly falls into the same category as the serial fabrications of Jayson Blair that I exposed six years ago. Third, Maureen quickly admitted her mistake and is running a correction.

Consider: If Dowd had intentionally decided to plagiarize Josh Marshall's blog, wouldn't it have occurred to her that she would be caught in about 0.5 seconds? Wouldn't she have changed a few words to pass off the idea as her own?

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Boonsboro, Md.: Is Maureen Dowd in any trouble with her employer for such an obvious case of plagiarism? I remember the WP firing a columnist over less -- something before he was even hired. Or is MoDo Teflon?

Howard Kurtz: Some of you seem to think that Dowd is getting special treatment because of her status as a Pulitzer-winning star. It does seem odd that the line she says she got from her friend matches almost verbatim what was on the TPM blog. But again, it would have been a snap to rewrite that sentence, so it does seem to me to fall into the category of an inadvertent mistake.

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Alexandria, Va.: It was announced today that Tony Kornheiser is out as an announcer for Monday Night Football. Any rumors of a local radio show or a national show with a local outlet? It would be the only reason to unplug my I Pod on the morning drive.

washingtonpost.com: Gruden Joins 'MNF' (The League, May 18)

Howard Kurtz: Tony was very popular as a Washington radio host (and very good at it, I say as someone who was a guest a few times). He basically gave it up because of the travel required for Monday Night Football, and I think he could make a deal for another D.C. or national radio show in a second if that's what he wants to do.

I never thought MNF was the perfect fit for Kornheiser, but he certainly got better at it. He says in that piece that his fear of flying is one of the reasons he decided to give it up after three seasons.

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Oklahoma City, Okla.: Polling has consistently shown that about 18-20 percent of Americans call themselves liberal while about 30-33 percent are conservative. Why, then, should Newsweek, Time, the New York Times and other aggressively liberal publications be shocked that their circulation has declined? Of course there are other factors (Internet, etc.) but when a publication shifts its news coverage to the left, it's not surprising that a great many former readers who are not or the left would go elsewhere for news.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think your analysis holds up. The percentage of people who stop reading Newsweek or the NYT because they see it as liberal is miniscule compared to those who get it online for free, feel they can get their news elsewhere, etc. Why would conservatives who dislike the publications for political reasons suddenly start deserting now, as opposed to five years ago? (The Times has 20 million monthly visitors to its Web site, by the way.)

Having said that, I believe that Newsweek, and Time as well, have clearly drifted to left-of-center status, which perhaps reflects their sense of where their audience is.

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Kettering, Ohio: Happy vacation time Howard! Too bad your Lakers game was so one-sided, unless you are a Lakers fan.

The dust-up over Obama's appearance at ND has exposed in my mind the fact that the media is less interested on the facts of the storyline but on their version of the storyline. I am Catholic and most if not all of my religious brethren that I [am] in contact with on a weekly and daily basis never seem to have minded that Obama was invited to speak. It was the awarding of an honorary degree that was so over the top. I never heard a report or read a story on that nuance and am wondering is that too simple or am I missing something?

Howard Kurtz: Of course, Notre Dame awarding an honorary degree to a president is only "over the top" if you believe that his views on abortion are so important that the university should not accord him this ritual honor. And if that's true, should Notre Dame not invite, or give honorary degrees to, public figures who support the death penalty or disagree with other church teachings?

Obama's "common ground" speech yesterday was striking to me. It doesn't seem to fit the narrative of the left-versus-right media, which are so accustomed to framing issues, particularly social issues, in either-or terms.

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Fairfax, Va.: Look, Maureen Dowd is a very serious journalist. Do you really think she'd bother intentionally plagiarizing a mere blogger who writes from his basement? Please.

Howard Kurtz: Well, that's too dismissive of Josh Marshall, a very smart journalist who has built a small staff at Talking Points Memo (who work out of a New York office, not a basement. I doubt Josh even has a basement).

My point is that if you were going to rip something off from a blog, you might pick an ultra-obscure one, not one with the following of TPM. And even then, in this digital age, you'd probably get caught.

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Chevy Chase....: From your piece today: "Meacham recently had lunch with Stengel, and they commiserated about the era of diminishing resources."

Any word on who picked up the tab?

Howard Kurtz: I was not able to ferret out that particular detail. Maybe they went Dutch.

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Arlington, Va.: I keep hearing rumors about a rival sports radio station in the D.C. market. Is TK's departure from MNF in any way related to these rumors?

Howard Kurtz: I doubt it, since we didn't know Kornheiser was leaving Monday Night Football until this morning.

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Bluffton, S.C.: From my college days until about 20 years ago I was a TIME subscriber when it seemed to be to be losing some objectivity. So I switched to NEWSWEEK, mainly to read George Will every other issue. When Jon Meacham took over a few years ago things really changed. I realize he's a big fan of President Obama but how many covers now? Isn't it around 20? My subscription runs out in August and won't be renewed. Where can I find a NEWS magazine?!

Howard Kurtz: Well, you can't turn to U.S. News, which is now a Web site that publishes occasional print guides to this or that.

Newsweek has done a sizable number of Barack and Michelle covers, and of course turned to the president for an interview to launch the revamped magazine. But I don't know that I would describe Meacham as a big Obama fan. He is an historian (who just won a Pulitzer for his biography of Andrew Jackson) and wrote a cover story after the election on how America remains a center-right nation. But he certainly is moving the magazine left of center. Rick Stengel, his counterpart at Time, worked for Bill Bradley in the 2000 presidential campaign.

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Nuance?: Don't commencement speakers USUALLY get an honorary degree? Wasn't that what was so odd about ASU's boneheaded decision not to give him one? Maybe if this had been adequately addressed in the media accounts, for the benefit of people who did not graduate from college or just didn't pay much attention at the ceremony, this whole "it's the significance of ND giving him a degree" angle would go away.

Howard Kurtz: True - any POTUS who speaks at a college commencement usually gets an honorary degree and a cool T-shirt.

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Anonymous: Howard : Whoa dude you're on vacation and still here doing this chat? Perhaps you need to go fishing or take up stamp collecting or something?

Howard Kurtz: I am COMMITTED to communicating with my audience! Actually, I forgot to cancel it.

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Annapolis, Md.: Did you hear about the notice in Sunday's issue of The Capital in Annapolis that its offices will be closed Monday (today) "for a furlough day"? Not an original concept -- the state government has been using it all year, but one worker at a time. It will be interesting to see Tuesday's paper, since the news never seems to take a furlough.

Howard Kurtz: I did not know that. A number of news organizations, including the NYT and Gannett, are furloughing employees for one or two weeks as a way of saving money--but not all at one time. If I was running a newspaper, I wouldn't want to skip editions on the theory that people might find they didn't miss it much.

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Frederick, Md.: Howie, this is hugely oversimplified, but in the interest of time as I think about Newsweek's situation: Doesn't it seem that, from a business standpoint, right-leaning media sells significantly better? Fox News, WSJ, Rush Limbaugh, none of them are in the financial death spirals we hear so much about. In other words, if I'm in a Newsweek board meeting (or NYT or Air America, etc.), desperate to stop the bleeding, is it really so blasphemous to suggest we try tilting right and see what happens? I mean, when do you finally have to look at is a business and realize its not working?

Howard Kurtz: There are too many apples and oranges in your question. Rush is a talk radio guy (and conservatives have clearly dominated that medium). The Wall Street Journal is a newspaper whose news product has remained straight, even under Murdoch, while its editorial pages have always been quite conservative. Fox News is a cable network that has done extremely well in the ratings (though cable is a smaller universe than broadcast), driven by its conservative opinion shows.

But Newsweek is a newsmagazine, a mass-market vehicle that a couple of years ago was selling 3 million copies a week. Now it's making a conscious decision to become more of a niche product by halving its circulation. Jon Meacham says that reported arguments and ideas are the linchpin of that strategy; he doesn't buy my analysis that the magazine has moved left. In my view, though, the evidence is pretty clear.

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Bronx, N.Y. : Didn't MoDowd get all hysterical over Joe Biden's plagiarism a couple of years back? Didn't she spend a whole campaign telling us that America couldn't trust the serial exaggerator, Al Gore? Didn't she win her journalism prize through a crusade against Clinton's morals? Didn't even know she had a petard.

Howard Kurtz: Dowd's exposure of Joe Biden for plagiarizing speeches by British politician Neil Kinnock actually took place in 1987, during Biden's first presidential run. I'm getting the impression there are some Maureen detractors in the crowd today.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Do you think that MSNBC going in a liberal direction with their evening line-up is a smart business move considering Fox has had a ratings increase with their right-leaning line-up?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's a smart move in the ratings sense. MSNBC, while still in third place, is getting its strongest numbers ever with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and has beaten CNN in prime time a couple of months. The larger question, for an operation that is part of NBC News, is whether MS is sacrificing its journalistic credibility by being more openly partisan. MSNBC insists that its news coverage remains straight, but there are fewer hours devoted to news as more lefty pundits such as Ed Schultz are added to the lineup.

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Journalism or Agenda?: Today in the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza has an article titled "Some Call It Torture." Aside from the fact that Cillizza bases his story on a poll from a firm "made up of Republican strategists," as he acknowledges, the poll's questions are conducted in such a way that appear to lead the respondents toward support of torture. So why report it?

Is this journalism? Or an agenda?

washingtonpost.com: Some Call It Torture. In One Poll, Most Call It Justified. (Post, May 18)

Howard Kurtz: Cillizza's story seems to be to be straight as an arrow. He cites the Republican poll, he explores the findings, and he notes other polls that found the country more divided over torture techniques.

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RE: Bluffton, S.C.: I don't read any of the weeklies anymore, but I don't begrudge them the right to put a story that sells on their front cover. Bluffton may not like Obama, but most Americans do and Obama sells. By the way, for most of my lifetime presidents got a preponderance of the covers and the media attention...that's because they are the president. I'm sure many liberals and others didn't like the daily cable cutaway to Bush for 8 years and all his covers, but you know, that guy earned them too!

Howard Kurtz: I haven't done a study, but I am confident that Obama as a candidate and as a new president was on the covers of the newsweeklies more than his predecessors. Of course, they think he moves the product, given the historic nature of his victory and, for now at least, his popularity in the polls. It's the same reason Obama has been on 60 Minutes twice and the Tonight Show and ESPN and featured in other media venues.

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Stafford, Va.: Howie, I often notice a difference between articles in my home print edition and what I read in the on-line "print edition", which indicates that some change or update has occurred since my early edition was created. Sometimes it's just a word or two, sometimes it's a much more substantive change. Shouldn't the Post print a note or correction explaining why changes were made after some early editions were printed? Enjoy your time off and keep up the good work.

Howard Kurtz: I'd have to see the examples. Changes are made between print editions, you know, as more information becomes available or editors raise questions. I would expect an online story to update a print article that went to press at 10 or 11 pm the night before. But if there are errors in a print story, Post policy is that the Web version can acknowledge the mistake but cannot change what was in the newspaper without noting it.

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Baltimore, Md.: Howie, Why do you think MSNBC showed old programs instead of broadcasting Pres. Obama's speech from Notre Dame like Fox and CNN did? Thank you in advance if you can answer this question

Howard Kurtz: To save money. The cable news nets aren't as fully staffed on weekends.

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Northern Virginia: I agree with you that President Obama's speech was very interesting in that it didn't fit into the left-right stereotype. He talked a lot more about his own religious beliefs and spiritual evolution than he usually does, also. It also, like most of his speeches, is hard to convey in sound bites. Does this mean it will get more or less coverage? I thought it was worth sharing but am not sure how the modern media will be able to share it and chew it over for a larger audience. For me, it was a big moment.

Howard Kurtz: It got ample coverage yesterday and this morning, but I don't know if it will quickly fade. It is true that some of Obama's speeches are not easily reduced to sound bites, and I know his aides wrestled with this sometimes during the campaign.

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Las Cruces, N.M.: "But I don't know that I would describe Meacham as a big Obama fan. He is an historian..."

Why do we assume historians are non-partisans? Having spent quite a few years in graduate history symposiums, let me tell you historians make a living viewing and writing about history through the prism of their world-view. For instance, Doris Kearn Goodwin is little more than a hack for the left. Wasn't Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. basically both a historian and a p.r. agent for JFK?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see them as mutually exclusive. The fact that he's an historian doesn't mean he doesn't have biases. I was just trying to convey that Meacham has a professional life beyond editing Newsweek.

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Miami, Fla.: Isn't it a fair observation that conservative and Republican readers are dumping Time and Newsweek for their niche reporting in Weekly Standard, Human Events and other magazines? With Time and Newsweek showing they favor the liberals and Dems, why should I continue to buy their information?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that is the major reason circulation has been dropping -- magazines generally control their circulation based on the level of discounts they offer subscribers -- but I would not discount it as a factor. And to answer your last question, if you don't find Time or Newsweek to your political liking, you shouldn't buy them. There is no shortage of choices out there.

Thanks, folks. I am officially returning to vacation.

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Today's Column: A Smaller But Better Newsweek?

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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