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Howard Kurtz Critiques the Press and Analyzes the Media

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 1, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, June 1 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.: Howard,

I was a little confused by Goldstein's comments to you regarding his Court blog. In one section he claims he never censors his reporter, then in another he says he would never trash a nominee who is likely to be confirmed so as to protect Akin Gump's clients. I guess I have trouble seeing how a blog that is connected so closely to a law firm can really be independent of that firm.

washingtonpost.com: Scotusblog: High Court, High Speed, High Profile (Post, June 1)

Howard Kurtz: Tom Goldstein (whom I described as "attorney, blogger and walking sound-bite machine") told me he wouldn't PERSONALLY trash a Supreme Court nominee who was likely to be confirmed, precisely because he's an Akin Gump lawyer. But the blog has journalistic independence, and Goldstein said in the same column that his reporter, Lyle Denniston, has complete freedom, even to call Akin Gump clients evil.

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Washington: Kurtz,

I have a criticism of the washingtonpost.com: Where did the print edition page numbers go?

I thought it was great when the Post added the "A1" that let me know a story appeared on the front page -- even if, by mid-day, it had fallen to the "More National News" section of the Web site homepage.

I applauded when the NY Times added a similar notation to their articles. But, a few weeks ago it seems, the Post did away with this. I'm disappointed in this loss as it gave context to where stories appeared in the paper. It also helped when Post reporters or editors were asked questions in these chats like "Why did this story appear buried on A13?"

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the answer to that, but I'm with you: I want to know where a story was played in the print edition. Maybe nobody under 30 cares, but it does give you some sense of its relative importance.

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Boston, Mass.: It's been less than a week since she was nominated and I am already sick of the Sotomayor coverage. Whether you agree with her or not, she seems as reasonably qualified as Roberts or Alito (who also mentioned his personal background when discussing how his views were framed). Is it just the interest groups on either end of the sprectrum who will be paying close attention here (and using the issue to raise money for themselves) or will it spill out to a broader audience?

Howard Kurtz: You can't overstate the importance of a Supreme Court nomination. These are lifetime appointments, and Sotomayor could serve 30 years. Yes, interest groups on both sides whip up a certain fervor, but it's also a good occasion for an honest debate about legal issues and the role of the court. I think the coverage will recede a bit until the hearings, but I don't have any problem with news organizations trying to find out everything we can about the judge's life and record. And, of course, her status as the first Hispanic adds to the story's appeal.

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Memphis, Tenn.: I thought that the interview with Sara Jane Moore on the Today Show was disgraceful. While I reluctantly agree that it was newsworthy to report that she was out of prison, I see no benefit in listening to her say that she admits she was wrong but that in the context of the times that one could understand while she felt she needed to do it.

As a drafted Vietnam era Veteran, I am sick of this glorification of these 60s and 70s "pop icons and their ideals.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the Today show glorified her, far from it. But I did find her performance rather sickening. Sara Jane Moore came close to murdering an American president. I wouldn't have accepted her "tenor of the times" blather and would have given her a much harder time.

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Chicago, Ill.: Does Roland Burris have any friends in the Senate? Is he being ostracized?

Howard Kurtz: Well, even his fellow Illinois Democrat, Dick Durbin, has called for him to step down, so that ought to tell you something.

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Agreed: Need Print Editiion Page Numbers: How else are we able to see how the Post might be burying an important A1 story on A19? It's a very important tool -- especially for media criticism, don't you think? Maybe -that's- why the WaPo removed them?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the rationale for the decision. It's not like the page numbers are a state secret, and they're available through Nexis (which not everyone has, I know).

But it may be tied to this new feature: If you click on an image of the front page on the lower right side of the home page, you see the actual print edition (and other section fronts if you want). And that leads you to a link that includes all the stories in each section that day, including page numbers.

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Sotomayor: "...but it's also a good occasion for an honest debate about legal issues and the role of the court" Agreed. When, if ever, do you think this might start? And will it cut into Limbaugh's air time?

Howard Kurtz: If you look at the WP, NYT, LAT and Time, among others, since last Tuesday, you will see a sizable number of meaty, reporting-intensive articles about Sotomayor, her rulings, her life story, her controversial statements, the political strategies in supporting and opposing the nomination, and so on. And you can read about many of her opinions on Scotusblog.com.

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So how about that hugging story in the New York Times?: I thought it was the most ridiculous piece of "reporting" I'd ever seen.

washingtonpost.com: For Teenagers, Hello Means 'How About a Hug?' (The New York Times, May 27)

Howard Kurtz: Well, the paper interviewed actual teenagers who do the actual hugging. I'm well past that demographic, so I go around high-fiving people.

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Everyone DOES have access to Nexis: Searches are free for anybody (yes, even non-reporters) -- but you have to pay $3 for articles you download. It's a great service: Lexis-Nexis By Credit Card.

(No, I don't work for them -- but I use their search function all the time.)

Howard Kurtz: I didn't know that; in the old days you or your employer had to pay for an account.

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Reston, Va.: When bankruptcy was first offered as an option for the U.S. automakers, the media seemed to be saturated with stories about how this would create a global economic disaster. Now that we have two U.S. automakers entering bankruptcy protection, is the media still reporting this as a sign of the Apocalypse? If not, why not?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think many said it would be a global economic disaster, but certainly a domestic economic disaster, given all the jobs tied to the industry. But that was during the debate over whether the government should let GM and Chrysler fail, plunging into a bankruptcy from which they might never emerge. What we have here is a government takeover, accompanied by a pre-packaged bankruptcy that is designed, at least, to be relatively quick. The taxpayers' investment in GM alone will jump to $50 billion. Many people will still lose their jobs, and there's no way of knowing whether GM can become a viable automaker. But the situation is certainly different than the one being debated last fall.

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Bluffton, S.C.: Your media notes column is my first read of the day but my second read today was Robert Samuelson's column. Boy, does he ever hit the nail on the head! That infatuation was present this weekend with the Obama date night in NYC and will continue with Brian Williams this week. I didn't realize there was a cabinet position -- Secretary of Public Relations. How much longer do you think this will go on?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it's fair to lump Brian Williams' prime-time special in that category before it has even aired. (It will likely be positive, but as Williams told me, previous NBC specials also portrayed the Bush 43 White House and the Bush 41 White House as hard-working places.) But yes, the gushing over Obama and his wife taking in a Broadway show, like the president and vice president going out for burgers, utterly amazes me. In these instances, they act like a normal family and the media seem to swoon.

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C'mon, Howard! I've looked!: You wrote: "since last Tuesday, you will see a sizable number of meaty, reporting-intensive articles about Sotomayor."

Sure... I've seen more in-depth articles coming out finally, but the lion's share of column inches across the country last week has been about that GOP-led "racist" framing about the speech she gave. The media, by and large, are laser-focused on a single sentence from that 2001 speech to characterize her or her comments as being "racist" while ignoring the overall point of Sotomayor's speech, which undercuts 'all' those criticisms. She absolutely highlights the challenge to her as a judge "to be greater than the sum total of my experiences," and "continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate." We need a better media -- luckily blogs are taking up the slack, or I'd never know this fact.

Howard Kurtz: I think that describes much of the television coverage but not the newspaper coverage. In just the WP and NYT, I've read, in addition to richly detailed profile pieces, stories on her involvement with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund; her unclear views on abortion unsettling both sides; how she handled her last Senate confirmation hearing; her role in the New Haven firefighters case; her challenging discrimination at Princeton; her temperament on the bench, and others. I even learned from a Post piece that she lent her dry cleaner $15,000 when he got into trouble.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: How would you have given Sara Jane Moore "a much harder time"? Scream at her? What questions would you have asked her to which you could except a rely that you would deem acceptable?

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't have moved on after she gave that vague answer about Vietnam and the tenor of the times. I would have pressed again and again: What did she mean by the tenor of the times? How did that justify murder? Who led her to believe that this was acceptable? Why does she sound like she doesn't really regret what happened? What would she say to Ford's family? Otherwise, why have her on?

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Those "old days" are long gone, Howie: You wrote: "in the old days you or your employer had to pay for an account."

Like a lot of things formerly only available to journalists, that info is available to all. Online. Direct links to source materials, access to media, etc. I guess that's part of the reason print is dying a hard death... people are finding the news themselves and increasingly not relying on the media to filter everything.

Thank GOD!

Howard Kurtz: I agree that it's a good thing this information is so widely available. I'm just saying there was a time, not that many years ago, when that was not the case.

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Washington, D.C.: Why the media "swoon" for the Obamas: I think it is because the country is still swooning and the reason for that is fairly obvious -- this is a vigorous couple in their 40s who still seem to be quite, uh, attracted to one another. When did we last see that in the White House? Not with Bush 43. Not with the Clintons.

Howard Kurtz: So a couple in their 50s who have a good marriage, as was true in the last administration, doesn't qualify? And what does going out for burgers (news alert--he ordered mustard!) have to do with being young or attracted to your wife?

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Long Island, N.Y.: Howard

As always, thanks for the chat.

I must say I think that the media has gone a slight bit overboard with the "Sotamayor in trouble" meme.

The fact that Rush and Coulter are going off doesn't surprise me -- someone had the line that they'd oppose the nomination of the ghost of Reagan if Obama nominated him to the SCOTUS.

Although there maybe some tough questioning, I don't see how the Gang of 14 (or whatever that number is now) would allow a fillibuster to go through based on her record and speeches alone.

Is the media just buying into this so they have a story to cover all summer?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not buying the premise. Just about every story from the day Sotomayor was nominated said she's likely to be confirmed. Even Republicans say she's likely to be confirmed. I do think the media have played up Rush's and Newt's "racist" charges because it's great copy, to use an old-fashioned term, while playing down the far more restrained reaction among Republican senators who will actually vote on the nomination. But that's not as exciting as noting that former GOP congressman Tom Tancredo accused her of belonging to a "Latino KKK" (the mainstream group La Raza). To date, only one GOP senator has said he will vote against Sotomayor, though a substantial bloc undoubtedly will.

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New York, N.Y.: If Sotomayor were a white male with the same qualifications, would we be seeing all these stories questioning her intellect? Would a man with the same court room demeanor get so many questions on his temperment?

Howard Kurtz: I certainly believe on the second point that the media are more likely to call a female public figure "testy" or a "bully" than a comparable male figure. I don't recall stories about how tough or impatient male judges are on the lawyers who appear before them. Antonin Scalia is not exactly a shrinking violet. The New York Times, unlike the New Republic, at least quoted people on the record and cited court transcripts in trying to make the case that Sotomayor is very aggressive on the bench. But I do think women are often singled out for this sort of thing.

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Washington, D.C.: Why the Bushes didn't qualify for swooning: Yes, they have a good marriage, but president Bush was home with the lights off at 9:30. They reminded me of my late parents (I'm 61). The Obamas have star power. (Michelle on the cover of Time last week, etc.) No one in the White House has had star power since the Kennedys -- not even the Reagans, despite their Hollywood careers, because they were too old.

Howard Kurtz: That's a bit of a circular argument. If the current first couple has star power because Michelle (and Barack) have been on the cover of Time (and Newsweek) many times -- not to mention the president being on People, Us, ESPN and Leno -- then they have star power because they get all this media attention. There is a huge amount of interest in them, and the media clearly are trying to capitalize on that. But it does raise the chicken-and-egg question.

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Not so sure Nexis is free: I just went on their site to check and it seems to want an ID and password...

Howard Kurtz: So maybe it's not that easy after all. It's an invaluable research tool, but if you use it a lot, as I do, it ain't cheap.

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Fairfax, Va.: What do you think about Robert Samuelson's assertion in today's op-eds that Obama has been given a free pass by the media? In light of the fact that the Post has published stories on Michele Obama's arms, does he have a point, or is the clearly favorable media coverage a reflection of Obama's popularity?

Howard Kurtz: I disagree with Samuelson's first sentence, that the Obama infatuation "is a great unreported story of our time." I've reported it over and over, for 2-1/2 years now. That doesn't mean it's not worthy of a good column, of course. I think the coverage was most sympathetic during the campaign, and was almost fawning during the transition and especially the inauguration. Since Obama has taken office, while there has still been gushing over the dog, the vegetable garden and the burgers, I think he's been covered much more like his predecessors, with journalists asking skeptical questions about his budget, his bailout, his nominees, his Gitmo plan and so on.

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Washington, D.C.:

"Howard Kurtz: I agree that it's a good thing this information is so widely available. I'm just saying there was a time, not that many years ago, when that was not the case."

I don't know how you do it, Howard -- You make a simple statement of fact about Nexis, and a dyspeptic reader reads a defense of old media into it and uses it as an excuse to launch into a screed against you. How do you put up with people who have nothing better to do than use you as whipping boy?

Howard Kurtz: I'm a very tolerant guy. And this must be cheaper than therapy.

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Nexis: Lexis-Nexis by Credit Card. It's in their "Products" list.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the info.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Howard, my wife and I are both huge fans of the President, but we both agree with you on the coverage of his dates. C-SPAN has 7 minutes of him at Five Guys! And he really does order just how he gives his speeches.

Thanks!

Howard Kurtz: Only seven minutes of him ordering a hamburger and fries? Talk about short shrift!

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Orlando, Fla.: Why do you think a credible news entity like Politico has no mention of the Tiller murder?

Howard Kurtz: Politico is very tightly focused on Washington politics and policymaking. But I'd be surprised if the paper didn't weigh in as the fallout from that reprehensible murder hits the D.C. echo chamber.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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


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