Howard Kurtz Critiques the Press and Analyzes the Media

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 9, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Tuesday, June 9, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.

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

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Outfoxed: Who at Fox doesn't like Newt Gingrich? Why did they choose to run the Palin interview on the same night and at the same time as Newt was stepping up to the mic at the Republican fundraiser?

Howard Kurtz: On the contrary, Fox News loves Newt. He is a Fox contributor and a constant presence in prime time. But Hannity also loves Palin, and his talk with the governor, who hasn't done a national interview in some time, was something of a get. So of course Fox was going to air it as soon as possible. Sarah and Sean, for those who missed it, agreed that Barack has been a disaster and taking the country, in Palin's estimation, toward socialism.

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Rolla, Mo.: Someone needs to start a consultancy to do interventions on politicians who use Twitter. Please, please, all of you elected officials out there, just stop it.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not necessarily in that camp. I think our politicians have a great capacity to embarrass themselves with comments that run well over 140 characters.

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Columbia, Md.: Hi Howard, I ask this in genuine bewilderment. I will preface this by saying that if affected countries or people seek to publicize tragic occasions, they have every right to do so. Now to my question: Why do tragic events such as the Air France crash elicit such media coverage when worse ones, at least number wise, do not? A train wreck claims 500 people somewhere in China or Bangladesh and that event is off the air in about a couple days, if it stays on that long. We are still seeing 'breaking news' coverage on the Air France story every time a body or a piece of the place surfaces. What accounts for these disparities in coverage? What needs to change, in your opinion, or not change for that matter? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: My amateur hypothesis is that plane crashes tend to get more coverage than train wrecks or, say, earthquakes in remote places because so many of us get on planes that we naturally identify and grow concerned when something goes wrong. There is the accident of fate: all these passengers who happened to be on the wrong plane at the wrong time. As for the Air France tragedy, it is so unusual for a jet to either break apart or crash in mid-air, as opposed to during takeoff and landing, that it became an immediate mystery that still hasn't been solved. And that made it newsworthy.

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Annandale: Howard, What are your thoughts on the press coverage of the shootings in Arkansas of two soldiers (one was killed) allegedly by an American convert to Islam who had traveled to Yemen? Seems to me that, once the background of the alleged killer was revealed, the press dropped this, unlike its coverage of the abortion doctor's killing. Even the White House took three days to say something, unlike its immediate response to the earlier shooting.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it got enough attention, especially when contrasted to the heavy (and deserved) media attention paid to the awful murder of George Tiller.

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Baltimore, Md.: Fate of the Tribune Co.: Although the Baltimore Sun buried it on page A15 yesterday, it looks like the endgame is approaching for Sam Zell's ownership of the Tribune Company. If there is a bankruptcy or Zell is forced to cede control, what will it mean to the future of the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, et al.? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Who knows? It would depend on who the bankruptcy court put in charge, and whether that person or persons were primarily interested in restoring the news organizations to health or squeezing more dollars out of the operation to pay creditors. The whole thing is a muddle at the moment. It certainly would mark Zell forever as the man who bought the Tribune in a debt-leveraged takeover and sent it into Chapter 11 within a year, only to lose control months later.

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Evanston, Ill.: Hey Howie, Did you catch the Daily Show last night? "Fox News insinuates, MSNBC hates Rush Limbaugh, and CNN wants to hang out with us at a slumber party." What's up with CNN hosts incessantly trying to social network with the audience? Desperation much?

Howard Kurtz: Stewart and his selectively edited clips were funny. But as someone who semi-desperately tries to connect with readers and viewers on Facebook and Twitter, I happen to think it's a healthy thing. For most of history news organizations have told you what they think, and that was pretty much it. What's wrong with some two-way communication?

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Houston, Tex.: Howard, Your piece yesterday on entrepreneurial journalism was interesting. I wondered about something similar just the day before when watching 'This Week'. Stephanopoulos had Claire Shipman on his panel and the only apparent reason was to plug her new book. It got several mentions and she didn't really contribute anything to the discussion until the very last topic(and she used that to promote the book). Does ABC have tie-ins with her publisher? If so, shouldn't those be disclosed?

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see it, so I'm not accepting your characterization, as Shipman is an experienced former White House correspondent. But it's hardly unusual for networks to have their anchors and correspondents on when they're promoting a book. Richard Wolffe has been all over MSNBC (and was on my program Sunday) promoting his book about Obama.

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Tiller vs. Soldier: Couldn't the discrepancy be more accurately attributed to the fact that Tiller was more "famous" than the soldier who got shot? It's like the Air France thing - David Carradine has gotten more coverage than the two of them combined. There's not some sort of grand conspiracy on the part of the media here.

"When they found out the shooter was a Muslim, coverage disappeared?" Please spare me. The media would be falling all over themselves to literally "scare" up some new viewers with "Scary Muslim Terrorists are at it Again!" stories.

Howard Kurtz: Sure. And I would expect the Tiller murder to get more coverage, for that reason and because abortion remains such a hot-button issue in this country. But I thought the other shooting deserved more media attention than it got.

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Fredericksburg, Tex.: I wrote earlier about my opinion that Morning Joe Scarborough is positioning himself to run in 2012...what do you think about him using his shows for that?

Howard Kurtz: I see absolutely no evidence of that. He seems to have passed up a chance to run for the Senate in Florida. And Scarborough seems to have alienated much of the Republican Party with his repeated attacks on how the party abandoned its conservative roots during the Bush administration. So that possibility seems to me rather remote. Besides, why run for president when you have so much power as a cable host?

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Alexandria, Va.: In a recent column Fred Hiatt referred to "the past two decades of mostly two party rule."

Isn't that factually wrong? Didn't the Republicans control both the White House and congress for most of the last eight years?

washingtonpost.com: Gridlock's Irresponsible Heir?

Howard Kurtz: Well, let's see. George Bush 41 had a Democratic Congress for four years. Bill Clinton had a Republican Congress for six years. Bush 43 had a Democratic-controlled Senate from mid-2001 through 2002 and a Democratic Congress for his last two years in office. So I'd say Fred is right.

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Washington, D.C.: I would like to ask you a question about the following from a WaPo.com Q&A from yesterday:

"Washington, D.C.: I have to love the way Chevy Chase is so confident that Obama will be as popular in 2012 as he is now (with the ample assistance of Ms. Cox and her co-partisans). Just wait until everyone's taxes go up, inflation kicks in, and nobody can get an appointment with their doctor. The 2010 cycle should be very interesting. And let's not forget about Virginia and New Jersey.

Ana Marie Cox: Excellent point! That is exactly what Rs want to happen! Domestic chaos and unrest that they can then turn into a political victory! Because that would be great for the country. After it sucked, I mean.

I am in favor of working to make sure things do not get that bad."

I realize that Cox is a blogger, not a reporter, but I think her reaction is quite interesting and a little frightening. Do left-leaning journalists really see their job as "working to make sure that things do not get that bad"? I would have thought that their role was to objectively and report the news and skeptically and aggressively analyze the White House's claims on such items as those "created or saved jobs" and Geithner's somewhat off unemployment figures. It's distressing to think that any reporter is backing off from doing his or her job because they see their job as helping the administration. Your thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: Tucker Carlson and Ana Marie Cox: Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Wise Latina, More

Howard Kurtz: My thought is that you're not familiar with Ana's sarcastic writing style. That answer, from the former Wonkette, reeked with sarcasm. Cox is also an Air America correspondent who has made no secret of her liberal leanings.

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Fox Nation, USA: I recently saw my first ad for "FoxNation," and was surprised that even Fox would be openly trying to organize people based on shared political beliefs. The people appearing in the ad are overwhelmingly conservative (hadn't seen Oliver North for a while). They spouse "Life, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"(yes, life is the one term repeated; a reference to pro-life?), limited government control, and "legal" immigration. Good enough philosophies, but as the basis for a TV network's community?

Howard Kurtz: As I mentioned when I wrote about the launch of Fox Nation, the network is putting it out there as a conservative site that plays up its conservative talk show hosts. The advertising from the first day has positioned the site as an alternative to the dreaded liberal media. So this latest bit of promotion is hardly surprising.

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Princeton, N.J.: Why has there been no coverage of the way powerful special interests (health insurers) have hijacked the debate on health care to the point of arresting distinguished physicians and keeping discussion of the pros and cons of Medicare for All (HR676) out of the media?

Howard Kurtz: That's an odd question to ask today, when The Washington Post has a lengthy and detailed front-page story by Ceci Connolly on the varying prescriptions for fixing the health care system, a subject she has been covering aggressively.

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washingtonpost.com: Media Web Site Pushes Entrepreneurial Model

Howard Kurtz: Here's a link to yesterday's column in case anyone has thoughts on this new Web site, True/Slant, and its model for allowing some of its contributors to solicit advertisers and share in the revenue. True/Slant has attracted an interesting mix of names so far.

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Hartford, Conn.: Hello. How did Brian Williams get permission to spend the day with the President at the White House? Do other networks "demand" equal time? Has there ever been a President who allowed the press so much access to watching him work and live? Is it a public relations need for this White House? Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: NBC has been doing these "Inside the White House" specials with new presidents for 40 years, but Williams still had to sell the idea to the Obama team. I reported last week that he began writing to the likes of David Axelrod even before the election was over.

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Chicago, Ill.: Good Morning Howard. Just curious if you had any thoughts on why the Guild at the Boston Globe rejected the latest contract offer from the New York Times? My understanding is this opens the door for the NYT to cut all wages by 23 percent -- a more drastic measure than the proposed contract offer.

Howard Kurtz: In a word: anger. Members of the Guild are really angry at the New York Times Co. for, in their view, sticking them with a disproportionate share of the cutbacks. I don't know that I would have voted against an 8 percent pay cut and one-week furlough when the company vowed to impose the 23 percent cutback if the proposal was voted down. As I wrote this morning, the Guild majority is essentially betting that the Times is bluffing and that a better deal for the Globe can still be worked out. Not sure I'd place a lot of money on that bet.

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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, In the health care debate, we keep hearing the GOP talking point that we don't want the Government to get between patient and doctor. Does the media have any responsibility to point out that we already have insurance companies between doctors and patients?

We also hear horror stories about having to wait for appointments, but don't we already have to wait for appointments with doctors? I do -- my family doctor is about a month wait and my specialist is at least 2 months. Why doesn't the media point out these obvious points?

Howard Kurtz: Of course, and the more sophisticated health care reporters have repeatedly pointed out the huge role that insurance companies play in today's system. I'm also seeing more articles raising legitimate questions about whether this government-plan "option" would be efficient and whether it might destroy private insurance by drawing away some or most of their customers. This is a big and complicated subject, and I hope the media lead a big and nuanced debate about the various proposals as we head into the thick of the debate in the coming weeks.

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Princeton's Right: I read Connolly's article (the one you didn't link to) and based on my reading of that article (and others by her and others in the Post) Princeton's right: "there [has] been no coverage of the way powerful special interests (health insurers) have hijacked" the debate. Why not? It's true, isn't it?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know how anyone can say the insurers have hijacked the debate when 1) it's early, and 2) unlike in the Harry & Louise days, their executives have appeared at the White House and vowed to do their part to hold down costs. Those promises lack specifics at this point and we ought to be skeptical. But in conceding, perhaps as a bow to political reality, that there ought to BE major health care reform, the insurance companies are certainly not driving the debate the way they did with the Hillarycare debacle of 1993-94.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Why are stories of journalists arrested in foreign countries so badly reported? We get all the pathos and anguish etc., but little objective reporting on what they did. These two in Korea for instance, we are told they were "on the border." Really? Weren't they over the border? Were they allowed to be there? The last one in Iran; was she a spy or not? Seems like she would have been an ideal candidate for an agency to recruit. What about it? Where is the inquiry into these questions?

Howard Kurtz: You know, I've been thinking the same thing. It is quite obvious that none of these people are spies and that the cases are political in nature. But, in part because of the secrecy of these regimes, it is hard to know, for instance, how the two women wound up crossing the border into North Korea. My heart goes out to them after this draconian 12-year sentence based on not a shred of evidence that has been made public. But I'd like to know more about the case.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you tell us which writers took the latest Post buyout offer?

Howard Kurtz: I don't have a complete list. The majority of staffers taking the buyout this time are editors, not reporters. For instance, the offer was not made available to any reporters on the National staff.

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Albany, N.Y.: Re True/Slant: I have two problems with it. First of all, I like the absolute separation of editorial from business that goes on at good news-gathering organizations (sometimes going by the misnomer "church and state"). As hard as the journalists try, it's going to come into play -- probably more directly, as reporters are shielded from publishers somewhat by editors.

Second, this is really only going to work if the site carries either big names, which usually means that the journos have to make their bones somewhere else.

I suppose that it could work if True/Slant starts carrying great journalism -- but if it really were great journalism, wouldn't CNN or Time or the Boston Globe pay for it?

Howard Kurtz: But "great journalism" can mean a variety of things. What about provocative journalism or really smart commentary? The Huffington Post and Daily Beast, among others, have put together interesting sites in which the big names are not always the most interesting folks posting.

I have qualms about the advertising situation, but True/Slant does say that any journalistic contacts with advertisers would be disclosed.

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Alexandria, Va.: So the Post is doing another round of buy-outs, and we readers are losing some of the people who make it worthwhile to buy the paper, like Tom Schroder and Warren Brown. What sort of business model is this, get rid of senior writers and editors who actually make the paper worthwhile, in favor of 20-somethings who will work for peanuts but who lack the background and perspective of the folks we are losing? Why don't the Post owners, who are already richer than God, cut their own profits from the paper and keep paying the not-that-exorbitant salaries of those who keep the paper worth buying?

I really fear for the future of the newspaper business, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

Howard Kurtz: I hate to see the paper shrink, but your shot at The Post's owners is way off base. The Graham family, along with the Sulzberger family, is widely acknowledged to be committed to journalism over exorbitant profits, and executive salaries here are quite modest compared to much of the industry. What's happened is that revenue has fallen off a cliff, and the paper has to deal with that reality. It's done so by offering generous severance packages to those over-50 staffers who choose to take early retirement. Does it hurt the paper to lose so many talented folks? Of course it does. But this approach is preferable to the mass layoffs that so many other newspapers have resorted to in these difficult times, not to mention that the major papers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Philadelphia, among others, are bankrupt, and the NYT Company now says it will slash salaries at the Boston Globe by 23 percent.

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New York, N.Y.: What is your viewpoint on people in the media and blogosphere who "out" the names of bloggers who write under a pseudonym? Especially those who work in sensitive positions (like academia and certain corporations) who might not want their political leanings publicized for employers (or even family) to see.

Howard Kurtz: I'm still making up mind on this. My initial feeling is that people who engage in public debate and criticize others ought to be willing to have their names attached. But I understand that sometimes there are family or professional considerations that make that difficult.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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