Howard Kurtz Critiques the Press and Analyzes the Media

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 15, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, June 15 at noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Howard,

I understand that blogs have a structural advantage covering a story like the Iran revolt, where the most valuable information comes from a variety of amateur sources.

That said, you have to agree that it was striking how little coverage the cable news networks gave to these events. Presented with a compelling story and reams of free footage of protests, riots, and rooftop chanting available on YouTube, they should have been all over this.

As it stands, when I turned on MSNBC on Saturday, they were showing a documentary about San Quentin Prison. I know the cable networks take weekends off, but this might end up being the biggest geo-political story of the year and if I wasn't reading Andrew Sullivan, Juan Cole, or the NYT Lede blog, I'd have barely heard of it.

Howard Kurtz: The role of bloggers and tweeters in covering the unfolding Iran saga has been invaluable. And with Ahmadinejad's regime starting to crack down on the likes of the BBC, it's been a difficult story to cover.

I know Twitter folks have been all over CNN for not providing more coverage on Saturday. I'm sure CNN could have done more, rather than run some taped programming, perhaps by taking the CNN International feed in the U.S. But it seemed to me that CNN did more than the other cable networks, with regular reports by Christiane Amanpour from Tehran, and especially on Sunday, when it ran many hours of live coverage.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Howie -- with (1) the recent passing of a law allowing the FDA to regulate tobacco (and related discussions about it) and (2) ongoing debate about our health-care system and taking preventative measures (diet, exercise, etc.), isn't it fair to ask whether the president has actually quit smoking? I have yet to see any stories which would indicate that he quit (i.e., there always seems to be some hedging going on). It seems relevant.

Howard Kurtz: There was a small story in The Post, reflecting that Robert Gibbs had been asked that question. He said something about how Obama has struggled with his nicotine habit. I don't think the success of health care reform should hinge on whether the president has kicked the habit, but it seems like a reasonable question to ask.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, re: Twitter, I'm a cycling fan, and since it's not the easiest sport to follow in the U.S., I recently signed up for Twitter so I could follow various pro cyclists and others involved in the sport. I don't feel the need to know when they have burritos for dinner, but it's a good way to get up-to-the-minute race results as well as links to photos and videos. (BTW, Lance Armstrong posted a link to your Reliable Sources segment on Twitter yesterday.)

washingtonpost.com: Living on Twitter Time (Post, June 15)

Howard Kurtz: Didn't know about Lance Armstrong doing that. Maybe I should start following him!

But you've hit on one of the great strengths of Twitter. People can follow and interact with other folks who share an intense interest in some subject or addiction. I gravitate toward tweeters who are interested in media and politics, but Twitter also gives me a window on other worlds as well. So if cycling is your thing, you can tune out all the other chatter.

Note: MSNBC and CNN are both up with live coverage of the Iran protests at the moment.

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Tweet Me: I like Twitter but I worry that people who lack high-speed Internet or text-plan cell phones are left out. They are falling by the wayside, faster, as tech races ahead. They - and their kids - are being stuffed into a caste of sorts.

Howard Kurtz: Well, since Twitter is basically just text -- not lots of photos and graphics, as we see on Facebook -- you can play with a low-speed Internet connection as well. But it's certainly true that it's harder to plug into the culture, as more news and entertainment and social interaction moves online -- without a computer. This is a financial issue for some, but a cultural issue for others. I've been unable, despite my best efforts, to convince my mother to get a computer, so she is blissfully unaware of my tweets and other Web efforts.

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washingtonpost.com: Obama Still 'Struggling' With Nicotine Habit (Post, June 13)

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Washington, D.C.: "Is Twitter no longer an ultra-hip refuge for the perpetually plugged-in?"

Howard, is that a joke? Twitter was arguably vaguely hip in 2007 and early '08 but certainly hasn't been for the last year. It's a text messaging facility.

What's the supposed business model there? I worry that Twitter is going to be remembered as the sad last grasp of a dying industry, missing every technology trend that mattered for 15 years, and finally flailing around after one that doesn't, as it shuffles off this mortal coil.

Howard Kurtz: When I first wrote about Twitter last summer, a lot of people were still unsure what it was. But my larger point was about social media, not this particular Web site. It may well be that Twitter can't figure out how to make money and goes the way of Friendster. But the template--people following each other, learning from each other, arguing with each other--isn't going away.

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Delmar, N.Y.: Why is the Post giving a forum to Glenn Beck? I am certainly against censorship, and Mr. Beck has the First Amendment right to say anything he wants, but not everyone has the right to have a platform on The Washington Post and the degree of legitimacy that such a forum confers. Mr. Beck is not a person to be taken seriously. I know Mr. Beck has a large audience on his Fox show and has the means to have his views widely disseminated. Is the Post that desperate to appease Mr. Beck's followers? I can understand the Washington Times doing this but the Post?

Howard Kurtz: Beck is doing a one-hour chat online, as many other folks have done. That hardly constitutes a major platform.

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Bethesda, Md.: Howard - Do you know if Christiane Amanpour's reports are cleared through the Iranian government? Are they censored?

Howard Kurtz: Her reports are not censored. Neither is the reporting of any other western journalist in Iran, including Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, who has contributed two pieces in two days.

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Boston, Mass.: As the son of an editor of the Miami Herald, I hate to say this, but this weekend marked the death of American corporate news. As Iran blew up there was nothing at all on the cable chatter channels and the newspapers' Web sites had AP coverage, if anything.

Only blogs and YouTube took you right into Tehran in real time. American journalists will complain that the bloggers and YouTube were just passing on the work of traditional reporters. Maybe that's right, except these reporters spoke Italian, Japanese, Farsi, Arabic and standard English...not one word of American English heard all weekend. A very pathetic showing which makes me wonder how you expect your core audience to support you or care about your product?

Howard Kurtz: Clearly many people felt let down by the cable networks. They are not at their best on weekends, when staffs are smaller and a lot of taped programming is scheduled, since it is usually a slow news period and a chance to hold down costs. But when there's an extraordinary event, such as what is happening in Iran, they need to step it up. As I said, CNN had a lot of coverage on Sunday but not as much as people were demanding, which is why they turn to blogs and Twitter, where some folks are always posting, around the clock.

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Left Behind!: I don't think that anyone choosing to not join the Twitter craze is in danger of being technologically left behind in any sense. I don't Tweet because it seems like a moronic concept. Why would I need to follow the inanities of someone's day, what they are doing at any given time? I really don't get the appeal.

It's hardly a technological force of change, where if one doesn't get on the bandwagon and start Tweeting or Twittering, they will fall behind.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think you understand the strength of Twitter, by using the word "inanities." Sure, there's a ton of self-absorbed silliness on there. But the people who are worth following are not cluttering up the site with dispatches about their breakfast (though they do sometimes post ordinary stuff about dealing with life's inconveniences, with their kids and so on). They are making observations about news and culture, providing links to stories, pictures and video, and engaging in debate. That's why some of them -- and I'm not talking about the big-time celebs here -- have hundreds of thousands of followers.

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Reston, Va.: Is Twitter really necessary? I think whenever something new is created, it's not necessary because there is a need for it. But it seems people convince themselves they need it once they see it.

We have email, phones, texts, IM, blogs, Twitter. They all do pretty much the same thing. Do we really need them all? I sure don't.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't know I needed e-mail or IM either until they came to feel indispensable.

I'm sure hundreds of millions of Americans are faring just fine without Twitter. Nobody "needs" it. But it is a nice enhancement for those who are interested in the news or, in the case of an earlier commenter, a specific field such as cycling.

When I first went on Facebook, it was still largely seen as the refuge of college kids and recent graduates and older folks looked at it as a waste of time. Now millions and millions of people feel they have to be on it to stay connected. Sometimes these things reach a critical mass.

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Four Corners, Md.: We hear a lot about the state of the newspaper industry in this country, but I was wondering if the situation was the same around the world? Are international newspapers struggling in the same way? Have there been any profitable online international newspapers?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the situation in every country, but I know that some of the British papers are struggling as well. The power of the Internet, which is a key factor in the decline in advertising revenue, cuts across national lines.

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Salinas, Calif.: C'mon Delmar. You want to expose Glenn Beck? Here he is: stepping out of the Fox "News" echo chamber and into the clear light of day (the Wash Post Q and A). What could be better?

Howard Kurtz: It certainly is a chance to fire questions at him, which you can't do when he's sounding off on Fox News.

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Laurel, Md.: Howard, some people on Ramesh Ponnuru's discussion board are pointing out that calling killer von Brunn "right wing" is an unfair attack on modern conservatism. They point out that on his blog, he complained about neoconservative influence getting us into Iraq and the lack of universal health care.

Has the characterization of this individual as a member of "the right" actually been investigated, or is it a reflexive label for any hater?

Howard Kurtz: I see Von Brunn as an anti-Semitic nut job with all kinds of hateful views. They don't all fit under the rubric "right wing," nor do I buy Rush Limbaugh's argument that he's a leftist. But whatever the proper designation, I think we ought to be careful about tarring an entire ideology because one 88-year-old lunatic decided to open fire at the Holocaust museum.

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Twitter - Tweet - silly: I don't use Twitter or Facebook (or even have a cell phone) so I guess I don't get it.

But it's really silly to hear Diane Rehm or Kojo Nmamdi say "I have a tweet here from Joe Smith." Oh, please. A "tweet"? Aren't these just messages like e-mail but shorter? It sounds like the hosts are the ones trying to be hip (and give free advertising to Twitter). It's just as informative to say "We have a message from Jane Smith" to distinguish it from a phone call.

The whole concept from the name to the execution just sounds ridiculous.

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure the hosts are trying to be hip. Tweet sounds funny. But who cares what it's called? The more important point is that it's instant feedback. What I did for this morning's column was post a single question on Twitter about what people liked about it, and I got deluged with thoughtful responses.

Look at the evolution here. First there were radio call-in shows, and then some TV programs began taking calls as well. Then viewers and listeners could send faxes. Soon e-mail responses became common. Now programs can turn to Twitter messages (which are, yes, similar to short e-mails except that lots of people can read them, not just the recipient). All this adds up to more two-way communication, and it's hard to argue against that.

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Glenn Beck: "It certainly is a chance to fire questions at him, which you can't do when he's sounding off on Fox News"

I give him credit for showing up and doing the chat. Let's see if he chooses to answer some of the more hard hitting questions (e.g. the FEMA trailers).

Howard Kurtz: We shall see.

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Baltimore, Md.: President Obama is fond of throwing out statistics and projected costs during his daily TV proclamations but the media seems oblivious to their responsibility of questioning "How did he come up with that?" or "What's the basis for those numbers?" Some of his numbers defy logic, and yet there seem to be no questions asked. Why do you think that's so?

Howard Kurtz: I would disagree with the premise. As one example, David Leonhardt had a terrific front-page piece in the NYT last week, saying that Obama had no credible plan for dealing with an exploding deficit over the next decade. (He also said that Obama's spending plans played a much smaller role than many believe in unleashing the red ink.) Here it is.

washingtonpost.com: America's Sea of Red Ink Was Years in the Making (The New York Times, June 9)

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West Bend, N.C.: Re: Twitter I have only two "followers." They are both media outlets that have "call-in" shows. I use Twitter as an alternative way to ask the guests questions. Because of the novelty of Twitter if your questions are good you get noticed. It is like e-mail was 5 or 6 years ago.

Howard Kurtz: Whatever works for you. Some people follow hundreds of folks, although I don't see how that leaves them time for three meals a day.

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Rest stop on the information superhighway: You're argument that Twitter has reached critical mass, ergo it is worthwhile, doesn't hold water. The same could be said for Nazism in 1930s Germany. That reached critical mass.

Indeed, the only thing you can say for any of these so-called tools and means of communication such as Facebook, Twitter, IM, and e-mail, is that they work for you. I think they're pretty pointless.

Give me a rotary phone, fountain pen and a manual typewriter any day.

Howard Kurtz: Okay, I have just encountered my first Twitter = Hitler argument. Which would outrage me if I could figure out what the hell one has to do with the other.

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Hackensack, N.J.: Whether or not Twitter is the new e-mail, no one EVER shuts up about it. I know it's there. We all do. When we want, if we want, we can and will check it out. In the meantime, it comes off like Furbies for adults. Can you give us some peace?

I suggest that you all try to remember that the only reason that they use the verb "to tweet" is because the verb "to twit" strikes too close to home.

Howard Kurtz: Speaking on behalf of the twerps -- er, tweeps -- maybe we should cool it a bit. Twitter does seem inescapable at the moment. In the days that I was writing this morning's column, there were sizable pieces in the NYT and USA Today. Twitter is a cool medium. It does not, however, cure cancer.

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D.C.: The problem with Twitter isn't reporting from the street -- like what seems to be going on in Iran right now -- it fails, it seems to me, when people like Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin or Chuck Shumer (in other words a politician) uses it to comment on events "in real time" but does so only to perpetuate already determined talking points...besides, when they're listening to the president, for example, how can they be really listening if they're formatting some "clever" twitter response?

Howard Kurtz: But if politicians are just repeating stale talking points whittled down to 140 characters, we're all free to ignore them. Twitter rewards people who have something interesting to say.

Newt did make news when he tweeted that Sonia Sotomayor is a racist (a conclusion he later backed off). So pols (and everyone else) need to be careful about firing off insta-reactions.

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Baltimore, Md.: For the person who obviously isn't a Glenn Beck fan: Whether you support the guy or not (and I don't), you obviously have to give him credit for being willing to reach out and appear in what is most likely to be an openly hostile audience. I mean, I suppose you think there's value in the likes of Limbaugh and Air America just continuing an echo chamber of preaching to their fans. I doubt we'll see the likes of Al Franken or Nancy Pelosi willingly going onto Bill O'Reilly's show...

Howard Kurtz: Although Salon Editor Joan Walsh did go on O'Reilly Friday, and was rewarded with a shouting match over George Tiller that I mention in today's online column.

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Tuba City, N.M.: The problem with the cable nets is that they're all part-time news networks now. MSNBC and Fox News have primetime shows that are essentially opinion shows about selected current events (O'Reilly isn't even live!). Larry King, who uses his hour for exclusive interviews with Lionel and Nicole Richie, almost always gets the highest ratings on CNN!

I get it. Cable news is a business. It's just disappointing that in the drive for ratings, they've left news behind. Fifteen years ago, CNN would have been covering these Iranian elections non-stop.

Howard Kurtz: I take your point. MSNBC President Phil Griffin's argument is that people get their fill of headlines during the day and nighttime is like the op-ed page. I should note that CNN comes closest to doing straight news coverage at night, with three hours of Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper, whose programs are not about their views. CNN has also gotten punished for that in the ratings, with Fox an overwhelming number one and MSNBC's Olbermann and Maddow boosting that channel to the No. 2 prime-time spot in recent months.

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Re: Twitter: I think twitter is ridiculous, but from what I can gather, it was one of the only methods of communication not blocked by the Iranian gov't, probably because not many old mullahs use it. Whatever its other faults, props to twitter on helping the Revolution...

Howard Kurtz: By definition, then, it's not completely ridiculous.

Time to go tweet. Thanks for the chat, folks.

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