Howard Kurtz Critiques the Press and Analyzes the Media

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 22, 2009; 2:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, June 22 at 2 p.m. ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.

Today's Column: Gawking at the Media World


Tuskegee, Ala.: CNN and Fox News covered the Iran protests mostly wall-to-wall, while MSNBC put out the "Be Back Monday" sign after Noon Eastern on both Saturday and Sunday, showing its usual crime documentaries, instead...Besides it's obvious left-wing tilt, how can MSNBC justify its part-time schedule?

Howard Kurtz: MSNBC's business model is that it does news Monday through Friday. I'm not defending that -- news happens on the weekends too -- but of course NBC News serves up some morning and evening news on Saturday and Sunday. There are other five-day-a-week news organizations, such as USA Today, and six-day outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal. Still, you'd think when a story the magnitude of Iran is breaking, MS would want to throw out the playbook, haul people in and get on the air -- particularly since it is backed by the resources of NBC News.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard,

I read your article yesterday about the conflict over publishing the news of the reporter's kidnapping, but I didn't see the basic question that reveals whether this suppression constituted a double standard. Would the Times (and other organizations) suppress information about the kidnapping of another person if that person's family and employer requested it? What if that person was in the military? Or employed by the DoD? Did you get any feedback on those issues? It looks like maybe those were the questions that Brauchli was responding too late in the piece, but only the feedback was included.


Howard Kurtz: In fact, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told me that there have been times when his newspaper has withheld news of an NGO employee or journalist elsewhere who has been kidnapped. Often, of course, the decision is taken out of the media's hands; the captors make public demands or release photos or videos. In the case of David Rohde and his Afghan assistant, that did not happen.


Washington, D.C.: Regarding your and Paul Kane's article from Saturday's paper with headline: Husband of Ex-Mistress Sought Cash, Ensign says, It seems fairly standard practice for politicians to attempt to discredit people for complain by saying that they did it for the money. Do you or other reporters have any obligation to point out that such claims are self-serving?

Do you or others have any obligation to point out that the husband in this particular story was injured by Sen. Ensign and in our society the standard recourse for injury is a monetary settlement?

The combination of your reporting and the headline certainly left readers with an impression of Ensign as the victim in this case. Is that an accurate assessment? Husband of Ex-Mistress Sought Cash, Ensign Says (Post, June 20)

Howard Kurtz: My part of the story dealt with Fox News and its mishandling of a letter from the husband, Doug Hampton, that detailed the affair. But overall, I think Ensign's motives were quite clear. He was forced to disclose the affair with his former campaign treasurer when her husband threatened to go public. He's the one who had to admit wrongdoing and apologize. The question is what was the triggering factor. Obviously, it's in the senator's interest to discredit Hampton (who is also a former top aide) by saying he was demanding money in exchange for his silence. I think anyone reading the story would get that. I wish we had the ability to interview Hampton and learn more about what happened, but only his lawyer is speaking at the moment.


Left wing tilt: Can someone please explain what MSNBC's "Left wing tilt" is? The only show I watch is Morning Joe and I don't see much "liberalism" there. Who but the homebound watch evening cable chatter?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think there's any dispute -- not even MSNBC would dispute -- that Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz are firmly on the left, and Chris Matthews is a former Democratic strategist who recently pondered running for the Senate from Pennsylvania as a Democrat. Those are the hosts on the air on MS from 5 to 11 p.m.


Another nominee tax problem: Howard,

Obama's nominee for Chief of Protocol at State, Capricia Marshall, was apparently a couple years late in filing a couple year's worth of taxes.

Does the fact that she and her husband ended up with a big refund (meaning they overpaid their 2005-06 taxes) make a difference? Or will Rush and company conveniently overlook that fact and smear her as another tax dodger?

Howard Kurtz: I think people should file their taxes, period. The government has been known to prosecute people who don't file. In my view, it's an embarrassment for an administration that has had other nominees with tax issues, most notably Tim Geithner.


Louisville, Colo.: Diane Sawyer on Reliable Sources "I know that our network has worked very, very hard to be completely responsible and fair." Flip channel to ABC's Stephanopoulos Round Table and find George Will being assailed on health care by 5 liberal Democrat supporters (Keller, Reich, Stephanopoulos, Roberts, Donaldson).

Is a 5-on-1 debate "responsible and fair"?

Moments like the above is one of the reasons that people are skeptical about ABC'S "pledge" to be tough on the Obama administration.

Howard Kurtz: That does not sound like a balanced roundtable, though I'd note that Stephanopoulos earlier had on Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chris Dodd to debate health care. I believe Diane, in her interview with me, was referring to her broadcast, Good Morning America, and World News. But it's certainly fair to point to This Week, which is also part of ABC News.


New York, N.Y.: You've talked a lot about the death of newspapers.

With the uprising in Iran, I think we are seeing the death of cable news. Years ago, CNN would have live continuous coverage. Now they don't even do live continuous sustained coverage of some recent major stories. The crash of Air France 447 comes to mind. I remember when TWA 800 crashed. CNN was on the scene for weeks. I know that their was no "American" angle for this flight, but it is very newsworthy when a plan crashes mid flight. Most crashes occur upon takeoff or landing.

CNN, MSNBC, and Fox are just talking head networks now. I get more and more of my news online.

Howard Kurtz: I must not be watching the same CNN. I know the network - where I host a weekly media program - took some heat on Twitter for running a few hours of taped programming a week ago Saturday. But all last week, and over the weekend as well, I saw hours and hours of live coverage of Iran on CNN, despite the fact that its last on-air correspondent has been kicked out by the Ahmadinejad regime. Here's what Blogger Interrupted says:

"After taking it on the chin from the blogosphere for several days, it's time to applaud CNN. Last weekend, CNN was basically dead air on Iran. This weekend the full power of CNN is on display, in what amounts to a team effort to duplicate what only Andrew Sullivan and Nico Pitney have done from their laptops up to now. Nothing was stopping CNN from doing exactly what Andrew and Nico did, but they were caught flat-footed. Today, they are in a groove...

"CNN has what appears to be half a dozen people at its 'Iran desk,' translating Farsi, working to confirm, contacting people in Iran - i.e., doing what reporters are supposed to do. Added to this is the normal line up of top tier A-list experts and analysts, except now they are free to comment on what we have all been seeing online, because CNN is reporting it, too."


Arlington, Va.: Do you have any more information on the reports that Fox News held back the story about Ensign's infidelity? How common is it to receive these types of tips and hold back the story?

Howard Kurtz: I basically wrote everything I knew in an online piece Friday that became part of a news story in Saturday's paper. Basically this was a screw-up by one producer. I don't think it's fair to say Fox "held back" the story when what it had was a letter from the husband of John Ensign's mistress, received Monday, before the senator went public on Tuesday. You can't just throw such allegations on the air; you have to talk to the sources involved, give the senator's office a chance to respond, and so on. Still, Fox didn't go beyond one conversation between a booker and the former Ensign aide, Doug Hampton. A greater debacle, in my view, is that Fox didn't report on the detailed letter it had received from Doug Hampton after Ensign acknowledged the affair, and wound up getting scooped by the Las Vegas Sun. Fox executives say, and the producer confirms, that he never told anyone in management that he had the letter.


Boston: Did Megyn Kelly or Fox notify Senator Ensign of his former staffer's letter? The Senator's timing seems fishy (coming clean a year late, but a couple of days after Ms. Kelly was first notified).

Howard Kurtz: There is no evidence that Fox or Megyn Kelly notified Ensign, as they took no steps to pursue the story. But someone clearly tipped off Ensign. A source tells me that former senator Rick Santorum, who happens to be a Fox contributor, happened to separately receive the Hampton letter. But I don't know if he told his former colleague Ensign about it or not.


Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, When can we start labeling people as having Obama Derangement Syndrome? It seems that the mainstream media had no problems labeling liberals having Bush Derangement Syndrome. The conservatives seem far more unhinged, yet no proclamation by the MSM -- why?

Howard Kurtz: That's a pretty sweeping statement. It would help to know who you think is deranged before I start making a diagnosis.


re: George Will being assailed on health care by 5 liberal Democrat supporters (Keller, Reich, Stephanopoulos, Roberts, Donaldson: I get Reich and Stephanopolous, maybe Keller, but since when are Cokie Roberts and and Sam Donaldson "liberal Democrat supporters?" I think a lot of actual liberal Democrats would laugh at that (especially the part about Cokie Roberts). Perhaps there might be others, besides liberal Democrats, who disagree with Will on health care?

Anyway, people who complain about "liberal media bias" have some valid arguments. Those arguments get lost when people overuse the complaint (kind of like "judicial activists").

Howard Kurtz: I don't think there's any question that Sam Donaldson has always been cast in the role of liberal on that roundtable, since the days when it was the Brinkley show and later when he and Cokie Roberts were the co-hosts. Cokie has always seemed to me more of a centrist.


Cleveland, Ohio: I didn't hear you mention this on your program yesterday but I was interested in how CNN tracked the tardiness of Robert Gibbs. It said that Mr. Gibbs was 13 hours and 46 minutes late to press briefings in May alone! This seems very rude and I wondered how the media handled the waiting? I did hear him say once he was talking to the president as if this were reason enough. 13 hours?

Howard Kurtz: I did not see that story, but it's not unusual for press briefings to be delayed. Other press secretaries in other administrations have had to do that as well. The consensus in the White House press corps, and I have not studied this, is that Gibbs has a particularly bad track record. But in fairness, it's not like the reporters are sitting around the briefing room waiting for him to show. The White House sends out emails saying the 1:45 briefing has been postponed to 2:30, and that sort of thing.


Boston: Is any of the media going to point out that Iranians are protesting the results of an Iranian election held in Iran? They are not protesting because of the want and desire for an American style democracy that's being throttled by an unholy theocracy as some fair and balanced news stations would have you believe. The protesters think they've been shortchanged in a rigged election and don't like it. There is no indication that challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi has any substantial different view of dealing with the West. Can we get journalism and not agenda somewhere?

Howard Kurtz: I have certainly read stories saying that Mousavi is hardly some wild-eyed reformer, that he went along with Iran's strong-arm tactics when he was prime minister, and that there is no reason to believe that he would take a significantly different approach on the nuclear negotiations with the U.S. But I believe this has been under-reported as Mousavi has been transformed into a symbol of opposition to the theocratic government and a man who was cheated out of his share of the vote, if not victory.


Boston, Mass.: What do you think of the "Republicans say, Obama says" debate about Obama's statements on Iran? Its driving me a little nuts, because how hard would it be for the anchors to mention that 95 percent of Iranian experts think Obama is correct in what he's saying (including Karim Sadjadpour in the chat next door to you)? I know that the Democratic strategist generally makes that point on air. But no acknowledgment by the anchor makes the facts seem partisan.

Howard Kurtz: How exactly do we know what 95 percent of Iranians think?


Who's deranged?: Well, Krauthammer for one -- his contradictions in just the last ten days:

It's All in How You Say It:

"-After treating this popular revolution as an inconvenience to the real business of Obama-Khamenei negotiations, the president speaks favorably of 'some initial reaction from the Supreme Leader that indicates he understands the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election.' Where to begin? 'Supreme Leader'? Note the abject solicitousness with which the American president confers this honorific on a clerical dictator." -- Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, June 19

"And the president has said 'I have seen in Iran's initial reaction from the supreme leader.' He is using an honorific to apply to a man whose minions out there are breaking heads, shooting demonstrators, arresting students, shutting the press down, and basically trying to suppress a popular democratic revolution." -- Charles Krauthammer, Fox News All Stars, June 16

"Look, these were sham elections from the beginning. In a real democracy, you can have a change of power as a result. That was not going to happen in Iran. The mullahs are in charge. Khamenei, the supreme leader, remains in charge." -- Charles Krauthammer, Fox News All Stars, June 12

Howard Kurtz: Agree or disagree, he's making serious points about an explosive foreign policy question. There's not even a personal attack on Obama, just a strongly worded policy disagreement. That doesn't sound like derangement to me.


St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Howard -- Thanks for taking questions today. The narrative seems to have changed the last few days from "Obama the cool" to "Obama doesn't know what to do about a) Iran, b) health care, c) the economy, d) the pressure from gay and lesbian supporters to follow through on campaign promises" and so on. Another site says that Obama is "wilting." What's your take on how the president is being viewed today, compared to just a couple of weeks ago? Is the media too quick to seize on what they perceive as weaknesses in the Obama armor?

Howard Kurtz: I wrote about this the other day. Obama has reached the difficult part of his agenda. Health care is going to be a tough slog, and the Democrats are split. The economy has stabilized but unemployment is heading toward double digits. Lots of folks are upset with Obama over something--gays, doctors, environmentalists, civil libertarians. And he's down a few points in the polls. What I said was that this was entirely predictable. As a president makes decisions, he alienates some of those who had high hopes for him when all he had to dish out was campaign rhetoric. This may be particularly true of Obama because the media jacked up expectations so high. I do think some of the current difficulties will turn out to be short-term blips, but the media have a short-term mentality, so we're seeing a spate of stories about Obama's agenda being stalled, about disappointing supporters, being less popular and so on.


re: I think you misread that...:"95 percent of Iranian experts think Obama is correct in what he's saying (including Karim Sadjadpour in the chat next door to you)"

Not Iranians, the experts on Iranian affairs. And this seems to be pretty regular from economics to the environment. Obama takes a centrist position that's compatible with most mainstream expert opinion; GOP stakes out territory somewhere in the cold void to the right of Krauthammer; and the press reports them as equally plausible.

Howard Kurtz: Sorry, I did misread that. But how do we know the "experts" are right? A lot of experts thought the Iraq war was a swell idea.

I do think it's easy to take shots at the president, as many have, for not speaking out more forcefully on behalf of the Iranian protestors. But Obama, as he has said, doesn't want the U.S. to become a foil for the Ahmadinejad regime and doesn't want American "meddling" to become the issue. There is a solid case to be made for that approach, even though emotionally, most Americans would like to see him denounce the suspect election and the thuggish tactics.


Boston, Mass.: I know you and I have both had problems with Chris Matthews in the past, but I have to say he's doing pretty well with the Iran reporting. He's the only anchor I've seen talking about and explaining historical context -- not only the coup in the 50s but also the Iran-Iraq war. On Morning Joe today, I almost stood up and applauded.

Howard Kurtz: Fair enough. Chris is good on political history. But did you get a thrill up your leg?


Helena, Mont.: Your interview with Bill Keller was interesting, but wouldn't it have been even more so if we had learned how he could justify keeping secret the kidnapping of his correspondent when the NY Times has divulged many military secrets that arguably had or still have the potential to result in the deaths than a lot more people than one correspondent? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I know a number of commentators on the left have made that comparison, but it seems to me to be an apples-and-oranges argument. The Times won a Pulitzer for disclosing that the Bush administration was engaged in a broad program of domestic surveillance -- a story that Bill Keller held, you may recall, for more than a year because of objections by George Bush and Dick Cheney. Ultimately he felt it was in a form that could be published. The administration and its supporters assailed the Times for undermining the war against terror, though I have never been convinced of that; did the bad guys not think the U.S. was trying to listen in on their calls?

In the David Rohde case, we are talking about the life of one Times reporter and two journalistic colleagues. It's not a question of national security; it's a question of how to return them alive from the Taliban's clutches. I have qualms about the Times not reporting the story and asking others not to do so, but so, Keller told me, did he.


D.C.: Why is Twitter getting so much credit for breaking news of what's going on in Iran? If I didn't know better (but I do) I'd think Twitter was a new communication device superior to the mobile phone or computer. But it's not. Any of the info relayed via Twitter could just have easily been sent via email or blog post, correct?

Howard Kurtz: In theory, yes. But when you post something on Twitter, millions can see it. By contrast, an e-mail by definition has limited distribution. And a post would have to be on a very popular blog to achieve the same readership. Plus, Twitter allows two-way communication where people can respond to your posts and so on. I think the media have gone a little overboard in trumpeting the Twitter Revolution, and as I note in this morning's column, some misinformation has also been conveyed through Twitter. But it has been an invaluable tool at a time when the Tehran regime has kicked out most western journalists.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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