Howard Kurtz Critiques the Press and Analyzes the Media

Post Media Critic Howard Kurtz asks: How long can the news networks continue to give the death of Michael Jackson such extensive coverage? Video by
Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 29, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, June 29 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.


Scarborough Country: You wrote today: "MSNBC is down to just five daytime hours of straight news, which once formed a counterpoint to its liberal evening programming."

Why do you keep pretending Joe Scarborough's three hours a day don't exist? It undermines your crediblity when you do this. Your case for MSNBC's liberalism must be pretty weak if you have to resort to burying counter-evidence.

Howard Kurtz: My pretense hasn't been very consistent, since I've written lengthy pieces on both Joe and Mika. Morning Joe figured into my calculation, in that it's an opinionated show (with Scarborough balanced a little bit by Brzezinski) that no one would confuse with straight news. They get three hours; Matthews, Schultz Olbermann and Maddow are on from 5 to 11. But my point is the shrinking of garden-variety newscasts on MS during the day.


Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: Is that all there is? Last week Congress passed a bill that Democrats vowed would create jobs, jobs, jobs and save the national economy. Republicans decried it as the biggest tax increase in history and would wreck the common man's economy. But all the MSM cared about was the sex life of a politician who has zero effect on the vast majority of us and the death of a formerly important entertainer who was currently no more than a walking freak show. Question: where's the media analysis of last week's congressional action instead of the obsession with sex, drugs and rock 'n roll? Has ALL MEDIA become the National Enquirer?

Howard Kurtz: I'll get to Jackson with a later question, but I'm not buying the sex-obsessed rap on Mark Sanford (which isn't to say we don't have a soft spot for sex scandals). A governor touted as a possible 2012 presidential contender disappears for several days; his office says he's hiking the Appalachian Trail; it turns out he was in Buenos Aires; he holds a raw, rambling news conference in which he talks about his Latin lover, apologizes to his wife and four sons and just about everyone else; the state goes crazy; the wife says he asked for permission to visit the mistress after she found out about the affair; he agreed to repay money for a state-funded trip to Argentina on which he visited Maria; he says he considered resigning, and on and on. And he's a Republican who called for Bill Clinton to resign during Monicagate. That fits *my* definition of a news story.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hi Howard,

Don't know if you noticed this, but when the judge handed down 150-year sentence, all the news channels were covering it -- except CNN, which had a "developing story" story about Michael Jackson's mom was seeking custody of his kids. Then they went through photographs sent in by viewers in tribute of Michael Jackson -- meanwhile all the regular networks broke from scheduled programming to report on Madoff.

This went on for at least 5 minutes or more, which is really staggering. More so because they were covering the run-up to the sentencing all morning. What happened there? Was Toobin in the bathroom or something?

Howard Kurtz: I've seen a fair amount of Madoff coverage on the cable nets this morning. There's sometimes a lag of a few minutes after a judge's ruling for correspondents in the courtroom to get outside for their live shots.

Oops, CNN (where I host the media show) and Fox have moved on to the Billy Mays autopsy report. MS is airing Dr. Nancy, which I wrote about this morning.


Bucking your regular question trend: With all the cutbacks to the Post, I no longer think I'd pay for the online access. I'll continue to read for free though, and when it does go to some sort of pay model, I'll read it via the newspaper equivalent of Napster (Newpster?). When are you accepting the buyout?

Howard Kurtz: Nice to talk to you too.

I'm not taking any buyout.

And good luck with your Napster after the newsrooms are depleted and much of the original content dries up.


San Francisco, Calif.: I know your time is limited on the CNN program, but why cut away to Amanda Carpenter just before the lads got down to fisticuffs? You rescued Milbank pretty well by doing that, then let Carpenter lay out a series of unfounded accusations against Pitney without a chance for him to respond. Ref, you got worked.

Howard Kurtz: For those who don't share the obsession, WashPost's Dana Milbank and HuffPost's Nico Pitney went at it on my show yesterday over the White House appearing to solicit a question from Pitney on Iran. By any fair reading, both men had ample time to make their points and slam each other with minimal interference from me. Amanda Carpenter of the Washington Times was also a guest, so I thought it was fair to ask her one question. The transcript below shows that she was accurate (Pitney once worked for Howard Dean's campaign) and that he had a chance to respond. The video is widely available (and linked in today's Media Notes) if you want to watch for yourselves.

KURTZ: Does any of this smell like collusion to you?

CARPENTER: Well, I can tell you from -- I hear a number of claims from the right side of the issue on this, and they say that Nico is a person who worked on Democratic campaigns, then went on to go work for the Center for American Progress, where he ran a very partisan blog called "Thing Progress," and then was asked by the White House to ask those questions. So he's not -- I mean, the question was fair.

KURTZ: Well, I don't think he's not denying that you have left of center views.

PITNEY: No. I mean, I think the question is the quality of the question.

CARPENTER: But the concern from the right side of things is...

PITNEY: Jeff Gannon asked softballs. I asked a legitimate question.

CARPENTER: I'm not saying you did anything wrong, but I think the administration calling you beforehand, thinking that you are probably going to ask something sympathetic, escorting you to the front of the press room, to then ask a question in a place where everyone should get a fair crack at the president, is unfair.

PITNEY: I mean, the question, again...

KURTZ: It was a legitimate question. Let's make that clear.

PITNEY: It was a legitimate question. Sure.


PITNEY: It was be a strange conspiracy, considering Obama dodged the question.


Bethesda, Md.: Please help me understand the apoplexy about the planned inclusion at Obama's press conference of a question from an Iranian, posed by Nico Pitney. As far as I've heard, no one has suggested that Obama knew in advance what the question would be -- just that Pitney would come armed with a question submitted by someone in Iran. How is this any more of a "plant" than the fact that everyone knows that, at every single press conference, Chuck Todd, Jake Tapper, Chip Reid, and probably Major Garrett will absolutely, definitely get to ask a question? I see no difference at all.

Howard Kurtz: It was the way that Obama seemed to anticipate the question, and the fact that the White House had solicited a specific type of question--that is, one posted by an Iranian to the Huffington Post. The average person would see this as no big deal. Others see it as collusion, and certainly there would have been a major flap if the Bush White House had arranged for a conservative blogger to ask a specific question. I'm sure there's some Old Media jealousy involved as well. The transcript:

THE PRESIDENT: Since we're on Iran, I know Nico Pitney is here from Huffington Post.

Q: Thank you, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: Nico, I know that you, and all across the Internet, we've been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran. I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?

Q: Yes, I did, I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian.


Balanced by Mika?: I love Morning Joe and don't watch the evening chatter on any cable. I do not know what Mika's politics are, but I often find her marked by deference to her men (reminds me of a "powerful" woman in '40's screwball company). Today's show featured Mika interviewing noted philanderer Rudy Giuliani regarding Sanford and political affairs. Instead of having Rudy talk about his own broad and deep experience on the subject, including the use of public funds on mistresses, she allowed it to become a discourse on Bill Clinton. Oy.

Howard Kurtz: Look, it's Joe's show, he's a former Republican congressman and an unabashed conservative (albeit one who hasn't hesitated to criticize his party). Mika is a lifelong journalist, not a liberal advocate, with views that are certainly to the left of Scarborough's. All I said is that she added a little balance. It's not set up like Crossfire where their views have equal weight.


"balanced by Mika": Hey Howie, here's an example of how Mika brings that liberal balance to the Scarborough show, while interviewing Rudy Giuliani about adulterous politicians:

"Giuliani "Let's look at Bill Clinton."

Brzezinski: "Yeah.""

I'm assuming the irony of that premise is obvious. Am I overestimating you?

Howard Kurtz: I brought up Bill Clinton (and Spitzer and McGreevey and Edwards) on my program yesterday after running through the list of recent Republican miscreants (Sanford, Ensign, Vitter). How can any discussion of philandering politicians not mention the impeachment of a president? Of course, I'm sure Rudy would rather talk about that than how he started dating his current wife while living with his then-wife in Gracie Mansion.


Evanston, Ill.: Hey Howie, I read Dana Milbank all the time so I am somewhat biased. He was an extremely dogged critic of the Bush administration and called them out frequently. However, whenever he writes a piece critical of Obama and company the left wing blogosphere pretends like he is some sort of right wing hit man. Their critique rings very hollow when they only object to criticism of their own side. The right wing has the exact inverse relationship with Milbank.

Howard Kurtz: That is what is odd about this whole flap. Milbank was derided for years on the right as a liberal Bush-basher. Now all that is forgotten in the age of Obama. He is a sharp, sarcastic and humorous columnist who enjoys needling both sides. That doesn't make him right in this debate with Nico Pitney and his White House question, but let's not succumb to amnesia here.

Also lost, by the way, is that Pitney's question on Ahmadinejad, whatever the previous discussions with the White House, was a perfectly legitimate one.


Bethesda, Md.: "Others see it as collusion, and certainly there would have been a major flap if the Bush White House had arranged for a conservative blogger to ask a specific question."

Well, sure, if they had arranged "to ask a specific question." I think you put your finger on it -- old media jealousy. Some people just cannot comprehend that certain blogs (not all) actually do reporting. What a tempest in a teapot. Surely the time given to Nico Pitney could have been better spent -- say by having a Post reporter ask a question about steroids in baseball, right? Sheesh.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I'll defend that question too, given that the steroids story had just broke the day of the news conference that Alex Rodriguez had admitted using steroids. But I think we're well beyond debating whether such sites as the Huffington Post offer reporting as well as opinion. Of course they do.


Clovis, New Mexico: The Jackson media frenzy is driving me nuts. (The New York Times, particularly, seems to have gone completely insane and is taking its readers with it.) Okay, it's the sudden death of an international superstar; there is going to be heavy coverage; yet, not only the quantity, but the content of it is disturbing. There is scarcely any mention of the molestation trials. (And there is no criticism -- zero -- of his music, though many people regarded it as bubble gum while he was alive. ) On the other hand, Farrah Fawcett has been dragged through the mud repeatedly in the last few days (cf same paper).

Any thoughts on this?

Howard Kurtz: I was willing to tolerate the first 24 hours of crazy coverage in that Michael Jackson was one of the most famous people on the planet, as well as a seriously weird figure who'd repeatedly been accused of child molestation, and his death was unexpected. By the second, third and fourth days, it was clear that all of the media were content to ride the wave in search of ratings and circulation. Suddenly we see not just cable but the network evening newscasts leading with Jackson. We see ABC, CBS and NBC putting up hours of prime-time specials about Jacko (I must have missed their prime-time specials on the Iran protests). CNN aired its special on Saturday and Sunday night.

My concern now is that the news business will flog this story -- about the cause of death, the drugs, the money, custody of the kids -- for weeks and weeks and weeks.


Columbia, Md.: Nico Pitney, on his blog, says he encouraged you to watch the video after the segment to see if Milbank called Pitney a "dick" since you said you did not personally hear it at the time. Did you get a chance to review that to see if in fact Milbank had done that?

Howard Kurtz: I've reviewed the tape and you can't hear it. But I accept Pitney's assertion that it happened, sotto voce, while I was reading the lead-in to the next segment and playing some sound bites. They did seem civil when they left the set.


Philandering Politicians: How can a discussion of philandering politicians not mention that the last Republican presidential candidate cheated on his wife, divorced her, and married a much younger woman a month later? Or that Newt Gingrich, the man anointed by the press as the current GOP "ideas man" and 2012 front-runner cheated on his wife with his secretary and served his wife divorce papers when she was in the hospital getting treated for cancer? He also resigned his last position of authority amidst a scandal (much as many people expect Sanford might do). Mark Sanford looks to me like he is following the tried and true GOP playbook for a run at the presidency.

Howard Kurtz: I know the litany. Sometimes it seems we'd save time if politicians who aren't messing around would call news conferences and announce that. My point is that officeholders of both parties are well represented on the sex-scandal front.

BTW: News flash: Ruth Madoff puts out a statement ripping her husband, saying she feels "embarrassed" and "betrayed." That took long enough. Are we supposed to believe she knew nothing?


Burke, Va.: No, Howard, you can't really defend using up time at a presidential news conference on a question about steroids in baseball. What's next, a John and Kate plus Eight question? A question about Obama in a swimsuit (sorry, Dana)?

Howard Kurtz: I have been wondering whether Obama has a position on Jon & Kate.


Jackson coverage: I foresee Anna Nicole Smith level coverage on steroids, stretching through the inevitable paternity trial(s). At least her child was too young to know what was happening, unlike the three Jackson youngsters.

Howard Kurtz: If that's true, it's gonna get really ugly.


Michael Jackson coverage: Michael Jackson coverage will continue until he is buried, so get over it. Then of course there will be the issue of guardianship et al. It is going to happen and there is nothing you can say or do about it. Complaining doesn't help.

Howard Kurtz: True, but if people click it off, television might do less of it. In the cable world, of course, it only takes an additional, say, 1 million viewers to convince executives to stay with a topic, even if the rest of America doesn't care. Just look at the long-running sagas involving missing white women.


Kalamazoo, Mich.: Mr. Kurtz,

I very much enjoy your hour on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sundays. Both you and John King are doing the country a real service in your new approach to the Sunday news shows.

My question is regarding President Obama's press conferences. They appear scripted and contrived. Also, he doesn't seem able to comfortably field questions which challenge his administration, or which do anything but shower him with adulation. How long you do think the media will go along with this? Or is this the new status quo in Washington?

Howard Kurtz: The last news conference (the one where Nico Pitney was recognized) seemed to me to include a number of tough questions, and Obama appeared more on the defensive than he had in previous pressers. He chided Margaret Talev for asking about his smoking and Jake Tapper for insisting that he answer a previous question he had dodged. But look, press conferences are a forum that always favor a president, who can answer, filibuster or duck as he sees fit.


I have been wondering whether Obama has a position on Jon and Kate. : You should be fired for saying that. I don't know who Jon and Kate are and I don't care, nor do I suppose the president of the United States cares.

Howard Kurtz: Forgive my moment of insanity. I guess the president doesn't read Us Weekly, which put Jon & Kate on the cover six straight weeks.

Do yourself a favor and have your humor gene checked. You might have a deficiency.


"Are we supposed to believe she knew nothing? ": I know nothing about the particulars of this marriage, but I find it perfectly possible that she had not a clue about her husband's business. Especially given her generation (although I'm shocked at how many of my contemporaries have no clue about their household finances because the husband takes care of all the money matters).

Howard Kurtz: I have no idea. Maybe Ruth Madoff was kept in the dark. But she sure stayed silent all these months before now voicing her heartfelt concern for her husband's many victims.


Jackson Coverage...: I realized that it lost any context on Friday when on Sirius/XM Hits 1 the hosts were equating the news of his death to the way people remember the day Kennedy was assassinated (e.g. people would remember this news in the way they remember where they were when Kennedy died).

Considering someone would have to be in close to 50 to actually "remember" that news (outside of the station's core demographic), it struck me as trying to make the death of Michael Jackson more than it is.

Howard Kurtz: Ya think?


Minneapolis, Minn.: The HuffPo has asked two tough questions of Obama during his press conferences (don't forget Sam Stein's tough "Truth Commission" question during Obama's first press conference). Sounds like the "old media" is upset that people are actually doing their job an asking real questions...

Howard Kurtz: Well, I'm not upset. That's why I write about blogs every single day. I think they make an important contribution in breaking what had been the stranglehold of the mainstream media.


Albany, N.Y.: Further explanation for Michael Jackson comes from two things: (a) He died on a Thursday afternoon, and weekends are slow news days; (b) TV news is made for saturation coverage, which is great during 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina but looks silly most of the rest of the time. This doesn't seem any more excessive than, say, the death of John Kennedy Jr. I predict that Madoff, not Jackson, will lead the news tonight.

Howard Kurtz: I think Madoff will be the lead as well. I agree with your point about excess coverage but not your day-of-the-week theory. Jackson would have caused a media explosion no matter what day or what hour he died.


Rockville, Md.: My teen-aged daughter heard about Michael Jackson's death first from radio stations 99.5, 101.1, and 107.3, long before the L.A. Times, MSNBC, CNN and other print and television media confirmed it. Do the radio stations have a lower threshold of confirmation than the other outlets or were they just more on top of this story? I can't recall the last time music radio stations were the first to report major news.

Howard Kurtz: I guarantee you none of those stations reported that based on original research. They were ripping and reading from somewhere else. The first outlet I saw that confirmed Jackson's death was But now informs me that it had the news before TMZ. The MSM have to be cautious in such situations, but they got scooped.

Off to do some reporting. Thanks, folks.


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