Howard Kurtz: Too Much Jackson Coverage, Supreme Court Hearing, More

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 13, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, July 13 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and and press coverage of the news.

Today's Column: With Maggie Rodriguez, 'Early' Begins to Rise/Contracting Out

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Wacko Jacko coverage: Howard -- the media's coverage of all things M. Jackson is beyond absurd and embarrassing. I mean -- The Situation Room has to cover that stuff?

This is a new low for a medium that is lurking just above pond residue.

I can't be alone or even in the minority on this, can I?

Howard Kurtz: I've been pretty outspoken in saying that television in particular got out of control on the Michael Jackson story--not so much in the first couple of days, when it was a stunning event followed by people worldwide, but in the following two weeks. Of course last Tuesday's memorial service should have been covered, but for eight or 10 straight hours? I think MJ got the numbers up and no one wanted to break away from the subject for long. And while the reporting was somewhat balanced in the first couple of days -- describing Jackson as both a cultural icon whose music touched millions and a seriously weird person who spent years battling allegations of child molestation -- after that the reporting and commentary was overwhelmingly positive.

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Ex-PR: When I worked in publicity for a non-profit, one of my responsibilities was to make sure that our organization received at least some news coverage every week.

It seems like Sarah Palin has been following the same model lately, in that hardly a week passes without her making the news for something or other. Am I just imagining this, or do you think it's actually happening, and if so, is it intentional on her (or her team's) part?

Howard Kurtz: She doesn't need a team to do that. She just has a knack for drawing coverage. And quitting your job as governor in the middle of your first term, months after running for vice president, is one way of drawing media attention.

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Equal Time?: Howard -- Rarely a day goes by that Obama isn't on the cable networks delivery often lengthy speeches. More often than not, these amount to campaign speeches, where he is propagating some program or political theory. Since these are so frequently clearly political speeches, would the Republicans be entitled to equal time if they asked for it?

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps you missed the hundreds of George Bush speeches that were carried live by the cable networks?

Of course every news organization has a responsibility to cover the out-of-power party. (It helps when that party has a couple of natural and telegenic leaders, which is not now the case with the Republicans, which is why so much media attention is devoted to Rush, Newt and, now, Sarah.) But a president, of either party, gets far more media coverage--especially in times of crisis.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Howie, this morning the Today show ran a story captioned "Was Michael Jackson Murdered?" I'm appalled that as mainstream a broadcaster as NBC would use this kind of Enquirer-oriented titillation for (I guess) ratings. Am I the only person left who is appalled by the tabloid-ization of the MSM? It seems that unless there's a personality, it doesn't get covered.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the segment, but Jackson's father and sister have raised the question of whether foul play was involved. As far as I can see, they have offered no proof to support that accusation. So I think news organizations ought to tread lightly, when all they have are the suspicions of a couple of relatives.

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Ellicott City, Md.: For a while, your show was listed separately in the DVR guide. Now I have to DVR four hours of CNN just to get your show. Can you talk to someone to return back to having your show listed individually so that I can save some DVR space and no be subjected to having to fast forward through John King?

Plus, are they ever going to upgrade your show to High Definition?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for asking. You can DVR my CNN program separately; it's listed either under State of the Union/10 am (eastern) or John King/Reliable Sources. My understanding is that all of CNN's Washington programs will go to HD within months. Some of us less beautiful types are not looking forward to that.

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Westchester, N.Y. : When AIG exploded a few weeks ago, both the media and the politicians were shocked at the grass roots outrage over a relatively minor matter. This week the real deal is coming down, in that Goldman Sachs will be releasing their profits statement, which will only reinforce the sentiment out there -- fueled by Matt Taibbi and others -- that we working people are being played for fools by the financiers and the politicians that they own. Do you think the media will be slow off the mark again, or will they do what they always do, neglect the facts -- which require rudimentary math skills -- and divert the matter to the Dem v. Republican story? How about this Kurtz fellow: will he be covering the real story?

Howard Kurtz: I cover the media, of course, but I expect that Goldman Sachs will get plenty of attention if it reports the kind of huge profit that some news reports have predicted. Keep in mind, though, that a private company -- even one that has taken (and repaid) federal bailout money -- is entitled to make as much money as it can for its shareholders. Goldman, unlike Bear Stearns and Lehman, was one of the better-run investment banks. But it's still amazing that after Wall Street's embrace of risky derivatives basically crashed the economy, one of its signature firms could be making huge bucks again.

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Why newspapers are going out of business: Howie, I live in Rockville, and get the Post at my metro station through one of those coin boxes (and a sub at home for my wife!). The boxes often eat my 75 cents. Not a big deal, really. But one day, I called the Post and complained that the boxes were broken, and should be fixed. They asked if I wanted my money back. I said no, it's only 75 cents. Last week I received three quarters in the mail from the Post. In an envelope with 42 cents postage.

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me that's a business that's responsive to its customers!

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Santa Cruz, Calif.: Hi Howard. Here's an odd one for you. I've been concerned throughout the Iraq war that the press was under- reporting the human cost of the war by focusing on military deaths rather than "casualties" -- i.e., dead and wounded. Modern medicine has kept many wounded soldiers alive with horrific, life-lasting injuries (multiple lost limbs, brain trauma, etc.) that would have died in previous wars. Yesterday I heard a national CBS radio news report that "solved" the problem: it referred to the 109 U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, and the recent 10 or so British casualties. Thus we have now redefined "casualty" as meaning only the deceased. Any idea why this is happening? In my view it really downplays the current (and future, in terms of caring for these soldiers) costs of the wars.

Howard Kurtz: Some news organizations -- and particularly ABC's Bob Woodruff, who was grievously wounded in Iraq and has just returned there -- have done excellent reporting on this very issue.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Why is it that the mass media are such poor multitaskers? They are not very good at covering multiple stories. Michael Jackson's death gave us instant amnesia over Iran or Mark Sanford. In the case of both, overkill coverage helped buy extra time for the Iranian theocracy and for the disgraced S.C. governor, respectively.

Howard Kurtz: Media overkill is becoming almost an oxymoronic phrase. We beat big stories to death, even when the central figure is, in fact, dead. It's not that news organizations can't multitask. Television operations are very good at that when they have to deal simultaneously with such matters as war, politics and natural disaster. It's that when a story is perceived as a water-cooler topic and ratings winner--from

O.J. to Princess Diana, from Mark Sanford to Michael Jackson--television in particular tends to obsess on it for as long as possible. Newspapers, while certainly not immune to these impulses, are much better at covering 50 other things while also trumpeting one overriding story.

I wonder how long Sonia Sotomayor, whose confirmation hearings are under way, will be the week's dominant story. Interesting that I don't have a single question on that subject today.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Since you're talking about ridiculous coverage ... In some ways, the NY Post and Fox Network attention paid to the G8 photo with Obama seemed to be a lot worse than the Michael Jackson coverage. I was no MJ fan but I understood his role in the culture. But the photo "controversy" seemed to me a made-up issue from the start. Am I wrong here?

Howard Kurtz: I did a little riff on this on Reliable Sources yesterday (Daily Beast has the video under 7 Top Moments in Sunday Talk). When you looked at that photo, it certainly looked as though the president of the United States was checking out this Brazilian teenager. When you looked at the video, though, it was clear that he didn't even glance at her. (I can't say the same for Sarkozy, though.) So it was a non-story that kept echoing around the Net even after it was clear that there was no there there.

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High Definition: Don't worry -- some of us only watch your show for the guests. :)

Howard Kurtz: What a relief.

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Niles, Mich.: I watched "This Week" (ABC, Sunday 9 a.m.) and was dismayed that the six or so on the Panel gave up time that could have dealt with major issues to the "Michael Jackson" Congressional Resolution (Rep. Lee - sponsor). . . maybe that could have been discussed online in the post-TV segment but such an "entertainment-focused" matter should go over to the soft-news divisions. Were they pandering to the curious members of the American pop culture divides?

Howard Kurtz: I don't have a problem with a Sunday show devoting a few minutes to Jackson. The memorial service was, after all, watched by 30 million folks. What's more, some people thought Sheila Jackson Lee was politicizing it when she made a pitch for a congressional resolution honoring the late entertainer (which ultimately went nowhere). Michael Jackson's death is a story; it's worthy of debate; just not the nearly wall-to-wall levels it has achieved for much of the past two weeks.

Interesting tidbit: Custody hearings for the Jackson children had been slated to start tomorrow, and cable execs were contemplating split-screen coverage (Debbie Rowe on one side, Judge Sotomayor on the other). But the Jackson hearing was postponed till next week, so we won't see that spectacle.

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Menomonie, Wisc.: I am just curious. Are you listening to the Sotomayor hearings? Both sides seem to be giving their own opinions. I thought the purpose of hearings was to have her answer questions...

Howard Kurtz: I am. What you are hearing is every senator on the Judiciary Committee sounding off, to be followed by Sotomayor's opening statement. The questioning starts tomorrow. Which tells you something about how the Senate does business and the value its members place on the sound of their voices.

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washingtonpost.com: Video: Obama and Sarkozy Look at Young Brazilian Girl (ABC News/YouTube)

Howard Kurtz: For those who haven't seen the footage, here it is.

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Supreme, CT: I get the sense that the media is attempting to generate a story regarding Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings: it's a forgone conclusion that she'll be confirmed, and GOP opposition has been rather muted. How much of a story can this be? How many times can a GOP senator ask her about her "wise Latina" remark if the votes are there for her?

Howard Kurtz: It's not just the media. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told Sotomayor this morning that she will be confirmed, barring some kind of "meltdown." That certainly drains the hearings of suspense. But as with the Roberts and Alito hearings -- both were expected to be confirmed -- these sessions are used to plumb the views and philosophy of people on the verge of a lifetime appointment. And the nominees, of course, do everything they can to avoid being specific about the cases and legal arguments they are questioned about.

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Virginia Sq, Va.: Howie, Nice article on Maggie Rodriguez and the Early Show. I have watched the show pretty religiously for years and seen all the changes...only thing I don't get is why Julie Chen is still on the show...actually I do...and I'm sure it involves her husband. So what's up with Julie Chen on the Early Show? Does she have a long-term future on the show? She never seems to be around when they need her. Like last week during the massive media in L.A. for the MJ memorial event, she was "on assignment" and now see is back in her "usual" perch in L.A. I know she has another job with Big Brother, but she is like oil to the rest of the Early Show's cast that is water.

washingtonpost.com: With Maggie Rodriguez, 'Early' Begins to Rise (Post, July 12)

Howard Kurtz: I think that's a bit unfair, because Julie Chen was an accomplished television journalist before she married Les Moonves. You can like or her dislike her on the Early Show, but she wasn't exactly plucked off the street.

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Colorado: Last week you defended repeating the Republican meme about liberal MSNBC, in spite of Joe Scarborough, because the former Republican congressman was "balanced" by Mika Brezinski. Last week, Mika declared that "real Americans" understood and supported Sarah Palin. Does that sound liberal to you? and this is pretty typical of her schtick.

Howard Kurtz: I'd like to see the full context. But look, Joe Scarborough, as a former Republican congressman, is the more opinionated of the two. He has criticized his own party in recent years, but he is an unabashed conservative. Mika Brzezinski has spent her life as a journalist, and is clearly to Scarborough's left, but she isn't, and doesn't claim to be, a reliable liberal voice. Anyone who watches the program knows that it includes a variety of voices, but it's clearly Scarborough's show.

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Bethesda, Md.: I was surprised by the extremely harsh ombudsman article "A Sponsorship Scandal at The Post." I respect that he was doing his job. I wonder what reaction has been in the offices. Can you share?

Howard Kurtz: I've only talked to a couple of people, but they say, and I agree, that Andy Alexander did an excellent job. This has been a huge problem for The Post, one that has really roiled the newsroom, and a tough column from the ombudsman, based on extensive reporting, is exactly what was needed. I am glad that the people who either promoted or went along with this plan for sponsored dinners now realize what an awful idea it was.

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New York : What do you make of the C-SPAN poll which says that only about 49 percent of the voters polled even know that Sotomayor is up for confirmation? The poll itself tends to indicate that Americans as a group are shockingly uninformed about almost the entire subject of the Supreme Court, its number of justices, any decision that it has ever reached, etc. (Hey, I thought we had too many lawyers! Maybe not.) Do you think this is unusual, or is this merely a reality that will never change?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe they're busy watching the Michael Jackson coverage.

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Long Island, N.Y.: Howard,

Regarding the Obama photo controversy -- the Fox affiliate in NYC did it one better on Friday night.

On their 10 p.m. newscast, did a story about the photo from the NY Post (fellow News Corp sibling), showed the video that apparently exonerates the president from looking at the teen, but then did the "man on the street" ending, where they showed the photo to people and asked their thoughts?

It seemed contradictory to the earlier part of the piece.

To me it just solidifies my opinion of FOX that they will take a shot at the president over silly stuff, which in turn has a negative effect on their reporting when they may have a valid point.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see it, but sounds like an attempt to milk a non-controversy. Of course, I talked about it on the air as well--in an effort to knock it down.

I've seen a couple of pundits write that they hoped the ogling was true because it would show that Obama was human. In any event, I don't think it would have qualified as an impeachable offense.

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Hannity: Hannity likes to edit video to either paint a Democrat in a bad light or a Republican in good. Last week we had a particularly egregious example of twisting President Obama's words in a way that completely changed what he was saying. I'm surprised at the lack of outrage. If the parts of the media that you critique had done that we would have heard from you and the right-wing echo chamber.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't see the incident you are referring to but I have called out Hannity on the air for selective editing. It was a case in which he took a balanced, two-part statement by Obama, finding fault with both this country and other countries. Hannity cut out the second part--in which the president complained about anti-Americanism in other countries--and attacked the first part.

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Meltdown: Yes, as a Cuban American executive, I always appreciate when people who don't know me expect my "hot blood" to boil with the appropriate "meltdown" to follow. Thanks, Lindsey.

Howard Kurtz: Having watched what Senator Graham said, I don't think it was an indirect reference to Sotomayor being a Latino. It was in the vein of "unless lightning strikes, you're going to be on the Supreme Court." He said he hadn't decided which way to vote.

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washingtonpost.com:Transcript: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) Opening Statement (Post, July 13)

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Washington, D.C.: Do we really need any more of Mr. Johnston telling us about Gov. Palin, whether it's as governor or mother? I'm sorry, but Mr. Johnston isn't an educated or worldly pundit; he's a young man who dropped out of school after getting his girlfriend pregnant, got an apprenticeship for which he didn't meet minimum qualifications, and who's, apparently, in a protracted, disagreement with the family of his former girlfriend (fiancee) (as well as the governor's professional staff) over personalities and his rights/privileges/obligations as a father.

I really don't need to hear his "educated" views on the issues of governance. Really; I don't.

Howard Kurtz: It's amazing to me how much attention Levi Johnston has gotten, which shows the media's continued fascination with the Palin family soap opera. (I mentioned in this morning's piece on Maggie Rodriguez that she had interviewed him on the Early Show and asked her whether this was exploitation.)

But remember, Sarah Palin trotted him out at the Republican convention and said that he planned to marry her pregnant daughter. After the breakup -- and after Bristol did a Fox interview - journalists naturally wanted to know what the father of Bristol's child thought. Palin's office has now elevated Levi by putting out two statements blasting him for peddling fiction, etc.

Still, it does seem that he's moved beyond talking about Bristol and his son to comment on all things Palin. And the media seem all too happy to give this 18-year-old dude a platform.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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