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Howard Kurtz Discusses the Media and Press Coverage of the News

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 20, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, July 20 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and and press coverage of the news.

This Story

Today's Column: Snoozing Through Sotomayor

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Logan North, D.C.: Walter Cronkite was a journalistic icon to me as a baby boomer; over the weekend I avidly followed the coverage of his death. One thing in particular struck me while watching old videos of his newscasts. This is that while Cronkite had a voice and delivery for the ages, he certainly did not seem, by modern-day standards, particularly telegenic. (Neither was his principal competitor, Chet Huntley.) In terms of hairstyle and apparel, you come across as far snazzier in your CNN broadcasts than Cronkite did in his heyday; I will resist the temptation to compare Cronkite to the current holder of his chair, Katie Couric. Do TV networks today focus overly on appearances? Might this suggest that TV news fared better in the old days when it focused more on content than presentation?

Howard Kurtz: I happen to think the fact that Cronkite looked like an ordinary guy, a fellow who could be your uncle, combined with his plain-spoken style, was at the heart of his appeal. Does television place more of an emphasis on looks in 2009? Obviously. And particularly for women, who were barely represented in the ranks of network correspondents in the 1960s. But there are still plenty of people on the air who wouldn't win any beauty pageants but are excellent journalists.

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Columbus, Ohio: Howie: How can Walter Cronkite be considered an unbiased journalist when he would conclude each telecast by giving the number of days Americans had been held hostage by the Iranians under President Carter? An American soldier is being held captive now, and I don't know of any media outlet doing a similar thing.

Howard Kurtz: The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81 was the dominant issue of its time, great influenced the '80 presidential campaign and undoubtedly contributed to President Carter's defeat. It received huge coverage everywhere, including the ABC program "America Held Hostage," which became "Nightline." I don't see anything particularly biased about Cronkite's signoff. He was, after all, stating a fact, and perhaps voicing the public's resentment that such an atrocity -- seizing another country's diplomats -- could go on for so long.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Pardon my ignorance, but I'm not old enough to remember Walter Cronkite's newscasts. But having read some accounts about him, I'm rather confused. People have hailed Cronkite for making the news the star unlike some people today. But I read that the country turned against the Vietnam War when he editorialized against it. If he believed that the news was the star, how could his newscasts have been personality-driven?

washingtonpost.com: America's Newsman Was Last of a Broadcast Breed (Post, July 18)

Howard Kurtz: It's a gross oversimplification to say that the country turned against the Vietnam War when Cronkite editorialized against it. By 1968 there were deep divisions in this country about a war that was claiming so many casualties, especially since young people were being drafted against their will. Cronkite took a trip to Vietnam, came back and offered what I considered to be a reporter's analysis: that the war appeared to be hopelessly stalemated. He was, of course, right. Cronkite labeled that editorial opinion, but what made it so striking was that he almost never stepped out of his anchor role to offer such analysis. So it had an impact -- witness LBJ's famous comment that if he'd lost Cronkite, he'd lost America -- but antiwar sentiment was already rising at the time.

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New York City: Here's a question you've probably never been asked -- I notice on the Sunday morning talk shows, the person being questioned is frequently pictured in front of a projected backdrop consisting of the program's and/or the network's logo. This background is always in slow, but constant motion. Any idea as to the reasoning behind this?

Howard Kurtz: In a word, branding. And if the clip is picked up by other networks, your logo gets out there. (I haven't focused on the moving part.)

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Far too few commentators have been willing to point out Walter Cronkite questioned the government. When he saw with his own eyes that the Vietnam war was a disaster, he said so -- back in 1968. I really don't think anyone like him would be allowed on television anymore. As David Gregory repeatedly says, questioning authority "is not our business."

Why not?

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree that no one like him would be allowed on television. Look at all the opinion-mongers who populate the world of television, opposing (or supporting) George Bush, Barack Obama, the war in Iraq, health care reform and on and on. It was in Cronkite's time, when the only national television news outlets were CBS and NBC (with ABC rising toward the end of his tenure), that opinion was rare. The media establishment also treated government leaders with far more deference, at least until the lies surrounding Vietnam and Watergate produced a more cynical public and a more skeptical media.

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RE: Cronkite/Hostages: If an MSNBC anchor ended each broadcast during the Bush years by announcing that the U.S. had been in Iraq for XXX days, you would have said that was evidence of MSNBC's lurch leftward. Wouldn't you?

Howard Kurtz: Gee, didn't Keith Olbermann have a signoff about the number of days since President Bush declared Mission Accomplished?

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Saginaw, Mich.: I enjoyed reminiscing about Uncle Walter yesterday. I am depressed that his passing, even in the news community, is given less importance than a certain other celebrity still receiving posthumous attention.

Howard Kurtz: I've thought about that, too, but even as a critic of the Michael Jackson overcoverage, here's the difference: Jackson was cut down in the prime of life, if not the heyday of his career, and it was shocking news that, at 50, this controversial cultural icon was no longer with us. Cronkite, who died at 92, had been in failing health for years, so his death was not unexpected. What's more, it had been 28 years since he anchored the CBS Evening News, so for at least half the country he was a distant historical figure. I think that accounts for part of the difference, although Cronkite's death did generate wall-to-wall coverage on the cable networks Friday night. Oh, and one more thing: there's no lingering controversy about his life and death, the way there is about Jackson's will, custody of his kids, alleged use of drugs and so on.

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Richmond, Va.: Great article today. I would like to ask a question in regards to a column you wrote last week about the journalist who had gotten too close to the Sanford people and were willing to act as their unquestioning mouthpieces. Many times we see on this chat that the media is either biased to the left or to the right. It has led me to wonder if the case is really that reporters, by the nature of their job, get close to the people that they cover and become friends, which sometimes this clouds their objectivity. I would be interested in your thoughts about this theory.

washingtonpost.com: Snoozing Through Sotomayor (Post, July 20)

Howard Kurtz: I think that's a fair point. It probably applies less to Mark Sanford, who lives in South Carolina, than the usual bevy of Washington insiders (although Sanford had been a member of Congress). As journalists have become more affluent -- a trend to which I don't necessarily object -- they are more likely to hobnob with the big shots, send their kids to the same private schools, and hang out at the same parties. This undoubtedly affects their view of the world and the people they cover.

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Falls Church, Va.: ABC is reporting that the DOD wanted to avoid coverage of Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl's abduction by the Taliban, but the the BBC published anyway. No Rohde-style embargo when the abductee is not a journalist?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Soldier in Taliban Video Identified (ABC News, July 20)

Howard Kurtz: Every news organization makes its own decisions. The article does indicate that the BBC pushed to report on the soldier's capture. As for the American media, they did not name the soldier until the Taliban sent out that outrageous video, at which point it becomes impossible to ignore. Had David Rohde's captors sent out a similar video, the New York Times's effort to keep the story quiet would have failed.

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Somerdale, N.J.: David Gregory sends an e-mail to Sanford's people offering them a platform to "spin" his situation favorably and there is no outrage, yet when a blogger is asked to get a question from an Iranian, it's an outrage. To me what Gregory did is far worse.

Is it typical for a show's host to offer a friendly forum and also offer to allow himself to get spun? Isn't this the same collusion that Gregory and the MSM were outraged about the WhiteHouse/Blogger issue?

Is this common?

Howard Kurtz: David Gregory didn't offer to spin the situation favorably. At the same time, he used language that I certainly wouldn't use. Here's what he said in an e-mail to Sanford's office:

"Coming on Meet the Press allows you to frame the conversation how you really want to . . . and then move on. You can see you have done your interview and then move on. Consider it."

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Alexandria, Va.: "Jackson was cut down in the prime of life." Wow, Howie, the guy was 50 years old. Little bit overdone for being in the prime.

Howard Kurtz: I stand by my middle-aged statement!

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Arlington, Va.: I really don't want to make a big issue of this, but does anyone really believe Ted Kennedy himself wrote that piece in Newsweek, and shouldn't the magazine have declared at least that he had some assistance, since we are all very aware of what is happening here? Shades of his brother's ghostwritten Profiles in Courage, in my opinion.

Howard Kurtz: We don't have to guess. At the end of the piece is a line saying it was written with longtime Kennedy speechwriter Robert Shrum. For that matter, I think most of the op-ed pieces that appear under the bylines of high-ranking officeholders are largely ghostwritten.

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Portland, Ore.: Howie:

I thought one of the more interesting things Frank Rich noted in his Sunday NY Times column was how so many of these scandal-plagued public officials were members of the Republican congressional class of 1994. Politico noted the same thing a few weeks ago, stating that a dozen of the 71 House members of that class had been involved in sex scandals -- and this does not include other of the more interesting characters in Congress, such as James Inhofe, who also came in in 1994. My question is: was the class of '94 really an anomaly of "interesting characters," or would any congressional class have a similar proportion of goofballs -- given that we are a representative democracy?

washingtonpost.com: They Got Some 'Splainin' to Do (The New York Times, July 18)

Howard Kurtz: Seventy-one? Geez, how did they have time to do anything else?

Clearly, some members of that congressional class turned out to be hypocrites who didn't practice what they preached, or what they postured about during the Clinton impeachment. But I'm not going to generalize because many other lawmakers have worked hard and had no such problems.

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RE: Cronkite/Hostages:: I think your reader was too subtle in making his Cronkite-Olbermann point. Olbermann does make a comment about the number of days since Mission Accomplished (a fact) and the media (you?) have named Olberman as evidence of MSNBC's lurch leftward.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think Keith would compare his program to the CBS Evening News. If the signoff comes after an hour of criticizing the Bush administration and the war with consistently liberal guests, that's a tad different, no?

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Re News Appearances: It's not fair to compare Cronkite's appearance to the anchors of today and say we've drifted towards style over substance. When Cronkite was on the air TVs were much smaller, and the images not nearly as clear. I imagine a little more time might have been spent on polishing his appearance if he were to be shown on large screens in HD.

Howard Kurtz: It all started when they started making those darned color sets!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Howard, In watching the coverage of Walter Cronkite, one of the pundits (don't know who) mentioned something like "now you have anchormen openly weeping on TV." Can you really compare a Glenn Beck (he was on CNN for two minutes or so) to a Walter Cronkite or Tim Russert? I mean apart from the fact that they appear on TV, that's all they really have in common. You can't really call Beck, Olbermann, O'Reilly, or even Chris Mathews an anchorman, or can you?

Howard Kurtz: No, but they wouldn't call themselves anchormen, either. They are commentators whose talk shows are largely driven by their opinions, and that's what they're paid for.

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Princeton, N.J.: "He was, after all, stating a fact."

This is an excellent point. With the advent of talk radio and cable TV shows that almost exclusively present news from one point of view, people choose where they get the news by which news backs up their own beliefs. It's interesting how quickly people scream "bias" when the facts said go against what they believe.

Facts are facts, though...

Howard Kurtz: I certainly don't think it was because Cronkite had a problem with the Carter administration. It's hard for some people to recall now, in this age of terror attacks, how shocking the Iranian hostage-taking seemed and how infuriated the country was as it dragged on for more than a year.

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New York: ABC's Jake Tapper has a long history of incendiary criticisms of President Obama, many of which are beyond the pale. Why did you ignore this? You didn't mention ideology at all, and you didn't bother to mention any instance where those of us on the "other wide" behaved like Tapper did.

Howard Kurtz: I think that's totally unfair. Tapper has a history of being tough on politicians on both parties. When he first joined ABC, some questioned whether he could be fair to Republicans because he spent years writing for the liberal site Salon. Now some are saying he's too tough on Obama. My standard is whether you dish it out to both sides.

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Kingston, N.Y.: Howie, I loved my health insurance until I needed it for something other than routine care. Doesn't this sentiment play into the statistics that show so many people are happy with their current health care? By the same token, many young people choose to take a chance, save money and do without health insurance. Doesn't this play into the statistics of the uninsured? How much should the media be either investigating or reporting these variables? I don't trust either party to claim the truth of this, but there must be hard facts out there. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: The hard fact is that most people think the system is broken but are relatively satisfied with their own health care. Or they're not satisfied with having to deal with infuriating insurance companies but some fear the Obama plan could be worse. It's a very complicated issue with lots of moving parts, including the gargantuan task of how to pay for covering more of the uninsured, and I think the reporting has actually been pretty good. There is a tendency to get too caught up in each little twist and turn on the Hill, but that's true of all political reporting.

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The Most Trusted Man: Is there any soul searching at the nets in an era where America's most trusted journalist is Jon Stewart?

Howard Kurtz: Yeah - everyone's trying to be funnier. Why do you think Brian Williams hosted Saturday Night Live?

Being a little facetious, but you get my point.

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Alexandria, Va.: Howard -- quiz time! Which is the more difficult feat -- writing a story about Walter Cronkite without using the word "avuncular" or writing about Supreme Court confirmation hearings without using the word "Kabuki"?

Howard Kurtz: Probably the first, in writing about Uncle Walter. No other word quite does it.

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What's the Point: of Meet the Press? Or any Sunday show for that matter...Nearly all communication from anyone having anything to do with a public capacity has been vanilla'd down to solely reflect the talking points of either side.

I'm a Democrat (from Massachusetts!), and I thought Secretary Sebelius's visit with David Gregory yesterday was a waste of time, plain and simple. She didn't answer one question in a straightforward manner.

Howard Kurtz: Journalists can't force politicians to answer questions. Even the best of the breed, Tim Russert and Ted Koppel, have told me that. What they can do is make clear when their guests are repeatedly dodging the questions. And viewers can see through the bobbing and weaving as well.

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Walter Cronkite: Watching some of the coverage of Cronkite this weekend really made me sentimental. His speechlessness at the moon landing, how sweet is that. Who would ever say things like "Oh Boy!" and "Golly!" on the news today? It really was a different time.

Howard Kurtz: I was struck by that as well. Cronkite's boyish enthusiasm for the space program really came across at that moment. Today's TV types are rarely rendered speechless. It's not in their genetic makeup.

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Hobnob with the big shots: As to upwardly mobile journalists hobnobbing with the big shots, do you think Cronkite would have ever danced around a stage "rapping" with Karl Rove? I have seen some celebrity journalists roll their eyes when mentioning issues like making the tax system more progressive or getting us middle class types out of the health-care death spiral. I can't possibly think this stuff comes our way unbiased and unfiltered. And while I completely and utterly concede that most journalists are likely very liberal when it comes to social issues like gay rights, it seems they are also more conservative in a self-interested sense, in terms of tax/health/fiscal policy. This is just how things work when we get our news from celebrity journalists making upper 6 and 7 figure incomes.

Howard Kurtz: Well, what's the solution? Salary caps for journalists?

Look, let's not put Cronkite on a pedestal. He was very well paid, even though he served before the era of multimillion-dollar salaries. He knew all the big-time politicians, and all the NASA officials and astronauts that he covered. He spent his spare time on Martha's Vineyard and was hardly averse to socializing.

As for average reporters, a half-century ago many were high school graduates who hit the bar after work and were pretty friendly with the cops they covered. Journalism was a working-class profession. Today, many reporters make upper-middle-class salaries, but they also have advanced degrees and more specialized knowledge of their subject areas. So there is a tradeoff.

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Greater Green Bay, Wisc.: Cronkite did not start out as a celebrity, he became one and was likely the last anchor to do so after the Barbara Walters/Dan Rather era started. Do the high salaries of top TV anchors damage the connection with the public that Cronkite seemed to have?

Howard Kurtz: I don't fully know. Katie Couric may make $15 million a year, but she grew up in a middle-class family in Arlington. Brian Williams was once a volunteer fireman. Dan Rather graduated from Sam Houston State College. And it's not just the anchors -- the opinion guys, O'Reilly, Rush, Olbermann, Matthews and the like, make millions each year. Does that mean their values change, that they're automatically out of touch? In some cases, perhaps, but I don't think that's universally true.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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