Howard Kurtz Discusses the Media and Press Coverage of the News
Monday, July 27, 2009; 12:00 PM
Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, July 27 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and and press coverage of the news.
Today's Column: Anchors in an Unmoored World
Albany, N.Y.: I think your column on anchors is heading in the right direction. Forty years ago, when there were three TV news outlets that shared similar values, people made choices on small things. (As presidential papers show, however, people at the time thought that different networks were "biased" in different ways, though they were much more similar than different.) In today's mediascape, with so many news choices, people look for newscasters who bring them "the news I can agree with," whether it's leftists on MSNBC or rightists on Fox or folks who think that that Charles Gibson is such a nice man.
I am not sure that it is impossible to develop that gravitas. Peter Jennings didn't always have the Cronkite-like reputation you describe -- he had a rep as a pretty face for quite a while -- but he earned that respect over time. Russert had to face his past as a pol, but won that respect too. I think it is still possible; I think Brian Williams, who has publicly admired Cronkite for years and who has in return been lauded by Cronkite, has the best chance of doing so. But he faces an uphill climb.
washingtonpost.com: The End of Trust (Post, July 27)
Howard Kurtz: Not only did Jennings not have the gravitas, he was a flop when he first anchored ABC's news in his 20s and was pulled off the air after three years. It was only after more seasoning, and years as a foreign correspondent, that he became the Jennings we all remember today.
Russert was, indeed, a Democratic insider who had worked for Cuomo and Moynihan. He became an executive at NBC News, occasional panelist on Meet the Press, and then in 1991, the network handed him that program. Russert made an impact from the start, but it took years for him to develop the style that made him into a television force.
Gaithersburg, Md. (but originally from Hawaii): Re: The Birthers.
Howard -- I'm originally from Hawaii. Proudly born in Wahiawa General Hospital and raised in Central Oahu where I lived until graduating college. I'm about the same age as President Obama (born in 1958 vs his 1961) so my birth certificate "experiences" are about the same. My question --
At what point will mainstream media outlets begin to cover "birthers" with the same level of disdain that they would anyone who believes that aliens are beaming signals through their fillings from the planet Krypton?
What is galling is that the MSM only functions as stenographers, not fact reporters and journalists are lazy. So a meme grows based on the "big lie" repetition technique. It's why so many ignorant birthers actually believe what they believe, they have little in the way of fact to counterpoint the conspiracy theorists.
If 'every single' birther-related article would, near the lead, repeat that:
-- The State of Hawaii and it's Republican Governor have determined that Obama was born there.
-- Birth announcement was placed in the Honolulu Advertiser in 1961.
Maybe we can end this foolishness.
And expanding on the thought, it would be useful if reporters actually did fact checking and prominently contradicted inaccuracies and lies early in news stories, not merely put some quote from an opponent of the original spinner (who actually has the facts right) in the middle or end of the story.
I'd once like to see a lead that reads like this:
"Senator X alleged that ____ despite all evidence to the contrary including studies by ____."
Howard Kurtz: I tried to make that point yesterday on Reliable Sources. If people are making ludicrous claims in the face of considerable factual evidence, that should be made crystal clear. In fact, why should the media cover these people at all? Why give them airtime?
Politico's Roger Simon said this on the program: "The most difficult thing for the media to do is divert its eyes from the car wreck, is to not make the clown show go on even longer."
New York: Howard, I always thought that Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer had a pretty high standard for news judgment and down-to-earth delivery akin to Cronkite. Your thoughts?
Howard Kurtz: Sure. But because they were on PBS (where Lehrer continues to anchor the NewsHour), they didn't face the same ratings pressure or need to satisfy advertisers as their counterparts in commercial television.
Great Job: Great Reliable SOurces Show Sunday, enjoyed the rationale thoughts on the overblown Obama/Gates issue in relation to the larger health care issue.
I know, I know Sarah Palin has a lot of support, and is an interesting story, yeah I get it -- but will the coverage every get to any substance? Maybe I am on the Palin, I can't believe it fence -- whereby I think the more she is on TV the better, but I want solid questions and direct engagement with her - it is the only way to truly put an end to this nightmare.
Howard Kurtz: I think there was a lot of substantive reporting on Palin and her record as governor during and even after the presidential campaign. But for the last three weeks, the story has been her abrupt resignation and the reasons she is bailing early on her first term. Several network reporters pressed her on that when she did a round of interviews in Alaska after announcing she was stepping down. There was also some good reporting on the validity of the ethics complaints she cited as a reason for quitting (and, led by blogs, how Palin's claims that this was costing the state big bucks were overblown).
Woodbridge, Va.: Who is Jonathan Capehart at TWP? Is he a reporter? I see him a lot on Morning Joe.
Howard Kurtz: He is an editorial writer.
Munford, Tenn.: Howard
Why was the Professor Gates incident even raised at a presidential press conference, even considering that we have our first black president? Can you imagine FDR or Truman or Eisenhower being asked a similar question, or that they would even respond? There are racially tinged incidents every day in this country; do they all merit presidential notice, or just those involving Harvard professors?
Howard Kurtz: Because it was a major news story and racial controversy that was receiving substantial coverage at the time of Wednesday's presser. And, probably to his regret, Obama had a lot to say about it. It's the president's podium and he easily could have deflected the question, but chose not to.
Kalamazoo, Mich.: Mr. Kurtz,
With regard to the Cambridge/Gates matter, I am curious why the media has given what seems to be only cursory reporting of the support given by black police officers to Officer Crowley. In addition, I am also concerned that the event appears to have become a proxy for anti-police grievances, many of which may be legitimate, but none of which bear on what I see as the question at hand: Did or did not Officer Crowley act appropriately in this case? I may be painting with a broad brush, but I see the media as complicit in this effort to put Crowley on trial for all the sins of the police, real or imagined, which have ever occurred with regard to black citizens. And indeed, the efforts to turn this into a "teachable moment" reveal, at least to me, that not much of this has to do with the actual facts of this specific event.
Also, I want to commend you and John King for your excellent work on Sunday mornings.
Howard Kurtz: I don't think the media have been putting Sgt. Crowley on trial for all past sins involving the police. I do think they were slow to reflect his viewpoint, in part because he wasn't saying much the first couple of days. And while he may be an exemplary human being, the fact that he went too far in handcuffing a middle-aged man who uses a cane is proven, in my view, by the fact that the disorderly conduct charge was quickly dropped.
I have observed a real split among white and black journalists who write and talk about the case. One African-American after another recalls a personal incident in which he was stopped without reason, asked for ID, or treated badly by police. That provides the subtext that we can't forget. Even when white men are hassled by cops, it's not the same. That doesn't mean Crowley was right or wrong in this particular instance, but it helps explain why this one seemingly minor incident has touched such a nerve.
Rockville, Md.: To put Cronkite in the same league as Russert and Jennings is insulting to Cronkite. He was a real reporter who covered the news. Russert -- I'm sorry he died so young -- was not a journalist. Jennings didn't become an American citizen until 2003 although he made his money in the United States. Again I was sorry he died at at a relatively young age but I could not stand to watch the ABC News when he was on. I still cringe at the coverage he did for ABC for the Olympics. Cronkite never came off as a know-it-all the way Jennings did. In addition, Cronkite kept his religion to himself which can't be said for Russert.
The Russert death brought up something else that no one mentions and that is the fact that NBC engaged in some legacy hiring when it brought Russert's son onboard. He's not the first child of a journalist/television personality to be so favored but he should have had to come up the same way other non-related journalists have to work their way up. We could use more affirmative action in the media.
Howard Kurtz: All you're expressing here is your own personal preferences. Peter Jennings was a terrific correspondent and anchor even before he decided to become an American citizen. (Surely you have nothing against Canadians!) Tim Russert was not a lifelong journalist--he began his career as a political operative--but once he made the transition, he was one of the best. And I don't see what Luke Russert's hiring has to do with anything in assessing his father's career.
Long Island, N.Y.: Howard
As always, thanks for the chat.
What are your thoughts on the Erin Andrews peephole video kerfuffle between ESPN and the NY Post?
IMO, it's somewhat disingenuous for CBS and FNC to do stories about how horrible it is for someone to put video of Andrews on the web, but run a blurred out version of the "horrible invasion" video as they are discussing it.
Howard Kurtz: I've been quite critical of the New York Post (and a few other outlets) for running revealing pictures of the nude peephole video of ESPN's Erin Andrews even while decrying this terrible thing that happened to her. To me, that is exploiting the very same nightmare--the woman was alone in her hotel room--that you're supposedly assailing.
Under that circumstance, ESPN has the right to ban New York Post staffers from appearing on the network (even though that penalizes Post reporters and columnists who had nothing to do with the handling of the Andrews story). The Post then retaliated with a Page Six item accusing ESPN of giving the whole mess visibility by demanding that a Web site take down the blurry video of an "unidentified blonde." Problem is, it was widely known on the Net that she was the very identifiable Erin Andrews.
Baltimore, Md.: Hi, Thanks for the chats. I am a longtime and inveterate newspaper reader who greatly appreciates the contributions of serious papers like the Post and NYTimes. I now read these papers exclusively online (except when traveling) as I got tired of carting unread papers out for recycling. I mourn the cuts at the Post and see many of my favorite journalists moving on -- what are the latest thoughts of the Post gurus about a 21st century business model for serious journalism? (I would be happy to pay in some form, but it hasn't materialized yet).
Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I hope there are more like you, and I hope we in the newspaper biz find a way to accept some payment from people who appreciate that serious journalism costs money and are willing to contribute their share.
Kensington, Md.: I'm glad that someone mentioned the News Hour and Jim Lehrer in reference to your Cronkite column.
And while you correctly point out that Lehrer doesn't face the same commercial pressures as a Couric or a Brian Williams, I think it's also fair to say that if more people watched the News Hour instead of the commercial networks and cable, we'd know a lot less about Michael Jackson and a lot more about the forces that are going to be affecting the quality of our lives over the coming years.
Which is a roundabout way of giving a big shoutout to the crew that puts that wonderful News Hour show on the air five nights a week. And I'm sure that Cronkite would agreee.
Howard Kurtz: I think that's a fair observation.
Baltimore, Md.: If you read the column by Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald (it's in today's Baltimore Sun at A reminder for blacks: Too often, we still all look alike (Baltimore Sun, July 27), then you know why President Obama, perhaps too quickly used the word "stupid" to describe the arrest of Henry Louis Gates.
Pitts notes that he was once held at gunpoint by a cop for a traffic violation while driving in a "white neighborhood." I am betting that at some point, the president ran into the same sort of treatment as Pitts and Gates and reacted emotionally to the story.
As a 61 year old white guy raised in semi rural suburbs in the 1950s, I can't imagine what it's like to be stopped for, as the saying goes, "driving while black," but it must get very old, very quickly.
Howard Kurtz: That was the point I was making moments ago. NYT editorial writer Charles Blow had a piece Saturday in which he recalled being stopped by police while in college and being told by the officer that he could shoot Blow and his friend dead and leave them lying in the road and no one would question it.
I believe there are far fewer racists on police forces around the country than was the case decades ago, when these forces were predominantly white. But it's that history that makes me wonder why James Crowley couldn't have dealt with Gates, even if the professor was angry and out of line, without hauling him off to jail.
Middle-aged man who uses a cane: Are exempt from arrest? In whose book? Which Constitutional protection is that?
BTW: handcuffs are part and parcel of arrest. You must not watch crime shows on TV.
Howard Kurtz: Of COURSE they're not exempt from arrest. But for what? Mouthing off to a cop? Disorderly conduct is kind of a catch-all charge that can mean anything an officer wants it to mean. The NYT had an interesting set of interviews with officers around the country. Some said they have to arrest people who engage in verbal abuse to maintain control over the community. Others said they just walk away when the abuse is directed solely at them, because it's their presence (assuming no crime is being committed) that is inflaming the situation.
New York : I remember something about Cronkite that got little mention during the eulogies: when he saw something terrible, he got angry about it and just said it. During the '68 convention, when Mayor Daly's people went on a rampage and started roughing up Dan Rather -- on camera, no less -- on the convention floor, Cronkite got very angry and said, on the air, "They look like a bunch of thugs to me." Daly went on the air later and made nice, but it was a memorable moment of truth. None of that "on the one hand/on the other hand" garbage, which curses us today, for Walter.
Howard Kurtz: That was a particularly powerful moment because Cronkite did it so rarely. But his longtime producer, Sandy Socolow, said at last week's funeral that Cronkite was embarrassed afterward and chided himself for losing it on the air.
NYC: Do you think it will ever stop being acceptable and fashionable to bash the media? I'm so tired of it. And not because I feel the need to defend the media, but because blaming the media seems to be such a weak, knee-jerk reaction to anything.
No one ever loses points by blaming the media, yet they never have to do anything about it.
The worst thing, is that the media seems to relish this. All the self-flagellating, "oh we're so horrible" only feeds more into this scapegoatism.
Howard Kurtz: Trust me: we don't relish it. But constructive criticism is good. Reflexive bashing driven by emotion or ideology, not so much. But it's a free country. The First Amendment isn't just for card-carrying journalists.
Washington, D.C.: Do you have any idea what Palin was referring to when she asked the media to stop making things up?
And does she still not get that the reason the media zoomed in on her was because she was running for VP, and for no other reason? She warned the media not to hassle the new gov's family -- as though the national media always guns for the governor of Alaska.
Howard Kurtz: NO idea. I mean, Palin in the past has complained about the media scrutiny of her family and rumors (most of which circulated online but were never published) that Trig wasn't her baby, etc. But in her resignation speech yesterday, she said the big bad media should honor soldiers who are fighting for this country by no longer making stuff up. Was there a connection? She didn't elaborate.
The ex-governor can certainly excite her base by continuing to chastise the press, but I think at some point she has to move on and talk about larger ideas for the country.
Rochester, N.H.: Does anyone know where Keith Olberman is? He hasn't been on Countdown in weeks.
Howard Kurtz: Let's see. It's July. I'm going to speculate that he's...on vacation.
Knoxville, Tenn.: The average length of employment for a White House Press secretary is 18 months, but you never know, it's a recession.
Do you think Robert Gibbs will leave earlier or stay longer? What will Robert Gibbs do with himself afterwards since he seems so put off by punditry? Any thoughts on the replacement (before you say it's too early, Sarah Palin 2012 talk is all the rage right now)
Howard Kurtz: Gibbs has been on the job six months, and I'm supposed to speculate about his successor?
I don't know how long he'll stay. Those are high-burnout jobs. But he grew close to Obama during his years of service on the Hill and in the campaign, so I suspect he'll be around for awhile.
West Bend, N.C.: Mr. Kurtz, about the reporting on the Gates arrest: Gates arrested July 16 Story breaks July 20/21 Today July 27 911 caller identified and states she did not mention race in her call.
Has anyone interviewed the Cab/Limo driver? If not, why not? I would think he would be able to discuss the events(helping Gates get in his house, etc.) and Prof. Gates demeanor even if he had left the scene by the time Sgt. Crowley arrived.
Howard Kurtz: I presume the Boston media have tried to interview him -- unless they don't have his name.
San Diego, Calif.: Wasn't Edward R. Murrow a much greater figure in journalism than Cronkite? Murrow spoke truth to power which Cronkite rarley if ever did...
Howard Kurtz: Apples and oranges. Cronkite was a nightly news anchor. Murrow did weekly programs and documentaries with a point of view (and at one point hosted an entertainment show where he interviewed the likes of Marilyn Monroe).
Besides, Cronkite did challenge the establishment on two very important occasions: His conclusion that the Vietnam War was a stalemate, and the 14-minute piece he ran on Watergate before Nixon's reelection, at a time when the scandal was barely a television story.
Cronkite: What I don't understand is why didn't CBS want to air a Cronkite retro on Thursday when his funeral occurred? By them doing it last Sunday was missed by many viewers. Many listings said 60 Minutes was to air so people who regularly program 60 minutes to tape on their DVRs may have lost it as well as others who don't watch 60 Minutes but would have watched Cronkite also lost out.
Howard Kurtz: The story was more newsworthy on that Sunday (Cronkite had died Friday night) than at the end of that week. But more than that, CBS could take what was a news hour (the 60 Minutes time slot) to air the tribute. On Thursday night, the network would have had to preempt one of its lucrative entertainment shows.
New York, N.Y.: Howard:
The Ann Arbor News in Michigan published its final issue last week, turning a 1-newspaper town into a no newspaper town. Earlier this year, other cities went from 2 newspapers to 1 newspaper,(for example, Denver and Seattle).
How much longer do you think it will be before more small and medium sized cities are left without a daily newspaper?
Howard Kurtz: Sadly, I think it's inevitable that there will be more.
NYC: In a Time poll from last week, Jon Stewart got the highest percentage of votes for "most trusted newsman" over any of the main network or cable network news anchors. What do you think of this? Like Cronkite, Stewart and Colbert seem to be honest -- which is more than I can say for Tapper, Gregory and co. squabbling over an exclusive with Gov. Sanford.
Howard Kurtz: The poll is meaningless because it's an online poll, not a random survey. So it's nothing but a gimmick by Time.
Also, it's a bit of an unfair competition to compare Stewart, a satirist and comedian, to news anchors whose job is to report and package the news but are not in the opinion business.
Having said that, I've written a number of times that Jon Stewart is an incisive critic who deftly uses humor and videotape to expose the absurdity of what many politicians and journalists do. And he's had an impact on real journalists. Two of the network newscasts have played clips from the Daily Show (as I have numerous times on CNN to make a point, even if we did poke fun at the poll yesterday by showing him dozing off face-first into a pie). More important, news programs have mimicked the Stewart technique of playing videotape to show that a public figure is a)changing his position, b)using talking points, or c) making no sense. And that's a valuable contribution.
Time for my moment of Zen. Thanks for chatting.
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