Howard Kurtz Discusses the Media and Press Coverage of the News

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, August 3, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Aug. 3 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and and press coverage of the news.

Today's Column: Rahm Pushes the Networks (Post, Aug. 3)

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Arlington, Va.: How much is Dan Balz's publisher paying The Post for what is essentially a series of page 1 advertisements for his new book? Why did Mr. Balz not report most of what's in his book during the campaign? Isn't that what The Post and its readers pay him to do? Besides making money, what purpose is served by saving many of these issues until after the election? The next time I read a report authored by Mr. Balz, I'll wonder what he's not saying because he wants to save it for his next book. As the content of the Post continues to shrink, you're doing a good job of infuriating your remaining readers by saving your best reporting for a book.

Howard Kurtz: This is a question that always comes up when The Post runs book excerpts; I've faced it myself. Obviously it's great exposure for the authors, but also great value for Washington Post readers. I'm frankly impressed that Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson were able to mine so much new material from a campaign that was so intensively covered and has been the subject of earlier books.

As for the why-didn't-they-tell-us-sooner question, here's what you're not getting. When you tell sources in the middle of a campaign that the material won't be published until afterward, you get a far greater level of candor. Obama, Axelrod, McCain aides and others simply wouldn't have told Balz and Johnson what they did if it was for the next day's paper. Also, they obviously did more reporting after the campaign and needed time to synthesize their material. Anecdotes that might have been merely okay at the time (say, how Palin was picked in a hurry) become much richer when you can put them in a broader narrative that reflects how things turned out.

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Boston, Mass.: Will there ever be a hard fact in America again? If over 50 percent of Republicans don't believe Obama was born in the U.S. (after reading Drudge or even listening to Dobbs) how can we expect Americans to even agree to any base fact to have debates about our democracy?

Howard Kurtz: It was a Daily Kos poll, and 58 percent of Republicans said they either didn't believe Obama was born in America or didn't know. Even if that survey is off by, say, 10 points, that's still a disturbing figure, given the documentary evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961. Or maybe his mother placed bogus birth announcements in two Hawaii papers in case her baby wanted to run for president in 45 years.

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Vienna, Va.: The unproductive flap over the Gates arrest that was made worse by President Obama when he unnecessarily weighed into the issue is being characterized by bloggers as a pre-planned response to a "planted" question. And the NY Times (July 24)states, "Mr. Obama first discussed with aides how to address the arrest during a meeting before his Wednesday news conference." What's your take on this?

Howard Kurtz: Totally false. I excerpted a column by Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times last week (see below) in which she said that was a fabrication. She thought of the question while on the treadmill and didn't tell anyone. Sweet is an aggressive reporter who hasn't been easy on Obama.

As for Obama's prep, every president, before every news conference, does a pre-briefing where aides ask him every question they think might come up and he practices his answers. They would be crazy not to. So Obama had decided in advance to tackle the Gates question if it came up--a decision he may well have regretted.

http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/07/29/ann-coulter-michelle-malkin-looking-wrong-place-for-obama-gates/

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Mr. Kurtz. Regarding, um, Gatesgate, has there been much coverage on the errors in Crowley's police report, or the requests and statements he made on the tape of the incident? I haven't seen much personally, but maybe I missed something.

Howard Kurtz: We still don't know all the details, but one error in the police report did draw some coverage: The woman who made the 911 call did not identify the potential intruders as black. The tape of the call backs her up on this, and she, understandably, feels unfairly maligned.

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College Park, Md.: Everyone was jumping on some sort of bandwagon in regards to the Gates arrest -- people either sided with the cop or with Gates or understood the actions of both, and everyone seems to agree the president really had no business commenting considering his friendship with Gates and his lack of knowledge about the incident.

What about the responsibility of the reporter asking the question? It seems like a tacky thing to ask about something completely unrelated to the subject at hand, and this reporter did the nation a disservice by managing to turn the subject away from the national discussion about health care (which was the point of the press conference, and, regardless of my feelings for or against Obama's plan, I think the dialogue needs to take place) and focus it on this one guy getting arrested for nearly a week.

Will this incident give pause to reporters intending to ask about topics other than what a press conference is supposed to cover?

Howard Kurtz: Tacky? I couldn't disagree more. The Gates arrest was receiving plenty of media coverage. Obama is a friend of Gates, as well as the first African-American president. Whatever he said would have been news. It was the last question after a whole series of health care questions.

As for the alleged distraction, the president could easily have said he didn't want to comment because it was an ongoing case, or because Skip Gates is his friend, or that it was a local matter. Instead, he said the Cambridge police acted "stupidly," and spent the next two days walking that back.

By the way, reporters get to ask anything they want at news conferences, not just the topic or topics that the president would prefer. And unexpected queries often produce the most revealing answers. I'm reminded of John Dickerson, then with Time, asking President Bush if he had made a mistake, and Bush's inability to name one.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard, it seems that many of the talk shows are now going to panels of 5 or more people which often leads to limited air time for all guests and a disjointed discussion. I used to like when This Week had George, Cokie and Sam. Now it is a verbal free-for-all on all the shows. Why the change and do you agree?

Howard Kurtz: Five seems to me too many, but it's a decision every host has to make, based in part on the allotted time. I prefer panels of three but have occasionally gone with four if I wanted to get another strong voice, the topic was important enough and I had additional minutes so that everyone could make a contribution rather than just look like the folks on Hollywood Squares.

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Connecticut: Wow, did you read the ombudsman column in the NYT this week? Talk about watching the sausage made. I came away thinking that NYT reporter throw together a bunch of half-baked facts hoping the copy editors will fact-check everything. No other news organization in the country would tolerate such sloppiness, it's safe to say.

washingtonpost.com: How Did This Happen? (The New York Times, Aug. 2)

Howard Kurtz: There was plenty of blame to go around with Alessandra Stanley's Cronkite appreciation, from the reporter herself (who was on deadline with another story) to several editors who failed to catch most of the mistakes. Clark Hoyt did a nice job of unraveling it, underscoring the value of having an ombudman (which the NYT did not until the Jayson Blair fiasco).

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New York, N.Y.: Do you agree with Glenn Greenwald, that when MSNBC lets Richard Wolffe guest host for Olbermann that they give "an hour every night to a corporate lobbyist"? After all, Wolffe has been working for Dan Bartlet's Public Strategies, Inc., since March (and quit Newsweek to do so). Do you see any conflict there? Shouldn't MSNBC disclose this conflict to viewers?

Howard Kurtz: I think all networks should disclose when guests (or guest hosts) are working for corporations, lobbying firms or PR outfits so viewers can take that into account.

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Kingston, N.Y.: Howie, how much do the CNN hosts control the format of their shows? Many of the shows spend most of the time telling you what is coming up, repeating the same news clip ad nauseum or asking their guests to keep it short and rushing from topic to topic with the same questions seemingly aimed at creating news rather than reporting it. Then you have GPS which is on a far more serious note as Fareed interviews in-depth; Larry King who seems to have more, but shorter commercial break and Lou Dobbs who dances to his own tune. Do these hosts make special arrangements with the station? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Cable news hosts have a great deal of influence over the content of their shows, but they all work with producers and they all have to live with time limits. As for replaying the same clips, keep in mind that the average viewer watches for something like 10 to 12 minutes (depending on the time of day and the cable channel). So executives want to keep providing news updates for those who are just tuning in, even though it may seem repetitive to those who have been watching for an hour or two.

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Dallas, Tex.: Can you confirm or comment on the allegations that ESPN is not reporting on the rape allegations and pending civil litigation against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger? I read on a blog that ESPN is not covering this story because they don't want to alienate the Steeler Nation. I don't watch enough ESPN to know if this is true or not.

Howard Kurtz: It was initially true. ESPN decided not to cover the accusation by a woman that Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her a year ago because there was no criminal case; she made the charge, denied by the quarterback, in a civil suit. The sports network even told its talk show hosts not to discuss the matter. This was an untenable decision, with so many other news organizations reporting the story and Roethlisberger even making a video statement of his denial, and ESPN reversed course a couple of days later and has been reporting on the story.

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Savannah, Ga.: In Afghanistan 41 U.S. soldiers were killed in the month of July including two on Friday. This was the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the war began. I'm curious why you think this fact and the continuous deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq don't make headlines in the papers anymore? When Bush was in office every death in either Afghanistan or Iraq was front page news.

Howard Kurtz: I think the media are under covering both wars, but not because of the change in administration. There is a sense of war fatigue, and in an era of media cutbacks, there are fewer correspondents in those war zones, especially Afghanistan. With Iraq, there is a sense that the U.S. involvement is winding down (though 130,000 troops remain), especially with the pullback from major cities and the schedule for withdrawal by next year. But this administration is escalating the war in Afghanistan, sending more troops, and yet the coverage remains meager, especially on television.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Yet another birther question. After looking at the latest LARGE FONT Huffington post story about the Lou Dobbs ad set to run on CNN tonight, it does seem to me that it is in the interests of left-leaning blogs and commentators to keep the birther story alive by labeling Republican legislators as nutty extremists. This helps to further push the belief that the Republican party is out step with mainstream American beliefs and values.

Your thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: TheHuffingtonPost

Howard Kurtz: As with every other issue on the planet, both sides are trying to exploit it. You have a number of Republican members of Congress who are sponsoring legislation to require presidential candidates to produce their birth certificates -- a clear shot at Obama and a bow to the birthers. And you have liberal commentators trying to tar the entire conservative movement with the views of this fringe, when a number of right-wing pundits have denounced the birthers. My own view is that the media have given this trumped-up controversy entirely too much attention, given that the facts are clear that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961.

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Springfield, Va.: How much does it cost the networks in lost ad sales to televise the president's prime-time press conferences? Except for the Gates answer, the last one was mostly scripted responses that could have come from any town hall event the president has held on health care. Are the networks that offer the president this free, scripted coverage then morally obligated to provide similar access to the opposition party?

Howard Kurtz: As I report this morning, Rahm Emanuel called the chief executives of Disney, General Electric and CBS Corp. (owners of the networks) to help persuade them to carry Obama's most recent prime-time presser. This was Obama's fourth evening news conference in six months, compared to four in eight years for George W.

Network executives tell me that they lose $3 million to $5 million for each hour of prime time they preempt for a commercial-free hour of the president taking questions from the press. That adds up to at least $40 million in lost revenue for the networks so far this year.

As for the "scripted" responses, all presidents rehearse their answers in advance as opposed to winging it. But it's certainly fair to say that Obama made almost no news at his July 22 press conference--until, of course, that last question about the Gates arrest.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/02/AR2009080202045.html

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Baltimore, Md.: Regarding the Gates incident, while people comment on one side or the other, what would have happened if Gates was not a prominent person? Would he now be sitting in jail? Has the media investigated to see if that officer or other officers have arrested others for inciting the same "tumultuous" behavior?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think most people arrested for disorderly conduct wind up serving jail sentences. But the whole point of the Gates controversy is that if he hadn't been a prominent Harvard professor, the incident would have gone unnoticed, rating not a single paragraph in the Boston Globe. I think both men overreacted -- Gates by mouthing off to the officer, Crowley by insisting on arresting a man in his own home -- but the context here is that many African-Americans feel they have been unduly hassled by police for decades.

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Atlanta, Ga.: It seems to me that one reason the networks have been so happy to carry Obama is that the Bush administration was so cold to the press. They got excited about Obama's availability and started to go a little overboard, and only now are they deciding it might not be worth it to them.

Howard Kurtz: It's about ratings, not warmth. Given the huge public interest in Obama (not to mention Michelle), he's been seen as good for ratings. That's why he's been on Leno, ESPN, 60 Minutes, taped a bit for the Colbert Report, etc. Bush was not as enamored of television; he, for instance, turned down a couple of town hall meetings proposed by ABC, which got Obama to agree to do 90 minutes on health care.

But the economics are very different when the White House is asking the broadcast networks to give up a lucrative hour of prime time. I suspect that either the administration won't ask again for awhile, or one or more of the networks may join Fox next time in taking a pass.

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Richmond, Va.: I know a lot of the major newspapers has ombudsmen but do the cable news networks have them as well?

Howard Kurtz: Short answer: no. And fewer than 30 American newspapers employ ombudsmen; several have been laid off during the recent downturn.

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Houston, Tex.: Howard, No comment on the Times article that reported the heads of GE and Fox got together and banned the Olbermann/O'Reilly feud because it was bad for the overall corporate interest? What GE corporate interests were hurt? MSNBC's ratings were up because of this.

Howard Kurtz: I had a front-page piece last year about how the top executives of Fox, NBC and General Electric had tried, and failed, to negotiate an O'Reilly/Olbermann truce. I'm skeptical that this cease-fire will last. Keith Olbermann says he's not part of any deal. He announced after George Tiller's murder that he regarded O'Reilly's role in whipping up anti-Tiller sentiment to be so serious that he was retiring the Bill-O caricature and would no longer take semi-joking potshots at him. He may also have felt that, for now, the O'Reilly attacks had run their course. I think Keith will have occasion to take on Bill again. O'Reilly, for his part, never mentions Olbermann by name, but I have no doubt that he will continue to hammer NBC and MSNBC as Olbermann proxies. So we'll see how long this lasts.

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Washington: Howard: Were Milbank and Cillizza reprimanded? Should they be? Are they even reporters or do you consider them to be commentators? I ask because I wonder what kind of editing their videos get? Is it the same as their columns? Is there an editor for The Fix, or Mouthpiece Theater?

Howard Kurtz: Everyone here has an editor or supervisor. Milbank is a columnist who does plenty of reporting; Cillizza is both a reporter and blogger. They are two smart guys who did a dumb thing. Chris apologized on his Twitter feed. The Post has taken down the video with the offending crack at Hillary, saying it was inappropriate. I'm all for having fun with the news, but this unfunny bit clearly crossed a line.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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