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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, August 10, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Aug. 10 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and and press coverage of the news.

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Today's Column: An Old-Fashioned Web Site

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Portland, Ore.: Is there a point when the media should simply say a politician is wrong? I ask in reference to Sarah Palin's "death panel" comment. It's an absurd and irresponsible statement, but how does the media avoid treating it as a legitimate argument?

Even the stories that tried to refute her could only do so weakly. For instance, "Palin said this, Democrats denied it. A non-partisan group that 99 percent of America has never heard of says Palin is wrong." Thus, people readers come away with the idea that "Obama's death panels" might actually be in the bill, because a high-profile name said they were. How about: "Palin said Obama wants to decide if her baby should live. However, nowhere in the bill is there anything even remotely resembling what she's talking about. Palin was asked to provide proof, but couldn't do so."

Howard Kurtz: Yes, there is a point where the media should say a politician is wrong, and this is the point. There may or may not be a legitimate discussion about the end-of-life counseling in the Obama health plan (which is voluntary, by the way) and whether it is intrusive. It's a long way from that to "death panels," even by the loose rhetorical standards of modern politics. I was surprised that the ex-governor's Facebook comments didn't get much pickup at first, though that is starting to change in the last couple of days. As I noted in this morning's column, wasn't it Sarah Palin who demanded that journalists "quick making things up"?

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Wheaton, Md.: Howard, why is no one calling for Sarah Palin to apologize for her comments on her Facebook page -- to paraphrase "Obama's death panel would decide Trig's fate." This is about as outrageous as it gets. Is she getting this from Rush or Beck?

When is the press going to jump on this? She needs to take her own advice and "Stop making things up".

Howard Kurtz: Maureen Dowd mentioned it, and it came up on a Sunday show or two. But I guess being an ex-governor means not having to say you're sorry. And I was surprised she brought Trig into it, given her scolding of the press for its coverage of her family.

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Kingston, N.Y.: Howie, I was surprised yesterday, when you pointed out that one of your guests consistently mentioned the LEFT wing media, but that doesn't bother me as much as when a host seems to push his own agenda with non-neutral terms. I listened to Obama's response to the unemployment figures released last week. It seemed pretty bland and he cautiously said we might be heading in the right direction. By Sunday, this was interpreted by several hosts as "was he jumping the gun," "taking credit" or "too positive" as they questioned a variety of talking heads. By the same token, Clinton's trip to N. Korea was reinvented as trying to usurp his wife or the administration and was finally relegated to a non-story because his actions didn't provide a new story. Could this be why the media gets such poor grades when it comes to trust? What happened to straight news? Maybe we have too many "experts."

Howard Kurtz: Some hosts push agendas, but overall the media love to keep stirring the pot and reducing everything to melodrama. The Clinton example was particularly egregious. First, all the media predictions when Hillary was nominated that Bill would wind up overshadowing his wife turned out to be wrong. So the Obama White House ASKS him to go to North Korea to arrange the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, he does it, doesn't even speak when they landed for that emotional family reunion at the airport, and cable hosts kept saying: "Is Bill upstaging Hillary?" I found that rather ridiculous.

As for yesterday's "Reliable Sources," it was S.E. Cupp, a conservative author, who kept tossing around the phrase liberal media. When I pressed her, she cited remarks by Keith Olbermann and Paul Krugman, who are, of course, liberal commentators. That means they're in a very different category than working reporters.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

A few years ago, a random Internet user posted a video linking Bush to Hitler in an ad contest on MoveOn.org. The ad was quickly removed when it was located.

This was followed by a week's worth of coverage and calls for apologies by almost the entire conservative movement and the media.

You even wrote an entire article about it that was in the dead tree version.

Last week, Rush Limbaugh made an even more direct comparison of our president to Nazis.

Why do you think the media, including The Washington Post has not had the same level of outrage, call for apologies, and asking politicians to distance themselves?

This is not a blame the media question. I actually think it may be because Democrats haven't pushed the issue. Is that the true basis for news judgments, i.e. only continue reporting if the opposition pushes the story?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. Rush did it twice, comparing Obama's governing style to that of Hitler and saying the health care reform logo resembled a Nazi swastika (I asked White House spokeswoman Linda Douglass about the latter comment on my CNN program yesterday.) Maybe Limbaugh has said so many controversial things in the past six months that the left no longer feels the need to challenge each one.

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Princeton, N.J.: This is from FAIR:

"Many experts see single-payer national health insurance as the most sensible solution to expand coverage to the uninsured and to reduce costs. This proposal polls well with the public, who preferred it two-to-one over a privatized system in a recent survey (New York Times/CBS, 1/11-15/09). It is also preferred by 59 percent of physicians, according to a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (4/1/08).

Yet a recent study by FAIR found that of hundreds of stories about health care in major outlets earlier this year, only five stories included the views of advocates of single-payer -- none of which appeared on the television networks.

The insurance lobbies and many politicians may not want to talk about single-payer. But that makes it all the more important that the media do."

How would you rate the Post's coverage of single payer? D or F?

Howard Kurtz: I think the reality is, we are engaged in a titanic battle over health care reform, and a single-payer system is not part of the debate because Obama has gone in a different direction. Single-payer may or may not be a great idea, but the political reality is that it is not going to even come to a vote in Congress, let alone pass, and so the media are focusing their attention on the proposals that might actually pass.

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Arlington, Va.: On This Week on ABC yesterday, we had Newt Gingrich as one of the interviewees along with Howard Dean. Other weeks on the same program, Gingrich is a member of the panel with George, Cokie, and whomever. I presume he was interviewed because it is August and he was available, but it strikes me as somewhat strange.

Howard Kurtz: As long as he is balanced by liberal voices, I don't see what is strange about it. He's the former speaker of the House, just as Dean is a former governor, presidential candidate and DNC chairman. Plus, producers love Newt because he says things that make news.

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Newark, N.J.: While I think the Birthers story will die down, I feel it's always going to under the surfaces. This won't die and were just one more YouTube.com clip of a similar event to that town hall in Georgetown, Del., with a cousin of "Crazy Eileen" (yes, that is actually her real nickname; look it up) and a crowd yelling about our Kenyan-Indonesian-anything but American president to bring this back into the spotlight on a slow news week.

Howard Kurtz: The media can only control their own behavior, not whispering campaigns and YouTube clips. I am baffled why this fringe of a fringe, arguing something that has factually been disproven, has gotten as much attention as it has. Lately, liberal programs have spent more time on the birthers than conservative ones, in an effort to spotlight what they view as craziness on the right.

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but overall the media love to keep stirring the pot and reducing everything to melodrama.: So please, tell them to STOP! Maybe then they can regain our trust.

Howard Kurtz: Okay, I'll send out a mass e-mail.

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Don Imus Was Fired For Much Less...: As you know, Glenn Beck said that President Obama has a "deep-seated hatred of white people." He also made a "joke" about poisoning Nancy Pelosi. Don Imus was fired for much less. Why do Beck and his allies who have made similar ridiculous comments get free rides?

Howard Kurtz: I hardly think Beck has gotten a free ride. Plenty of commentators denounced his "racist" charge, and it was debated on all sorts of programs, including mine. If he had tried to argue that the president made a racist STATEMENT in blaming the Cambridge police and assuming his African-American buddy was in the right, I wouldn't agree, but it would be within the bounds of debate. To argue that a man with a white mother, who won the presidency in part by running as a racial healer, has a deep-seated hatred of white people, seems impossible to defend. Unless the goal is to get people talking about Glenn Beck.

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Oklahoma City, Okla.: QUOTE: "Maybe Limbaugh has said so many controversial things in the past six months that the left no longer feels the need to challenge each one."

As opposed to "Bush 43 as Adolf Hitler" being completely different from the usual straight-laced politeness of anonymous bloggers? Did that really explain away the clear double standard?

Howard Kurtz: If it were up to me, I would retire all Hitler and Nazi references from our political discourse. It just seems to trivialize the murderous regime that was responsible for the Holocaust, in an effort to score points in this or that debate. It's overkill and it's offensive.

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Rockville, Md.: When does it become acceptable for a news agency to use "fatigue" as a reason for not covering major events? For instance, the war in Afghanistan. My interest in the war is not per se political, I just happen to run across a good number of people who live there or recently left there in my line of work. The lack of coverage (both positive and negative) is astounding.

Howard Kurtz: "Fatigue" is another way of media people saying they think the public has lost interest in this or that story, so continuing to heavily pursue it would lead to declining ratings or circulation. And it's a label that seems to be most frequently applied to war. I started writing about Iraq fatigue when, several years into that conflict, it started fading from the network newscasts and front pages, and some news organizations reduced or closed their Baghdad bureaus. Now, with the Obama administration escalating in Afghanistan, some executives cite the more generalized explanation of war fatigue. There are very few American journalists in Kabul at any given time, and yet it remains a vitally important story.

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Reston, Va.: Nothing of value to add to the conversation today, but I got a good chuckle looking at the chat schedule today and seeing Howard Kurtz and The World of Death Metal lined up on top of each other...

You're the man, Howie, but I can't think of anyone who is soooo not part of the World of Death Metal. Cheers!

Howard Kurtz: In that case, I need to kick some death metal butt.

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Bethesda, Md.: What percentage of people listen to Rush Limbaugh's radio program? Like 25 percent of the U.S. population or like 1 percent. What kind of numbers does he have?

Howard Kurtz: He's on 600 stations and has a weekly audience somewhere in the range of 15 million-plus--by far the biggest audience in radio land.

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Cameron, N.C.: I use my TV to watch sports and DIY programs. I get my news from WaPo and NYT. I feel I am very well informed so when I see people complaining about stories I have read about not receiving coverage I have to wonder why. Are these people depending on co-workers or network news for their info? How can they expect to be informed if they don't make time to do it themselves.

Howard Kurtz: Dunno. I do notice a lot of "Why Haven't the Media Covered X?" complaints, and when I check, it was often on the front page of a major newspaper or on a nightly newscast. Sometimes people miss things, sometimes they don't like the way something is being covered, and sometimes they want a daily drumbeat of coverage that matches their own intense interest in the subject.

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Newt: "producers love Newt because he says things that make news." So all one has to do in order to be asked back is to say something outrageous like "show us his birth certificate" or "death panel?" This really does not speak well for TV journalism.

Howard Kurtz: Not exactly. It helps to have held a highly visible national office. But this goes back to the days of "Crossfire"--politicians who said inflammatory things, or liked to mix it up rhetorically, got invited back far more often than those who were low-key and cautious. The sound-bite culture created an incentive for pols to make attention grabbing comments that would get them on the news. And it became a chicken-and-egg cycle.

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Boston, Mass.: There have been a series of polls out in the last 2 weeks that show Americans are deeply confused by the health-reform bills in Congress (including that there are five bills, not just one). I hear people on the news saying that this is Obama's fault for not explaining it well enough to the public. But I find it ironic that 'reporters' think that it's 'Obama's' job to explain the various bills. What do they think they are getting paid to do? Obama needs to advocate for his plan, but it seems to be that basic education about the plans belongs to the media and of course, the public itself. (Mandatory disclaimer -- The Post has done some very nice, in-depth reviews of the bills. But obviously this issue is not be explained well to the public at large). What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: I would say both are true. The media have a responsibility to explain the intricacies of the competing plans, as well as the cost of doing nothing. (And I think, at least before the town halls swallowed the debate, they've done a decent job, especially the major newspapers and such efforts as Time's cover story on health care. ABC also devoted 90 minutes to that health care town hall with Obama.)

It's also the president's responsibility to sell his plan, just as George W. Bush tried--and failed--to convince the public that partially privatizing Social Security was the way to go. If a president rolls out a complex proposal that would affect a sixth of the economy and hurt some powerful special interests, it is not going to pass unless he marshals sufficient public support.

One thing working against Obama, as it did against Clinton, is the sheer sweep and complexity of his proposal. Anything that requires a thousand-page bill is going to provide plenty of targets for critics and lobbyists.

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Baton Rouge, La.: Howard Kurtz: Dunno. I do notice a lot of "Why Haven't the Media Covered X?" complaints, and when I check, it was often on the front page of a major newspaper or on a nightly newscast. Sometimes people miss things, sometimes they don't like the way something is being covered, and sometimes they want a daily drumbeat of coverage that matches their own intense interest in the subject.

There's a difference between a story appearing once in a newspaper and then disappearing down the memory hole. There's the news and then there's the "talking about the news" that's done on talk radio and all of the cable shows. I think what people are complaining about is why some stories get traction and are talked about in the larger media and why some aren't.

Howard Kurtz: The traction question is a fair one. But I'm saying that for a major newspaper or magazine to do a lengthy piece on something means, by definition, it is not being ignored, even if it hasn't become prime fodder for cable debates. If that's the standard, Michael Jackson has probably been the biggest story of the year.

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Mass e-mail: Rather than sending out that mass e-mail I think your readers would settle for calling people like Limbaugh, Hannity or Beck and question why they say things that they do. If not you, is there another reporter at The Post who does this type of media coverage story?

Howard Kurtz: I should only call Hannity, Beck and Limbaugh? No liberals?

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Baltimore, Md.: Re Glenn Beck getting away with it: I believe Keith Olbermann named several sponsors who have canceled their ads on Beck's show as a result of his latest off the wall pronouncements. Do you know if that really happened? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Yes. It's been reported that three sponsors pulled out of Glenn Beck's Fox News show in the aftermath of the "racist" comment. I don't know what percentage of his advertisers that represents.

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Louisville, Colo.: You have written and talked about "horse-race" coverage many times but it's still frustrating to watch. Approximately 95 percent of the TV coverage about health-care legislation boils down to "will it pass or won't it".

The coverage of the the actual substance of the proposed legislation continues to be minimal. Is it just too much work to find out what is actually in the legislation?

Howard Kurtz: You know, I think that's a bum rap. I could point you to literally dozens and dozens of stories in the NYT, WP, LAT, WSJ and even on television that deals with the substance of the legislation.

I also think the "horse race" coverage has not been so much about whether a bill will pass -- though that is part of it -- as about what kind of bill will pass if something gets through. For example, the centrist alternative being hammered out by a small group on the Senate Finance Committee, led by Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley, will have a major impact on the congressional debate. So is the argument between House liberals and the Blue Dog Democrats. That may sound like inside baseball, but it's way that legislation sausage-making works. And it's also being fought over serious public policy questions: Should there be a public insurance option or some kind of co-ops? Are there enough cost controls in the bill? Do you pay for covering the uninsured in part by taxing the rich, or taxing the so-called Cadillac insurance plans?

That, to me, has more depth than just which horse is going to win the race.

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Houston, Tex.: That being said (it's a BIG bill) -- as a project manager, I break things down into easily completed units. Couldn't health-care reform be accomplished this way and be easier to explain?

Howard Kurtz: The debate is starting to move in that direction: Did Obama bite off more than he could chew (or Congress could swallow), and should he scale back by trying to get certain reforms through, such as no turning down people for preexisting conditions and allowing insurance plans to follow workers from job to job. The administration, of course, wants to salvage as much of its original proposal as possible.

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New York: Howard, I'm posting early before I forget my question. I was intrigued by the suggestion, reported in your column, that lefty journalists are pumping up the birther story coverage to conflate conservatives with the ever-nuttier GOP fringe. I've found sometimes that I just have to turn off Rachel or Keith because, frankly, they're depressing me with all the exposure to these wacko theories. As a result, I go back and forth about whether the coverage is necessary: Am I burying my head in the sand? Or is the coverage itself now over the top? Your thoughts? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: It's an interesting question. I've done media coverage of the birthers on my program. I think it's fair, and perhaps necessary, to take a whack at it a couple of times. But should it be on night after night for several weeks? Is this fringe movement that refuses to accept the documentation that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 really worth that much coverage? Not in my book.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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