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Howard Kurtz Discusses the Death of Robert Novak and Analyzes the Media

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, August 18, 2009 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Tuesday, Aug. 18 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and and press coverage of the news.

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Austin, Tex.: Howie,

How many articles you guys gonna feature this week that tell us the economy's looking up, wait no it isn't, wait maybe it is but not for all of us, signs point up-down- sideways?

Criminy. It's like getting play-by-play from a pinball machine. Either admit no one knows anything, or maybe -- just maybe -- take a slightly deeper and longer view of things? All the breathless coverage makes your paper appear no more in touch with the facts that the Cramers of the world we vilify.)

Howard Kurtz: Would you rather we trumpet a simplistic view of the world?

The so-called experts never completely agree about the state of the economy. But this is a particularly tough situation to figure out. There are signs of recovery, but unemployment remains high; the big banks are posting big profits, but they've still got all those toxic assets on the books; housing is showing signs of life but foreclosures remain sky high, and on and on. All we can do is try to put together pieces of the puzzle, day by day.

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Waterford, Conn.: One thing both the left and the right agree upon is that the mainstream media is biased in favor of the other side. The problem is expectation. Each side wants coverage boosting their position and castigating the other guy's. The so-called swing voter usually isn't paying much attention to ideological disputes about anything, including media bias. So, they go with the flow. They, too, will charge media bias without bothering to spend much time figuring out the details. I see no alternative but for the news media to continue what they're doing and let the chips fall where they may.

Howard Kurtz: It's not that every charge of bias is untrue, but there's little question in my mind that both sides are particularly unhappy with the news business these days and see journalists as unfair, untrustworthy and tilted toward the other side.

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Matthews, N.C.: I know I can't be the only person to have canceled my subscription to Newsweek after the format changes. Do you know how this has affected the magazine's subscriber base and if it is meeting expectations? My personal belief is that they should have started a new magazine first to see the demand. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what if any impact there has been on Newsweek's circulation, but all magazines are trying to adapt to the wired world. Time, as I've written, offers more opinion than it used to and doesn't devote much space to recapping the week's news. And U.S. News, you may have noticed, is no longer around as a print weekly.

For those not near a TV, I need to report that Robert Novak has died. Novak's syndicated column, originally written with Rowland Evans, ran in The Washington Post for decades, and he was a CNN host and commentator for a quarter century before jumping to Fox. Novak was at the center of the Valerie Plame leak investigation after reporting in 2003 that she was an operative for the CIA, information that the Bush White House wanted out to retaliate against her husband Joe Wilson. Novak's death does not come as a surprise; he had been seriously ill for some time.

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Is it Really Front Pages News?: Is it really page one news that Tom DeLay is going to be on Dancing with the Stars? It is always nice to read Lisa de Moraes...but on page ONE?

What kind of strange city do we really live in?

Howard Kurtz: That's probably the most talked about story on the front page. Although I wouldn't have waited until the jump to say that he is under indictment.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. K: Maybe it's just me, but the Post's choice of stories to cover seems slightly off. A FRONT PAGE story about a lady trying to "make it" on $300,000 a year? Maybe in "Style" but the front page? At the top? It may be part of a series, but even so, that subject doesn't rate the Post's front page -- unless your standards have slipped.

Howard Kurtz: The Post has given front-page play to a series of lengthy narratives about individuals trying to cope with the recession. You can argue with the story, or say that a divorced mother making 300K isn't worthy of our sympathy, or in the same category as a laid-off automaker. But if the effort is to broadly show the impact of tough economic times on different kinds of families, I don't see why this isn't worthy of the same display.

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washingtonpost.com: Once Again, Mr. DeLay, You Have the Floor (Post, Aug. 18)

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Basically a comment or a rant. After reading your article on Dan Rather and the Presidential Commission, it's hard not to continue to get discouraged about the situation with print media. I enjoy the Huffington blog as much as the next good liberal but I recognize it for what it is, basically entertaining garbage and not serious journalism. Who's going to do the grunt work if newspapers go away?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I think the Huffington Post and many other Web sites contain good journalism. But if the question is who's going to staff bureaus around the world, dig into municipal corruption and do all the other things that newspapers do, the answer is that their demise would leave a pretty big void.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you think it is time for a news show, that presents only the facts? I think it would be great, and you can host it. Rather than your Reliable Sources show format of media/news evaulation. Just have a unbiased trusted panel that states whether an issue is true or false, and why. Now that would be some good old-fashioned reporting, and would drive the theorist and spin-masters back into their holes. Would not get rid of all the lies and distortions, but it sure would make them think twice about putting out the endless rounds of distortions.

Howard Kurtz: Only "the facts"? A totally "unbiased" panel? What are the facts about whether or not President Obama's public health insurance option is a good idea? Or the cap and trade bill is necessary? Or the Afghan war is essentially unwinnable? The world is not so black and white.

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Kalamazoo, Mich.: Mr. Kurtz,

Democrats have 60 seats in the U.S. Senate, and could easily pass whatever their party wanted to pass. But right now, the health-care bill is going nowhere in the Senate, for no other reason than that the Democrats can't get enough members of their own party to agree to it. And so the Democrats respond by blaming . . . the Republicans! This would have been comedic, if the media hadn't played along.

Why can't (or won't) the media (and I'm painting with a wide brush here) call the Democrats on such an obvious, um, misstatement of fact?

Howard Kurtz: It's a little more complicated than that. For starters, the Dems really have 58 votes, given the illnesses of Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd. Beyond that, the Obama White House is trying to win some Republican support rather than ramming through legislation on a party-line vote. But this much is true: If health reform fails, the party that controls the White House and both houses of Congress will have a hard time blaming anyone else.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Hi, Howie,

Back a few months ago, I wrote to NBC about having Joe Scarborough on Meet the Press. I watch MTP for civil discussion, not screaming like the cable shows. Joe monopolized MTP like it was his show and a shout-fest ensued.

Rachel Maddow was on MTP on Sunday and the same thing happened! So, I have to wonder if NBC and David Gregory in particular, are trying to re-work MTP to be more like a cable show than a serious discussion show. What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: I don't have any problem with either of them being on. A roundtable should have strong voices. Newt Gingrich, as another example, has been popping up on the George Stephanopoulos roundtable.

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Alexandria, Va.: Overall, I think the fabled mainstream media has done a great job covering protests and opinions on both sides of the health-care debate, but they get a D- on presenting an overall, easy to understand what it all means. I've been disappointed that controversy, over detailed analysis wins yet again. Sorry, those multiple Web links to copies of the bill don't help. This should be a major national debate, but overall, the coverage is too much flash and not enough substance.

Howard Kurtz: I'm going to partially disagree. If you look at the major newspapers, and the recent Time cover story, there has been a lot of detailed substance published about almost every aspect of the health care debate: public option, Medicare reimbursement, industry lobbying, end-of-life counseling, you name it. It's out there. It's not hard to find.

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Falls Church, Va.: Journalists always claim to care deeply about preserving print newspapers, but the papers seem to be doing everything they can to wean us off them. Whether it's more of the story or more stock quotes or more recipes, we need to go to the Web site. Now the Post has stopped listing my local movie theaters on the movie page. Of course they're on the Web site. How can the print journalists claim to care about preserving print when they are moving us so surely to the Web? And please, put back the Tysons and Shirlington movie listings!

Howard Kurtz: I'm all for including movie listings in the paper. But the fact is, in this economic climate, The Post (and virtually all other papers) can't afford to publish the stock tables, movie screens and other lists that they did when times were flush. And besides, most of that data is far more easily searchable online. So if there is limited news space, I'd rather use it for original journalism than for listings you can get elsewhere.

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Anonymous: "Novak lamented the Plame story would "forever be part of my public identity" despite having written columns he said were more important."

The Plame affair took up paragraphs 3-7 in his WaPo obit. Looks like the fear was well founded.

washingtonpost.com: Robert Novak, Long-Time Conservative Columnist, Dies at 78 (Post, Aug. 18)

Howard Kurtz: That is true. It was also perhaps the biggest controversy of his career, one that lasted several years (ultimately leading to the conviction of Scooter Libby), and is fresh in many minds, as opposed to what he went through in the '60s, '70s and '80s as part of the Evans/Novak team.

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Reston, Va.: While watching this past Sunday's Meet the Press, I was surprised by how poorly David Gregory did. He was stumbling through his prepared statements (it took him several times to get through "House Ways and Means Committee") and he was out of sync with the show's pre-determined outline.

Is there any indication how the show is doing since he has taken over? I know Tim Russert is a difficult act to follow, but I've been incredibly underwhelmed with Gregory's performance.

Howard Kurtz: That, of course, is a matter of opinion. What is clear is that the post-Russert era has produced more of a Sunday show horse race, and while "Meet the Press" generally remains No. 1, "This Week" finished first a week or two ago and "Face the Nation" has closed part of the gap as well. There is also an opening for "Fox News Sunday" and "State of the Union" (which includes my CNN hour).

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Bethesda, Md.: "Howard Kurtz: That's probably the most talked about story on the front page."

Has the Post become People magazine. Do they put whatever generates the most comments on the front page or is it news driven?

Howard Kurtz: Oh come on. One of the most prominent and controversial ex-congressmen, a man known as The Hammer, a man who is under indictment, is tapped to appear on America's second-most popular TV show, as a dancer, and suddenly The Post has become People magazine? Puh-leaze.

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Dallas, Tex.: Mr. Kurtz,

Lately, many articles on your paper's Web site have been "branding" the conflict in Afghanistan as "Obama's War." And frankly, I'm curious why. This war is 8 years old, and was enthusiastically embraced by not only the previous administration, but by a large majority of Americans (unlike "Bush's War," which divided the nation and was, as it turns out, largely a war of choice, entered into by a team of individuals with a strong and conscious view of their decision).

Now, before you respond with your usual "but he's the president, and thus owns every decision" ... yes, of course he does. But so does an authorizing Congress. So do the architects of this war. Most importantly, so do the American people. Maybe it's just me, but I can't help but get the impression that the branding (and let's be honest, that's what it is) is somehow a way of deflecting responsibility, blame and anger onto a new administration. Can't it just be America's war? (For the record, that's what the Iraq war should have been called too, in my eyes.)

Howard Kurtz: Of course it's America's war. "Obama's war" is a journalistic shorthand that reflect this president's decision to send more troops and change strategy in an eight-year-old conflict in a country that harbored the plotters of 9/11, while withdrawing from that other country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Obama inherited the Afghanistan mess and is determined to put his imprint on the situation.

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Princeton, N.J.: It appears that Novak has died without ever clearing up the role of Cheney, Rove, etc., in his column outing Plame. Is that correct?

Howard Kurtz: Not true. He gave testimony in the Libby case and wrote about his role and his decisions after his sources were made public. He also wrote about the case in a book he published.

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Salinas, Calif.: Re: Atlanta. Conservative true-believers may disdain Gingrich as a relevant voice in opposition on the Stephanopoulos Round Table, but Michele Malkin? She had a shot on George's show several weeks ago (apparently making the rounds with her latest molotov cocktail in print), did she generate any buzz?

Howard Kurtz: Well, she's got a book that was No. 1 on the NYT best-seller list for at least two weeks, so that certainly qualifies as buzz.

Gotta leave a little early to deal with the Novak news. Thanks for the chat.

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washingtonpost.com: Novak Columns Archive

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