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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 24, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Aug. 24 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: Death Panels Smite Journalism (Post, Aug. 24)

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Washington D.C.: Hello Mr. Kurtz - Regarding the inability of the media to convince large portions of the public that there are no "death panels." Is it possible that the majority of the public is just plain stupid? I know that sounds flip but I don't mean it to be. We know that most Americans aren't educated beyond high school, if that. We know that majorities can't name their elected representatives, can't identify the Bill of Rights, don't realize that the government provides them with Medicare, believe that Sadam was responsible for 9/11, the list goes on and on. How does anyone -- media or politician, effectively -- communicate with such people?

washingtonpost.com: Death Panels Smite Journalism (Post, Aug. 24)

Howard Kurtz: I actually think the American public is pretty smart (and your statistic about "most" having only high school degrees sounds way off to me). A majority doesn't follow all the details of every public policy debate, but that's because they have, uh, lives--jobs and families and other responsibilities. Most still manage to find out what they need to know and make rational judgments based on that information. The challenge for the media is especially acute given a complicated subjects such as health care. Even many "experts" don't fully understand what's in these humongous bills, and the mere fact that there's no one bill further muddies the waters.

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Columbia, Md. : I am a life-long reader of the Post and enjoy your column very much. You are always fair-minded and a meticulous fact checker. And you always give attribution when due. Above all you intellectually honest.

Unfortunately, I think you got this death panel thing wrong. You call this charge ludicrous. Well, if it is so ridiculous, why did the Baucus-Grassley "gang of six" announce they were taking it out of their bill?

Moreover, a number of well-regarded commentators, including one from the Post, acknowledged that some of the end-of life references in the House bill have serious ethical questions.

Clearly, your description comes up short on this one.

Howard Kurtz: Grassley said it was being taken out of the bill because the provision could be "misinterpreted." Clearly, it had become a political liability. That doesn't make it true.

There are legitimate questions to be raised about public funding for end-of-life counseling sessions (which, by the way, are voluntary). I'm all for debating that. But it's a huge stretch from that situation to the notion that government panels are going to be making euthanasia decisions for elderly patients. That needs to be called what it is, which is false.

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Alexandria, Va.: If you're going to invite a conservative on to the set of "Reliable Sources," does it have to be a conservative who conveniently trashes Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and so on? David Frum can't seem to find a kind word to say about any other pundit on the right. He's beginning to sound about as conservative as another "conservative" you cite -- Andrew Sullivan.

Howard Kurtz: We have all kinds of conservatives on the program -- Amanda Carpenter, Michael Medved, Debra Saunders, Amy Holmes, Dennis Prager, Jim Geraghty -- and, before they signed with Fox, Jonah Goldberg, Byron York and others, to name just a few.

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"...a stunning illustration of the traditional media's impotence." : Exactly right.

Twenty years ago, the death panels would already be convening by now, because there would have been no widely-available counterpoint to the media (back then, you didn't have to call it the MSM) love fest with their leader.

Howard Kurtz: Right. If not for the rise of the conservative media, President Obama would have gotten his way and government panels would be saving all kinds of health care bucks by pulling the plug on Grandma, not to mention Grandpa.

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New Orleans, La.: I need to ask you about this section of today's column:

"And on Fox the next night, Bill O'Reilly played a clip of former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean saying Palin "just made that up. . . . There's nothing like euthanasia in the bill." O'Reilly countered that as far as he could tell, "Sarah Palin never mentioned euthanasia. Dean made it up to demean Palin."

How can you let that slide without commenting? It is a flat out lie on O'Reilly's part. She may not have used the word "euthanasia" but she described precisely the act of euthanasia. This is a guy you give credibility to by appearing on his show and yet here you have him straight-up lying to his viewers all because he wants to protect Palin who, herself, lied. So my question to you is why do you afford O'Reilly any type of credibility? I have never heard you take him to task for these kinds of tactics.

Howard Kurtz: Then you haven't been paying attention. I think the rest of the column makes clear that I believe the euthanasia charge is bogus, and just because Sarah Palin didn't use that word, she was clearly suggesting it with the more inflammatory phrase "death panels".

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Paterson, N.Y.: Funny how you failed to mention that the White House chastised Gov. Paterson for linking his woes to racism and lumping the president in with him. Why didn't you report that? Or is that not your responsibility, sort of like it's not The Post's responsibility to monitor commenter posts on stories?

Howard Kurtz: Here's an answer you seem not to have considered: I didn't see that follow-up piece. But now that I have, it's not exactly as you describe it. The New York Post story doesn't say anything about the White House chastising Paterson for "linking his woes to racism":

Obama's team delivered a pointed message to Paterson within hours of the morning broadcast, multiple sources said.

It came in a call from White House political director Patrick Gaspard, who has deep ties to the New York political scene, to Larry Schwartz, the governor's first deputy secretary.

Gaspard wanted to know "why [Paterson] was dragging the president into" his troubles, said one source.

But although Obama's aides were unhappy, the sources said, the conversation was not hostile.

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Boonsboro, Md.: Good article, and spot on the media has lost much of its power to persuade. In the 'death panel' case, the media has itself to blame. First, the love affair with Obama, followed by the vicious attacks on Palin, caused a significant part of the population to lose trust in your reporting. Now even the NYT says 'A Basis Is Seen for Some Health Plan Fears Among the Elderly' A Basis Is Seen for Some Health Plan Fears Among the Elderly so the fact is that we were right not to trust you.

Howard Kurtz: First, let's be clear: Not EVERYONE in the media had a love affair with Obama, though I wrote about the sympathetic coverage for two years, and not EVERYONE in the media made "vicious attacks" on Palin, though I found some criticism to be out of bounds.

As for the New York Times article, it nicely summarizes what has been reported on again and again: that Obama's proposed cost savings and regulation could have a significant impact on Medicare. The president is openly talking about cutting very large sums from Medicare -- are we supposed to believe this is only going to come from providers and not impact patients at all? But -- and this is a very big but -- that is a far cry from government panels making decisions about euthanasia.

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Why was it pulled: The end-of-life counseling language was pulled because they lost the political fight. The fight goes to the side yelling the loudest, aided with a hearty assist from seniors who don't seem to understand that government is pretty heavily involved in their current care.

Funding for end-of-life counseling wasn't a hill they were willing on.

Howard Kurtz: It was a very minor part of the legislation that was turned into a major political issue. When I saw Obama at one town meeting or speech after another talk about how he wasn't trying to pull the plug on Grandma, I figured it was toast.

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Bristow, Va.: Michael Shear is actually bashing Bushes today in his Post story on the Obama vacation: "Obama is taking a week off from his day job, far less than some of his predecessors. Former president George H.W. Bush spent weeks at Kennebunkport, Maine. Son George W. Bush did the same at his ranch in Crawford, Tex."

Can't Shear acknowledge that the Bushes were still governing from a remote location? Dubya regularly met foreign heads of state and such at the ranch. Is this line really necessary?

washingtonpost.com: Vacation Time for the First Family (Post, Aug. 24)

Howard Kurtz: He's stating a historical fact. Do you really think that's "bashing"? Of course, no president is ever completely on vacation. But if critics are going to lambaste Obama for taking one lousy week off, isn't it fair to compare that to the vacation practices of previous presidents?

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So my question to you is why do you afford O'Reilly any type of credibility? : Howie, since you posted the question, you might want to answer it.

Howard Kurtz: Bill O'Reilly has the most popular show in cable news. Sometimes I disagree with him, and I'm not shy about saying so. But it would be absurd to ignore him.

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Fairfax, Va.: great Article TODAY!! Long overdue, although you did cite numerous occasions where these myths get debunked. It still seems the conversation is still more of the 'he said, she said' variety -- with no supporting data. Albeit, you have all these sound bites of the wrong or misleading information. Do you think this is causing much of the do not trust the media item, when it comes to presenting the facts, versus the argument.

Howard Kurtz: I think there are lots of reasons why people don't trust the media, some of them self-inflicted. And I think there is too much one=side-says-the-earth-is-flat-but-others-disagree reporting. But death panels, it seems to me, was a rare exception, where a number of major news organizations looked at the claim and reported it was not true. And yet, according to that NBC poll, 45 percent of Americans believe it is true.

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State of Dyspepsia: Howard, I enjoy your column and your chats.

Based on the NBC poll you cite in today's column about Fox News viewers and their beliefs, do you think that Fox News deliberately or accidentally misleads its viewers?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the poll had evidence of cause and effect. It may be that a greater proportion of conservatives watch Fox News, do not support Obama and do not like his health plan, therefore are more inclined to accept criticisms of the plan. Similarly, MSNBC and CNN viewers might be more inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt. The poll didn't ask respondents where they got their information about death panels (or the notion, also untrue, that the health bills would extend insurance to illegal immigrants).

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Bethesda, Md.: The issue does not seem to be that the traditional media is 'impotent.' It is that it is increasingly difficult to determine what the traditional media is and is not. CNN, MSNBC, others have 'news' hours and 'opinion' hours so interchangeably that no attempt to divide these is successful in dispelling the perception that the media outlets simply report opinions and slant as news facts. And moreover, the media is in fact far from impotent -- proving very capable at stirring up misunderstandings based on half truths they report (either through lazy/sloppy reporting or because it is not news but rather opinion that takes on the form of news. There is not one significant US news organization today that is seen as free from an agenda or a slant -- even if it's true or not. Period.

Howard Kurtz: You're right about the first part--CNN (where I'm a contributor) has Dobbs, MSNBC has Olbermann and Maddow, Fox has Hannity, O'Reilly and Beck. As for American news organizations being seen as having a slant, that is in the eye of the beholder. But I will tell you that there are many news organizations that try hard to deliver balanced reporting.

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New Jersey: The media isn't impotent, it's fearful. Cable news is making choices every day to give airtime -- the MAJORITY of airtime -- to screamers. It makes more money for media, and shields them from being called the "liberal media." But, when the facts are that the screams are falsehoods, how about damping down the coverage, and prefacing every display of them with, "Of course, they are wrong ..."

The protests are orchestrated, but the anger and fear are real. How about dealing with them by reassuring them, every time, that their fears are wrongly placed.

Because, if we go another 15 years with health-care withering, many of us are going to die.

Howard Kurtz: That was true for a week or more, when every confrontational audience member screaming at a member of Congress seemed to be replayed again and again (and not just on cable). How many times did we see the woman who asked Barney Frank why he was supporting a Nazi plan? Other people made perfectly thoughtful criticisms or raised legitimate questions at these meetings.

The one thing that has tended to get lost in the recent coverage is all the problems of the current system--including, by the way, de facto rationing. The focus has been so heavily on what the Obama plan might do--and fears thereof--that the costs of inaction have been overshadowed.

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D.C.: Howard: I thought your segment on the Stewart/O'Reilly "feud" was interesting. It seems to me that [what] was left understated in the discussion is that Stewart's show is supposed to be humor. O'Reilly was treating it and Stewart's accusations about his "reporting" as he would a fellow pundit's errors. What is interesting to me is that O'Reilly felt he had to respond to Stewart instead of laughing him off. Fascinating. I was reminded of Stewart's please to Begala and Carlson on the old CNN Crossfire Show...Is O'Reilly so insecure? It suggests to me that Stewart's humor got pretty close to the bone when it comes to how O'Reilly and Fox have covered anti-Obama protestors vs. anti-Bush protesters.

Howard Kurtz: My audience on "Reliable Sources" is smart--they know that the "Daily Show" is comedy. But as I've said and written many times, Stewart's satire can be an effective way of underscoring the truth.

Just to be clear, here's what I said in the discussion with Anne Kornblut, Clarence Page and David Frum, after playing the clip of Stewart challenging O'Reilly on calling protestors "loons," followed by O'Reilly's response:

"O'Reilly went on to say that he understands that Stewart is a satirist, but that he had been unfair in the way he had framed it.

"So, Anne Kornblut, I'm sure 'The Daily Show' does selective editing for comedic purposes, but isn't there a serious point here about who you describe protesters, depending on what the cause is?...

"Clarence, hasn't Fox, in fact, flipped -- some Fox hosts, I should say -- from slamming liberal protesters to defending these anti-Obama protesters, some of which -- some of whom are very articulate and some of whom seem a little confused about some of the facts?...

"And MSNBC, some hosts, seem to be more inclined to go after these town hall protesters than they were to go after the anti- Bush demonstrators."

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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, Maybe the problem with the MSM media is that they let people get away with "half-truths and exaggerations" instead of challenging them in real time. Maybe if the hosts were more aggressive then the guests wouldn't be so free with the facts. Even with the Death Panel nonsense after it was agreed that it was not true, many conservatives refused to call it a lie and the hosts just let them go.

Howard Kurtz: Well, my point was, we need to be willing to say what's true and what's not true when it's clear-cut (and in public policy debates, it isn't always clear-cut). And we need to do that without taking partisan sides. It reminds me of the innovation started by The Post, which I have done in every campaign cycle since 1992, of running ad watches on presidential campaign commercials. If they make unsupported claims, exaggerate or are simply false, we try to say so. And that's not a technique that should be limited to campaigns.

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Where did I hear this: Over the weekend I heard on some news program (it could have been yours) that made the comment that with the creation of 24 hour news networks you would think that more time would be devoted on a story examining it and not just jump on sound bites which is what the shorter national news does.

Howard Kurtz: David Frum made that point on "Reliable Sources," and it dovetails with something I've been saying for years: With all the time that cable news has, why are nearly all the taped reports two minutes, as they are on broadcast, instead of, say, five minutes? There's a huge difference. But cable executives believe the audience has a short attention span and will go clicking off if you don't keep up a fast pace.

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Anonymous: Who says politics has to involve "fair" descriptions of changes? Is there a fairness doctrine being applied on political speech? If Palin wants to call an independent board reviewing Medicare procedures a "death panel," why can't she? The other side calls this health-care "reform" bill, but what is being reformed with across-the-board Medicare cuts? Both sides mischaracterize the legislation, don't they? It's politics.

Howard Kurtz: Sarah Palin can, of course, say anything she wants. And journalists should assess the accuracy of what she says, along with what Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell say.

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Anonymous: Isn't the death panels just an August story, which like Jimmy Carter's Killer Rabbitt, will disappear in September?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's already disappearing because the death panels have been killed off.

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Atlanta, Ga.: If one party is completely out of power in Washington and has identification rates in the low 30s or high 20s, do their ideas deserve equal (or more) time in the media? Is that fair to the majority party?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, their ideas deserve plenty of prominence in the media. We don't conduct journalism by public opinion polls. If the Republicans have no chance of passing something because of their diminished status, we should say that. But the battle of ideas is important no matter which party is in power.

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Penfield, N.Y.: I have some intelligent conservative friends, having been a physician before I retired. Yet they only believe , or watch Fox news, and routinely talk about the WaPo and the NYT as "liars." I, of course, having grown up a Maoist and still being a social and economic leftist think the opposite. Is there any hope for reversing this flight to the poles, and if so how?

Howard Kurtz: We live in a polarized political atmosphere, and our media increasingly reflect that. It's not a trend I'm happy with, but there it is. Many people gravitate toward outlets that reinforce what they already believe.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: So Fox claims it hasn't lost any revenue from the Beck boycott because advertisers are running ads in different parts of the day. How does that work? Is Fox adding additional commercials to other programs or are they shifting advertisers in other shows into the Beck slots?

washingtonpost.com: Death Panels Smite Journalism/The Beck Boycott (Post, Aug. 24)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the details, but if no advertiser is actually removing its dollars from Fox News, there's no impact on the bottom line.

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Rockville, Md.: I applaud your efforts in trying to inform the public about "The Media," but you probably have little chance for success. When people write to you saying the media hasn't done "X" or has done "Y," they are probably only focusing on a small slice of "the media," that is the slice that they see. This could mean just Fox News or MSNBC. But this is a problem. When Fox News's audience thinks that "death panels" do exist to a much larger degree than anyone else, or that Iraq had something to do with 9/11, there is a problem. However, I have no idea what the solution is. How do you make people get out of their comfort zone and be intellectually curious?

Howard Kurtz: You can't "make" people do anything. All you can do is offer a smart, balanced and interesting alternative.

It is true that many people denounce "the media," and when you press them, their complaint will revolve around something Olbermann or O'Reilly said, or a panelist on "Meet the Press," rather than the news business as a whole. It's also true that if you study all kinds of news coverage, as I do, there are times when you can detect clear patterns that are worth exploring, as I've tried to do with the health coverage.

Time to take a breath. 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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