Howard Kurtz Discusses the Media and Press Coverage of the News

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, September 8, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Tuesday, Sept. 8, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and and press coverage of the news.


Hartford, Conn.: Howard

Have we really come to such a partisanship that a President telling kids to stay in school is now socialism? I just saw this on TV last night and could not believe that people are arguing over this with all the issues going on.

Howard Kurtz: One of the great bogus controversies. In fact, the Florida GOP official who warned that this smelled like socialism now says the speech was fine and he'd let his kids watch it. Never mind. Some Republicans - Newt Gingrich, Lamar Alexander - refused to jump on the Obama-is-brainwashing-our-students bandwagon. But now that the president has spoken, it's clear that this was, as the White House said all along, a nonpartisan, stay-in-school speech.


Ashland, Mo.: Admittedly a heresy, but should news organizations put less emphasis on breaking the story and more emphasis on getting it right? So often, the original framing of the story takes on a life of its own because there tend to be more assumptions with the facts that are available. A more thoughtful approach would give more balance, and perhaps greater insight. A example would be Ms. Palin's comments on "death panels." Wasn't she really talking about the best practices boards rather than strictly about end of life consultations?

Howard Kurtz: You're never going to drain the competitiveness from the media, but yes, getting it right is supremely important. And I think that journalists were right on the fictional death panels--although, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, it didn't seem to matter. That story consumed so much media oxygen even as we attempted to knock it down, and in the end nearly half of Americans, according to one poll, still believed the Obama plan contained pulling-the-plug committees. As for Sarah Palin, since her original slam was based on a few words on her Facebook page, it seemed reasonable to assume that she was referring to the end-of-life counseling that was then so much in the news.


Washington, D.C.: There apparently is a new controversy being stirred up by the conservative media regarding Obama's czars.

Why does the media simply report this without mentioning that Bush had just as many czars (31 according to records)?

This seems to be another example of how Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh can create a media controversy, but somehow actual reporting by liberals such as Jeremy Scahill (foreign wars) and Rachel Maddow (The Family) rarely get any traction, even when they are criticizing liberals.

My first thought is that this shows the media is not liberal, but on second thought, could it be that the media is liberal and they think some of this is their territory, so they are hesitant to report it, but feel obligated to report the conservative side because they feel it is outside of their viewpoint?


Howard Kurtz: It's perfectly fair to question the use of czars as long as you provide some historical context. The first czar I can recall was Frank Zarb, named the energy czar by President Ford. Not everyone with that Russian-sounding title has much power, but Obama has appointed several (of the Larry Summers and Carol Browner variety) who seem to outrank Cabinet secretaries without having to undergo Senate confirmation. But again, this president hardly invented the practice, and the coverage needs to make that clear.


"Bogus Controversy": If what you wrote above is true, why did the Post's headline today scream: "President Seeks to Avoid Politics in Speech to School"... that's just flat-out inaccurate. Did Obama actually "seek to avoid politics in the speech?" Because I haven't seen any shred of proof or evidence that Obama ever contemplated including politics in the speech in the first place. Am I wrong, or is the Post?

Howard Kurtz: It all depends on the meaning of the word seek.


College Park, Md.: Is it me, or is Glenn Beck and crew doing their best possible effort to ensure teenagers want to see President Obama's education speech? The easiest way to get high school students interested in something is to tell them that they shouldn't see and then ban it for being too controversial.

Heck, I want to see watch it now.

Howard Kurtz: Who woulda thunk it? A civics-lesson speech on the need to work hard in school is now hot stuff?


Laurel, Md.: Howard, E.J. Dionne editorialized on Thursday that the media characterization of the health-care town halls was totally distorted by over-coverage of the crazies.

The Real Town Hall Story (Post, Sept. 3)

On the one hand, one might simply infer that this was a "plane that lands safely" of little interest to viewers. On the other, many conservatives (including not crazy ones) believe that the press is totally in the tank for Mr. Obama's speeches about "change," and don't ask the hard questions about costs. And that the media's reporting from the liberal narrative that the opposition comes from the privileged and Obama-deranged xenophobic.

Even if you don't accept all my premises, isn't it true that the one aspect that's gotten short shrift in the media coverage is "who pays and who loses?"

Howard Kurtz: Here's what I wrote on the town halls on Aug. 24. No question that the most extreme voices got replayed again and again, whether they made sense or not. At the same time, these meetings did reveal a growing unease with Obama's health care plan that is a legitimate part of the story. But I did get sick of hearing people shout about the Constitution and taking the country back, as if we weren't dealing with a duly elected president trying to push a proposal through Congress.

From an earlier column:

Twenty members of Congress might have held calm and collected town meetings on any given day, but only the one with raucous exchanges would make it on the air. "TV loves a ruckus," Obama complained more than once. In fact, after the president convened a low-key town hall in New Hampshire, press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: "I think some of you were disappointed yesterday that the president didn't get yelled at." There was a grain of truth in that. As Fox broke away from the meeting, anchor Trace Gallagher said, "Any contentious questions, anybody yelling, we'll bring it to you."


Baton Rouge, La.: Is Glenn Beck the most powerful voice in media? Seems strange to say, but he did get Van Jones fired with nary a word from the NYT/NBC/CBS/CNN/WaPo/etc.

That's quite an accomplishment for someone who's supposed to be withering under a boycott, no?

Howard Kurtz: Not quite nary a word; the WP and LAT did write about the Jones controversy before he resigned, though the mainstream press as a whole was late or MIA. And, yes, Beck has a knack for grabbing attention, sometimes with inflammatory rhetoric (Exhibit A: calling Obama a racist). But Van Jones did issue two public apologies for some of the points were raised by Beck, and that -- especially the signing of the "truther" petition -- made it harder for the White House to defend him.


Winnipeg, Canada: Recently I've started to wonder if Glen Beck is Fox's answer to Colbert, but most of the media (and his audience) don't "get it." Meanwhile Fox, happy with the ratings, has decided against correct the wrong impression. What do you think? Should we take Beck as seriously as Limbaugh or O'Reilly? Or should we use a Colbert filter when we watch him?

Howard Kurtz: Glenn Beck is an entertainer who has described himself as a "rodeo clown." But on much of his recent rhetoric, I believe he's dead serious and should be treated as such. This isn't some Comedy Central wannabe.


Dale City, Va.: I have seen some reports that a poll asking about approval of a "public Option choice" had 77 percent in favor of the public option being offered. Why doesn't every health-care poll ask this question? Otherwise it is hard to tell if the people voting against health-care reform are voting against it because they don't want reform or because they don't think it is enough reform.

Howard Kurtz: I'd like to see the poll and how the question was worded. The health care legislation is so complicated that you can ask questions in different ways and get varying responses.


Rockville, Md.: " A civics-lesson speech on the need to work hard in school is now hot stuff?"

Now that I think about it, you are right. Amazing - even now.

Howard Kurtz: What is striking are these controversies about what someone MAY do in the future, rather than criticizing after he or she actually does something. Remember the conservative criticism of ABC News for airing a health care town hall with Obama at the White House? There were charges about how the network was going to serve up propaganda on the president's behalf. Once Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer (the once and future anchors) asked good questions and included a range of voices, the preemptive criticism pretty much vanished.


Fair Balance: Do you feel that the press has balanced political arguments fairly? Or, are they so concerned to present both sides that they give equal time to stupid comments like death panels regardless of how little fact is there to support them?

One other question...does the right wing press give as much air time to death panels as left wing? I know the left abhors the comment, but is it anything close to the rallying cry that the MSM would seem to suggest?

Howard Kurtz: There are plenty of instances in which journalists retreat to the safety of one side says this/the other side says that, without helping readers and viewers understand the strengths and weaknesses of these arguments. But, as I said in that column I quoted earlier, that was decidedly not the case with the death panels. Numerous news organizations said flatly that this was a bogus charge, and yet, for a great many Americans, it didn't matter. That, to me, raises questions about the media's ability to set the record straight, particularly on complicated subjects.


I'd like to see the poll and how the question was worded.: Here is the exact question from a Washington Post - ABC poll:

"Which would you prefer: the current health insurance system in the United States, in which most people get their health insurance from private employers, but some people have no insurance, OR, a universal health insurance program, in which everyone is covered under a program like Medicare that's run by the government and financed by taxpayers?"

62 percent favored Medicare for All; 33 percent were opposed. That's pretty decisive. A more recent NY Times poll had support at 72 percent. A Pew poll showed doctors supported it by 59 percent.

The insurance industry spends $1.4 million to get us to believe that single payer if "off the table". Why has the media helped them?

Howard Kurtz: It's not our job to help or not help one side or the other. The fact is, whatever the merits of single-payer, no congressional committee is going to pass it in 2009. That is the political reality. At the same time, Congress may well pass some version of the health reform legislation that Obama is pushing, and it could become the law of the land. While single-payer has gotten some media attention in the broader debate over how to fix the health care system, it makes sense for journalists to focus most of their firepower on the proposals that might actually pass. By the way, The Post had a terrific piece the other day on the health care system in Japan, where almost everyone is covered for about half the cost in the U.S., but where there are some drawbacks that might not be tolerated here.


Obama Speech to Kids: Howie, while there's a political angle to everything, as a parent I think a lot of the speech dust-up is because parents want to know what their kids are getting. Kids don't go to friends' houses until we meet the parents; kids aren't in classes where we don't know the teachers; kids aren't reading books and watching TV shows we haven't screened. The fact that the furor has completely died down (save the usual partisans) once the transcript was made available and found to be benign only reinforces my point. Until it was posted, it felt like an end-around, and attentive parents don't like the end-around. I went from suspicious to approving in minutes. Case closed.

Howard Kurtz: You're entitled to your opinion. But I for one don't know every lesson that every teacher in every subject is going to teach. And White House officials billed the speech from the beginning as a nonpartisan stay-in-school speech. Guess what? They were telling the truth. I'd be more sympathetic to the OMG reaction if Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush hadn't given similar speeches to students.


Springfield, Va.: Does the media enjoy being played by the White House? Van Jones times his resignation for midnight, ensuring that it's too late for the east coast papers, and is treated as old news in the next edition. Meanwhile administration officials on the Sunday shows talk about how he sacrificed his position to avoid distracting from Obama's efforts -- and never answering questions about his controversial comments and actions. TV, print, you were played like a violin.

Howard Kurtz: I don't buy your reasoning. We can't cover a resignation until it happens. Leaving aside online and TV coverage, the Jones resignation got plenty of attention in the Monday papers. And if Sunday hosts ask the likes of David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs about the resignation, and get tepid or incomplete answers, I think it's clear to the audience what's going on. The Obama administration may have succeeded in muting the coverage on a holiday weekend, but that Friday-night and holiday releases of bad news were also a favored tactic in previous administrations.


Wheaton, Md.: Who is advising Levi Johnston? His mother? Hasn't anyone told him the best way to screw up his life is to quit school, have a kid while you're 19, a high school dropout and unemployed? Add to that the constant drip of trashing the Palins (and I'm no fan of SP) and he's going down the road of other has-beens... sad, he seems like he once was a nice kid who could have a fine life with some kind of trade.

Howard Kurtz: It's interesting to me that much of the criticism has been aimed at Levi Johnston, who clearly is trying to cash in on the only asset he has: having knocked up a governor's daughter. What about Vanity Fair, which printed this smarmy assault on the mother of Johnston's ex-girlfriend and paid the high school dropout for the privilege? Was this really journalism? I felt like taking a shower after reading the piece.


Re: Numerous news organizations said flatly that this was a bogus charge, and yet, for a great many Americans, it didn't matter.: I wonder if this points to a basic problem for "traditional" media -- one that may not be easily solved. News organizations did point out that the "death panels" did not exist, but it took them a while. The first headlines said "Sarah Palin attacks Obama's 'death panels'". Then, after there was time to investigate, the stories changed to "nothing in the proposed bills supports Palin's accusations." I'm paraphrasing, but that was the general idea, and it was too late. The story had already spread through the non-traditional media.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think speed was the issue, as you'll see in the timeline below. But the bogus "death panels" did seem to crowd out other coverage -- in other words, even as journalists said and wrote that there were no such panels, they kept the controversy alive in a way that may have made some people say, hmmm.

From my column last month:

Less than seven hours after Palin posted her charge Aug. 7, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann called it an "absurd idea." That might have been dismissed as a liberal slam, but the next day, ABC's Bill Weir said on "Good Morning America": "There is nothing like that anywhere in the pending legislation."

On Aug. 9, Post reporter Ceci Connolly said flatly in an A-section story: "There are no such 'death panels' mentioned in any of the House bills." That same day, on NBC's "Meet the Press," conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks called Palin's assertion "crazy." CNN's Jessica Yellin said on "State of the Union," "That's not an accurate assessment of what this panel is." And on ABC's "This Week," George Stephanopoulos said: "Those phrases appear nowhere in the bill."


Herndon, Va.: Howard, what are your thoughts regarding the Ombudsman "outing" Monica Hesse and the timing of her two articles on NOM and her own marriage decision? 'Sanity & a Smile' and an Outpouring of Rage (Post, Sept. 6)

Howard Kurtz: Well, Andrew Alexander didn't out anybody. The flap, for those who missed this over the weekend, involved criticism of Monica Hesse's profile of an anti-gay marriage activist as being too sympathetic. Hesse was accused of being homophobic and worse. In his column, the ombudsman quoted from e-mails that Monica had sent to readers:

"My current partner is a man," she wrote them. "Before him, my partner of two years was a woman, with whom I discussed health insurance, kids, houses and marriage. You can bet that I found the fact that our marriage wouldn't have been legal to be wrong as hell."


Charleston, S.C.: Howard,

The 21st century will see more prolific access to information than at any other time in history by far. I have, until lately, believed that more voices is a good thing and more information will lead to better, not worse, decisions. However, I no longer believe that to be the case. The legacy of the "information age" thus far is misinformation. As the traditional media crumbles, perhaps its salvation could be rededicating itself to telling the facts and setting the record straight about complicated topics. Not just health care, but the war in Iraq, the abuse of prisoners, etc. Bad information is rampant and the media has rarely, if ever, been ahead of the curve. Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Well, we try to do that. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. While the digital age has certainly thrown open the doors to more misinformation, those doors are equally open to accurate information that can knock down the lies and rumors. But even if you're right, there is no turning back the cyberclock. Ordinary folks have access to more information than any time in recorded history, and they have some responsibility to pursue the truth on issues they care about. That's an improvement from the days when most of what they knew came from their morning paper or three networks.


Anonymous: With every speech the president gives, there seems to be more of a national collective eye-roll. If this weren't to the joint session of Congress, would he have run the risk of the networks not covering it live? Has the greatest orator since the dawn of time reached Speech Fatigue level only eight months in??

Howard Kurtz: I do think that's a risk for the White House. Obama has held four prime-time news conferences already, and aside from network executives grumbling about millions of dollars in lost revenue, his ratings for the last one were 50 percent lower than for the first one. Giving a speech to Congress tomorrow was a way to a) ensure that the broadcast networks provided prime-time coverage, and b) raise the stakes by making it more of a news event. But the president has spoken so frequently on health care that he runs the risk of many people tuning out, particularly if he just rehashes the same we're-not-pulling-the-plug-on-Grandma themes of recent months. It's a big roll of the dice.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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