Howard Kurtz: Glenn Beck, Protest Coverage, More

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 14, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Sept. 14, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and and press coverage of the news.

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Los Angeles, Ca.: Hey Howie, in your column today you say that Kenya is Obama's "native country." Are you a "Birther" now?

Howard Kurtz: Oy. I obviously meant the country of his father. He wrote a book about it.

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Detroit, MI: I really enjoy Reliable Sources-interesting show. My question is in regards to the recent media comments about opposition to Obama being mainly about race. What are your thoughts? I understand the Democratic perspective that these same people did not oppose Bush policies, such as expansion of Medicare, the burden put on states for No Child Left Behind, the soaring deficit caused by pork and two wars and the intrusion into private lives by the Patriot Act--but all of a sudden people are up in arms crying socialism, Marxism, fascism. It is hard to believe that race has nothing to do with it.

Howard Kurtz: I am giving this some serious thought. I think race is a factor for a minority of the protestors and critics, based on some of their comments. But I also think we have to be careful about not dismissing legitimate criticism of the president and his policies as being motivated by racism.

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Missing the Forest: Left unsaid in your Beck column is that not even Mesothelioma lawyers advertise on that train wreck of a show. As you know I am only very slightly exaggerating. Tells you a lot about the man's audience.

Howard Kurtz: Well, something between 36 and 50 or more companies have pulled their ads from Glenn Beck's Fox show because of the boycott (which I mentioned), stemming from his denouncing Obama as a racist. So Beck had plenty of big-name advertisers before that incident. Of course, those companies have just shifted their spots to other time periods, so it hasn't hurt Fox News's bottom line.

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Columbia, Md.: I have a theory on why the traditional media didn't pick up on the Van Jones issue: Jones is not a very important adviser. What's more, his views on 9/11 have NOTHING to do with environmental policy, which is his specialty.

What if he'd signed a document saying he believed in UFOs or ghosts? I know a lot of very smart people who believe in both, but I wouldn't fire them from their job unless their job had something to do with UFOs or ghosts.

Why call for Jones' resignation when he's not advising on national security issues? I understand why Beck latched onto the story. Beck can't stand anyone who has views that differ from him. But I think the traditional media did a good job by staying away. Jones was a not-very-important adviser on a topic (environment) that has nothing to do with 9/11 theories. I think it's too bad Jones felt he had to resign. If Jones advised on national security issues, I would see a basis of controversy.

Howard Kurtz: Jones was a rather obscure administration official (although The Washington Post did do a story about his work), although his area of expertise -- creating "green" jobs -- is an Obama priority. But I'm not sure you can so neatly put the controversy in a separate box. If a White House official of any kind signs a 9/11 "truther" petition, then the administration is going to be asked whether those views are acceptable.

Imagine that a mid-level energy adviser in the Bush White House was found to have signed a document calling the Holocaust a hoax. Would the media, or anyone else, have accepted the explanation that this didn't matter because he had nothing to do with foreign policy?

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Anchorage Alaska: Any scuttle, printed or otherwise, that the president is stepping on his own important agenda (two or three big programs) by his almost constant exposure on live television?

If every speech is important before too long, none of them are.

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: As I type, Obama is on Wall Street, giving a speech about banking reform.

I raised the issue months ago whether the president was risking overexposure with all the prime-time pressers and endless interviews. I think that was when he had gone on Leno and "60 Minutes"; he went on "60" for the third time last night, and is doing Leno's 10 pm debut show tonight.

The White House scoffs at the notion, seeing the president as its best salesman. Which is undoubtedly true. But can even a super-salesman make his pitch too often?

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Washington DC: I ran into a few tea bag demonstrators over the weekend. When they invariably told me that they were here to protest big government I asked them where they had been during the Bush 2.0 administration when we went from surplus to deficit, when the size of government employment, including contractors blossomed, and defense spending went to height of cold war levels. I mostly got blank stares before they went of on Obama as being a socialist, I'd then ask if they wanted to privatize the US road system and abolish social security. Usually at that point they'd turn and walk away. Reminded me of that old saying "The problem with a representative government is that it is representative."

Howard Kurtz: I do think it's fair to ask where some of these folks were when Bush's spending soared out of control.

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Arlington, Va.: Veteran journalist Howard Witt is the new senior managing editor at Stars and Stripes, the newspaper published for U.S. Service members. The paper is now breaking stories critical of the military even though it is funded by the Department of Defense. Can the new direction of the paper last?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know, but Stars and Stripes did a great job in disclosing that the Pentagon had hired a private contractor to rate reporters' stories as positive or negative, with the information being used to approve or reject requests to embed with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. At first the Pentagon denied that this was affecting the embed decisions, then acknowledged it, then canceled the contract.

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Derwood, MD: Howard -

Should FoxNews apologize to CNN for having gotten caught plagiarizing CNN's "reporting" of the Coast Guard "crisis" on the Potomac?

washingtonpost.com: CNN Jumps the Gun on Coast Guard Story

Howard Kurtz: It wasn't plagiarism. The CNN report (which of course turned out to be wrong) was picked up by Reuters. Fox News then reported that the Coast Guard appeared to have fired on a boat in the Potomac, attributing the information to Reuters. Yes, it was a backdoor way of picking up CNN's "scoop," but plagiarism is when you steal material without attribution. Fox specifically credited Reuters.

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Bellingham WA: Howard-

How does the media define "many"? Last week the coverage was "'many' school districts did not show Obama's speech to students" and/or "'many' parents kept their kids away from Obama's speech". When did a relatively few school districts, mostly in the South become "many"? When did a few, mostly southern, mostly white parents become "many"? Why was no mention made of the thousands of districts and millions of parents who looked forward to the speech and willingly allowed their children to see it? Thanks

Howard Kurtz: "Many" is a great journalistic dodge, second only to "some." But it is hard if not impossible to quantify something that involves, say, thousands of school districts, or, potentially, millions of parents.

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But can even a super-salesman : make his pitch too often?

BILLY MAYS HERE, AND I WOULD SAY NO.

Howard Kurtz: Good one.

Hey, aren't you dead?

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Why should readers trust the Post?: Howie, once again your paper printed a column in which somebody is either ill-informed or just flat out lying to your readers. And of all the stupid reasons why, it because today's modern conservative elites are so well-educated they believe "Czars" were part of the USSR.

Can we just for the record point out that maybe just one of these people (The Drug Czar, a title used since I was a kid in the 70's) has ever been referred to as a "Czar" and that each of these Executive Branch consultants has a formal title?

And, while we are at it, that there is nothing particularly remarkable about having 30 such positions, some so temporary that they have already conducted their business and gone back to their day jobs?

Howard Kurtz: It would help if people would cite the specific columns or stories they're referring to. But I think there's a general understanding that "czars" is journalistic shorthand. My first czar (leaving aside a cursory study of Russian history) was President Ford's so-called energy czar.

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RE: Detroit: People who lost an election by a large margin (7%) go berserk when the new President follows a slightly tamer policy line than that of the ex-President. They carry signs that are exceptionally racially-based (some favs: "Robbin' for da Hood"; "African Lyin"). I think it is safe to say these folks do not want "Their Country Back" just cause the President is black.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but how many people have carried these signs? Just as critics on the right once tried to discredit antiwar demonstration because of the presence of a few crazies, I don't think the left should dismiss protests of the kind we saw Saturday because of a wack-job fringe with offensive signs or slogans.

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Cincinnati, OH: Howard Kurtz: I do think it's fair to ask where some of these folks were when Bush's spending soared out of control.

Good question - but the answer is clear. They showed their displeasure at the ballot box in 2006 and 2008. Sure, there were no demonstrations in 06 or 08, but there were a sizeable group of Republicans and center-right independents that were unhappy with how spending got out of control. They expressed their displeasure by not voting in 06/08, or voting Democratic. This is part of the reason why the Democrats took over Congress in 2006 - the Republican base was upset and not motivated. The spending was a key factor in that.

Now that nothing has changed with a complete change in the party in power, those center-right independents are even more frustrated.

Howard Kurtz: I think your analysis of disaffected Republicans and independents is right. But these are not necessarily the people shouting at town halls or showing up at the 9/12 protests. I'm sure there are some disaffected Obama voters there, judging by the polls, but I doubt most of them are using the kind of anti-government, anti-Obama rhetoric we're seeing.

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Silver Spring, MD: I'm not sure I would fault the media for getting caught off guard on the Van Jones thing. I'm still trying to figure out why Obama had him step down. His worse "sin" seems to be signing a truther petition - an act which puts him squarely in the conspiracy land mainstream of the Republican party (57% of whom "have doubts" that the president of the US is an American). I'm sure Glenn Beck's jackboot thugs are licking their chops now, but I don't think the media missed anything, really. Should the weatherman be criticized for not predicting a freak weather event?

Howard Kurtz: Well, but major news organizations considered the Jones resignation significant enough to cover after the fact. Besides, I still consider the "Bush-types-knew-about-9/11" movement to be way out on the fringe of American politics.

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Public Respect: So public respect for the "media" is at an all time low. Is this a surprise? Why is it a "stunning" vote of no confidence as you stated it in your article? It was not stunning, it was - and is - predictable.

When CNN rushes out a story about gunfire on the Potomac because they overheard a Coast Guard training exercise on a police scanner (and all the other lemming media follow), doesn't apologize for it but instead claims they had to put it out because it was their duty, and then implies that it was the Coast Guard's fault for running a regularly scheduled exercise that they do four times a week. Is it any wonder that people have lost "respect" for the media?

Someone at CNN needs to be fired - not for airing the original report but for defending the decision. And then for a week they need to lead each show with an apology to the Coast Guard and to the American people about how they screwed up.

Then respect for the media - at least their small part of it - might start going up.

washingtonpost.com: Thumbs Down

Howard Kurtz: I am not defending what CNN did. I criticized it on my Reliable Sources program yesterday.

But public disaffection with the media clearly runs much deeper (and the CNN incident took place after the survey was completed). The numbers are stunning - not necessarily surprising - because such large majorities now have no confidence in the ability of news organizations to be fair and accurate. I was also struck by how much more critical Democrats have become of the media in the last two years.

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CZAR: Weak Howie. The word CZAR has been so debased and drained of meaning its basically just sensationalism. Please define CZAR for me. I would bet your definition wouldn't fit about 80 percent of the present usage.

Howard Kurtz: I'd go with big shot. But "czar" has one undeniable benefit -- it can fit into any headline.

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Washington DC: I'm not sure why you seem to think, from today's column, that media liberal bias, malfunctioning radar and dismissing Beck as a rabble-rouser are mutually exclusive explanations. Couldn't all three be true?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think they're mutually exclusive. In fact, dismissing a prominent Fox News host as a rabble-rouser could well be a form of liberal bias.

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Virginia: We were protesting Bush's expansion of government too (though the real issue was his huge Medicare expansion, not defense so much), but the media wasn't covering it much then, either.

Howard Kurtz: Funny, I can remember a thousand stories about the economic impact of Bush's tax cuts, the Iraq war and Medicare prescription drug benefit. And some conservative pundits took the administration to task for busting the budget. But I don't remember people yelling at town halls about Bush's big spending.

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Richmond Va: Why do right wing protesters get so much more attention and respect from the media as opposed to progressive protesters?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure that's true. Remember coverage of the antiwar protests? Remember Cindy Sheehan, who garnered a huge amount of media attention? The media provide the most attention when a protest is seen as broad-based. That was certainly true when much of the country turned against the Iraq war.

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Anonymous: What took the Sunday talk shows so long to get Sen. Olympia Snowe on one of their shows? Newt Gingrich and Howard Dean don't have votes, yet have appeared regularly. Yet until Face the Nation this weekend, Snowe was no where to be seen. Yet hers is a key vote, it seems to me. I have my own conspiratorial explanation that the Democratic-oriented shows don't want to highlight a moderate Democrat, and the Republican-oriented shows don't like to show there is any liberal wing of the GOP party left in Congress.

Howard Kurtz: I feel confident in saying that your conspiratorial explanation is wrong. I am sure (but have not asked) that the Sunday shows invited Snowe many times, but that only this weekend did she decide to say yes.

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Southern Maryland: I've become frustrated with people who either don't know or don't care that "socialism" is not simply big government. True socialism means doing away with all private enterprise, at least for a given economic sector, and not even the GM bailout qualifies. From your standpoint, is it fruitless for the media to clarify exactly what constitutes socialism?

Howard Kurtz: It's clearly an overstated charge. Is the Medicare program (which uses the dreaded single-payer approach) socialistic? Is the virtual government takeover of General Motors socialistic? You could argue yes in both cases. But on health care, where the criticism is most frequently heard, Obama is very clearly preserving a key role for private insurance companies, not to mention private doctors, hospitals and other providers.

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"I don't remember people yelling in town halls about Bush's big spending": Right, as though Bush was ever allowed within miles of his critics.

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps, but you don't need the president there in person to loudly complain about his policies. Obama wasn't present at the town halls that generated so much sound and fury and so many snippets endlessly replayed on cable. And at the two or three town hall meetings that the president did hold, nobody really took him on.

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Bush's big spending: Seventh grade civics teaches that only the Congress can apportion and spend dough, not the President. And so far, with majorities since 2006, the Dems haven't reversed much of that spending.

Howard Kurtz: That is true. It is far easier for Congress to spend than to cut. But in fairness, the $787 billion stimulus law was rushed through by the Democratic Congress when the economy was in free fall.

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Richmond, VA: "Howard Kurtz: "Many" is a great journalistic dodge, second only to "some." But it is hard if not impossible to quantify something that involves, say, thousands of school districts, or, potentially, millions of parents. "

I would say the best journalistic dodge is "according to experts".

I do wish that that the attribution for anonymous sources would read "wished to remain anonymous for fear of being held accountable for their comments".

Howard Kurtz: I like that.

And yes, the journalistic reliance on experts--say, the experts who told us the economy was fine and the big banks weren't taking unacceptable risks by shoveling all that subprime mortgage money out the door -- often seems short-sighted and lazy. And what about those experts who said that Hillary was a lock for the nomination?

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Socialism : I have new respect for Lyndon Johnson. However did we get Medicare passed in this lunatic country?

Howard Kurtz: LBJ was a master tactician and arm-twister, he had big Democratic majorities, and there was not yet the deep-rooted skepticism of government that prevails in the country today. At the same time, Medicare has been hugely more expensive than Johnson predicted in pushing through the program.

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Athens GA: Can you look me in the eye and tell me WaPo's editorial biases have no role in news reporting. Editorial biases are fine in editorials and columns. But they should not have any role in news reporting. I think that is the most basic ethics of journalism.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, I can look you in the eye -- virtually, at least -- and say just that. Professionally speaking, I don't care what stance the editorial page takes, it doesn't affect my reporting, or that of my colleagues, one iota. (Look at the WSJ for an even more dramatic example.) Now I can't tell you that my life experiences and attitudes, or those of my colleagues, enables us to achieve some supernatural state of total objectivity, though we try our hardest to be fair. But there really is a church-state division here when it comes to the newsroom and the editorial page.

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Baltimore: Howard - Just as you point out that the MSM ignored the Van Jones story, so it now seems the same is happening with the series videotapes in when ACORN workers advise clients on how to successfully break various laws, a story being carried only by FOX. Question: If something is on FOX first, does that automatically make it anathema for the MSM lest they be thought to anti-Obama?

Howard Kurtz: Fox has certainly pumped it up, but I saw that ACORN story on CNN as well, and also in The Washington Post.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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