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Howard Kurtz On Obama's Media Blitz and the Fox News Snub

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 21, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Sept. 21 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.

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Kurtz has been the Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War," "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Boodleville, Md.: Good morning, Howard.

With all due respect to you and virtually all the other analysts and pundits, I think everyone has completely missed a full half of the point about Obama's "full Ginsburg" of five talk shows this weekend.

In my view, it didn't matter that much if Obama was "off his game," as you suggest, or what issues he talked about, or how well. What everyone is missing is this: while Obama is ON one of these shows, his critics and opponents are NOT on them. Just by showing up on five shows, Obama takes away five opportunities for Gingrich or Grassley or Baucus, or Rove, or any of a dozen rightwing wingnut Conservatives to bloviate in those prime time slots. (Sure, they get their licks in. But they are instantly relegated to also-rans when Obama has the top spot. And who cares what the also-rans had to say?)

So yes, Obama gets his message out -- but at the same time he pre-empts the opposition. The pre-emption alone is worth more (in my view) than what he actually says.

Howard Kurtz: That notion occurred to me, but it doesn't quite hold up. These are hour-long programs (except for Face), and the interviews were 15 minutes, so they all critics such as John Boehner and Mitch McConnell on afterward. Did the president absolutely dominate the news coming out of the Sunday shows? Of course he did. But if the best that can be said is that he overshadowed his opponents for one day, that doesn't sound like a big achievement.

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Seattle: If I were the Prez I would actually be worried by an appearance on Letterman. Both Letterman and Stewart will ask the difficult questions that the networks will not ask.

Howard Kurtz: Dave could surprise some folks. We'll see tonight.

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Reston, Va.: Howard,

With over 100 one-on-one interviews conducted thus far, when do you think the MSM will reach the point they did with Bush: They stop airing Obama's speeches because there's "no there there"?

Howard Kurtz: The cable networks air a lot of Obama's speeches, though not every single one. But they did the same with Bush and Clinton. Sometimes they'll dump out of it after a few minutes if it just seems like boilerplate.

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Austin, Tex.: Media credibility is at a low ebb - and I can point to one example of why that might be. The lack of consistency in judging elected officials and their activities. The media was fairly critical of Bush's lack of press conferences and his very very infrequent interviews with media outlets. Now that Obama is doing interviews - you're complaining about how much exposure he's getting.

This is one reason that people are losing respect for you guys. You're never happy - but simply looking for a reason to carp. You guys are a bunch of Goldilocks - everything is too much or too little. So you focus on process rather than substance.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not "complaining" about anything. I'm analyzing two things: Is the blitz strategy working for the White House, and what kind of job are the interviewers doing? We have two other news stories in today's Post about the substance of what the president said. My job is to be the media critic. As a journalist, I'm glad that Obama is making himself quite accessible to the press. But whether the five-Sunday-show thing yields much in the way of tangible results for him is another question.

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Philadelphia: Mr. Kurtz, you wrote this in this morning's column:

"This is an eye-opening piece of video that I and others got the other day: A Fox News producer whipping up the crowd at the 9/12 protest in D.C. so they would hoot and holler during Griff Jenkins's live shot. Talk about choreographing, not covering, the news.

"The employee is a young, relatively inexperienced associate producer who realizes she made a mistake and has been disciplined," Fox News Channel Washington Bureau Chief Bryan Boughton told the Huffington Post."

Question for you: Why is this out of line, but the entire protest's being "whipped up" by a Fox personality, to considerable aiding-and-abetting by the network as a whole, o.k.?

And then Fox complains about not being treated like other news sources? There's a difference between Fox and ALL the others. Even MSNBC, which some on the right like to present as the Fox of the left, is neutral during the day, and the overtly-ideological evening hosts do not, so far as I can tell, lie to support their point of view. Rachel Maddow in particular strikes me as a highly professional, highly intelligent person who happens to have a point of view and support it, but does so honestly.

Okay, just had to get that off my chest. But seriously, Fox is a real problem in my opinion, not because of its ideology (even though I admit to not liking it), but because of its dishonesty and demagoguery in support of it. So, your reaction to my question above? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I'm always cautious about this "network as a whole" stuff. Have Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity promoted these protests and opposition to Obama generally? Of course they have. They are also opinion guys, which doesn't mean they shouldn't be held accountable but does mean they're not part of the news operation. I judge, for instance, Major Garrett, who covers the White House, very differently. What made the producer's actions particularly egregious is that she is part of the newsroom. These were supposed to be straight news reports by Griff Jenkins on the D.C. protest, and viewers didn't know the crowd was hooting and hollering because his producer was waving her arm to get them hepped up.

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Skipping Fox News: Howard, whether it's worth going there is debatable but the administration is clearly pushing a message that Fox News is not a legitimate news operation and shouldn't be treated as one. At this point, isn't that a fair question?

Putting aside the prime time shows which aren't news shows and aren't balanced by any means, Fox News' coverage of this administration has clearly crossed a line. Latest case in point: a Fox field producer caught firing up the crowd behind a live shot at the tea baggers rally on the Mall.

Do you think the administration is right to do this? Isn't it time to really decide if Fox provides journalism or propaganda?

Howard Kurtz: Obama sat for interviews with Bill O'Reilly during the campaign and Chris Wallace earlier this year. And White House communications director Anita Dunn tells me the president will talk to Fox again in the coming months. But the administration isn't doing much to hide its disdain for Fox; the president has taken a number of swipes at the network. I wonder if Obama will go back to Wallace when he's ready to do Fox, in light of the Fox News Sunday host just having called the White House a "bunch of crybabies."

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Who cares?: Howie, yesterday you tweeted a few times about John Edwards. Then I picked up my NYT and saw that they had made Edwards paternity a front page story. All I could think is that here is a person one-term Senator who never received more than 15% of the Democratic primary vote and was out of both races before March. Who cares?

You know what? You guys handled it the right way when you ignored Rudy and Newt's equally loathsome sexual behavior.

Howard Kurtz: I think it's an important story. John Edwards was not only a credible candidate for president last year and a potential Obama Cabinet member until the scandal broke, he came close to being elected vice president in 2004. What's more, after the National Enquirer exposed him as a liar, he went on Nightline and said yes, he'd had an affair with Rielle Hunter, but no, it wasn't his baby. So if he's back in the news as that denial appears to fall apart, he has no one to blame but himself. Also, there's the little matter of a criminal investigation into whether campaign funds were improperly funneled to the mistress.

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Atlanta: I completely disagree with Boodleville. He's the president, he shouldn't be showing up EVERYWHERE looking like an infomercial salesman.. He needs to have some respect for the office. Once he's off on every single show out there, trying to 'get his message out' and repeating the same things over and over, he's lost his audience. Seriously, how many times are presidents on those programs? SO very rarely. Cause they don't want to get lost in the muckety muck. Let everyone else duke it out. The president should be sending his minions, so to speak.

Howard Kurtz: Well, since he's the president, he gets to decide, and I don't see any shows turning him down. Maybe he should have been the judge on American Idol instead of Ellen DeGeneres. But the idea that a presidential appearance on the tube is no longer an EVENT is at the heart of the column I wrote today. White House officials have a different view, that the media world is so fragmented that Obama must do everything he can to fill up the circuits. The administration might consider putting the vice president out more, but Joe Biden has talked himself into trouble on a couple of these outings.

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Washington, DC: Hi Howard. Hope you enjoyed your weekend.

Chris Wallace called the Obama administration cry babies multiple times this week for not appearing on Fox News Sunday. So let's add this up.

1. The host of a show is willing to call you cry-babies on the record.

2. The network of the show refuses to show your prime time events, unlike any other network.

3. The network literally sponsors protests against you.

4. The network literally spend their entire prime time deriding you.

5. The show is the lowest rated talk show.

As a media critic, do you think that it is better to go into the lion's den, rewarding this behavior but potentially converting skeptics, or make a point that you do not believe the network or its viewers will be impacted at all by your message, while any viewers that may be will see you on one of the other 5 outlets.

Howard Kurtz: Well, that's the question. (It's not quite right that the network refuses to show your prime-time events. First, Fox News shows them; it's the Fox broadcast network that doesn't, and that may be driven in part by the millions of dollars in revenue that each network gives up in advertising revenue. Also, Fox broadcast did carry the first three Obama prime-time news conferences, balking only at the fourth and at this month's address to Congress.)

Maybe that's a good reason to avoid Fox, but Fox News has the biggest cable news audience. The ultimate goal, of course, is to make your case to the viewers, not Chris Wallace.

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Philadelphia: Is it disingenuous for Wallace to whine about Obama not doing Fox on Sunday? Wasn't it ONLY Fox who got Cheney for the last 9 years?

Howard Kurtz: No, Cheney went on Meet the Press with Russert several times, and with Schieffer on Face the Nation, and other shows as well. Fox News certainly got several Cheney exclusives. There's no question that the last administration favored Fox and that this administration dislikes Fox. The question is whether the best strategy is to ignore Roger Ailes's network. I did notice that David Axelrod went on O'Reilly a couple of weeks ago.

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Baltimore: Howard - I didn't see any of Obama's appearances yesterday but would like your objective opinion - did any of the five questioners ask any aggressive questions and have strong follow-ups or did they simply offer questions that allowed him to make boilerplate speeches?

Howard Kurtz: They all asked good questions and good follow-ups. David Gregory, Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos and John King (my CNN colleague) are all good at their jobs. But if a president wants to stick to his talking points and avoid making news, it can be difficult to knock him off that script. (Stephanopoulos tried by pressing the president on whether forcing people to buy health insurance was a tax; King pressed on how people were still hurting despite the administration's contention that the economy is rebounding.) The most interesting things Obama had to say, in my view, were not on health care of Afghanistan but on race and what he sees as the distorting effect of cable news, blogs and the 24-hour news cycle.

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But the administration isn't doing much to hide its disdain for Fox; the president has taken a number of swipes at the network. : Yet, you don't talk about all the swipes the network has taken at Obama? And you blame Obama for taking swipes at the network? On that point I have no idea what you're talking about but on my point there are clear indications of the former everyday.

Howard Kurtz: Are you kidding? Glenn Beck called Obama a "racist" who has a "deep-seated hatred of white culture." I write about this stuff all the time. The president, for his part, has chided Hannity by name a couple of times. When he met with the House GOP caucus at the start of the year, Obama said its members should feel free to whack him: "I'll watch Fox News and feel bad about myself." Chris Wallace asked the president about that in February, questioning whether he is "thin-skinned." Obama said he was obviously joking.

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Arlington, VA: A few weeks ago, the NY Times called the Washington Times a conservative newspaper and John Solomon, the Wash Times editor, managed to get a correction to the effect that, while the editorials were conservative, the paper was not. I wonder about this because I believe that the selection of stories for the Wash Times' front page, subjects, caters to a conservative audience. There is nothing wrong with that but it does give the impression that the paper is conservative.

Howard Kurtz: The Washington Times is far more balanced since John Solomon took over last year. (Solomon came from The Post, as did its new White House correspondent, Matthew Mosk, and a top editor, Jeff Birnbaum.) In its previous two decades, the Times front-page often resembled a right-wing bulletin board, and its previous editor told me he regarded it as a conservative newspaper.

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Boston: Howie, I'm one of those guys who loves my newspapers. Unfortunately I almost exclusively read them online. However I got the Sunday Globe yesterday. Very good throughout.

That said, boy Macy's only had about 108 inches and the movies almost none. There was a time when the Burdines, Hecht's, Filene's and Macy's covered entire newspapers and the Sunday entertainment section was filled with movie notices. The problem with papers lies not with my habits, or papers political persuasion but with the sad consolidation in retail.

Howard Kurtz: The retail consolidation has really been a blow to newspapers. But people who read them almost exclusively online is also hurting the print product (not that we don't appreciate the Web traffic).

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Cincinnati: Hello, Howard

My question is about coverage of the economy. "Newsweek" told me the recession is over, other media are writing similar things, and the Obama Administration can't wait to brag about how its stimulus package has worked--to apparent indifference here.

The situation is quite the opposite here. I'm self-employed and declaring bankruptcy after my income has plunged to about a third of what it was this time last year. (And I am not eligible for unemployment benefits.) A deacon at my Catholic church, located in an affluent area, tells me the local neighborhood food bank can't keep food on its shelves because the demand is so high. They want beans because it is a good source of protein.

The reality does not match the reporting. Do you think this is a case of wishful thinking by national reporters, who in many cases are not affected by the recession--(excluding those who have been laid off)?

This reminds me of the run-up to the recession in early 2008 when I felt the opposite was true.

Howard Kurtz: "Recession" is a technical term (two consecutive quarters of negative growth), so while it may be over, that doesn't mean people like you aren't hurting. Even in the best recoveries, employment is a lagging indicator as it takes time for businesses to reach the point where they start hiring again. This is one is shaping up as more of a jobless recovery, which is going to make lots of people wonder why they're being left behind as the economic statistics improve.

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British Columbia, Canada: Good show yesterday Howie, EXCEPT for Amy interrupting. I usually like listening to this bright, politically savvy young woman, she's usually so well spoken, but yesterday she was downright rude with her interrupting of your other guests, before they had finished talking. She was acting like it was her show. What gives? I want the non-rude Amy back!

Howard Kurtz: Thanks, but I didn't see Amy Holmes as being rude at all on Reliable Sources. When guests mix it up they sometimes interrupt -- so does the host, by the way -- and as long as it doesn't get out of hand, that's fine.

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Los Angeles: Can the Obama administration go too far with their message about turning a blind eye to racism?

I mean I was walking past a town hall protester with my 5-year-old and that was the first time he'd ever seen a swastika.

It's somewhat freaky to me that the Town Hall Protesters are responsible for my children and their friends needing an explanation of what a Nazi is.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the administration is turning a blind eye to racism. There have always been crazies and racists out there. What the president is saying is that he doesn't believe most of his critics are motivated by racism, though he said yesterday that there are obviously some people who don't like him or didn't vote for him because of race. He doesn't want to get drawn into a big debate about race, not surprisingly, because that takes the spotlight off his push to pass health care.

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Atlanta: 'the recession is over'

IF it's over, it has nothing to do with the 'stimulus' package. Most of that money has not been spent and won't be spent til mid next year.

So the economy's getting better on its own (again, IF it's getting better). No thanks to politicians mucking it up.

Howard Kurtz: That's not entirely true. Some money has been spent this year - many billions, in fact - and that has created or saved a certain number of jobs. So whether the law was a good idea or not, it has kept the unemployment rate lower than it would have been without government intervention. Keep in mind the stimulus also included tax cuts, which help the economy as well.

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Winnipeg, Canada: I was on a plane yesterday, and the person beside me had Fox News playing on his monitor. I couldn't hear what people were saying, but I became fascinated by watching the body language of the people involved. One segment featured Chris(not sure of his first name?) Wallace interviewing a woman from Acorn and presumably someone who was attacking Acorn. The interesting thing to me was that both people's facial expressions, gestures, and body language seemed to be absolutely sincere. Wallace, on the other hand, seemed to be sneering at both of them, and enduring rather tan participating in the discussion. Afterwards there was a panel discussion with, among others, Juan Williams and Brit Hume. Wallace's demeanor didn't change, but the panelists, with the exception of Hume, all projected an air of honest sincerity. Hume looked as if he was sitting in a manure processing facility instead of a TV studio. Now I'm tempted to watch TV with the sound off all the time.

Howard Kurtz: I have a hard enough time critiquing television as it is. I don't think I'm going to attempt to do it with the sound off. (Wallace, by the way, was interviewing Bertha Lewis, the head of ACORN, about the scandal that threatens the organization, which is interesting, since Fox pushed the uncover-pimp tape really hard and at once point she was threatening to sue Fox.)

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Washington, D.C. : Mr. Kurtz--I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote, "Unscripted moments also stand out during interviews when there is little on-the-record news."

"Kabuki dance" doesn't even begin to describe the bored ritualistic ho-hum nature of these un-terviews: Interviewer: "Here's the question you know I'm going to ask." President: "Here's my scripted answer."

I believe that these interviews don't just hurt the President (he becomes boring, fading into the furniture of Blah-blah Government), but they also hurt the media.

Is there anything these shows/hosts can do? They can't refuse the President; they can't get him to stop reciting rehashed paragraphs-with-pauses; what can they do?

Howard Kurtz: Well, you always try to throw a couple of curve balls. But if you've got 15 minutes with the president of the United States, you've got to ask about health care, the economy and Afghanistan. That doesn't mean the questions are "scripted," but every White House prepares the president for possible questions, and those are obvious topics. I was surprised that Obama didn't have a stronger answer when Stephanopoulos brought up ACORN, rather than just deflecting the question by saying he hasn't paid much attention to the scandal.

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Richmond, Va.: Thanks for writing the article about the Post Magazine.

Post Magazine Killed 'Depressing' Story

I read the article and was happy that you brought it to our attention and did the (what I figure was unpleasant) digging to find out why it was killed.

Howard Kurtz: That's part of my job.

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Tax cuts, which help the economy as well.: Oh, you mean like how all those tax cuts Bush gave to the rich? Yep, those really helped the economy Howie.

Howard Kurtz: The argument over tax cuts is always over how large they are (can the economy afford them?) and who gets the benefits (which were tilted toward the affluent during the Bush administration). But there is no dispute among economists that tax cuts stimulate the economy by putting more cash in people's pockets.

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Egg Harbor Township, N.J.: Howie, Where do you rank this so-called ACORN scandal in importance when compared to the alleged politicizing of the Justice Department, non-existent WMDs, charges against the U.S. government of outsourcing torture and Blackwater?

Howard Kurtz: It's not as important as any of those, obviously. But that doesn't mean it's not a story. When the House and Senate both vote to cut off funding for the nation's largest community organizing group because of scandalous videotapes, that strikes me as a news story.

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Fairfax, Va.: Howard, I think you are over-simplifying this whole Obama news blitz thing. You are watching all of these interviews, but not everyone is. People have their favorites, and if he appears at each one, a lot more of them will get the message. It's pretty narrow focus to present the whole concept from the standpoint someone that watches everything, and then says it's boring to see him over and over. Don't you think?

Howard Kurtz: I start from the presumption that normal human beings, unlike me, are watching the president on Meet OR Face OR This Week OR State of the Union OR Univision. But I also measure the impact of these appearances by the follow-up coverage in newspapers, on television, and online. By that measure, if Obama's goal was to make significant news on health care, he fell short. The networks, as I've said, treated his answers on race as the most newsworthy.

And while most people didn't watch more than one Sunday show, if they watched at all, surely they've seen Obama on Leno, on 60 Minutes (three times), with the network anchors, on ESPN, on Nightline, and may catch him on Letterman tonight. Such ubiquity may be a smart strategy, but it has its risks.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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