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Media Backtalk: Letterman, Ensign, Spitzer, Engel on Afghanistan, Biden on Newsweek, Targeting Fox News

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

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz will be online Monday, Oct. 12, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

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Today's Column: Why Ensign is No Letterman

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."

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Egg Harbor, N.J.: I don't understand why you think the Ensign affair and (alleged) bribery case is so complicated? He had sex with a woman, who wasn't his wife and it appears, tried to buy them off with a job. In fact, it sounds eerily similar to the Letterman case, only Dave isn't being accused of breaking the law or was considered a candidate for president?

Ensign Extends Iowa Trip(TheFix, May 13)

Howard Kurtz: It's not that complicated until you get into the details of the lobbying aspect and whether the senator did or did not skirt federal rules by meeting with an ex-staffer turned lobbyist so soon after the aide (that would be the husband of Ensign's former mistress) left the Senate. The Ensign saga certainly got a bit of coverage when it broke, but was overshadowed by the Mark Sanford saga, which in turn was overshadowed by the latest in the John Edwards saga...

The NYT did some excellent reporting on Ensign, but obviously Letterman is about a million times more famous.

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Baltimore, Md.: Howard -- Your interview yesterday with Anita Dunn was nothing short of stunning. Her visceral bitterness toward FOX was amazing. The overall media was very much tougher on Clinton and Bush, yet those administrations didn't openly declare war on a network. FOX seems to be the only major news outlet that hasn't fallen in line in the Obama adulation chorus, and overall coverage continues to be worshipful. Dunn seems to be demanding 100 percent compliance from everyone. Don't her bitter remarks identify this as the most thin-skinned and vengeful administration ever?

Howard Kurtz: Those are pretty strong words. (We're talking here about my interview with the White House communications director, which aired yesterday on my CNN program "Reliable Sources.") This is not about Anita Dunn being "bitter." This represents a calculated decision by the White House to go after a network that it believes isn't giving Obama anything resembling a fair shake. The question I would raise is whether the president would benefit by engaging with Fox's audience. And of course Fox can now use this to market itself as the channel that stands up to the administration (a technique that was not available during the Bush administration).

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EW cover: A bit off your usual beat, but I was surprised to see the digitally doctored photo of David Letterman sans trousers on the cover of Entertainment Weekly last week. They did say in two places (in small print) that it was electronically generated, but I wonder how many people caught that and wondered how they got him to pose for such a tacky photo.

washingtonpost.com: Letterman on Entertainment Weekly (Examiner.com, Oct. 11)

Howard Kurtz: I missed that. I'm a very persistent critic of digital doctoring, from the infamous Time cover on O.J. to the slimmed-down Katie Couric. But I would say that EW cover is a pretty obvious gag that didn't mislead anyone.

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New York, NY: In today's article, you offered up the absolutely inane explanation that the Ensign story hasn't gotten more attention because it's too complicated. Really? We're supposed to believe the media can't figure out how to report that a senator had an affair with one of his staffers -- who happened to be married to another of his staffers -- then tried to buy the couples' silence by giving them $96,000 from his parents and getting the husband a new job? That's complicated?! How so, Howie?

Howard Kurtz: Again, it's the lobbying part that's complicated. But take that $96,000 that Ensign's parents paid to the mistress's family. I thought that would be a huge story--it sure smells like more than an innocent gift--and yet, outside of Nevada, it wasn't.

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Eastchester, N.Y.: Which hanky-panky stories do reporters hate to cover more, those with politicians or celebrities?

Howard Kurtz: Those involving media people.

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washingtonpost.com: Anita Dunn: Fox News Is "Research Arm of the Republican Party" (YouTube)

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Tysons Corner, Va.: One reason Letterman has gotten so much attention is because he's part of the Midtown mover/shaker bubble that the epicenter of the American news media is also a part of. For the national press, Letterman simply hits closer to home, so he gets exaggerated coverage. It's not much different than the expanded coverage afforded to martyred journalists in contrast to the non-coverage often given to all sorts of other martyrs.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Dave may be part of the Manhattan media mindset (though I don't think he works the New York party circuit much), but he's also a comedic icon who has been a late-night television host since 1983. Plus, it's pretty extraordinary for any host to go on the air and talk about a) an extortion plot, and b) having sex with women on his show. So I don't think the coverage is fully explained by proximity to the Ed Sullivan Theater.

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Letterman is about a million times more famous. : Just a million?

At least that, even in Reno!

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Duly noted.

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Rockville, Md.: Just about every time I am watching CNN (can not network) I see some reporter telling us we got to lose in Afghanistan. So the NBC reporter is not out of fashion. I wish he would report enough to convince us that we cannot win. I agree a military solution is not in the future -- but that our aid workers need security and a surge might give them space to do a job. Our best chance was when Iraq was in the headlines and our multinational efforts seem to have failed.

That is a bit ironical, because we really did in Afghanistan what President Bush's critics wanted him to do in Iraq. But it did not work.

Howard Kurtz: You're referring to the comments by Richard Engel on MSNBC. It's hard to respond without specifics. I'm not familiar with any CNN journalist saying we've got to lose in Afghanistan. Some guests may have argued that the war is unwinnable, I don't know, but others have argued that a troop buildup or better counterinsurgency strategy is necessary.

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Houston, Tex.: Howie, While listening to Washington Week over the weekend I noticed something that had occurred to me in the past. Gwen had Martha Raddatz as a guest and she continually referred to Gens. McChrystal and Patraeus as 'Stan McChrystal' and 'Dave Patraeus.' She referred to Adm. Mullen as 'Admiral Mullen.'

When I hear a report take such familiarity with public figures she's covering it makes me believe she's been captured by her subjects and is no longer objective. Given that her commentary on the show was straight-line Pentagon point of view, my belief was strengthened.

Do you believe it's appropriate for a reporter to get so close to public officials like she apparently is?

Howard Kurtz: Some journalists may be unduly influenced by their sources but Gwen Ifill is about the last person I would say that about. I hardly think using someone's first name indicates anything other than you've probably met the person. On the other hand, I often refer to Letterman as "Dave" although I've never met the guy. (And after this story, I don't expect to be receiving a "Late Show" invitation for the next decade or so.

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Arlington, Va.: I am old enough to remember (fondly) the days when the three papers in Washington -- the Post, Star and News -- chased each other on big stories one of them broke. So I am wondering why the silence from the Post on a fascinating New York Times story that traced Michelle Obama's ancestry back to a slave and a white. In the old days, I found silence from the other papers usually meant the story I read in one of the papers had no substance and readers should be skeptical. Does the Post's decision not to follow the New York Times story means the NYT story has no substance and isn't true? I'm not suggesting anything, but as one of your last remaining print readers, I am just trying to figure out how the media operates today.

Howard Kurtz: It was a great piece of reporting and we probably should have followed it up. It is difficult to add anything when you don't have the research, but I agree that it became a prime topic of conversation and should have made it into The Post in some form.

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Anonymous: I know why John Ensign got less coverage than Letterman. Who is John Ensign? Sure he's a senator, but he's one of the anonymous ones of them. If you watch C-SPAN, perhaps you have seen him, but otherwise he's not known outside of Nevada. Letterman is much more widely known. So the coverage is proportional to public attention given politicians these days, and I blame the media for that.

Howard Kurtz: But even in an ideal media world, can all 100 senators ever be as famous as a late-night television star?

Also, Ensign was not an ideal story for television because almost no one involved was talking. Mark Sanford, by contrast, kept talking and talking about his Argentine soul mate, and Sanford's wife made some comments as well. Never underestimate TV's need for videotape.

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Native New Jerseyan: Hate to disagree with a fellow Tri-Stater, but I agree with you that the Ensign thing was too complicated for people to follow, especially since they didn't know or couldn't identify the other players in the scene. Reminds me of the Clinton Whitewater scandal of the 90s. A couple of people went down, but not the major players. It was too complicated for most people to follow.

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps, but our job as journalists is to take complicated stories and make them accessible to average readers and viewers. Kind of like on health care.

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FOX v. Planet Earth: But Obama did engage with FOX viewers both with O'Reilly (I recall) and with Chris Wallace? Is this correct?

Is the White House contemplating more of these FOX characters (O'Hannity, O'Beck, O'Murdoch, Van Sustern) or just the same two from para above?

Wallace, at least, is a former working journalist.

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, Wallace and O'Reilly both interviewed Obama during the campaign, and Chris interviewed him earlier this year when Obama sat down with five networks. I don't know who at Fox the White House has in mind when Anita Dunn says the president will appear on the network again.

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Ensign is no Letterman: -Ensign is paid by taxpayers. Letterman is not. -Ensign makes policy affecting our lives. Letterman does not. -Ensign has been a visible and vocal proponent of fidelity in marriage (heterosexual marriage only, please) as defined by the Bible. Letterman has not. -Ensign's parents not only paid money to the woman with whom he had an affair, but divided it into portions which, by sheer coincidence, were just below the federal reporting requirements for gifts. I don't believe Letterman or his family has tried to buy the woman's (or women's) silence.

Howard Kurtz: You make some good points -- all of which suggest that Ensign should be a bigger story than it is. The senator, for his part, has acknowledged the affair but says he has violated no ethical or lobbying rules. Maybe it's that political affairs are becoming so commonplace.

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Fox News: Howard, trying to get this in early due to work. On CNN's Web site they have this: "In a written statement given to CNN, Fox News said its programming was comparable to the editorial page of a newspaper."

Doesn't this sort of validate the WH's view that Fox News is not like the other news networks?

Howard Kurtz: Here's the full statement from Fox News Senior VP Michael Clemente, so you can decide. He was likening the channel to a newspaper that has separate operations for news and opinion:

"An increasing number of viewers are relying on FOX News for both news and opinion, and the average news consumer can certainly distinguish between the A-section of the newspaper and the editorial page, which is what our programming represents.

So with all due respect to anyone who might still be confused between news reporting and vibrant opinion, my suggestion would be to talk about the stories and the facts rather than attack the messenger, which over time has never worked."

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Washington, D.C.: First Imus, then -- Lou Dobbs? If you join up with Fox, does that mean you're willing to be labeled as part of the "communication arm of the Republican Party" (quoting your interview with Anita Dunn)?

Are Imus and, potentially, Dobbs, naive enough to think that they can remain being seen as "Independent"? Or is Fox moving from "Conservative" to "Libertarian" (Stossel, Beck, etc)?

Finally, why hasn't someone responded to Ms. Anita Dunn, noting that MSNBC is just an arm of the DNC? (unless I missed someone...)

Howard Kurtz: I talked to Imus about that for last week's column (he, of course, is now on Fox Business Network, not Fox News Channel). Imus defended Fox's news operation, and said: "It's pretty hard to define where I am politically. People think I'm more liberal than I am conservative, which I probably am."

There are distinctions among Fox's commentators. For example, Bill O'Reilly said on Friday it was good for America that Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize (before going on to slam the Nobel committee as dopes.)

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Gwen Ifill : Reader probably meant Martha as being familiar. We've all seen her at least in the Iraq days of briefings sitting front row just right of center.

Both are very good. But I agree with questioner: I HATE familiarity with subjects. Makes me think they're all interbreeding with one another.

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I was saying that to Barack just the other day.

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Houston (again): Howie, It was Martha Raddatz that kept referring to the Generals by their first name, not Gwen. But she only did it with McChrystal and Patraeus, not Admiral Mullen. That made it seem more an indication of specific relationships that a blanket tone of familiarity.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for clarifying. Martha Raddatz, a former Pentagon reporter, has frequently reported from Iraq.

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Baltimore, Md.: Howard - Do you think the White House declaration of war against Fox is primarily meant to be a warning shot to other media that if they don't continue to play nice, they will be targeted next?

Howard Kurtz: Targeted for what? Being scolded at White House press briefings? Not getting to go out for burgers with Obama? No I don't.

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Anonymous: I take issue with your column on Ensign and Letterman. The Ensign matter has been public knowledge for several months now, and has been aired in newspaper columns repeatedly. I also would like columns on Letterman to note that the comedian did not get married until this last March. We do not know the dates of these relationships, but it certainly looks to me as if Letterman was not married when these relationships with other women took place. Ensign was married. Are we now in some American media circus trying to run exposes on what 62-year-old single males do in their private lives?

Howard Kurtz: Leaving aside that Letterman has dated Regina Lasko (now his wife) for more than two decades and they had a son in 2003, it's Dave who described his conduct as "creepy" and "stupid" and delivered two on-air apologies. To his credit, he has been harder on himself than some of his cheerleaders in the media.

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Fairfax County, Va.: Hi Howard, This Sunday, I read the editorials in The Post and The New York Times about the surprise Peace Prize. I liked the NYT editorial (which was pro), but like most of us, including Obama, I could certainly have handled an editorial that was anti this choice.

When I read The Washington Post editorial, I felt so sad for what this paper has become. Their whole idea was that the prize should have gone to Neda, the woman who was murdered by the Iranian police. Nobel Peace Prizes can't be given posthumously. It's a basic, easy factcheck. There are other fact problems, too (the protests hadn't happened by the nomination date, Neda may not have been a protester).

So the idea that the committee made a careless or inappropriate choice is refuted by a slapdash editorial "choice" that nobody bothered to check? It just screamed out to me "we laid off almost all the copy editors." I feel so sad for The Post I grew up with. It's great to have an opinion. It's bad to look dumb.

washingtonpost.com: Post Editorial: Our Laureate: Neda of Iran (Post, Oct. 10) andTimes Editorial: The Peace Prize (The New York Times, Oct. 9)

Howard Kurtz: I take your point about no posthumous awards, though by that standard Martin Luther King couldn't have won after being assassinated (yes, I know he won the prize earlier). My reading of the piece was that Neda was being used more as a symbol (though the rule should have been mentioned). But it's an editorial. It is by definition opinion. Of course some readers are going to disagree.

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New York City: So, did CNN deliberately misrepresent the statement from Fox News Senior VP Michael Clemente or did the questioner?

Howard Kurtz: Hello? I read the Fox statement in full, and it was put on the screen as a graphic.

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The overall media was very much tougher on Clinton and Bush, yet those administrations didn't openly declare war on a network: I distinctly remember George Bush refusing to call on a reporter from a paper he thought wasn't being favorable.

Howard Kurtz: Not sure who you're referring to, but Bush and Cheney openly criticized the New York Times, among others, for publishing the Pulitzer-winning stories about the administration's domestic surveillance program. And Fox was the go-to network for the Bush White House. Clinton's battles with what he once called "the knee-jerk liberal press" were legion, and there was at least one instance in which he didn't call on a news organization at a press conference because he was unhappy with what the organization had reported. None of that amounts to a war, however.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hooray. You mentioned health care. Now perhaps reporters can tell us what back-door deals were made with the White House to get silence on this bill from the hospital groups, the American Medical Assn., big pharma and the AARP. This legislation has been percolating for months, but the deals made to get it still are unknown. Where is the reporting?

Howard Kurtz: I've been reading about these deals for months. Some of them were announced by the White House. We can always use more reporting, but this has been no secret to anyone following the story.

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"a fascinating New York Times story that traced Michelle Obama's ancestry back to a slave and a white.": I find this comment amazing -- while the NYT story was interesting, it was not because Michelle Obama has a white ancestor. Almost every black person in America whose ancestors were slaves have some white blood. Schools don't mention it (I guess because of age?) but there was a lot of raping of slaves back then.

washingtonpost.com: In First Lady's Roots, a Complex Path From Slavery (The New York Times, Oct. 7)

Howard Kurtz: But that's what made it so fascinating. Yes, we've all kind of known this practice was common, but to tie such master-slave relations to the family of the first lady of the United States personalized it in a way that made it feel very real. I had a similar feeling reading today's front-page Post piece about George Washington's billing records. I certainly knew that Washington owned slaves--I've seen their quarters at Mount Vernon--but there was something palpable about reading that he bought at a public auction "Ned," "a girl Murria," "Old Abner," and "a Wench Dinah."

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Boston, Mass.: I see today's chat is dominated by Dunn's calling out of FOX (and by the way hard to disagree with her characterization). However, as I recall the original missive from the Obama communications team singled out shoddy reports in the Post and the Times. Why can't we focus on those rather than an entertaining, but flawed cable channel?

Howard Kurtz: I reported that on my blog, with a response from Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt (Dunn had criticized an op-ed piece by Rep. Eric Cantor). I also asked Dunn about her general criticism of the media and about the Nobel Prize coverage, but it was the Fox comments that made news.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

After reading in the AP about this, I have to ask: why exactly is Tim Russert so special that his office is being recreated at the Newseum for an exhibit as though he was some kind of journalism god? I think he was good at his job, but I don't think his achievements were so extraordinary that he would merit this kind of display.

washingtonpost.com: Newseum recreates Tim Russert's office in exhibit (AP)

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's not the Smithsonian, it's the Newseum. Russert's death last year was a major event in journalism. Personally, I'd rather see the focus on what he did than where he worked. And having been in his NBC office a number of times, I didn't think it was particularly colorful. But a museum, of course, relies heavily on visual exhibits.

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washingtonpost.com: Washington: First in War, Peace -- and Accounting (Post, Oct. 12)

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Richmond, Va.: I'm a supporter of Gay rights, but I was wondering about the extensive coverage of the march this weekend. How did the numbers compare to the Tea Bag thingee that was held a few months ago? Just wondering because there's no doubt we'll be hearing about it from the right-leaning media outlets, and if the sizes were equal, I must admit they have a point.

Howard Kurtz: I thought the volume of coverage for the gay rights demonstration was about right. With tens of thousands attending, it wasn't a huge protest by Washington standards. But it was controversial within the gay movement, with Barney Frank calling it a waste of time. And it coincided with Obama's speech to a gay rights organization in which he pledged to repeal don't ask-don't tell, but didn't commit to any timetable and has drawn some flak from gay activists as a result. Also, the press loves stories about a politician disappointing his or her base.

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Please...: How often did George Bush and Dick Cheney appear on Fox News compared to how often they appeared on other national news outlets? Let's stop pretending. Fox is, and has always been, a propaganda arm of the Republican Party. I think everybody knows that by now, so I'm wondering why it's such a shock when the Obama administration (particularly) calls them out for it?

Howard Kurtz: Cheney in particular didn't do that many interviews, but he did appear on "Meet the Press" several times. And Bush also did interviews with other networks. I don't have a count of whether they appeared on Fox more often, but certainly Brit Hume had a fair amount of access.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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