Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post columnist
Monday, October 19, 2009 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Oct. 19, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

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."


Princeton, N.J.: Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the sheriff now says the Balloon Boy episode was a hoax, can you explain why the broadcast and cable networks were giving the Heene family celebrity treatment Thursday night and Friday morning? By that time the best-case scenario was that they had made a dreadful mistake that wasted tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, halted flights in and out of Denver, and exposed first responders to possible danger. Why would the networks choose to to glorify that?

Howard Kurtz: I was as sickened by the rush to put this strange family on the air as the 6-year-old was as he kept puking on GMA and Today. If you bought their story that they had just learned hours earlier that Falcon was alive, what on earth were they doing in front of the cameras?

Yes, it was the hot story of the moment, so all the TV shows wanted to ask them how-do-you-feel questions. But I have to challenge the premise of your question: By Thursday night/Friday morning, it was not clear that the thing had been a hoax; we only knew that Falcon was hiding in the garage but Mr. Wife Swap was maintaining that they thought he might be aboard the balloon. And it was my CNN colleague Wolf Blitzer's question--to which the boy said he was doing it "for a show"--that prompted the sheriff's office to intensify its investigation.


Alexandria, Va.: Thank goodness your show on CNN doesn't air at 1 p.m., otherwise you would have been pre-empted by the press conference for the "balloon boy" hoax. Poor Fareed Zakaria, his discussion of world crises had to be put on hold while what what passes for electronic journalism wallowed in this trivia.

Howard Kurtz: I don't have any problem with the cable channels covering a news conference by the local sheriff at which he announced that the entire balloon episode was a hoax and publicity stunt and that he planned to pursue criminal charges. That was news. I saw a note on CNN saying that Fareed Zakaria's show would air after the presser. He probably got a bigger lead-in audience!


New York, N.Y.: A couple days ago, the only issue you raised about "Balloon Boy" related to whether the media's coverage of the initial incident was excessive. (You thought not.)

But now, it seems like there's a veritable cornucopia of media issues on the table.

Is this the first time you've seen the media so thoroughly punked by both sides (i.e., the alleged hoaxer and, if one believes the sheriff, law enforcement)?

Howard Kurtz: No, television gets punked a lot. Before the runaway balloon was the runaway bride, who claimed she'd been kidnapped. TV was all over that, till it turned out that Jennifer Willbanks had simply gotten cold feet about her wedding. With these breaking stories you often see the raw process of reporting on cable: show the live pictures and scramble around to figure out whether something it true. That, unfortunately, is the nature of live TV. In the Willbanks case, television simply could have waited to learn whether there was any substance to the kidnapping claim. With rescue workers in Colorado fanning out as a hot-air balloon races across the sky, it's a bit harder to ignore.


Washington, D.C.: I think that one of the best points made in the last few weeks in this White House/FOX kerfuffle was made by the Daily Show. There was a big gay rights march in D.C. last weekend and FOX spent about 4 minutes on it, compared with literally weeks and weeks of coverage of a similarly-sized march by the Tea Partiers, complete with live on-the scene coverage. I was surprised you didn't touch on this at all. It's a perfect example of even though FOX does "news" during the day, that "news" is driven by conservative talking points.

Howard Kurtz: You mean that Fox News devoted more attention to the tea-party protests (cheered on by some of its hosts) than to the gay rights demonstration? That is truly shocking.


Anonymous: I love how these people who just want attention with the hoax get this attention by interviews with national media. And then shows keep talking about them, giving them exactly what they want. This can go around and around until they get a reality TV show.


Howard Kurtz: It seems to have calmed down a bit today, but I do think the media have a tendency to go crazy over some cockamamie event and then, when it turns out to be untrue, go even crazier in covering how it could have happened (often ignoring their role in the process). I could live without all the experts and child psychologists who've been on the air yakking about why the family did this and so on. As for the perpetrators, I'd certainly tune in if Richard Heene winds up with a reality show behind bars.


Anonymous: I hope they throw the book at the balloon idiot for child abuse for forcing the kid to lie to the point where he became physically ill. This guy's a shade below Michael Vick in despicable behavior

Howard Kurtz: You're not going to get an argument from me. But I wonder what "the book" consists of. Falsely calling 911 may not be the most serious charge. Lying to investigators could carry a hefty jail term, however.


Ballston, Va.: Mr. Kurtz, I was disappointed to see the Post endorse Deeds. In virtually any close race the Post consistently endorses the liberal candidate over the conservative one, with the only exception being when a moderate candidate has run against Moran. While the line between opinion and journalism is increasingly blurred, it's hard to take the paper's claim of being non-partisan seriously anymore.

Howard Kurtz: Your logic doesn't make sense. It is the EDITORIAL page. It is the one place in the newspaper that is clearly marked as opinion. It is a moderately liberal page, so it's hardly surprising that the board is backing the Democrat in the Virginia race. I would hardly conclude from that that the paper's reporting is somehow biased. And I'd say the same thing if the editorial page had endorsed the Republican candidate for governor.


St. Paul, Minn.: Howard:

I want to get back to the president and Fox News. I am still of the opinion he should press the attack harder. The famous Liz Trotta comment last year came during one of the regular news shows. The most telling part to me of that incident was the lack of other Fox folks who seemed bothered by her suggestion.

Seems to me this kind of stuff (admittedly usually not that severe) goes on a lot during these shows. So, until the rhetoric cools down a bit, why should the president or one of his associates walk into a lion's den?

Howard Kurtz: The Liz Trotta comment may be "famous" but I don't know which one you're referring to. I did find an appearance last year in which Trotta said of Sarah Palin: "The woman is inarticulate, undereducated." Trotta is a Fox News contributor and a conservative. So she's allowed to pop off. CNN also has conservative contributors (Bill Bennett, Mary Matalin). The question, on any network, is whether they're balanced by liberal contributors.


Not a hot air balloon: Howie, that was not a hot air balloon -- it was a helium balloon.

Howard Kurtz: I guess all the hot-air commentary got me confused.


Obama vs. Fox News: Wow, imagine what the administration would do if any of the other TV networks dared to question them! You really can't buy this kind of publicity.

Howard Kurtz: My sense is that Fox News has been absolutely loving this. It helps the channel's effort to portray itself as the only media outlet that gets under Obama's skin.


Baltimore, Md.: Re the balloon: Here's the thing my girlfriend pointed out when we watched the balloon in flight -- there seemed to be nowhere to hang on, there was no basket, etc. Where was the kid supposed to be in that contraption?

Howard Kurtz: In the battery pack, supposedly. But the truth is, at the time, the anchors had no idea.


Washingtonm, D.C.: Howard -- Your interview yesterday with WaPo columnist Michael Wilbon was fascinating, but you let him get away with some crazy statements without follow-up. One was that Rush Limbaugh is "universally reviled" by African Americans. Oh? What qualifies Wilbon to speak for "universally?" Second, he claimed he never listens to Limbaugh, yet said that Limbaugh's statement about Donovan McNabb isn't even in Wilbon's 1,000 top reasons to denounce Limbaugh. His admission that he doesn't have facts for denouncing Limbaugh but feels entitled to do so simply because he doesn't like the guy is astounding. The WaPo deserves much better from its columnists. If this is symptomatic of Wilbon's work, he should be fired.

Howard Kurtz: You're referring to my Reliable Sources interview with Wilbon. I pressed him on the "universally reviled" part, and also on his use on ESPN of a pro-slavery quote that was attributed to Rush, which Limbaugh never said. Wilbon, to his credit, owned up to his mistake, as he did in his Post column, telling me it was a "journalistic no-no." As for the quote about McNabb -- and I asked whether that was a commentary on the media rather than a black quarterback -- you didn't have to listen to Rush's show to know about that. He said it on ESPN in 2003, and it got a huge amount of publicity because it led the channel to drop Limbaugh.


Washington, D.C.: Do you ever wonder if newspapers should endorse candidates at all? I don't think there is anything wrong with it, but I'm not sure if it serves the best interest of the reader or the paper.

Howard Kurtz: People are free to ignore newspapers' endorsements (and many do). My own view is that if you have an editorial page that weighs in the other 364 days a year on all kinds of issues, it's kind of a cop-out not to take a stand at election time.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I believe the Balloon Boy father has indeed successfully pitched himself for another reality show. Now, all I wonder is when MSNBC will show him on an Inside Prison edition?

Howard Kurtz: I can't imagine this guy is going to get a reality show, even if he stays out of prison. But maybe Richard Heene can write a book and do a weepy apology on Oprah.


Tulsa, Okla.: Both Axelrod and Emanuel said on the Sunday shows that Fox was not a legitimate news org and that other media shouldn't follow their lead. Isn't that what this is really about, the admin doesn't want other media picking up their lead from Fox's commentary?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure that's part of it, in the wake of the ACORN and Van Jones stories. Fox certainly knows how to drive a story (though with Jones resigning from the White House and Congress cutting off funding for ACORN, those turned out to be legitimate stories on which the MSM was slow). In baseball terms, this was a brushback pitch. Try to isolate Fox and get other news outlets to think twice about following up Fox stories.


(Rush) said it on ESPN in 2003, and it got a huge amount of publicity because it led the channel to drop Limbaugh: Actually Limbaugh quit-ran away from the heat-he was not fired.

Howard Kurtz: I think it was pretty clear he was not going to be able to continue as an ESPN commentator.


Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.: Why did the Post redesign itself? It's ugly and hard to read. Odd to see bylines that do not indicate Washington Post Staff Writer, as if now the Post doesn't want anyone to know who is a staffer. If the Post wants to drive readers away, it's doing a great job. I rarely buy the paper Post anymore and now I have reason to stop entirely.

Howard Kurtz: Really? I don't think it's that bad. Kind of like the illegitimate spawn of the Wall Street Journal and the Baltimore Sun. Takes some getting used to. The "staff writer" line was basically dropped to save space; the NYT did the same thing awhile back with its "Special to the New York Times" line. On the plus side, you have a scintillating sketch of me to go with every media column.


Republicans and Editorials: With regards to the firewall between the newsroom and the editorial staff, is it not fair to think that senior management has a role in seeing who is endorsed? Do they not have a say in whether to endorse Obama or McCain (or in this sense Deeds) if for no other reason than they choose the people voting, and they known their political views when they are put on the editorial board. Also they help choose how much resources to devote to issues like Deeds Thesis paper.

Howard Kurtz: It is not fair. It simply doesn't work that way. Marcus Brauchli has nothing to say about who is endorsed; neither did Len Downie or Ben Bradlee. They are not consulted. It's the decision of Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor, with his editorial board and the publisher. You may like or not like the decisions, but you can't blame them on the newsroom.


We'll have to leave it there: Sorry Howie, I loved "The Fortune Tellers," your book on the financial media and you are one of the best writers in the media criticism game, but Jon Stewart's takedown on CNN (and by extension, most of the mess that passes for "news" on cable) is the single best piece of media criticism of this century. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: A century is a long time.

I agree with Stewart's larger point that cable news networks (and not just CNN) have 24 hours a day, yet tend toward short interviews with public officials and don't do enough fact-checking of what they say.

But by showing multiple anchors ending interviews by saying "we have to leave it there" -- which was very funny -- Stewart is jumping on a problem he doesn't have. He doesn't do live TV. His interviews are taped. He deals with the problem by simply editing the interviews afterward. When I was on the "Daily Show," at least 7 or 8 minutes of our discussion was cut out (mostly the parts where I was funny!). In recent months Jon's show has been more up front about this by flashing a line telling viewers they can see the whole thing online. So he doesn't have to get out to hit a commercial break.

I'm happy to debate Jon about this on my show if he ever wants to come back for a repeat performance.


Anonymous: "it's kind of a cop-out not to take a stand at election time"

But is it right for the media to intentionally influence the public in order to form the government of their preference? How many people are on an editorial board? They may represent the entire paper, but in reality we are talking about a handful of people.

Don't you think that is a lot of power and influence in the hands of a few people?

Howard Kurtz: That assumes endorsements move lots of votes. In local elections, they may. The Post's endorsement has helped make more than one D.C. mayor. In the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, the endorsements of the Des Moines Register and Manchester Union Leader are huge (the latter on the Republican side only). But I don't think The Post's endorsement in a Virginia gubernatorial race, or presidential campaign, is a huge factor.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Howard, I agree with you. I can't blame the three cable networks, or any news organization, for covering the runaway balloon. But I certainly do blame CNN/MSNBC/FNC for creating a climate, and a culture, in which some wingnut knows he can get wall-to-wall TV coverage with a hoax. Would he even have thought of something like this if he didn't know what the three cablers (enablers?) do on a daily basis? No.

Howard Kurtz: But that's like blaming the Internet for the presence of crazy bloggers. Cable channels are our new national wire service. Sometimes they do good journalism, and sometimes they get swept away by a car chase or runaway balloon because there's good video. I'd be more critical of reality shows for encouraging people to act out in these staged dramas. Anyone who's seen the footage of Richard Heene launching into an over-the-top tirade on Wife Swap knows what I'm talking about.


New York, N.Y.: Congrats on making such big news with the Anita Dunn thing. Two questions: Do you disagree that Fox News is for all practical purposes an arm of the Republican Party? And, if you were advising the White House on how to deal with Fox, what would you tell them?

Howard Kurtz: I make distinctions between Fox's opinion hosts and its reporters, though sometimes the channel can really flog a conservative story all day. As for the White House, it's not my job to offer advice. But other than making its liberal base feel good, I'm not sure what the administration gets out of this. I even wonder whether the White House attacks have inadvertently given Fox a boost.


Seattle, Wash.: Hi Howie, you had Wilbon on Reliable Sources this weekend. What day did you interview him? It wasn't Sunday, was it?

Howard Kurtz: No, I had to pretape the Wilbon interview on Thursday because he had a packed schedule. I updated afterward, noting, for instance, that CNN's Rick Sanchez had apologized for using a bogus Limbaugh quote, as I felt he should.


Chicago, Ill.: Won't the White House attack on FOX only work if the media actually takes a look at FOX? If the Daily Show is the only one who actually provides actual evidence about FOX's conservative bent, and no one takes the results seriously, the White House will end up being on the wrong end of a argument they were right on.

Howard Kurtz: I have reported on Fox News for years, in print and on the air, and I'm hardly the only one. When Fox does something that I find questionable, such as Sean Hannity unfairly truncating an Obama sound bite or a Fox producer whipping up a protest crowd to get a better live shot, I'm critical. If Fox deserves credit for something, I say so. I think that's a better approach than tarring with a broad brush. Jon Stewart's in a different business, which is making people laugh. And he has whacked CNN as well as Fox.


New York, N.Y.: What did you think of the change at This Week where there was a short interview with David Axelrod and the rest of the show was the roundtable? Is it because they cannot get relevant guests or have they gotten feedback that the roundtable is the more interesting part of the show? If they are going in that direction, I think that 5 panelists are way too many. While he tries, George S has a difficult time getting everybody proper air time.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think Stephanopoulos has a hard time getting guests; in fact, he's scored several exclusives with the likes of Obama, Hillary and others. He's just trying to put on what he thinks is the most compelling program. Just throwing opposing members of Congress on the air isn't always good TV. I personally prefer panels of three guests and occasionally do four. It all revolves around how much time you have available and whether the guests have enough time to make their points without feeling unduly rushed.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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