Media Backtalk: Steve Phillips/ESPN, WH vs. Fox News, MSNBC, Newspapers circulation drops, Glenn Beck

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post columnist
Monday, October 26, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Oct. 26, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Today's Column: Young editor conquers Capital: Can Garrett Graff put his stamp on Washingtonian? (Post, Oct. 26)

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."


Seattle, Wash.: On Reliable Sources, one of your guests was pretty harsh regarding the appearance of Steve Phillips's mistress/stalker. He basically said she had an ugly personality and appearance to match. On TV, it appeared Amy Argetsinger was uncomfortable with the attack. It seemed out of place for your show, what were your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Well, he wasn't as harsh as the New York Post, which calls Brooke Hundley the "tubby temptress."

By the way, ESPN last night dumped Steve Phillips (a baseball analyst having an affair with the 22-year-old production assistant, for those who haven't been following the action) after insisting his "leave of absence" was sufficient.

Guests on my program (in this case, Gregg Doyel of CBS Sportsline) say what they think. And ordinarily I'd say it's unfair to blame the young aide. But Hundley wrote Philllips' wife a taunting letter, hired someone to make harassing calls, and drove to the family's Connecticut home (the 911 call from Marni Phillips shows how scared she was). This is Fatal Attraction territory.


British Columbia, Canada: Good show yesterday Howie. Yet I somehow get the feeling that the "war" between the WH and FOX news is more troubling to the media than it is to the general public. And once and for all, could we please acknowledge that the so-called 'highest ratings' label on FOX news is a tad disingenuous at best? Their slice of ratings is because they deal with a certain segment of the population, essentially the base of the GOP, whereas the rest of the news outfits, CNN, MSNBC and the networks split the rest of the population up between them. And the prez did warn about calling out liars and distorters during his speech to Congress, and that's what they are doing. Why aren't the cases of FOX announcer ginning up the numbers of an April tea party mentioned, or the producer who was riling up the crowd before a 9/12 taping like it was a game show? That was FOX news people, not Beck, or Hannity, or any of the other "opinions".

Howard Kurtz: Actually, surveys show that some Democrats and independents also watch Fox (although Dems trust it far less overall, just as Republicans trust MSNBC far less overall). Regardless of the reason, Fox has a big ratings lead over its cable rivals. I showed the tape of that Fox producer whipping up the 9/12 crowd for a live shot, and a few others did, but I was surprised it didn't get more attention. The network said the following: "The employee is a young, relatively inexperienced associate producer who realizes she made a mistake and has been disciplined." Here's a link if you want to watch:


Boston, Md.: Hi Howard,

Just curious -- is there a shortage of names out there? I always expect to find you doing Post's "Reliable Source" chat here, but you are the "Reliable Sources" guy.

Howard Kurtz: I had it first.


Bluffton, SC: In your blog on Friday you wrote this referring to MSNBC and its liberal hosts: "though that channel does give Joe Scarborough three hours a day, while no liberal has a show on Fox News." Although Joe considers himself a conservative the majority of the guests (not to mention his co-host) are decidedly liberal. And when it comes to interviewing members of Congress, Democrats seem to get twice as much airtime as Republicans. Poor Paul Ryan got a grand total of 3 minutes on Friday's show.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't noticed a tilt on the Morning Joe guest front at all. During the campaign, McCain people came on as often as Obama people. Peggy Noonan is a regular, and Pat Buchanan is on an awful lot. So I think it's fair to hold up Scarborough as an exception to MSNBC's generally liberal opinion lineup.


Anonymous: I am so sick of being terrorized by the government and media over the Swine Flu, or H1N1 virus. My daughter is in a panic over why her children can't get flu shots, and reports that Obama has made this a national emergency don't help. Yet we are told that the projected deaths from this will be only slightly higher than the normal flu season, and some demographic groups seem to already have immunity to it. Isn't there a better way of communicating health issues? I suspect government agencies are hyping the crisis to get Congress to increase their budgets, and the MSM is a fellow-traveler because it increases circulation/audience levels.

Howard Kurtz: I'm willing to believe the administration is acting in good faith, if only to avoid blame if the death toll rises. And yes, there's a fair amount of media hype involved, but in fairness, it's a subject that many people are interested in, especially parents, because it touches their lives in a way that abstract debates over cap and trade do not.


The great Fox News freeze-out: Howard, in your Sunday discussion on the White House vs. Fox News, you cited the recent incident where the White House "excluded" Fox News from an interview with the special assistant to the president dealing with executive pay at the companies getting a bailout. You presented it as a case where the administration tried to lock out Fox, yet there are other reports out there stating that the reason Fox wasn't getting an interview was because it didn't initially ask for an individual interview and the Treasury Department (not the White House) used the initial request list to determine who took part in the pool interview. The other networks "rose to Fox's defense" in large part because they knew this was standard procedure and because including Fox made sure the costs for the interview were split between five networks, not just four. The whole thing was supposedly settled in a very short period of time.

Is this true? Why didn't you mention this if it is true in your critique of the "incident?"

Howard Kurtz: I looked into it, checked with other networks, and the consensus was that the Treasury did try to exclude Fox from the round of Ken Feinberg interviews. Plus, Fox says the White House apologized for the incident. The five networks pay for a pool camera, so they have an interest - financial as well as journalistic solidarity - for not wanting any member excluded.


Purcellville, Va.: No one in my household is interested in sports, so it's disappointing when games run over (and it seems they usually do) and preempt the local and national news. We were discussing on Saturday (when no local news could be found at 6 p.m. on any channel) whether it could be broadcast on one of the extra channels that are available since the digital conversion (like 4.2, 7.2, etc., which run continuous local weather updates).

The program could be taped and aired later on the main channel if there's time, but for those of us who like the news, a message at the bottom of the screen could alert football viewers that they can see the local news on the alternate digital channel. Even if the local producers don't want to do it, we'd appreciate seeing the national network feed at 6:30. Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: My thoughts are that major-league sports get big ratings and that is going to take precedence. The networks also have contractual obligations to carry entire games. Local news may get preempted in the process - that's life - but usually the nets roll back their entertainment schedules when the games run long.


New York, N.Y.: What's the point of Politico's story on Roger Ailes's possible run for president? Everyone knows, including the story's writer I'll bet, that there's no way that Ailes would run president. Then why do the story? Just because it will increase your number of page-hits?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not really sure. Reflecting the buzz? It took less than six hours for Ailes to knock it down -- shortest presidential campaign on record.


Washington, D.C.: We hear almost constantly (often on blogs run by unemployed former reporters) about the tragic death of American newspapers. How are newspapers doing in other countries? In many places newspapers perform a different role in the society and are seen as entertainment, more along the lines of TV, rather than as social conscience and public watchdog, as American journalists style themselves. Sometimes they are unashamedly organs for particular political parties or philosophies without any pretense of "objectivity." Do you think American papers have anything to learn from their counterparts abroad?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the Brits certainly know how to make their newspapers exciting, beyond the sensationalism of some of the Fleet Street tabloids.

Fresh evidence that American papers are hurting arrived this morning. I have never seen numbers like this. It's true that some papers raised prices and others are deliberately curtailing circulation in outlying areas, but this is disastrous:

San Francisco Chronicle, down 25.8 percent.

Newark Star-Ledger, down 22.2 percent.

Miami Herald, down 23 percent.

USA Today, down 17 percent.

Boston Globe, down 18.4 percent.

Baltimore Sun, down 14.7 percent.

Chicago Tribune, down 9.7 percent.

NYT, down 7.2 percent.

LAT, down 11 percent.

WP, down 6.4 percent.


Houston, Tex.: In Friday's column, in regards to the White House-Fox war, you stated: 'Maybe the [White House] tactics are unfair or maybe aimed at scaring off other news outlets, but this isn't about choking off free speech.'

I disagree to a point. Obama is a very smart, calculating man (I bet he plays one hell of a chess game!). Since this Fox war started, I've heard more pundits and liberal politicians come out and start talking about the 'control of radio' by conservative talk and the Fairness Doctrine. Thus, it appears to me that the WH is using the Fox situation to begin laying the groundwork for the Fairness Doctrine to be more positively received if picked up by Congress. Thus, the WH is using the press to push a Democratic agenda (totally permissible), but one that may be designed to control the press and media, and thus control free speech while under the guise of mandating greater free speech. Rally around Fox (Post, Oct. 23)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know where you've heard this, but it's not happening. The Fairness Doctrine is not coming back. The Obama administration does not support bringing it back. There are some Democratic pols who would like to reimpose equal-time rules on radio, but there is no concerted effort in Congress to do that. So I don't see what it has to do with the criticism of Fox. It's a red herring.


Reston, Va.: Your colleague, Perry Bacon, pointed out in the last hour's chat that, according to a Rasmussen survey last year, 87 percent of Fox viewers intended to vote for John McCain. Wouldn't this tend to dispel claims that FNC has a lot of independents and Democrats? Also, according to the Nielson ratings, FNC was actually down last week in both daytime and Glenn Beck. So much for the ratings bonanza claimed by the pundits.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what last week's numbers were, but overall Fox is up for the year. O'Reilly draws as many as 3 million viewers and Beck, I believe, has gotten as high as 2.5 million -- huge numbers by cable standards. As for the audience's political leanings, I base that not on Fox claims but on surveys by the likes of the Pew Research Center.


Washington, D.C.: The swine flu mortality rate is in addition to the normal seasonal flu, so it is different. Because the government has successfully delivered only 10 percent of the shots it promised as of now, the news is actually being ignored. People should be more angered by the inept response, but they don't seem to be. Thousands went without shots this week locally and they seem absolutely docile about showing up, waiting for hours, and getting nothing from their government to protect their children.

Howard Kurtz: Seems to me the shortages and the overpromising are getting a lot of coverage. Here's a front-page NYT story today: "Road to Flu Vaccine Shortfall, Paved with Undue Optimism." The Post had two front-page pieces on swine flu yesterday. It may or may not turn out that the mortality rate is no different from seasonal flu (which kills tens of thousands of people every year, let's not forget). But we can't know that at this point.


Tysons Corner, Va.: Howie, Are those newspaper numbers circ or revenue?

Howard Kurtz: Those numbers are average daily circulation. Revenue has also plunged, but is expected to rebound somewhat as the economy improves. But I think most of those readers are gone forever, especially since they can read most of the papers online for free. You could argue that newspapers today are reaching more people because of the Net. But that's not bringing in the revenue to support sizable newsrooms.


Buffalo, N.Y.: Has there been talk of removing Olbermann from NBC's NFL coverage? I would think Republicans would find him just as polarizing as Democrats find Limbaugh.

Howard Kurtz: If there is such talk, I haven't heard it. Perhaps because Keith doesn't talk politics on "Football Night in America."


Anonymous: Re: your comments on British newspapers. The British papers have much more of a political or class identity -- Guardian-Labour, Telegraph-middle class, Times-Tory, etc. Why doesn't the MSM bow to public opinion in his country, and openly adopt similar identifications? As the Fox fight shows, the public seems to already believe their newspapers are biased politically. I think it would remove some of the rancor in the debate to just admit it and move on.

Howard Kurtz: Because, with a few exceptions, newspapers in this country have since the 20th century tried to hew to a model of objective journalism -- except for their opinion pages, of course. That isn't to say they don't fall short, but they don't market themselves, or see themselves, as the equivalent of Tory and Labor papers.


Vienna, Va.: Howard,

Once again former Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall has weighed in on liberal bias at the Post and in the MSM:

"Glenn Beck, FOX, and a couple of conservative video reporters have, in effect, forced the editors and ombudsmen at two of the nation's leading newspapers, the Times and The Washington Post, to assume a full-scale defensive posture regarding charges of liberal bias...

The actions at both the Post and the Times are ad hoc reactions to the latest blow up, and do little or nothing to address the underlying reality at most papers."

Edsall, himself a liberal and now a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism is an insider willing to speak the unspeakable. Any rumblings at the Post or elsewhere on Edsall's comments.

Howard Kurtz: Not that I've heard. But I was out there early saying that the MSM was slow on the ACORN and Van Jones stories. And I think the fact that Fox was pushing, and sometimes overplaying, those stories, was a factor. The NYT now says it has named an editor to monitor opinionated outlets (such as, well, Fox News).


Toronto: I would like to echo what a previous commentator said about Fox News having the entire conservative viewer slice to itself.

What more proof do you need than the example of Glenn Beck. He was on CNN Headline News for years without setting the ratings world ablaze. Yet once he moved to Fox News, he was an immediate smash.

Also, if a radio station has 18 hours a day of conservative talk, do we have to separate their news from their opinion hosts when they have call that station fair and balanced because they have an unbiased newscast the top of every hour? I doubt it, and so I don't have any problem calling Fox News conservative, despite their having good reporters and some relatively balanced hours in the middle of the afternoon.

Howard Kurtz: Beck's ratings were pretty good at Headline News. But Fox has done more to promote him, and he stepped into an operation that was already drawing much bigger audiences than its competitors. Plus, Beck's Fox debut this year coincided with the advent of the Obama administration, which has been the target of his most inflammatory rhetoric (the president has a deep-seated hatred for white people, etc.) If we were still in, say, the last year of the Bush administration, would Beck be as high-profile as he is right now? I doubt it.


New York, N.Y.: I'm willing to bet that your paper, the New York Times, and others have more readers now than they ever had. Obviously, Internet freeloaders such as myself aren't providing newspapers with a revenue bonanza, but it's a bit misleading to look at these dire statistics and call them a "readership drop," as others have.

I love print newspapers, but almost all the articles in major papers are posted online and for free. As a news consumer, I love this, but what did publishers think would happen once they started giving their product away to the world?! After over a decade, a generation got used to this, and stopped buying papers. Duh!

Howard Kurtz: Yes, I tried to make that point. The last time I checked, had about 9 million monthly visitors. So that's far bigger than the drop in print circulation, which used to be as high as 750,000 or so and is now 582,000. In fact, the Net has turned The Post from a local news operation into a national and international one. But -- and this is a big but -- print advertising is the engine that supported this newsroom, and its decline has led to four rounds of early-retirement buyouts. I love the Web, but it's not bringing in enough bucks.


Baltimore, Md.: Why should voters take the Post's endorsements seriously, since it has never endorsed a Republican for president (not even Reagan over Mondale.

Howard Kurtz: You can consider its arguments or not, that's up to you. Endorsements are opinions.

In 1988, The Post declined to endorse Michael Dukakis over George H.W. Bush. So it made no endorsement. For what it's worth.


Old City I, D.C.: re: "The NYT now says it has named an editor to monitor opinionated outlets (such as, well, Fox News)."

The problem is, folks on the right hate you because you won't tell them what they want to hear: hence the numbers for Fox/O'Reilly. The more outlets like the NYT and the Post cater to these folks, the more readership is going to fall. Trying to assuage them is only going to kill readership sooner...

D.C. already has a Washington Times...

Howard Kurtz: Who said anything about "catering" to certain groups? Shouldn't the NYT or WP be aware of what's being reported on Fox, MSNBC, CNN, talk radio and the blogs, and then make independent judgments about what's newsworthy and which stories should be followed up? How can it be better to ignore what's out there in media land?


Circulation/Viewership Increases: The one bright light in the newspaper circulation business continues to be the Wall Street Journal, which unlike most of your list has been skeptical of the administration...kind of like FNC, which is also growing at a time many other networks are losing news viewers.

Howard Kurtz: But the WSJ also did well during the Bush administration. I would argue that the Journal's success overall is because it is a very good newspaper that covers the hell out of business for an affluent core audience that cares deeply about it -- more so than its conservative editorial page. Murdoch has broadened the paper's focus somewhat but, despite some dire predictions to the contrary, hasn't ruined it.


Circulation down: I'm sure you'll see the Post circulation continue to decline with the dreadful redesign unveiled last week. I won't go into details why it's bad, but I'm a publication design professional and had hoped the "design" would have stopped with the Magazine, which has gone into the recycle bin since the change.

Just received my renewal notice. That might have to go in the recycle bin, too. It's visually painful to look at the paper now.

Howard Kurtz: Sorry you hate it. I hope it has nothing to do with the sketch that now runs with my column.

I have mixed feelings about the redesign but on balance feel it preserves the basic character of The Washington Post. I doubt it will lead to mass cancellations. The problems of the newspaper business are deeper than any redesign.


I love the Web, but it's not bringing in enough bucks.: You need to add links to porn. Just kidding, but other sites make enormous funds through the Web. Maybe you guys could make only a synopsis of a story available on-line, and the full text versions available to your members. Even at a very small fee, you would make a decent bit of money to support the newsroom.

Come on, POST get creative.

Howard Kurtz: At some point, we and others will have to find a way to charge for some content. That is the subject of a huge industry debate right now.


Glen Burnie, Md.: One the subject of cutting off sports runovers into prime time, three words: The Heidi Bowl.

Howard Kurtz: I actually watched that game. NBC cut away from a game in which the Jets were comfortably ahead to show "Heidi." In the remaining couple of minutes, the Jets lost the game. Huge uproar ensued. One of the biggest bonehead moves in TV history.


Chicago, Ill.: "Plus, Fox says the White House apologized for the incident."

Really? Not according to this:

White House Insists Gibbs Didn't Apologize To Fox (TPM, Oct. 25)

Howard Kurtz: TPM is reporting that Robert Gibbs insists he didn't apologize. So even that is in dispute.


Arlington, Va.: So it's the Washington Post creating all this bad feelings about the Redskins, is it? Turns out you're pretty powerful after all.

Honestly, was the smart P.R. for the Redskins executive to blame the Post's negative coverage for fans staying away from games and not buying Redskins crap? Or is that just how they see the world in Landover?

Howard Kurtz: Yeah, I admit it. It's all our fault that the team is 2-4.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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