Media Backtalk: Fox's Shepard Smith, Stephanopoulos and GMA, more

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post columnist
Monday, November 16, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Tuesday, Nov. 16, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Today's column: Shepard Smith, leaning against prevailing winds on Fox 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."


Silver Spring, Md.: Yesterday, Fox News's Chris Wallace interviewed Liz Cheney (listed simply as "former State Department official," which I guess is why Fox invited her) about Palin. Cheney said she'd read "parts" of the book and found it "a good read" with good messages. Wallace remarked that Palin might take advantage of all the media appearances she's getting, including Oprah, Barbara, Wallace, plus he added that Palin "will appear on Fox a bunch of times." Any idea of any other network would already plan on inviting Palin "a bunch of times"? A mini-series in the works?

Howard Kurtz: Somehow I am not shocked that Sarah Palin will be making multiple appearances on Fox. She'll probably be making multiple appearances on Hannity, who loves her. But I also wouldn't be surprised if Palin makes more than one appearance on other networks. Well, maybe not MS, but you think Wolf and Larry and Anderson wouldn't want to have her on their programs? Or GMA and Nightline? The book is big news and she's good for ratings. TV appearances help drive sales. So Palin may relish the opportunity to bash the MSM while using the MSM to peddle her product.


Seattle, Wash.: Howard,

It was good to see that you showed where "The Daily Show" found that Hannity's show used file footage from 9/12 Rally to imply a much bigger crowd than what there actually was on 11/4, but your comments sounded more like an apology from you that you didn't catch it first.

That wasn't the story.

We know you don't have the staff that TDS has and we don't expect you to catch every story out there. HOWEVER, the story was that FOX News appeared to be manipulating the story. The fact that Hannity made an apology should tell you something. FOX was caught trying to make the GOP's anti-health care crowd seem much bigger than it was.

Don't you think there is some obvious manipulation? Who edited the tape, and if Hannity had been there, why didn't he call the out the tape error as it happened?

Howard Kurtz: I have no way of knowing. Hannity did the right thing by apologizing; I have no evidence that it was done intentionally, which would mean someone decided to risk getting caught in huge embarrassment for the sake of 10 seconds of video.

I featured this on Reliable Sources to credit Jon Stewart and his TiVo gang for being good media critics. I have long said and written that embedded in the Daily Show humor is a strong critique of the flaws and foibles of the news business, which is something that Stewart feels strongly about. I've also said that he's had an impact on mainstream news organizations that occasionally adopt some of his techniques, albeit in less humorous fashion.


Atlanta, Ga.: Howard,

I found it interesting and funny yesterday that your one guest (former CNNer) was talking about the left of center "bias" of Anderson Cooper, Larry King, Campbell Brown, etc., on CNN and you and your other two guests were aghast at that. Of course they are left of center. Many people in "flyover" country see that and I was surprised that you brushed that off so quickly. While they are certainly not Keith Olbermann-left, they do tend to the left of center and a lot of people outside of Washington and New York see it and choose to watch their news on another channel. In fact, you are the only show on CNN I watch (and DVR) because you usually are right down the middle.

Thus, I was surprised that you were so astounded by what so many other people out here see. Thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: The Reliable Sources guest you're referring to is radio host Chris Plante. My point is this: Even if you adopt the view that Campbell Brown, Larry King and Anderson Cooper are left of center (which I don't, except for Larry, who's acknowledged being liberal), their programs are not built around their opinions. They are not doing the kind of shows that Dobbs did or that O'Reilly, Olbermann, Hannity et al. do. So I think it's a bogus comparison. By his own account, Lou Dobbs left CNN because he had been asked to tone it down and wanted more freedom to express his opinions.


Boston, Mass.: Two questions:

1. Why does George want to go to GMA? Money? NYC? Likes getting up early?

2. Why would GMA want George? Way too stiff for morning show...

Howard Kurtz: My sense is that George Stephanopoulos is happy where he is, as This Week host, chief Washington correspondent and World News substitute, but was asked to consider GMA. ABC considers him a big name and a rising star. At the same time, both he and the network recognize that his strength is in politics and hard news, not the fashion, cooking and movie star fare that is part of morning television. So now the question, as I reported this morning, is whether ABC wants him badly enough in the morning to change the program to suit him, or would be better off keeping GMA more or less intact and going with Chris Cuomo.


Arlington, Va.: Howie, would you care to comment on what is going on at the Washington Times? I think the end may be near when the staff was told on Friday that there would no more contributions to their 401(k)s nor would the company pay for their life insurance. I don't know how anyone could expect the paper to make money but it seems to be a respectability loss leader for the Moon enterprise.

Howard Kurtz: I had not heard that. Clearly the Washington Times has been losing a ton of money, but it's been losing money since Unification Church officials launched it in 1982. My sources say major cutbacks are coming, but I don't see the Times vanishing. The paper has some good journalists, including some who were hired away from The Washington Post by the now-resigned editor, John Solomon.


Washington Blade?: Do you have any inside info on if and when the Washington Blade will be up again? It was reported a few minutes ago that their publisher went out of business, and their Web site is down now.

Howard Kurtz: There are reports that the Washington Blade, the gay newspaper here in town, was shut down over the weekend by its owner. I have not personally confirmed this but it appears to be true, and would be a sad development.


Toronto, Canada: I consider myself a liberal, so I guess, am supposed to be blind to instances of "liberal bias" in the media.

That said, I have to make a comment about your sister publication, Newsweek: Whoa!

Fawning cover pieces about the president, then Al Gore, then the president again, then one seeming to mock Sarah Palin.

This all suits my tastes to a tee, but at the same time, it also makes me squirm a bit.

If that weren't enough, the articles themselves have become somewhat turgid.

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree about the turgid part, but today's Palin cover--with a photo taken from Runner's World and a headline about a "problem" like Sarah does give ammunition to those who see Newsweek as firmly entrenched on the left. Especially, as you say, since it follows cover stories on Obama and Gore. Palin is the first Republican to be on Newsweek's cover this year; there was a largely negative cover piece on Rush Limbaugh at the beginning of the year.


Baltimore, Md.: You point out that Shepard Smith meets with the approval of Krugman and Rich, the NYTs far, far left wingers but he's not admired by Rush Limbaugh, a far right winger. Doesn't that state the obvious about Smith, even though you/he vouch for his neutrality?

Howard Kurtz: The obvious? That he's a secret liberal? Not necessarily. Shep's basic role at Fox is that of newsman. At times, as I pointed out in this morning's column, he has taken on conservative arguments or folks like Joe the Plumber. But that doesn't mean he's a lefty, nor does occasional praise from New York Times columnists. Smith certainly doesn't see himself that way.


Hamilton, Va.: This week on "Inside Washington" Nina Totenberg mentioned Hannity and Stewart re the "mix up" of demonstration footage. Gordon Barnes just blew her off by saying, "Yeah, well he apologized," as if that just ended it. I was disappointed that Gordon thought you could fake the news but then apologize and all is good.

Howard Kurtz: It was an embarrassing incident for Hannity and Fox. But "fake" the news sounds like it was deliberate, and there is no proof of that. There are other times where Hannity and his staff have deliberately truncated Obama sound bites to distort his meaning or delete an important qualifier, and I have criticized him for that. That is no accident. But the rally footage could have been a staff blunder.


Arlington, Va: You normally don't comment on your employer, but I am curious if the demise of the Washington Blade and changes at the Washington Times are good news for the Washington Post. Or are there different markets that these publications operate in than the Post?

Howard Kurtz: Not so much with the Blade. But the Washington Times, despite a far smaller circulation, certainly competes with us editorially, so I suppose you could say it's an advantage if the paper downsizes. But most people here don't like to see journalists lose their jobs, even at competing news organizations. And, of course, the Post has gone through its own downsizing in recent years.


Alexandria, Va.: You note correctly that the Daily Show well uses their crack video staff to reveal politicians or pundits contradicting themselves or just outright not telling the truth. My question is why does it take a humor show to make that point? Shouldn't a CNN do a regular show that shows clips of politicians and pundits being wrong or contradictory and do it from a perspective of setting the record straight and not just for an easy laugh?

Howard Kurtz: CNN and other news organizations should do that regularly, rather than having it be a separate show. In fairness, the networks (and major newspapers) do sometimes run reality-check pieces, but this tends to be at campaign time. There's not nearly enough of it.


Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think Palin really does have any national political aspirations? Based on her actions over that last 14 months, I just can't see her being taken seriously as a presidential candidate (at least not by independents or Democrats). And I can't imagine a Republican presidential candidate asking her to be his/her running mate again. If I am correct, then she just seems to be trying to "cash in" on her fame.

Howard Kurtz: My own sense is that she gave up on running for president when she resigned as governor before her term was complete. That left her with 2-1/2 years of experience in state office and would undoubtedly be thrown back at her if she launched a bid. We'll see if events prove me wrong.


Winnipeg, Canada: Howard, I can accept your statement that you have no proof of manipulation in the Hannity video feed error, but there's also the scene where a FOX news producer was caught whipping up the crowd at a tea bagger protest. Two data points do not make a trend, but I am sure that liberal participants in this chat con come up with more examples. I would also think it possible that a journalist whose beat is the media might be able to do more than look at one event in isolation, and do some research to see if this sort of 'error' is part of a trend. Isn't it possible that FOX is late in adjusting its on-air tactics, and that after the Daily Show expose they might just be a little more careful?

Howard Kurtz: The Fox producer whipping up the crowd was an outrage. There's no ambiguity about that. Fox didn't attempt to defend it and said it had disciplined the young woman.


Tina Fey rules!: Any word yet on whether Tina Fey will make a guest appearance on this weekend's Saturday Night Live in her Palin mode? (If so, will Kenan Thompson impersonate Oprah?).

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what the 30 Rock taping schedule is this week, but it would seem like a prime opportunity for Tina Fey. Incidentally, Huffington Post got a campaign email in which Palin said the people at SNL are "whack," that they were being mean to her and her family, and she had no desire to boost the show's ratings. Obviously, she was later convinced to go on, and did pretty well. But initially she balked at the idea.


Hartford, Conn.: Do you think Good Morning America would change its format for George S. I have turned on MSNBC for years just to avoid the "how did you feel when you heard your whole family had been mauled by dogs and coyotes" questions. I would love to have "mainstream" TV on instead of MSNBC or Fox.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. Much of the audience for morning shows is comprised of women, especially in the second hour. While I personally wouldn't mind it, moving to a harder-news format would be risky.


Kingston, N.Y.: Howard, Robert Gates has come out with a strong statement that people ought to "shut up" in regards to the Fort Hood shootings, fearing that all this opining might make it impossible to get a fair military trial. Does this seem directed at FOX news shows, since they seem to be spending much time on the Muslim extremist angle?

Howard Kurtz: Not necessarily. A lot of people have popped off about Fort Hood. I'm all for debating these issues, but I'm depressed at how this tragedy has become just another episode of the political blame game.


Ashland, Mo.: In diminishing Ms. Palin's complaint about her interview with Ms. Couric you note: "You've all seen the tape. I don't think 'badgering' is the word that comes to mind." But isn't Ms. Palin essentially asserting that the tape is not an accurate reflection of the interview?

Howard Kurtz: No, she's saying that Katie Couric was unfair to her. Katie did ask some questions several times, but that was because Palin kept ducking. There wasn't one question she asked that was out of bounds; it was all fair game. I don't see how that's badgering. Besides, Palin was running for vice president of the United States. She should have been able to handle even highly aggressive questioning by a network anchor. And she didn't exactly hit it out of the park with Charlie Gibson either.


San Francisco, Calif.: What did you think of the former Miss California spot on Larry King? Poor Larry seemed so flustered!

Howard Kurtz: I thought Carrie Prejean looked like a flake. And as I mentioned on the air yesterday, she then berated a young staffer in the Washington bureau who had nothing to do with the substance of the interview, saying how could this woman have LET Larry ask her such unfair questions.

Besides, if you're going to walk off a TV show, then walk off. It was kinda surreal for Prejean to take off her mike and just sit there complaining about "inappropriate" questions. It's not like Larry was asking about her sex tape; he was asking why she had settled a lawsuit with the beauty pageant.


Cambridge, Mass.: Wooooooow... because most morning viewers are women, a harder news format would be risky? Really? Really?

Howard Kurtz: The fashion- and cooking-type segments are there for a reason. Of course women are just as interested in important news as men. But morning shows are a peculiar animal, designed to be watched while many people are having breakfast and getting the kids off to school. I'd love to see GMA try a different approach. I'm just saying there's a reason that all three network morning shows do a lot of the tabloid stories and the fluffy stuff.


Minnesota: Howard: You said "There are other times where Hannity and his staff have deliberately truncated Obama sound bites to distort his meaning or delete an important qualifier, and I have criticized him for that. That is no accident. But the rally footage could have been a staff blunder."

But don't those other instances of deliberate distortion make it less likely that someone should give them the benefit of the doubt again?

Howard Kurtz: That's up to you. My job is not to make assumptions.


Washington, D.C.: It looks like journalism in Washington is on the ropes. Comes news today that the Washington Blade has shut down, and only God knows what is happening at the Washington Times, although it doesn't sound good. The company that owns the Washington City Paper is clinging to existence after bankruptcy. So, Howie, what is the real story about what is happening? Why is this all coming to a head now, as we are told the recession is ending and Washington has been historically recession-proof? What is the future for alternative newspapers?

Howard Kurtz: How much time have you got? There's the Internet, the fact that young people don't read newspapers, Craigslist destroying the classified ad market, the decline of department stores and car dealerships who once provided lots of advertising...

I wouldn't draw too many conclusions from the Washington Blade, which is a niche publication, or the Washington Times, which is unusual in that it is owned by officials of a church and has always operated in the red. But with so many newspapers in bankruptcy or slashing staff, this is clearly a tough time for the industry.

_______________________ Carrie Prejean Threatens to Leave Larry King Live due to Larry Being "Inappropriate" (YouTube)


Philadelphia, Pa.: "Palin is the first Republican to be on Newsweek's cover this year..."

I can remember during the 8 years of Bush asking about all the Republicans who were always on the talk and TV shows (much more than Dems) and I would often get the answer that it's because the Reps are in power and they are the story. So, now that we have a Dem prez, Dem house and Dem senate shouldn't we expect more Dems on the TV and mags?

Howard Kurtz: I can understand more Democrats being on magazine covers or on TV when they control everything in Washington. But zero Republicans on the newsmag covers until this Palin piece? Time and Newsweek have featured Michelle more often than that.


L.A., Calif.: What are the journalistic rules when referring to people arrested for crimes like the Fort Hood shooter? On your CNN show, I didn't hear "alleged," it sounded like he was convicted. Based on what we know, alleged sounds weird, but not using it didn't sound correct either. What do you prefer?

Howard Kurtz: You know, everyone knows that Hasan was the shooter. There are many eyewitnesses and no serious debate about it. At the same time, journalistic convention is to use "alleged" until someone is convicted. In a case like this, it feels like a formality.


St. Paul, Minn.: Howard:

I'm curious about something. At what point is Mike Huckabee, who certainly looks like he is running for president, have to leave the FOX airwaves? Do you think he is getting a free pass right now to campaign unofficially?

Howard Kurtz: Sure. The same way that Pat Buchanan did when he twice returned to Crossfire between presidential campaigns. If Huckabee does run in 2012, he would have to leave Fox when he took the first step toward a candidacy, such as forming a campaign committee. That gives him another two years of valuable exposure.


Washington, D.C.: Hello Howard,

I understand the firing of the 3 Washington Times executives but what led to the resignation of John Solomon? He wasn't fired but did the new executives make it impossible for him to continue?

Howard Kurtz: I am told that Solomon felt he couldn't continue to pursue the journalistic initiatives that were important to him, but there may also have been contractual reasons involved. John has not commented, even to his own paper. Of course, if a publisher hires you to transform a newspaper, and then the publisher is fired, as happened in this case, that doesn't leave you with much of a base.


Oh Joy: Is it correct to say CNN is trying to aim for the middle when they just added the far lefty Joy Behar to their Headline News lineup?

Howard Kurtz: HLN (Headline News) is very different from CNN, though they're owned by the same corporate parent. HLN not only has the liberal Behar, who I wrote about before her debut, but Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell, neither of whom are shy when it comes to opinions. And until last year, HLN employed none other than Glenn Beck.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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