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Media Backtalk: Emily Miller, Sarah Palin, Stephanopoulos, health care, Newsweek, mammograms, more

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post columnist
Monday, November 23, 2009 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Nov. 23, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Today's column: Sideswiped by scandal, trapped by the past

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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Hartford, Conn.: That has to be one of the least appealing profile subjects imaginable. A power player claws her way to the top, seemingly stomping over everybody on the way up, and is now whining about....everything? Remember the old saw about being careful on the way up, because you'll see all those same people on the way down? Sorry, Howard.

washingtonpost.com: Sideswiped by scandal, trapped by the past (Post, Nov. 23)

Howard Kurtz: Well, I found Emily Miller to be very candid. You can like her or not like her, but she had no absolutely role in the Abramoff scandal, other than to have been engaged to a guy who turned out to be a crook. And yet, years later, she can't find much work and is barely scraping by. That seems to me like an only-in-Washington saga.

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Verona, Italy: Eye candy? The article today described Ms. Miller as dressed simply in black sweater, bluejeans and brown boots. Yet the feature photograph in vivid color on the front page of the online edition shows her wearing a hot red jacket. Not what I'd expect from Howard Kurtz.

Howard Kurtz: Um, that was what she was wearing the first time I interviewed her. The photo shoot took place on a different day. And it's hardly unusual for people to dress up when they know their picture is going to be in the newspaper.

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Sarah Palin Book: Mr. Kurtz

Not sure this is your area of expertise, but a number of conservative Web sites are selling her book for prices down to $5. Do these sites make any money off these sales? And are these numbers part of the sales numbers? I assume they pre-order several thousand books and re-sell them. Any insight?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think you make money selling hardcover books for five bucks, but that sort of mass merchandizing really helps put books on the best-seller list.

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Tuckerton, N.J.: Howie, it is obvious to some of us most of the media figures covering/opining about the never-ending health-care debate have no clue as to what they are talking about. I site Stephanopoulos show yesterday and the fact that Luke Russert is covering the debate for NBC as two obvious examples. Is it asking too much for reporters to study the health-care issue, read the relevant reports and, at the very least, read a summary of the respective bills in the House and the Senate? Otherwise, it's like writing a book review without reading the book.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that's fair. Don't know what your issue is with the Stephanopoulos show, and obviously TV has its share of uninformed gasbags. But the network correspondents, and people like George, have been following this health care debate closely all year. The big newspapers have reporters (such as The Post's Ceci Connolly) who have done little else but cover this issue since January. Now there are times when the debate over a 2,000-page bill is confusing, and sometimes the media focus too much on the politics and not enough on the substance. But there's no shortage of quality coverage out there.

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Helena, Mont.: "And yet, years later, she can't find much work and is barely scraping by." I'll bite -- how much is "barely scraping by"? I think it's different for people like Emily than it is for us here in Montana.

Howard Kurtz: I don't have her bank statements, but if a former State Department deputy press secretary is taking babysitting jobs and working in a gift shop, she's obviously not riding high. And the cost of living here is a bit higher than in Helena.

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Carson City: Fox News host (newscaster?) Greg Jarrett got a lot of flack for the fact that video of Sarah Palin campaign appearances last year while he was describing crowds at her recent book signings (and he said we were seeing video that had just come in), though management apparently threatened strong action against those in the control room. Did Jarrett issue any on-air explanation or apology afterwards (not taking blame, just letting people know what had happened)? That would seem to make a difference (as with Sean Hannity).

Howard Kurtz: There was an apology on that program, and I just read this morning that Fox News has sent out a memo urging staff to be far more careful with posting video, and saying that mistakes will cause negative personnel evaluations, and possibly suspension or termination. Obviously these incidents have been embarrassing for Fox News. And in this hyper-vigilant age, if you put up the wrong video of a crowd scene or something like that, you're going to get nailed for it. Whether by Jon Stewart or someone else.

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Washintgon, D.C.: Having suffered through so much turmoil since the onset of the financial crisis, what should newspapers be thankful for this Thanksgiving?

Howard Kurtz: That they still exist.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Howard:

I know this question is now a few days old but what is your take on Fox's video problems these days? First, it was the footage on the Hannity show. Then came the wrong footage from a Palin rally. The latest is putting up the wrong Sarah Palin book. In all three cases, they were forced to issue red-faced apologies. Doesn't this stuff hurt their credibility as a news organization?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, absolutely. I know a lot of people assume it is deliberate. I have no evidence of that, and I'd note that would be a risky path since it's so easy to get caught.

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Portsmouth, N.H.: Howard,

Lots of coverage of the GOP's opposition to the health care bill, but it fails in one respect and I think it's a hard aspect of coverage to get right.

I think most people realize that during the many years that the Republicans controlled Congress, they did nothing about what was an obvious concern for many Americans -- health care and health insurance costs. Therefore, they bear some of the responsibility for any solution the Democrats put forward, since if they had wanted to solve the problem their way, they had the power and ample time to do so. However, in the shorthand nature of the coverage, the GOP's talking points -- we didn't have any input, free-market, blah, blah -- receive less skepticism than they should in light of the actual historical record. I don't think this is an intentional bias, but it is a sin of omission and it does distort the information that the public gets because it presents the debate as starting when Obama became president. That's simply factually incorrect.

I understand that there are strictures on space/airtime, but is it possible to get more depth in these on-going reports?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's fair to point out that the Republicans basically did squat on health care during the Bush years, except for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which was hugely expensive and added to the government spending that the GOP now decries. That doesn't make the Democratic plan the right one, but it's an important bit of history that journalists should include in their coverage.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and Sarah Palin are three figures who will probably never run for office again, but continue to dangle the possibility in front of the media's eyes. Why do they do this? Why do people take them seriously? At what point should they just be ignored?

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't lump Rudy in there. Although I never believed he would run for governor, he could go for a Senate seat or even mount another presidential bid. Newt does have a history of making noises about a White House run but not following through. I happen to believe that Sarah Palin gave up her shot at 2012 when she resigned as governor after 2-1/2 years. Yes, out-of-office pols often dangle the possibility of future campaigns because it adds to their visibility, and journalists too often play along because they love to play the speculation game. But we also can't predict the future. Maybe Palin will run after all, after she sells a zillion books.

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Washington, D.C.: The profile of Emily Miller portrays only one side of a very lovely person. She was duped by a master of deception, one who has ruined the lives of everyone he touched.

Howard Kurtz: I think the story makes quite clear that her former fiance, Michael Scanlon, who has pleaded guilty in the Abramoff scandal, deceived her and that she has taken a big hit to her career despite having done nothing wrong in that case. Miller is right that a narrative to the contrary has taken hold, as evidence by the TWO movies about "Casino Jack" that include her as a character.

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Emily Miller story: Why? What was the point -- to get her resume in the Style section so she can get a job?

I read the whole thing and can't figure out for the life of me why it was written and published.

Howard Kurtz: But you read the whole thing. And based on the feedback I'm getting, lots of other folks did too.

Should we write only about people who are already famous? There are thousands of people in Washington who make the town run but ply their trade behind the scenes.

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New York, N.Y.: When the Clintons were involved, Republicans claimed large book advances were in fact hidden payoffs. Now, when booksellers sell Palin's book for less than they paid for it, not a peep of innuendo. Why is that?

Howard Kurtz: Bill Clinton was out of office when he wrote and published his memoir, so what favor was any publisher going to get? And come to think of it, what does Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins get (other than potential profits) by publishing the memoir of an out-of-office ex-governor? Favorable treatment from a future Palin administration?

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washingtonpost.com: Sideswiped by scandal, trapped by the past (Post, Nov. 23)

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Midlothian, Va.: My problem with George Stephanopoulos show is that repeatedly showcases Liz Cheney as some kind of expert on all topics. If I remember right, she was some mid-level employee in the State Department, but how does that remotely qualify her to opine on any issue other than foreign relations? And why are George and the hosts of the other shows on which she appears so reluctant to call her on her repeated lies?

Howard Kurtz: Okay, so you don't like Liz Cheney. But is a former deputy assistant secretary of State (and, yes, daughter of a former vice president) less qualified than the ex-pols, strategists and journalists who show up on Sunday roundtables?

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Seattle, Wash.: Good Morning Howie,

Just curious, about how much did Newsweek have to play Runners World for that flag-covered cheesecake photo? Or are they owned by the same company?

Howard Kurtz: It wasn't exactly a cheesecake photos, despite the short jogging shorts. But I've been critical of the cover and the headline (about solving a "problem" like Sarah). Runners World is not owned by the Post Co. (which owns Newsweek), and I have no idea what the magazine paid for the cover photo.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard, one thing to keep in mind about Emily Miller: back during her days on the Hill, she acted like she was God's gift to professional staff. If people weren't important enough (i.e., didn't work for House leadership), she wouldn't give them the time of day. Not surprising to see that she's getting short shrift from the "little people" on the slide back down the ladder.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I think she acknowledged in our interviews that she was driven by power and success earlier in her career, and that her fall from grace has changed her outlook.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Howard:"...obviously TV has its share of uninformed gasbags"

Really? For example?

Howard Kurtz: You must not have cable.

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Avon Park, Fla.: Is Sarah Palin's book tour newsworthy because she was the GOP's vice-presidential candidate or because she's a prospective presidential candidate? I get the sense that quite a few reporters don't take Palin seriously as a presidential candidate. (Bob Schieffer made that point). They see her as nothing but a Republican celebrity who is interesting to cover.

Howard Kurtz: Sarah Palin is a celebrity and a lightning rod who has written a very provocative book. She is drawing big crowds on her tour. She sold 300,000 books on the first day. I'd say she's a big story even if she doesn't run in 2012, and I personally doubt she will.

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Thanks!: Howard:

I, for one, want to thank you for your writing great pieces in media matters. Even though I sometimes don't agree with your points I still love reading your columns and look for them everyday!

Howard Kurtz: My kinda message. Thanks.

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George Snuffullophogus: I just don't see how GMA can change GMA to fit him and not lose ratings. George doesn't want to touch the 8 a.m. hour where it's mostly entertainment, fluff, cooking and fashion segments.

I wonder if GMA may follow the Today model and do separate one-hour shows where George does the 7-8 a.m. hour, and someone else does the 8-9 a.m. hour but these are technically separate shows similar to what Today does with their 7-9 show and then their post 9 a.m. show.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know whether George Stephanopoulos or Chris Cuomo will get the job, though I've reported that George is the leading candidate. But one thing I can confidently predict is that whoever ABC picks will co-host the entire two hours of the program.

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RE : Newsweek Photo: Runner's World reported that they had ZERO involvement in the cover. The photograph was obtained by the original photographer.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for clarifying that.

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Vienna, Va.: Funniest line in your story on Miller is when the movie director describes his film as "very balanced like an Oliver Stone movie." That kills me! Stone's about as balanced as Michael Moore.

Howard Kurtz: A "narrative interpretation," he says. Which means you can take a true story and, ah, embellish it. With scenes involving red panties.

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Capitol Hill: Thanks for the balanced interview with Emily Miller. She may not be perfect -- who is? -- but it is undeniable that she got screwed and sensationalist, sexist entertainment media is taking every last crumb. She needs a better lawyer. Also, why is Scanlon still working out in downtown D.C. gyms? What is he doing now -- besides co-operating with DOJ?

Howard Kurtz: Thanks, I tried to provide a complete portrait. Who among us would want our name being used in a movie while our character says and does things we never did?

I don't know what Scanlon is doing now, other than cooperating with prosecutors. His lawyer wouldn't tell me and said I couldn't interview Scanlon.

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Texas: The Texas Tribune is the new non-profit online "newspaper." What do you think is the future of these non-profits? Will they be able to compete with print? Believe it's starting with a contribution of $5 million.

Howard Kurtz: The actual figure is $3.5 million, which is pretty impressive. And the Texas Tribune (run by the former editor of Texas Monthly) has used that cash to attract some top talent. I think such nonprofits are PART of the media's future, but it remains to be seen whether they can become self-sustaining. I don't know that donors are going to underwrite these operations forever.

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Washington, D.C.: If the scandal did not have someone like Emily Miller in the story, then Hollywood and the media would have to create her. Of course, that is what Miller asserts has happened. Her version is that the truth won't sell -- politically or economically -- and therefore the fabrication is -- politically and economically -- viable. That's plausible to me.

Howard Kurtz: That part is true - how much of a character can she be in a scandal movie if her only role is as the ex-fiancee called in to the FBI for an interview about crimes she was unaware of? SO much better to have her waltzing into the FBI and dropping the red lace panties she found in her boyfriend's pocket on the agent's desk.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Aren't Palin and the media out for the same thing -- money? Palin drives ratings and sells magazines. At the same time, she's behaving much more like a celebrity selling a book, than a politician looking to participate in debate.

Howard Kurtz: Yes. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement. Palin has a product to push, and the media are helping her in part because she's good for ratings and circulation. And despite the fact that she bashes the media in every interview, which in turn creates more buzz for the tour.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I have to say that the media coverage regarding the recommendations on mammograms and breast exams bordered on misinformed hysteria. The panel simply made recommendations, but from the response you'd think they had ordered women to be dragged kicking and screaming out of doctor's offices. I realize that it is a controversial topic, but I thought the coverage was over the top.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, I thought the media played a valuable role in pushing back against the recommendation. Rather than rolling over for the supposed experts, there was a healthy questioning of whether this made sense, led in part by female journalists who have either had breast cancer or cancer scares (as I blogged about last week). I didn't see anyone report that this panel's recommendation had any mandatory aspect to it. In fact, the media revolt helped persuade the White House to scurry away from the recommendation as quickly as possible.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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