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Media Backtalk with Howard Kurtz: Changing 'Newshour' to preserve it

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 30, 2009 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Nov. 30, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Today's Column: PBS, changing 'NewsHour' to preserve it

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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Watertown, Mass.: I just want to say that the MSM acted, on the whole, pretty good during the Tiger Woods thing. I read every gossip sight and am impressed with their dirt gathering ability (how does TMZ get that stuff?) but the MSM held back as much as they could. By that I mean there seemed to be a lot of stories about the PR angle (which hinted at the adultery scandal), and there were stories about him refusing to meet with police (which backed into the controversy by explaining why they would want to talk to him). But in general, I thought they should as much restraint as they could given the fact that the story just kept heating up and percolating? Do you agree?

Howard Kurtz: Restraint is good when we don't know the facts, and in this case we still don't know what happened and whether there's any truth to what you call the "gossip stuff." But increasingly, it doesn't matter. The allegations ricochet across the Web and around the world in nano-seconds, and everyone hears about them when the MSM go along or not. Then again, TMZ has a pretty good track record on these celeb stories.

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Tiger Woods: Howard, do you really think he's going to get away with the minimal explanation he's given so far as to what happened? Just as importantly, is it really worth the damage it's doing to his public image? I, for one, think it sends a terrible message that he won't cooperate with authorities on this. It makes him seem above the law, even though he apparently has a legal right to do this. Meanwhile, TMZ is reporting details that are a lot more lurid that the Woods "explanation" and other media outlets have been willing to cite TMZ's reporting. How do you think this will play out?

Howard Kurtz: It is hard for me to imagine that someone as famous as Tiger Woods, who can't stay in his mansion - he tours the world in golf tournaments - is going to remain silent about this. As a PR strategy, it looks like he's got something to hide. Is he never going to talk to the press again, and risk being asked these questions? Remember, publicity is the engine that drives his multimillion-dollar empire of product endorsements.

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Alexandria, Va.: Last week you reported that WaPo is closing its news bureaus in US cities other than DC. In doing so, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli stated "We are not a national news organization of record serving a general audience." Somehow, I had thought that, at least post-Watergate, the Post had in fact envisioned itself as exactly that. Apparently I was wrong, and I suspect a great many readers (especially outside the Metro area) were similarly mistaken. Perhaps the Web site should make it clear that if you're interested in national news for a general audience, you should go elsewhere?

washingtonpost.com: Post to close national bureaus, send reporters afield from D.C. (Post, Nov. 25)

Howard Kurtz: As a newspaper, The Post has never been in the same category as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today -- which is to say, it's largely unavailable in the 48 states outside the Washington area. The Web, of course, has given us a national and international audience. I think what Marcus was trying to say is that unlike some organizations, we don't do detailed reporting of local developments in, say, Boston and San Francisco and Seattle. He says The Post will continue covering the country, with reporters based in D.C.

As a former New York bureau chief, I have to say I'm a big proponent of covering regions of the country with correspondents who live there. Obviously this will have an impact on our coverage of such important and intrinsically interesting places as Los Angeles and New York.

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State Dinner Gate Crashers: Ethics question regarding that couple that crashed the WH dinner...I understand it's news about the security breach, etc., etc. ...BUT, it seems they did it for the attention and the spotlight, and even a friend has been quoted as saying they are enjoying the media attention...Is there ever a discussion as to whether, while reporting the story, newcasts should refrain from showing their pictures? I mean, when someone rushes on the field at a sports event, the practice has been for some time NOT to show them on TV so as not to encourage/reward that behavior....In short, could this story be covered with out giving the couple the screen time they are craving? I for one feel like the newscasts should now decline to show the footage of them inside or their Facebook pages....seems like they are being rewarded for a dumb stunt..

Howard Kurtz: Yes, the media have made them into instant celebrities, beyond what is necessary to cover the security breach that required the Secret Service to apologize. But the Salahis, with their tangled history, are also an interesting story. No question this was overplayed over a slow holiday weekend. But I must say, having been out of town to visit family, that there is a heckuva lot of interest in them among ordinary folks who aren't obsessed with politics.

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Tigerville, USA: Classic example of reporting a story you have not substantiated -- headlines rang across the Web and TV on Friday: Tiger Woods in Serious Condition after car wreck on Thanksgiving Night! All based on a single press release from a state highway patrol. He was not in "serious condition" -- which we commonly associate with a grading system in hospitals -- but news outlets everywhere never distinguished that -- they were reporting what the police thought. It was just lazy. He wasn't in the hospital, as was made clear later. My problem is that you blast out headlines and cause havoc without checking the facts... and then you just "learn more" and revise your newscast -- it's garbage. Broadcast the substantiated facts... then hold off on presumptions. Bothered me greatly.

Howard Kurtz: In the pantheon of media screwups, relying on a press release from the state highway patrol isn't in my top 100. Yes, the question of injuries was way overstated, but how do you ignore such a release involving one of the world's most famous men when it's put out by a law enforcement agency? Not everyone went with that, at least in the next day's papers, but in the wired world something like that is going to be instantly broadcast around the world.

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Tiger: I don't understand why the police would even consider filing criminal charges for an accident like this. Unless they believe there was some domestic violence going on, which is a separate issue, does it make sense to charge someone for a single-car accident in which no one other than the driver was injured? And I have not read TMZ, so I know only what has been reported in the Post and the Times.

Howard Kurtz: The idea of criminal charges seems remote to me. Even in a domestic incident, you usually need one member of a couple pressing charges against the other, and that's not happening here.

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Washington, DC: I disagree on the Tiger Woods story. Tiger has gotten a free pass. Why has not media asked the police why Tiger was allowed to have his attorney on Sunday present his drivers license and proof of insurance for a late night traffic accident? Florida law requires that you carry whenever you're driving. I wonder what percent of people who wrap their car around a tree at 2:30 on Friday night have until Sunday to cough up a license? I'd bet the usual is to get a free inspection tour of the local police facilities at least until the items showed up. This is simply asking who, what, when, where, why and how about already published statements. I have yet to see any reporting on the Tiger Woods story.

Howard Kurtz: A free pass? Hardly. All these questions and more are being raised, but few answers are forthcoming. Tiger hasn't said squat, except for that statement in which he blamed himself but didn't resolve any of the questions, and the authorities can't add much without interviewing Woods. We're still on the first hole of a long story.

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New York: Thanks for the story about my favorite news show. I noticed that Gwen Ifill hasn't been doing WP.com chats lately; could it be because the NewsHour has been planning for her to blog on their web site? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: PBS, changing 'NewsHour' to preserve it (Post, Nov. 30)

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. I do know that Gwen was on vacation last week.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Is publicity really Tiger's engine, or is it unparalleled excellence? Michael Jordan got away with a lot of stuff that he's never been held to "account" for by us. I say to Tiger: keep your lips sealed and tend to your personal life. This too shall pass.

Howard Kurtz: Tiger Woods is one of the greatest athletes of all time. Even so, you don't rake in zillions in product endorsements by just hitting a ball and avoiding the media.

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Northern Virginia: Your article about Jim Lehrer left out his salary. Can you tell us what it is? Do you know it? How can the public find out?

washingtonpost.com: PBS, changing 'NewsHour' to preserve it (Post, Nov. 30)

Howard Kurtz: I have no clue.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard -- Jim Lehrer tells you "I am very concerned about serious journalism... we damn well better get with it." For practical purposes, what does it mean to "get with it" -- tweet, perhaps? Does Mr. Lehrer tweet?

Howard Kurtz: What he meant - and what I hope the story made clear - is that the "NewsHour" needs to be more competitive and build an audience online. It's no longer enough to just put on a quality broadcast. The program is already on Facebook and Twitter. Lehrer did tell me that he won't personally be tweeting.

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Fairfax, Va.: Howard --

The Salahi incident deserved nothing more than a couple of paragraphs in the WaPo. Certainly not this continuing front page coverage with all this overblown minutia that we have been exposed to. Is this a sign of WaPo's future?

Howard Kurtz: You can easily argue that the story's been overplayed, but we've had plenty of company. Keep in mind that a) The Washington Post broke the story, and some of the subsequent details; b) this is a local couple who live in Virginia; and c) questions about a White House security breach are right in our wheelhouse. Any story where the head of the Secret Service issues an abject apology is surely worth more than a couple of paragraphs. And the Salahis would have been on Larry King tonight had they not decided to hit up the networks for payment in the mid-six figures in exchange for the first interview.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Tiger's publicity managers are seriously mishandling this, although I assume they're suggesting other ways to handle this and he's not biting.

He needs to get what's required out and move on to get this behind him. The less he says and the longer he goes before saying it, the worse it looks.

He should have just done the interview with police on Friday, or at the latest Saturday, and explained the minimum he could without lying. Even saying it was an argument with his wife would have been okay, but to keep delaying makes it look like he's hiding something and people assume the worst.

Howard Kurtz: You make a good point. But I don't necessarily push it off on his PR advisers. It's his life and his wife. He's the one who hasn't explained where he was going at 2:15 a.m. when he rammed into the tree and fire hydrant. That has opened the door for all this speculation.

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Newport News: I've been watching BBC News and CNN International. Why can't there be an American news channel as serious as those?

Howard Kurtz: Well, Jim Lehrer's NewsHour, which I wrote about this morning, is an undeniably serious 60 minutes of news. It has an audience of 1.2 million, a bit more than a third of Bill O'Reilly's. Lehrer says it should be at least double that. My point is that network executives put on the programming they think will attract the widest audience. It is possible that many people *say* they want serious news but their fingers hit other buttons on the remote.

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Tiger Woods: His injuries were apparently more extensive than he has let on. His lips were scratched up, his mouth was full of blood, and he was lapsing into and out of consciousness. I can see how he could be released from the hospital hours later, but even so the injuries were hardly "minor". I suspect it is those scratches to the face that compel the police to conduct an investigation, since they could in fact be the result of battery rather than the accident.

Howard Kurtz: Well, who knows? I'd consider the injuries fairly serious. On the other hand, Tiger hasn't abandoned plans to play in an upcoming tournament.

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MSM restraint re Tiger: Police and media seemed to accept at face value the story by Tiger's wife that, upon knowing the vehicle had crashed in the neighbor's yard, she left the house with a golf club and then knocked out the rear window in order to drag him from the front seat. Uh, dragged him over 3 rows of seats? Couldn't get him out of any of the four regular doors/windows, when the car was damaged mainly around the front wheels (according to photos)? And this apparently occurred by the time the neighbor phoned 911, since he said the victim was already on the ground. I'm kind of surprised that apparently no reporter has looked at a Cadillac Escapade to see if this was feasible.

Howard Kurtz: I'll put you down as being in the skeptical category.

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Baltimore: News value of the Tiger story: As Joel Achenbach pointed out in his blog, the public is going to be interested when a famous man with hand/eye coordination better than 99.99999% of the population drives his SUV into a fire hydrant and a tree when leaving his own house at 2:25 in the morning.

Or, as someone whose name I can't recall once said about famous athletes: "Nothing good ever happens after Midnight."

Howard Kurtz: The Tiger saga has nothin' but readers. There's also a bit of a mystery at the heart of it, which is fueling the public interest.

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Cincinnati, Ohio: Howie: Should NBC's Brian Williams be given an "F" for admitting on the weekend news that he saw the White House gate crashers' SUV being turned away and later the couple having makeup applied -- yet he didn't bother to investigate, even later when he saw the couple inside the dinner? He called it a "high honor" to be an invitee. Is it a payoff for flattering coverage when the media is invited?

Howard Kurtz: What was there to investigate at that point? A car leaving and a couple having makeup applied? It could have been correspondents from ET or Access Hollywood. If their names had been on the guest list, this would be a non-story. And there was no way for Brian Williams or anyone else to know that in advance.

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In short, could this story be covered with out giving the couple the screen time they are craving?: Actually, tired as I am of hearing about this couple, the more that is reported about them, the more their shady tactics and messy personal life is exposed, which I don't think is what they were banking on. They're reported to be in massive debt and possibly subject to fraud charges, they're known for making stuff up about themselves, etc.

Howard Kurtz: If they didn't have a tangled history and a Virginia winery that wound up shutting down, I don't think the story would have the staying power that it has. Plus there's the "Real Housewives" angle. You couldn't make this stuff up.

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Annapolis, Md.: Howie: How can the average person accept that the mainstream media presents neutral reporting when prominent members are wined and dined at the White House?

Howard Kurtz: I, for one, have never been to a state dinner. But I don't think occasional attendance at such affairs - and leading journalists went under Bush, Clinton, etc. - means that objectivity is impossible. That would suggest they would be afraid to report aggressively on the administration in question for fear of being scratched from a future guest list. And I just don't see that as being the case. If anything, the reporting on Obama has turned pretty negative in recent weeks as he grapples with health care, unemployment and Afghanistan.

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re: "Why can't there be an American news channel as serious as those?": Same reason 90 percent of your correspondents want to dish about Tiger Woods: we're a nation of children, incapable of growing up.

Howard Kurtz: I do notice a preponderance of questions about the two crashers - Tiger and the Salahis - and not much on, say, the president's crucial Afghanistan speech tomorrow night.

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New York: The NewsHour has quality journalists, but I wondered how hard it is to find them, especially when trying to woo them away from the for-profits. Can the NewsHour compete on salary, or do they offer something that goes beyond the materialistic? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: My assumption is that PBS isn't paying Katie Couric-level salaries, but I don't think those who work for such broadcasts as the NewsHour are having trouble putting food on the table.

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Washington, D.C.: I've found that the MSM usually lags but they've been far behind TMZ on the Tiger Woods story. While they were reciting Woods's statement, TMZ was providing video of the alleged mistress arriving at LAX.

Not to leave TMZ completely out of the criticism, they didn't have any other pics or video of the other woman. She's certainly a problem for Mrs. Woods. And no one, not Tiger, not MSM, not tabloid media, has said what Tiger was doing on the road at 2:25 a.m.

Howard Kurtz: The "alleged" mistress, who, by the way, denies being a mistress. Which is a pretty key point for the MSM. I don't know what is true at this point.

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There was no way for Brian Williams or anyone else to know that in advance: Just got through reading that your Reliable Source reporter did alert the White House staff after she saw the Salahis arrive and she checked the guest list. So, it was possible for someone to know.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, after she checked the guest list--an excellent act of journalistic hustle, by the way. But why would Brian Williams, who was not there to cover the event, check the guest list? It's awfully easy to toss around these accusations in retrospect.

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Anonymous: Obama is preparing to escalate in Afghanistan; Dubai is igniting a global debt crisis: Unemployment is soaring to 11 percent; the economy is in the crapper. And the questions you are getting today involve Tiger Woods hitting a fire hydrant, and the saga of the White House gate crashers. Doesn't that say a lot about the lack of seriousness of today's newspaper readers?

Howard Kurtz: Not necessarily. The people who submit questions in an online chat are not necessarily a representative sample of all those who read newspapers. And look, both stories are hot right now, and it's natural to ask how the media are covering (or overcovering) them.

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Tiger and the Salahis - and not much on, say, the president's crucial Afghanistan speech tomorrow night.: Howard

Again -- thank you for these chats and your great articles. I know you are saying that not a lot is being asked about the war/health/economy. For me (and probably only me) I am so annoyed by the representatives we voted in (I'm still having a hard time that these old coots are still running this country) and the mismanagement of our country and assets that gossip is a great stress reliever like exercising when you don't have the opportunity.

Howard Kurtz: Happy to contribute to your mental health.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard, backtracking a little, Anita Dunn was pummeled after she told you in an interview that Fox News was a propaganda arm of the Republican party and not a legitimate news organization. I have two questions about this: 1) Do you think the coverage she received pertaining to her statement on Mao and Mother Teresa at a private school commencement ceremony was germane? 2) Is it a story if a Fox anchor -- a Fox anchor who recently whined that Obama interviewed with everyone but him one Sunday, whose kids went to the private school where Dunn spoke -- was responsible for the tape? (People also believe he was the "parent" whom Glenn Beck interviewed in the dark about Dunn's remarks.) I don't know why this wouldn't be, but no one seems to care. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I thought the Mao praise by the WH communications director was a legitimate story, though overplayed on certain Fox News shows. I can't answer the second question because I have no idea where that tape (of a high school graduation ceremony) came from.

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Kalamazoo, Mich.: Mr. Kurtz,

It has been suggested that one way media show their bias is to diminish the importance of stories that don't fit the script, perhaps by burying them, or to ignore the stories altogether. Against that backdrop I find the coverage of the climate e-mails story (called in some quarters "climategate") quite revealing. These thousands of e-mails came from the English academy which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Putting aside the question of whether global warming is real or not, or if it is, whether it is caused primarily by man or not, the e-mails appear to reveal a profound corruption of the scientific process. Of course, the very validity of scientific inquiry is based on the assumption that scientific processes are followed, and here it is beyond question that they were not.

And yet, at the same time the Obama administration stands ready to commit the country to billions of dollars in expenditures to "fight" global warming, the media largely appear to be dodging this story. Why?

Of course, it is possible that the science is valid. But if it were, why the need to suppress contrary views? Why the effort to ostracize scientific journals which published differing opinions?

The Post has penned several editorials which gloss over the issue. Can anyone in your shop not see what a failure this is on the Post's part? No sense of inquiry, no sense of healthy skepticism. Instead, just a complete buy-in to what may be bogus science.

Howard Kurtz: I see two news stories about the e-mails in The Washington Post, as well as editorial and opinion pieces. So we have hardly ignored it. There was criticism of a NYT reporter who blogged that he wouldn't report the content of the e-mails because they had been obtained by hackers. This doesn't prove by a long shot that climate change is "bogus science," but it's a huge embarrassment to the scientists involved.

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Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright!: I live part-time in Florida and was there this weekend. The police explained that the term "serious condition" is always used when a person is injured enough to require transportation to the hospital. It does not really relate to the types of injury or their degree, it's basically a code that the cops use. Also, I can tell you from personal family experience that the police in Florida are required to make an arrest if they have reason to believe that there has been an episode of domestic violence, whether reported by the alleged victim or based on circumstances. There is no police discretion on this.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for clarifying that. To the layman, I think "serious" suggests a real threat to a person's health.

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Washington, D.C.: Howard, we have had at least three serious security breaches recently: The plane that flew 150 miles past the Minneapolis airport, the Fort Hood Incident, and the buffoons crash WH dinner. The one I haven't heard as much about is that plane that went way off course. This is extremely serious post 9-11. If I'm correct, no planes were even scrambled. It was probably less than 20 miles from Newark to the WTC. Yet, this airplane goes 150 miles off course and the alert buttons don't go up. To this day, I have not heard a satisfying answer as to what those pilots were actually doing that distracted them that much. But I'm also concerned about the reaction from the FAA and Homeland Security. Why hasn't there been more journalistic investigation into this story?

Howard Kurtz: Haven't heard much about? While I regard it as a safety incident, not a security incident, that story was all over the network newscasts for days; the investigation has been amply covered, and the pilots lost their jobs.

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McLean, Va.: How can someone claim that the presence of gate-crashers at a state dinner is not an important story? Agents of countries or organizations with hostile intentions towards the USA or India (or both) could have pulled the same stunt. Even though all guests passed through a magnetometer, were they scanned for anthrax, for instance? Even if their intention was just to punch someone in the face (or throw someone's shoes at the president as happened in Iraq), the embarrassment could have triggered a serious international incident.

Howard Kurtz: Agreed. The what-if aspects of the Salahis' little stunt are part of what is driving the interest in this story. We're lucky, I suppose, that their only nefarious motive was to get on a Bravo reality show.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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