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Howard Kurtz on the Media: Charlie Gibson exits World News, Stephanopoulos takes over GMA, Tiger Woods

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 14, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz will be online Monday, Dec. 14, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

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Today's Column: An anchor's ambivalent exit

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."

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


Boston, Mass.: Where's Cuomo going next? I think ABC was crazy not to pick him for GMA as he has the news chops and personality for the role.

Howard Kurtz: In the wake of George Stephanopoulos starting this a.m. on Good Morning America, Cuomo is becoming a co-anchor of 20/20, ABC's chief legal correspondent and a sort of roving reporter for all the network's programs.


Plandome, N.Y.: Your guests at the top of yesterday's show did an excellent job pointing out the normal path of morning show host to network anchor but can Stephanopoulos really expect to get that seat since he was once a top Democratic leader? Wouldn't that just be too much for the right to accept and would just incite their claims of liberal bias? I know George tries to play it straight on This Week but his past is his past. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I'd say Stephanopoulos is in very good shape to become the World News anchor one day, and that might have been the case even if he hadn't gone to GMA. Some people are never going to fully accept him because of his Clinton White House role (indeed, David Axelrod did George no favors this morning by reminding GMA viewers that he works in Stephanopoulos' "old office" or by saying "your friends in the White House" have gotten you an alarm clock to help you wake up. Of course, the passage of time helps; Diane Sawyer was a press aide in the Nixon White House and continued working for Nixon in exile. John Chancellor ran the Voice of America for LBJ before become the NBC anchor, but that was a different era.


Arlington, Va.: Studying the Tiger Woods stories, I note that the gossip site TMZ gets many references in the mainstream press. Is this because TMZ is owned by Time Warner (I think it went with AOL in the breakup)? Does that sort of New York Stock Exchange ownership give TMZ added credibility with the MSM that other gossip Web sites like RadarOnline (which broke some Woods gossip, but didn't get much MSM credit) don't have?

Howard Kurtz: I would say the main reason is that TMZ, under Harvey Levin, has a track record of getting these stories right. It was TMZ that first reported Michael Jackson's death, and the questions about drugs supplied by his doctor; Mel Gibson's drunken, anti-Semitic rant, and the racist monologue by Michael Richards. You do enough stories like that, other journalists take notice.


Anonymous: The Tiger story is like an accident: you can't look away. I'll admit I am feeling a little guilty about this, since this is someone's personal life and I really have no right to know such intimate details. But I am not alone. I turned on CNBC, the stock channel, and they even had a Tiger segment this morning. What does this say about us? Have we all become a nation of voyeurs?

Howard Kurtz: Tiger's is a tawdry tale, no question about it, and the MSM have repeated too many unconfirmed reports and gossip that may or may not be true. But it is, without question, a helluva story. Tiger Woods is one of the most famous people on the planet; he dominates his sport like no other athlete; his squeaky-clean image helped him rack up nearly $1 billion in endorsements; and now, with his secret life being revealed, all of that is crumbling. His corporate sponsors are starting to bail, and his leave of absence from golf not only sidelines his career, it hurts the sport. TV ratings for golf declined 50 percent when he was out due to injury. There's reason the NYT put that story on the front page Saturday, and the WP should have as well.


New York, N.Y.: The Post shouldn't have run Sarah Palin's op-ed piece on global warming. I know your going to knee-jerk and say it's only because I don't like Palin, but that has nothing to do with it. Global warming is a highly technical topic that Palin simply knows nothing about. For the same reason, the Post shouldn't publish an op-ed by Joe Biden on quantum mechanics. I have a radical suggestion: the Post should only publish pieces by people who understand the subject matter.

Howard Kurtz: If it were up to me, the paper (and others) wouldn't publish pieces by politicians that are ghostwritten by their staffs (on both sides of the aisle). It's not like these pols have no other way of getting their message out. But if you run such op-eds - including one by Barack Obama, as I recall - you can't impose a different standard on Sarah Palin.


Washington, D,C,: I was astonished watching the ABC News last Tuesday to see the third most important story of the day involved Tiger Woods's mother-in-law being taken to the hospital with stomach cramps. Yes, someone being taken to the hospital with stomach cramps was a Nightly News story. Surely this shows a major flaw in someone's news judgment.

Howard Kurtz: That was pretty minor, but I'd wager it was just the top of a status report on Tiger's mounting problems.


New York: My #1 magazine all-time is Editor and Publisher, the bible of the newspaper industry (they also publish the E and P International Year Book, Market Guide, Directory of Syndicate Services, and a Journalism Awards and Fellowships Directory). What alternative channels are available for media personnel looking to get news about the newspaper industry? (It's a given that whatever job listings there are can be found over on Craig's List). Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Romenesko, Mediaite, Media Bistro and other sites carry plenty of news about the news business, including newspapers. And then there's me.


Anonymous: Do you know how much money the supermarket tabloids might offer the "birdies" in the Tiger Woods imbroglio for their stories? I see several have prominent lawyers that even I recognize, so I assume big bucks are involved here. Are there book deals in the works?

Howard Kurtz: Us Weekly was reported to have paid $150,000 to Jamie Grubbs in exchange for the interview and all those text messages from Tiger. I asked an Us editor, Bradley Jacobs, about this repeatedly on "Reliable Sources" and he would not deny it or make any comment at all. I'm sure other tabloids and British papers have been waving all kinds of money around in an effort to get other alleged mistresses to cooperate.


Washington, DC: Why is Tiger Woods's now-admitted infidelity such a huge story, when reports of Michael Jordan's alleged infidelity passed with barely a whisper in his heyday? Tiger's position in culture and the media is similar to what Jordan was. Was Jordan coated in Teflon?

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe Jordan made it into double digits, except in scoring on the court. If Tiger Woods had been found to have one girlfriend, I believe he'd still be playing golf today. I do have the impression that sportswriters have looked away from the indiscretions of mega-stars such as Jordan and Woods, who are also shielded by huge entourages. But the Tiger story became impossible to ignore.


Florida chick: Happy holidays and thanks for another year of wise media assessment. I enjoyed it. BTW -- how would all the indignant Tiger 'deniers' have handled the sponsorship cancellation news, and the tourney no-show? Those are valid biz and sports stories. So they'd have ignored the 12+ chicks emerging, due to tabloid overtones? And they would have had to write tenth- day ledes on the rest of Tiger news? Fail.

Howard Kurtz: My point exactly. The media can't stick their heads in the sand on these things, especially when tangible evidence such as text messages emerge. If you had stuck your nose in the air and refused to report on the parade of paramours, how exactly would you explain to your readers or viewers that the world's No. 1 golfer has just taken an indefinite leave, and such sponsors as Gillette and Accenture are dropping him?


Alexandria, Va.: So is Charlie Gibson retiring with an "Exit, stage right" mentality? Or is he moving towards what NBC did with Tom Brokaw and an Anchor Emertius role where he pops up on broadcasts every now and then?

Howard Kurtz: I would imagine we'll see Charlie on the air every once in awhile, but neither he nor ABC has said anything about such an arrangement. Brokaw felt more strongly about wanting to retain some on-air role when he handed the reins to Brian Williams, and he has done some documentaries and done pundit duty at MSNBC.


Washington, D.C.: I say let people like Palin (or from the other side of the political spectrum) publish Op-Eds in the Post...But, it seems to me that maybe the Post should institute a catch: the writer first has to make themselves available to reporters who can ask questions about their ideas, facts and assertions. Palin (through her ghostwriter) gets all the advantage of seeming like a thoughtful person (with a spread in the Post), but doesn't have to answer any of the messy factual questions raised by so many who analyzed her piece. This happens on the other side as well (though I'd venture less frequently --- MSM is more apt to run right-wingers than serious left wingers)...but in any event, the Post reporters should get to ask tough questions before she's allowed to opine like this.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure that's realistic. But lots of reporters, commentators and advocates -- including Al Gore, in an interview with Andrea Mitchell -- have ripped apart Palin's op-ed. So in that sense it contributed to the climate change debate.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Saw Al Gore interviewed last week (I think on CNN and MSNBC) and it really sunk in on how Political SuperStars (Gore, Clinton, Bush, Obama, etc.) never get grilled by the interviewer. Very few follow-ups, very little confrontation. My question is -- Is this established before the interview -- that there will be "zero hostility"? Would love to read your take on this...Thx

Howard Kurtz: Andrea Mitchell did challenge Gore about the financial impact of the kind of climate agreement he supports. I wouldn't say it was a confrontational interview, but it wasn't a free pass, either.


Multiple dalliances =coverage: So is this why the MSM ignored Edwards's apparently single tryst for so long?

Howard Kurtz: Sorry, that's just an unfair rap. The media didn't "ignore" John Edwards's affair with his campaign videographer while National Enquirer was making that accusation; they were unable to prove it in the face of his denials. The notion that the MSM didn't care is just wrong. I was looking into it with a Post colleague. When Edwards acknowledged the affair on Nightline, it was a huge story, and deservedly so.


D.C.: Since her Couric interview, Sarah Palin has essentially avoided all potentially critical press and allowed interviews only by media (a lot of Fox) that can best be described as either friendly or even fawning. Her assertions are rarely challenged as are her "facts" and pronouncements. Yet, she is reaching a wide audience. It suggests to me that she is showing a high degree of savvy in her selections. My question: is she possibly rewriting the book for politicians? There seems to be little reason for her to change, no pushback and little criticism to her face or challenges...why would she ever let a "mainstream" or other journalist near her...there simply seems to be no upside to playing the traditional media game.


Howard Kurtz: Well, what she's doing right now is peddling a book. I don't think you could get away with this strategy if you were, say, running for president--and, by the way, I remain skeptical that she's going to do that.

In her first week, Palin talked to Oprah and Barbara Walters; since then it's been all conservatives all the time (including Hannity, Laura Ingraham, National Review and the Standard's Matthew Continetti, author of "The Persecution of Sarah Palin").


The Goat: I am surprised with how Tiger has handled this situation. The story is shocking and surprising.

I really wonder how many in the sports press knew about these affairs and did not saying anything. the word on the PGA tour are the players knew about Woods. How did the sports press not?

His handling of this is the worst you can possibly do. The best way to handle this is to follow Letterman's model and come right out and admit it and then the story will die. If you deny to talk to the press you are throwing them chum.

Will he survive in terms of advertising, depends on if he is still dominating in his game...but he will need to answer questions from the press. Were he looked at as an adultery avoidance guru or preached this in his interviews then it would be very different.

In his first tourney back someone will say something or do something that will distract him.

Howard Kurtz: I don't see how Tiger comes back without doing an interview with someone. He has to ask for forgiveness, not just issue sterile statements composed by his handlers. His gamble is that in three months this will seem like old news and he can mount a comeback.

Esquire's Charles Pierce, who profiled Woods in 1997, says everyone on the PGA Tour knew that he was messing around. Or course, there's a big difference between thinking you "know" something and having the evidence to publish it.


Baltimore, Md.: Howard: Have you followed the case of Amanda Knox, the young American convicted of murder in Italy? I know very little about the Italian justice system, but I find it off-putting that our news media have devoted so much attention to this. The murder was especially gruesome and Knox's Italian boyfriend has also been convicted, but because Knox is pretty, white and American the press seems to reflexively take her side and present her as being railroaded, or at least convicted on dubious evidence.

Howard Kurtz: I have not studied the case. I have, however, seen it covered every 10 minutes on cable news and constantly on the morning shows, I suspect for the reasons you point out.


Boston, Mass.: Do you agree with Post columnist, Michael Wilbon, that there was a racial element to the extent of the Tiger coverage or do you think it is merely due to him being one of the more famous personalities in the world (athlete or otherwise) and his previous polished, clean, family reputation in print and his ads?

Howard Kurtz: I disagree with Wilbon. I also disagree with him that this is all an "overreaction" led by "moralists and hypocrites." As for the racial question, I think Tiger long ago transcended race in most people's eyes. He managed to dominate a traditionally white, country-club sport and still have most of the country rooting for him. The reaction would have been the same if he was a white athlete, except perhaps for the grumbling by some African-American columnists that he both married and dated outside his race.


Anonymous: "If you had stuck your nose in the air and refused to report on the parade of paramours, how exactly would you explain to your readers or viewers that the world's No. 1 golfer has just taken an indefinite leave, and such sponsors as Gillette and Accenture are dropping him?"

Well, wait, if this story hadn't blown up in the mainstream media, would the parade of paramours have happened in the same way? Would there have been the same intense focus? And would Gillette and Accenture perceived quite the same shift? I think you've got some questionable causality at work there?

Similarly on the M. Jordan question: You have no idea what his off-court "number" is because the mainstream media didn't "go there." He may have matched Wilt Chamberlain shot for shot (10,000?), but just gotten away with it, in a way that Tiger is clearly not.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know anything else about Michael Jordan's private life; I'm just addressing what actually came out, versus what has emerged in Tiger's case.

There's no question that the media playing a major role, with their relentless coverage, of things reaching a point where some advertisers ran away and Tiger felt the need to drop off the tour. I'd say Tiger also contributed by staying in the bunker, refusing to answer questions and taking two weeks to fully own up to his behavior. The question for the media is whether all that coverage was legitimate, and I'd say that for the most part, it was.


Princeton, N.J.: I know you feel it's an important enough story to get 24/7 coverage, but I can tell you that my friends and I pay no attention at all to Tiger Woods. Call us elitists, but there is too much to follow to spend time on trash. Might as well read the National Enquirer.

Howard Kurtz: You're certainly free to ignore it. It's a tabloid story. But one of the world's richest and most famous athletes has led a tabloid life. We can't bear all the blame for that.


Arlington, Va.: The Post raised its newsstand price for the Sunday paper to $2.00 yesterday. It is worth the money. However, there are those of us who, due to schedules that can't take home delivery, who procure the paper at the news boxes in the street and at metro stations. We did not, so far as I can tell, received advance notice of the price change. When the Post raises the daily price to a dollar, as it will, it would be nice to have a week's notice so we can assemble the appropriate amount of quarters.

Howard Kurtz: I agree that The Post should give ample warning of price increases. I'd also say that, compared to the price of a Frappuccino, the Sunday paper is a bargain, even at two bucks.


Vienna, Va.: The Knox coverage -- yes, this has received a decent amount of coverage in the U.S., but not nearly the amount of tabloid frenzy it has received in Italy. And just because she's attractive shouldn't mean that you dismiss this off-hand -- from the accounts I have read and seen there are serious questions and legitimate concerns about whether she has been railroaded by an overzealous and media-hungry prosecutor, very questionable forensics and too-quickly convicted by a jury that has been allowed to be fed a steady diet of the tabloids throughout the entire trial. Much of this would never have been allowed in a U.S. court.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't dismiss it offhand. Nor do I dismiss legitimate questions about the case. I just don't think you'd see a fraction of the coverage in the U.S. if she were a poor woman from a lower-class family.


British Columbia, Canada: Howie, when is the insanity going to end?! I mean, really WaPo/ABC? A poll to see that 1 in 4 Americans don't like Tiger Woods now? What is this, a high school newspaper with a popularity poll? Even worse than letting Palin do a fact-free op-ed. At least get this STUFF off the front page, where there are actually some very good articles. It's sooo tabloid, and has a nasty voyeuristic smell about it, like people are getting pleasure from all of it. Let the Enquirer run inane polls like that, not WaPo!

Howard Kurtz: I couldn't disagree more. Golf is big business. Tiger is a mega-corporation. Everywhere I go, people are talking about the story. Nothing wrong with a poll on what's happened to his public standing.


Bayville, N.J.: To me, last week represented a showcased how "dumbed-down" our culture has become. During a three-day span, Maureen Dowd wasted her space in the NYT to write about the White House social secretary; A co-founder of TMZ D.C. (The Politico) was picked for the Pulitzer board; Legacy author Jonah Goldberg was signed to a $1 million book deal; Luke Russert provided one incoherent report after the next on health-care legislation and then the on Wednesday I read noted climatologist Sarah Palin writing about global warming. Not to mention, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger.

Howie, you have been a journalist for three decades and a media critic for most of that time. Have you ever seen the quality of content produced by the American Mass Media at this low of level? Do you see it sinking any lower (God forbid)?

Howard Kurtz: Have the media declined in the last three decades? No argument there. But your examples don't exactly make the case. Dowd was writing about Desiree Rogers because of the Salahis' security breach. What's wrong with Politico's Jim VandeHei (who previously worked for the WP and WSJ) being named to the Pulitzer board? Why can't Jonah Goldberg get a book deal if a publisher is willing to buy his next work? And apparently you don't like Luke Russert. Seems to me to be more a list of your pet peeves than evidence of the declining news business (of which there is no shortage).


Princeton, N.J.: It seems to many progressives that the media in general and the Post in particular have done a terrible job covering health care. What they did was way too little and way, way, way, too late. The coverage was 95 percent process and 5 percent content. You can go to the FAIR site to see some of the discussion. And you have never even acknowledged this whole important aspect of the media.

Howard Kurtz: The coverage hasn't been perfect, but way too little? The Post has run dozens and dozens and dozens of stories on the competing health care bills, some about the politics (which will, even now, determine whether anything passes) but many about the substance. So have other news organizations. Even television has made a concerted effort to analyze and explain the legislation and what's at stake. You're free to criticize the coverage of this complex subject (even many lawmakers haven't read these 2,000-page bills), but let's not pretend there hasn't been much of it. In fact the NYT has yet another health care story on the front page today.


Texas: Mrs. Palin is now a private citizen. Should she be granted the same access to the op-ed page as the president?

Howard Kurtz: Al Gore is a private citizen too. Palin just published a book that hit the NYT best-seller list. Some private citizens are just more prominent than others.

All right, folks, thanks for chatting.


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