Howard Kurtz on the Media

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 4, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Jan. 4, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the 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."

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Seattle, Wash.: Great Reliable Sources on Sunday! At one point you showed a past clip of David Frost where you thought he'd get more criticism today paying Nixon for the interviews. But earlier in the show, you had a segment on how shows are paying for interviews.

1. Do you still feel Frost would get excessive criticism? 2. How do you feel about Frost's Nixon payment? 3. The media doesn't seem entirely upfront regarding paying for interviews. How do you feel that impacts their public perception? 4. And finally, are there other areas where the media isn't entirely upfront with the public?

Thanks, and you rock!

Howard Kurtz: Happy new year, everyone. Still getting used to this twenty-ten thing.

Thanks, Seattle. I watched Frost's Nixon interviews with rapt attention, but I always felt that he had enabled the former president to cash in on his criminal conduct. Frost paid Nixon $600,000, which would be about $2 million in today's dollars. It was a critical success, but made me uncomfortable, then and now.

The point of our earlier segment was that while the networks claim not to pay for interviews, they find creative ways around that. For instance, CNN, the New York Post and ABC all paid Jaspar Schuringa, the Dutch passenger who tackled the would-be Nigerian terrorist on that Northwest Airlines flight, thousands of dollars for his blurry photos of the scene. Then Schuringa granted exclusive interviews to...CNN, the New York Post and ABC. The guy is a hero, but he definitely decided to cash in. And those news organizations that paid him got the access they wanted.

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D.C.: I was intrigued last week when CNN's Rick Sanchez committed journalism. I was impressed that he was able to get away with it. He had Sen. Ensign on the hot seat and rather just let him spout his talking points, asked him questions that the good senator has been avoiding in public for months. Sure it was off the original topic of the interview, but hats off to Sanchez for seizing the opportunity.

Two questions:

What did you think of what Sanchez did?

Why don't more journalists stop the repetition of "talking points" and ask more questions of politicians (of both parties) that make the politicians uncomfortable and pull them off their script?

Howard Kurtz: Good for Sanchez. Why should anything be considered off-limits when a politician is being interviewed? Yes, if you tell the person's office the interview is about X, you have an obligation to ask about X. But no journalist should give up his or her right to ask other questions - especially in a case like Ensign's, where the senator has had very little to say about the ethics questions spawned by his affair with a former aide married to one of his former Senate staffers.

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Washington, D.C.: Happy New Year, Mr. Kurtz. My impression over the past several years is that the print media (newspapers, including this one, and magazines) is trying very hard to appeal to an ever younger audience, even as 20- and 30-somethings increasingly look to Internet-based media for information and community. Isn't that self-defeating? Why don't papers and magazines focus on their core audiences, which are the older readers? Is this simply because the closer one gets to one's demise, the less one is favored by the media (papers, films, books), without regard to one's affluence?

Howard Kurtz: It's not self-defeating, it's a matter of survival. If you cater only to an aging group of loyalists, the actuarial tables are against you. I was complaining two decades ago, pre-Internet, that newspapers had to do more to appeal to younger folks if they were to survive. Any publication that doesn't have an aggressive Web strategy these days is signing its death warrant.

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Plandome, N.Y.: Hi Howard. I did not realize how terrific George Stephanopoulos is as host of This Week until I saw his substitutes the last two weeks. While Jake and Terry did decent jobs, the show was like watching a pre season NFL game in that you wanted the starters back in the lineup. While I think others could have done the GMA job as good as George S., I do not think anyone will be able to keep up the momentum at This Week. Why would ABC sacrifice George from This Week and potentially kill that franchise? With Russert and now George potentially gone, the networks need to come up with a creative way to keep viewers tuned in on Sunday morning. It will be great for creative shows like yours. Any thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I wasn't able to catch either show, but in fairness, it takes some seasoning to develop into a well-rounded host. That was certainly true in my case. It's like hitting a baseball, you've got to do it regularly until the timing and coordination become second nature. Stephanopoulos was rather stiff when he started, but eventually blossomed into a good interviewer and roundtable moderator. Tapper and Moran are both good television journalists, so either one is capable of taking over This Week.

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Washington, D.C.: do you know where the auction of Johnny Apple's wine collection will be and when?

washingtonpost.com: R.W. Apple's wife prepares to auction the legendary reporter's wine collection (Post, Jan. 4)

Howard Kurtz: I don't. But better bring your checkbook. I wish today's reporters could get away with some of the expense accounts that Johnny Apple filed.

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Anonymous: How tone deaf are AP sports editors? In the midst of this scandal last month, they voted Tiger Woods athlete of the decade. It's the old argument that athletic ability overcomes personal shortcomings. We saw this before with Mike Tyson. Political reporters used to take the same stand, hiding excessive drinking by politicians like House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills, on the grounds it had nothing to do with his tax-writing acumen. The Tidal Basin dump resulted in a new attitude towards political boozing. Is it too much to hope for a change in sports pages?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's an interesting question whether off-the-field misconduct should affect the voting for an award that's supposed to be based on athletic exploits. One thing to note, though, is that about half the AP votes were cast before the Tiger scandal broke.

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Limbaugh got no favoritism in Hawaii: Howard, I laughed at your segment yesterday where you mocked millionaire Rush Limbaugh for his claim he didn't get any special treatment and the health-care system works great. But I gotta tell you, you totally missed the most ironic part of Rush's story. In Hawaii, all employers are REQUIRED to provide health-care benefits to their employees. That's right: the health-care system in Hawaii is actually significantly more radical in nature than the changes proposed by Congress that Rush says will destroy America. Also, the Hawaiian health- care system is supposedly one of the most heavily unionized. Do you think Rush will change his tune when he figures out he complimented socialism?

Howard Kurtz: Great point. I found it interesting that Rush didn't take any questions because he didn't want to talk politics, but then offered that full-throated defense of the health care system. The 50 million Americans without health insurance might have a different view. I'm glad the doctors found nothing serious, though. 'Twas interesting that all the reporters in Hawaii to cover Obama wound up on Limbaugh duty.

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Sunday News Shows: Mr. Kurtz

After watching the senators go back and forth yesterday on the various news shows, I would like to have each interviewer start out with this: 1. For Republicans, why didn't you react this way when a similar incident happened under the Bush presidency? 2. For Democrats, why are you not complaining now, as you did during the Bush presidency?

The hypocrisy I saw yesterday, especially with the Xmas Eve bombing attempt was painful to watch. I did like Terry Moran's questioning of Peter Hoekstra's fundraising letter.

Howard Kurtz: You've hit on a pet peeve of mine, which is that journalists often seem to suffer from amnesia. Republicans defend filibusters and Democrats complain about them, the opposite of what we saw during the Bush years. Democrats defend Medicare cutbacks and Republicans blast them, the opposite of what we saw in the Bush years. Republicans defended Bush staying in Crawford during crises, Democrats defend Obama remaining in Hawaii after the Christmas terror plot. The record is there, and journalists ought to press politicians about their shifting stances.

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Anonymous: "How tone deaf are AP sports editors?"

How does cheating on your wife have anything to do with how well you do at a sport? So this person really thinks that Tiger Woods does not deserve to be recognized for his dominating athletic talent and achievements over the course of 10 years, simply because he's having marital problems?

Howard Kurtz: Right. But tell that to AT&T, Accenture and the other corporate sponsors who were happy to bask in the glow of Tiger's golfing success and have now fled him because of the multiple mistresses.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you feel about NBC paying to fly that man and his son back from Brazil? Are they overstepping their role here?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it wasn't exactly paying for an interview, since the money didn't go into David Goldman's pocket. But it was certainly no coincidence that the Today show got the exclusive interview. And with estimates that the jet cost the network $50,000 to $70,000, this was a bit more than cab fare.

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Quick Clarification, Please: Just a follow-up -- when you say you "wish today's reporters could get away with some of the expense accounts that Johnny Apple filed," is "today's reporters" spelled K-u-r-t-z? (grin)

Howard Kurtz: Johnny was a world-champion diner and drinker. I'm in a different league. (Plus, Post expense limits don't allow for wine-soaked extravagance.)

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New York: Obama's trip to Hawaii was CO2-awful coming on the collapse of Copenhagen. The trip is exactly the kind of indefensible and decadent consumption Obama's energy policy would attack .... for ordinary folks. Is it too much to ask the media to confront the admin about this?

Howard Kurtz: I think that's garbage. The guy grew up there. He took one vacation there in his first year in office. Reagan had his California ranch. It costs money to move a president and his staff around. That's a fact of life.

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Anonymous: What's wrong with networks paying Schuringa for his photos? That's normal news business. Unless you're saying that Schuringa would not have done the interviews without being paid for the photos?

Howard Kurtz: Well, look at the record. CNN paid $10,000 for a photo; CNN got the first interview. New York Post paid $5,000; it got the second interview. ABC paid $3,000; it got the third interview. Coincidence? I don't think so.

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Anonymous: The cries over Tiger Woods winning an award are ridiculous. It's strictly a sports award. Period. This isn't a sportsmanship award.

Why is there this desire to sanitize the facts?

Ty Cobb is recognized both as one of the greatest baseball players and jerks of all time.

Howard Kurtz: Good point. But carried to its logical extreme, would you give O.J. a football award?

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Helena, Mont.: Rather unseemly for supposedly serious journalist Brit Hume to interject his religious bias into a discussion of Tiger Woods. I know you will support him because you admire his journalistic prowess, but using his stature at Fox News to proselytize is not my idea of a good reporter.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not supporting him on this. It was an odd moment. Brit is a commentator now and can say whatever he wants, but it was truly strange for him to make that on-air pitch for Christianity. Never thought I'd see the Tiger tale turned into a religion story.

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Tapper and Moran are both good television journalists: I saw yesterday's show and along with Sanchez's questions to Ensign, the host for This Week yesterday grilled senator Hoekstra about his cashing in on the 12/25 issue by sending out campaign newsletters soliciting $$ because Obama/Pelosi aren't keeping us safe.

You ROCK!

Howard Kurtz: Then Terry Moran did his job. These Sunday interviews aren't supposed to be pattycake.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Howard,

I was really saddened to see Deborah Howell's obituary in yesterday's Post. (Former Post ombudsman helped break glass ceiling (Post, Jan. 3)) I thought she did a great job as ombudsman, which has to be the most thankless job at the Post.

Howard Kurtz: She did. Deborah Howell was one feisty woman. She remained engaged even after leaving The Post, and occasionally would e-mail me in response to something I had written. Such a sad tragedy, but I'm glad her accomplishments in the business, at Newhouse and in Minnesota, are being recognized.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard --

Happy New Year!

The Post is generally such a technologically savvy newspaper, why doesn't it have an app for the iPhone? It seems as though all of the other major national newspapers have one, and I'm surprised the Post doesn't. The only thing they have is an app for "going out" but not much besides a mobile addition. What gives?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I'm told one is in the works and may be ready in the coming weeks. It does seem the company was more than a beat slow on this, given the phone's huge popularity.

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Arlington, Va.: The Washington Times has changed its focus and expects to be a newspaper for conservatives in the Washington area with a Web site catering to people of that philosophy. I am wondering if this is a workable business plan considering the number of conservative Web sites out there that provide competition. I think that the people who gutted the Times and killed a very good sports section have no idea of what is viable either.

washingtonpost.com: Washington Times names senior editors (AP, Jan. 4)

Howard Kurtz: That's not the business plan. The Times says it will still do straight journalism - though its culture reporting will reflect "traditional values" - while publishing an aggressively conservative Commentary section. The big changes are in making the print edition free and limiting its availability, while beefing up its presence on the Web. But it still has no top editor, no sports OR metro section, and no weekend editions. Today's debut issue is, by even the most generous standards, rather thin.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: "Well, it wasn't exactly paying for an interview"

I wasn't suggesting NBC was paying for the interview, but that they were becoming part of the story themselves by getting involved. It's kind of like watching a nature documentary in which the host saves the gazelle from a cheetah in pursuit.

Do you think the media should behave like nature documentarians, or do you think they have a right or even a responsibility to get involved?

Howard Kurtz: It's a question of degree. If one of the morning shows wants to interview someone from Des Moines, I don't have a great problem with the network flying the guest to New York and putting the person up in a hotel. Maybe even a nice dinner. But sending a corporate jet to Brazil is clearly in a different category, and effectively prevented any rival network from stealing Goldman away.

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Boston, Masss.: CNN ran a story this morning about a figure looking like Pres Obama being hung in effigy in Georgia. How much do you think talk radio or Fox news will report on it?

Howard Kurtz: Honest answer: I don't know.

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Fake news: Your point about seasoning is well taken. Jon Stewart's early interviews were embarrassing. Now they are both entertaining and informing.

Howard Kurtz: See? It takes time even to blossom into a fake newsman.

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re: Tiger: "But tell that to AT and T, Accenture and the other corporate sponsors who were happy to bask in the glow of Tiger's golfing success and have now fled him because of the multiple mistresses."

I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. The corporate sponsors didn't flee because of the mistresses, they fled because of the steady drumbeat about Tiger's mistresses. This was a highly media-driven story -- I've never gotten a good sense that average people really care all that much. If something major had happened two days after Tiger's accident, I don't think it would have become the story it did.

Howard Kurtz: It was a media-driven story, no question about it. But by the time we got to Mistress No. 13 or 14, Tiger was putting out statements of apology. He also took himself off the pro tour. It was only a matter of time, in my view, before the corporate sponsors fled.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: There are two major stories in the "New York Times" today about the fact that U.S. Evangelicals are the reason why Uganda is not considering a law to imprison and execute all gays and lesbians. Nothing in the Post about this as far as I can see. But the NYT doesn't deserve any compliments either as Rachel Maddow has been on this story for the past two weeks on MSNBC. If there was ever an example of "old media" failing this is it. What gives?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Evangelicals' Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push (The New York Times, Jan. 3)

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it is a sign of "failing" if a news organization isn't the first to report something. Rachel Maddow deserves credit for talking about the issue, but the Times sent a reporter to Kampala, Uganda to report the story in depth. You know how many news organizations these days have correspondents in Africa? The answer is, not many.

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Murder vs. adultery?: Jeez - comparing Tiger to OJ? Or to Mike Tyson? Those two -- OJ and Tyson -- were violent criminals. Tiger is a philanderer. Big difference. Adultery is not a violent crime.

Howard Kurtz: Geez indeed. I wasn't comparing Tiger to O.J. I was asking where one should draw the line when it comes to athletes and awards.

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Non-celebrity here: Enlighten me: Why is it inherently wrong for newspapers/networks to pay for interviews or for subjects to accept payment? They are commercial enterprises who are marketing products to the public in hopes of earning a profit. The Nixon interview launched Frost's career. A ratings point can be worth millions of dollars. Network anchors earn seven-figure salaries. A celebrity's face on a magazine cover boosts sales, and the cover in turn increases his marketability to potential endorsers. Everybody in the media world gets paid. But if some average person happens to be involved in a newsworthy event, he's expected to give up his time and privacy to anybody who comes knocking. Why is it so terrible to say "If you want my face and my time, here's my price?"

Howard Kurtz: I have no problem with individuals wanting to be compensated for their time (though it bothers me when they've committed some heinous act). The responsibility is all on the news organizations' side. The problem is that when you pay for interviews, people have a strong incentive to sweeten their stories, to exaggerate or even lie, to get the big payday. It undermines the credibility of the story. That's why the networks insist they don't pay -- but are creative in finding ways around that.

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re: "The Times says it will still do straight journalism": Does the Washington Times still put quotes around the word "marriage" when referring to legally binding marriages between members of the same sex? Because, if so, it never practiced "straight journalism."

Howard Kurtz: You're a little outdated. When John Solomon was editor, he banned some of those loaded phrases, such as homosexual marriage instead of gay marriage. Of course, he quit during the big management shakeup six weeks ago, and no replacement has been named. The managing editors, including Jeff Birnbaum, who like Solomon came from The Post, have also stepped down. So it remains to be seen who will be leading the paper.

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Just wondering: I wonder if people who complain about a president going on vacation in his childhood state of Hawaii would complain as much if they had a president from, say, Alaska?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the White House reporters would undoubtedly complain, judging by the shots of Ed Henry and company walking around in board shorts.

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Rockville, Md.: As a paid consultant, i.e., lobbyist, Chertoff's connection to the body scanning machines should be emphasized but media tends to downplay it. He cannot be objective. He didn't do much to keep our civil liberties when in office. Are cabinet members free to go to work for people doing business with the office he/she headed? Are there no curbs? There should be at least two years or more.

Howard Kurtz: Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security chief, acknowledged on CNN - in response to a question - that his consulting firm represents a manufacturer of the body-scanning equipment he's been talking up. I saw that The Post published an op-ed by him on the subject Friday, with a disclosure line about the client. I don't think I would have published that, given that this is so inextricably tied to Chertoff's business.

Thanks for the first chat of 2010, folks.

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Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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