Howard Kurtz on the Media

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 11, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Jan. 11, 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."


Washington, D.C.: Howard, why oh why does Jay Leno moving from the 10 p.m. slot deserve front page space in today's Post? Front page of Style sure, but front page of the main section? Come on! NBC to cancel Jay Leno's prime-time show; aims to reshuffle Leno, Conan O'Brien

Howard Kurtz: I'm sorry, but you must be living in alternate universe. The New York Times fronted the story when it broke and we didn't; the Times was right.

Jay and Conan are iconic figures with big followings. In moving Leno from a time slot he dominated for 17 years, NBC made the biggest bonehead move since New Coke. This is a crisis for the network, which now has to come up with five new shows for 10 p.m. What's more, sending Leno to prime time--which made the cover of Time--was a huge gamble designed to see if a network could jettison expensive, scripted dramas and get by with cheaper programming. The brass caved because NBC's affiliates howled that their late newscasts were tanking with Jay's weak lead-in.

Plus, the story is just plain fun.

That fits my definition of front-page news.


Danville: Did the media's silence about Carlos Allen for over a month have anything to do with the fact that he was seated at the state dinner with one of their own (Robin Roberts ABC News)? or

Is it an inside the beltway story and therefore only the WaPo and Politico have given the story good coverage? or

Because the WH is stonewalling?

Howard Kurtz: The media's silence was based on one thing: We didn't know about Carlos Allen. Robin Roberts (who interviewed him on GMA this morning) chatted with the guy but had no way of knowing he wasn't invited.

Allen hasn't been as big a story as the Salahis because a) his story came second, and b) he doesn't have the same colorful and controversial background as Tareq and Michaele.


Vernon, B.C., Canada: Thank-you Howie SO much for your show yesterday-- WE NEED FACT CHECKING!!! or at least whoever is going to be interviewed knows that he/she will be fact checked, at least maybe the possibility of being fact checked might keep the statements real. and that's all we want, the truth, the news, not conjecture and falsehoods with an agenda. No question, just a lot of heartfelt thanks to you!!!

Howard Kurtz: I raised the issue of fact-checking on Reliable Sources because television programs need to do more of it. As NYU's Jay Rosen has argued, too many politicians get to come on, make false or exaggerated statements and get away with it. It is hard, as a host, to do it in real time because you don't always have the facts at your fingertips (such as when Sen. Jim DeMint kept repeating, falsely, that President Obama hasn't used the word terror). But what's to stop the Sunday shows, or any television news show, from offering fact checks later, perhaps online?


Washington, D.C.: Howard,

So I was watching Good Morning America last Friday, and my mouth dropped when Rudy Giuliani made his bold statement that there had been no domestic terrorist attacks under Pres. Bush, and George Stephanopoulos just let it go without even challenging him. I understand that reporters are pressed for time on the morning shows, but I can't see any reason why a credible reporter would just sit there like Stephanopoulos did and say nothing.

Howard Kurtz: Stephanopoulos apologized on his blog, saying it was his mistake that he did not press the former mayor on his misstatement. Giuliani also apologized, in an interview later that day with Wolf Blitzer. But even if you accept that what Rudy *meant* was after 9/11, that conveniently leaves out the shoe bomber and the anthrax attacks. In this case, the misstatement was so blatant that there was a major media reaction and it had to be quickly corrected.


Lawrence, Kan.: Will Jay Leno ever retire?

It just seems that Jay Leno won't retire. I heard other comic upset with him in interviews because he doesn't allow guest hosts like Johnny Carson.

I mean I remember Johnny Carson did it such a classy way (despite Joan Rivers' sour grapes).

Howard Kurtz: In fairness, Leno, who is 59, doesn't take as many vacations as Carson. He likes to work. And when he does take vacation, he goes out and does standup.


Criticism of the Media Critic: In your January 4, 2010 chat, you wrote about the filibuster:

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.

I'm wondering. What made you draw this awful false equivalence between vastly different situations. The Republicans' use of the filibuster in recent years is quite simply without precedent. It isn't the opposite of what we saw from Democrats a few years ago; it is vastly different. The number of GOP-led filibusters has spiked dramatically in the 110th Congress. There's really no comparison by way of scope here.

So, why do you keep suggesting that both parties are the same, when it's empirically untrue?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think, even if one accepts your argument, that it undermines my point about political hypocrisy. And remember, the Democrats were accused of "unprecedented" use of the filibuster when they threatened to use the technique to block Bush judicial nominees.


Evanston, Ill.: Howard, I was surprised to hear George S. say it's his last week hosting This Week. Do you know what the plans are for the show? Rotating host-tryout?

Howard Kurtz: Yes. The next two weeks will be hosted by Jake Tapper and Terry Moran, in that order.


Orono, Maine: The Tucker Carlson stuff makes me wonder what is the difference between coverage and promotion.

In the Tucker Carlson case, when does it cross that line in just promoting his website? Tucker's excellent adventure (Post, Jan. 11)

Howard Kurtz: Not sure I follow. Anyone launching a new Web site is going to go out and promote the hell out of it. I thought it was newsworthy because Tucker is a well-known pundit who has got $3 million to launch an online operation that he says will specialize in original Washington reporting. We'll see whether the Daily Caller lives up to that goal.


Leno on the front page: I'll admit it, stories like Leno's move back to late night ending up on the front page make me feel a little safer in the world. If we can spare front page space for those type of stories, it means that all hell hasn't broken loose. Days when it's nothing but war, recession, and suffering from top to bottom make me want to go back to bed.

Howard Kurtz: All newspapers try to balance their front pages with a bit of lighter fare. But the Jay/Conan soap opera not only is a great water-cooler topic, it has serious implications for NBC and all the networks in terms of how much they have to spend to hold onto their dwindling audiences.


Re: Fact Checking: Maybe its just how I am remembering it, but it always seemed like the late Tim Russert always had the video and the facts right there to challenge guests during the interview?

Howard Kurtz: Russert was a master of preparation, and often challenged guests to explain contradictions between their past statements or records and what they were saying that day.


Fact Checking: I'll give that a reporter may not challenge an interviewee with a fact check at the time of an interview but I'd love to see a segment on the various Sunday show that starts off with "Last week XXXXX, on this show, said 'blah blah blah', but after some fact-checking, here are the facts." MSM credibility goes up and serial mis-informers are put "on notice" that what they say will be examined.

Howard Kurtz: I couldn't agree more. The point would be not to argue with every piece of political rhetoric, but to point out clear misstatements and exaggerations based on factual research. I guess you could call it journalism.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Lots of folks are dismissing the importance of the Game Change excerpt on John and Elizabeth Edwards. While I agree that I'd like to see far LESS emphasis on the gossip of politics and more focus on policy and using government to help people, I think this case presents an interesting challenge. Only the pure gossip rag had the goods on Edwards. The establishment press wouldn't touch it. If it were a matter of a personal indiscretion, I'd be okay with that, I suppose. But the narrative in Game Change shows John and Elizabeth to be unusually disturbed individuals who should have been exposed at the earliest possible moment. How can we balance the pros and cons of gossip? How do we separate the salacious (the affair) from the helpful (that these people were truly unhinged, insufferable, deluded egomaniacs who needed professional help, not political power)?

Howard Kurtz: Even leaving the affair aside, the portrait of both John and Elizabeth Edwards as painted in this book is that they were very different - abusive and dismissive toward staff, for instance - than their public personas. That goes to character, not gossip. It would certainly be nice if journalists could penetrate the bubble surrounding these candidates in real time, but that is difficult, given the way that aides and strategists protect them during the heat of a campaign.


Anonymous: xxx Jay and Conan are iconic figures with big followings xxxx Really? Not if I am reading correctly the ratings figures, which show the following for both has collapsed. Also, what is your justification for using the word "iconic" which my Websters says has religious meaning: "an object of uncritical devotion."

Howard Kurtz: Take Conan. The guy is so famous I don't need to refer to him by his last name. His ratings tanked at the Tonight Show, but he was still reaching 2.5 million viewers a night. Leno was drawing 5 million, which was fine for 11:30 but anemic in prime time. Still, 5 million is more than any cable news show, and in many cases far, far more than cable shows could hope to obtain. He took over for Johnny Carson in 1992. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced for governor on his show. Are there many people on television more famous than Jay Leno?


NYC: Few expected much from Conan O'Brien when he first started late night television, but he proved them wrong. His current contract stipulates (in essence) that he get an estimated $45 million if he is not the host of the Tonight Show. What then is stopping Conan from pretending to throw in the towel to make room for Jay and Co., then simply retire at age 46 -- and laugh all the way to the bank.

Howard Kurtz: Like most performers, he wants to be on, he wants to be seen. These guys already have enough money to retire. Leno is a zillionaire many times over. He could call it quits at 59 and tinker with his cars. But, like Conan and so many other comedians, loves having an audience. That's what drove them into this line of work in the first place.


Fact Checking: When Chris Wallace did a fact-check on statements that one of his guests made, there were quite a few people on the left who were livid.

How dare he single out her for fact-checking! It didn't matter to them that he explained precisely why he was taking her to task for her statements. All that mattered was that he had the audacity to verify her comments.

I wonder how many people calling for "Fact Check" statements want it to be applied evenly to both parties, and how many want it applied just to people or positions with which they do not agree.

Howard Kurtz: It has no credibility unless it's applied to guests of both parties and all ideologies. Period.


Reston, Va.: Howard, how do you determine the level of skepticism to apply to a story? Clearly you get to include more commentary and criticism than the usual reporter and I thought your story on Tucker Carlson's new web site warranted more skepticism.

I know you have to use the quotes you get, like this one from Carlson, "We're not enforcing any kind of ideological orthodoxy on anyone," but, seriously, the site is apparently totally underwritten by this guy:

"Friess, an investment magnate and a Christian philanthropist, has donated $689,000 to Republican organizations and the Bush presidential campaigns over the past decade."

I assume you found no sign of him giving any money to any Democrats, did you? He's also a hunting buddy of Dick Cheney.

It's frankly impossible to believe that a guy would give Carlson $3 million to put together a site that wasn't pushing an ideological viewpoint and I felt your story should have said that, somehow. Just repeating Carlson's quotes was a cop-out, in my opinion. Media Notes: A look at Tucker Carlson's political Web site, the Daily Caller (Post, Jan. 11)

Howard Kurtz: Now this is interesting: Every single fact you use to knock down the notion that the Daily Caller would not be an unbiased site is drawn from my story. I got the comments from Friess. I looked up his political contributions. I reported he was a Dick Cheney hunting buddy.

I also pressed Tucker Carlson on the nature of the site and noted that his partner worked for Cheney and his opinion editor worked for the RNC.

Readers are smart. You do the reporting, you lay out the facts, and they get it.


Seattle, Wash.: What was more astonishing to you in the Great Leno Debacle?

That it took NBC so long to admit it was a failure?

That Jeff Zucker still has a job?

Howard Kurtz: That NBC thought it was a good idea to take the No. 1 late-night comic out of his time slot and stick him in prime time. It wasn't broke, and they tried to fix it.


Ithaca, N.Y.: There is a lot of chatter about whether or not the new book by John Heilemann of New York Magazine and Mark Halperin of Time magazine is just gossip. Their defense seems to be "Maybe, but either way it's juicy"

I was curious what you thought about the book and having so many "unnamed source(s)" in it.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't read it yet. But the chapter on John Edwards, excerpted in New York magazine, shows a tremendous level of in-depth reporting.


Washington, D.C.: Howie:

With an interim president, a bare bones newsroom and no advertising; how long do you think the The Washington Times will survive?

Howard Kurtz: I hope it does. We need good news organizations in this town. Obviously the Washington Times has been deeply wounded by these massive layoffs. A key signal will come when we see who replaces John Solomon as editor, a decision that the Times president told me will probably be announced by the end of January.


Dallas, Tex.: Hi Howard I'm 35 and I love Conan but I don't think he's iconic.

Is it just me or is no one reporting the fact that Jay Leno agreed in advance in 2004 I believe to hand over the Tonight Show to Conan? I also remember that he did this to avoid the bitterness that affected him and Letterman when Leno took over the Tonight Show. So NBC looks dumb and Leno seems disingenuous.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, NBC announced Conan's eventual ascension five years before it happened. And yes, it was an effort to keep both Leno and O'Brien at the network.

But as the date approached, Jay's ratings were as strong as ever. Conan does well among younger viewers, but I never quite understood why NBC saw him as a strong successor to a guy who was already No. 1. Much of the traditional "Tonight Show" audience just hasn't taken to him.


Bluffton, S.C.: Am I the only one of your chatters who wishes NBC would keep Leno at 10 p.m.? I'm a lark so bedtime is 11 and I've never stayed up to watch the old Leno show and looked forward to this new show. I love his monologue, his interviews and his "schtiks". I'll miss him.

Howard Kurtz: One word: Tivo.


Bloomington, Ind.: QUOTE: "Arnold Schwarzenegger announced for governor on [Jay Leno]'s show"

True, but John McCain announced he was running for president of the United States on David Letterman's show (it's true). Plus I remember a lot of people I know were really shocked when John McCain lied to David Letterman about "rushing back to D.C." and he stayed in New York overnight.

So in terms of news, David Letterman beats Jay Leno. For me at least. Plus my mom is David Letterman's cousin so I know I'm biased.

Howard Kurtz: Both Letterman and Leno are important figures (which is why President Obama have appeared on both programs). It's also why I argued that, tabloid elements aside, the sex scandal/alleged extortion that enveloped Letterman late last year was a major news story.


Silver Spring, Md.: "That NBC thought it was a good idea..." Wasn't this really Leno's idea? If NBC had shot it down, (for the reasons you state) wouldn't he have left?

Howard Kurtz: Conan probably would have left, yes. But now both men are damaged, and Conan still may leave rather than accept what is clearly a demotion.


Ellicott City, Md.: Dylan Ratigan left CNBC and was hired by MSNBC. Today he has a show that premieres on MSNBC against his show with Maria Bartiromo on CNBC. Doesn't that somehow have NBC splitting their own audience? The real question is -- how big does a cable new audience have to be for a cable news show to be profitable? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: CNBC is a business channel during the day and probably doesn't cut much into MSNBC's audience. CNBC has never put up huge numbers, but it's been a gold mine for NBC because advertisers love the high-income financial folks who tend to watch the channel.


Stern question: Howard, I believe the "other Howard"'s contract expires Sirius this year. If so, any guesses on his next steps?

Howard Kurtz: Howard Stern has repeatedly said he's going to quit radio when his contract expires. Talk about a guy who doesn't need the money. But he made those threats regularly when he was on terrestrial radio and kept coming back. I suspect he will continue to want an audience, whether it's at Sirius or in some other form.


Athens, Ga.: Sorry, just started reading through your Tucker Carlson article so might be in there.

Did you mention Jon Stewart (aka the guy that actually has the ear of America's youth) to him?

I've seen TC in interviews try to act like he's over it or something, but to me he is still SO CLEARLY bitter and resentful against Jon Stewart.

Howard Kurtz: I didn't in this interview, but did the last time he was on my CNN show, and Tucker really went off on Stewart. There's a bit of a raw nerve there.


New York, N.Y.: I was watching Morning Joe today and they had Heilemann and Halperin on to discuss their book. They seemed to be lingering on the anecdote in which Ted Kennedy says Bill Clinton dismissed Obama as someone who would have been serving coffee a few years ago. In your article and in the linked story from Politico this anecdote is referred to as the authors "paraphrase" -- this troubles me. For one, it doesn't sound like Bill Clinton and for another thing it seems to be possibly Ted Kennedy's paraphrase or just the authors' attempt to insult Clinton. The media has been eager to keep the meme of Bill Clinton's alleged racism alive (even after the campaign). I found it tiresome, dishonest and changed the channel.

Howard Kurtz: These are two very experienced reporters. Journalists routinely use paraphrases when they're not sure exactly what was said in a private conversation. We'll have to see whether Clinton denies it. Since Halperin and Heilemann report damaging information about John Edwards and Harry Reid as well as Sarah Palin, I don't think it's fair to accuse them of trying to insult Clinton for some kind of political reason.


Leno's Failure: I've been bored by Leno for a long time and, unfortunately for me, I can't get Letterman since the changeover to digital (I refuse to pay for cable TV). My fondest hope was that Leno would break out of that tightly-scripted hole he dug for himself and reimagine a prime-time show that would be unpredictable and, therefore, never-to-be-missed. Too bad he just shifted his entire schtick to 10 p.m.

Howard Kurtz: He did change the show - guests riding around a racetrack? -- but not in ways that made it better.


Are there many people on television more famous than Jay Leno? : What about the guy who's on that show called Reliable Sources on CNN on Sunday morning? Oh, come on, what's his name? It'll come to me in a minute.

Howard Kurtz: That guy? He's not in Leno's income bracket.


D.C.: You opinion: can Palin be a major political player and have a real chance at the 2012 nomination AND avoid questions from serious journalists or major media outlets, save Fox of, course. In short, is she re-writing the rules or has she only avoided them so far?

Howard Kurtz: AT the moment she can do whatever she wants. I'm deeply skeptical that she will run in 2012, but if she does, she'll have to deal with the media as she makes her case. Until then, she can use her Facebook page as a forum for speaking out and selling books.


More sleaze, please!: The real value of a Game Change is the opportunity it presents for Washington's elite class to distract yourselves and everyone else from the oozing corruption, destruction, decaying and pillaging going on -- that Halperin and much of the media have long enabled. Plus, the book lets our media and political elite -- and then the public generally -- feel good about themselves by morally condemning the trashy exploits of Rielle Hunter and the egoistic hypocrisies of the irrelevant John and Elizabeth Edwards. Thanks for enabling that, Howie. More sleaze, please!

Howard Kurtz: I haven't read the book yet, and neither have you. But I found it noteworthy, to take one example, that even after the scandal Edwards still thought he had a shot at becoming Obama's attorney general.


Washington, D.C.: You seem to know the goings on in D.C. pretty well. There are a handful of names that have been floated to replace George Stephanopoulos. Who do you think will be the eventual replacement?

Howard Kurtz: It depends on whether Ted Koppel becomes a serious candidate for the job.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


Media Backtalk transcripts archive


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company