Howard Kurtz on the Media

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online to take your comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Today's column: Mika's message

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


Rockville, Md.: Hi!

In all of the discussions/interviews about the comments from Game Change, the only interviewer I have seen who addressed the paraphrasing, no attribution, quotes, etc., was Stephen Colbert. After hearing that discussion I essentially have dismissed anything in the book. The media should have ignored it as it is nothing but gossip from people who may have something to gain by bad-mouthing a candidate or his//her staff or filling a void in the news cycle.

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps you missed my column yesterday, which was entirely devoted to the reporting methods used in the book and an interview with the author. You shouldn't dismiss what's in the book; not much has been challenged on a factual basis. (Just ask Harry Reid.) But it's fair to question how Mark Halperin and John Heilemann gathered the material and whether they allowed sources to air self-serving or score-settling viewpoints from behind a curtain of anonymity.

Here's what Halperin told me: "One of the things people have said is that we've let the losers write the history, we've relied on people with axes to grind. We were so careful, so cautious in our sourcing. You won't see a negative portrait, a negative description that relies simply on a person with an ax to grind."


NW, D.C.: What are your thoughts on the comments from a recent MSNBC host that the left should cheat to win in Massachusetts? There was no ambiguity in his statement and if this had occurred on FOX News, the outrage from the media would have been considerably larger.

Howard Kurtz: I believe - tell me if I'm wrong - that it was Ed Schultz saying that if he lived in Massachusetts he would vote 10 times. That sounded to me like a joke.


Chicago, Ill.: So Howard, who do we believe with regard to the 2008 campaign? The reporters who apparently had no clue what was going on behind the scenes, or H and H, who rely almost exclusively on deep background, anonymous sources with scores to settle with no danger of accountability?

Howard Kurtz: I raised that question in my column. Look, the reporters who cover these endless elections in real time do the best they can to penetrate the campaign layers and constant spin. They obviously miss things, sometimes important things. Halperin and Heilemann had the relative luxury of reconstructing events after the fact with sources who were promised anonymity. And they clearly dug up a bunch of things that I, as a political junkie, did not know.

_______________________ 'Game Change': Howard Kurtz on background sourcing issues (Post, Jan. 18)


New York, N.Y.: The Daily News interviewed Harold Ford about his possible New York Senate run. As a condition for the interview, Ford demanded (and apparently the News agreed) that he would not be asked about issues. Why would any self-respecting journalist agree to this condition?

Howard Kurtz: Short answer: I wouldn't. And the demand doesn't reflect particularly well on the former congressman.


Anonymous: I read the New York Times is going to charge Internet readers for reading their newspaper. But didn't they do this before by charging readers for columnists and prime features. I seem to recall they scrapped the idea as unworkable? What has changed? Will the Washington Post also charge Internet readers for content?

Howard Kurtz: This is a great ongoing debate at all newspapers, including this one. New York Magazine reported that the Times is expected to begin charging, but that hasn't happened yet. What's apparently under consideration, unlike last time, is a metered approach in which a certain number of articles are free but you have to pay for what you read beyond. That makes a certain amount of sense (depending on the details) because it doesn't wall off the site but charges those who are the biggest users and presumably care most about the Times. Of course, the result could be fewer hits as many people skim for free and then decide to get the rest of their content elsewhere. No one has a magic answer at this point.


New York, N.Y.: I'm not sure I agree with Meek-a's assessment that journalists need to out their political registration. Chris Matthews is a conservative Democrat (with the emphasis on conservative) but he prefers to present himself as fully representative of all Democrats. Meek-a provides some balance on her show with Joe but generally seems to be more toward what I grew up knowing as "moderate Republican" -- it's that she is surrounded most mornings by conservative men that gives her that Democrat glow. In short, I see very few liberal Democrats and almost no progressive Democrats on any shows so why confuse the matter further. Frankly, I assume that most media are Republicans these days but don't want to admit it.

Howard Kurtz: For those unfamiliar with the background, Mika Brzezinski said in an interview that journalists should be honest with viewers and reveal their party registration. She also said the media have a liberal tilt. Interesting point coming from the daughter of Jimmy Carter's national security adviser.

Most reporters I know, including me, are independents. That doesn't mean they don't have biases but that they have chosen not to affiliate with a political party. When you talk about someone like Chris Matthews, he actually was a Democrat, having worked for Tip O'Neill and President Carter. And Mika's partner, Joe Scarborough was obviously a Republican congressman. I do think it's important to make a distinction between reporters and pundits.


Washington, D.C.: I saw John Solomon's name in this morning's Washington Post ("FBI broke law for years in phone record searches") under the byline:

By John Solomon and Carrie Johnson Special to The Washington Post and Washington Post Staff Writer

Does this mean Mr. Solomon is back with the Washington Post? If so, it's a welcome addition. And, is there a possibility of any of the Washington Times sports reporters/columnists joining the Washington Post, even on contract? FBI broke law for years in phone record searches (The Post, Jan. 19)

Howard Kurtz: John Solomon is indeed the former Post reporter who recently resigned as editor of the Washington Times. But this does not mean he's back with The Post. He was in effect hired as a stringer for this story, and paired with a Post staffer in fleshing it out. I don't know whether the paper plans to use him again, but they had the FBI story nailed.


Kettering, Ohio: Good morning Howard! When you reviewed the DailyCaller anchorman article, Secrets of TV news: Confessions of an anchorman (DailyCaller, Jan. 19), from Friday you skipped the following: " It was no surprise then, more than a year later when President Obama, appearing at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, joked to the thousands of journalists in attendance, "Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me." The line got a laugh ... and then ... in an insult to journalism, thousands in the crowd clapped and cheered...."

Did this really happen or am I too slow in catching sarcasm? It's too over the top to be believable. If it did happen, it confirms what you have written before, Obama receives a pass from many journalists, and not coincidentally.

Howard Kurtz: Sure it happened. It was a joke. People laughed. We can debate whether the underlying reality made it funny, but I hardly expected boos. That, however, was last spring, coverage of the White House has gotten much more critical in recent months, with continued high unemployment, the struggle to get a health care bill and now what most analysts expect to be the Democrats losing a Senate seat today in Massachusetts. Obama is much less happy with the press pack these days than he was at that dinner.


Washington, D.C.: Howard,

Much has been made of the major networks and the medical correspondents they've sent to cover Haiti. CNN's Sanjay Gupta is likely the most famous. As I've watched their reporting, I've been surprised to see the dual roles they have played -- Gupta has been both a reporter and a doctor. I understand that disasters like the situation in Haiti require people to respond as best they can, especially if they are doctors, but are there ethical questions -- both medical and journalistic -- that are being ignored here? Gupta has reported on medical procedures he's done in Haiti (as has NBC's medical correspondent), but doesn't that come dangerously close to commonly held rules for both doctors and journalists? Shouldn't Gupta have to choose one or the other? If he wants to report, great, but if he wants to operate, shouldn't the camera be turned off?

Howard Kurtz: I have mixed feelings about this, but Gupta said on the air the other day that he's been a doctor far longer than he's been a journalist and that he's a physician first. He did pull an all-nighter at a Haitian hospital with the cameras turned off. There's no question he has saved lives. Has he basked in the spotlight while doing that? More than the average doctor, sure. But there is a desperate shortage of doctors and medical supplies, and Sanjay has clearly helped in that dire situation. Meanwhile, CBS's Jennifer Ashton, NBC's Nancy Snyderman and ABC's Richard Besser have all reported the story and also assisted in surgery.


B.C., Canada: Another great show, Howie, thanks. I think Janet Napolitiano is a perfect example of how the MSM mistreats women politicians. She, according to some pundits and reporters, wasn't emotional enough during the Xmas bomber crisis. On one of his first interviews on his new show, John King had done an interview with Cheney, strictly softball, then when Janet came on he was all in her face with questions like "are you prepared to say to the American people, right now, that...blah blah blah," and didn't let her finish her answer. Of course Janet was fine, but why didn't Cheney get this kind of treatment? He has a lot more to answer to the American public than Janet has, and when they were going to commercial he was all "look at my magic wall..." with her. I couldn't watch him after that, haven't since. He showed the former VP respect, for his former position I would guess, yet was not so respectful of her cabinet position.

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree with your characterization of the interviews, and I'll say this: Janet Napolitano's problem isn't that she wasn't emotional enough. It was that she went on television and said "the system worked"--this after a guy who's father had warned the U.S. embassy he was an Islamic radical managed to board a plane with no luggage and an all-cash ticket and come close to blowing it up. Matt Lauer was all over her the next morning, and the administration quickly backed off that unfortunate choice of words.


Washington, D.C.: Have you observed the way CNN has deployed Sanjay Gupta in Haiti? I don't watch CNN, but I get news from, and on several occasions the site has turned Gupta's presence or activities in Haiti into a news story. (E.g., there was a story on the fact that Gupta was the only physician caring for a bunch of children after other medical professionals left out of fear for their personal safety.) This has really bothered me, as he is supposed to be functioning as a reporter and it feels like the manufacture of news. Any thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: As I said, the man who almost became surgeon general has a dual role, and he's been up front about it. I think it's fair to question whether the two roles conflict, especially now that the three broadcast networks are having their doctors/medical correspondents do the same thing in Haiti.


Boston, Mass.: In the midst of the election today, I've seen no comment on an issue that seems to really illustrate the difference between men and women in politics today. Would a woman who posed nude in any magazine (with an artful magazine crease) after winning a "sexist person" contest ever be considered as a Senate candidate?

Howard Kurtz: Good point. In the case of Scott Brown, it was a long time ago, and most voters are probably far more interested in today's issues. But still, it's hard to imagine a female candidate being given that kind of pass.


Harold Ford: For the record, Harold Ford demanded that the interview stay away from the "issues" but then had the nerve to say "This race isn't about feet, it's about issues." I hope he runs just so another DLC fake Democrat can get roundly embarrassed.

Howard Kurtz: Beyond Ford being from Tennessee, he's also an MSNBC commentator. Maybe that's the new route to public office: Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee (on Fox), Ed Schultz on MS (being pressed to jump into the North Dakota Senate race), Lou Dobbs saying he may run for office (after quitting CNN).

From the Daily News piece on Ford:

"This race isn't about feet, it's about issues," he said of ribbing he has taken on the web and elsewhere of his regular pedicures.

"I love New York, I love the smell of New York, I love the city of New York, I love the subway - I take the subway," he said. "But I am going to focus on things that voters in this restaurant and those across the city and state care about."

Read more:


Albany, N.Y.: Good Lord. A previous questioner said that Chris Mathews is a "conservative"; Mika is surrounded by conservatives; and that most journalists must be Republicans. The only shows with a decided rightward tilt are on Fox. Scarborough is indeed a conservative, but spends most of his time blasting Republicans. Most -- not all -- of his guests are on the left. Has this person ever seen, or heard of, MSNBC??

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't say most of his guests are on the left, I'd say it's a fairly balanced roster. Pat Buchanan and Peggy Noonan are among the regulars.


Silver Spring, Md.: Can you explain to me why the WP calls it Obama's War I understand that every president is responsible for what is left on the table. But why wasn't the WP headline "Bush's War" By sending aid to Haiti will the WP start calling it "Obama's earthquake?" Shouldn't the headline read "Obama's effort to end seven-year war started by Bush." Am I supposed to believe that there will be anything other than horse race stories on a page with that title?

Howard Kurtz: The Post is far from the only news outlet to say that by sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, Obama has taken ownership of what everyone knows was a military conflict launched by Bush in 2001. It means he will be politically responsible for the progress or lack thereof under his plan. By contrast, no one is calling Iraq Obama's war because he is proceeding with plans to withdraw most U.S. forces, as he said he would during the campaign.


Danville: Why did Chelsea Clinton accompany her fatther on an official visit to Haiti yesterday. Was it for the "media atmospherics" or was she there in some official capacity?

Don't "dignitaries" just get in the way in disater situations?

Howard Kurtz: Does she need an official title? I believe that Bill Clinton went there under the auspices of the Clinton Foundation, and I see no problem with him taking his daughter, who is something of a public figure now (after campaigning for her mom) as opposed to when she was a child in the White House. Bill Clinton is also heading up fundraising for Haiti with George W. Bush at Obama's request, but this trip was not part of that effort.


Network medical reporters who are MDs: Earlier last week ABC's Dr. Besser was reporting a story on a woman who needed medical care, and he refused to attend to her on the spot, telling her instead that he could do more for her by telling her story on the news. It came across (doubtless unintentionally) as cold, callous and journalistically exploitative of her suffering. After the translator told the poor woman what Besser said, she just lay there silently, although her eyes spoke volumes about her disappointment. Perhaps ABC received enough negative feedback re this incident that they decided they'd better have their MD reporters at least APPEAR to be doing more to treat survivors?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the back story. But the L.A. Times reports that on Sunday, Besser assisted a pregnant woman who had gone into labor.

By the way, non-M.D. reporters face a version of this dilemma as well. Do you try to help people during a catastrophe. On Reliable Sources on Sunday, I interviewed CNN's Jason Carroll, who said he felt guilty surrounded by mass suffering, knowing that he'd eventually return to a comfortable life in New York, and that he gave out water and power bars to some of the Haitians he encountered.


Arlington, Va.: During a recent interview D-candidate Coakley opined that pro-life and Catholics "...can have religious freedom but you probably shouldn't work in the emergency room." (Another Coakley gaffe: Practicing Catholics shouldn't work in emergency rooms (Beltway Confidential, Jan. 15)) - presumably because they would refuse to dispense abortion pills and undertake medical procedures that violate their values. I only saw this reported on-line, not in the Post, NYT, LAT, etc... Is this because most MSM reporters are pro-choice or agree with open employment discrimination against Catholics and others with pro-life values?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think so. We just haven't covered every twist and turn of the race. The coverage of Martha Coakley has hardly been favorable; she's been ripped as an uninspiring and flawed candidate. I do think that MSM organizations were slow to recognize that her election was in serious jeopardy, since she initially had a big lead in the polls (and it is, after all, Massachusetts). Too often journalists get lulled into complacency by polls.


Fox do anything right?: Howie, you had another segment on Sunday critical of Fox, one I agreed with. I think if one were to tally up all your criticisms of all individual media organizations, Fox would by far come out with the highest percentage of criticisms (again, a lot I agree with). And yet, they are probably the media organization that has had the most commercial success in the last decade. I don't recall you ever praising anything they've done, although there probably are some things. Anything, don't they do anything right?

Howard Kurtz: First, the Reliable Sources segment was not designed to be critical of Fox News; we examined Sarah Palin's debut as a commentator on that network. I had one liberal guest (Ana Marie Cox of Air America) and one conservative guest (radio host Michael Medved).

On your larger point, I wrote last fall that Fox had beaten the mainstream media on the Van Jones story and the ACORN scandal, and that most major news organizations had been slow to cover those stories. Here's a brief excerpt:

By the time White House environmental adviser Van Jones resigned over Labor Day weekend, the New York Times had not run a single story. Neither had USA Today, which also didn't cover the resignation. The Washington Post had done one piece, on the day before he quit. The Los Angeles Times had carried a short article the previous week questioning Glenn Beck's assault on the White House aide. There had been nothing on the network newscasts.


Re: Ed Schultz: Howard, here is the exact quote from MSNBC. If its a joke, I don't get it.

Schultz: "I tell you what, if I lived in Massachusetts I'd try to vote 10 times. I don't know if they'd let me or not, but I'd try to. Yeah, that's right. I'd cheat to keep these bastards out. I would. 'Cause that's exactly what they are."

That doesn't have the ring of a Colbert report style sarcasm. It just sounds like someone who would do whatever they could to win.

Howard Kurtz: He's no Colbert, that's for sure. But I'm reasonably certain that Schultz knows multiple voting is illegal.


Florissant Valley, Mo.: Good noonday, Mr. Kurtz. I thought Scott Simon on NPR made a good point last Saturday quoting his wife. She felt that all the media attention on Haiti was filling the skies with planes and preventing real help from getting to that lone runway there. Does she have a point? Did they end up diverting most planes to Santo Domingo? Thanks

Howard Kurtz: I think the media have played a critical role in raising awareness of this tragedy and spurring aid from around the world. Although the Port-au-Prince airport has been alternately open and closed, I haven't seen anyone suggest that media planes have contributed to the problem. The main problem is that huge relief supplies have piled up at the airport and, inexplicably, much of it still hasn't gotten to the people who so desperately need it.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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