Howard Kurtz on the Media: Scott Brown; Obama honeymoon with press is history; power of Google; medical TV correspondents in Hait, Fox News, Leno and Conan; Air America, more

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 25, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Jan. 25, at Noon ET to take your comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Today's column: Scott Brown, Obama honeymoon with press, Google strength (Post, Jan. 25)

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."


Wilkesboro, N.C.: I heard the discussion about the lack of exit polls in Scott Brown's victory over Martha Coakley. Yet, yesterday, Mitch McConnell told David Gregory 95 percent of the exit polls he saw said people voted for Brown because of the health-care bills. Where did he get these exit polls? If none existed, why didn't Gregory call him on it? I am so tired of gross exaggerations by officials from both parties and no one calls them on it.

Howard Kurtz: I'm guessing he was referring not to exit polls but to polls taken in Massachusetts AFTER the election. Such as the one by The Washington Post, which found on the health care legislation that "among Brown's supporters, eight in 10 said they were opposed to the measures, 66 percent of them strongly so."

At least that's what people are saying after the fact.

New poll finds voter anger drove results of Mass. election (Post, Jan. 23)


Arlington, Va.: Hi Howard, with the NY Times implementing a plan to charge fees for online content, isn't this the time for the Post and other major papers to do the same? The argument against fees is that you can get the info for free from everywhere else. But if the Times, Post, WSJ, etc., all charge something, it will mean fewer ways to get around it. Can you see the other papers joining in now?

Howard Kurtz: Depends on your definition of "now," since the NYT plan doesn't start until 2011. There's much we don't know: how much will charge, how many articles will be free, and so forth. Every newspaper in America is grappling with this. These newsrooms have to find some way of boosting online revenue if they are to survive in anything like their current form. Those who don't pull the pay-wall trigger this year will undoubtedly be watching the Times attempt very carefully.

_______________________ New poll finds voter anger drove results of Mass. election (Post, Jan. 23)


Boston, Mass.: Why does it seem that the Republicans have a bigger megaphone than Democrats? Even though Obama has accomplished a lot, it always seems like we hear he has done nothing. Or maybe it's just what I see.

Howard Kurtz: Given his appearances on 60 Minutes, Nightline, Leno, Letterman, ESPN, etc., I hardly think the president's problem is under-exposure. In fact, Diane Sawyer is interviewing him for tonight's World News. And then there's that SOTU speech Wednesday that will be carried by all the networks. No Republican has a remotely comparable megaphone. (Well, maybe Scott Brown last week.)


Knoxville, Tenn.: Why do so many media outlets, when mentioning "Fox News", say "which some say has conservative views"? This seems to be the equivalent of saying "The Washington Post, which some say is a newspaper..."

Why is the rest of the press corp afraid to call a spade a spade, particularly when (as in this case) it is so virulently blatant?

Howard Kurtz: Because some say a distinction must be made between Fox's opinion shows (O'Reilly, Beck, Hannity) and its news programming. Just as you have to make a distinction between The Post's news pages and its left-leaning editorial page.


Seattle, Wash.: Thanks for having us Howie,

Do you think it was the election of Barack Obama that killed Air America? Or was it more the loss of talent and their insistence of buying stations?

Howard Kurtz: Air America was in trouble long before Obama's election and had already filed for bankruptcy once during Bush's second term. Its original business strategy - to buy radio stations rather than try to syndicate its liberal hosts on existing stations - was badly flawed. It was a good political springboard for Al Franken, but in the end failed to make much of a dent in the conservative-dominated medium of talk radio.


Boston, Mass.: Mr. Kurtz

With the Supreme Court ruling last week, do you see any issues with conflicts of interest, given that most media outlets are owned by larger corporations (ABC/Disney, NBC/GE, Comcast, Fox/NewsCorp, etc)

Howard Kurtz: Well, those conflicts already exist now in that the parent companies all lobby. I suppose it could be exacerbated if any of these media mega-corporations decide to pour huge amounts of cash into electing or defeating candidates.


Anonymous: Any sign the networks are rethinking using doctors as reporters on the front lines, as they did in Haiti? Reporters are supposed to be objective non-participants in events they cover. Further, I thought some of the activities of the doctor-reporters were exploitive and manipulative. Did the networks get a positive feedback from this, or negative?

Howard Kurtz: The networks all seem committed to this approach, with CNN's Sanjay Gupta, NBC's Nancy Snyderman, CBS's Jennifer Ashton and ABC's Richard Besser all reporting from Haiti. I discussed the dilemma with Snyderman, from Port-au-Prince, on yesterday's Reliable Sources (video link below). She acknowledged there was a potential for grandstanding, but closed by saying:

"I think ethically I question all of it," but added, "I guess the best thing I could ask of the critics is come here and walk in my shoes for a day and tell me if you would walk by somebody who has a bone sticking out of his arm. If you would walk by it, then I guess we're just different people."

Video: TV dual role in Haiti


Chicago, Ill.: Wasn't Conan O'Brien just all wrong for The Tonight Show? His audience skews male and younger and edgy, while broadcast skews female and older and mainstream. He belongs on HBO or FX. One other problem for Conan -- his audience doesn't watch much TV anymore.

Howard Kurtz: He did turn out to be a disaster at 11:30. Conan definitely attracts a younger audience, but overall he lost half the Leno audience, costing NBC tens of millions of dollars. It's true he might have improved if the network had given him more time, but how many shows even get seven months to prove themselves? On the plus side, he's got $32 million while he figures out what to do next.


Whose Impression? : In a piece today, Anne Kornblut and Michael Fletcher say, "His lawyerly and orderly reliance on facts and data often has created an impression that Obama is cool and detached."

Is this claim based on objective data (citation?) or is it the opinion of the journalists?

A follow-up story might read, "Beltway journalists Kornblut and Fletcher have often fought the impression that they disguise their opinions as conventional wisdom in a pretense of objectivity." In Obama's decision-making, a wide range of influences (Post, Jan. 25)

Howard Kurtz: I think it's a perfectly reasonable analysis based on close observation by two journalists who have covered the Obama presidency. They are hardly the only ones to make such an observation. Even some of the president's allies are urging him to show more emotion, and Obama acknowledged to George Stephanopoulos that being ensconced in the White House may have made him a little out of touch. This is a central theme of the Newsweek cover story titled "The Inspiration Gap."

_______________________ Newsweek


Northern Virginia: Regarding the megaphone, I take your point about Obama himself. Any news outlet will gladly have him on as long as he is ratings gold. However, I have noticed a change from days past. The equation used to be: the president says X. Then, we hear from a Democrat and from a Republican, or let's say, from a supporter and from an opponent. The two co-equals discuss whether this was a smart move, bad idea, etc., from the president. That was "balance." CNN still does it that way.

But for everybody else, including the network morning shows, the new equation seems to be: the president says X. Then, we hear from one person who is bitterly opposed to him, with nobody taking the opposite, pro-Obama or pro-Democratic view. The president plus an opposing commenter equals "balance" in this new world, instead of providing any air time to a supporting commenter. That's the skew that the early questioner was pointing to.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it depends on the program. I do think it's as important to provide Republican voices as it was to offer Democrats a platform when George Bush's party controlled both houses of Congress. And the journalists themselves are supposed to provide some balance and perspective.


Rocheter, N.Y.: There's been talk of giving Scott Brown his own show on Fox. Would it be legal for a sitting Senator to have his own TV talk show?


Howard Kurtz: It would be wildly improper. Though maybe the Supreme Court will change that too.

_______________________ Video: TV docs' dual role (CNN)


Bremerton, Wash.: So how did Conan O'Brien's last "Tonight Show" do in the ratings? Does it seem that he came out the 'winner' in terms of Public Opinion?

Apparently, Jay Leno is going to Oprah to prove he's a "Good Guy." Should I believe him, or Bristol Palin saying she's not having any more sex before marriage?

Howard Kurtz: Conan's ratings were about triple on his final night. And why not? Millions of people were hooked on this soap opera. I do think he exited with a touch of class.

Leno is obviously going on Oprah because he's worried about having been painted as the heavy in this thing. Although there's no evidence that he did anything to force Conan out; in fact he agreed to do the half-hour show when NBC executives came up with the cockamamie idea of moving the Tonight Show to midnight. This train wreck was really the network's doing.


How many shows even get seven months to prove themselves?: Katie Couric's rings a bell. I heard the entire FOX News network lost money for like a decade. And on a related topic, how long and how many billions of dollars spending did it take for the Washington Times to finally make a profit? The Weekly Standard? Just saying?

Howard Kurtz: Your analogies are off. The Washington Times has never made a profit, and in fact has just laid off 60 percent of its staff. The Weekly Standard has never made a profit. Katie Couric took over a third-place newscast that remained in third place. But beyond that, Couric is a journalist who, for instance, won widespread praise for her campaign interviews with Sarah Palin. Whether her numbers were great or not, she was doing her journalistic duty. Conan and pals are paid to be entertainers; if they don't put enough people in the seats, they're not going to stay on the air.


Western Washington,: Mr. Kurtz,

I've been looking at the fawning coverage of Scott Brown and I can't help but make comparisons to Sarah Palin.

Has he been thoroughly vetted by anyone? Or is there a "I read All Newspapers" or "Russia is next to us, So I have good foreign policy experience" lurking out there?

Howard Kurtz: Well, he's been vetted by the people of Massachusetts. They chose him over the far better known Democratic attorney general.

But I must say the media are acting a little silly in touting Brown as a 2012 prospect before he's even sworn in. One of the first questions at his morning-after news conference was whether he considers himself presidential timber. He didn't take the bait.


Kansas City: You mentioned Air America tried to buy radio stations but did they really have any other choice? Many markets wouldn't pickup their programming, forcing them to buy their way on. Talk radio, and its owners are very conservative and your guests yesterday confirmed that in talking about how Talk Radio killed Coakley in Massachusetts. If Talk Radio was just a commentator Scott Brown's centerfold would have been Topic 1 everyday. I mean, imagine if Kerry or Gore had done a centerfold, what would have been the reaction on talk radio?

Howard Kurtz: There have been a few successful liberal radio hosts. They're just badly outnumbered. Conservatives have long looked to radio as an alternative to what they see as the liberal mainstream media. And faced with that landscape, Air America couldn't figure out how to build a viable business model.


Albany, N.Y.: In your column today you mention the Times' plan to charge for online content, along with a quote from a blogger writing about how it will "risk driving away" the Times' "best customers." Frank Ahrens' dandy The New York Times announces a plan to charge readers for online content starting in 2011 (Post, Jan. 21) article on the plan on Thursday described the current realities of online advertising, which I think means that subscription can work. People will buy subscriptions for three reasons: the convenience of knowing they always have access to articles, the desire to pay for strong content (which some of your chatters mention every week), and (possibly) the desire to reduce ad clutter. If the writing is strong enough, people will pay; the real trick is finding the revenue model that balances advertisers and subscribers.

Howard Kurtz: I hope you're right, but there's a lot of free competition out there, and a lot of aggregators who skim the cream off the stories that reporters at news organizations labor to produce. That's the reality.


Every newspaper in America is grappling with this: I agree it is a tough situation, however newspapers messed this up from the beginning. Why would you think giving away your content for free was a good idea in the first place? From day one every newspaper should have charged for online content unless you were also a subscriber. Perhaps make it 25 or 30 cents online instead of 35 or 50 for the paper, but charge something. It's not brain surgery, if you don't charge, you don't make money. Simple as that. You can fix this by, wait for it, charging for your content!

Howard Kurtz: It may have been a historic mistake. But there's no evidence people would have been willing to pay for the NYT, LAT, WP etc. in earlier years, and these organizations had to get a foothold on the Web or be consigned to irrelevance. So far, walling off even some online content has caused traffic to plummet. We're all spoiled by the Net's free culture but actual journalism costs money to produce.


Anonymous: Why would it be "wildly improper" for Scott Brown to have a TV show? Politicians have long written columns for their local newspapers. Huckabee was still an active politician when he took over his show. If Scott Brown got a show, I wouldn't watch it because C-SPAN already provides wall-to-wall coverage of political debates in the Senate. But I don't see it as wildly improper.

Howard Kurtz: You would have a corporation paying an incumbent officeholder, which could be seen as an attempt by Murdoch/Disney/GE/fill-in-the-blank to influence them on legislation. Mike Huckabee was a former governor who was out of the presidential race by the time that Fox News hired him.


Washington, D.C.: You wrote "Conan and pals are paid to be entertainers; if they don't put enough people in the seats, they're not going to stay on the air."

But if people don't want to buy the Washington Post and read your column, you're not going to stay employed. Would you agree that one of the reasons Fox News is so successful is that they attempt, first and foremost, to entertain people? They certainly don't inform them through shows like Glenn Beck although I think even the most ardent liberals would agree he is a talented entertainer.

Howard Kurtz: Fox can be very entertaining.

In the old days, no one would know whether Media Notes was a popular part of the paper or not; it would be a gut call. In the digital age, The Post can at least see what my online traffic is. So keep those clicks coming.


RE: Analogy: Howard -- taking over the Tonight Show isn't the same as launching a new sitcom -- there was certainly resistance to Jay when he took over from Johnny, Conan when he took over from Dave, etc. And for a while Dave was finishing 3rd behind Nightline and Jay (with billboards in Times Square declaring "The Late Show -- 3rd in Late Night!).

I think Conan was starting to find his voice as host and would have appreciated NBC for trying to make it work.

Howard Kurtz: The truth is, NBC caved because the affiliates revolted as their late local newscasts were getting killed by Leno's weak lead-in. At that point, the network could have just canceled Jay and kept Conan at Tonight, but with Leno having been No. 1 at 11:30 for so long, NBC tried to keep both--and Conan, not unreasonably, decided to walk.


Arlington, Va.: I will gladly pay for access to but I hope it will be discounted because I am also a weekly subscriber to the hard copy version as well. I should get some additional benefit of being a subscriber

Howard Kurtz: You should. Under the NYT plan, print subscribers are exempt from having to pay any additional fees for the Web site. Which makes perfect sense.


Whose Impression? : "Howard Kurtz: I think it's a perfectly reasonable analysis based on close observation by two journalists who have covered the Obama presidency. They are hardly the only ones to make such an observation."

Whether it is reasonable or not is irrelevant. Is there objective data to support the writers' claims? If not, why can't they say that THEY think Obama is cool and detached"? The fact that everyone else is doing it too is no argument at all. Is this what "objectivity" is all about?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sorry, it's not an "impression." Journalists study a president's style compared to that of his predecessors, they talk to strategists and scholars, they look at poll numbers, and all that plays into their analysis. Even White House aides are acknowledging that Obama has to do a better job of connecting with the public.


Re: Medical Reporters: I don't have a problem with the medical reporters also acting as physicians in situations like Haiti. What I have a serious problem with is the medical reporter turning their actions into a news story.

For that matter, I have a problem with the network personalities doing the same thing -- "helping" an individual and then turning it into the human story of the day.

It's opportunism.

Howard Kurtz: There's a fine line, I would say, between TV correspondents reporting on a tragedy such as that in Haiti and seeming to call attention to themselves. We all know grandstanding when we see it.


Valley Forge, Pa.: Hello, my question is about the number of articles that are reporting on the result of a recent poll and then attempting to describe a conclusion that should be inferred by that poll result. Is the media today doing more articles that are based on polling than they used to? I really question some of the conclusions that I see in articles (e.g., poll result says health care has little public support, yet when you ask the question a bit differently, such as do you favor restrictions on insurance companies, which is a big part of the bill, public support is very strong).

Howard Kurtz: Political reporting has been increasingly poll-driven in recent years, in part because news organizations pay substantial money for these polls. But I have argued that this is dangerous. Polls are volatile and sometimes wrong. The Boston Globe published a poll on Jan. 10 giving Martha Coakley a 15-point lead over Scott Brown. Nine days later she was toast. The press really misjudged that race, as I write about today.


Silver Spring, Md.: "I guess the best thing I could ask of the critics is come here and walk in my shoes for a day and tell me if you would walk by somebody who has a bone sticking out of his arm. If you would walk by it, then I guess we're just different people."

I just see this as a conflict of interest. You have conflicting ethics -- as a medical provider, and as a journalist. I just don't think they can be both (I am a journalism major turned nurse).

Howard Kurtz: Nancy Snyderman acknowledged that some people may see it differently, but that's her point of view. Both she and Sanjay Gupta have said they were doctors long before they became journalists and they consider themselves doctors first.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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