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Howard Kurtz on the Media: Jon Stewart's Obama quips create buzz

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 1, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Feb. 1, at Noon ET to take your comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Today's column: Jon Stewart's Obama barbs on 'The Daily Show' are creating buzz (Post, Feb. 1)

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

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Princeton, N.J.: In your blog today you write, "But Stewart, who makes no secret of leaning left, is a pop-culture bellwether."

Honestly, can anyone who watches Jon Stewart regularly say he doesn't criticize BOTH sides? I think that's one reason he has the audience that he has. He points out the truth and idiotic statements on both sides. Personally, I think this is why so many younger people 20-45 are becoming independents. When you watch The Daily Show you realize that neither side has the answers or is any better than the other (unlike when people only watch Fox News or MSNBC...)

Howard Kurtz: I have watched the Daily Show pretty religiously - even been on it, as a matter of fact - and there is very little question where Jon stood on the Bush presidency and the Iraq war. He voted for John Kerry. I don't say he's *never* poked fun at the liberal side, but there is no question in my mind he's been taking on Obama more often lately, as well as folks like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. His ultimate aim is to get laughs, as I noted, but anyone who knows him - and I do - knows full well he is really passionate about issues (and what he sees as lousy media coverage) as well.

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Washington, D.C.: Why do you think that Chris Matthews got a "pass" for his comments about President Obama and the State of the Union?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that he did. A lot of people, including me, took note of his "forgot he was black" comment about Obama. The reason it hasn't become a bigger issue is that Matthews was trying to say something complimentary - that the president seems to transcend race - but did it in a very clumsy way.

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washingtonpost.com: Jon Stewart, Mocking Both Sides (Media Notes Blog, Feb. 1)

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Silver Spring, Md.: I see that Newsday has received only 35 subscribers since they disconnected from the Internet and went subscription only. Does this experiment mean that subscriptions for newspapers in lieu of free use is a dead issue? It seems to work better for the Financial Times, but that is largely specialty business news.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's obviously not a dead issue in light of the fact that the New York Times plans to begin charging on a metered basis next January. But the Newsday venture has been a spectacular flop, and should give pause to those who think it's a good idea to put virtually all of your online content behind a pay wall. That takes you out of the conversation, limits Google searches and, except in specialized cases - the Wall Street Journal has financial coverage that appeals to a well-heeled audience - is probably not going to work.

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Bethesda, Md.: Did you honestly think Jon Stewart would treat Obama as vaguely good or bad like the major networks and print media seem to due with things such as popularity polls with middle-age white America? Educated Americans and even my parentx tune into Jon Stewart. Thanks Howard, you are the man for asking this question!

Howard Kurtz: Educated Americans and even your parents?

I actually figured that Stewart and other comedians would eventually find plenty of material in Obama. That is inevitable with any president, regardless of popularity. What's interesting is that it took about a year to happen, and Stewart seems to be a leading indicator.

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Long Island, N.Y.: Howard

As always, thanks for taking time for the chat today.

I know that every week there are a few questions regarding FNC and the distinction between the "hard news" side vs. the "personalities" (e.g. Beck, Hannity, etc).

But what did you think on Friday when FNC stopped broadcasting the president's Q and A at the GOP meeting (questions went on for 20 more minutes) to begin its analysis?

Both MSNBC and CNN showed the Q and A in full and considering the unique and unpredictible nature of the setting, you would think that a "balanced" news org would want show the entire session.

Howard Kurtz: I thought it was a bad decision. I've seen all the cable networks do this at various events, where they decide it's more important for their pundits to TALK about the event than to show it in its entirety. These days they usually break away from the Robert Gibbs briefings, when they show them at all. But this session between Obama and the House Republicans was spellbinding, so unusual you would think that every cable network could spare an hour and a half in the middle of the day.

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Paraphrasing Richard Nixon: "If I've lost Jon Stewart, I've lost left-wing America."

Howard Kurtz: Well, that is the danger. I'll keep an eye on it. It's not like he's suddenly fallen in love with the Republicans.

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Anonymous: I loved the New York Post headline "I'm the pop, says the weasel" on the John Edwards story. Why can't more newspapers be creative with headlines like this one.

Howard Kurtz: The New York Post has the best headline-writers in the business. Years ago I sat in on an editorial meeting where they tossed out possible tabloid heads, and they were amazingly good.

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Chicago, Ill.: Just wondering if you asked Jon Stewart for comment. Seems weird to quote Bill Kristol of all people, but not the subject of the story. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I did try to get Jon on the phone, and he wouldn't play. He doesn't do many interviews these days.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Do you really think making fun of Obama using a teleprompter at a school is that harsh? Come on. There was real vitriol in how he attacked Bush, and you don't see it here. Stewart will criticize Obama for doing something stupid, but he always criticized Bush for being a stupid human being. It's a much bigger difference.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it was that harsh. It was poking fun. But there is starting to be a sense of disappointment in the way he talks about the president, especially with the line about Obama trying to persuade through "rational policy decisions" and called him on his broken C-SPAN pledge. And I think that reflects a certain sense of disappointment in liberal commentators who were once strongly on Obama's side (see Krugman, Paul). Again, Stewart is a professional comedian, but there has always been a substantive edge to his jokes.

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You love the NY Post headlines: You know that newspaper has never, ever made money, even when times were good for newspapers right? If you look at the NY Post, or the Washington Times, they have bled money for 20 years. Yet Air America doesn't make money after 2 years and everyone bails out and then declare that a liberal news source can't compete. Why the double standard, both in funding and public opinion?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, both papers have been heavily subsidized by their owners. That doesn't mean they don't have an impact. As for Air America, its failure was significant because it was a liberal outfit trying to make inroads in a medium dominated by conservatives. It was always going to be an uphill climb.

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Berryville, Va.: Bethesda Md,

I will guarantee you that the average family farmer is better educated on the issues of the day on other matters than surburban and urban dwelling elites like yourself and Jon Stewart. Jon Boy wouldn't know the commodity futures markets and when to till from whose designed Nancy Pelosi's pants suit. Sorry hoss, Jon Steart's audience is not the educated Americans. Put your leftist biases aside boy!

Howard Kurtz: Not sure how to respond to this. As Stewart himself has told me, you wouldn't get the vast majority of his jokes unless you followed the news to some degree. This was to knock down the notion that his younger fans "get their news" from the Daily Show. They may get some nuggets of information, but it's clearly a program designed for people who keep up with politics.

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washingtonpost.com: Paul Krugman on Obama: He Wasn't The One We've Been Waiting For (The New York Times, Jan. 20)

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All the story?: When you brought up the O'Keefe issue on your show yesterday, you focused most of your criticism on Fox for not running more segments on his troubles and on O'Keefe for his dumb actions. That's fair enough.

But you downplayed the big mistakes the press made in reporting what he was accused of. A lot of press outlets, including the Washington Post, had to make corrections of their initial reports that accused him of wiretapping and of engaging in "Watergate Jr." For some reason, they simply didn't read the court documents carefully. (The WaPo has now had to make several major corrections in O'Keefe-related stories). Also you didn't mention David Shuster saying that he should "go to prison." Was there some reason for this?

Howard Kurtz: You're referring to my discussion on CNN's Reliable Sources. I did point out that O'Keefe, in his statement,was " using the phrase "media malpractice." And he does point out that The Washington Post had to run two corrections for saying in one instance that he had been accused of bugging Senator Landrieu's phones and that Rachel Maddow had talked about a gag order in the case. There was no gag order."

I had written down David Shuster's tweet, which MSNBC said was inappropriate -- that O'Keefe was going to prison -- but didn't have time to get to it. I did point out that MSNBC's liberal hosts were playing up the O'Keefe arrest as much as Fox was playing it down. Although tonight we get to see what kind of grilling O'Keefe gets from Sean Hannity in his first interview since the arrest.

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Rockville, Md.: In your article on Jon Stewart this morning, you wrote the following sentence:

On another night, Stewart chided Obama for his cerebral style, saying: "You thought you could win us over with rational policy decisions and an even temperament?"

But I disagree with your assertion that the joke was about Obama. I believe Stewart was chiding the American populace, not the president. We seem to be voting for 6th grade president these days, voting for who we would prefer to "hang out" with rather than who might have sound policies. I think Stewart was lamenting a society where you're criticized for being "elitist" if you're smart.

Howard Kurtz: It was clearly a shot at the general public as well as Obama.

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Richmond, Va.: Hi Howard,

I'm not quite sure if Jon Stewart sublimely criticizing Obama constitutes news. That is what Stewart had done for years: poke fun wherever it's deserved, regardless of political affiliation.

Howard Kurtz: It's not "BREAKING NEWS," not by a long shot. But for some reason it seems to be the No. 1 article on washingtonpost.com.

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Kansas City: Regarding Obama's Q and A, how big of deal was it? MSNBC played it huge with Olbermann, Maddow and Matthews doing a special two-hour program on it but the local paper's article, while decent size, was more of he said/she said variety making it seem both sides came off the same, hardly the view based on the exchanges on MSNBC.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not sure the media quite knew what to make of it. CNN, by the way, did an hour that night, replaying many of the exchanges. It was a top-of-the-front-page story in The Washington Post and other papers. But journalists, by habit, are accustomed to reporting stories about political foes bashing each other. And while there were some pointed exchanges between the president and the House Republicans, the tone was remarkably civil. (Obama did have the advantage because the camera remained trained on him, so you couldn't see his Republican questioners in real time.) After a year in which the two sides have repeatedly failed to work together, going back to the stimulus bill, this kind of conversation was nothing short of amazing. Of course, it may seem nothing more than a blip if the two sides continue to demonize each other rather than compromise on legislation.

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Grilling by Hannity: Question 1: Doesn't this just demonstrate how biased the liberal media is with regard to your case?

Question 2: I think you're doing some really important investigative journalism. (Uh, Sean that's not a question.)

Howard Kurtz: We shall see.

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Arlington, Va.: Is President Obama dissing the press? He has not had a press conference in six months, although he permits one-on-one interviews with network anchors. This results in fawning, softball questions and I don't think this is adequate for a president who promised new openness in government. Although press conferences are increasingly controlled, they do provide more free-wheeling questioning of a president than one-on-one interviews. I think this is an effort by the White House to control the press. As someone who monitors White House spin, am I right?

Howard Kurtz: Wasn't there a time when people were complaining that Obama was holding too many prime-time press conferences?

I wish he would hold more, no question. But between the network anchors, 60 Minutes, Good Morning America and other programs he's appeared on, you can hardly say he is ducking the media. The Washington Post had an interview not too long ago. And anyone who saw Diane Sawyer's White House sitdown last week can hardly say she didn't press Obama repeatedly - among other things she got the president to admit he hadn't lived up to his pledge to televise the health care negotiations on C-SPAN.

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Rockville, Md.: As someone way beyond the supposed demographics of Stewart and Colbert, both speak what we, liberal Dems, are thinking. Last week Colbert's "Word" on the Supreme Court ruling was great. I think Dems are disgusted at the way things are going. As a Clinton supporter, I worried that Obama might be another Carter (not post presidency) because he lacked experience and what has happened so far increases my feelings.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think most Democrats are "disgusted" by Obama's first year, but there is a widespread sense of disappointment, in part because the media, and the Obama campaign itself, set expectations ridiculously high. One of the reasons I wrote today's column is that I see Jon Stewart as a barometer for this sort of sentiment. If Obama was riding high, Stewart might still be cracking jokes, but they'd be different kinds of jokes.

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But the Newsday venture has been a spectacular flop, and should give pause to those who think it's a good idea to put virtually all of your online content behind a pay wall.: Um, it would work, however ALL newspapers and magazines need to do it . Charge differently, but they all have to do it for this to work. Not surprising this failed and the Tines will fail too as long as the Post is giving away their content for free. No brain surgery or as complicated as you folks in the media say.

Howard Kurtz: One, all newspapers and magazines aren't going to agree on anything. And even if they did, in some hypothetical universe, many people would respond by getting their news from AOL, Yahoo, Google and the like.

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Wasn't there a time when people were complaining that Obama was holding too many prime-time press conferences? : No. That was you, Howie.

Howard Kurtz: Actually, it was broadcast network executives, some of whom I quoted, who were losing millions of dollars every time they preempted their lucrative prime-time programming to carry the president. Of course, Obama could get around this problem by doing what past presidents have done most of the time, and that is holding his news conferences during the day.

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Washington, D.C.: Last Friday your colleague Warren Brown said in a Post chat that for years the media have been giving Toyota a pass on things for which they would have collectively clobbered the U.S. Big Three automakers. Do you concur? Is all this Toyota recall coverage an attempt at "catching up"?

Howard Kurtz: No, it's an attempt at holding accountable a company that had always made its reputation on quality. This is not just a massive recall, Toyota for the moment is not selling new Camrys, Corollas and the six other lines that have the gas-pedal problem. I don't know whether the press has gone easy on Toyota in the past. I'd like to hear more about that from Warren.

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O'Keefe, in his statement, was using the phrase "media malpractice" : There's an episode in "All The President's Men" where Woodward and Bernstein get a small detail wrong, due to missed communication with a source, and Bob Dole was all over them as though it proved the Post's entire Watergate coverage was wrong, a vendetta, etc., etc.

The ploy didn't work then, and I hope to goodness it doesn't work now, either. O'Keefe was clearly up to no good, not some playful "Puck" having a little fun with the political system.

Howard Kurtz: A few people made mistakes in the initial coverage. But that doesn't change the fact that he was arrested in a United States senator's office and charged with a felony. There's much we don't know about the case, but if O'Keefe fashions himself as an investigative journalist, he should probably steer clear of potentially breaking the law.

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washingtonpost.com: Warren Brown chat happening right now

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McLean, Va.: Howard, why no mention of Bill Maher, a comedian and commentator of unabashed leftist leanings, who has been regularly criticizing Obama over the past year?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but Maher never drank the Kool-Aid. He's not a lockstep liberal and was making fun of Obama early on.

Five months into the new president's term, I asked him about the audience reaction to his Obama jokes. "They boo me a lot when I talk about Obama...It tells me that we get a very super-sensitive liberal audience."

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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

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