Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media

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Howard Kurtz
Monday, March 8, 2010; 12:00 PM

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Barbara Walters Interview: I never watch Barbara Walters so I was surprised how much I enjoyed your Reliable Sources interview with her. Howie, what's the biggest misconception people have about you? P.S. If you were a tree...?

Howard Kurtz: In just the last few months she's interviewed Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Jenny Sanford, so I enjoyed asking her about that as well as her final Oscars special and her contention that Tiger Woods doesn't need to do any interviews. so I closed our discussion by asking her that very question. As for me, some folks seem to think I've got a team of researchers at The Post, but to invoke the term in today's column about TV correspondents shooting and editing their own stuff, I'm basically a one-man band.

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Post Op-Ed Standards (Lafayette Hill, PA): In the last week or so, the Post has printed op-eds from Orrin Hatch and Lamar Alexander, both of which were quickly shown to contain blantant falsehoods in conflict with recent Post reporting. Has the Post decided that it has no role to play in editing op-eds for veracity?

Howard Kurtz: It would help if you'd spell out the blatant falsehoods. When I read an op-ed by a politician, I assume he or she is selectively citing facts and leaving out contrary evidence to buttress a case. I bet most readers make a similar assumption. I personally think we run too many staff-written op-eds from politicians, who hardly lack a platform to get their views out.

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Kaplan Daily: As you must know, detractors of the Washington Post's OpEd page call the paper the Kaplan Daily as the corporation's profits come solely from the educational division. Reading Barron's this Saturday I saw a brief notice of problems at Kaplan Education. Those issues have gone unnoticed at the Post's business section. Doesn't the Post owe it's readers very acute reporting of the business issues affecting the company?

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Meet the Press: Sunday's Meet the Press ran a graphic across the bottom of the screen during the entire interview with Kathleen Seblius: Health Care Reform - The Last Chance. Would you consider that a case of editorializing, or senationalism?

Howard Kurtz: It actually strikes me as rather factual. If Obama doesn't get health care passed in the next few weeks, the issue is done for the rest of his presidency. I doubt even the White House would dispute that.

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Tom Delay: Howie, your colleague Perry Bacon just fielded a question re: Tom DeLay, regarding the former congressman's comments on CNN about unemployment benefits. Politics aside, the questioner wondered why the media is injecting DeLay back into the conversation. Perry responded that he (personally, mind you, not as a voice of THE MEDIA) didn't think voters cared what DeLay thought, so, essentially, no harm - - no foul if the congressman's response was offensive. Follow-up response? "If voters don't care, why did CNN have the man on?" It's a good question, sir, if only because it underscores the wink-wink nature of contemporary political reporting "the oft-contrived contrarian tension that underscores the vast majority of the work many outlets do. As newspinion. Yet, when this stuff is brought up on these boards time and eye-rolling time again, the response is a sort of tacit shrug, with a "the majority of the work we do ..." I don't know if there's a question here, really. Just a desire that you all would recognize the obvious, and work against it.

Howard Kurtz: Tom DeLay may be under indictment and out of the dancing business, but he remains a big name in Republican politics. That's why CNN's Candy Crowley interviewed him. And I think it's absolutely newsworthy that the former majority leader thinks people are unemployed because jobless benefits give them no incentive to find work. While that might be true in isolated cases, it's demonstrably untrue overall. And it matters because Sen. Jim Bunning just led a campaign to block an extension of jobless benefits, arguing that Congress was refusing to pay for it. Perhaps some Republicans don't see the unemployed as part of their core constituency.

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Speaking of lousy chyrons....: Did you catch CNN's "Department of Jihad?" chyron when discussing the Department of Justice and the question whether it should release the names of the attorneys who defended detainees? I'm sure it is a case of being overly flippant but how irresponsible and offensive!

Howard Kurtz: It was offensive, no question about it, and Wolf Blitzer apologized for it. Keep in mind those on-screen banners are usually written by young production assistants. I continue to be amazed how many typos they contain. Haven't these young people heard of the Google?

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Jack of All Trades: Going back to your column for today, I have a simple question. If the networks, newspapers, and other news gathering organizations shut down or are seriously reduced, who is going to actually gather and report the news? The bloggers can't really do it. Nor can they do investigative reporting, which can be really important at a local level.

Howard Kurtz: The question answers itself. Some bloggers and Web sites do solid reporting, but they'd be the first to acknowledge that the bulk of reporting in this country, and especially investigative reporting, is done by newspapers, and to a lesser extent by television organizations. They're not about to disappear, but all the layoffs and buyouts and cutbacks are taking a toll as they struggle to find a business model that will support sizable newsrooms.

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Boonsboro, MD: ... because jobless benefits give them no incentive to find work. While that might be true in isolated cases, it's demonstrably untrue overall. This is simply untrue, and any number of economists, including your buddy Paul Krugman, have said so in economic textbooks. Unemployment benefits are a disincentive to find work.

Howard Kurtz: My buddy? Most of them want nothing more than to resume their careers.

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Sunday Talk Shows--Healthcare: Mr. Kurtz, given that the current health-care debate is more between Democrats (given that all Republicans have stated they will vote no), why do the Sunday talk shows even book Republicans to talk about that topic?

Howard Kurtz: Because they should also be held accountable: If they refuse to provide any votes for the Democratic plan, what exactly do they think should be done? Why have they not proposed a plan that covers more than a small fraction of the uninsured? Do they think the status quo, where insurance companies continue to jack up premiums, is acceptable? Those seem like reasonable questions to me. But it's also true this thing is going to live or die based on Democratic votes.

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Reconciliation vs Nuclear Option: Mr. Kurtz: Has the media done a good enough job of separating the "Nuclear option" vs Reconciliation? I saw a number of anchors over the last week or so using both and almost interchangebly.

Howard Kurtz: No. They're entirely different things. Reconciliation seems arcane, I know, but journalists should regularly explain what it is--a simple Senate majority to avoid filibusters--and that it was used on major legislation during the Bush administration.

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Local News: While news stations are trying to save money by having the reporter and the cameraman be the same person, they seem to be extending themselves to longer hours. Channel 4 runs local news from four to seven and nine does it from five to seven-thirty. Seven has the advantage of News Channel eight. If news cost is such a problem, why does it always seem to be on? Certainly, it would be cheaper to run the syndicated stuff in any vacant news hole.

Howard Kurtz: News is a profit-making enterprise for local television. That's why they put more of it on. But in an age of shrinking audiences and declining revenue, they feel they've got to cut costs to stay afloat. That's why you're seeing the move to one-man bands that I wrote about this morning, even at the network level, and why the big anchor salaries are going to drop significantly as well.

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The Puffing Prez: On yesterday's Reliable Sources you defended Obama's smoking habit because he has a tough job. But isn't it ridiculous for Michelle to be in the Rose Garden advocating against obesity because it's harmful to health, while Barack's behind the curtain doing something that's even more conclusively harmful? If Obama has all the superpowers he claimed during the campaign, chucking the smokes should be a breeze.

Howard Kurtz: Sorry to ruin your thesis, but I wasn't defending his smoking habit. What I was saying is that tobacco is a terrible addiction, as anyone who's seen a loved one try to kick it, as I have, knows all too well. Therefore, I suggested we cut the guy a little slack. It's distressing that people who don't like the president for other reasons would read my comments as saying the media should go easy on him overall. That's just blowing smoke.

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Barbara Walters: Do you think she will ever get away from asking Whitney Houston "What kind of Tree would you be?"

Howard Kurtz: How many decades has it been since she asked that question? I'm sure Walters would like to have that one back. Here's how she explains it: "I was interviewing Katharine Hepburn, and she said, `Oh, sometimes I think I'm just an old tree,' so I said, `What kind of a tree?'"

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National Enquirer: The National Enquirer has a real shot of losing it's reputation of being a "rag" and becoming a Pulitzer Prize tabloid. If you were on the Pulitzer Prizer panel, would you vote for the Enquirer?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it should automatically be ruled out on the Edwards story. The Enquirer was right and had the evidence. The New York Times, after all, won a Pulitzer last year for revealing that Eliot Spitzer was patronizing prostitutes.

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You said "Keep in mind those on-screen banners are usually written by young production assistants": Howard -- I've seen you use this "excuse" several times in the past but it doesn't get away from the fact that these chryons appear on CNN, FNC, MSNBC as much as the reporters and their words do. By pinning it on a low-level PA, you seem to give the producer a pass for what reaches the air.

Howard Kurtz: No pass at all. When a mistake is made, of course the network should apologize. It's a good thing that Blitzer did, given how offensive "Department of Jihad?" was. I, by the way, write my own.

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Bring Back Cross Fire: Hello Howie. Would this be possible? CNN should dust off the cob webs, hire professional journalists (not Carville, Matalin, Begala-types who turned the old Crossfire show into a "vote for my side cheer fest" but have real journalists, asking real questions...so viewers can hear both sides of every issue, in an intelligent, smart and informative (cable- intellegince...oxy moron?) manner. This country and cable could use this type of debate show now. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I think you're conflating two different things. Every cable channel has its political pundits, and people know they're getting partisan opinion when they hear from the likes of Carville, Begala, Alex Castellanos and so on. But CNN has plenty of good reporters--Candy Crowley, Dana Bash, Jeanne Merserve, Ed Henry, Suzanne Malveaux, Nic Robertson, Jessica Yellin and many others. And unlike some channels, CNN's partisans don't host programs, as they did in the days of Crossfire, a show I was never a big fan of. Instead you've got the likes of Campbell Brown and John Roberts and John King, who came up through the reporting ranks.

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Cutbacks?: Howard, I've noticed that the Washington Post has taken to directing print readers to their Web site for news on late-running events (the Oscars, for instance). I seem to recall the print edition covering these late-running events in the past. Is this "go to the Web" a result of cutbacks, or is it simply a practical measure?

Howard Kurtz: Nothing to do with cutbacks. The first-edition deadline around here is 9 pm. No way many of the papers can include late-night news such as ballgames and awards shows that go on endlessly, though we still try to get those results into as many copies as we can. But why not tout the Web as a way to get real-time news around the clock? We are as much of an online organization now as we are a print newspaper.

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Cablevision: Is this Cablevision fight with the networks important to me here in Washington or is it the start of something cable companies the rest of the nation? Cablevision bought Newsday and took it off the Web for its subscribers only, and now Cablevision is involved in a fight with first the Food Network and now ABC-Disney, Is something happening here that is likely to spread to Comcast and Verizon-FiOS and perhaps result in higher cable fees for everyone? Given the depressed condition of the newspaper industry, will cable companies buy up ailing newspapers in other cities?

Howard Kurtz: That battle was huge in New York when I was there last week. The reason you should care, even though it didn't affect Washington, is that this is a precursor of many such battles. Fox recently had a similar showdown with Time Warner cable. Networks want to get a growing slice of the revenue that cable subscribers pay, and the cable companies are fighting them tooth and nail. The greatest leverage the cable side has is threatening to pull the programming. So this fight isn't over by a long shot.

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Anchor Salaries: No reason why the "big-name" anchors shouldn't make a lot less, if the station does the math on possible lost viewers (temporary, usually) versus high costs. It's not as though most anchors and anchorettes have a lot of options...their skill at reading a teleprompter really only lends itself to anchoring or being president.

Howard Kurtz: You don't get to be an anchor in a major market just by being glib and pretty--though those things certainly don't hurt. Thanks for the chat, folks.


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