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Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media -- Critics, Oprah book, more

Howard Kurtz
Monday, April 12, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz takes your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.<br><br>Today's column: <a href='http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2005/04/11/LI2005041100587.html">Who Needs Critics, Anyway?</a><br><br>

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Your column today: Your column today expertly pointed out one of the problems with the shift from print journalism to the Internet: "Newspapers and magazines were built on the smorgasbord model, serving a little something for everyone. But in the age of Google and Bing, growing hordes of people simply search for precisely what they need." Or, more accurately, what they THINK they need. This is similar to only listening or reading to people who share your political ideology. One reason I cherish the printed Post is to stumble upon an article or story that I would never have found myself through a directed search. That's how you learn new things! To quote an example from your article, not only do I also appreciate Tom Sietsema's expertise and writing style, but he has led me to try wonderful restaurants that I probably never would have found on my own, or would have been willing to try without an unbiased professional recommendation such as his to encourage me.

Howard Kurtz: I've long felt that one of the greatest things about reading a newspaper is serendipity--to stumble upon an article you would never have gone searching for and learn something you didn't think you cared about. The new, Google-driven media marketplace doesn't value that, of course. I'm happy that the Web has opened up a largely closed system so that anyone can start a blog and opine on such about anything. But I was trying in this morning's column to say that there should still be a place for critics who devote their careers to the study of movies or theater or restaurants, and who--whether you agree with them or not--are a pleasure to read.

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Critics: I'm sorry to see the movie review shows go from mainstream TV but would note that there are some very good movie culture discussions on AMC. Most movies these days seem to lack context and rely upon stunts and superficial plots -- how much can you say about computerized action scenes and the actors who play them? Not much I suspect. I think a broader problem is newspapers shifting their leftover staff into reviewing positions for which they have no talent. A few weeks ago the NY Times gave Sam Tanenhaus multiple pages to write about two movies and in all that space he never had much to say about the actual movies (just recited his political views and suggested the undiscussed movies didn't agree). I find this kind of fudging in food and restaurant reviews frequently. The worst offenders can be found in the travel sections where people pump up the most trivial experiences as life changing. Given this, why not let the vox populi fill the void?

Howard Kurtz: As a guy who reads about a zillion blogs, I'm certainly not opposed to vox populi. And some longtime critics are hacks (though I find just about everything Sam Tanenhaus writes to be thought-provoking, whether I agree with him or not). But in my experience, newspapers and magazines don't slide B-level staff into reviewing positions. You generally have to have a deep grounding in food or cultural criticism to land one of those coveted slots, especially in an era in which print in shrinking.

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On Critics: Your piece on the continuing relevance (or not) of critics was really interesting. My take is that there has been a shift from analysis (Sontag, often Kael) to evaluation (Thumbs Up! Down!) -- and when that happens, the critic is no longer "someone who knows more than I do" but a consumer among many, and in that case, anyone can say whether they liked the film, the meal, the book. I remember reading a review by Philip Kennicott in the Post years ago on war movies, and it was memorable precisely because it was erudite, it contextualized, it analyzed. Critics can be relevant again (more so than amassed conventional wisdom about likes and dislikes) if/when they return to analysis that relies on expertise. As an academic, I'm showing my bias, but really the problem is less that no one respects educated authorities than that those authorities have been afraid of owning their turf.

Howard Kurtz: I think the "thumbs up/thumbs down" rubric is more of a television thing - actually invented for the old Siskel & Ebert show before it became the now-canceled "At the Movies" - but certainly there's been a trend toward news-you-can-use in reviews: Letter grades for movies (which Jeff Jarvis tells me he started at Entertainment Weekly), stars for restaurants and so on. I get it; people are busy. But there's no law stopping critics from offering more sweeping, nuanced analysis (which A.O. Scott, whose piece I quoted, did in yesterday's NYT piece about newspaper movies). I think you still see that in the biggest papers or in magazines that aim for an elite audience.

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We need people with knowledge - critical or otherwise.: And fewer who have plenty of opinions and no facts to support them. Ebert knows. He has seen just about every important film. I want to know what he thinks, even when I do not agree with him.

Howard Kurtz: Precisely. And though he's lost his voice, Roger continues to blog about movies for the Chicago Sun-Times and to sound off on Twitter. Of course, the Sun-Times and the Chicago Trib are both in bankruptcy, which underscores the other problem facing mainstream critics.

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It's a problem...: Hi Howard -- Thanks for taking questions today.This is more in the nature of a comment than a question. I saw a headline the other day (not in your paper, I don't believe) -- "New Court Vacancy Presents a Problem for Obama." Why is it problem? Doesn't every president want the opportunity to fill at least one Supreme Court seat during their term? In fact, it seems like I see a lot of similar headlines -- Obama usually seems to have a "problem" of some sort, rather than an opportunity, which makes me believe that the coverage of him is unduly negative to some degree. It's almost as if his whole presidency is one big problem, rather than, well, a presidency. Am I making any sense here? Just my two cents.

Howard Kurtz: A better headline would have been "Presents Challenge for Obama." I don't know which article you're referring to, but obviously a number of journalists have pointed out that he has to calibrate what kind of Senate fight he wants in a midterm election year when he's trying to push other agenda items through. But of course every president wants an opportunity to shape the high court. The retirement of John Paul Stevens, for instance, reminds us that he's had an impact on American jurisprudence since he was appointed by Jerry Ford.

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Obama stiffing WH Press: Obama not only is skipping the regular press conferences other presidents held but now he's taking off from the White House without the press pool. What is going on? Does he hate the White House press? And if so, where does this originate?

Howard Kurtz: I feel very comfortable in saying he doesn't hate the White House press. And the violation in question consisted of Obama going off to see his daughter's soccer game. I understand the desire of any president to do normal family things without reporters and photographers trailing along; I understand just as well why the press needs to trail the commander-in-chief wherever he goes. I didn't see any indication that Soccergate was intended as a permanent new policy.

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A Good Critic is Rare and Valued today: It is rare to find a good critic who can give you the tone of the book or movie and let you know if you want to read or see it WITHOUT giving away plot points! Many a movie has been ruined by the new unskilled reviewers who think a movie review is a plot synopsis.

Howard Kurtz: That's an interesting dilemma. Obviously you want to provide enough of a plot so readers can make sense of your critique and decide whether they're interested in the film. But I also worry about learning too much about a movie I'm planning to see and sometimes skim for that reason.

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Serendipity: "serendipity -- to stumble upon an article you would never have gone searching for and learn something you didn't think you cared about. The new, Google-driven media marketplace doesn't value that, of course." Umm, I dunno ... of course the primary value of Google is a focused search, but at the same time ... anyone who says they've never clicked through a less-than-optimal Google suggestion, only to get happily lost down a wormhole of tangential information and writing ... frankly, said person is fooling himself. The Web is a TROVE of writing, sites and information otherwise unknown, and serendipity is the watchword of half the links out there. Now, attention span ... that's a whole 'nother story.

Howard Kurtz: Sure, you can hit all kinds of waves as you surf along the Web. The difference with a newspaper is that editors have decided that such a piece is worthy of your time and are giving it precious column inches. So as you turn from Page 3 to Page 5 and see it, you can linger or not, but it's not some random online accident. It's the judgment of a publication's editors that a story is worth your time.

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Arlington, Va.: 1. Every time I look at a Web site, I'll find other articles of interest. CNN and USA Today's sites, for example, link to a variety of stories. Being interested and reading them is just as easy, if not easier, than turning your eyes to another print article. 2. Wouldn't Roger Ebert, who has seen a large number of movies and writes good reviews, be successful even if he was starting from zero and just had a blog? There are a variety of grassroots reviewers on a variety of different who have become well-respected and who are read now - the only difference is that you don't have to wait for the Herald's movie critic to retire before you hear the voice.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but if Roger Ebert was just starting out as a blogger, it would take him quite a long time to build a national following. I suppose if enough Web sites linked to him, there would be a word of mouth effect that could make him an online sensation. But let's face it: it was television that made Ebert a household name, not his writing for a Chicago newspaper not available (in the pre-Internet age) in the other 49 states. So the cancellation of that show, in its current incarnation, strikes me in some fashion as the end of an era.

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re: Soccergate: When I read this on Politico, it sounded more like he decided at the last minute to go his daughter's game, and there wasn't enough time to get the press together to go (especially considering that, by the time the press did get up there, the game was over). Even if it was a truly deliberate exclusion, I'm not sure I can blame the man.

Howard Kurtz: That was how I read it as well, as a last-minute scramble.

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Soccergate: I have to say, if I were a parent of a child on the president's kid's team or their opposition, I'm not sure I'd be at all pleased to have my kid's game overshadowed by a swarm of press. The security detail is bad enough.

Howard Kurtz: Exactly. But does that mean Barack Obama can't do what every other dad does and watch his kid play soccer? It is one of the downsides of being president that wherever you go--even out to a restaurant for lunch with your wife--you're creating a security headache for the Secret Service.

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Rocci Fisch: Article: Media pool left behind

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Journalists with knowledge - : So, it's important for reviewers of film and restaurants to have a deep understanding of what they cover? Why do reporters who cover actual news not held to the same standard? Please read any of the politics chat held by these journalists and tell me why thoughtful, policy-related questions are answered with superficial, horse-race answers? (expected answer: our journalists are the best, they know more than you, defend, defend, defend...)

Howard Kurtz: Seems like you asked the question and provided my answer as well. Do I get a turn? Newspapers employ all kinds of specialists: on health care policy, the military, the environment, business, diplomacy, the courts, baseball, football and on and on. The reporters who primarily cover politics would be the first to admit that they are generalists when it comes to policy, since they have to handle a story about terrorism one day, immigration the next and campaign fundraising the day after that. Those who have been doing it awhile know more than you think about the substance of issues, but they are most deeply knowledgable, and passionate about, campaigns and elections.

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Is Wolff acting?: I regard the Michael Wolff-Sharon Waxman dispute a tempest in a teapot. But I also have a strange feeling about Wolff. Is he too full of himself? Is he acting when he appears on TV, or is this what he's really like off-camera.

Howard Kurtz: I think with Michael Wolff, what you see is what you get. For those who missed it, Wolff, the founder of Newser.com, and Waxman, the founder and editor of TheWrap.com, debated her charge that he is inappropriately ripping off her content on yesterday's Reliable Sources. Today's Media Notes has a link to the video.

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Oprah: Howie, will you break the boycott and have Kitty Kelly on to talk about Ophrah?

Howard Kurtz: I'd be happy to have her on my program. Although not everyone is boycotting the author of the new book on Oprah--she landed a coveted Today show interview with Matt Lauer this morning.

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Tea Party reporting: There is an article highly critical of the Tea Party folks currently on the Fox News website. Did someone slip this past Roger Ailes when he wasn't looking or is Fox becoming worried that the Tea Party which they helped create is starting to hurt the Republicans?

Howard Kurtz: The answer is that a Fox News staffer is exploring whether the movement's extremes are hurting it, so it's not a total slam: "The rallies have also attracted the kinds of mistruths, exaggerations and conspiracy theories that make Tea Party leaders cringe. Though the movement is still trying to shore up its credentials as a grassroots power that's here to stay, the so-called 'fringe' and its accompanying antics continue to give critics fodder. "

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Stephanopoulos/Palin: In your column today you defended George Stephanopoulos's question to President Obama asking the president to respond to Sarah Palin's childish criticism of the change in nuclear policy. You said the question was fair because Palin is a leading voice in the GOP. I am wondering -- in your view, is there any circumstance in which a political figure's statements are so baseless and vacuous that such statements don't deserve a response from the president of the United States? Is there any standard in this area? This goes to the broader question of the media's role - is the media's job simply to report what political figures say (whether baseless or not), or does the media have a responsibility to fact-check politicians' statements and put them into context?

Howard Kurtz: You're free to regard Palin's criticism as "childish"; when she says things that aren't true (see "death panels") or are exaggerations, the media have a responsibility to point that out. But if an opposition politician makes a particularly outrageous or even baseless criticism of the president, why not give him an opportunity to respond? He can brush it off if he so chooses (as Obama did in saying Palin was hardly a nuclear expert), but his response will probably be newsworthy.

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The use of critics : First, I was a movie (and book, theater and music) critic for the Baltimore City Paper for about a dozen years. So I'm not unbiased. But I do know that there are movies that are absolutely review-proof. Whether I stood up and shouted that Titanic or Avatar or How To Train Your Dragon were wonderful or a pile of junk would make absolutely no difference. What a critic can do effectively is champion smaller movies whose initial weekend box office might mean the difference between a one week run and a four week run. Films like An Education (for which Carey Mulligan got a Best Actress Oscar nomination) would likely not find a wider audience without the backing of critics who have earned the trust of their readers.

Howard Kurtz: Good point. I don't see the role of critics as primarily to deter people from seeing lousy films or encouraging them to see good ones, though it's certainly true that critics can help smaller movies find an audience. And yes, Titanic is going to do big box office regardless of what the critics say. I'm more concerned that a dwindling number of critics seem to have seats on their own Titanic.

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Rocci Fisch: Video: What's the future of news on the Web?

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Palin's nuclear questions: To me, George Stephanopoulos's question was a mistake, but maybe for a different reason than Benen thought. It was a mistake because it was a missed opportunity to ask the president about his response to a critic that actually does know what he or she is talking about. To me, it's another example of how journalism today is all about the horserace and little of substance.

Howard Kurtz: But Stephanopoulos had a substantive discussion with Obama. The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen may not have liked the Palin question, but what exactly is wrong with asking the president to respond to the other party's last VP nominee, who is drawing bigger crowds than anyone else in her party? I don't see it as an either/or.

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Substantive Knowledge and Political Reporters: Hi Howie, To extend the discussion a little, is it too much to ask that your reporters at least be aware of the substantive details of the issues that have been reported by their own co-workers? Numerous times during the health debate Post reporters would make factually incorrect claims that were directly contradicted by Ezra Klein's excellent reporting.

Howard Kurtz: You know, I can't respond to claims about factual inaccuracies unless you provide examples. And while Ezra Klein is indeed a prodigious gatherer of information, he is also a columnist and blogger who offers his point of view. His is not the last word on any given issue, nor would he claim that it is.

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Fast Flip: If you want a chance to "stumble upon" interesting articles you're not specifically looking for, go to the bottom of the Google News page and start flipping.

Howard Kurtz: Perhaps I should point out that Google employs no journalists. That is, the pieces you enjoy bumping into on Google News are in most cases written by MSM reporters who rely on a publication's paycheck to produce journalism.

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Game Change: I recently finished reading Game Change and found it informative and enjoyed reading some new details about the campaign. How is it that the authors were able to get such info when papers like yours and the NYT had reporters embedded in the campaign as well and we did not get a lot of the same info? Are newspapers reluctant to run articles on what goes on inside campaigns for fear of being shut out? There were many revelations in the book that if public may have altered the votes of certain people? I know that I voted for McCain but would not have if I knew the extent of the lack of vetting about the Palin nomination and his overall decision making process.

Howard Kurtz: As Mark Halperin and John Heilemann told me when the book came out, they did not know much of what they eventually reported either while covering the election for Time and New York magazine. Much of the material was gathered in interviews after the election; other material was given to them with the agreement that it not be published until the book came out. As an author, I can tell you that people will tell you things that they would not if you were putting it in the next day's paper or the next week's magazine. But I had a similar reaction to "Game Change," as I wrote at the time: What did these revelations tell us about the ability of journalists to get real-time information about what's actually going on in a presidential campaign? Thanks for the chat, folks.

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