Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
Howard Kurtz
Monday, April 19, 2010; 12:00 PM

_______________________

Robert Gibbs Interview: Howard - Thanks for the revealing sit-down with Robert Gibbs on Reliable Sources yesterday. Although Obama continues to get idolatrous coverage to previous presidents, he and Gibbs complain constantly about the media. My question: do you think they are actually that thin-skinned or is the whining just a ploy to continue to get even more loving coverage?

Howard Kurtz: "Idalatrous" is a little strong; Obama got kicked around quite a bit during the months when he coldn't seem to get health care or anything else passed. I don't think that Robert Gibbs and his colleagues are especially thin-skinned compared to the other administrations I've covered. Maybe they were spoiled by the campaign. But the president in particular keeps rapping the 24/7 news cycle and cable chatter. I was able to get Gibbs to acknowledge that they are willing participants in the media culture that they enjoy critiquing. And, of course, the press makes a useful foil for any president.

_______________________

Sean Hannity flap: Howard: I love your Sunday show but why did you give the flap over Sean Hannity getting sent home from Cincinnati such short shrift yesterday? The cable news talker/reader is much more of an activist than the main network anchors. A discussion as to why it was proper (or not) for Fox to pull Hannity out at the last second seems to me exactly the sort of item your show should be covering because, frankly, on TV there is no other forum to have a reasonable discussion of this issue.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. It was one of those weeks when we were packed with good material. My White House sitdown with Robert Gibbs took up half the program, and I'd also committed to having Kitty Kelley on to talk about her Oprah biography. I do wish we could have given the Hannity situation more time, in that it was so unusual for Fox News executives (or any network executives) to order a star host to return to HQ and cancel a planned show before a Tea Party crowd.

_______________________

Kagan Story: Howard,I could see how the White House would want to push back at anything untrue on Kagan, but haven't they just made Kagan's sexuality a much bigger issue by pushing back as hard as they did over it?

Howard Kurtz: That's a fair question. Certainly one blogger's take on Elena Kagan's sexual orientation, even after it was posted on the CBS News website, got far more attention because of the strong White House pushback. I don't know whether there was a political strategy involved, such as a determination not to let something administration officials regard as untrue take root in the media. I do know that they were angry -- as you can tell from Anita Dunn's quotes -- and felt that CBS should be held accountable. It didn't help that CBS executives spent the day defending the Ben Domenech posting until finally deciding to delete it from the website.

_______________________

Robert Gibbs: I enjoyed your interview with Robert Gibbs, but you seemed to be interrupting him quite a bit. Not in a rude way mind you, but in a 'hurry it along' way. But how come you didn't discuss the recent meeting he had with members of the Press Core who are, according to Politico, "angry" with him?

Howard Kurtz: I was moving him along at times because I had 15 minutes and a slew of topics I wanted to get to. Also, as a host you develop a sense of when the guest is just repeating things he's said before and you want to steer away from that. I generally let Gibbs finish his answers but my main goal was to have the interview be more of a conversation, which is what developed. I talked to several White House correspondents before the interview, and while they have complaints and frustrations, I didn't detect a great deal of anger at Gibbs or the White House press operation.

_______________________

Fox News: I watched your Sunday CNN program and was suprised you did not address the Coburn criticism of Fox, and the Coburn/O'Reilly interview in which O'Reilly denied all charges though proof was late documented of Fox folks making the specific claim that people would go to jail due to HCR.

Howard Kurtz: Hey, I've only got 60 minutes, folks, minus commercials. Again, much of our time was devoted to the newsmaker interviews with Gibbs and Kitty Kelley. But I watched Sen. Coburn's appearance on the Factor, and it seemed to me he backed off somewhat on his criticism of Fox. I did find it interesting that Gibbs criticized what he called Fox's "slant" when I asked him if the White House campaign against the network was over in the wake of the president granting an interview to Bret Baier. I thought Gibbs would say something like we've made our point and are ready to move on. I guess Fox still gets under the collective White House skin.

_______________________

Gay Supreme: Why is this even an issue? The people who won't like Obama's choice, whoever that is, on political/ideological grounds, would be the same people who would care about sexual orientation. And it's not like this person would be the first gay Supreme Court Justice anyway.

Howard Kurtz: It's a journalistic issue because you shouldn't be declaring the solicitor general of the United States to be gay unless you can prove that's true. I don't see why it's relevant in any event, especially in light of the fact that Elena Kagan hasn't yet become a Supreme Court nominee. Personally, I don't know anything about her sexual orientation and I don't care. But it is an undeniable fact that if Obama were to nominate an openly gay person to the high court, that would be a significant part of the story - as it was when the first black and female justices were named - and some conservatives would oppose a nominee on those grounds alone.

_______________________

Kitty Kelley: How much credibility does Kitty Kelley have? I ask this as a serious and open question: I have heard people attack and defend her. What are your thoughts on how reliable something she writes is?

Howard Kurtz: I haven't read every one of her books. But on the Oprah book, she does have a lot of on-the-record sources, perhaps as a response to earlier criticism about her heavy reliance on unnamed people. She is a celebrity biographer who writes gossipy books, but she has also assembled a wealth of information about Oprah Winfrey. I did ask her why she felt the need to delve into the speculation about Oprah's relationship with Gayle King.

_______________________

Obama and the media: Howard, I'm a big fan of the president but feel he is at fault for not being more open with the media, including holding more press conferences, which I think should be seen as a mandatory part of the president's schedule. In my opinion, this president would be well served by press conferences as the public would get an ongoing view of his intellect, grasp of issues, and moderate temperament and views. I think he has little, if any, respect for the press corps (admittedly there may be some justification for that). What do you feel is his attitude toward the press?

Howard Kurtz: My sense is that the president respects the mainstream media but has little patience for cable food-fight shows, inflammatory bloggers or conservative radio talk show hosts (he has criticized Rush, Glenn and Sean by name several times). But any president is going to do what's in his self-interest, and he clearly decided after the news conference last July - the one in which his final answer, about Skip Gates, set off a huge flap - that such events are not ideal for getting his message out. He much prefers one-on-one interviews. I asked Gibbs about this, and he cited two instances in recent months in which Obama took up to eight questions. These are mini-pressers at best, and there haven't been many of those, either. I do think a president has an obligation to regularly meet with the press corps, and since Obama is quite good at it, his recent reluctance is puzzling.

_______________________

Kelley and others of her ilk: It seems as though the most "shocking" revelations in these kinds of books are released through the usual media outlets to drum up publicity...but it also seems as though those would be the kinds of things for which one would buy the book. Do those advance disclosures actually help sales, or are they inevitable-so-you-might-as-well-control-the-message?

Howard Kurtz: I think they help sell books, and I also think it's something the author can't control. Reporters and reviewers get the books and focus on what they find most newsworthy or provocative. I did that when I got the Oprah book last Monday, posting an item about, for instance, Erica Jong saying Oprah had refused to cooperate with a New Yorker profile because, she told Jong, she didn't need a honky publication to canonize her.

_______________________

Kagan: Had the White House not responded, this Kagan story probably would have died in the liberal blogosphere and on Media Matters. Who else in the media would have picked it up?! I don't mean to blame the victim here, but I don't think this would have been a story had the WH not responded so vociferously. Now more people probably think she's gay (not that there's anything wrong with that), and the White House thinks that being called gay is a "false charge" with debunking. I'm sure Kagan's probably mad, and I'm sure a lot of liberals are too. Dumb dumb, dumb. Everybody wins!

Howard Kurtz: Elena Kagan has been very supportive of gay rights, but she may well have felt that she didn't want media outlets reporting and repeating that she is a lesbian if that's not the case. There are human factors as well as political factors in such matters.

_______________________

Kitty Kelley: Any word who'll be her next biography subject?

Howard Kurtz: She didn't share that with me. I feel safe in saying it will be somebody famous.

_______________________

Bad-mouthing the Tea Party: The MSM can't write enough bad things about this group, including a number of biased Post columnists (Dionne today). Yet, to the Post's credit it published the findings from Dem pollsters Caddell and Schoen last week that said opposition to the health-care bill has grown, independents continue to gravitate to the Republicans and the Tea Party "has grown stronger" despite efforts to "demonize" it. According to them, 1/3 of "self-identified Democrats say they support the Tea Party movement." Among independents, they report more are closer to the Tea Party than they are to Obama. With all this, why does the press (including Post columnists) continue to insist the Tea Party is some group of fringies?

Howard Kurtz: Columnists aren't "biased"; they are paid for their opinions. E.J. is a liberal commentator who sees the Tea Party as part of the far right; that's his take. The Post's news coverage has tried to assemble a fair picture of the movement. We were all helped by the CBS/New York Times poll last week that found the movement to be whiter, older and more conservative than the population at large, and nearly two-thirds getting their news from Fox News. I don't think we should dismiss it as a fringe movement, though it may, like any movement, attracts its share of extremists.

_______________________

David Addington: Mr. Kurtz, why are there no articles in the media about David Addington ? He was one of the most important figures in the Bush administration in the legal aspects of the war on terror and prisoners and he has simply vanished. Why ?

Howard Kurtz: If he's "simply vanished" -- and I assume you don't mean literally -- why would he still be newsworthy during the Obama administration? Obviously articles about Bush's war on terror should take note of his role, but Bush left office nearly a year and a half ago. By contrast, there's been no shortage of attention paid to Dick Cheney, who remains relevant because he's made himself part of the continuing debate.

_______________________

Tea Parties 24/7: Is it a valid criticism of the media that they have bombarded us with reports of a few thousand disgruntled people wearing funny costumes and waving bizarre signs since Obama took office, while minimizing literal millions marching around the world in 2003 to oppose the invasion of Iraq? Why would that be? Is it that the behavior of the tea partiers is better entertainment, or that it validates the corporate media's distrust of middle America, or something else?

Howard Kurtz: We might be slightly overcovering the Tea Party, but it is a new and genuinely interesting feature of American politics. But I don't think the media "minimized" the 2003 demonstrations against the Iraq war. Journalists did many things wrong during the runup to war, including a failure to aggressively press the administration for facts and a downplaying of opposition voices, but I don't feel that we dismissed the protests.

_______________________

CBS & bloggers: Howard, somehow I think that the WH's feelings are not CBS management's biggest problem. Many news outlets have experienced layoffs, reduction in bureaus, etc., etc. Given the upheaval in the industry, there must literally [be] dozens (or hundreds or thousands) of underemployed writers/reporters with serious journalistic credentials available to blog for a major news network. Why would you even bother to hire someone whose background includes numerous charges of sloppy work? Ginning up controversy may be necessary to run a network, but it certainly isn't sufficient. I have increasingly little sympathy for an industry that seems completely dedicated to undermining its major asset -- trustworthiness.

Howard Kurtz: CBS didn't "hire" Ben Domenech; he is one of a number of conservatives and liberals whose opinions are reprinted on CBSNews.com's opinion section. I'm all for reaching out for diverse views; that's part of what my online column is about. But in this case no one at CBS questioned whether Domenech had the slightest bit of evidence for his assertion about Kagan, or why it was relevant.

_______________________

More on Kagan: I graduated from Harvard Law School, and heard the rumors about Kagan all three years I was there. She never commented on them. But I think you're wrong to assume that only conservatives are interested in this question. Many of the gay activists at Harvard who believed that Kagan was gay resented what they viewed as her silence on her status. I'm sure that the same resentment would also surface on the left if she were nominated for the SCOTUS.

Howard Kurtz: I don't assume only conservatives are interested. In fact, Ben Domenech's point in that column reprinted by CBS was that Obama would please his base by naming the first openly gay justice. That is undoubtedly true. It would be hailed by many as a milestone. But if you're going to assert that, it would help to know whether the person you're writing about is in fact openly gay. Reporting on rumors isn't responsible journalism.

_______________________

unauthorized biography: I find the concept of the unauthorized biography kind of fascinating, as is the idea of specializing in it. If someone were threatening such a biography of me (uh, and they're not -- I'm not that interesting) I'd seriously consider cooperating. Just to have a little input. Do you think Kitty Kelley would drop the idea if the famous person in question agreed to cooperate? Or is that just never going to happen?

Howard Kurtz: Drop the idea? No. I'm sure Kelley would have loved to have Oprah's cooperation. Just because the subject of your book cooperates doesn't make it an authorized bio; you can still go out and interview plenty of other sources and write it the way you think it should be written. For instance, Obama offered some cooperation to David Remnick, but in no way is his prodigiously researched book an authorized biography.

_______________________

Obama Press Conferences: Didn't the TV networks start to complain about the frequency of pressers early in Obama's presidency? Fox, I believe, stopped showing them. And didn't the press complain that his answers were too long? Shouldn't the media be happier about the new strategy given these complaints -- where the networks can schedule them into their planned programming and interviewers can interrupt and follow up at will? Or is this just one of those subjects that the media will complain no matter what? In fact, what exactly do you think would be the ideal media strategy for the president in the eyes of the media? (Meaning if you got a wish from a genie that would make all present and future presidents follow your proscribed approach, what would it be?)

Howard Kurtz: Network executives complained, as I reported at the time, about the frequency of Obama's PRIME-TIME news conferences, because preempting their entertainment programming was costing them millions. There's an easy solution to that: hold the pressers in the daytime, when they're generally covered by the cable news networks and the big broadcast guys don't have to pull their lucrative shows. Under the previous two presidents, prime-time sessions were quite rare.

_______________________

Tea Party demographics: Howard, I was hoping for your take on this. I trend pretty liberal, and don't agree with a lot (if any) of the Tea Party positions. Having said that, I've never really been comfortable with the caricatures presented on TV and in print. Every portrayal I've seen has been dismissive, presenting the Tea Party members as ill-informed, poorly-educated (all those misspelled signs), etc.Now comes the NY Times poll which indicates that TP members/supporters are better educated and more successful than the general population. Almost immediately the narrative has gone from "look at those uneducated losers" to "they're all a bunch of faux populists, since they're so well educated and have so much money".I'm not a conspiracy theorist, and I don't think all you media people have a meeting every Tuesday to decide what the message will be, but even so, this is pretty weird. It almost feels like most of the media want to portray the TP unfavorably...and when the first reason proved to be inaccurate, they moved to Plan B. I honestly have seen very little objective reporting on the TP phenomenon. It's either been fawning (Fox) or sneering (everybody else). Even the straight pieces always have quotes from idiots and pictures of loonies, so no matter how objective the reporting appears, the TP members are portrayed unfavorably...even if the tone of the piece is straightforward. And the opinion pieces are consistently anti-TP.Do you think that the media establishment, like the political establishment, sees the TP as a threat, and is reacting to marginalize it? I realize that "The Media" isn't a monolith, but let's be honest with ourselves...every entity has an entrenched power structure.Would appreciate your thoughts...thanks.

Howard Kurtz: It's interesting that most members of a group vociferously complaining about taxes and big government is actually doing pretty well (and not proposing to cut Social Security or Medicare, which are becoming the big budget-busters, or defense). There's a broad swath between fawning and sneering, and that's where I think the news coverage should be.

_______________________

After KK who's next for you to interview? : Howard. I've always taken you for a serious, that is not entertainment/sports type of guy. With the Kitty Kelly interview are you trying to line up a job on Entertainment Tonight. I mean with a newspaper columnist, interviewing a "celebrity biographer" about her book about a TV personality, do you wonder why many people think that the media is all horse race stories?

Howard Kurtz: When you're doing an hour of television each week, I don't think there's anything wrong with leavening the mix a bit with sports, entertainment or culture segments. In fact, some of those (Tiger's troubles; Letterman's scandal; the Leno-Conan debacle) turned out to be big news stories. Beyond that, Oprah Winfrey is a major cultural figure: a titan of talk, a billionaire, a self-made woman who also owns a magazine, a production company and a fledgling cable network. A book about her -- and particularly Kitty Kelley's contention that most TV shows wouldn't book her for fear of offending Oprah -- is certainly worthy of an interview. Thanks for the chat, folks.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

Discussion Archive

Viewpoint is a paid discussion. The Washington Post editorial staff was not involved in the moderation.

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity