Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media

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Howard Kurtz
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; 12:00 PM

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BP Oil Spill: I don't know if the BP spill is "Obama's Katrina," but Obama has not been firmly in charge.Since the rig exploded and oil began gushing, the government has been far too trusting of BP. For a long while, BP blocked video feed of the wellhead to minimize concerns about how much oil was coming out. As a letter to the editor in the Times-Picayune pointed out:[F]irst it was "the platform will not melt down into the Gulf." Then, "we are not expecting a large oils spill from this event" and "the oil spill will be easily controlled."According to the letter, those quotes come from the Coast Guard (via BP's assertions). There's also that scene of the Coast Guard turning away TV cameras because of "BP's rules." And BP is still reportedly restricting media access to public beaches and waters.No one expects Obama to suddenly become Aquaman and dive down there to plug the leak. But it's been clear to residents of Louisiana that BP has been controlling the situation, not the government. As another example, the EPA ordered BP to stop using the dangerous dispersant, Corexit, but BP keeps using it. Who's in charge?They say only BP has the technology to address the spill. Fine. But the gov't has the authority to direct that technology, to force the disclosure of information, to direct the coordination of resources, to open up media access, etc.

Howard Kurtz: Who's in charge is a very good question. The administration is doing its best to foster the impression that it is taking control of the situation, but it does seem that BP is still in charge. Obama acknowledged that the company has the resources and equipment and expertise to stop the leak (despite the incredible string of failures - containment dome, junk shot, top kill and so on. On the level of politics, the president, who just spoke about this moments ago, seems more engaged than before, at least publicly. But when it comes to grappling with the spill itself, I get the impression that BP is still running the show.

Howard Kurtz: I'm all in favor of more media access. The president admitted last week that the administration has made mistakes, including being too reliant on BP's assurance in the early days and weeks of the crisis. Clearly, Obama trying to convince people that he's in charge politically; I wonder if the administration will make substantive moves to demonstrate that as well. Sending AG Eric Holder to the Gulf doesn't get him much, I think, and raises questions whether this is the time for the nation's top law enforcement official to take on such a role.

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the media on the Prez: Way too much coverage of style over substance; critisize the message but not the messenger or it looks too much like gossipy soundbytes.

Howard Kurtz: First, I don't see any attempt at "gotcha": When the president finally holds a full-scale news conference in the midst of the worst environmental disaster in history, reporters have a responsibility to analyze his comments as well as his performance. That is not "stupid" or "inane"; it's called journalism. Second, not everybody saw a presser that took place in the middle of the afternoon; many folks have jobs or are not near a TV or don't have an hour to watch the event. As for the style over substance question, part of what a president does in the television age is try to communicate to the public a sense that he's on top of his job. Reagan and Clinton were particularly good at this. If Obama comes across as too detached or not appreciating the pain and suffering caused by the spill, that hurts him politically and is a legitimate part of the story.

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Fergie vs. John Edwards: Why is it when the News of the World publishes something about Fergie, the mainstream press jumps on it, but when the Enquirer publishes something about John Edwards, it gets ignored?

Howard Kurtz: One word: videotape. With Sarah Ferguson -- and I've been critical of the deception that News of the World employed - we can see with our own eyes that she asked for 500,000 pounds in exchange for arranging an introduction to her princely ex-husband. She does not dispute that; she told Oprah in an interview airing today that she was sloshed at the time. With the Enquirer's early stories on Edwards, the pieces were based on unnamed sources; Rielle Hunter and the former presidential candidate were denying an affair. Other journalists could not confirm the story. It wasn't because they wanted to ignore it; they couldn't match it.

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Prognostications and guesses: Why does the press give such prominent play to the annual hurricane forecast when NOAA has been so wrong the last five years? It was notoriously wrong in 2005, when the Gulf coast was hit by three big hurricanes, including Katrina. This prognostication is presented as science and maybe NOAA will be right about seven hurricanes hitting mainland this year. But given the record, some sort of skepticism is needed in these stories as reporters give to other long-range forecasts and the federal deficit projections..

Howard Kurtz: Good question. Maybe "attempted science" is a better description. I'm not sure the forecasts are worth much, and they should indeed be reported with an ample dose of skepticism.

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Graphical news: Why did it take so long for the MSM to come up with the sort of really informative graphics that I have seen in the last week of Gulf oil spill coverage like the one that appeared in the Post today? Here is a story that cries for graphics to explain to readers things like what a blowout preventer is, and how it is supposed to work. Or how they cut off the top of a five-ton machine under a mile of water. Newspapers are not Popular Mechanics, but it would be helpful for general readers like me to have some details of what is going on here.

Howard Kurtz: Better late than never. I think we've had some good graphics earlier as well, and I'd agree that with a story of this complexity, visual representations can really be crucial in helping folks understand what's going on.

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A Big Thank You to the Bookers!: We absolutely must have more interviews with Sarah Palin, Andrew Breitbart, James O'Keefe and the Salahis. Thank you TeeVee bookers! All those thoughtful, insightful and original voices all on one weekend. Bravo!

Howard Kurtz: Well, Sarah Palin is a Fox News contributor, so she can appear pretty much whenever she wants. Don't know where you saw Breitbart, but I'm guessing Fox as well. Matt Lauer interviewed the Salahis after they were in the vicinity of the latest state dinner, and didn't get much out of them. They "crashed" Letterman's show as well.

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Jamaica: I know it was a busy news week (oil Spill, Sestak), but I'm surprised the media did not cover the violent situation (where more than 70 people were killed, including two police officers and one soldier) in Jamaica more extensively. Jamaica is the 3rd largest English speaking country in the Western Hemisphere, and there are many Jamaican immigrants in the U.S. There's a significant back story (covered in the Washington Post) where the U.S. indicted a major drug kingpin, asked for extradition, and the prime minister of Jamaica (who allegedly has political ties to the kingpin) hired a K Street lobbying firm to ask the U.S. to void the extradition. CNN covered the violence in Iraq and Thailand more than a situation in our backyard, where there was American government involvement. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I have to plead ignorance on this, which I guess proves your point (though I was off for a few days). The BP debacle seems to be overshadowing just about everything. It reminds me of the relative lack of coverage of the Nashville flooding that I wrote about. If 70 people are killed, that's a big foreign story.

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Twitter: Uhm, the Gore news was old news (four minutes to be exact) on Twitter before your breeaking news interruption. Bye, bye Drudge and bye bye "breaking news" headlines.

Howard Kurtz: Sorry - they didn't inform me in advance. And I had to finish answering the previous question before I could share the news here.

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"taking control": I have to admit that I am baffled by the people who think the president needs to be in charge of the oil spill. What do people want him to do? Put on a wetsuit and go down there to block the leak with his finger? It's ridiculous. The government isn't likely to have a whole lot of expertise or materiel at its fingertips to deal with things like a giant oil spill. As the Coast Guard Admiral in charge of the government's efforts said last week, what do people expect the government would replace BP with? Do people really think BP isn't interested in getting the oil leak stopped ASAP? It just seems bizarre to me.

Howard Kurtz: I have no doubt BP executives are desperate to solve this problem, if only to save their company. Perhaps they should have developed some contingency plans before they asked for a permit to drill this well.

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Gore breakup interruption: You stopped writing this column because of the "breaking news" of Gore separating from his wife Tipper. For those of us monitoring this and not in your business, you are the media critic and don't normally cover Gore. What happened in those minutes and what is your responsibility when things like this happen. Do you volunteer to get involved, check with your editor, or what? An educational moment.

Howard Kurtz: Are you serious? I write about the intersection of media and politics every day. And since it hadn't hit TV yet, I thought people on the chat might want to know what was happening with the former vice president.

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Edwards vs. McCain: I can understand the press not printing the Edwards rumors, while they were still rumors. That is good journalism. However, the NY Times seemed all to happy to allege an affair involving McCain when all they had were unnamed sources, despite denials from McCain and the woman. All in the middle of McCain's Presidential campagn. Sorry, just a comment, not a question.

Howard Kurtz: I was highly critical of that story, along with many other commentators, and still am.

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Re: Jamaica: NPR has been reporting regularly on the situation in Jamaica.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for noting that.

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RE: The Media and the PRez: I just wrote the response attack to your defense of the media, I left one thing out. I watched 90 percent of the presser while at work using an amazing new technology called the Internets. Right on the WashingtonPost.com if it matters, but I could have gone to thousands of sites that livestream.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, of course, anyone sitting near a computer could have done that. But has it occurred to you that teachers, police officers, lawyers in courtrooms, hospital workers, parents picking up their kids at school and many others may not be in front of a computer all day long?

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Reality has a liberal bias I guess: Is there any truly objective person who could watch the entirety of the Rand Paul interview with Rachel Maddow and conclude there was any "gotcha" or unfair bias at work? Seriously, this may be a test of humanity, to see if you can so twist yourself up as to believe that. She merely asked him the LOGICAL question given his "libertarian" ethos. She them stepped back and let him talk. Thank you for your piece, I'm sure you have gotten many cut and past emails denouncing you as part of the "lamestream" media. Man, name calling like that is so clever and mature.

Howard Kurtz: This lamestream fellow thanks you. If all TV interviews were that lengthy and substantive, politicians would have nothing to complain about.

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Glenn Beck and Malia Obama: Just curious what's your take on media coverage of Glenn Beck's "Daddy" attack on Malia Obama? Especially when you compare the national coverage of David Letterman's joke about Bristol Palin, it seems odd that anti-Beck folks hasn't gotten more traction. Beck did apologize, but he blamed Obama for starting it, but Letterman apologized and that didn't stop that story. Plus as WaPo's own Paul Farhi pointed out, Letterman wasn't the only and probably the least raunchier of all the late night comics about Bristol Palin. Jay Leno made more jokes about it and implied that John Edwards was the father, yet nothing from Camp Palin about that and she even went on Leno's show. Again, just curious on how you thought that Malia Obama story was handled.

Howard Kurtz: I thought it was a real low blow on Beck's part, and that he was right to apologize. Now, there's nothing wrong with poking a little fun at the president for invoking his daughter. But Beck and his sidekick were imitating a little girl's voice and saying such things as "Daddy, why do you hate black people?" That's just mean.

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lack of Presidential news conferences: Why doesn't the White House just go ahead and schedule something every few months? Then you don't have people saying it has been x months since last one or he has to have one now because of disaster?

Howard Kurtz: I wish I could answer that question. Haven't been able to get a good answer out of Robert Gibbs either. I think it's clear that the president and his team have concluded it's not in their self-interest.

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three words: Just as in real estate, it's location, location, location.If this oil spill has happen off the shore of Oregon, I'm doubting the media would be making constant references to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (death toll 1,836).

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree with that. If the magnitude of the spill was the same, and as many coastal areas were affected, you'd likely be hearing the same comparisons to Katrina.

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"BP running the show": Since this is one of the few opportunities we get to ask one of the many media pundits who blame the president for not "Running the Show" or "Acting like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and demonstrating real anger"....what exactly do you propose the president do? Don an Aquaman outfit and use his underwater communications skills to bring all of the oceans' animals together in a successful mission to stop the oil carnage one mile down?

Howard Kurtz: I keep making the point that it's unrealistic to expect the president to solve this environmental disaster. But that doesn't mean he's handled the politics right or convinced the public that he's on top of the situation. Imagine if he'd held a news conference every week since the explosion; that might have helped.

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BP Contingency Plans: "I have no doubt BP executives are desperate to solve this problem, if only to save their company. Perhaps they should have developed some contingency plans before they asked for a permit to drill this well." Their application stated they had contingency plans. But, like the blowout preventer that had a dead battery and other problems, like the decision to use seawater rather than drilling mud to cap the well, and other bad decisions on their part in trying to save money and time, their contingency plans seem to be all air and no substance.

Howard Kurtz: That has become painfully evident. Andt here's a real federal regulatory failure here as well.

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President Obama and Memorial Day. . .: Why was the focus on Obama skipping Arlington rather than observing in Illinois? Our heroes buried in other national cemeteries presumably closer to their hometowns deserve recognition too.

Howard Kurtz: Beats me. Cheney stood in one year for Bush. Too bad the Illinois ceremony got blown out by a monster storm.

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Washington DC: I love it. People call for smaller federal government but when the oil well leaks, they call for the federal government to fix it. Then people blame Obama for letting BP drill before having contingency plans (i.e. relief wells) yet the drilling started long before Obama was elected. If you want deregulation and minimal government involvement, then suffer when the private sector screws the environment. Or, take more government involvement and not worry about private sector screwups.

Howard Kurtz: Obama shouldn't be blamed for the lax regulation of the Bush years, but his people were in charge of the MMS for a year and a half, so he bears some of the responsibility. As for the small-government types, I think even they would agree that an environmental disaster at sea, from drilling regulated by Washington, is a proper role for government. But there are so many examples of people (and pols) who denounce government spending but don't want cutbacks in their farm subsidies, Medicare or other aid important to them or their state. Thanks for the chat, folks.


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