The Washington Post

Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media

Mar 22, 2010

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz took your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

I was surprised that you didn't push back a bit more against Trudy Lieberman's quote. The public's incomprehension is not due to the press coverage but rather to the underlying lack of focus and clarity in the legislative process. It's not the press's job to pass Democratic policy.

   It's not the press's job to pass anyone's policy. But it is our job to explain and analyze, especially on such an important and complicated subject. I thought the entire column this morning pushed back against Lieberman's verdict -- that on the whole it was a "bum rap" to say we didn't tackle the substance, but that did get shoved to the back of the bus as the story became more about process, politics and polls. Still, I think it was worthwhile to offer another view from someone who has studied this for a living.

So, do you REALLY think all this coverage will just slip aside and the "mainstream media" will just move on to the next natural disaster or back to Iraq and Afghanistan? My own prediction, based on part of the blogosphere: MSM just lets the issue slide a bit, while blogs carefully follow all the legal challenges based on Constitutionality, procedure, etc. Then the courts will throw out the whole thing or demand it be revised or put through proper procedure, and the MSM will be caught unaware while the blogosphere will scream "See, we told you so!"

  I think we'll be all over the politics of it: the Senate reconciliation battle, the legal challenges, the impact on the midterm elections. What I was saying at the end of the column is that, with some exceptions, probably in major newspapers, our attention may fade when it comes to the impact of the law itself. That's a complicated subject that will take time and patience to address and lacks the narrative of a political brawl heading for a climactic vote.

Has the Iraq War really disappeared so much that Cindy Sheehan protesting outside the White House is not newsworthy? Or is that sort of news just not sexy when it's not Bush anymore?

  Those protests obviously got overshadowed by the weekend battle over health care. And there are a handful of news organizations, including this one, that still have correspondents in Baghdad and are reporting on the politics and the violence there. What has taken the steam out of the story is that Obama is doing what he said he would do, U.S. troops are no longer in a front-line combat role and many more are coming home this year. The focus of war reporting has really shifted to Afghanistan, where the Obama surge seems to be having some initial successes, but that remains a long slog.

Health care coverage reminds me of a book I just finished, "Game Change" by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. It is filled with details on the 2008 presidential election that reporters missed. I think the health care stories were the same way, concentrating on whether they will vote, or not. TV was very much that way, but the newspapers I read followed the pack and got mired in "who's on first, and what's on second.' I want to know what is in the bill, not the latest vote count.

  Well, I contend that the media did both--reported extensively on the substance of the bills and the politics as well. But clearly, in recent months the journalistic focus shifted to the parliamentary wrangling, deal-cutting, backroom compromises and so on. Up until this weekend there was a real question of whether, after 14 months, this bill was going to pass or not. So who's on first and second matters when the House Democrats are struggling to get to 216 and the House Republicans are going all-out to defeat the measure.

In Lieberman's piece, was she critiquing the whole media or just print? Because I think print media and TV media were light years apart in the amount of time they spent explaining what was substantively in the bill. The print media did a pretty good job (though, as you noted, occasionally got a little too caught up in the politics of it). The TV media was mainly just who could shout their talking points the loudest. Internet media was all over the map. Sadly, most people now get their info from the latter two.

 Trudy Lieberman was critiquing all of the media; unfortunately CJR has not put her piece online. But when you say the "TV media," I'd agree that the cable talk shows included plenty of partisan rhetoric, by both the pols and the pundits. But there are television reporters who tried, given their time limitations, to fairly report on what was in the bills and the political war surrounding them.

While I agree with your column, I do think that any reporter covering the health care bill as late as this past Saturday should have had at least a very basic knowledge of its major points. But on Saturday's "Today" show, there was co-host Amy Roebach breezily asking an expert, "So, what's in this bill?" To me, she should have at least picked up a newspaper (the Post did a fine job of explaining it) or if she had, she should've asked questions specific to the major parts of the bill.

 I didn't see it, but anchors are by necessity generalists who have to be able to jump from topic to topic. You can be certain that Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie and David Gregory and Kelly O'Donnell (and their counterparts at the other networks) know what's in the bill. Though even now we need to drive home which provisions take effect soon (such as allowing kids to stay on their parents' policies until age 26) and what comes later (taxes, mandates and son on).

Do you believe that the lawsuits expected from Va. Atty. Gen. Cuccinelli and others deserve media attention, or are the suits somewhat political fodder in nature?

 I think both are true. They are political in nature, and they deserve attention if they get anywhere in the courts.

Will we ever find out who shouted "baby-killer" at Bart Stupak? I'm guessing that Joe Wilson wouldn't have risked it.

 You'd think it would be possible. Amazing.

Hooray for Trudy Lieberman. She expressed for me what I felt reading press coverage of the health-care bill. It was as if the MSM was trying to grind down public views of the merits or demerits of the health care bill by concentrating on the political circus and the vote counts.

  Well, as I wrote this morning, anyone who wanted a serious examination of what was in the bills could get that in dozens of different places. But as we headed toward the finish line, the circus and the vote counts became more important. It's like in a campaign: you want really solid reporting on the candidates' positions and arguments and inconsistencies, but as the days tick down there is the overriding question: Who's gonna win?

Coverage was way too much horse race the whole time, not just when it got down to the end, as you implied. The 'reams of data' the Post and others would occasionally print about what was in a given bill had little about the pros and cons. I largely stopped trying to find real info. For example, there was way more talk about what the 'public option' would mean for election chances than what it actually was. Television was hopelesss, even the Sunday network shows were all politics, no policy. With regard to the issues, the critic Lieberman you quote is right on target: coverage was 'incoherent'

  You're certainly entitled to your view. I, however, spent many hours reading analyses of various versions of the public option; how many people it would affect (not all that many, the way it was written); what impact it would have on costs; how the system works in Canada and European countries and on and on. There was plenty of that in The Post, the NYT and elsewhere. But one of the things that happens is a collective sense of "oh, we've already done that story, now let's look at the politics" when many readers and viewers are tuning in late in the game and haven't seen the earlier stuff.

Last night Tiger Woods granted interviews to ESPN and the Golf Channel reporter. The interviewers were permitted to ask questions on any subject but the interviews were limited to five or six minutes each. Is this enough time for Woods to satisfy the requirement that he make himself available to the public through the media?

  Gee, do ya think it was a coincidence that the interviews aired on the same night that the House was passing the biggest change in a federal domestic program in decades?

  The five-minute rule was an obvious attempt to limit Tiger's exposure. But as someone who's argued all along that he HAD to talk to the press eventually, I have to say, at least he did it. He took the personal, painful questions and answered them as best he could.  Barbara Walters disagreed with me on this point when I interviewed her for CNN, but with the Masters coming up, Tiger couldn't stonewall forever. He is still trying to dig himself out of an enormous hole  caused by remaining silent for those months when all the mistresses were coming out of the woodwork.

I did not see it, but I am seeing interesting comments on President Obama's address on health care. How would you rate his speech and what he remarked?

  I thought the speech he gave to the Democrats on Saturday afternoon, whether you agree with the health legislation or not, was the most emotional I've seen him give as president. It was like, what happened to that guy? He talked about why he got into politics and was nothing like the detached and professorial speaker we've seen so many times. I tweeted a line to that effect and it wound up on the Huffington Post. But the speech was largely lost amid the rush of weekend events.

Compare the number of times Brett Baier interrupted Obama with the number of times he interrupted Bush. Then you'll see why no distinction should be made between the Fox's opinion hosts and their so-called news reporters.

 I played the two different videos on Reliable Sources (though in fairness the Bush interview was during his final weeks in office). I thought Baier interrupted too much, but he was civil and there wasn't one question he asked Obama that wasn't perfectly legitimate. And the president, as other TV reporters will tell you, does have a tendency to filibuster.

Howard, thanks for chatting. I respect your opinion, and I would like you to clear something up for me. On a regular basis, you use MSNBC as a way to balance out political biases that you have started to admit are present at FOX. However, you use the term "night time opinion" to help with this framing. But isn't it true, that if you use 6-9 a.m. and 8-11 p.m. as the frame of reference (I will give Ed Schulz and Glenn Beck a wash during the other hours), isn't it true that MSNBC has 3 hours hosted by conservative, and 3 hours by liberals, while FOX has 6 hours hosted by conservatives? In other words, MSNBC is very close to balance in terms of dedicated hosting time for both sides, if you are going to have opinion (as opposed to CNN's neutral standard). I think this is critical in making a judgment about the purpose FOX is trying to serve vs. MSNBC. When their is a false dichotomy presented, I think it does not serve your readers well. I know that conservatives will be up in arms if you don't make this comparison, but at some point, should the difference between FOX and MSNBC be clearly enunciated? Or do you genuinely believe that it is up to viewers to make this differentiation independently and the media critic community should not illuminate this clear distinction when addressing questions of bias at one or the other stations? (I will stay out of the "News" hours debate for now, but I hope you are beginning to see how FOX "News" is also heavily opinionated, at least from the anchor chair and chyron, as you have started to tweet recently). Thanks for the chat. I am interested in your opinion here.

  There is no question that MSNBC, in giving Joe Scarborough a three-hour show, is allowing an important voice from the conservative side (though Scarborough, to his credit, has guests with all kinds of views). There is also no question that, with the exception of Geraldo, Fox News has no opinion hosts who could be called liberal (or even co-hosts, in the post-Colmes era). That is an important distinction. But I also look at such things as the guest lineup. O'Reilly, Matthews and Maddow, for instance, have people on who disagree with them. Olbermann and, to a large extent Hannity, do not.

 But if your point is that Morning Joe makes MSNBC more fair and balanced, you're right.

Matt Yglesias just pointed out at his blog that it was John Edwards was the one who introduced "big ball" style health care reform to the presidential campaign and forced Obama and Clinton to address the issue. Maybe Edwards isn't the worst person in America (just a fairly bad person).

  I think America's opinion of John Edwards right now has less to do with his health care stance and more to do with Rielle Hunter and his years of lying.

With all of the tasks left for the Senate (and assuming that the Senate takes care of its business), when can we expect the bill to be signed?

 The White House has said in the next couple of days. I guess Obama & Co. aren't necessarily waiting for the battle over the package of "fixes" agreed to by the House as part of the deal.

The MSM believes that they are the gatekeepers, the place where all of the Web sites get their information. Without the MSM, the Web would be a ghost town.  So yesterday, in a special segment to factcheck a health-care debate point, CNN said "let's look at politifact" to see what they said. Isn't that making the point that CNN is superfluous? I heard it as "why are you here, audience? Go to the source!"

  I don't think so. That Web site, run by the St. Petersburg Times, has won a lot of respect. Why not use it as a resource?

What you call "filibuster" may quite rightly be called "answering the question fully". It's not like the president starts reading the telephone book, he just elaborates on the answer to the question. Anyone with the attention span of a toddler might call it a "filibuster."

  Sorry, but when you have 15 minutes with a politician, and he starts giving long answers that repeat talking points he's used many times, that is a filibuster. I don't mean to single out Obama; they all do it. What was happening in that Fox interview is that Bret Baier was pressing the president about process--the state-specific deals, deem and pass, and so on. Obama, while admitting the process was "ugly," kept trying to pivot back to the benefits of the legislation. My own view was that Baier's initial interruptions were fine, but then he went overboard and it became uncomfortable to watch. Geraldo, based on his latest Fox comments, apparently agrees.

Howard As always, thanks. IMO, last night by having Ed Schultz co-host the HRC coverage, I thought MSNBC went too far the other way to out-fox FNC (pun intended). Although sometimes dry and boring, I though CNN did the best jobs of the three (Geraldo was okay on FNC).

  Without adopting your "dry" characterization -- CNN had some interesting folks on, plus pundits from both sides -- I have to say I was surprised to see Ed Schultz in the co-anchoring role with David Shuster (along with Lawrence O'Donnell, Karen Finney and other certified liberals). This was what the battle within NBC was about during the 2008 campaign--that two opinion guys, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, were anchoring on primary nights and during the conventions. MSNBC finally changed that and made David Gregory the anchor for the debates and election night. And now, apparently, it's back to having partisans in the host's chair during major news events.

I don't know of any other profession that whines so much about its work as that of our Washington journalists. I frankly wish most of them would quit if they hate the work as much as you imply they do. It must be such a drag for those reporters to do real journalism. Poor little babies. Boo hoo,

 Nobody said they hated the work. In fact, most have a rather high opinion of themselves! I'm just trying to offer some insight into the frustrations they face and assess how they're doing in their jobs.

Yes, Joe Scarborough is a conservative. But look at the list of "regulars" and it's overwhelmiingly far left. Peggy Noonan hardly counterbalances the likes of rabid lefties like Lawrence O'Donnell, Bernstein, Deutsch, etc., etc. Compare the air time given to the left and right and it's obvious Scarborough has little say over who he has to share the stage with.

  Well, that's a selective list. The former congressman is balanced to some degree by Mika Brzezinski, and while there are a lot of liberal guests, we also see a lot of Pat Buchanan, for example, and a lot of straight reporters along the lines of Chuck Todd. Plus, Republican and Democratic politicians seem to come on with roughly equal frequency.

If the 15-minute timeframe is part of the issue, then should we be asking who set that limit? If it's the president or his administration, then we should call him out on not giving enough network time to answer questions. If it's Fox, it seems like maybe we should be demanding a longer time slot for such a major issue.

  The White House sets the limit, of course. Every network would like to have unlimited time with the president. In fact, Baier said twice at the end that he was getting the wrap sign from an unseen aide.

The Post used to have a fact checking feature (with long noses), but they gave it up when they decided to only cover process.

  Untrue. The Post had the Pinocchio feature during the presidential campaign (just as I do the Ad Watch feature during the campaigns). I think there's a strong case to be made that it shouldn't just be trotted out at campaign time, but that's why it hasn't been published since November 2008.

So, according to the Post story this morning, the deal with Stupak originated in a chance conversation between him and Emanuel at the House gym. The Legend of Rahm the Naked Persuader grows!

 Maybe instead of promising to put the health negotiations on C-SPAN, Obama should put cameras  in the House gym--pixielated, of course. That seems to be where all the action takes place.

  Thanks for the chat, folks.

In This Chat
Howard Kurtz
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."

Today's column: Is health-care reform constitutional?

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