Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media

Mar 29, 2010

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

Howard, you interviewed Erickson on your Sunday show. Thank you for asking some tough questions. He spent a great deal of time avowing that he has had a "come to Jesus moment" after his disgusting statement about Chief Justice Souter and all the other threats and epithets he is noted for. Have you taken a look at his web site since his revival? Is it as benign as he states? Is it reasonable?

Does it teach rather than smear? Why didn't CNN just hire Dan Savage if they wanted representation from the smear and hate representatives?

  Erickson made very clear in that interview that he plans to "grow up," as he put it, and refrain from the kind of inflammatory personal attacks he was known for. He described the Souter slam (involving a goat) as the dumbest thing he ever did. Red State, of course, remains an aggressively conservative site. I'll keep an eye on whether he's living up to his pledge.

I don't understand the seemingly incestuous relationship between CBS and CNN. Again, Anderson Cooper was on CBS's 60 Minutes. And CBS's Erica Hill often did the news shorts on CNN's AC360. What happened to old days fierce competition between news organizations?

  Erica Hill has actually left CNN for CBS. Cooper is an occasional contributor to 60 Minutes. If you look at what CBS does (morning news, evening news, Sunday morning show, Sunday evening newsmagazine) and what CNN does (24-hour cable news), they're usually not in direct competition.

On Sunday you criticized Chris Matthews for challenging Rep. Alan Grayson's assertion that a major program, like health care, could be created through the "reconciliation" process. In fact, wasn't Matthews right? Health care reform was created when the House passed the Senate's Christmas Eve bill without amendment. The reconcilation process was used for the relatively minor fixes once the program was created.

 No. Because the House would not have voted for the Senate bill without the fixes bill, which needed to be passed through reconciliation because the Democrats only had 59 votes. Otherwise, no health care program. And that was the situation when that interview took place after Scott Brown's victory.

Howard, When was the last time President Obama had a formal press conference? If George Bush had gone so long without a press conference wouldn't there be quite a lot of complaints by the MSM? I am a little surprised at how docile the press is in holding our chief executive accountable. On that note, CBS has just announced that Harry Smith will have an Interview with the President and play some Hoops with him as well. Did anyone at CBS go golfing with George Bush and be all chummy chummy with him? Or is it that Obama is a democrat, so there are special circumstances with both the WH Press and CBS News for a democrat in the office? Thanks for the chat.

 There are journalists who played golf with Bush. Obviously, Harry Smith is playing B-ball with Obama for the cameras, not because they're bosom buddies. And surely the Final Four tie-in occurred to you.

   About a month ago, I wrote that Obama had gone six months without a formal news conference. The next day, he took about eight questions from the press - something less than a full-dress presser but more than a brief availability. I'm surprised it's not more of an issue. The White House argues that by doing so many interviews (including one with Matt Lauer tomorrow morning) the president remains accessible.

Why is Obama signing the same bill so many times on TV? I worked at a law school library many years and thought that AFTER a bill has been approved by both House and Senate THEN it goes to the President for signature. What's going on? It's obvious he has little regard for legal procedures.

 Um, he signed the main health care bill once on TV. The other events were speeches and rallies. He also gets to sign the "fixes" bill that passed both the House and Senate as part of the deal. Look, I don't blame the guy. It took him 14 months to pass health care, he took a political beating during that period, and obviously he wants to enjoy a victory lap.

I constantly surf the cable news channels and I'm struck by the never-ending attacks of Fox News by MSNBC. I swear MSNBC would have nothing to talk about if there were no Fox News. Tell me Howard, does this constant yapping at the heels of the ratings leader, help the yapper at all? To me it makes them look so small. JP

  I guess you've missed how many times Fox News hosts beat up on MSNBC and NBC? As I've written, the sniping has gotten so out of control that on two separate occasions, the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Jeffrey Immelt and Jeff Zucker have tried to arrange a cease-fire, to no avail.

Wouldn't it be helpful when an editorial make erroneous charges in their pieces, to add an addendum, when facts are available, to give the public actual information ? I have read news articles quoting a politico and know immediately that what they're reporting is untrue. Ex. death panels by govern. beaurocrats to determine who can live or die , then move on to another topic as if that were a fact. With our abundance of communication, this must be the most misinformed citizenry in the world.

  Politicians get to say what they want, and then the media have a heavy responsibility to hold them accountable by providing the facts. Death panels is a particularly bad example for your argument, since as I noted last summer, lots of mainstream news organizations said flatly that this was pure fiction.  Here's what Ceci Connolly wrote in The Post last Aug. 9: "There are no such 'death panels' mentioned in any of the House bills."

Did it ever occur to that radio-talk show Conservative that calling for bricks to Democratic Congresspersons windows was similar to Kristallnacht where Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were ranshacked and looted by Nazis on November 10, 1938? Or do you think he knew already and was hoping for the media not to mention it? Signs with Obama as Hitler - OK. Connections with actual facts - let's forget it?

 Can you cite me one example where either a politician or a radio host has called for bricks to be thrown at the windows of congressional Democrats?

For all the in-fighting and ego excess, don't you find that you miss the days of newspapers that seemed to end with Mr. Blair's revelations? (Although it was always more than Blair -- he was the national name that took the fall.) The tensions revolved more around stories and news. There was no 140-character Twitter history being written. No blogs. Fewer talking heads. No they said/they said quotes without context in the name of balanced reporting. Also a time when more got done in Washington DC -- when fairly complex deals and compromises were made that would not have fit into today's scheduled sound bite holes.

  I think you're off on your history. When I broke the Jayson Blair story in 2003, there were plenty of blogs, plenty of talking heads on cable and radio, and news organizations were being accused, then as now, of doing too much he said/she said journalism. In fact, 2003 was also the year of the Baghdad invasion after media failed to challenge President Bush's case for the non-existent WMDs. As a heavy Twitter user, I'm glad it's around and that social networking has opened up the media to more voices. I don't think that's to blame for the MSM's many flaws.

Was I imagining or did I really see Frum tell ABC News? something like Fox News used to work for us (Republicans) but now we (Republicans) work for Fox News? It seems to be a damning admission from an insider but saw no followup by either the media or the Dems. It seems like the Dems could make some hay with this one if they ever get a clue about what they are up against with the media. It's obvious that by today's media standards they will dutifully repeat anything a politician says regardless of the truthfulness or outlandishness.

 I believe Frum wrote that, but it's hardly surprising, since he's not a Fox News kind of Republican. In fact, he's been an outspoken critic of Rush Limbaugh. So while Frum is an "insider," his broadside against Fox is based on his views, not on any special inside knowledge.

Isn't Andrew Cohen's remark indicative of his insularity? Essentially he says everyone does it. This is reminicent of the famous woman who couldn't believe Richard Nixon won because she didn't know anyone who voted for him. And isn't his remark what lots of people don't like about modern media? It assumes it shares the values of nearly all of the country when there are hugh areas (perhaps a majority) with which it is totally unfamiliar.

  His bleeping remark that everyone uses the word bleep, therefore Biden's obscene exuberance was no big bleeping deal? I tend to agree with him. Not "everyone," of course, but most people. And speaking of Nixon, perhaps you've heard the White House tapes? Puts Biden to shame in the expletive department.

Howard, It is unclear from Politico's coverage if Democratic lawmakers where exposed to threats and racial slurs at the Capital last weekend during the run up to the Health Care Vote. The claims of Tea Party threats and racial slurs have been characterized in Politico (and elsewhere) as "Black Democrats say they were the victims of threats and slurs". I was under the impression that the Capital Police said black Democrats were the victims of threats and slurs. That's a big difference, one I've not seen reading Politico lately.

Seeing that there is a concerted effort from supporters of the Tea Party to cast the sad events of last weekend as "rumors" and "a crock", I'm hoping you can clear this up. Objectively, based on what you know as a media reporter and from hearing from your colleagues, were threats and slurs directed at Democratic lawmakers or not? If the threats and slurs did occur why the equivocation in the coverage? Why is Sarah Palin allowed to critique the "lame-stream media's lies" without Politico and others pointing out that the events in question did in fact occur and that Tea Partiers were in fact responsible?

  I believe it to be the case, but I don't believe the Capitol police have said so. Nor do I believe John Lewis, Emanuel Cleaver and Barney Frank are making it up. CNN ran a videotape yesterday in which it very much looked like a protestor spat on Cleaver, based on the congressman's reaction and appearing to wipe it off his jacket. A CNN producer also say he heard a protestor call Frank a faggot.

Is Michael Steele's spending $2000 of RNC money on a trip to a lesbian bondage club going to make news, or be swept under the table?

  I say we all lead with it. Hot stuff.

Sarah Palin was quoted as saying at the Searchlight (NV) Tea Party rally, "And some of you are like so many of my friends and my family, including my own husband, just independent, not registered in any party. Just true, blue-blooded Americans." Doesn't Palin know the difference between blue-blooded and red-blooded? When will more Americans -- REAL Americans! -- start getting fed up with her ignorance?

  My red-blooded answer is that it sounds like a simple case of misspeaking. Not in the same category as, say, death panels.

Regardless of how or why he left AEI, is his assertion true that Obama's health care plan is substantively similar to those offered by the conservative think tanks during the Clinton HCR battle? Thanks.

 The Obama health care bill has much in common with those earlier plans, as well as the kind of compromise that Bob Dole was supporting in the early '90s, and Richard Nixon in the early '70s. There are differences, and Obamacare has a huge price tag at a time when even the president says he is concerned about rising government debt. But the new law builds on the existing system of private insurance; in fact, it could deliver as many as 32 million new customers to the insurance companies.

Howard, thank you for taking this question. I'm sure I'm not alone in finiding the Post's (and other media) hosted "readers' comments" postings routinely offensive, hostile, and even dangerous (in the sense of incitement). There tends to be little or no screening of the comments that are posted, and the political message strings always degenerate into name-calling, innuendo, and slurs of all types. What value do these postings have on sites of high journalistic standards? Why don't the news sites discontinue them - or limit them to moderated discussions only?

  This is the dilemma that so many news organizations have faced. You want to allow comments because reader feedback is important, but you don't want the ugly and vile stuff. The Post policy is to take down truly offensive comments, but that often happens only after people complain. It is hard to police this volume of complaints. Personally, I wouldn't let anyone comment without their name attached, just as we do for letters to the editor.

Why is the media afraid of Palin? She calls President Obama a socialist and she was govoner of the most socialist state in the union. In fact she battled the oil companys to increase the redistribution of wealth.

  I don't think the media are afraid of Sarah Palin at all. I think the media love Palin because she's a fascinating political figure and great box office. That's why so many reporters made the trek to Arizona to see her campaign with McCain.

When you asked Eric Erickson about calling Michelle Obama a "Marxist harpy" and Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter a "goat [blanking] child molester", he said he had "evolved" and doesn't engage in those sorts of attacks anymore. Why didn't you point out that two months ago (or long after he supposedly "evolved"), Erickson spent the Super Bowl tweeting that feminists were "too ugly to get a date" and ordered the feminists to "return to their kitchens"? Does the guy evolve and un-evolve depending on whether or not he needs to scurrilously attack someone? What does that sort of morphing ability add to the CNN "most trusted name in news" brand?

  I don't know when the precise date of his evolution began. But I tried to hold him accountable for the worst of what he had written. With that interview he has now set a higher standard for himself, and it's fair to people to hold him to it.

Twice in the last week I have reported pornographic and/or hate speech posted on comment boards of Post website articles. Once I actually called the news desk because of outright threats directed at the President; the second time I just clicked the button provided. Within minutes both comments were removed.

Has the Post stepped up efforts to monitor comments for abuse? It has become increasingly difficult to participate in any civil discussion in these forums, and I realize the manpower involved in monitoring. I also noted that yesterday the Post took down (after a short time) the comment attachment entirely from the article about the President's trip to Afghanistan . . . a wise move in my opinion. Thanks!

  I think The Post stepped up its efforts to remove offensive comments some time ago, but the process depends in part on people like you clicking on the buttons.

Mr. Kurtz Is the media giving the Tea Party movement too much press? I mean, this group, while saying they are independent, are in reality the right wing of the Republican party, as these people will wither vote Republican or stay home. Has the media given too much coverage to this right wing group?

  I don't think so. It's a genuine grass-roots movement that is beginning to have a political impact. Yes, a poll the other day confirmed that its adherents are overwhelmingly Republican or Republican-leaning, but obviously they are alienated to some degree from the two-party system. Obviously it is not an organized group with official members, so it remains unclear how much influence the movement will wield.

I enjoyed your Politico interview on Reliable Sources. For some reason I like your taped interviews more than your live ones. Do you notice a difference? Why is there a difference? And which do you prefer doing, live or taped?

  I enjoy them both. Live often has more energy. I think the difference you may have noticed is not so much that it was taped but that we were out of the studio, since I sat down with John Harris and Jim VandeHei in the Politico newsroom.  I did the same thing when I interviewed Barbara Walters at ABC in New York. I'd like to do more of these field interviews.

On your Friday column involving Sandra Bullock, you didn't notice one fact that bolstered your argument: she's local, having been born in Arlington, Va., and was a cheerleader at Washington-Lee High School. Some of us remember. You can find her picture on the walls of several Arlington restaurants.

It used to be that newspapers would emphasize local angles in stories, and I certainly agree with your argument that if the MSM is going to feed us voluminous copy on Tiger or the Salahis, they also in fairness need to chase Sandra, Jesse and other scandals.

  If The Post had covered the Sandra Bullock story more, I'm sure the local angle would have been pointed out. But we haven't. Nor has the NYT, USA Today or the network newscasts. But everyone is talking about it. I'm not saying we should go overboard, but the woman just won an Oscar. Seems like it's worth more than a paragraph.

Just curious if had any thoughts or observations about Scott Brown issuing a fundraising letter based on a Facebook group wanting Rachel Maddow to run against him and her response to it. (I just saw a Facebook in favor of renaming Hawaii to the Obama Islands so where is Sen. Brown on that issue). Would be an odd race to cover if Miss. Maddow did run...

 Except that she's repeatedly said she isn't. Even took out a fullpage Boston Globe ad to make that clear.

Howard- If Obama gets flack just for signing the health care bill ("no regard for legal procedures") from people who dont even bother to educate themselves, is there any hope for America? Or do we have to accept that there are millions in this country who will not allow facts to inform their opinions on even the simplest matters, like when a President signs a bill?

  There are some fact-challenged people out there, but I, for one, still have hope for America!

  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.
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