Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media: Marcus Brauchli, Nashville floods, Elena Kagan

May 10, 2010

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

Today's column: Brauchli: An editor caught in the middle < / a >

I had a subscripton to Time and then they changed format so I decided to switch to Newsweek and then they changed format so I decided to not renew. I do think there is a market for a general news magazine on a weekly basis. I think if Time and Newsweek merged and became one magazine it could survive. For its survival it should try to be balanced and cover all aspects of a story. What customers are interested in are the researched stories that get into the details that werent part of news snippets you would find online. The stories that interest me are the stories you haven't heard about but are in depth. The Washington Post used to run these type of stories in Sundays paper on page A3. I would always read these columns because these were usually below the radar stories.

  Let's see: You didn't like Time's format switch, you didn't like Newsweek's format switch, but you think you'd love a combined magazine? In any event, not gonna happen. Time likes its position as the likely Last Newsmagazine Left Standing and has no reason to snatch up its longtime rival.

Howie, last week in your chat, you mistakenly said that 70 percent of Arizonians support the law. It was actually a poll of about 1,000 people and it was 70 percent of those respondents. Poll data gets tossed around way too much, like's it's written in stone and results in misinformation like this. An apology to those millions of Arizonians would be in order, they don't deserve to be lumped in with the opinions of 1,000. Breakdown of a WaPo poll on April 02/10- of the 1,009 respondents, 93 percent were white, and 74 percent were conservative, not exactly a TRUE picture of 130,000,000 voters but a great example of how off polls really are.

  You're right, I was using shorthand and polls are sometimes off. Since then, a NYT poll said that 51 percent of Americans surveyed support the Arizona law. Which, as I noted, has been toned down from its original version by a second act of the state legislature.

Whatever happened to objective journalism? I realize it is very difficult to separate one's own feelings from certain stories, but it seems like EVERYTHING these days has either political undertones or is outright biased. For instance the reporting on Toyota's woes has been horrible. The press and Congress bashing the company and reporting every looney who claims "unintended acceleration" without actually getting to the facts. Doesn't anybody remember that Audi got bashed the same way in the 1980s and that it turned out there was no real issue with the cars? It was idiot drivers who can't tell the brake from the gas? Apparently didn't stop 60 Minutes from staging some "illustrations" that turned out to be completely false.

  Toyota seems a particularly bad example of the demise of objective journalism. The company has recalled 9 million cars. It does not dispute the accidential acceleration problem; what is at issue is the extent and the cause of it. This is not some issue dreamed up by a news organization. In fact, with a couple of exceptions, notably ABC and the L.A. Times, the media were slow on the Toyota story--parts of which could have been reported a year or two ago if journalists more aggressively covered NHTSA and other regulatory agencies.

Howard, do you think that Senate Republicans will openly discuss Ms. Kagan's sexual orientation or will they leave that to Rush, Sean, Bill and Glenn? How ugly do you think this will get ?

  I don't know. The one time Kagan's personal life came up, as I reported--in a blogger's post that was republished on the CBS News Web site--the administration hit back pretty hard and the matter quieted down. At this point, the Republicans seem more likely to attack Kagan on issues such as restricting military recruiting and inexperience in never having served as a judge.

There's a lot of anger in Nasvhille from people who are convinced that the national media ignored that city's flood and much of west Tennessee. What about it -- do they have a valid point?

  They have a completely valid point. WIth a few exceptions--CNN's Anderson Cooper went there late lasat week--the devastating Nashville flooding was a blip on the national radar. It was, to be sure, overshadowed by the Times Square attempted bombing and the Gulf oil spill. But I also believe that because there was no political component, no one to blame, it didn't interest the pundits much because there was nothing to argue about.

Re the Lisa de Moraes comment about Richelle Hunter commenting "blondely" during an interview: What color is de Moraes's hair, and why is she allowed to be on the only Post columnist who does NOT have a sketch of her alongside each of her columns? Does she have a special deal with Brauchli to be the exception to a rule that every other Post columnist must follow?

  I guess I can out her as a brunette. I don't know why she doesn't have a sketch--modesty, perhaps? After all, none of us had sketches until the redesign a few months ago. I do think the blonde crack reflected Lisa's sense of humor, not some deep-seated hostility to lighter-haired women.

Thanks for mentioning that we have a city downtown being flooded while everyone else is talking about a failed bomber who wasn't willing to stick around and make sure it blows up. Do you think we can get some federal funds for rebuilding if they keep forgetting us?

  I don't think it will affect whether Tennessee gets federal aid, and I don't think we have to diminish the importance of the Times Square bomber in order to say that the national press gave short shrift to a great American city being submerged under water, with more than two dozen deaths resulting.

The flooding that hit Nashville and environs is being described as the most expensive non-tropical storm flooding in U.S. history, and a catastrophe to Nashville and the surrounding area's economy greater than the Civil War. And it's being ignored by the same media that relentlessly inflicted weeks of post-Katrina coverage upon us. Yet Nashville residents aren't screaming at TV cameras for the feds or the president to come down and help them. Is it any wonder those that see the mainstream media as liberally biased are calling this Example #47,926 of "media bias"? And, really, can you blame them by now?

  I don't see the liberal bias charge. Do you mean because Katrina took place during the Bush administration? If there's a charge that the Obama administration hasn't properly responded to the flooding-- remember, the New Orleans devastation was caused in part by lousy work by the Army Corps of Engineers - I'm not aware of it.

Howard - You have written recently about the WH press corps' complaints about the administration. A couple of weeks ago Politico had a lengthy story with a litany of complaints (lack of access, favoritism, refusal to respond, etc.) but almost all of the complainers were anonymous "for fear of retaliation." Huh?? They come across as cowering in fear that Obama or Gibbs might not smile at them and not put a mint on their pillow. The media didn't hesitate to take whacks at Clinton and Bush and their press reps, so why the fearful change now? Whatever happened to the "power of the press?" Is this reaction to the WH playing rough with FOX? David Gregory made a reputation with his televised challenges in the press room, but currently we see love showered on the administration and fear of being deemed unworthy servants. How come?

  I haven't seen that much "love" showered on the administration lately. I thought (and some White House correspondents agree with me) that the collection of gripes aired in that Politico piece was garden-variety stuff that you hear in every administration. The situation now certainly doesn't come close to the tensions with the press at certain points in the Clinton and Bush years. And when I write about the White House press corps, I get people to go on the record. Otherwise it's just a bunch of anonymous pot shots.

Howard - in today's world, at some point soon someone's going to ask the question. Matter of fact, I wouldn't be surprised is one of the major talking heads attacks Kagan for her (rumored) sexual orientation in time for tomorrow's Media Notes column (my money is on Limbaugh).

  One thing I've learned is not to predict the future. We shall see. As I reported during the CBS flap, administration officials deny that she is gay. I'm not sure it should matter one way or the other. But we do, as you point out, live in a media echo chamber.

The media's uniformly negative and extensive coverage of New Orleans was not limited to the Corps of Engineers' workmanship. It also criticized Bush's decision to do a fly-over, rather than land and see the devastation by himself. Well, guess what? Obama hasn't been Nashville and apparently doesn't plan to go, and there's nary a word in the media criticizing THAT decision. So, if you don't see a liberal bias, those of us who aren't a part of the liberal MSM do.

  That's a fair point. The president went to the bigger disaster, the BP oil spill. Such visits are symbolic, of course. But presidents have to be able to juggle more than one disaster at a time, and so does the press.

Maybe this is a minor point but I've seen several references to Kagan being nominated to the Court of Appeals in 1999 but never coming up for a vote. Why no month listed? At first I figured it was because she was nominated was late 1999 but found in Wikipedia it was June 1999. Including "June" would make people ask why what happened? Leaving off leaves it up to the reader and they might guess it it was late in the year and had to with the upcoming election.

  Good point. Clinton nominated her on June 17, 1999. That's a year and a half before the end of his term.

Check out The Week  magazine. I really like it.

 The Week is very popular and a good read. But it is, of course, a digest that does not purport to do original reporting. Maybe that's what people want. But if no one did original reporting, The Week could not exist.

I actually do regularly tape At the Movies and see the reviews. It is something that usually is televized in the late hours on the weekend or on weekend afternoon infomercial time. There has been a serious elimination of entertainment critics. ABC GMA never replaced Joel Siegal when he sudenly died. He would regularly appear on the show for Frday movie reviews and other entertainment news. While the Post still has Pookie....My hometown of Buffalo, the newspaper had its media critic retire last week where he was likely offered a retirement option as part of downsizing and will not likely be replaced unless fan pressure changes it. His writing was a combination of your columns, Shales and Pookie's. Other than the Washington Post and my hometown Buffalo newspaper I have not seen a media reporter that was not syndicated that did regular columns. Now it seems like the new services are replacing local reporters with nationally syndicated columnists that appear in all the same owner newspapers like McClatchy or Gannett.

 I presume you're noting that I interviewed A.O Scott of the NYT and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune on Reliable Sources. Whatever the merits of that show, there is no question in my mind that the number of professional critics, movie and otherwise, will continue to dwindle. Maybe every newspaper in America doesn't need its own person writing about movies. But what about reviewing local theater, dance, art and restaurants?

Good article on this today.. Could you please list who you think the logical candidates are to buy Newsweek? Also, is the asking price only $3 million???

  The logical candidates are...the logical candidates are...Well, I don't know. I do believe there's value in the Newsweek brand (and some very talented people who work there), but if it were easy to keep it as a viable business, presumably The Post Co. would have found a way. Don't know where the $3 million figure comes from. The reality is that the selling price, if someone buys it, will be dictated by the market.

How long do you think it will be before news organizations pack up and leave the Gulf, therefore wiping coverage off of the front pages/top news stories?

  I think that's going to remain a story as long as the coastlines are threatened by serious environmental damage. That doesn't mean the same number of reporters will remain in the Gulf, but the story is not going to fade any time soon.

   While we've been chatting, Gordon Brown has announced that he's stepping down as British PM. This is obviously a last-ditch move for Labor to salvage some kind of coalition government with the Liberal Democrats and keep the Tories from seizing 10 Downing Street. Fascinating.

So Politico had a very interesting claim last week that in the chase for Web hits, the Post was trying to compete with Huff Post, MoveOn and other liberal blogs by only hiring left-wing bloggers. That there were many complaints from the conservative side that the person the Post picked to cover their side was not a "conservative" version of Ezra, but at best an independent and possibly a liberal. Of the three main opinion blogs now (Plum, Ezra and Right Now) two openly declare to be from the left and one is "covering" the right, but the author may disagree with many of the movement's core ideals. As a reader, why should I take claims that the Post does not have a political bias (outside of the editorial section) when they refuse to hre or establish conservative bloggers, but have no problem adding liberal ones?

Politico article.

 

  The Post's op-ed page certainly has plenty of balance, with the likes of Michael Gerson, George Will and to a lesser extent Kathleen Parker offering different viewpoints than Gene Robinson and E.J. Dionne. But I think it's fair to ask why The Post's Web sites haven't hired a prominent conservative blogger, not just someone to cover the right, in the way that they have hired liberal bloggers.

Over the weekend the best back and forth on the MSM was probably missed by most it was on CNN's Newsroom hosted by Don Lemon his guests, all Muslim, brought up the fact that the MSM (CNN included) had already labeled the Times Square attempted bomber Faisal Shahzad a terrorist before any links to the Taliban had ever even surfaced. And in comparison Joseph Stack who on Feb.14th loaded extra fuel into his plane so he could do the most damage possible to the Austin, Tex.,  IRS offices is still not being labeled a "domestic terrorist" (CNN included) and the only major difference is one is white and one is not. And if that is not enough why does the MSM still refuse to call the Hutaree Christian militia captured in March just weeks before that carried out a plan to attack their local police with "terrorist-style" attacks involving IED's. Why is it that Muslims are always terrorist but Christians never are ?

  In my book, someone who tries to engage in mass murder is a terrorist. That includes the Times Square bomber and Joseph Stack. Whether someone is a Muslim or has links to overseas groups does not change the fact that killing or attempting to kill innocent civilians is an act of terror.

Howard - No question, just wanted to say I'm a big RS fan. And... please... don't go over to Fox News!! If they ever make you an offer, I'll pay the difference to keep you at CNN!!

  I appreciate the kind words for Reliable Sources.

It's worth pointing out, I think, that the reason "Kagan has no credentials as a judge" is because the Republican-dominated (at the time) Congress blocked her nominations repeatedly. Kind of leads to a circular conclusion, don't you think?

  Sure, but it's still a fair question, given that no non-judge  has been named to the court in four decades.  Of course, some very successful jurists on the high court had not previously been judges, though many tended to be politicians. But it's also true in today's polarized politics that not having a long list of decisions deprives the opposition party of ammunition--a fact I am quite sure has occurred to the White House.

I can understand the concern of the poster from Vienna, Va., that the Toyota story might have been overplayed, but where's the bias? The fact is, as we now know, U.S. executives were telling the home office several years ago that they had to find out what was happening in cases of unintended acceleration, but the result was silence. Toyota simply failed to get out in front of the story and is paying the consequences. Similarly, BP's first boneheaded response to the Gulf spill was, "We just lease the platform, it wasn't our fault." We see how much good that did them!

 There certainly is a paper trail showing that Toyota minimized its efforts to fix these problems. And it is precisely because Toyota is such a successful manufacturer, here as well as in Japan, that this was and continues to be a huge story.

"But I think it's fair to ask why The Post's Web sites haven't hired a prominent conservative blogger" Remember the hiring of Ben Domenech? Long before Domenech destroyed himself with plagiarism, the Post faced a withering barrage of criticism from the left for even hiring a conservative blogger. One has to imagine that it does not want to go through that again.

  I remember it well, since I covered it at the time. But that's silly reasoning. Because there was a plagiarism controversy over one particular conservative blogger, The Post should shy away from hiring other qualified bloggers from the right?

I saw a story this weekend about the criticsm some on the right have with the departure of Justice Stevens there will be no Protestants on the high court. Shouldn't we point out the irony of wanting to place a religious test on the Supreme Court and ask those critics if they have even read Article VI of the Constitution?

  No one is talking about a religious test. But it's certainly worthy of noting that there would be no Protestants on the Supreme Court, given its history. For that matter, it seems hard to get on the court if you didn't go to an Ivy League law school. And the last two nominees are New Yorkers. Perhaps other sections of the country will complain?

Howard, Last week I've seen more of Laura Bush on NBC's TODAYy show than on all other network / cable TV shows combined. Unlike Nancy Reagan's book, which was and still is interesting on many levels, I did not learn anything that would make me run out and buy Mrs. Bush's book. Mrs. Bush did not come through as a particularly articulate or insightful person, and her answers sounded rehearsed. TODAY's interviewers came across as if she were a rather vulnerable nice old lady, not a woman, who according to her husband, was his most trusted advisor. According to NYT / WaPo book reviews Laura Bush's book has no special insights, so why did TODAY show give her so much air time during a rather heavy news week? I would also like to have your take on Amy Robach's interview broadcast Saturday morning, in which Mrs. Bush in an answer punctuated by "I mean, you know"s stated that George was blamed for everything, " ... the whole everything was George's fault....." and he had every day to deal with "natural disasters and something like we have right now, the oil spill, I mean you know." Amy Robach response was: " Now as private citizens..." (I am quoting from memory, but I think I am pretty accurate). Is Ms Robach's questioning justifiable from a journalist point of view

  Why? Because she's a former first lady of the United States, and a lot of people like her. And you'll be seeing more of Laura Bush now that her TV tour is getting under way (in fact, I notice a big interview with her in today's Washington Post, and USA Today did a major piece as well). Didn't see the Robach interview.

Kagan would be the second New Yorker on the Court. Sotomayor, the other, is a big Yankees fan. What about Kagan? One Yankee fan is one too many.

 Talk about bias!

 I am told that Kagan is a Mets fan, but I don't have a second source.

The last Supreme Court Judge with not prior judge expereince was appointed by a Republican, so they have no room to criticize that.

  That would presume that political parties operate on the basis of intellectual consistency. I bet you're wrong.

Howie, I discovered "The Week" magazine a couple of years ago and it really is perfect for my needs. I love that they include portions of overseas columns as well as quoting diverse opinions on topics of the week. I really feel better informed than I am reading Newsweek, which I am becoming increasingly reluctant to renew.

  The Week has done a very smart job of filling a niche we didn't know existed. It's almost like the print version of a blog, minus the links.

I don't know if Buffalo has an "alternative weekly," but I can tell you that the now unrelated weeklies called City Paper in Baltimore and DC extensively cover the local performing and visual arts scenes. Many venues in cities all over the U.S. would wither and die were it not for these advertising-supported papers.

 Of course. But you may recall that the parent company of Washington City Paper filed for bankruptcy. Nothing is certain any more in today's volatile media environment.

I know News Corp is an easy example but what I find troubling is more the NBC model. GE decides to interject a theme (green) to support its business model in not just entertainment programs (which is expected) but also the news shows. Is there any doubt that the total incorporation of the green week each year into every show in NBC (news included) is directed by the business side of NBC? And how is that different than Murdoch?

  I think it's a fair point, but it's one thing to tell your news shows to cover environmental issues and another to tell them HOW to cover them. But by year's end it will probably be moot as the new owner of NBC will be Comcast.

You previous poster said that 'some on the right' are complaining about Obama nominating a non-Protestant for Stevens' seat. Have you actually heard anyone on the right complaining about this? Religious conservatives seem to be fairly happy with the Court's conservative justices, regardless of their personal beliefs about the Imacculate Conception or apostolic succession.

 I haven't heard anyone complaining about it. I've just seen some journalists note it as an interesting historical observation, along with fact that if Kagan is confirmed the court will have three women for the first time in history.

  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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