Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media

Apr 06, 2010

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

Howard, your media friends have gotten a lot of mileage out of claims that health-care protesters shouted racial epithets at minority members of Congress. But now it appears from video and audio clips of the event that there is absolutely no proof that this actually happened. Isn't this a textbook case how easy it is for Democrats to make up a story for a sympathetic and compliant media?

 You know what? It's a textbook case in how even in the digital age, not everything is captured on YouTube. Several members of Congress say it happened (and a CNN producer heard a protestor yelling "faggot" at Barney Frank). I'm not prepared to say these lawmakers are lying because there's no video. Nor, by the way, do I think an entire movement should be tarred because of ugly behavior by a few.

Hi Howard. How rehearsed are the different roundtables on the Sunday talk shows? Are there dry runs or just a hint as to what topics will be discuseed?

  Leaving aside my own program, I can tell you they're not rehearsed at all. I've been on Meet the Press, Face the Nation and, a long time ago, Fox News Sunday. Guests are given a list of topics so they can prepare (and hopefully offer some knowledge), but that's it. No one wants to destroy the spontaneity of a real discussion. Roundtables may be predictable, depending on the guests, but they're not rehearsed.

In less than 24 hours over 1,300,000 people have gone to YouTube and watched the Apache helicopter attack on that group of men milling about. Why does the old media spend so much more time on crap like Tiger Woods?

  Uh, because he's one of the most famous golfers on the planet? Because he was living a lie and was turned into tabloid fodder? Because many of his corporate sponsors abandoned him? Because professional golf ratings plummeted by more than half while he was out, and his return to the Masters is a dramatic event?

  By the way, by staging yesterday's presser, Tiger invited the media to come and question him in Augusta. My own view is that if he had held such a press conference or done some interviews a couple of weeks after the Thanksgiving crash, instead of hiding behind publicists and carefully worded statements, the story never would have become as big as it did. He handled himself pretty well yesterday and let the thing go on for 35 minutes, until it was clear the journalists had run out of gas.

I'd also point out that the person who spat at one congressman was arrested for it. But he was released when the congressman refused to press charges.

  I was not aware of that.

Howard -- I am a conservative Catholic who is repulsed by the terrible abuse of children by priests. There can be no acceptable explanation. I believe the hottest corner of hell is reserved for priests who have abused children. But I also believe that there are segments of the media, including NYT, who revel in using Catholicism as a pinata, reporting decades-old sins as if they occurred yesterday, and connecting imaginary or tenuous dots to condemn their selected targets. Usually your Reliable Sources show is good for its balance on most topics, but last week's was disappointing. Your guests were the NYT writer who predictably professed her purity of heart, and Sally Quinn, who relishes bashing Catholicism at every opportunity. Couldn't you find anyone to expound on the Vatican response to the Times' assaults?

  Seems to me your own bias is showing here. Laurie Goodstein is an award-winning religion reporter who has covered the beat for 17 years, first for the WP and now for the NYT. As she said on the program, she has great admiration for the church. Her stories about the correspondence with the office of then-Cardinal Ratzinger have been carefully written, based on documents and interviews, and she has not been out there promoting herself. Mine was the first TV invitation she accepted after turning down Charlie Rose and a bunch of others. As for Sally Quinn, it's not accurate to portray her as a church-basher. She has been highly critical of the way the Vatican has handled these latest allegations--and by the way, so have plenty of Catholics.

Why do the news networks and Sunday shows depend on the same old, tired, pundits and political guests? Now I understand why FOX calls on the usual subjects, but can't the other networks use some imagination and get real experts on to participate? I don't watch the Sunday shows anymore because the guests, hosts, and pundits are so predictable.

  That's your call. You do see a lot of the same faces. I've seen unexpected guests at times--say, Barbara Walters booking Roger Ailes-but not often enough. As for the hosts, that is starting to change too, with Candy Crowley taking over at CNN and Christiane Amanpour, an unconventional choice to be sure, soon to take over at ABC.

You never heard about it because it never happened. The MSM incorrectly reported that someone had been arrested for spitting on a congressman, but the police later released a statement saying no one had been arrested. This was another erroneous story put out by the MSM.

 I don't know who reported that. The fact that there was no arrest, though, doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Howie, I spent Easter weekend in Baltimore. I like the Baltimore Sun, but I love the Washington Post (especially Sundays). The New York Daily News and TImes were available. I know the Post is available in southern Maryland. S what is the real reason why it is not sold in the Baltimore area?

   The print edition of The Post is basically a local paper that covers Washington and its suburbs. That's the advertising base as well. It wouldn't make much economic sense to peddle it in Baltimore, where the Sun is strong, and we barely cover Baltimore (indeed, I thought we undercovered the recent trial and conviction of the mayor). We don't travel with the Ravens and I think have stopped traveling with the Orioles now that the Nationals are in town. But we do have a mighty fine Web site that can be accessed from Baltimore and beyond.

In his column, former editor of NY times argued that FOX News is biased because of its almost unified opposition to the health care bill. If we apply the same standards, NY Times because of its unified support (editorial board, columnists, etc.) should also be treated as biased. I am not including WaPo as biased because it had columnists who were opposed to the health care bill as well. Why is that FOX News is biased for its perceived support of one view while NY Times is considered as unbiased even though it holds views exactly contrary to the views of the Fox News? In fact, if we match the views of FOX News and NY Times item-by-item, they would fall in two separate columns with little in common. Are we applying a double standard?

  I thought Howell Raines made an error by not addressing the newsroom/opinion divide, even to argue that it is quite porous at Fox. Surely he wouldn't want the NYT's news coverage, which he once ran, judged by the views of Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich and the editorial page, which he once ran as well.

You recently wrote about Palin as more of a media celebrity than a politician. Do you think that she might suffer from overexposure and fade away, at least temporarily? I'm thinking that we haven't heard from Paris Hilton for a while, although she's doubtlessly planning a comeback. Sure, there are many media celebrities who have decades-long careers, but I make the Hilton analogy because it seems a lot of the public's fascination with Palin (mine included) is based on bafflement, outrage, or condescension about the things she says and does. Her supporters are different, of course, but a WP poll gives her only a 37 percent approval rating and a 55% disapproval rating. If a lot of her appeal is based on shock value, is this shock in danger of wearing off?

  It's funny that you invoke Paris, since the McCain campaign famously made an ad calling Obama the biggest celebrity in the world and flashing a picture of Ms. Hilton.  With Pain having just signed a TLC deal for an Alaska documentary, having sold 2.2 million copies of Going Rogue, having her new perch at Fox News, she doesn't seem to be overexposed yet. Besides, much of her post-gubernatorial career seems based on narrowcasting, that is, appealing to folks who already like her. In that sense, using the metric of political campaigns--37 percent approval rating--doesn't mean much. If she's not running for office, that 37 percent can watch a lot of TV and buy a lot of books.

Howard, I turned on the TV yesterday and found Tiger Woods having a press conference. Not being interested in a man who gets untold millions for hitting a little ball with a stick I went to another channel. But there he was again -- and again -- and again! Has he become president of the United States or something?

  He's become a media celebrity as well as a world-famous athlete. Besides, it was 2 pm eastern. There wasn't anything else going on to divert the cable networks (which undoubtedly reaped higher ratings as a result). I happened to be in New York and even the local cable channel NY1 was taking the Tiger presser live.

Hello. What will happen to David Shuster if he has been "indefinately" suspended by MSNBC. I don't really understand why it was such a big deal to MSNBC. How did ABC manage to get Christiane Amanpour from CNN without a big fuss? Thanks for taking the question.

  Depends on the meaning of indefinite. Shuster could be brought back, or not. Television hosts and correspondents talk to other networks pretty routinely, especially when their contracts are coming up for renewal. Making a pilot for another network, though, is guaranteed to tick off the network where you already work.

Howard, what do you think of the left trying to portray anyone associated with the Tea party as racist. I know they are normally white, but this seems like a gross overgeneralization some pundits are making. Pretty much any group has some bad apples.

  Find me a quote where someone on the left is saying that anyone associated with the Tea Party is racist. Even leaving aside the fact that it's a movement more than a tightly organized party, I don't know anyone who would agree with that statement. Does it have fringe elements whose words and actions can give other followers a bad name? Sure. So does every other party and movement.

Are you going to dog Tiger for the rest of your life?

  Believe me, Tiger has much bigger problems than little 'ol me. Although if he starts winning championships again, this story could finally fade. My main argument all along was that he should do what he did yesterday--come out of the bunker and talk to the press. It was like lancing a boil; it had to be done.

When a politican screeches or screams -- whether Howard Dean or Sarah Palin -- doesn't it turn off some of even their base, as well as those who don't support them? Shouldn't politicians consider taking voice-modulation lessons?

  In fairness to Howard Dean, there was one so-called scream--kind of an overexuberant line that got endlessly replayed--when he lost the Iowa caucuses in 2004. And while Sarah Palin's rhetoric can be provocative, she's not a screamer. I don't think we should fall into the trap of calling women screechy when they raise their voices to address large crowds.

Hey Howard. Seems that most outlets are talking about how Ken McKay was "forced out" by Steele, yet the Washington Times claims that he resigned "in protest." Seems like much more of an anti-Steele angle.

  Washington Post says he "resigned under pressure." Washington Times says that "frustration with inaction by his boss, he resigned." An interesting difference. Seems to me McKay was forced out and difference sources are putting a different spin on it.

You keep praising the media's health-care coverage, noting that news reports  --  including some in the Post  -- clearly stated that the "Death Panels" claim was false. But many other reports  --  including several in the Post  -- mention that claim *without* indicating that it was false. Do you think it is adequate for a news organization to *occasionally* make clear the falsity of such claims, or should they do so every time they mention those claims?

  You'd have to cite me a specific instance. I don't recall a time when The Post gave any credence to the death-panels claim, but obviously reported on the fact that many people came to believe the claim was true.

Why does he have to do what you think? What he does does not affect anyone's life.

 I think it's fair to say that he wasn't acting on my advice. And what he does means a great deal to the sport of golf and the corporations that made him rich as a pitchman.

...whether what Tiger said at his presser yesterday was sincere, or just what he calculatingly figured he needed to say in order to get back his career (including lucrative lost endorsements)?

  He seemed sincere to me. Obviously he knew what he had to do, and he was well-coached in finessing certain questions (such as whether he was on Ambien the night of the crash). But as best as one can tell in these matters, he seemed like a guy who had been flying high, had crashed to earth, and was now trying to pick up the pieces of his life.

Just for the record, you CAN get the Washington Post in Baltimore and the surrounding suburbs, at many a convenience store, drug store, etc. Some of them, however, do add a surcharge to the price, pushing it up to $1 or more (plus tax, of course, in the People's Democratic Republic of Maryland).

  I didn't mean to suggest it was impossible to find, just that it's not carried on most newsstands.

Okay, you can't get the Post delivered in the city (you can get the Times). But you can find the daily and Sunday Post in practically every 7-Eleven and Royal Farms store and many Rite-Aid drug stores . (The latter is our own convenience store chain.) In my neighborhood of Hampden alone, there are at least 8 places to get a newsstand copy.

  Thanks for the free ad.

I know it's a fine line, but you know what? She IS screechy. Extremely so. Painfully so. (And I'm a woman, not deep-voiced, myself.) And for the record, some men have lousy voices for politics or media too. (Personally, I can't listen to RFK Jr. at all. Even though I probably agree with a lot of what he says.)

  I guess screechiness is in the ear of the beholder.

With all the accusations of media bias (from both the left and the right) flying about television and print journalism, one has to wonder if there is anyone who is objectively reporting the news. Do you think there is anyone in the media who provides a truly objective view when reporting on controversial issues in the USA? If yes, whom would that be?

  What does "truly objective" mean? Jim Lehrer's NewsHour comes pretty close. But remember that personal life experiences affect not just how you write or discuss a story but which stories you choose to cover, which you designate as most important, and so on.  Also, if a journalist is so hog-tied by the principle of objectivity that he or she simply reports that one side says the sky is blue/the other says it's green, that doesn't help readers and viewers much.

Not a single article about the Wikilink video of the murder and subsequent cover up by the military in Iraq? No wonder people are getting their news in places other than the traditional media. Even Fox covered it over CNN.

  Well, you see the Post article (which includes the video) in the link we've included. But I don't see it as an either/or. It's great that bloggers, Web sites, Wiki and other alternative organizations are gathering and reporting news and adding to the national conversation. That doesn't mean there's no need for the mainstream media. It's not a zero-sum game.

So now supporters of the Pope, including a Cardinal in his presence, are blaming "the media" for "petty gossip" in the way the child-sexual-abuse-by-priests" is unfolding? In truth, isn't blaming "the media" becoming such a cliche that eventually no one's gonna buy that excuse any more?

  It was the Pope who used the phrase "petty gossip," when the allegations we're talking about are anything but petty, or gossip. And yes, I don't think blaiming the media works any better for the Vatican than it does for a long line of American politicians.

Howard, just so we can put this matter to rest: There is video from CNN showing an exchange between a minority member of Congress and a Tea Party member. I've seen it myself on their site. Can't we just simply say, yes, sadly it happened, and no, all Tea Party people are not racists?

  I've seen the video and it looks like the congressman has been spat upon - you see him wiping something off his coat - but maybe some folks think it's not definitive. What is definitive is that it's ludicrous to suggest that all Tea Party adherents are racists.

  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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