Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media

Mar 15, 2010

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

I cannot understand why "many [Fox] journalists are worried" about the huge success of their more talented colleague Glenn Beck. Would they prefer to be on a sickly channel suffering layoffs? What has Beck done that has been so horrible? Yes, he infamously said President Obama was a racist. But he backed away from it, just as Dan Rather recently apologized for his watermelon/Obama comment and Keith Olbermann apologized for the horrible things said about Senator elect Scott Brown. The over-long Massa interview -- so what? Lots of hosts waste our time with tedious interviews -- Beck at least had the integrity to apologize for it. As for Beck's other so-called mistake, calling progressivism a "cancer" -- that is the legitimate view of many mainstream conservatives and libertarians, who believe that big spending progressivism is a cancer eating away at the national wealth, driving up trillions of dollars of debt with budget-blowing stimulus and health care proposals. Beck's other public "sin" was to criticize Republican spending at the CPAC conference and get criticized by Limbaugh for it. What on earth is wrong with that? It shows that Beck does not slavishly follow the Republican talking points, as Fox is so often accused of doing. Why don't these disgruntled Fox reporters go work for CNN and MSNBC if they are so worried about Beck's image?

   I suppose the short answer is that they like their jobs. Glenn Beck is controversial - no breaking news there. The latest example came last week when some Christian leaders pushed back against his argument that people should leave churches that speak of  "social justice."

   My piece is not about whether Beck is right or wrong.  It is about the news that he is deeply controversial within Fox News, and that many staffers there, particularly many of the journalists, believe he is damaging their brand. You're free to agree or disagree, but the reality is there are tensions on both sides of this relationship.

There was an excellent opinion piece about Fox in Saturdays WP that was authored by a former editor of the New York Times. This was followed by your gentle critque this morning of the network which frankly read more as a defense of the network and the over the top hate rhetoric spewed by its political commentators. I am a big fan of yours but it seems that you constantly defend Fox even when you are supposedly critiquing Fox. With all due respect, you seemed to demonstrate with your column today the point made about the MSM by the gentleman in Saturday"s piece.

Fox News: unfair, unbalanced, unchecked by Howell Raines (Post, March 14)

   I don't know why you would describe it as a defense of the network. It was neither a defense nor an attack. It was reporting on a serious split within Fox News that until now has remained hidden from public view. The piece you refer to is by Howell Raines, the former New York Times editor, and it was pure opinion, running as it did in our Outlook section. My column is based on a couple of weeks of in-depth reporting.

Why does the media devote more space to various predictions that health care will pass rather than the fact that the votes do not currently exist? It is almost like it wants the bill to pass and is cheerleading for those who support it.

  A fair reading of the recent media coverage would be that journalists are saying it is extremely close and Nancy Pelosi still doesn't have the votes. The predictions you refer to (except for columnists) are largely being made by White House officials and Democratic leaders, who want to project a sense of optimism. I can tell you that if the Dems had the votes locked down, the vote would already have happened. And while it's hard to imagine that Obama would delay his overseas trip if he didn't think health care was going to pass, the parliamentary route is a rocky one and I'm still not sure how this comes out.

Howard, I noticed a story on Gov. McDonnell's first legislative session in Virginia, under a headline: "McDonnell shows some successes in first legislative sessions" Here are the first two paragraphs of the story: "Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell finished his first legislative session with modest victories in economic development and education -- limited goals set as the state continues to face a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall. The new Republican governor put off many of the ambitious pledges he made on the campaign trail last year, such as finding new funding for roads, creating 100,000 more degrees at state colleges and shifting more money to public school classrooms." I'm curious as to why the reporter, Anita Kumar, and the editors who reviewed this story decided to describe McDonnell's first legislative session as successful while admitting that he "put off many of the ambitious pledges he made on the campaign trail last year." Kumar could have taken those basic facts and written a story that declared that "Gov. McDonnell failed to achieve many of the pledges he made on the campaign trail in his first legislative session, having to settle for only minor successes." Why choose the positive angle? If someone fails to achieve most of their major goals, isn't a positive angle on their performance misleading and inaccurate?

  Seems to me the story split the difference in a neutral way - "modest" victories while having "put off" many campaign pledges. It doesn't say his first year was a success; it describes what happened.

Howard, I think the media has blown it with the coverage of the change in the Texas school curriculum. This is something that could affect every school child in America for decades to come, yet only CNN even mentioned it over the weekend, and even then it was a blip.

 Seems to me the Texas vote got some solid newspaper coverage but not much on TV, although I haven't surveyed all the newscasts. It has the appearance of being a purely local story, but in fact affects the country since Texas is such a major purchaser of textbooks.

Howard, Posting early as will miss your chat. Howell Raines, Jon Stewart, and Anita Dunn have all questioned the integrity of FOX News over the past year (and based on your chats, your readers for the past several years). All make the case that it is not only the opinion people on FOX, but the network in general that operates as a propaganda machine for the GOP and conservatives rather than a news network. FOX supporters drag out Shep Smith to claim objectivity and many people apparently look the other way, all the while blasting MSNBC for their nighttime opinion people. So, as Howell asks, why don't honest journalists take on FOX News (the whole network, not just one show)?

  I thought the Raines piece would have been stronger if he'd at least addressed the divide between news and opinion at Fox, and to say why he thinks that's a meaningless distinction if that's what he believes. I for one have not only questioned Fox's fairness but have done the same for MSNBC, particularly during 2008 when the cable channel's liberal hosts anchored convention and primary night coverage and drew complaints from NBC News staffers in the process.

I was shocked by this (apparently approving) quote in your column about Roethlisberger: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook said of the 28-year-old: "It's time he grows up. He's no kid anymore. He needs to realize he's not just representing himself in public settings but also his family, the Steelers and his teammates." Raping women is not a childish indiscretion, it is a violent crime. If this man is a rapist, he belongs in jail, I don't care how good he is at football. This story needs to be taken serously. I understand the presumption of innocence but the press has gone wild over stories with much less evidence than we've seen in this case.

  But we have to be careful about throwing around the word rape. The woman in question never went to the police; there is no prosecution; she is just pursuing a lawsuit against Roethlisberger. I think the columnist's point was that even if we grant the QB the presumption of innocence, why does he keep putting himself in these situations by hanging out at bars at 2 am?

I thought your article on "Beck's brand" was extremely interesting, but after reading it, I'm confused regarding the allegation that the popularity of his style might be adversely affecting Fox's journalism side. Who, exactly, are the journalists who are concerned? Shep Smith? Brett Baier? Britt Hume? Or some production assistant or intern who does the trailer and gets the coffee? Without this information, how can I judge the veracity of the allegation? And how, exactly, does Beck's presence in the opinion side of Fox's house differ from that of Olbermann or Maddox in the opinion side of MSNBC's house?

   While I can't identify confidential sources, who are concerned about risking their jobs, I can tell you that I talked to many people and these are not low-level folks. As I've said, it's fair to pose the same questions about MSNBC, though none of cable's opinion-mongers have become quite the lightning rod that Glenn Beck has become.

When asked how he wanted to be regarded in 10 years, his answer was "Wrong". What do you think he means by that?

 He meant, in that Katie Couric interview, that he hopes his predictions about how badly America will be damaged if it continues on the current path turn out to be wrong.

Did no one in the media vet Eric Massa when he was seeking his Congressional seat? If it's true that he engaged in similar shenanigans while in the Navy, mightn't reliable reports of them have emerged before he could get elected (or better yet, even nominated)? How long was he in the Navy, and how long had he lived in his Congressional district?

  He is (was) a one-term congressman, and I haven't gone back and reviewed the coverage of his race in New York state. But I will say that  congressional candidates often don't get intensive scrutiny from local papers and TV stations, and bigger news organizations are more concerned with presidential and statewide races than with individual House races.  So the major-league vetting starts only if someone suddenly achieves national prominence or is at the center of a big-deal controversy.

Howard: Great column today. Two things regarding Mr. Beck. 1) I don't recall him apologizing for the "racist" comment (and the added asides about hating white people) he made about the President. Did I miss that? 2) That aside, isn't the issue here that Mr. Beck more of an entertainer first and foremost ... even before he is a commentator? And isn't the real worry for some Fox people is that his style will become the norm for the rest of the station. Nothing gets imitated more than successful television.

  Beck has not apologized for calling President Obama a racist. He did say to Katie Couric, as  I mentioned, that he regretted the way it was phrased, but he did not elaborate.

  There is an element of entertainment in what plenty of TV people do. Hey, Beck is staging a one-man Broadway show tomorrow night. But I think even most critics would grant that Beck really cares about the issues he embraces. At the same time, he is obviously a showman.

I find it interesting that Beck described the Massa interview as a "waste of time." To me, it only could be described as that because Massa's statements and answers didn't fit Beck's worldview.

  I think it's fair to say that Beck expected Eric Massa to dish dirt on the Democrats; indeed, he invited him to do so at one point. Beck also seemed surprised that Massa said yes, I did engage in groping (though he maintained it was non-sexual). Once Massa wouldn't make the corruption charges that Beck kept inviting - indeed, the former congressman made a pitch for campaign finance reform - Beck seemed openly frustrated and out of ammunition. Thus, the apology to America for wasting its time.

In your opinion, what are the most effective ways for progressive people to counter the ideas and distortions that Glenn Beck promotes? Ignore him and risk having his ideas be accepted? Argue back and risk bringing even more ateention to Beck?

 Ignoring him isn't a strategy. The media initially ignored or downplayed the tea party protests, and now have had to acknowledge that it's a legitimate, if unfocused, force. So people who vehemently disagree with Beck's world view should take him on.

You've commented many times, including in today's column, that few people are willing to pay a subscription fee for on-line news. I wonder if part of the problem is that on-line news readers access many different sites and want to be able to access all of them but not pay a fee to each of them. That being the case, what about on-line news sites all joining an umbrella organization that charges a monthly subscription fee that entitles subscribers unlimited access to all participating sites? Revenue to the sites would be allocated based on the percentage of time each subscriber spent at each site. I certainly would be willing to do that.

  Interesting idea. Though if too many news sites joined such an alliance, the revenue would have to be split so many different ways as to be meaningless.

The reason why the results of these scandals was so different in the media comes from Risk and Crisis Communication 101. If you either dont talk to the media or deny the case you just have more media sharks swimming around you digging up more and more stuff. By Letterman coming forward right at the start and admiting he had affairs he pretty much stopped the media frenzy. Sure the media talked about it because it was the news of that day but then the media moved on. Had Tiger come out on Friday after thanksgiving and just admitted to having affairs and that he was going into a "betty ford" type of clinic the media also would have died. The masters doesnt want it to be Tigers first tourney. It will not it will likely be his second or third. That will be a media firestorm especially if Tiger doesnt talk to the media during his first tourneys before. Sure you will have a media frenzy at his firs tourney but it will be nothing like the masters. The masters draws media like the superbowl where you will have people covering who wouldnt another time so they will ask Tiger questions.

  It's certainly true that Letterman got out in front of the story; indeed, we didn't know about it until Dave told his audience about the "creepy" things he had done. By the time Tiger offered his carefully crafted apology, almost three months, and a parade of mistresses, had gone by. I find it impossible to imagine that he can play in a major golf tournament and not talk to the press--unless he's eliminated early on.

So Howell Raines comes out of his hiding place after all the scandals and tries to guilt the "old media" into attacking Fox News, and you follow his orders? Contrast this to the recent glowing columns on Rachel Maddow, and you realize that the Washington Post is clueless.

 Nice conspiracy theory, except that I've been working on this Beck story for two weeks and didn't know about the Howell piece until it was published.

In your notes today, you noted that no one ever clicks on an ad. Why do ads need to be clicked on to make money? Who clicks on commercials, or ads in print editions? I don't understand why Coca-cola wouldn't want to pay for space that reminds us to drink Coke without feeling the need to drag us to their website. Personally, I've gone to a bunch of movies and plays that I would not have gone to if I hadn't seen an ad in the online Post -- but the ads told me what I needed to know. I didn't click on them to find more info. Why is the online business model so dependent on clicking?

  True, you get a brief exposure to the ad even without clicking. But advertisers really want you to click, and that influences the compensation they pay the Web sites.

Are some stories still too good to check? Don't know about you and your colleagues but most of my friends were saying Bubble Boy redux a week ago. Of course I'm referring to the 90 mph Toyota Prius incident in California. A quick background check would have fingered the accuser or at least made the press more doubtful of his claims.

 I don't know how we could have known in advance, as opposed to "suspected," that some guy would drive 90 mph, shadowed by a police car, as a stunt. If that's the case, I still don't see what he gets out of it, other than attention.

From your story today: "Some staffers say they have watched rehearsals, on internal monitors, in which Beck has teared up or paused at the same moments as he later did during the show. Asked about this, Balfe responded sharply: "Glenn reacts the same way to issues whether he knows people are watching or not, and is proud to show his emotions, unlike the cowardly, two-faced critics who hide behind anonymity." So who are the "some staffers"? Did you personally talk to them and promise not to attribute the comments? How many staffers corroborated the fact that he rehearsed his crying? The plural suggests more than one. Was anyone willing to go on the record? If true, doesn't this undermine Beck's credibility? This seems worthy of follow-up. Do journalists (e.g, Chris Wallace, Major Garrett) at Fox have access to the internal monitors? Have you asked any of them if they intend to follow-up on whether Beck fakes his crying?

 Unfortunately I was not able to get someone to go on the record, but the response by the president of Beck's company shows that his side is not disputing that this has happened. As to whether it affects his credibilty, I'll leave that to readers to judge.

Mr. Kurtz I noticed on your show yesterday you said Karl Rove was "peddling" his book. I don't think I remember your using this verb for the many, many Washington types that push their books. Is the pejorative "peddling" reserved for right-wingers?

 It's for all wingers. I've peddled many books myself on as many TV shows as would have me.

Rep. Kennedy took to the House floor to rail against the press for "24-7" coverage of Rep. Massa's problems, when the costs and impact of the war in Afghanistan is is being ignored. I am with Rep. Kennedy, and note that day the Post had five stories on Massa. Isn't this excessive, and isn't it another example of the tabloidization of news?. (I also note today the Post has a large front page headline referring readers to a lengthy gossipy piece on Rielle Hunter that I find lacks much merit as serious original news because it only repeats what GQ printed without any original work by the reporters.)

  Patrick Kennedy may be right about excessive Massa coverage but he is wrong about the war. The media have devoted enormous resources, and some journalists have risked their lives, in covering the war in Afghanistan. The congressman was upset because there was little coverage of a largely symbolic Dennis Kucinich resolution that he was supporting to withdraw all U.S. troops by year's end. It got all of 50 votes in the House.

  As for the GQ piece, yes, it is a straight Q & A, but this is the first time that Rielle Hunter has spoken out publicly. She had an affair with a presidential candidate (and former VP nominee), is raising what Edwards now acknowledges is his daughter, and a federal grand jury is investigating. I'd say that's newsworthy.

Do you get frustrated by comments that assign a bias to your reporting when, in fact, the substance of said comments translate as: "Since you do not trumpet my position, you must be against it." I thought the Beck piece was insightful, incisive, and completely straightforward. More importantly, who do you have in your Final Four?

  Folks are entitled to their opinions, but there are an awful lot of assumptions that get made in forums like this. I'm not pushing an agenda; I tried in the Beck piece to be fair to all sides. I ran every detail by the Beck people and the Fox people and included their responses. And I've been so busy that I'm sorry to say I haven't gotten around to March Madness.

We figured Bubble Boy was hoping to sue deep-pocketed Toyota, in order to dig himself out of his personal financial woes.

 His wife says there are no plans to sue Toyota, for what that's worth.

What's this about a backlash on Beck from Evangelical Christian Churches? Did he go too far?

  Churches aren't above criticism, but I was certainly surprised that Beck would urge people to leave their churches and make a comparison between the use of such phrases as social justice and communism and Nazism. Whether you agree or disagree with the man, he does not avoid the inflammatory.

Good conversation about the Ex-Congressman's Coverage yesterday. And I can't believe SNL didn't make a skit about it. Has he really "Left the Public spotlight" as promised? Has he packed up and gone back to NY? Has he expressed interest in running for Governor?

  But SNL did do a skit.

  Eric Massa hasn't been heard from since the Beck and Larry King interviews. I'm going to go out on a limb and say he's not running for anything. Whether he's done running his mouth is another story.

Hi Howard -- thanks for taking questions today. It seems to me that serious coverage of the scandal involving Sen. Ensign has been lacking, not just in your paper but everywhere. What do you think?

  The New York Times has done two major pieces that have advanced what we know about Ensign helping the husband of his former paramour with lobbying work, and Nightline did an in-depth piece based on an interview with the man, who is a former aide to the senator.

Ever since his passing, I can't help but notice the huuuge void he left in the sunday-morning talk shows. Every moderator of MTP (and its competitors) simply reinforces my belief that Tim was the hands down best. Watching Tom Brokow coversation with Karl Rove ALMOST lived up to Tim's standards. Am I being too hard on today's moderators? Is there any hope on the horizon for someone to rise up and represent journalism the way Tim did? I constantly find myself comparing today's anchors to Tim... and it's no contest.

  Russert was very, very good at what he did, in part because of his meticulous preparation.

Uh, he filed for personal bankruptcy less than two years ago and has a history of being a publicity seeker.

 In that case, the media should have hit the accelerator a little hard on finding out about his background.

However, in the more recent case the young woman in Georgia DID go to the police right away, and to the hospital for a rape exam.

 Right; there are two different women making the allegations.

Hi, in the first question here it was stated that Glenn Beck "backed away from" calling the President a "racist". I have spent the last ten minutes trying to find any proof that he ever "backed away" from this toxic statement. Can someone state when this happened?

The only supporting evidence I have found is that Beck did not back away, but reiterated this on his radio program. Further Rupert Murdoch, the owner of FOX News, later said that he thought Beck was "right".

 I have never seen or heard of him backing away. Would have been significant news if he had.

Beck is doing on the right what Jon Stewart is doing on the left. So what? It's all theater. Why should I get my knickers in a knot over shows that use the news as a schtick?

  Um, perhaps because Jon Stewart is a professional comedian and Glenn Beck, as a leader of the 9-12 protests, casts himself as a serious commentator?

  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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