Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media: Sarah Ferguson tabloid tape, Chuck Todd, Richard Blumenthal, Rand Paul, Rachel Maddow, Joe Sestak, Mark Zuckerberg-Facebook, more

May 24, 2010

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz will be online Monday, May 24, at Noon ET to take take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Today's columns: Tabloid tape shows Sarah Ferguson offering access to ex-husband for cash and NBC's Chuck Todd: White House correspondent, anchor, blogger, twitterer

The Sarah Ferguson disclosures are an amazing gotcha. The Acorn prostitution sting of about six months ago comes to mind in people presenting themselves as something they are not, and filming it. Is there any legal line here? How do I know the Census worker at my door is really a government worker, and not a reporter trying to find something out about me? When -- if -- you consider doing this, do you discuss it with the newspaper's lawyer and editors? Is it ethical for reporters to say they are someone else and then write stories on what they find out?

AP report on Ferguson.

  Not in my book. I'm something of a purist on this issue. What the News of the World's "Fake Sheik" did would be a firing offense at nearly all American newspapers. I know some television programs, and not just 60 Minutes, have used that kind of deception in the past. And there are those who justify such tactics based on the importance of the information (maybe Fergie was a bigger threat to British society than we knew). But you're still talking about journalists taking it upon themselves to lie and deceive in pursuit of a story.

I thought the Public Editor did a great job yesterday in detailing the New York Times handling and sourcing of the Blumenthal Vietnam controversy. It was fair and balanced. I know that ESPN has an ombudsman that critiques how ESPN covers sports news. Do any of the Big 3 networks or cable networks have such a person that critiques their coverage of the news? I think it would be a great way to get a balanced view of how it is presented. I know your paper has an ombudsman. Do you think it is time for the networks to step up and subject themselves to analysis by an impartial person?

  I think it's a great idea, but I don't see any sign of it happening. When CBS got into trouble over Dan Rather's Memogate mess, it had to bring in an outside panel because it has no ombudsman.

  Neither did the New York Times, by the way, until the Jayson Blair scandal of 2003. But Clark Hoyt's fair-minded critique showed yet again why it's an important position. I agree with most of what Hoyt wrote--that the Times story, despite some flaws, was basically good journalism. My biggest criticism is that the paper should have disclosed that Richard Blumenthal's Republican opponent, Linda McMahon, had some role in providing oppo research about the attorney general's false claims of having served in Vietnam. She was hardly an off-the-record source; in fact, she couldn't wait to start bragging about her role.   Readers could then have made up their own minds about an article that the Times obviously researched extensively beyond whatever the McMahon campaign contributed.

I watched the White House correspondents dinner on C-SPAN and was amazed at the size of this press group. I realize that guests were at the tables, but that's still one sizeable group. Now I read in the NY Times that newspapers and the networks are cutting back on reporter travel and expense accounts because of media economic problems. Isn't there a better way of covering the White House with a few reporters who pool their reports and have just one or two reporters stationed there instead of this press hoarde covering the same thing?

 But most news organizations do cover the White House with just one or two reporters (or three or four, in the case of the biggest newspapers). The fact that 2,000 people attend the WH Correspondents Dinner is no indication of the size of the press corps. That mob includes not just guests but editors, advertising executives and the like. So while there's plenty of pack journalism involving the White House, there are fewer media outlets with fulltime reporters there today than there were five years ago.

Richard Blumenthal was castigated on the front page of the New York Times last week for a few mis-statements concerning his Vietnam-era military service. The New York Times obviously felt these few garbled comments were significant, as did just about every columnist on the east coast, it seems. But how were they significant? A long-time Hartford Courant political reporter surveyed his professional colleagues around the state and ten out of eleven said there was no confusion whatsoever in CT about Blumenthal's military service (and there never had been) - Mr. Blumenthal was a member of the Marine Reserves during the period of the Vietnam War and had never said otherwise to them or at any event which they attended. (Colleague #11, a photographer, was a little fuzzy about it.) How could such a badly-sourced story land on the front page of the Times?

 Well, Blumenthal finally apologized this morning, so you don't have to take my word for it:  "I have firmly and clearly expressed regret and taken responsibility for my words. I have made mistakes and I am sorry. I truly regret offending anyone." Look, the guy repeatedly said he served in Vietnam, and he didn't. One such quote: "I wore the uniform in Vietnam." The fact that he didn't lie about it every time is not much of a defense. And he and his staff were perfectly capable of correcting the false accounts that kept popping up in Connecticut papers. Blumenthal has a long history as an effective attorney general, but this is a self-inflicted wound that is hard to understand.

Howard, Good morning. I suspect you don't write your headlines. But I read today's headline anticipating a story on Chuck Todd. After reading it, it seemed more like a review of the Daily Rundown team. Was your intent a duel interview or was it intended to focus on Chuck Todd? I ask because it seems like Guthrie got short shrift on the headline. Just wondering...

  It was mostly a look at how the multi-tasking Chuck Todd does his job. I was more than happy to include Savannah because she's the co-host of  "Daily Rundown," shares the beat with Todd and also works insane hours juggling multiple responsibilities. But it was conceived as a piece about Chuck, the non-TV guy who's suddenly all over TV (and Twitter).

Mr. Kurtz- I see not fuss with Fergie here. Everyone has weak spots in their character, and so this is Fergie's. Guess what, she's human! I have a difficult time believing that is legal in any free country to have the press fool and trap you, and then publicly humiliate you. This is outrageous, and it is treasonous to any culture with any kind of dignity.

  It may well be outrageous; treasonous is a little strong for me. The practice is more common in Britain, for what it's worth. But I'm not letting the Duchess of York off the hook, however questionable the tactics used against her. This was not a "weak spot"; this was an appalling attempt to make big bucks by selling access to her royal ex-husband.

After his interview with Rachel Maddow, Paul tried to spin it as a hatchet job by a liberal interviewer. Do you think the interview was fair? I thought Maddow gave Paul every opportunity to clarify his beliefs/positions.

  Anyone who thinks Rachel Maddow was unfair needs to go back and look at that interview. She gave him 20 minutes; she asked him to explain his position again and again; she challenged him but didn't interrupt much. Now there is no doubt that she is an unabashed liberal who disagrees with Paul on most things (though he did announce his candidacy on her show). Republicans are saying it was a bad tactical move for Rand Paul to go on her show, but he's the one who talked himself into trouble on civil rights law (and backed off with a statement the next day). What's unfair is to portray the interview as some kind of hit job. Plus, he said essentially the same thing to the Louisville Courier-Journal a month earlier.

I'm getting a nice sense of schadenfreude listening to my liberal friends twist and turn as they try to excuse away Blumenthal's misstatements (lies?) about serving in Vietnam with the Marines. I'd love to see a SNL skit in which his character says "I can see Viet Nam from my house in Connecticut!", but I know I won't. Classic example of how one set of standards applies to conservatives and another to liberals.

  You're judging the media's fairness on whether or not Saturday Night Live does a skit?

Nice piece, you did overlook the fact that while at Hotline he made weekly appearences on C-SPAN (and was a go-to guy on their election coverage) which would account for him being a "natural" on televsion. He should be giving his entire cable bill to C-SPAN.

  Well, I didn't mean to suggest that he'd NEVER been on television. But Chuck Todd was a classic behind-the-scenes guy, and three short years later he's a cable anchor and a go-to guy for Brian Williams. That's quite a transformation.

Enjoyed your piece on Chuck Todd. Being a news junkie I became his number one aficionado soon after he started at MSNBC. I find his encyclopedic knowledge of politics, politicians and issues no matter how small, awesome. I love his commentaries and his on-the-air style. Love his Rundown. And now comes a big fat BUT: I believe it is inappropriate for a reporter to be "the network's political director." When he is reporting from the White House and he says " The president will..." I never know whether it was announced that "the president will" or whether this is Chuck Todd's prediction as part of his commentary and he thinks that "the president will.... In my humble opinion blurring lines between news reporting and commentary is a very dangerous precedent. I watch Rundown whenever I can in the morning, but during " the Nightly," I switch channels when I see Todd "reporting" from the White House lawn.

  Not sure I see the problem. Political director merely means that he guides NBC's campaign coverage. A better analogy would be a player-coach. There is a broader question of how much analysis a White House or political reporter should do, and I've always found Chuck Todd to be cautious about engaging in pure opinion. But Jake Tapper, Chip Reid, Ed Henry--along with the likes of Bob Schieffer and George Stephanopoulos--all offer analysis as part of their jobs.  That analysis is supposed to be rooted in their reporting and what sources are telling them, as opposed to just popping off.

"Howard Kurtz writes: You're judging the media's fairness on whether or not Saturday Night Live does a skit?" Come on, you know better than that. And if that's the best defense you can muster against the fact that the majority of the MSM will not castigate Blumenthal for his misstatements while crucifying a more conservative candidate about his or hers, then you haven't refused the charge of bias.

  Excuse me: who told the world about Richard Blumenthal's misstatements on Vietnam? The New York blanking Times. Is there another newspaper that's more at the heart of the MSM than that? And most news organizations have taken the story seriously. Other than a pundit or two, I haven't seen anyone giving Blumenthal a pass.

Did Chuck Todd have any thoughts on not getting the Meet the Press job? You mentioned that he was a "longshot," but at the time it seemed like it was either going to be him or David Gregory.

 It was going to be him or Gregory, but David Gregory was always the heavy favorite. Chuck was disappointed, but seems to have done all right for himself.

Are Todd and Guthrie hurt by real or perceived slant of MSNBC's operation? I like their work, but I cringe whenever I see them on with the evening time bloviators at that network. I see them as being pulled down rather than hiking up the talking heads.

  I think they are rightly regarded as fair reporters and analysts and not lumped in with the highly opinionated hosts.

I agree that what the tabloid did was not out of the Walter Lippmann school of journalism, but it resulted directly from what British journalists had been hearing about Ferguson's financial troubles caused by her profligacy. (She keeps a staff of 13 people! To do what?!) In a way, it might have been good for this to happen before she successfully sold access to her husband, who as a an ambassador for British trade has a substantial amount of real world influence.

  Stop Fergie before she strikes again? That would be the justification, I guess. Although this was something of a scam, in that not even the News of the World suggests that Prince Andrew knew anything about it.

I saw your interview this morning and was struck by the details of the contacts the reporters used to control the coverage on CNN, the Today Show and other outlets. While no one can complain about the end, were the means ethical? Why? Would it be different if it were the Pentagon or BP trying to control the message? Why? Who decides?

  Well, no one "controlled" the media coverage after the two reporters were jailed in North Korea. What Lisa Ling told me is that she asked media outlets to be sensitive to the fact that two lives were at stake, and I hardly think that's unreasonable. Most news organizations wanted to tread carefully because they either have had, or could imagine having, their reporters arrested or taken hostage by hostile regimes. I was simply trying to provide some insight into how it worked, and thought Lisa Ling was quite candid on Reliable Sources in describing her efforts to win her sister's freedom.

On yesterday's MTP, the panelists were all talking about different aspects of the oil spill and lacked focus. Some were talking about blame, some were talking about future regulation of the oil industry, and some were talking about what has to be done to address the immediate leak. These are all fascinating aspects, but should the show have picked one aspect and drilled down on it? Wouldn't that have brought stronger light to one aspect, instead of superficial light to all? Thanks!

  Drilled down, so to speak?

  I didn't see it, but one of the things you try to do on a roundtable is have people of different opinions and experience share their views. A free-flowing discussion is often more illuminating than trying to force everyone to stick to a narrow aspect of the discussion.

Yes, the NYT did break the story on Blumenthal misrepresenting his Marine Corps service. But I'll bet you that the paper will STILL endorse him.

  Which, if it happens, underscores the wall between the newsroom and the editorial page. No one is saying the NYT doesn't have a liberal editorial page. But the newsroom has done plenty of important digging on Democrats (as well as Republicans).

Cong. Sestak said again yesterday that he had been offered a job to entice him not to run against Specter; the WH, after ducking the question for months, finally says we looked into it and everything is fine. Would the press accept this response from the Bush administration? How do we know until more details are provided? This has only been an issue for the blogs and Fox News for months while the Post and others ignored the issue -- providing more ammunition to those who are convinced of a pro-Obama bias at the Post. Is your Post political team embarassed that they are again late to the party?

  I think the reason the story hasn't gotten more traction is that Sestak has refused to provide any details. Now that he's the nominee I think it's not going away. Still, there's a huge difference between "get out of the race and we'll give you X." and "you know, if you decide it's in your best interest to pass up the race, we'd be interested in you for some opportunities down the road." The latter is called politics.

The Connecticut newspapers don't look particularly good on the Blumenthal disclosures. There are blog sites saying reporters in that state are too close to their sources, and particularly to Blumenthal. Do you think the fact that it took the NYT to break this story shows the impact budget and staff cutbacks have had on Connecticut papers, or are the bloggers right and Blumethal gets lavish press attention in his home state?

  I haven't studied the Connecticut press closely enough to say, but if I worked there, I'd certainly be embarrassed to be scooped by the Times. It's certainly worth noting that the state's largest paper, the Hartford Courant, is part of the Tribune chain that has yet to emerge from bankruptcy.

Not only does Chuck Todd owe his career to C-SPAN . How about Ed Henry. Von Verbers and the WaPo's own Paul Kane ! Ask Chuck Todd about the time a viewer on C-SPAN called him out for having a Lenin Poster in the background during his appearances on C-SPAN. Chuck apologized and the next time he was on the poster was gone !

 Now there's a bit of information I didn't have!

Chuck Todd: closet Marxist?

Not just asking for an SNL skit, but an SNL skit for an unknown guy running in the Democratic Senate primaries in a small state. At least your correspondent has addressed the "Fair and Balance" issue: you must treat the occasional Walter Mitty-isms of some guy most political junkies have never heard of with the same satire used for the comments of a person who may be a heartbeat from the presidency.

 I don't think SNL has been real soft on Obama lately. And do you remember some of the Hillary skits? It's certainly true that Richard Blumenthal, as a state official, is hardly a national name at this point.

I am intrigued by Mark Zuckerberg's free advertisement, er, "Op-Ed" in today's paper. I'm sure the Ombudsman will get some mail about it, but your thoughts?

Zuckerberg article.

  I thought it was a classic case of a CEO playing defense after his company has gotten hammered. (Time's cover last week was on privacy concerns about Facebook.) Whether it was an effective pitch is up to readers. The paper had to disclose, as it did, that Don Graham is on Facebook's board, but I don't think that should stop the op-ed page from publishing a timely piece from Zuckerberg.

The media in general, with people like Chris Matthews in particular being outspoken, have become critical of the government and the Obama administration for "not doing more" to stop the oil spill. There's a missing element in that coverage and criticism: what exactly could and should the government be doing that it's not? BusinessWeek did a good story in a recent issue outlining the technical details of the drilling process and the "safety measures" that are normally used, that failed in this case (for example, those automatic shutoff devices were only tested a few times in conditions similar to the bottom of the ocean and their success rate was about 50 percent). But no one seems to have done a good job of explaining what specific resources the government has at hand to call upon to stop the leak and if they're being used. In my opinion, if you don't first know those kind of facts and report them, you have no business criticizing the government for not doing more. The sad fact may be that there's not "more" to do.

  I think you raise a good point. There's been some good reporting on lax regulation in the past and BP's track record--reporting that would have been far more helpful had it taken place before the accident. But time and again, the media give scant attention to regulatory agencies until there's an oil leak, a mining collapse, a Toyota acceleration problem.

  On this current question of why the government isn't doing more NOW, I agree. Like everyone else, I wish the administration had moved more aggressively to get a handle on the problem, but I don't know precisely what federal officials can do at this point, when most of what BP has tried has been ineffective.

Why does it seem like the media is not very good at scooping news now? AND it seems like the they've done a really poor job at defining to the rest of us who they are. I say this because newspeople seem to have more than one "gig". They report the news in the evening/morning and they do commentary or host another show that is supposed to be news, but is actually entertainment. There aren't any "bright lines" between who is supposed to be informing us and who is supposed to be entertaining us. So is the Fergie entrapment really that me the answer is a resounding "NO". So I see everyday people becoming more radical as they listen to more analysis from people like Olberman and Beck. Am I off base on thinking this?

  Seems to me you're talking mainly about television. Most newspaper and magazine reporters are trying to do their jobs the old-fashioned way in an era of shrinking resources.

  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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: