Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media: Helen Thomas, Sarah Palin,Greta Van Susteren, Bob Etheridge, Alvin Greene, Obama oil address, Carly Fiorina, Nikki Haley, more

Jun 14, 2010

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

Howard, enjoy your columns. Just wondering if you caught Carly Fiorina on the morning shows yesterday -- David Gregory (and Chuck Todd) on Meet the Press asked NOTHING about her abysmal record at H-P, even when she said she was in favor of U.S .jobs, while Chris Wallace on Fox at least asked her about the FACT that she axed 30,000 American jobs... What gives? Hairstyle over substance?

I didn't see the entire Meet the Press interview, but since the entire basis for Carly Fiorina's candidacy is her track record as a business executive--given her lack of experience in politics--I don't see how you can not ask some questions about her tenure at Hewlett-Packard. She was ultimately ousted as CEO, and at a minimum journalists should press her on that part of her career.

I haven't seen anything in the press about who got Helen Thomas's front row seat in the White House press room. Who won?

 It hasn't been decided yet. And I doubt most of America really cares.

So Palin twittering (no pun implied) "boob" is OK, but Obama saying "ass" is not? There's a reason why they call this time of year the silly season.

  Palin used "boobgate" in her response to Greta Van Susteren's question, and I actually thought it was kind of funny. I was surprised that Obama used the A-word, even when Matt Lauer teed it up by asking him about kicking butt, but I haven't lost any sleep about it, either. We all know this is how people talk, and if we (and the media) hyperventilate over every street term, we're pushing our politicians to become even more cautious and scripted than they already are.

Why do you have this preoccupation with the Gore family? The day after a story appeared in the Washington Post's gossip column about People magazine reporting the split of Gore's daughter, you repeated it in your column. I read nothing new here. What bothers me is Gore's children have never been in public life, and none in the family seems to be talking. So why is this news, and are the kids of politicians now fair game?

  Preoccupation? When Al and Tipper split, I wrote a column item questioning why this had received so much media attention -- given that the ex-veep has been out of office for 10 years -- and concluding that the story touched a nerve among boomer journalists. The People item about the Gores' daughter got one paragraph in my daily blog roundup. When I include things like that, especially toward the end of the column, it's a reflection of  what's going on out there in cyberspace, not an endorsement of the item's importance. It's silly for me to pretend these stories aren't out there, unless they're unconfirmed rumors. (And as we've seen in the S.C. governor's race, even unconfirmed allegations can spread from the blogs to the local press to the MSM in a matter of minutes.)


I see in Sunday's list of career-ending gaffes the Gary Hart quotation about following him around to see if he was guilty of infidelity. Except that line appeared in a NY Times Magazine story that hit the streets the same day as the Miami Herald ran a front-page piece revealing Hart's fling with Donna Rice. The cause-and-effect suggested by rehashing the quote does not truly exist.

  That is true. Though obviously, given the magazine's lead time, Hart said it well before the Herald expose, and therefore it was an example of a pretty reckless statement. But it wasn't the reporting of the comment that did him in.

Hey Howard - Politico had an article today "Women Scarce on Sunday Shows." It talked about how congresswomen are underrepresented on Sunday talk, but also how many women (such as Pelosi) do not respond to repeated invites. Have you noticed anything like that on RS?

  I haven't -- in fact, we've periodically had segments with two or three women on -- but I'm not in the business of inviting female politicians on the air. I did think it was interesting that some of the women on Capitol Hill are rarely available on Sundays because of family obligations or trips back to the district. In my booking, I wish there was a bigger pool of female columnists, bloggers and talk show hosts, but for various reasons the opinion part of the business -- as opposed to the reporting part -- remains male-dominated.

Mr. Kurtz - any idea on the subscription numbers for the new Post business weekly? As a subscriber to the daily paper, I frankly refuse to pay for the same content that we once got for free. Your paper's business coverage - other a couple of the columnists -- is seriously lacking and now I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal to stay informed. Keep up the good work.

  I don't know the answer on subscriptions, but I do know it's not the "same content" as you once got for free. The company hired additional reporters and editors for the weekly rather than have more stories churned out by the existing business staff (which I think does a pretty good job, while lacking the resources of the WSJ or NYT). Obviously the new weekly was developed as a specialty publication for people with a special interest in business coverage.

You write today that "The fact journalists don't usually turn on each other helped Helen Thomas." This is not a fact, as anyone who has watched the talking heads TV shows knows. I have never encountered another profession where colleagues are more eager to gut and belittle each other, both personally and for their work. For example, the disdain that George Will projects against his colleagues, and the barely civil relationship between Krauthammer shows his fellow PBS talk show guests. Journalists turn on each other every day.

  You're talking about the columnists and commentators, who indeed go after one another - or at least each other's arguments - on a regular basis. And that's the basis for a healthy debate. I'm talking about reporters, who comprise the majority of the regulars in the White House pressroom, and whose ranks included Helen Thomas before she left UPI and became a columnist a decade ago while retaining her front-row seat.


How did the press grab possession of a federal building? I am referring to the fact that the White House Correspondents Association controlling the assigning of seats in the White House press room. This is federal property, not property of the press (I think the White House is run by the U.S. Park Service). Why can't seats be available to everyone who holds a press pass on a first-come, first-served basis?

   The press pays for the work space there, and the reasoning is that the news organizations that regularly cover the place -- that devote money and manpower to having journalists stationed at the White House and traveling with the president - ought to get preference in seating over someone who just wanders in off the street on the day when there's a presidential news conference.

The blogosphere is atwitter with commentary on a video of North Carolina congressman Bob Etheridge being confronted by, and confronting and "assaulting," two supposed college students with video cameras. On the one hand, his behavior is almost inexcusable, yet at the same time he seems hung up on demanding the identity of the videographers: "Who are you? Who are you?" Should it really matter who the folks are? Do Congressmen get to pick and choose who to answer and not? And why in heck wouldn't he just ignore them?

  Just watched that for the first time. On the one hand, I don't blame the congressman for asking who is confronting him with a video camera, and the young man's refusal to identify himself would make me suspicious, too. On the other hand, the aggressive way that Etheridge grabbed the guy's hand,  and then the back of his neck, was such a total overreaction as to be inexcusable. He should have just kept on walking.

Sir: Thank you for taking my question. Your column in today's POST was excellent. I only wish more Ombudsman columns were as descriptively open and did as well in calling a spade a spade. Are there any other people being tolerated or sheltered or protected by the White House media? Or by other media? Your column should be taken as welcome and much-needed medicine for the White House press corps - you certainly include yourself among those who need to take it. After this dosage will other people quietly exit the stage? Are the Helen Thomases of the world capable of seeing themselves in the portrait you painted today?

  There are other highly opinionated people who hang around the White House pressroom, but Helen Thomas was unique. None of the others gets a fraction of the attention she attracted or is generally called upon by presidents. Had she shown up 10 years ago as the author of a little-read Hearst column, she would have labored in obscurity. But because she had been a top correspondent for UPI for 40 years before that, and because of her advanced age, she was treated differently--and rarely criticized when she launched into one of her diatribes about the Middle East.

What precedent was set when the White House Correspondents Association condemned comments by one of the White House press corps members, namely Helen Thomas. How did they arrive at their decision to condemn Ms. Thomas, but not other White House regulars who have said outrageous things, such as Baltimore radio broadcaster and WorldNetDaily columnist Lester Kinsolving? Will the association now regularly condemn others in the press for what they say or write?

  It depends, in part, on what they say and, let's face it, how much national attention it receives. Also, it's a little strong to say that the correspondents association "condemned" Thomas' remarks; my recollection is that the group disassociated itself from what she said about Israel.

Howard: I still don't understand why Obama's use of the "a-word" (as you daintily put it), is a big (bleeping) deal. I recall a few left wing giggles of approval and only a mild reproach from the right over Joe Biden's open mike mistake with the F-bomb a while back. The same was true in reverse a few years earlier when Dick Cheney said it to Pat Leahy. The man answered a question in the lexicon it was offered in. So what the h--- was the problem?

  I don't think it's been a huge deal, but there is a crucial distinction among the incidents. When Dick Cheney told Pat Leahy to perform an anatomically impossible act, it was in a private conversation that quickly leaked. When Joe Biden dropped his F-bomb at the health care signing, he obviously didn't expect his remark to be picked up by the nearby mike. When Barack Obama said he wanted to kick some ass, he said it into an NBC television camera while being interviewed by Matt Lauer. So only one of the comments was intended to be made public.

In case you missed it (although doubt you would), Attorney General of Connecticut Dick Blumenthal gave his first post-"During vs. In" interview.  It's pretty neat and rando fact, he used to work for WaPo!?!

  Yes, I was surprised by that too and mentioned it in one of my daily blogs. It was a long, long time ago; Blumenthal later became a special assistant to Katharine Graham; and eventually found politics more to his liking than journalism.

I have to wonder: was Helen Thomas truly a columnist? More specifically, did she have a regular column syndicated by brand-name newspapers? I can't recall ever reading, or coming across, any of her columns. Was this post-reporting gig for real, or was she kind of kept around with a courtesy job title out of respect for her previous accomplishments?

  She had a regular column for Hearst Newspapers, but I read several years ago that only two of the Hearst papers ran it regularly. I don't know if it was syndicated beyond Hearst or not, but I never came across it in other newspapers.

Mr. Kurtz: The problem with Pres. Obama's use of "ass" was that it was so unlike him. It felt a very calculated and scripted way of showing the emotions that the press and everyone else was clamoring for. Don't you think?

  I do feel that's a legitimate question, beyond his term for the posterior. The press has really pummeled Obama for not showing more emotion about the oil disaster, and while the White House rejects that criticism, he does seem to be ratcheting up his response. A few days earlier, he told Larry King he was "furious," but he seemed very impassive when he said that. The president was elected in part because he seemed cool and calm as the financial crisis erupted; he doesn't really do angry, at least in public; so people are going to wonder whether he's now engaging in a bit of theatrics.

Plus one thing that bothers me in the coverage about Alvin Greene is "DeMint knew he was going to win so he can't be involved in Alvin Greene mess." I totally and completely agree with that logic and honestly believe he isn't, but I would like some investigating reports there to actually try to prove it with facts and statements rather then you and me being logical. Also don't like this "poor Alvin Greene, why is the media so harsh with him since he is clearly over his head" stuff either. He's a candidate for U.S. Senate! I think thougher questions can be asked then "did you do any campaigning" and "where did you get the cash for your filing fee from"

  I think the media have been quite hard on him, and properly so, since he seems unable or unwilling to answer such basic questions as where he got the $10,000 for the filing fee. Reporters are digging into the matter in the South Carolina race and my guess is that there's more to come out.

I don't agree with you that "most of America doesn't care" about who gets Helen Thomas's seat. If Fox News doesn't get the seat because of the animosity that the White House has displayed toward it, via the statements of its spokesmen, and/or because its pundits lean toward the right, I can assure that that would be news and many, many Americans would care.

  Except that it's not up to the White House whether Fox gets the seat or not. It's up to the correspondents' association. Ed Henry of CNN, a member of the board, has already said he will vote for Fox.

Me and my cousin disagree on one issue. We're both Jews and raised in Germany. I think while it's easy to apply a "Holocaust imagery" to Helen Thomas's statements, I kind didn't like it because it implies that there is something wrong with Jews going to Germany in 2010? Believe it or not, not all Germans are secretly Nazis laying in wait. My cousin is more in sync about it being a Holocaust reference and totally wrong and the mass media isn't trying to insult Germany anymore then it ever does.

  There is nothing wrong with Jews going to Germany in 2010. It's a very different matter to say that Israeli Jews should be forced to "get the hell out" of a country that was established in 1948 and go back to, among other places, Germany. That carries unmistakable historical echoes.

I agree with Charles Krauthammer zero percent of the time, but I have watched Inside Washington, on which he is a regular for years, and I have always found him to be civil--sometimes exasperated, but civil. I think it's because Gordon Peterson does such a fine job of not letting that show turn into a talking head screamfest like other pundit programs.

  Gordon Peterson does a terrific job, and Krauthammer is someone who strongly argues his opinions without venturing onto the low road, whether you agree with those opinions or not.

I used to have a bet with a friend about who would retire first, Helen Thomas or Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. I lost although I still wonder how long she would have kept going if she wasn't YouTubed.

  As long as she could. Sam Donaldson told me that she never contemplated retirement because, basically, her life was her work.

Who is likely to become the Public Editor fot he NYT? Will they continue to fill the position?

  Although the Times considered its first appointment of an ombudsman, after the 2003 Jayson Blair debacle, to be an experiment, I think the position is now firmly entrenched--and healthy for the paper. I have no idea who will succeed Clark Hoyt, except to say it will almost definitely be someone from outside the paper.

The media must know that there are people out there who will criticize everything Obama does, simply because HE does it. Is there anyone in this country who doesn't want to kick BP's A$$? So why does the media bite every single time someone criticizes him and try to make every criticism valid as though the media has no right or responsibility to filter out the garbage and discern it from news? There seems to be a fine line between being unbiased and being oblivious.

  Nobody's saying BP's butt shouldn't be kicked (although there is an argument, especially in Britain, about whether all this rhetoric might help push the company into bankruptcy and reduce its ability to pay claims). But it's certainly fair to challenge the president on his language, just as many did when Bush boasted that he'd get bin Laden "dead or alive."

I kind of feel like the media is doing the same mistake it did in vetting Rand Paul that they're doing now with Nikki Haley. Rand Paul's loopy views weren't exactly a secret, but the national media was more focused on Tea Partier Republicans versus Establish Capitol Hill Republicans angle. Then he wins, and some harder questions are asked by NPR and Rachel Maddow and the media acts shocked. Why weren't they asking those same questions months ago? Now Nikki Haley has her own loopy views, but you never hear or read about them because the national only talks about Sarah Palin endorsing her or the rumors spread about her having extramarital affairs. It would be nice to have some reporting on where she stand on Issue A or Issue B.

  I don't know that much about Haley's views, but I do know that the Lousiville Courier-Journal published Rand Paul's questioning of the 1964 Civil Rights Act a month before the primary, and it got almost no national media attention.  That was clearly a mistake.

Howard, thanks for your frank column on Helen Thomas. I often wondered why she was still employed, and really felt she was nothing more than a caricature of her old self. What a shame.

  It's been a sad ending to a storied career, and this latest wound was entirely self-inflicted.

The fact that Greta Van Susteren would dare ask Sarah Palin if she had breast implants demonstrates that the media considers Palin a boob, not someone to be respected. Can you imagine that same question being asked of Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama or Madeleine Albright? Those are liberal women, and therefore to be taken seriously and respected. No wonder there is such widespread disgust with the MSM.

  I'm afraid your point misses the mark. Greta Van Susteren has interviewed Palin a number of times, including in Alaska; Palin is a Fox News commentator; I don't think anyone would accuse Greta, who brought Todd to one of the Washington media dinners, of being hostile to the former governor.  And I think she was just giving Palin a chance to respond to something that was "out there" on the Net. So you can't indict the MSM on that basis.

  I do wonder what the reaction would be if a male anchor had dared ask a former vice presidential nominee whether they were real or fake.

  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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