Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media

Jun 28, 2010

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

I was intrigued by Lara Logan's comment on your show when she said "I mean, Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has." Is she offended that Hastings got a scoop, is she offended that Hastings broke the unwritten rules, or is she suggesting that prominent figures deserve a different standard than everyone else?

For those who missed it, I interviewed Rolling Stone's Hastings and Lara Logan yesterday on Reliable Sources. Logan was quite critical of Hastings, saying she didn't believe his account that nothing in his dealings with McChrystal & Co. was off the record: "That is exactly the kind of damaging type of attitude that makes it difficult for reporters who are genuine about what they do."

  But I don't agree with her serving-his-country line. That would suggest that a journalist who hasn't been in the military doesn't have the standing to cover a war, and that strikes me as off base.

Rolling Stone is getting a bum rap. If you read it regularly, you see they are branching away from their traditional pop music base, and becoming a serious publication aiming to replace the weekly magazines.

They have done some yeoman work on the Gulf Oil spill, and BP plans to drill in the Arctic. It is no longer pure counterculture, but I contend it does bend to the political left.

Who says people who are interested in music are not also interested in the news?

I also believe McChrystal and his staff were not so naive not to know the uproar their views would cause in Washington. McChrystal seemed determine to send a message that this administration's policy on Afghanistan is drifting.

  Rolling Stone isn't getting a bum rap from me. I wrote last Thursday that the magazine has been aggressively covering political issues well before the McChrystal flap, and spoke to Jann Wenner about it. And with the magazine having endorsed Obama, it obviously has a liberal sensibility; what's interesting is its recent criticism of the president, which is framed from the left.

  On your last point, if McChrystal was trying to send a message, it backfired. He could have found a subtler way.


We've heard very little controversy in the build up to the Kagan confirmation hearings. I wonder to what extent this gets credited to the administration and their pick, as opposed to the media being distracted by the Gulf Crisis, the McChrystal meltdown, etc. Why do you think we've seen far less coverage of the specific aspects of the appointment relative to other nominees?

  In fairness, the WP has had two major Kagan stories in the last two days, and the NYT had a front-page piece yesterday. But the media in general lost interest when it became clear that she would be confirmed fairly easily. With no "wise Latina" remark to seize on, the story became a conventional narrative about her lack of judicial experience, Harvard Law dean tenure, Clinton White House experience...all substantive stuff, but not the sort of material to fuel the talk-show culture.

Howard: As a news junkie I can't help but notice that on Saturdays and Sundays, while CNN and Fox News continue on with a news and commentary format, MSNBC mostly offers up a diet of cheesy "true crime" documentaries. (The same old episodes of "To Catch a Predator" having been airing for years.) Is this mostly a budgetary decision on their part, ceding the weekend to CNN and Fox?

  I gather it is a largely budgetary decision. MSNBC  does have news on weekend mornings. Many of the NBC journalists that MS relies on have weekends off. And it's expensive to bring in new crews, anchors and correspondents. CNN and Fox do run some taped programming on the weekends as well but also are staffed to cover the day's news.

What I hate in the case of Dave Weigel is this idea that the reason conservatives are upset is that they wanted an objective reporter. They want a Tucker Carlson, Mary Katherine Ham or Matt Lewis-type blogger who insults liberals and praises conservatives. That's not objectivity.

  Actually, a number of conservative commentators have written sympathetically about Dave Weigel, saying that whatever his mistakes, he did a good job of reporting on the movement.

  Weigel himself takes some of the blame in a piece today at, saying he was "cocky" and guilty of "hubris."

You were critical on your CNN show Sunday about the National Enquirer's decision to print information on the Al Gore matter. Why doesn't the public have a right to know this information? It seems to be public record, since I read the police report on

I'm smart enough to reach my own conclusion on the merits of this or any other story. But I count on the newspaper to give me the basic information to make that conclusion, and I don't think it is doing its job.

  I think you're mistaking criticism for what a host does, which is press guests with skeptical questions. If I had thought the Enquirer's material was beyond the pale, I wouldn't have written a followup piece for The Washington Post. But I wanted executive editor Barry Levine to explain why he chose to publish, in light of the accuser's spotty record of cooperating with police and her asking the tabloid for a $1-million payday.

   Yes, her account is in police records -- the audio was just released today -- but that doesn't make it true. People sometimes make false accusations, as we have seen. At the same time, Al Gore's office has yet to make a statement on the matter.

Saw your discussion on Eliot Spitzer yesterday on R.S. Don't know what the fuss is about. Lots of people who have disgraced themselves and have broken the law have or had their own talk shows. G. Gordon Liddy and Rush Limbaugh come to mind and if they have to be a pol, even Mark Foley has his own radio show in Palm Beach.

  But it's very different when you're the governor of New York and have to resign in disgrace. And it's different when you're being given some prime real estate on CNN, which has been marketing itself as a place of down-the-middle reporting which doesn't feature ideological hosts, like its cable rivals.

  Which is why I was glad to get CNN President Jon Klein on the program and let him answer these questions.

With Mr. Weigel's less than graceful exit, any leads on who will take up the mantle of "liberal-blogging-about-conservatives" at the Post? Can the Post avoid at least some controversy by finding a conservative to blog about conservative movement instead of having liberals blogging about both liberals and conservatives?

  That remains to be seen. Whether on that beat or not, I think it would be good for to have an unabashedly conservative blogger.

Howard, what's the deal with cable news? MSNBC went with a former ESPN anchor and watched their ratings slide in to the liberal abyss and now CNN is going on the air with 2 people with no TV experience, one of whom violated the laws he was sworn to uphold (the Democrat of the pair, naturally). How does your network square foisting Spitzer on us and make it sound like a credible news show. I don't care if he was a D.A.

  I've made clear that I was not a fan of the decision.  I'm not against people with no TV experience being given a shot -- Kathleen Parker is a smart columnist with a Pulitzer under her belt -- but Spitzer brings an awful lot of baggage from his resignation in disgrace. As I noted on the air yesterday, many people at CNN disagree with the decision.

I once worked in a store where Sawyer and husband Mike Nichols shopped. I was struck by how shy she was. Nichols was friendly and outgoing, but Sawyer was pensive and quiet, spoke only when spoken to, though with a smile. She seemed interested in what was going on, but not anxious to share her thoughts. Did this come through during your interview with her? Of course, the shop conversation probably wasn't as interesting to her as the news business! Thanks.

  I wouldn't describe Diane Sawyer as shy, but she can be very soft-spoken and is more down to earth than one might expect with a television star of her wattage.

Following the firing of Dave Weigel for having opinions, it seems to me that HL Mencken, despite being a famous reporter, wouldn't be hired as a reporter today. What's your assessment of that?

  But he wasn't a reporter. He was a highly opinionated columnist.

Friday was the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. The same day was also the 1st anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson. Which is the more significant event? Which got more media coverage?

  Both questions answer themselves. The Jackson story has better video.

Howard, I was struck by some of the commentary last week regarding the Rolling Stone article from beat reporters saying they thought the reporter's freelance status made it easier for him to write the article, because a normal beat reporter may hold back for fear of burning their bridges with their Pentagon sources. I realize that a good reporter maintains a large collection of sources on their particular beat, but is it common for reporters to hold back on an embarrasing story or giving their sources more leeway because they fear burning their bridges?

 I don't think most beat reporters "hold back" on embarrassing stories. I don't think there are many journalists who wouldn't have reported what McChrystal and his aides were saying unless they believed it had been placed off the record. But beat reporters at all levels need to preserve a level of trust with those they cover -- that doesn't mean failing to report negative news, but not acting in a way that officials feel they have been deceived or gratuitously screwed. A onetime freelancer, as Hastings told me, doesn't have to worry about that. I certainly don't want beat reporters protecting the people they cover from their own missteps; at that point the reporters become fairly useless.

While on the one hand, I can see from a programming standpoint, CNN thinking Spitzer may bring in ratings in the short term from people who are curious about him and what he has to say, but I think CNN has really hurt its credibility here by giving him a show.

How do you take the other programs on the network seriously when they have turned over an hour to a less than reputable character.

I just hope Kathleen Parker (whose columns I enjoy) doesn't suffer reptuation=wise because of this.

  I'm sure people will check it out at first. But I don't know whether they can sustain an audience. It depends in part on the quality of the guests and the conversation, but a lot of viewers, I suspect, will not be able to put aside their gut feelings about Spitzer.

You're one time co-worker David Weigel has written about his experience at WaPo over at Andrew Breitbart's website.  Did you read it yet and what (if anything) was your reaction to the piece?

  I thought it was well done, candid and remarkably self-critical. He certainly didn't let himself off the hook.

Howie, what's your take on the upcoming Spitzer - Parker show? I may be the only person out there who thinks this, but my take is that these two have the potential to produce one of the more substantive shows of its kind ever. Spitzer may have personal issues that suggest an underlying creepiness, but he's a bright and forceful critic of concentrated corporate and financial power. And Parker, who' s every bit as smart and fast on the draw, is the perfect conservative to keep him honest and on his toes. I seldom watch any political talk shows other than those with an interview format, but this one has grabbed my attention. What do you think?

  Well, that's certainly what Jon Klein thinks. There is no question that both are smart people who can't be ideologically pigeonholed. (Parker proved that when she took on Sarah Palin and got buried by hate mail.) But compelling television is all about the execution. So we'll have to wait until the program debuts this fall.

I get the clear idea that press standards are changing. Two recent examples: the charges against Al Gore that the police couldn't corroborate, and the allegations against South Carolina's Nikki Haley. In both cases, the accusers presented no proof. I think the pre-Internet press of 20 years ago would not have run stories on either case on the simple grounds the charges could not be proven. But both these stories got full airings today in this age of poisonous gossip. Have the standards of the press changed? Does a newspaper today run stories it cannot substantiate as being true and accurate? If you are going to write gossip, why should I pay attention to you?

  A lot more gossip gets into the press these days because "the press" has changed -- there's now a thriving Web that can put almost anything into play.

   In the case of Nikki Haley, the accusers -- first a prominent local blogger, then someone working for an opposition candidate -- got immediate pickup from the South Carollina media. At that point, there was no point in anyone else shying away from the subject; it had become an issue in the campaign, and everyone included her denials.

  In the Gore matter, the Enquirer broke that story, but there were police records to support that the woman had made this allegation--uncorroborated as it was. When I wrote about it, I was careful to note the problems with the woman's account; the fact that people close to Gore acknowledge he got a massage in Portland and it was probably from her; and the lack of comment from Gore's office. The fact that the police got involved made it more than just gossip.

The fact that McChrystal and his team had some frustrations with the folks in Washington couldn't have been news to the beat reporters in Afghanistan, though. Even without the colorful quotes Hastings got, shouldn't we have already known some of this by now?

  Any reader of the major newspapers did know it. A fair amount had been written about strains between McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry and McChrystal and the White House. There were also numerous reports about disagreement within the administration about the Afghan war plan. The Rolling Stone controversy put a very hot spotlight on all this, but it's not that it had gone uncovered.

Why does everyone, including CNN, keep calling Kathleen Parker a conservative? She's said she voted for Obama, she supports gay marriage, and she won her Pulitzer for columns that attacked conservatives, particularly Sarah Palin. She writes some columns that take conservative positions, but mostly she seems to come from a moderate perspective.

 I think if you read Parker's column over time, she clearly leans to the right, but is an independent-minded conservative who certainly breaks with GOP orthodoxy on some matters.

One thing about bloggers is that they don't seem human. George Will will write a column about the evils of blue jeans or Sally Quinn will write about her son's wedding.

Bloggers are ALL about politics all the time. While politics might be personal, they remain suprisingly focused on politics. I think we forget that David Weigel has rent to pay and that getting fired isn't the best career path nor is it good for his finances.

Everybody seems so focused on Mr. Weigel's politics. I just hope he's doing okay financially.

  He says he's received a number of job offers, so I think he'll stay off the unemployment rolls.

   But not all bloggers write about politics all the time. Many often stray into culture, media and the world of ideas. Sometimes even sports.

QUOTE: "there's now a thriving Web that can put almost anything into play" Isn't that a good thing. I like that some columnists in New York City writes a column and a response from a blogger in Baton Rouge or Wichita can be just as widely read. I don't lament that.

  Yes, it's a great thing that has changed the media playing field and the way we get information. I was just addressing the impact on the MSM.

Mencken was a reporter for The Baltimore Morning Herald and for The Baltimore Sun before he started writing opinion. Presumably he had opinions before he started writing them.

 Yes, but he's not remembered today for anything other than his long career as an acerbic columnist.

Nice pice on her this morning. What do you think are the most immediate differences between Diane, Brian, and Katie when the camera is off? Is one more of a workaholic?

  You know, they all work extremely hard. Brian is probably the funniest (and only one who's done SNL). Katie is a terrific interviewer. Diane may be the most deeply involved in shaping reporters' stories. Williams came out of local TV, Couric and Sawyer had to make the transition from morning television. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.

   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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