Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media

Aug 16, 2010

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

Once again, the media has lost its mind. Someone inflates the emergency slide of an airplane (an act that could have possibly killed or seriously injured someone on the ground), and he becomes a media sensation. Also, what's the deal with Real Housewives of D.C.? Politico even covered the premiere party at the Madison Hotel last week. (Were you invited Howard?). I think the premonitions of the movie "Network" have come true. Has the definition of what constitutes "News" changed?

The JetBlue story drove me crazy. The media wanted it to be one thing, but the facts didn't support the "folk hero" scenario. This clown wasn't even provoked; he was the one being rude. Here's my take on it on CNN, as picked up by the Daily Beast.

   I was not invited to the bash, I thought the debut show was awful, and the 15 minutes are up. The housewives neither seem real nor particularly D.C.

Totally agree with your take Sunday on the Airplane Man. Yes, most if not all of us have dreamed of telling our boss to take this job and .... but most if not all of us don't do that because... we are adult, responsible employees. The media that has built this man up to be a hero-- is a reality show far behind? and bares (or bears) the burden for this--- thanks for calling it out. You would think after Ballon Boy, and the Sherrod Saga there would be a little more restraint .... we are doomed.

  The reality show apparently is not far behind; just saw a squib saying Steven Slater might get a show where people quit their jobs in flamboyant fashion. Exactly: frustrated employees don't do what he did because they have a shred of common sense. I know it's August, but the media really pumped this one up without waiting for the facts.

Howard, it's been more than a few years since I took a jounalism class but the editorial page today begs the question: Why is it OK for a newspaper to endorse a candidate but it's not OK for a TV news channel to do so? We can't claim the editorial page is a distinct animal from the paper--it's the paper doing the endorsing. When Chris Mathews gets all giggly about candidate Obama, he's ridiculed and the world thinks MSNBC is endorsing Obama. What distinction am I missing?

 Cable news channels can do whatever they want, but they don't have the equivalent of editorial pages where they speak with one voice. Since it's television, they are driven by the opinions of their hosts, who don't always agree. Scarborough certainly wouldn't want Matthews or Olbermann speaking for him.

Were you surprised by the big reaction to your Pepco tweets?

  I was. I lost power for five days, went on vacation, came back, and lost power again. My tweets were mainly about the frustration of lack of information and misinformation provided by the local power company (told power would be restored the first day; told on Day 4 that a truck had been dispatched, then no, it hadn't, and so on). A Pepco blogger responded to me, which was how The Post found out that the company had its own tweeter. But I didn't expect this to get picked up anywhere. And I still cringe whenever it rains.

Howard, I love your reliable sources show on CNN but why do you take 10 minutes to chat with Candy Crowley about the news and then show clips from the Sunday shows? Your show is about the media and how it covers the news, not about the news itself. Why not use that time to talk more about the media's coverage of events?

  It's not my decision, but it's more in the nature of a news update, which we've always had, and I happen to enjoy the give and take. Besides, it's only 3 minutes. Does it really feel like 10?

A persistent media theme, including in today's Post, is that the public isn't recognizing and crediting Obama's accomplishments. To the contrary, polls consistently confirm that the public is fully aware, and very resentful, of what Obama is doing not for, but to, the country. If his big programs are unpopular, why is media mystified by the fact that he isn't being flooded with public gratitude?

  Are all his big programs unpopular? I think most of the public wanted Wall Street reform, even though it doesn't immediately impact their lives. The health care bill certainly was a mixed bag by the time it passed, but most of its provisions haven't taken effect yet.

   I think it's a legitimate question why Obama hasn't gotten more political credit for passing major legislation. My own theory is that it's the economy, stupid; the persistence of 9.5 percent unemployment furthers the impression that he hasn't done anything about the problem people care about most (never mind that joblessness would have been higher without the stimulus bill).

  I'd also question how much people know about the legislation beyond health care. Saw a poll this morning that says a sizable chunk of people think Obama passed the TARP bailout, when it was, of course, George W. Bush.

Howie, you say the JetBlue story drove you crazy, yet aren't you promoting more of the hype by talking about it on your show and writing about it? This is one of many things you complain about media but promote while complaining about it.

  Under that theory, I could never write or talk about anything I didn't like without giving it more currency. When the media are going overboard on something, or  oversimplifying something, or just plain getting it wrong, it's important for critics (not just me) to speak out. It's not like I'm giving these stories a major boost; the bogus JetBlue tale had already achieved plenty of altitude.

Hello Howard: Once again we see that the press falls into the trap of being the 'FOP', friend of the president. A president who championed on openness should have been challenged by the press when they were invited to such a lunch. Even though NY Times reporter did not attend this one, NYT reporters have attended the previous ones. I also have the same view of professional columnists (liberal variety) who attend White House lunches and give the impression that they coordinate their columns the following week. Why do the reporters and columnists engage in such activities that compromise their craft?

  I think it's a closer call than that. Clinton, Bush and other presidents have had off-the-record lunches with reporters; this isn't some Obama invention. I don't fully get the benefit of an OTR gathering if you can't share the information with your readers and viewers. But I understand the argument that if you're covering the president day in and day out, it's helpful to get a sense of the man and how he thinks. The main complaint of the beat reporters is tha they have so little opportunity to question Obama (as opposed to the sitdown interviews he does, mainly for TV). So as the NYT's Peter Baker told me, they don't want the occasional off-the-record meal to become a substitute for regular Q-andA.

Welcome back Howard! Just as you were going on vacation, ESPN had a story on their Web site that was critical about a party that LeBron James had attended that cast him in an unfavorable light. When ESPN took down the story almost immediately after it was posted, it generated some negative comments about the network and how it might have been pressured by LeBron's team to take down the story. I was disappointed that the story was taken down as I think ESPN is uneven in their treatment of sports stars: some get passes for negative stories, while others get hammered. Has ESPN reached a level where objective journalism should be expected from their news operation, or are they more of an entertainment outlet and perhaps immune from criticism about about journalistic practices or non-practices?

  ESPN says the story should never have been published, that it was a draft that was mistakenly sent out. So even as someone who was quite critical of its much-hyped prime-time special on LeBron, I'm not sure this constitutes caving in to a big star.

Washington Post has been really pushing "articles" that have unsourced emotions ascribed to the Deomcrats in the headlines. Like " Desperate Dems" by veteran Dan Balz who should know better. Nowhere in the piece does he source where he got the notion that they were desperate. So apparently, it's his opinion, but touted as a news peice, not an op-ed. BaconJr. did the same thing, with his "mark my words, the Tea Party ..." op-ed disguised as a news report. And lots more numerous to mention. Karen Tumulty is another one. Can't we just get a news story without personal spin? Yeeesh! Far too far and in-between.

 Uh, you see the words at the top of that story? "The Sunday Take." It's a column, Balz's take on the political happenings that he assiduously covers. (He talks to pols in both parties all the time and is qualified to make judgments about who's desperate.)

  Same thing with the Perry Bacon piece. It appeared in Outlook, which is The Post's Sunday OPINION section.

I have not been particularly impressed with TBD's newsgathering efforts, but there is one thing about the site I find EXTREMELY refreshing--real names attached to comments. I hope that's the beginning of a trend!


TBD: A hyperlocal work in progress

  I agree on that point. Why do newspapers allow people to hurl invective without their names attached when they would never publish an anonymous letter to the editor? I'm all for unfettered debate, but requiring commenters to use their names (as a handful of papers have started doing) would in my view reduce much of the ugliest stuff.

I disagree with your comments about TBT's new Web site. I don't find it very original, and think this staff is going to provide more copy for the Channel 8 TC operation rather than an innovative Internet site. What I find disappointing about it is the Examiner is doing a much better job on local news. As a consumer of local news, I read any copy that is available.

  As I said, it's a work in progress. To succeed, TBD has to be more than an adjunct of Channel 7 or Channel 8. We'll see how much its news coverage grows in the coming months and whether the bloggers it features develop a following.

While I read a torrent of criticism in the media towards Fox News, I see the White House Correspondents Association rewarded Fox with a prized front-row seat in the White House press room. Isn't this hypocritical for the press to promote Fox, which is criticized for its Republican bias, and turn down NPR, which seldom is criticized?

  First, such decisions are made without regard to editorial content (based on such factors as size and how long the outlet has regularly been covering the White House). Second, keep in mind that both Fox and NPR had seats in the pressroom; all the fuss is about who got Helen Thomas' spot in the front row.

You mentioned your show on CNN about how rarely Robert Gibbs slips up, but I can think of two other major examples. You remember Rick Santelli's big rant on CNBC, right? Your previous guest David Weigel has written about how Robert Gibbs's complete dismissal of Santelli's fustrations and "switch to decaf" line is what lead to the teabag protesters. Another example is Robert Gibbs's response to Dick Cheney's interview with CNN's John King in Feb. 2009. Rather than dismissing V-P Cheney's rhetoric or pointing out how he was wrong, Robert Gibbs just laughed and said if Republicans want to make Dick Cheney the face of their party, go ahead. Which of course happen and Gitmo, which John McCain supporting closing in the campaign and George W. Bush said he wanted to close, was non-starter. We got the raise of Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz. So I think Robert Gibbs has had his failing before now.

  Of course he's made mistakes, as all press secretaries do. My point was that, given the volume of briefings and number of questions that he answers, he doesn't make many. And secondly, that Gibbs is a deliberate spokesman who chooses his words carefully. So when he went after what he called the "professional left" in that interview with The Hill, I don't think he was just popping off; he was reflecting the White House view, which is one of frustration with many liberal critics.

Why is the Press being so dishonest about what President Obama said about the famous proposed Islamic Community Center. He never came remotely close to endorsing it, he merely endorsed their right to build it under the Constitution, and since defending the Constitution is his number one job, I do not see how he could have done otherwise. He also did not change positions at all, endorsing the right to do something, is not an endorsement of the decision to do so. Why is the press deliberately ignoring this distinction? It's clearly not just sloppy reporting, its an intentional act, and since it concerns the most basic of American's freedoms it really concerns me that the Press, or at least the headlines are coming close to endorsing the extreme anti-American positions of those on the Right. On an issue like this, there is no excuse for a headline which intentionally distorts the truth. What is going on here?

  But in both cases the press reported the president's exact remarks. The New York Times said Obama had "quickly recalibrated his remarks on Saturday, a sign that he has waded into even more treacherous political waters than the White House had at first realized." The Washington Post said: "One day after President Obama defended the freedom of Muslims to build an Islamic complex near New York's Ground Zero, he offered a less forceful version of that position on Saturday: Yes, Muslims have that right, Obama said -- but that doesn't mean he believes it is the right thing for them to do."

  So it wasn't reported as an outright change of position. You're free to disagree with the characterizations. Anyone who reads these stories can weigh the president's remarks and make up his or her own mind.

Have you noticed this increased chatter about Obama replacing Biden with Hillary Clinton? It doesn't seem to make sense to me, so I don't get why it's even being talked about. If she joins the ticket and they lose, she gets branded as a loser too in ways that the secretary of state wouldn't. If she joins the ticket and wins, she's stuck doing whatever he says for the next four years--and I'd argue that, after the 2010 Iraq drawdown (and probably the 2011 Afghanistan drawdown), the VP position will have much less to do. It would be better for her to stick to the more prestigious secretary of state position, then maybe shuffle around to another prestigious appointed position (Robert Gates is retiring...). Not only that, but if Obama changed his vice president, would he risk looking like he was panicking?

  As I said in Media Notes the other day, it's not going to happen, but the August pundits are increasingly glomming onto the idea. I do think it's reasonable to speculate about Hillary going to the Pentagon, especially now that Gates has announced he's stepping down in 2011.

Are you surprised at the media's lack of interest in the president's convoluted stance on same-sex marriage (against it) and the District Court Judge's finding that any prohibition thereof is irrational and unconstitutional (for it)?

  If reporters had a chance to question Obama more often, I'm sure the Prop 8 ruling would have come up. I'm just as sure that the president is trying to stay out of that controversy. His position during the campaign was that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Should he repeat that now, with California slated to resume gay marriages, it would tick off much of his liberal base.

Peter Baker can really only speak for himself. Obviously, he doesn't care about getting a personal feel for this president. He must just want to badger him.

  To the contrary, he said that would be his loss in skipping the presidential lunch, but that this was outweighed by other factors. He was speaking for himself; NYT editors made the decision.

I was curious who journalist decide to disclose if they have a family member working at the White House? Every now and again you hear about one mention, "full disclosure, my wife works for the Office of Legal Counsel in the Obama administration" or something like that, but I never get how they decide when and where to mention it. Plus how close a relative does it have to be? A son? An aunt? A cousin they are very close with? All seems so hurt to navigate to me.

  I'm always in favor of more disclosure, at least where immediate family is concerned, and then readers and viewers can make up their own minds.

Politico wins the title for Most Misleading Headlines. Half the time the article makes a point opposite to the headline. Who, in general is responsible for writing headlines and does the reporter have any recourse if he/she disagrees with the headline?

  Um, Twitter?

  It would be helpful with this kind of criticism if you and others could cite specific examples.

Maybe many people don't exactly know exact names of every piece of legislation - but obama DID pass (well, the House passed, but Obama was totally behind it) a 'stimulus' bill that is going to cost at least a billion dollars THAT WE BORROWED EVERY PENNY OF. Hardly an 'uninformed' electorate.

  Governments often borrow money to stimulate the economy during recession; whether the Obama package was too big (or, some say, too small to get the job done) is a subject of legitimate debate. Interesting how some Republicans who opposed such spending for adding to the deficit are perfectly willing to extend the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250K without paying for it--that is, adding to the deficit.

I notice you often tell your interviewee "I only have 15 seconds," then you proceed to ask a question that requires a much longer response. It seems unnecessarily rude. Why not simply not ask the question?

  I have time cues; the guest doesn't. If there's only 30 seconds before I have to go to break, I like to tell that to guests so they can adjust their answers accordingly. I appreciate it when I'm the guest on someone else's show.

Isn't this what the Press Briefings are for everyday?

  Sure, if you're satisfied with what Robert Gibbs has to say and don't think we need to hear from his boss.

Yes it was: Politico: "Obama walks back mosque stance." In an August 15 Politico article headlined, "Obama walks back mosque stance," Carol E. Lee wrote that Obama "defended his decision to wade into the controversy the night before, but backed off from his previous stance."

  I wasn't speaking for every outlet, but "walking back" or "backing off" are common media terms for someone modifying a position. Had Politico or anyone else concluded that Obama had *changed* his position, you would have seen phrases like "stunning reversal," "180," "flip-flop" and the rest.

  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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