The Washington Post

Media Backtalk with Howard Kurtz

Aug 30, 2010

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

It appears Time is going to be the winner of the battle. The place Time needs to exploit which would make it a success is in investigative journalism and in reporting the long drawn out stories. In today's media the TV news forgets the disasters and moves on to the next disaster so you don't know what is going on after the media left. There are numerous examples...the latest being the Pakistan flood. The other stories I have always been attracted to in either Time or Newsweek were the stories on topics that aren't covered in major media. Some of these stories could be a local story that could potentially become big like a court case. Some of these stories would be similar to what the Post used to publish on Page 3 in Sunday's paper.

Time magazine comes out on top

  Original reporting doesn't always have to be investigative in nature. I thought the new cover story, Rethinking Homeownership, was a smart and contrarian look at something we've all taken for granted--that more people buying homes, with government tax breaks, is always a good thing. What's important is to break new ground -- journalistically, intellectually - and not just repackage what everyone else is doing.

Glad to see that Time Magazine is undergoing a resurgence. However, in this day and age, unfortunately, I think that the printed magazine is going the way of the dinosaur. Record stores are virtually gone in the era of mp3 players. The new wave with books is e-books. USA is betting the farm that we're going to be getting all of our information in the future on iPads and smartphones. Is Time making the right decision as holding on to the printed magazine as their signature product?

  For now, sure. If 3.25 million people are willing to buy your print magazine every week, why give that up? Print advertising revenue still far exceeds what you can make online. But Time's Web site has also surged in traffic, so the company is very mindful of its digital future. These days, you'd have to be crazy not to be.

Why did the legitimate Press not expose Ken Mehlman's hypocrisy of publically advocating against gay rights issues when he worked for President George Bush and/or was Chairman of the RNC -- all while being gay? You think many in the Press with all of its constitutional protections enabling it to uncover things didn't know Mehlman was gay, did the press protect Mehlman or what? If the press protected Mehlman, why? The press had no qualms about exposing President Clinton after he said publicly he didn't have sex with that woman. Given Melhman's former jobs, certainly his public statements on gay rights/issues affected public policy as well as the political positions of Bush and the Republican party. Now he admits he was gay at the time and continues to be gay with scant coverage by the press. Why the Press double standard?

  Your premise, that the press protected Ken Mehlman, is wrong. As a journalist, how do you prove someone who doesn't acknowledge it is gay? In fact, Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, who broke the story with Mehlman's cooperation, told me he tried to verify that Mehlman was gay back in the RNC/Bush campaign days but could not come up with the evidence.

   Let me remind you that the world learned about Monica Lewinsky because Clinton was under investigation by a special prosecutor. So the two situations aren't remotely comparable.

Liked your interview sunday with Ross Douthat. I read his weekly column and think he is an interesting thinker and writer, but I oftern have trouble figuring out what point he is trying to make. He usually frames an issue or event in competing ways--sometimes using research to back one or both sides of an argument. Even if I don't agree with his premise, which I often don't, I find his thought process interesting, well-written and civil. Where he loses me is in his concluding remarks-- most columnists have a POV which they clearly advocate. Ross's is either so sutble I don't get it or muddled -- so I was very happy to hear your question Re: his last column--- "What did you mean./?"' Thank you. I often wonder what point he is trying to make. Why doesn't CNN repeat your show on Sunday like they do State of the Union or GPS?

   Thanks. Columnists have different styles, and Ross Douthat's seems to be to analyze issues from an intellectual perspective rather than just pounding home what he happens to think. In fact, I asked him if he was taking an overly intellectual approach to the emotional issue of gay marriage.

  No replay is in the cards, but we post some of the interviews online and (plug coming) you can also get the podcast of Reliable Sources each week.

There have been numerous reports on the turnout...are there anyreal numbers?

   Don't know how you define "real." Crowd estimates are notoriously difficult. AP said 87,000, CBS said 300,000, Beck has said as many as 600,000. I have no way of knowing, but clearly, even at the lower ranges, it was a big turnout, especially for a talk show guy.

Given all the media coverage pre-rally, didn't Beck accomplish what he intended to do, which was to gain the publicity of the event?

 Absolutely, no question about it. Beck's detractors on MSNBC ended up covering the runup far more than Fox News. And by avoiding any explicit political rhetoric, Beck basically did what he said he was going to do at the Lincoln Memorial. Of course, he then bashed Obama the next day on Fox News Sunday (while finally admitting he was wrong in calling the president a racist).

I watched the Glenn Beck rally, and I got the impression he was holding back on his punches. It was remarkably non-political, in contrast to Beck's Fox News show. Even Sarah Palin avoided political shots. My question is why?

 Because that was what he and Palin had said they were going to do, especially given the undeniable echoes of Martin Luther King and 8/28. And had they given conservative red-meat speeches, they would have been roundly denounced for breaking their word and turning the rally into a conservative event.

Howard: I think you're still letting Mr. Beck off the hook easily. Yes, he walked back his statement about the president being a racist slightly. But he didn't change his main theory at all. That's a serious accusation and nobody seems to want to challenge him on it. Why are you and other journalists refusing to push Mr. Beck on this issue to come up with specific occurrences to back up this view? I don't ever recall any other president being charged with something like this.

  I'm not letting him off the hook at all, I'm reporting what he said. The retraction of the racism charge would have been a lot more convincing if Beck hadn't waited a year to do it. (He says he's clarified before, but not like this.)

Im sorry, digital will never replace all print magazines . There are nuances to the magazine reading experience that just won't let that happen . I'm tired of the hype by thei Internt/tech types that are anti paper. Thank you for taking my statement .

 You have to keep subscribing, then.

Fox News likes to claim that it's news division, as opposed to its opnion programming, is not right-wing. Yet when former RNC chair Ken Mehlman came out, Fox ran exactly zero segments on the story. How can you explain this, other than admitting that it conflicts with their ideology, so they choose to ignore it?

  I find it inexplicable. It was reported and discussed on Friday on Bret Baier's Special Report, which is a straight-news program. But nothing from O'Reilly, Hannity, Beck, Fox & Friends, etc.? For the former head of President Bush's reelection campaign to come out and say a) he's gay, and b) he's in favor of gay marriage is news by any definition.

Howard, is it appropriate for the reputable news media to still refer to Fox as a "News" network? Didn't they finally give up that pretense when they came out as the GOP's propaganda wing, by donating a million dollars to them? If that doesn't remove one's credibility, exactly what would?

  By that standard, the Wall Street Journal is not a real newspaper, either, since it's the parent company, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., that made the donation. I think to give a million bucks to one side and zip to the other looks bad and that Murdoch shouldn't have done it. But as I've reported, the corporate side of many media companies have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to both Republican and Democratic candidates and committees.

Wasnt it a little late for Fox News to pretend they had nothing to do with the Glenn Beck event , since it was advertised non stop on certain Fox programming. Is it not troubling for a cable news outlet to be this overtly political?

  Actually, Fox kept its distance much more than during the runup to Beck's 9/12 rallies. I heard no other host talk about it, except for the times when Beck was a guest on O'Reilly and on Fox & Friends. And Fox didn't even cover the thing for the first two hours, sticking with taped business programming. Obviously Fox gives Beck a huge platform, but as a network it wasn't pushing this thing.

Beck retracted an explicit statement for a less overt statement with the same basic effect and meaning: Pres. Obama is not one of us and cannot be trusted. Unfortunately in the current climate, it seems like he gets to have it both ways: credit for retracting an odious statement and restating it in subtler ways. Beck seems to believe his own PR these days, so it's just a matter of time before he talks himself off the proverbial cliff.

 He certainly followed up his retraction (which came because Chris Wallace pressed him) with criticism about how most people don't recognize Obama's brand of Christianity.

Glad for Jon that he received another Emmy( like he needed one), between his new/s montages of news people acting ridiculous and your show on Sunday at least there is some media accountability. Did you ever think your most successful partner in crime would be a comedian?

  I did -- when Jon was on my program several years ago, before he was as huge as he is now, I said, this guy is one helluva media critic! Then he went on Crossfire and eviscerated that program. I wish I had his army of Tivo researchers.

I thought his speech was very inspirational, especially the part about each of us being important in a democracy and that each of us has a responsibility to do good. Of course, I liked it better when Obama made that same point during the 2008 campaign season.

  Hard to argue with platitudes like that. Beck took pains to make much of his rhetoric on Saturday inclusive (unless you're not religious), as opposed to the more divisive commentary he delivers on TV and radio.

It looks like USA Today is betting on its digital future as opposed to print, and reorganizing its news operations for a digital future. But the bulk of revenues still come from print. Do you agree that digital is the future for newspapers, or is that a bad business plan and will still have a future of printing papers?

  I believe printed newspapers will be around for a long time. But any media company that isn't pursuing a digital strategy along with a print strategy should be sued for corporate malpractice. USA Today's print circulation has been declining, but it's still 1.8 million, and it is one of only three national newspapers. Still, virtually every paper, including The Post, has not been able to maintain the large newsrooms built up during better economic times for the industry.

Howard Why does the mainstream media allow issues like Obama's religion and birthplace to be a subject of debate? What happened to professional journalism? Is it all just partisan bickering and distortion?

  Why do we "allow" it? Do we control all discourse in this country? The overwhelmingly majority of journalists on commentators say the questions about Obama's religion and birthplace are nonsense. And yet, along comes a Pew poll showing that 18 percent believe he's a Muslim and 43 percent don't know the president's religion. That is news. It also represents a media failure on some level. And, as we saw in the debate over the phony death panels, which were described as false by a number of major news organizations, including The Post, plenty of people just don't believe what the media say.

"Original reporting doesn't always have to be investigative in nature" How do you think they come up with the report if they don't investigate it, Howie?

  I see it's time for semantics. In that sense, all reporting is investigative. You are digging out information, even if it's routine information. What I meant was, a newsmagazine doesn't have to engage only in the classic investigations where classified documents are obtained and anonymous sources whisper secrets in parking garages. They can scrutinize a subject (like housing or Islamophobia) and offer a fresh take, contrarian view or detailed analysis that adds to the public conversation.

The Daily Show will be on vacation for 2 weeks. I wish we could see Jon's reaction to Beck and Palin.

  I hate when that happens!

I think "inexplicable" is the wrong word to use re: the lack of coverage on Fox News of Mehlman's coming out. "Inexplicable" literally means "without explanation." I think there is an explanation: Mehlman's coming out reveals a certain level of hypocrisy among conservative Republican leadership. To give it play also requires highlighting the socially conservative aspects of the Republican party. Neither of these things helps the Republicans in the fall. So, as a result, no airtime on Fox.

  But even if that's the case, Fox could have had on commentators or guests who argued that it wasn't a big deal or it was purely personal. To not engage at all on the story, except on one newscast, was strange.

That was quite a coup for Chris Wallace, getting an exclusive interview with Glenn Beck.

  Don't know how he pulled it off.

I'm curious what makes the WAPO run a soft news story on embryonic stem cell trials so soon after Judge Lambreth's decision that temporarily at least has put the brakes on all federal funding of embryonic stem cell trials. As the story makes clear, there's more than the usual level of scientific uncertainty associated with these trials, and one might think that the companies involved might want to downplay them until the dust from the judge's opinion settles. Any idea what the thinking is here?

  There was a news peg: scientists are about to inject these stem cells in a major human test.

How much of Time's ability to withstand the current unpleasantness would you attribute to being part of Time Warner? My thought is that the infrastructure of a company with hundreds of titles and a news network might offer strengths that Newsweek or US News might not enjoy.

  Rick Stengel acknowledged that his magazine benefits greatly from being backed by the resources of Time Warner. Overhead costs can be shared and advertising can be sold not just for Time but for People, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, etc. One of Newsweek's disadvantages, as Editor Jon Meacham has noted, is that The Post was a one-magazine company, so those economies weren't available.

Your complimentary column last week on the move by Major Garrett of Fox News had the White House Press Office lauding him as well as a news pro. Wasn't that the same white House Press Office that said Fox was not a news organization?

  Actually, I quoted Robert Gibbs in that piece. It was in a CNN interview with me last fall that Anita Dunn, then the White House communications director, both ripped Fox News as a wing of the Republican Party and exempted Major Garrett by saying he was a fair reporter.

I have another take on who is to blame for large numbers of Americans thinking Obama is a Muslim..Why don't we blame the people for a change?..The media seems to be afraid to come out and say plainly that many Americans are dangerously and happily uninformed and seem to prefer the bumper sticker quotations to in depth understanding of an issue..

  I don't mind saying that some Americans are misinformed or don't care about getting informed. But when more than half the country, according to this poll, doesn't know the president is a Christian--and the percentage has gone up since he took office--something is seriously wrong.

Do you think Lawrence O'Donnell will be able to surpass AC360 in ratings when he comes on the air? After awhile don't all theMSNBC hosts say the same thing just in a different way?

  I don't know how he'll do in the ratings, but the hosts are very different personalities. Does anyone think Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow take an identical approach? Lawrence brings a depth of knowledge of having been a top Democratic staffer for years on Capitol Hill (not to mention a writer for West Wing).

Did Sarah Palin speak for free? That would be uncharacteristic of her recent appearances, but I suppose the publicity blitz was its own reward.

 I don't know, but I didn't see any report about her being paid. It's not like she's hurting for money these days.

Howard, I would argue that the president has a much larger platform than Mr. Beck, and he is much more divisive. In fact, wouldn't you agree that Mr. Obama's rhetoric post-election has been significantly more divisive than his campaign rhetoric? Do you suppose that is a part of the reason his poll numbers are precipitous?

  I think Obama spent a long time engaging in conciliatory rhetoric and trying to reach out to Republicans. His more partisan rhetoric of late reflects the fact that the GOP has fought him on just about every issue and, in case you hadn't noticed, the midterm elections are coming up. At this point the White House would be happy to hang onto control of both houses by whatever margin.

  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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