Media Backtalk: Howard Kurtz on the Media -- Scientology, more

Feb 22, 2010

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Feb. 22, at Noon ET to take your comments about the media and press coverage of the news. Today's column: Scientology Church hires reporters to investigate newspaper

How much of a backlash will this be for Carollo, Szechenyi, and Weinberg?

For those who missed this morning's column, I write about how the Church of Scientology hired three veteran investigative journalists to dig into its longtime adversary, the St. Petersburg Times. They have produced a report that the church may or may not make public. I don't know if there will be a backlash or not. The journalists told me they had complete editorial freedom and viewed this as a legitimate assignment, even though they were being paid by one party in an ongoing dispute.  It would be easier to judge their claims if the report was made public.

With The Church of Scientology, do you think it's fair play for the subject of a newspaper's expose to do a counter story on the newspaper? And in this day and age of real-time information and empowered citizen journalists, do you think this possibility will affect a newspaper's approach to covering a story moving forward for fear of reprisals?

 I think any company or organization has the right to turn the tables on the media. The Church of Scientology has been pounding away at the St. Pete Times on its Web site and in its magazine Freedom. What makes this unusual is that three journalists with considerable experience - one a Pulitzer winner, another a former IRE director - took on the assignment on the church's behalf.

Howard, why so much coverage of what is, in essence, a pep rally? There is next to no attempt to have intelligent discussion or speeches about the issues. It's become a joke to see how many conservative hoops a Republican politician will jump through to please the crowd. There is nowhere near enough news content at CPAC to justify the coverage it gets and the media becomes a willing helper to conservatives.

  It is something of a pep rally. But over the years it's also been a good way to gauge the mood and message of the conservative movement. This year you had the extra added benefit of several likely 2012 candidates, including Romney and Pawlenty, addressing the gathering. Last year Rush Limbaugh made big news as they keynote speaker; this year it was Glenn Beck. Still, I've always wondered why there's no comparable liberal gathering that gets anything like this kind of media attention.

Mr. Kurtz: On your show on CNN yesterday you quite rightly criticized Republican members of Congress for their hypocrisy in opposing President Obama's stimulus program and then taking credit for bringing that same pork home to their constituents. Perhaps you could make the same criticism of all Democrats who denounced the Bush tax cuts but nonetheless pocketed the money instead of returning it to the Treasury. Republican Congressman Aaron Schock made this very point to Rachel Maddow on last week's Meet the Press, but you chose to exclude that part of his rejoinder to her on your show yesterday.

 I'm afraid I find your analogy to be rather flawed. Whether Democrats pocket a tax cut they opposed is a personal decision, and I doubt most voters expect them to return the extra money to the Treasury. But Republican lawmakers who denounced the stimulus and then either sought money for their states or trumpeted the grants back home were engaging in a political act of the kind the press normally brands as hypocrisy. My job on Reliable Sources is not to take sides but to explore this question: why did this get so little media attention (with some exceptions, such as the WSJ)? My own view is that those in the minority get far less media attention, but also much less media scrutiny.

Why did the three wire services agree to Tiger Woods's terms to NOT ask questions during his apology event? And even if they had agreed not to ask questions -- why not challenge that at the end and shout out a question anyway?

  I'm with the professional golf writers association, which boycotted the event rather than having its members be used as mere props. The wire service folks, having shown up, didn't have any choice--Tiger's people made clear that their man wouldn't be taking any questions. In other words, it wasn't a news conference, it was a video press release. I wouldn't have minded a couple of shouted questions at the end, just to underscore that Tiger was interested only in one-way communication.

"Still, I've always wondered why there's no comparable liberal gathering that gets anything like this kind of media attention." Well, there is Netroots Nations, once called Yearly Kos, that is a bit more serious and policy-oriented, has some high-profile Dems, but doesn't seem to exist for the media. What's that line? Oh, yeah, the "liberal" media.

  Yearly Kos got a lot of media attention when it launched a few years ago, less so now. I think it should get more. Television, in particular, makes these decisions based on how many big-name speakers you have. And there's one other factor that shouldn't matter, but does. The Kos/Netroots conventions have been held in various cities around the country, which means editors and producers in this downsized age have to decide whether to pony up for the travel costs. CPAC is always in Washington, so all you have to do is send your reporters or camera crew over to the Marriott.

    The next Netroots gathering this summer is in Las Vegas. Hmm--that might be pretty popular!

Howie, your coverage of Tiger Woods has been unparalleled. Why does the rest of the media refuse to recognize the importance of Woods' sex life? Please continue the fine work.

  You know, the people who complain that Tiger isn't real "news" are missing something. There's a reason that ABC, CBS, NBC and the cable news channels carried his apology live, and it goes beyond ratings. This is not just a sports story and not just a sex story. Tiger Woods is one of the most famous people on the planet. He has raked in $100 million a year in corporate endorsements by peddling a family-man image that turned out to be totally bogus. Golf ratings have plummeted 54 percent with him out of action. And the collapse of his career, at least temporarily, is one hell of a human interest story. On Friday, everyone I encountered--women, men, non-sports fans--was talking about Tiger's apology and had strong opinions one way or the other. I thought the WP and NYT erred by not putting the stories on the front page. Sometimes you can't be above the news, and any way you slice it, this was news.

Is it even going to be worth covering? A lineup of people with assigned seats and assigned speaking times and order, its going to be worse than a congressional debate on the floor. Oh how I wish you could just get 5 or 6 elected officials who actually understand all the health care stuff. have them sit at a table and just hash it all out, really having to respond to each other.

  The president of the United States invites Republicans to the White House for a television discussion of his signature domestic priority, which has been on life support? I'd say that's worth covering. Will it be scintillating television? Maybe not. These are complicated issues. Will it be political theater or lead to substantive negotiations? I'm not sure. But it's clearly a pivotal day--especially if the media start focusing on the Republican alternatives on health care, which have drawn very little coverage.

On yesterday's Reliable Sources you did an admirable job of parroting the WH talking points attacking Repubs for showing up at ribbon-cutters after voting against the Stimulus. Repubs can vote against filling the trough with pork, but after it's done, wouldn't it be severely stupid - and politically irresponsible  -- not to line up at the trough? Should they allow only Democratic porkers to take all the money? Your harsh criticism seems ridiculous.

  Some did more than merely line up at the trough. They made appearances or issued press releases boasting about getting grants for their states or districts--money that would not have been available if they had had their way on the stimulus. This is a good subject for debate, which is why we had one liberal commentator (John Aravosis) and one conservative commentator (Amy Holmes, who, by the way, acknowledged the hypocrisy but said it was a minor matter). My main question is why this wasn't more of a story for the press.

Should the media refer to Joe Stack, the Texas guy who flew a plane into a government building, killing one federal worker and injuring others, a terrorist? Or is he just a criminal?

  To me he's a terrorist, a domestic terrorist. I don't know why anyone would be reluctant to use that label. How is this guy any different from Timothy McVeigh, other than that he caused far less damage? Plus, we know he had a specific grievance against the IRS that caused him to target that building. I think "terrorism" has become a label popularly associated with foreign killers such as those in al-Qaeda, but Americans who attempt to engage in mass murder fit the same description, as I see it.

You know, I ask myself that same "why cover it so much" question every four years when the Democrats and Republicans hold their presidential nomination pep rallies.

  And indeed, the broadcast networks, which once covered these things gavel to gavel, have long since cut back to one hour a night since the gatherings became highly scripted affairs. Of course, you have big-name speakers at conventions, culminating in the speeches by the presidential and vice-presidential nominees, which draw huge audiences and have an impact on the campaign. (Indeed, Obama probably wouldn't have won in 2008 had he not given a well-received speech at the 2004 convention.) Occasionally there are disagreements and backstage maneuvering to cover. And it's only once every four years. But you can easily argue that they're overcovered compared to the amount of news that is actually generated.

I didn't see all of C-SPAN's coverage,but what I did see, they covered the "Pep Rally" parts, but I didn't see much coverage of the multiple discussions/meetings that took place throughout the three-day conference. Covering those discussions may have been less entertaining, but would have been more informative.

  That might be true, but it's hard for television to cover multiple panel discussions rather than the main event of major speakers addressing a ballroom. On the other hand, I didn't see much print coverage of the panel discussions either.

Did ESPN really suspend Tony Kornheiser from PTI for criticizing Hannah Storm's fashion sense? Another reason never to visit Bristol.

  I just did a search and here's what Tony said: "Hannah Storm in a horrifying, horrifying outfit today. She's got on red go-go boots and a catholic school plaid skirt ... way too short for somebody in her 40s or maybe early 50s by now."

  The story I found had Kornheiser apologizing to Storm but didn't say anything about a suspension. Tony is an opinionated guy who uses a lot of humor, and occasionally such folks are going to go over the line.

We can all agree it was news for whatever reason, the money, the image, take your pick. What I think got most annoyed was "how" most of this coverage was presented - with Tiger should do this, or do that. And the slew of holier than thou comments, is what really takes the cake. The media created Tiger, whether he went along and benefited or not -- he was and still is a media creation - like ALL the othe other stories the media decides is important. You have to agree Howie, your team decides what gets covered and how much.

  I'm not so sure the media created Tiger. The man is a phenomenal golfer who started winning championships. Did we burnish the Woods legend and allow him to manipulate the coverage? Probably. But he's won more majors than anyone but Jack Nicklaus--that's hard to ignore.

 Have there been a lot of gasbags on TV, giving Tiger advice or scolding him? Sure. Welcome to television. But keep in mind--this was a totally self-inflicted injury on Tiger's part.

Howie, I spent the weekend with my in-laws and they (Dems, by the way) todl me how badly Obama has fared so far. I asked them what made them think he has fared poorly and they repeated mostly what they get from the media (they read WSJ, USA Today and local paper of small southwestern town, plus McNeil/Lehrer). I explained that in my business (finance) I cannot afford to pay too much attention to the media with the exception of the WSJ, but I told them that I could without words show that the Obama presidency has been a remarkably good year for the country ... and proceeded to show chart after chart of perfect V-shapes....stock market before and after, jobs before and after, leading economic indicators before and after. The man had the absolute good fortune to enter the presidency just as every indicator of the country's health was at its zenith and presided over a historical revival. Yet, highly educated and well read people don't know that. How do you account for that?

  I don't think even the most ardent Democrat would argue that Obama hasn't had a difficult first year. Most of his initiatives have been blocked or stalled. Yes, he took office during a financial calamity and has stabilized the economy, but with unemployment at nearly 10 percent, there's still a lot of pain out there and naturally people are going to focus on that. In politics, you don't get much credit for saying things COULDA BEEN WORSE.

Since you are discussing whether there is an equivalent liberal event for CPAC, I just want to note the following information: In Saturday's Washington Post, AP's Washington Bureau Chief Ron Fornier wrote an "analysis" where he noted that Mitt Romney lied at CPAC about the stimulus, Democratic health care proposals, tax policy, and treatment of terrorists. Fornier went on to say that Romney's lies are balanced out because an anonymous blogger at Daily Kos lied by called Dick Cheney a "war criminal" because Cheney admitted to signing off on waterboarding yet has not been convicted. If a journalist like Ron Fornier is saying that the words of CPAC speaker and Republican presidential hopeful are equal to the comments of an anonymous DKos blogger, then I believe that the liberal equivalent of the CPAC convention is me sitting here alone in my underwear and typing this message.

  I thought Fournier's piece was good and that more journalists should aggressively fact-check what politicians of both parties say. But it's a stretch to partially "balance" the piece by comparing a speech by the former governor and presidential candidate to what one unnamed blogger said on the Kos site.

  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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