Howard Kurtz’s Off-the-Cuff Criticism

Howard Kurtz (cc photo: David Shankbone)

Howard Kurtz (cc photo: David Shankbone)

Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote in his column today:

McCain is never going to draw the kind of attention for his mortgage bailout plan that he did for telling David Letterman he “screwed up” by canceling an earlier appearance, or that Palin did in appearing with Tina Fey on Saturday night.

Really? I had my intern, Daniel Ward, look up some numbers. A search on Nexis for “McCain and Letterman and screwed up” turned up one story apiece on the news ABC and NBC, and three stories on CBS–which airs the Letterman show. Meanwhile, the Washington Post, L.A. Times and USA Today all seem to have covered the “screwed up” story twice, and the New York Times once. (These figures have all been checked to eliminate false positives, though it’s harder to be certain that relevant stories weren’t missed.)

How does that compare with coverage of McCain’s bailout plan? A search for “McCain and mortgage and $300 billion”–the announced size of his plan–turned up seven stories on ABC and six stories on NBC–so these networks, sensibly enough, seem to have considered the mortgage plan to be substantially more newsworthy than McCain screwing up with Letterman. (We found only two CBS stories on the mortgage plan, so that network may have considered McCain’s appearance on its own late-night show to be of greater import.)

The newspapers likewise seem to have given much more play to the mortgage plan, with nine stories turning up in the Post and L.A. Times, seven in USA Today and six in the New York Times–between 3.5 and 6 times as many stories as were found on the Letterman “screw up.”

The comparison to Palin’s SNL appearance is a little more mixed–we found only two stories on ABC about Palin and the show after her appearance was announced on October 9, far fewer than that network aired on the mortgage plan, but NBC found the vice presidential candidate’s cameo on its comedy program to be worth a startling 15 mentions. CBS, which didn’t do much with the mortgage plan, found time for five stories about Palin on SNL.

The newspapers, though, all printed fewer stories about the Palin cameo, except for the New York Times, in which we found six on each. (It’s “live from New York,” I guess.) With the L.A. Times, we found four Palin-on-SNL stories and three for both the Washington Post and USA Today.

Obviously, you could argue that McCain’s proposal to solve the mortgage crisis merited many times more coverage than his Letterman apology or Palin’s SNL stunt. But to say that his bailout plan was “is never going to draw the kind of attention” as those fluffier stories is inaccurate–and sloppy.

I’ve been in the media criticism business long enough to remember when Howard Kurtz had a well-deserved reputation for going the extra distance to check what he printed. What happened to that reporter?

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.