Howard Kurtz Doubles Down: 'Important' for Media to 'Lead the Conversation' on Guns

On Sunday's Reliable Sources, CNN's Howard Kurtz doubled down on his December column that the media needed "to be leading the conversation" on guns in the wake of Newtown. He even compared the gun debate to the conversations on civil rights and, recently, same-sex marriage. Is gun control the new civil rights movement?

Of course, Kurtz claimed objectivity although since Newtown the media have been anything but fair to gun rights advocates in the "conversation" on guns: "I would say that it's important for journalists, whether you like the phrase 'leading the conversation' or not, to push controversial issues that the politicians otherwise might prefer not to talk about."

Yet New York Times columnist Ross Douthat countered that the media is overwhelmingly one-sided when it tries to push issues into the spotlight, and pointed to the selective outrage behind the Newtown shooting versus the horror stories coming from the Gosnell trial. 

"The press is less likely to look at the Gosnell trial and say let's have a national conversation on abortion because it's an issue that's more likely to make the press a little bit uncomfortable, because I don't think it's any secret that most people who work in our profession lean pro-choice and lean liberal on social issues," Douthat told Kurtz.

"It's more a question of what do you choose as the issue where you choose to crusade on, right? So the press looks at Newtown and says, well, this is a moment when we need to lead a national conversation on gun control," Douthat added.

He did get Kurtz to agree that there's not much "diversity" within the liberal press corps. "I'd actually just like there to have more diversity within the press corps, so you get more interesting stories pushed and more questions asked," he said. Kurtz agreed, "I would like that too."

Below is a transcript of the segment, which aired on Reliable Sources on April 28 at 11:45 a.m. EDT:

HOWARD KURTZ: The Newtown shooting spawned four months of heavy media coverage and a failed congressional effort at expanding background checks, a vote that President Obama called a shameful day. But has the press been rooting for Congress to pass legislation on gun control and other social issues? I spoke earlier with Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times.

(Video Clip)

KURTZ: Ross Douthat, welcome.

ROSS DOUTHAT, columnist, The New York Times: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

KURTZ: The gun control debate, the background check legislation that went down to defeat in the Senate, you see that as a classic example of media bias, media rooting for certain outcomes. Is that fair?

DOUTHAT: I mean, I think it's a little more complicated than that. I think that it's a situation where the press likes to feel like they're in the vanguard of history on certain issues, right? And those are usually social issues and issues like gun control, gay marriage and so on. And I think those are the places where, you know, a lot of people in the press walk a very fine line between sort of trying to report neutrally, but also trying to sort of, you know, be on the winning side and on social issues I think they tend to fall off that tight rope a little bit.

KURTZ: To the point of unfairness sometimes?

DOUTHAT: Yes, to the point of unfairness quite a bit, I would say.

KURTZ: Okay, for example, Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, Democrat and Republican were kind of depicted as heroes for coming together with this compromise, which ultimately failed. And there was so much attention to that legislation and then the day after it didn't get the 60 votes, your newspaper The New York Times said it did not have a chance. Why were we given the impression that it might pass?

DOUTHAT: Well, it was also the intersection, I think, between the sort of vanguard vision of the press' role and the fact that it did have bipartisan support. Right? I think that's the other -- there is also a media bias towards bipartisanship, right? Because when something is bipartisan, it lets journalists who are, again, trying to sort of place things down the middle, be able to sort of root for an outcome. Right? And say look, it's bipartisan, we're not taking sides, we just want this –

KURTZ: Well we're not supposed to root. But you're saying it gives a kind of protective cover to say we're not in the camp of one party or the other.

DOUTHAT: Well, think about how the press covered the Bowles-Simpson deficit plan, right?

KURTZ: By falling asleep.

DOUTHAT: Now I like the Bowles-Simpson deficit plan – I mean, that's how America reacted to the Bowles-Simpson deficit plan, maybe. But there was a sort of sense that because this was a bipartisan document, that it made sense to treat it as a kind of sacred text, I think, in sort of, again, not in sort of the to and fro of politics, but in how the press portrayed it. And again, I liked a lot of things about that document. I'm not totally sorry that the press played it that way, but I think you see that happening again and again.

There is sort of a desire for a -- there is a desire for a figure like Michael Bloomberg, right, to sort of play this sort of post-partisan role as – but that then intersects with the press' tilt on social issues. So when a figure like Bloomberg is mixing it up on guns, he gets to be a sort of bipartisan, post-partisan figure and then the press also gets to sort of congratulate itself for being in history's vanguard. And I think it's –

KURTZ: Self-congratulatory journalists. That is hard for me to get my mind around. Let me turn to the column you wrote in the New York Times, in which you mentioned me. You picked up on something I wrote for the Daily Beast, which was soon after the Newtown massacre, in which I said gun control was an important issue. The press has to be leading the conversation on this.

I certainly didn't say and you didn't say that I had contended that pressured push for gun control, but here's what you wrote, we'll put it up on the screen. This is how the mainstream media tend to cover social issues. It involves acting as a crusading vanguard while denying, often self-righteously, that anything of the sort is happening.

The trouble is that when you set out to lead a conversation, you often end up deciding where it goes, which side wins the arguments, and even who gets to participate. I would say that it's important for journalists, whether you like the phrase "leading the conversation" or not, to push controversial issues that the politicians otherwise might prefer not to talk about.

DOUTHAT: Yeah, no, I think that that's fair and I also think it's fair – look, journalists, you know, it's a hard job, right? The idea that there is a sort of perfect, unbiased position from which to cover the news is often, you know, it's often not achievable –

KURTZ: The easiest thing to do – the easiest thing for journalists to do is to act as stenographers, okay? President Obama said this. John Boehner said this. Experts say this. The harder thing to do when an issue is not being talked about – and gun control was basically not mentioned in the 2012 campaign – same thing, going back a couple of years on, you know, what's going to happen to Social Security and the deficit, these are issues to the politicians they are painful. They don't really want to unwrap it because they are going to tick people off. So I say that the press has an affirmative responsibility to step up and you say, well, maybe but they seem kind of tilted.

DOUTHAT: Look at which issues you step up on, right? I mean, one of the things that conservatives have spent the last few weeks – and not only conservatives complaining about – is the way the press has covered or in most cases, hasn't covered this prominent trial of an abortionist in Philadelphia, Kermit Gosnell. Who is accused of not only letting women die on his operating table, but delivering fetuses, babies and then snipping their spines.

KURTZ: A clear failure by much of the mainstream media, but you would say it's ideological or partial?

DOUTHAT: I would say that the choices that the press makes are not – it's not always a case of explicit bias where you are going to the Gosnell trial and you're writing pieces saying look, this vindicates pro-choice views or something. It's more a question of what do you choose as the issue where you choose to crusade on, right? So the press looks at Newtown and says, well, this is a moment when we need to lead a national conversation on gun control.

The press is less likely to look at the Gosnell trial and say let's have a national conversation on abortion because it's an issue that's more likely to make the press a little bit uncomfortable because I don't think it's any secret that most people who work in our profession lean pro-choice and lean liberal on social issues. So again, it's not – the issue is not that we shouldn't have a crusading press. It's that it would, be we would have a better press maybe if more issue – a wider range of issues were prompting these crusades.

KURTZ: I agree with the leaning left on social issues and I also think that it is a challenge for journalists who have those views, or opposite views, to keep it out of their work. I think we see this on immigration too, although on the one hand, you have the Republican Party trying to come some compromise on immigration reform.

So that's a natural political strategy, but I think you also have journalists saying, look, there's 11 million people here illegally. We're not going to kick them out. Let's have an honest conversation about that. But when you talk about deciding who gets to be in the conversation and where it goes, I think that's where you lose me. Because now you are kind of using code words to say journalists are cooking the books so to speak, in leading that conversation.

DOUTHAT: Well, on immigration. I mean, again, it's tricky, right? But because as you say there are Republicans who are in favor of immigration reform as well as Democrats. But it's also the case that if you look at where is the bipartisan push for immigration reform coming from, right? It is coming from the Wall Street wing of the Republican Party. Right? It's coming from let's say the elite wing of the Republican Party. The Koch brothers wing of the Republican Party.

KURTZ: It sounds like you are all right with the press being out front of these issues. You would like it – your perspective – done in a more even handed fashion.

DOUTHAT: I'd actually just like there to have more diversity within the press corps, so you get more interesting stories pushed and more questions asked.

KURTZ: I would like that too and that's a point that we can agree on to end the conversation. Ross Douthat, thank you for being joining me.

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014