The news that well-known media critic Howard Kurtz was out at CNN and joining Fox News broke late last Friday afternoon in the same way that government agencies admit to internal scandals and poor-performance reports—late at the end of the work week in the hope of the story getting little notice. Kurtz himself broke the news on Twitter, indicating that he knew he was admitting something he was hoping would likely be buried and forgotten by the weekend’s close. (And how right he was, given this week’s avalanche of major news stories.)
Kurtz’s work as a media critic has long been a topic to which I have felt forced to return over and over (and over) in my own work as a media critic. This was not because Kurtz was particularly awful compared to the rest of the pack. Rather, it was due to the fact that he was unarguably the most influential of all media writers within the beltway bubble. Because of that, his weaknesses were often magnified in importance, as were his observations. He was the barometer by which the members of the mainstream media gauged what they considered to be worthy of criticism and what they felt to be A-OK.
The most obvious service that Kurtz provided to the rest of the mainstream media was to render the notion of conflict of interest obsolete. Kurtz covered media at The Washington Post for 20 years where he was presumably paid a decent salary to report on the rest of the media, leaving for Newsweek/The Daily Beast in 2010. He also worked for CNN where, for 15 years, he was also paid a decent salary to report on the rest of the media. He also frequently published books, which reported on the media, and in 2003 married Republican media consultant Sheri Annis, whose job it is to manipulate the media on behalf of her clients (who, on occasion, enjoyed the promotional push of an appearance on Howard Kurtz’s CNN show “Reliable Sources”). The problem with all of the above ought to be obvious. His marriage aside, the concern here was not, as politicians so often put it, “the appearance of a conflict of interest.” It was the fact that it was a “conflict of interest.”
Kurtz had to be constantly concerned with angering any or all of his many employers while simultaneously “honestly” reporting on those same employers. What’s more, he had to make this calculation in just about every story he wrote, regardless of whether it involved one of his employers or not. After all, it’s not as if the folks at CNN are not interested in how the media treat MSNBC, or as if the folks at The Washington Post have no feelings about how stories about The New York Times are written. Book publishers have competition too, and almost everyone in each of these media industries follows extremely closely the gossip on one another. (Married media consultants, too, tend to be interested in how their and other people’s clients are treated.)
Each one of these companies, moreover, has owners in parent companies and partners elsewhere in the media. How each one of these properties is covered is also a matter of deep concern and, hence, all this cross-ownership can make it extremely difficult for a diligent reporter to do his or her job honestly. Suffice it to say that while this is a problem for many reporters in an age of media concentration, nobody had more connections and complications than Howard Kurtz. But in his case, pretty much all of his employers apparently agreed to pretend that such conflicts did not exist. This gave a pass to many others in the rest of the media to ignore their own conflicts of interest as well. There is no sense, everyone knows, in trying to be “holier than the Pope.” If the top media reporter at The Washington Post and at CNN is allowed to ignore such rules, then everybody else ought to be as well. Merely by holding these positions simultaneously, Kurtz lowered the bar for integrity in reporting. The Washington Post’s Eric Wemple all but makes this case, however inadvertently, when he declares, “Kurtz has developed his own personal doctrine of absolute centrism over decades in the business. He’s highly resistant to ideological corruption.”
But Kurtz was not simply a symbol of the media—he was an actual reporter as well. And in each of his professional roles, he represented many of the problems that high-level members of the media frequently demonstrate. As indicated above, I have written about these issues with considerable frequency over the years and there is a long section on Kurtz in my 2003 book, What Liberal Media. Lately, however, I’ve been focusing on what I found to be a curious phenomenon in Kurtz’s work: the lavish and often loving attention he devoted to Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch. (You can find examples of “Think Again” columns that deal with this topic here, here, here, and here for starters. Note, in particular, Kurtz’s criticism of the late Michael Hastings for the crime of doing actual journalism.) Likewise, Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald tallies up a bunch of recent love letters sent to Fox News and its parent company News Corp. in what he calls “a true love story.” And one highlight: According to Kurtz, Karl Rove is “generally fair-minded in his commentary.”
The reason these examples are particularly important is twofold. As I’ve noted in my columns, again, with some frequency, Fox News is not a news operation. As I tried to explain on this site back in October 2010:
Fox is something new—something for which we do not yet have a word. It provides almost no actual journalism. Instead it gives ideological guidance to the Republican Party and millions of its supporters, attacking its opponents and keeping its supporters in line. And it does so at a hefty profit, thereby turning itself into the political equivalent of a perpetual motion machine.
But in treating it as if it were no different than any other media organization, Kurtz not only offers the network desperately needed legitimacy, but by extension his praise gives a journalistic seal of approval to the myriad practices of Fox News personalities—practices that should have demonstrated to all the lack of journalistic standards.
Finally, it pays to take a look at the recent steps in Kurtz’s career that led him to join Fox News in the first place. True, despite Sean Hannity regularly pillorying the “liberal” Kurtz, calling him a “nitwit” who is “full of crap, and a sanctimonious, self-righteous, phony establishment journalist,” the media critic was doing just the kind of thing designed to get you hired by Fox. It wasn’t just the love Kurtz offered Murdoch and Ailes, and the rest; it was the nature and specifics of his work itself.
Kurtz was forced out of The Daily Beast and CNN and onto Fox in the wake of a blog post he wrote—and The Daily Beast retracted—in which Kurtz falsely insisted that NBA star Jason Collins, the first openly gay male athlete in any major professional sport—and not incidentally, a black man—failed to admit that he had once been engaged to a woman. In fact, Collins had not only done so in the article he wrote in Sports Illustrated, but he had also said so on ABC News. So Kurtz was both petty and sloppy and, moreover, engaged in some deeply tawdry tut-tutting toward exactly the kind of person who is so often the subject of various forms of prejudice and mistreatment on Fox News—gay or of color, and in Collins’s case, both. (It’s a wonder Kurtz did not accuse Collins of having been born in Kenya and/or of harboring secret Islamic tendencies.)
Let’s recall just a few recently disgraced journalists who followed a similar path to Kurtz and have also ended up at Fox News. There’s Juan Williams, who lost his job at NPR for announcing (on Fox News) that he got “worried” and “nervous” when he saw people in “Muslim garb” on airplanes. And of course who can forget ex-New York Times reporter Judith Miller. She landed on Fox after facing disgrace in her former position at The New York Times for having accepted and passed along any number of the many lies and distortions the Bush administration repeatedly offered to justify its desire to invade Iraq, oftentimes on the paper’s front page.
In hiring these reporters, Fox announces to the world the kind of “journalism” it prizes. And now with the hiring of Howard Kurtz the network has found a perfect fit. But it sure makes one wonder why it took so long for these two kindred souls—Kurtz and Fox—to finally tie the knot.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.