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The Wayward Critic

Howard Kurtz and the decline of media criticism.

Once "the most important media reporter in America," as Franklin Foer described him in 2000, media critic Howard Kurtz parted ways Thursday with the Newsweek/The Daily Beast after errors in a column about gay NBA player Jason Collins. "Kurtz's modern-day Victorianism is typical," Foer wrote twelve years ago. "It's not pernicious; but it's tedious, and it trivializes journalism."

Howard Kurtz has been busy. Last year The Washington Post's media reporter wrote over 199 articles—more than the paper's Supreme Court reporter (130) or even its chief White House correspondent (195). Kurtz doubles as co-host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," a forum for reporters to chew over the sins of other reporters. His books on the sad decline of newspapers, talk-show blowhards, and the Clinton propaganda machine inhabit the increasingly crowded "media studies" corner of your neighborhood Barnes and Noble. (The subject covers nearly as much shelf space as philosophy in my neighborhood megastore.)

Kurtz is probably the most important media reporter in America, and with good reason. He's not only tireless; he's an unusually gifted newshound. He consistently scoops his competitors, uncovering the story behind ABC's decision to can Bill Kristol or detailing the rivalry between Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin. But Kurtz sees his primary beat as media ethics, and he devotes most of his talent to uncovering apparent transgressions thereof. "The press should be held accountable, the same way they treat everybody else," he likes to say.

Some of Kurtz's discoveries are useful—for instance, his revelation that Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts received speaking fees in the tens of thousands from interest groups, like the Electronic Industry Association, that they might potentially cover. But unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) there are not enough true outrages to justify 30 columns a year, let alone hundreds. So Kurtz's exposes often seem rather picayune. He's railed against the Christmas freebies high-tech companies give the reporters who cover them. He weighed in three times on Leonardo DiCaprio's interview with President Clinton. He admonished the New York Post for its rough treatment of Hillary Clinton, as if he expected the unabashedly conservative newspaper to do otherwise. He questioned Newsweek's hiring of liberal columnist Anna Quindlen, because she endorsed Bill Bradley's presidential bid. And, when Roll Call executive editor Morton Kondracke disclosed that he personally lobbied for more funding for Parkinson's research, Kurtz furrowed his brow: "Should a political columnist be asking members of Congress for their votes?" But there was a reason for Kondracke's actions: His wife suffers from the disease.

Kurtz's modern-day Victorianism is typical: a glance at the work of Steven Brill of Brill's Content, the Los Angeles Times's David Shaw, Bernard Kalb (Kurtz's "Reliable Sources" co-host), or any of a dozen other media critics turns up the same sensibility. It's not pernicious; but it's tedious, and it trivializes journalism. And it's not the only way to write about the media. There's another tradition, now largely forgotten, that judges what's on the page, as opposed to how it got there. It was pioneered in the 1940s and '50s by the late A.J. Liebling, who considered journalism a craft and media criticism a close cousin of literary criticism. By contrast, Kurtz and the media muckrakers approach journalism the way reporters approach the Agriculture Department or the American Dental Association: as just another institution or business to follow. It makes for duller reading, not only in the columns these critics inhabit but, even more importantly, in the pages they critique.

To understand the muckrakers' mindset, look no further than Howard Kurtz's resume. Kurtz broke into the business as an investigative journalist and made his name poking around the Reagan administration's sty in the early '80s. Each time Kurtz exposed an official, his colleagues would tack a paper fish to his desk. In the end, Kurtz had caught quite a few big fish. Brill followed a similar path—in his twenties he wrote a book exposing the Teamsters—and both men view their stints as media critics as a phase in their careers as investigative journalists. Now the media, rather than government, business, or labor, is the corrupt institution they're holding accountable. Kurtz has called the press a "remote, arrogant part of the governing elite."

It's no coincidence that so many media critics began their careers as investigative reporters. The two disciplines emerged from the womb only moments apart during the late '60s. As opposition to Vietnam increased, newspaper editors fretted that the government was deceitful (thus the need for investigative journalists) and that the press was being duped (thus the need for media critics). Outside criticism heightened their fears. The New Left decried the media's "illusion of objectivity" and complicity with the corporate establishment. So, like many other American institutions in the '60s and '70s, the media internalized the values of its critics. By employing reporters to investigate the press, the press would battle its corruption from within.

But, like so many Watergate-era reforms intended to shore up democracy's foundations, media muckraking has faltered. It has hardly restored public trust in journalism. According to a recent Kurtz column, citing a Pew Research Center poll, "a breathtaking proportion of the country thinks journalists are close to pond scum." To some degree, that's because Kurtz and his colleagues have drawn public attention to the real journalistic abuses that do occur: people like the media less because they see its dirty laundry. But, at best, that's only part of the story. In reality, journalists are far more careful about conflicts of interest today than they were in the past. The muckrakers' obsession with corruption has undermined journalism's reputation in another—less defensible—way.

Although not terribly ideological in person, today's media critics inhabit a role whose assumptions were framed by the New Left. Their writing betrays a deep materialism: it sees journalism less as a venue for independent thought than as a conduit for hidden interests. Kurtz's real problem isn't that many of the conflicts he exposes are trivial; his true sins are ones of omission. By focusing on the machinations behind the writing, he doesn't take seriously the writing itself—as a vehicle either for ideas or for beauty. And, as a result, he implicitly tells his readers that journalism is not a craft worth admiring. When I asked Kurtz about legendary columnist Walter Lippmann's well-documented friendships with politicians, he said: "I guess he came from a different era with different assumptions. But it's still beyond my comprehension. How could a good reporter put himself in that position?" WhatKurtz misses is that Lippmann was foremost a thinker—he wrote to further a vision of the world. It's possible that he soft-pedaled criticisms of the pols he befriended. But to see him as corrupt largely misses the point: His friendships, like his work, stemmed not from personal interests but from a system of beliefs. Which is what Kurtz's work consistently ignores.

In the mid-twentieth century, media criticism was epitomized by a different sort of man: A.J. Liebling. From 1945 until his death in 1963, Liebling wrote the "Wayward Press" column for The New YorkerThough his output didn't quite reach Kurtzian levels, he was boastful nonetheless: he could "write better than anyone who could write faster, and faster than anyone who could write better." Liebling is widely considered the patron saint of media criticism, and Kurtz says Liebling is his hero, too. But their approaches to the subject could not be more different.

While Kurtz and his colleagues focus on journalists' offstage antics—speaking fees, hidden conflicts of interest, the machinations of apparatchiks at Conde Nast—Liebling dwelled on the work itself. Following the lead of New Critics like R.P. Blackmur and Cleanth Brooks, his weekly essays were close textual analyses. He treated newspapers as the New Critics treated poems. He hated "colorless, odorless" prose and skewered the Columbia School of Journalism—which he believed taught bad writing—because he felt it produced journalists unworthy of the degree it conferred, the bachelor's of literature.

In nearly every one of his columns, Liebling would compare the daily newspapers' coverage of an event, like the Alger Hiss trial or Stalin's death—sorting through competing facts, poking holes in specious logic, and ridiculing bad writing. When reporters sensationalized, he zinged them. In one instance, he took the Journal-American to task for predicting that 100,000 anti-communist picketers would turn out for a New York meeting featuring Soviet bloc speakers; in the end, only 150 showed up. "Calmly handled, the story would have had all the thrill of an account of a unesco meeting," Liebling wrote. By contrast, he praised the Times's account of the panel: "[T]he best way to describe how dull a dull event is to tell it straight; the trouble with writing ominously about this sort of thing is that you make it sound ominous, and the trouble with being amusing is that you make it sound amusing. The best way to kill Communism is to give it several pages in the Times every Sunday."

To be sure, Liebling broke stories. In 1948, he singlehandedly brought attention to Mississippi's plans for a secret police force, a story he found buried in the back of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. As a result of Liebling's columns, Mississippi dropped its efforts. His classic piece "The Great Gouamba" debunked the meat shortage of 1946, a story hyped by every New York paper. But the best Liebling columns dwelled on journalism as a craft, skewering the burbles of obituaries, the vacuities of headlines, and the overwrought prose of the sportswriter ("upon small, coiled springs of fact, he builds up a great padded mattress of words").

While Kurtz is generally uninterested in the ideologies of writers (except as they reflect bias) and therefore tries to eschew ideology himself, Liebling was an unabashed liberal. He took swipes at the media's anti-unionism and its reflexive anti-communism. And Liebling didn't attack writers like Lippmann for being friends with politicians—he attacked them for their opinions.

There's no doubt Liebling could be an ungenerous critic. Much of what he read in the papers sparked, as he himself put it, "severe attacks of mental hives or prickly heat. Occasionally they verged on what psychiatrists call the disturbed or assaultative." However, if Liebling's criticism sounded grumpy, it was the voice of disappointment. Like his editors at The New Yorker, he maintained an almost naive faith in the capacity of mass-circulation publications, even broadsheets, to serve as vehicles for literary prose. "I am an incorrigible optimist about newspapers," he wrote. No one reading "The Wayward Press" could deny that Liebling was critiquing a craft—even an art—that he loved.

A few contemporary critics occasionally write in Liebling's spirit—Vanity Fair's James Wolcott or The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg among them. But Kurtz's approach is by far the dominant one, and, in comparison with Liebling's humanism, he sounds like an East German figure-skating judge, docking reporters for technicalities. His columns are filled with small (if not banal) complaints cast as large insinuations. When CNN and NPR announced they would no longer hire interns from the Army's Psychological Operations Unit, Kurtz said the old practice "raised questions about the news organizations' independence from the military establishment they cover." Even when reporters acknowledge their potential conflicts of interest, it's usually not enough to satisfy Kurtz. In his March 27 "Media Notes," he reported that "60 Minutes" followed an upbeat piece on with the disclosure that the segment's producer had gone on to a job at the e-business. They disclosed it. So why did Kurtz need to disclose it again?

What Kurtz doesn't cover is prose and ideas. A column last August arguing that David Remnick had reinvented The New Yorker didn't describe any of the pieces the new editor had commissioned. Or consider a lengthy, puffy profile of Weekly Standard staff writer Tucker Carlson, which included only a few phrases of Carlson's writing. Instead, Kurtz dwelled on Carlson's TV persona, and the result was predictably superficial. "Carlson views journalism like his favorite college pastime, hitchhiking: a ticket to meeting interesting people," Kurtz wrote. "And despite his multimedia commitments, he doesn't worry about spreading himself too thin—for now."

Kurtz's inattention to the writing itself often gives his criticism a "forest for the trees" quality. He has barely taken note of the dumbing-down of once-middlebrow magazines like GQ and Esquire as they have tried to compete with the new breed of raunchier men's magazines, like Maxim. He has barely struggled with the civic-journalism fad—and the vision of the press that it embodies. And, although he has covered mergers, his discussion of media consolidation has amounted to little more than perfunctory quotes from Kalb. He writes about the potential for corruption and the impact of the bottom line, but he doesn't write about how the melding of different journalistic cultures changes the way reporters and editors think.

Compare the way Kurtz writes about journalism to the way The Washington Post's book critics review books, or the way its movie critics dissect film, or even the way its TV critic writes about television. The others view their mediums as vehicles for discussing the ideas conveyed in the works. To focus only on the production process would be considered crude, an attack on the idea that books and movies and TV shows represent forms of art. All of which raises a strange and troubling question, the kind of question you'd like a media critic to ask: What does Howard Kurtz's coverage of the press say about the Post's view of itself?

Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic and has written for Slate and New York magazine. His book, How Soccer Explains the World, was published in 2004.

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