When Howard Kurtz joined Fox News as a host and media analyst, he claimed he'd bring to the network an “independent brand of media criticism” with “the freedom to criticize anyone,” including his new employer. But a Media Matters analysis of Kurtz's television appearances and online columns during his first two months on the job finds that Kurtz has almost entirely avoided criticizing Fox News, ignoring controversies related to the network that have been widely covered elsewhere. Kurtz even misrepresented his own work, suggesting he had debunked a Fox host's falsehood after that host apologized when Kurtz had actually uncritically promoted it.
Fox News announced in June that the veteran media reporter would join the network on July 1. Kurtz's new weekend media program, MediaBuzz, will debut on September 8 and “focus on the state of the news media in addition to the media's shaping of current events and their role in politics.” The show replaces Fox News Watch, a program ridiculed for its conservative slant and habit of turning a blind eye to controversies involving Fox News.
Kurtz made 20 appearances on Fox News, Fox Broadcasting, and Fox Business between his hiring and the release of this report. During these appearances, Kurtz only directly criticized Fox News once -- a tepid reproach about Fox and other networks re-airing Miley Cyrus' performance at MTV's Video Music Awards
Kurtz has also almost entirely avoided criticizing Fox and its personalities in the 17 columns he has written so far for FoxNews.com under the “Media Buzz” masthead.
There have been ample opportunities for such criticism. Kurtz has ignored several media stories related to Fox News that have been widely covered elsewhere, defying the statement he made while working for CNN that he “always” covers controversies related to his employer, and failing to do so signals “a double standard” to viewers that “can undermine your credibility.”
While working for CNN, The Washington Post, and The Daily Beast, Kurtz has at times been critical of Fox News and its employees, including several instances where he cited Media Matters. But in his first few months at Fox News, Kurtz seemed more focused on pleasing his new colleagues than being an “independent” media analyst. With the debut of his new program, Kurtz has a chance to prove his independence -- or be just another part of Fox's “defend the family” atmosphere.
Kurtz On TV: Blind Eye To Fox
During his 20 Fox appearances, Kurtz only directly criticized Fox News once -- when it came to coverage of Miley Cyrus' performance at MTV's Video Music Awards. Kurtz said during that August 27 segment, “Every single time the video is posted on some website, that we show it here, on other cable news networks, we are part of the problem, we are playing into the hands of those who want to wallow in this sort of thing.”
In another instance, Kurtz appeared to criticize Fox but used it as a launching point to paint its main cable rivals in a worse light. While discussing coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, Kurtz said:
KURTZ: It's not even close, Bret. Now, Fox News Channel has devoted plenty of air time to the Zimmerman trial, no question about it. But MSNBC and CNN, where I used to work, which has an impressive battalion of international correspondents, have been virtually wall-to-wall with this trial. And the network morning shows this month, twice as much time spent on the Zimmerman trial as on the events in Egypt. And, I understand that foreign affairs and a lot of Americans may be less interested, U.S. troops aren't involved, but the overload here, over coverage, in my view of this trial, which is a great water cooler topic, has really been something to behold.
A frequent target of Kurtz's criticism was MSNBC host Al Sharpton and NBC/MSNBC. Kurtz criticized Sharpton's coverage of the Trayvon Martin case during four appearances. He criticized MSNBC's and CNN's overall coverage of the Zimmerman trial in another appearance. Kurtz also was critical of NBC's and CNN's plans for movies about Hillary Clinton in two appearances, suggesting that the movie would be too flattering for her (Media Matters' David Brock has also been critical of the networks).
Kurtz missed numerous opportunities to criticize Fox during his television segments. During his critique of coverage of the Zimmerman trial, Kurtz focused his criticism on Sharpton, and NBC's misleading edit of Zimmerman's 911 call, but ignored the toxic coverage coming from Fox's own airwaves.
During one appearance, Kurtz said that “all the media speculation about whether George Zimmerman's acquittal would lead to violent demonstrations turned out to be mostly wrong,” but didn't explain that much of that speculation originated from Fox. Kurtz also didn't single out ugly rhetoric from Fox hosts related to the Zimmerman trial. And while Kurtz criticized Sharpton for both hosting a cable news program and being an activist for the Martin family, Kurtz ignored Fox News host Sean Hannity, who has not only defended Zimmerman but conducted a sympathetic interview with him, portions of which were played at the trial. Kurtz himself previously said on CNN that Fox News featured “many, many segments that seemed to be taking, or at least sympathetic to, Zimmerman's side ... it has become very polarized and so you're right -- not surprising if he's going to call some network, that George Zimmerman would call Fox.” While Fox's coverage remained “sympathetic” to Zimmerman, Kurtz offered no such commentary after moving to the network.
During an August 23 discussion of the tragic killing of Australian Christopher Lane in Oklahoma, Kurtz again gave a pass to Fox News. On Happening Now, Kurtz criticized unnamed people in the media for attempting to cast the killing in “some kind of racial way” and having an “agenda-driven commentary and score settling,” but never mentioned Fox News as an offender. Fox has attacked President Obama for not making a statement about the killing (though the president released a statement offering his condolences), and injected race into its coverage of the killing (even though law enforcement has said that they haven't found a racial motive). But Kurtz did not single out his employer by name.
During an August 16 appearance on America Live about the Republican National Committee's consideration of a debate boycott of CNN and NBC over the production of Clinton films, Kurtz stated that if “all the debates end up on Fox, that might be good for this network, but it is not good for the Republican Party.” CNN employee Kurtz previously highlighted Fox's close connections and work as a platform for the Republican Party, but Fox employee Kurtz did not make the connection, instead commenting only that the RNC was being “short-sighted” because “a lot of independent viewers ... do watch those other networks.”
Kurtz Online: Misrepresented His Own Record Of Criticizing Fox
Much like his TV appearances, Kurtz's online columns have largely exempted his new employer from criticism.
The closest Kurtz came to weighing in on an embarrassing story involving the network came when he wrote about Bill O'Reilly's on-air apology for incorrectly claiming that no Republican speakers had been invited to speak at the event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
But in covering O'Reilly's apology, Kurtz misled readers about his own role in promoting O'Reilly's falsehood.
In his August 30 column, Kurtz wrote that “to his credit,” O'Reilly had apologized for the mistake, and in doing so had offered “good advice about the need to apologize.” Kurtz claimed that he had highlighted O'Reilly's complaint about the lack of Republican speakers at the event in his August 29 column, but “I noted that George W. Bush had turned down an invitation.”
But Kurtz did nothing of the sort.
His August 29 reference to O'Reilly's criticism of the event included no explanation that Bush had been invited or any other suggestion that O'Reilly's criticism was unfounded. Instead, Kurtz used O'Reilly's jab as a lead-in to his observation that the event “seemed to be a production of MSNBC” and whitewashed O'Reilly's criticism by simply writing the Factor host was “observing that not a single Republican or conservative was featured as a speaker” (in fact, O'Reilly went further in claiming “no Republicans and no conservatives were invited” to participate).
Other criticism of Fox personalities has been mostly muted. For example, in an August 30 column, Kurtz wrote that Fox contributor Michelle Malkin had used “overheated adjectives” when she claimed that President Obama was being “flippant, arrogant, and contemptuous” on Syria. Nonetheless, Kurtz suggested that the basis of her criticism was “perfectly fair.”
Though Kurtz has used his Fox column to weigh in on several important media stories -- including several pieces touching on coverage of Syria and the ongoing NSA story -- he has also used his column space for bizarre purposes.
Kurtz made widespread news in August when he posted a mind-boggling column headlined, “Ben Bradlee's daughter-in-law reveals (almost) all on Facebook.” Kurtz devoted an entire piece to parsing the Facebook pictures of 93-year-old Washington Post vice president at large Ben Bradlee's daughter-in-law, who is a yoga instructor. Linking to her profile, Kurtz pondered whether the pictures of Bradlee -- including one “in a Swiss-cheese bra that leaves little to the imagination” -- “go too far.”
Kurtz Avoided Media Controversies Related To Fox News
While Kurtz has devoted column inches to issues such as a yoga instructor's Facebook photos, a Canadian journalist conducting an interview topless, and Katie Couric's baby gift to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, he has avoided several newsroom controversies related to Fox News:
- Kurtz has not addressed Fox News firing executive vice president Brian Lewis. Since Lewis' firing, Fox corporate, Fox's on-air employees, and Lewis' lawyer have engaged in a very public spat -- seemingly a perfect topic for a media analyst, especially one that's dealt with Lewis.
- Kurtz did not mention the uproar over Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green's interview of religious scholar Reza Aslan, in which she suggested Aslan's Muslim faith meant he couldn't fairly write about Jesus. The interview not only prompted numerous media articles, it also gathered heavy attention on social media -- allegedly part of Kurtz's purview.
- Kurtz has not commented on the steadily increasing number of Fox News employees considering Republican campaigns for office while simultaneously taking a Fox News paycheck. Before joining Fox, Kurtz criticized the network for allowing its employees to “utilize the platform of the country's top-rated cable news channel, and pad their bank accounts to boot” while pondering a run for office.
The Fox Way: “We Prefer People In The Tent Not Dumping On Other People In The Tent”
Fox News has had on-air debates over policy matters, but the network appears less tolerant of allowing public disagreement and disparagement over its newsroom and ethics issues.
From 1998 until he was let go in 2008, Eric Burns hosted the media criticism show Fox News Watch, which Kurtz's new program is replacing. The Burns-hosted program -- unlike its later iteration with Jon Scott -- criticized Fox News, and Burns served in an ombudsman-type role. However, Burns told Media Matters' Joe Strupp that the show began to change in its final year and became more conservative-leaning, explaining it “was getting to be more and more of a struggle to do fairly” and “there was a progression of interference to try to make the show more right-wing. I fought very hard against it.”
In 2010 Kurtz reported in The Washington Post there was “tension” within Fox News over then-host Glenn Beck and “a deep split within Fox between those who are supportive, and many journalists who are worried about the prospect that Beck is becoming the face of the network.” Fox News head Roger Ailes reportedly admonished the sources who talked to Kurtz and said people at Fox should not be “dumping on other people in the tent”:
Signaling that Kurtz's sources came from within the DC bureau, Ailes said, “For the first time in our 14 years we've had people apparently shooting in the tent, from within the tent.”
“Glenn Beck, does his show and that's his opinion. It's not the opinion of FOX News and he has a right to say it,” added Ailes. “We prefer people in the tent not dumping on other people in the tent.”
And in a challenge to those employees, Ailes said, “I was brought up to defend the family. If I couldn't defend the family I'd leave. I'd go to another family.”
Kurtz himself has addressed the issue of Fox News protecting itself from critical stories related to the network. Kurtz noted on CNN in July 2011 that Fox News was underplaying coverage of parent company president Rupert Murdoch's phone hacking scandal, and Fox News Watch even admitted they were avoiding the topic. On the topic of how a news organization deals with negative stories, Kurtz said:
KURTZ: I feel very strongly about this. I mean, we do it on this program all the time when CNN has controversy, I always cover it. And otherwise, what you're signaling to viewers is there's a double standard. We're only aggressive when some other organization is in trouble. And I think that can undermine your credibility.
Methodology: Media Matters searched TVEyes.com, the Nexis database, and Media Matters' internal video archives for any mention of “Kurtz” on Fox News and Fox Business since July 1. For Kurtz's columns, Media Matters reviewed his author archives at FoxNews.com.