Howard Kurtz's wasted opportunity

Howard Kurtz is America's most famous media critic, with a television show, print and Internet columns, and weekly online discussions. Unfortunately, he isn't very good at what he does.

Howard Kurtz is almost certainly the nation's best-known and most influential media critic. With a regular Washington Post column, virtually unlimited space on the paper's web site, and his own television show on CNN, all dedicated to covering the media, Kurtz has an unrivaled platform from which he can opine about the Fourth Estate. Unfortunately -- though perhaps not coincidentally -- that opportunity is wasted on Kurtz.

Much has been written about Kurtz's (frequently undisclosed) conflicts of interest, his fondness for right-wingers like Michelle Malkin, and his tendency to give their critique of the media more credence than more substantive and factual critiques from progressives. I think it's clear that, whether or not Kurtz personally leans a bit to the right, his media criticism certainly does.

But that isn't why many of his readers and viewers find him so frustrating. What is really bothersome about Kurtz is that he so often gives the impression that he simply lacks the competence to critique the media. He frequently seems to overlook the obvious -- and when it is pointed out to him, it sails right over his head.

Kurtz's output this week is a perfect illustration. From Sunday through Wednesday, Kurtz hosted Reliable Sources on CNN, wrote one column for the print edition of the Post and three for the paper's website, and took reader questions for his "Media Backtalk" online discussion. (Kurtz also recorded an "Online Media Notes" video for the Post's website, which focused on the question of whether there has been too much coverage of Michael Jackson. His conclusion, as far as I can tell, was “Maybe.” )

Let's start with Reliable Sources, where Kurtz hosted his Washington Post colleague Dana Milbank, Huffington Post reporter Nico Pitney, and conservative writer Amanda Carpenter.

Milbank had used his Post column to attack Pitney and the Obama White House for alleged coordination relating to a question Pitney asked the president during last week's press conference. Milbank, along with some other establishment media figures and a bunch of conservatives, were -- or pretended to be -- outraged that Obama apparently knew that Pitney was going to ask a question about Iran.

That is a strange complaint, given that reporters agree upon interview topics with subjects all the time. When reporters like Milbank or TV hosts like Kurtz want to interview an elected official, they discuss the topics they want to cover with the official's staff. Indeed, Kurtz had “coordinated” with his guest Dana Milbank when Milbank was booked to discuss Pitney's question on Reliable Sources. Somehow, though, it never occurred to Kurtz -- during a discussion about whether it is appropriate for a reporter and a subject to “coordinate” on the topic of a question -- to point out that he and the three people he was interviewing had “coordinated” on the topics he would ask about.

Or, to put it more simply: Kurtz knew that Milbank had just participated in precisely the same kind of “coordination” that he was denouncing -- because Milbank had “coordinated” with Kurtz! Yet Kurtz somehow missed this rather glaring hypocrisy.

Even when it was spelled out for him, Kurtz showed no sign of grasping the absurdity of reporters attacking Pitney and Obama for things those same reporters do every day. Kurtz eventually acknowledged, via Twitter, that he agrees on topics in advance with guests -- “it's only fair,” he says -- but still hasn't managed to make the connection to the complaints about Pitney and Obama. (For the record, while Obama had strong reason to believe Pitney would ask about Iran -- Pitney had drawn widespread praise for his coverage of that country's disputed election -- there is no indication that Pitney committed in advance to asking about that topic. And as pretty much everyone agrees, Pitney's question was a good and difficult one that Obama did not directly answer.)

On Monday Kurtz had a column in the print edition of the Post, an expanded version of which appeared on the Post's website, in which he wrote: “MSNBC is down to just five daytime hours of straight news, which once formed a counterpoint to its liberal evening programming.” Kurtz didn't mention former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, who hosts a daily three-hour program on MSNBC, thus giving the false impression that MSNBC's “liberal evening programming” has no conservative “counterpoint.”

This fits neatly into a pattern with Kurtz. He is convinced that MSNBC leans to the left. It's certainly his prerogative to think that -- and he is certainly not alone in that view. But Kurtz frequently places a thumb on the scale in order to make his case for MSNBC's liberalism. Sometimes, he fails to mention Scarborough's existence, as on Monday. Other times he acknowledges Scarborough, but goes to great lengths to suggest Scarborough's show isn't all that conservative, while omitting any such qualifiers for the “liberal” hosts he identifies.

And Kurtz points to Chris Matthews as evidence of MSNBC's liberalism, describing Matthews as “a former Democratic strategist who recently pondered running for the Senate from Pennsylvania as a Democrat” without noting that Matthews voted for George W. Bush, spent years gushing over Bush and ridiculing Democrats and liberals, waged war on both Clintons and Al Gore, and reportedly decided not to run for the Senate because he realized there wasn't anything he wanted to do as a senator -- not exactly signs of a reliably progressive person.

Surely, any halfway-competent media critic could recognize the problems with a news report that stacks and slants its case that egregiously. But Kurtz not only routinely does it, he appears to have no idea why it draws criticism.

A few hours after that column appeared on Monday, Kurtz hosted his weekly online discussion, where the first question pointed out his omission of Scarborough:

Scarborough Country: You wrote today: “MSNBC is down to just five daytime hours of straight news, which once formed a counterpoint to its liberal evening programming.”

Why do you keep pretending Joe Scarborough's three hours a day don't exist? It undermines your crediblity when you do this. Your case for MSNBC's liberalism must be pretty weak if you have to resort to burying counter-evidence.

Howard Kurtz: My pretense hasn't been very consistent, since I've written lengthy pieces on both Joe and Mika. Morning Joe figured into my calculation, in that it's an opinionated show (with Scarborough balanced a little bit by Brzezinski) that no one would confuse with straight news. They get three hours; Matthews, Schultz Olbermann and Maddow are on from 5 to 11. But my point is the shrinking of garden-variety newscasts on MS during the day.

The question was obviously about Kurtz ignoring Scarborough's three hours in writing that MSNBC's “liberal evening programming” lacks sufficient “counterpoint.” The problem in omitting any mention of Scarborough should be self-evident. But Kurtz's response indicates a complete failure to grasp this point. He responds that at some other time he has written about Scarborough. Well, fine -- but that doesn't make it OK to omit any mention of Scarborough from Monday's article. Not when Scarborough's three hours directly undermine the point Kurtz made in that article.

Can it really be possible that Kurtz doesn't understand the problem with failing to mention Scarborough in an article in which he writes “MSNBC is down to just five daytime hours of straight news, which once formed a counterpoint to its liberal evening programming” ? Or is he just pretending?

Kurtz addressed the topic further Monday night, again via Twitter. Here he is at 10:09 p.m.: “Since I've written about Joe & Mika and watch it regularly, I'm as familiar with conservative-hosted Morning Joe as with MS's lib iineup [sic].”

OK, so why did he omit any mention of it, leaving the impression that MSNBC's “lib lineup” lacked a “counterpoint” ?

A few minutes later, Kurtz Tweeted again: “I don't get the criticism, @markosm, since I included Joe in my math: 3 conservative hrs, 6 liberal hrs, and now 5 for 'regular' news at MS.”

Kurtz may have included Scarborough in his “math,” but he included neither Scarborough nor that “math” in his article. Somehow, Kurtz still can't grasp that concept -- or he pretends not to.

(For the record, Kurtz ignored responses pointing out that, in fact, he omitted Scarborough from his article. Also for the record: I don't agree with Kurtz's assessment that MSNBC features “6 liberal hours,” but I won't address it now, as my primary point here is not that his assessments of such things are incorrect, but rather that Kurtz does not seem to understand basic concepts that should be second nature to someone in his position.)

A little later in his online discussion, a reader took issue with Kurtz's contention that Scarborough is “balanced a little bit” by co-host Mika Brzezinski:

Balanced by Mika?: I love Morning Joe and don't watch the evening chatter on any cable. I do not know what Mika's politics are, but I often find her marked by deference to her men (reminds me of a “powerful” woman in '40's screwball company). Today's show featured Mika interviewing noted philanderer Rudy Giuliani regarding Sanford and political affairs. Instead of having Rudy talk about his own broad and deep experience on the subject, including the use of public funds on mistresses, she allowed it to become a discourse on Bill Clinton. Oy.

Howard Kurtz: Look, it's Joe's show, he's a former Republican congressman and an unabashed conservative (albeit one who hasn't hesitated to criticize his party). Mika is a lifelong journalist, not a liberal advocate, with views that are certainly to the left of Scarborough's. All I said is that she added a little balance. It's not set up like Crossfire where their views have equal weight.

Once again, a reader's point appears to have flown over Kurtz's head. Does he really not see the problem with Mika Brzezinski hosting Rudy Giuliani and allowing him to criticize Bill Clinton's affair without ever once mentioning Giuliani's? How could he miss it? Isn't that the kind of thing that the nation's most famous media critic should notice. And, you know ... criticize?

The very next question made the same point:

“balanced by Mika” : Hey Howie, here's an example of how Mika brings that liberal balance to the Scarborough show, while interviewing Rudy Giuliani about adulterous politicians:

“Giuliani ” Let's look at Bill Clinton."

Brzezinski: “Yeah.” "

I'm assuming the irony of that premise is obvious. Am I overestimating you?

Howard Kurtz: I brought up Bill Clinton (and Spitzer and McGreevey and Edwards) on my program yesterday after running through the list of recent Republican miscreants (Sanford, Ensign, Vitter). How can any discussion of philandering politicians not mention the impeachment of a president? Of course, I'm sure Rudy would rather talk about that than how he started dating his current wife while living with his then-wife in Gracie Mansion.

The questioner was clearly pointing out -- as the previous one did -- that Brzezinski allowed Giuliani to bring up Bill Clinton's infidelity without challenging him on his own. But Kurtz still couldn't wrap his mind around this simple concept. Instead, Kurtz responds as though the question was about the propriety of Bill Clinton being mentioned at all.

It's as if someone had pointed out that two plus two equals four, and Kurtz responded “Duluth.”

The rest of the discussion went on like that. A reader pointed out that neither John McCain nor Newt Gingrich, both of whom famously had affairs, were mentioned in media coverage of Mark Sanford's affair. Kurtz missed the point entirely. A reader asked about the Pitney controversy; Kurtz misstated facts about it in his response. Another reader asked about Pitney's statement that Milbank had quietly called him a name during the Reliable Sources taping, a charge Kurtz had been aware of for a day, and had addressed on Twitter. Kurtz responded that the video is inconclusive -- but gave no indication that he took the basic step of asking Milbank about it, despite the fact that they share a newsroom.

On Wednesday, Kurtz included a lengthy excerpt of a defense of Milbank in his online column. Despite widespread criticism of Milbank's Reliable Sources appearance, the only criticism of Kurtz's fellow Postie that made it into any of his columns was a pox-on-both-their-houses excerpt on Monday.

On Monday, Kurtz touched briefly on the Post's decision to get rid of Dan Froomkin:

Liberal bloggers have been lambasting The Post for dropping Dan Froomkin and his White House Watch column. Washington City Paper Editor Erik Wemple reports that the main issue was Froomkin's $100,000 contract and his declining traffic:"

Kurtz then quoted a few paragraphs of Wemple's work. And that's all he's written about Froomkin. Note that Kurtz didn't actually quote any of the “liberal bloggers” (or others) who have been critical of the decision to drop Froomkin, or even indicate what their points were.

And Kurtz's description of Wemple's piece is just wrong. Wemple didn't “report” that the main issue was Froomkin's contract and traffic; he asserted that to be the main issue. That may seem like a subtle distinction, but it is an important one -- and it should be an obvious one to the nation's most famous media critic.

Just to spell things out: the best-case scenario for Howard Kurtz's employer is for people to think that Froomkin was let go for financial and traffic reasons. And Howard Kurtz overstated the extent to which Wemple established that Froomkin was let go for financial and traffic reasons. Given his access to the people involved, you would think Kurtz might do some original reporting rather than simply hyping Wemple's Post-friendly take on the story. But he hasn't.

So two of the biggest media stories of the past few weeks have involved Kurtz's Washington Post colleagues. And in both cases, he has not only managed to avoid criticizing those Post colleagues in his column, he has also neglected to quote anything more than token criticism from others, while using his Post column to misleadingly promote defenses of the Post.

Finally, Kurtz got scooped by Politico on an explosive story about his own newspaper becoming “a facilitator for private lobbyist-official encounters” and selling lobbyists access to its reporters:

For $25,000 to $250,000, The Washington Post is offering lobbyists and association executives off-the-record, nonconfrontational access to “those powerful few” -- Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and the paper's own reporters and editors.

The astonishing offer is detailed in a flier circulated Wednesday to a health care lobbyist, who provided it to a reporter because the lobbyist said he feels it's a conflict for the paper to charge for access to, as the flier says, its “health care reporting and editorial staff.”

The offer -- which essentially turns a news organization into a facilitator for private lobbyist-official encounters -- is a new sign of the lengths to which news organizations will go to find revenue at a time when most newspapers are struggling for survival.

So The Washington Post is selling access to its “own reporters” to corporate lobbyists -- and we learn about it not from Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz, the nation's highest-profile media critic, but from Politico. (Kurtz, meanwhile, was relegated to playing damage control with a follow-up article featuring Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli denying that the newsroom will play any role in the lobbyist sessions. Kurtz neglected to mention any of the flurry of criticism the Post received over the proposed sessions.)

While Politico's Mike Allen was drinking Kurtz's milkshake, Kurtz was busy writing a piece about whether “racial and gender identification” on the part of African-American women who cover Michelle Obama “produces a gauzier, more favorable portrayal of Obama.” I don't recall Kurtz devoting a column to the possibility of white male reporters producing “gauzier” portrayals of their white male subjects than a more diverse news corps might.

And remember: All of this was in just four days.

Unfortunately, it is typical of Kurtz's work. Media Matters' Eric Boehlert describes it as Kurtz "playing dumb." And, indeed, it's hard to imagine that Kurtz really doesn't understand, for example, what's wrong with omitting any mention of Joe Scarbrough while claiming that MSNBC's liberal hosts lack “counterpoint.” It's hard to imagine that he really doesn't get what's wrong with Mika Brzezinski allowing Rudy Giuliani to criticize Bill Clinton's affair without ever once pointing out Giuliani's own high-profile affair. Sixth-graders understand concepts like these.

But, to a certain extent, it just doesn't matter whether Kurtz is “playing dumb” or whether he is simply a bumbling and clueless reporter. Either way, he's squandering two extraordinary platforms.