BOB GARFIELD: Welcome now to life inside a New Yorker cartoon. I'm thinking of the one that ran a couple of years ago where a television talk show host announces "Welcome to 'All About the Media' where members of the media discuss the role of the media in media coverage of the media." I say this in welcoming to On the Media Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz who also happens to be celebrating the 10th Anniversary of his CNN media program Reliable Sources. Howard, thanks for coming in.
HOWARD KURTZ: Thanks very much.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the big media stories over the past 15 years, really, is the overkill with which the press attack certain stories that are, you know, particularly lurid. Chandra Levy, O.J. Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsay. You know you've covered this issue to a faretheewell in your show. Have you been part of the problem or part of the solution.
HOWARD KURTZ: Well I suppose you could say if we're doing a show on Monica coverage or an O.J. coverage that we're just adding our voices to the great din. I'd like to think that at least we're being critical and trying to analyze what it is that possesses otherwise smart and self-respecting journalists to just get totally absorbed in one of these frenzies. And I think it used to be more of an occasional thing. An O.J. type story would come along -- everybody in the media would go bananas. And now I think we're like heroin addicts -- we have to have our fix. So any mini-scandal that once would have been treated at a moderate volume now gets packaged and played on cable all day - and it's got to have a logo, and it's got to have music, and it's got to be a kind of a mini-soap opera. And I think we all in this business have now given in far too often to this tendency to package and promote and hype stories that really don't deserve it, and so that you have, you know, huge coverage of the war, which is valid; and you have huge coverage of Greta Van Susteren's face lift which is interesting but not perhaps as earth-shattering for the republic.
BOB GARFIELD: And how many times has Greta Van Susteren's face lift been mentioned on Reliable Sources?
HOWARD KURTZ: Only twice I think, both in semi-humorous terms. But I did notice that she was on the cover of People.
BOB GARFIELD:As a matter of full disclosure I would say that if, if our program is devoted to any single thing it's exposing the Fox Newschannel for the bastion of hypocrisy that we believe it is -- not necessarily on ideological grounds but on journalistic ones. Certainly one of Fox's preoccupation's if not its central preoccupation is CNN. But I don't see a whole lot of Fox-bashing on your show. Is that by accident? Is it by design? What's the deal?
HOWARD KURTZ: Well I don't believe in bashing unless the bashing is deserved, and you know, if Geraldo Rivera does something controversial, we will certainly talk about it. Do many of their commentators tilt to the right? Do they occasionally engage in sensationalism? Did they interview Tonya Harding after Fox Entertainment staged that ludicrous boxing match between her and Paula Jones? Yes! And-- yes, it is part of their shtick. It is part of their identity to beat up on CNN and the mainstream media because they're self-consciously positioning themselves as an alternative to that, and it seems to work for them and they have a good time, and I have no problem with that.
BOB GARFIELD:Okay. So I've disclosed our bogeyman. As we travel up the media Heart of Darkness and we get to Mr. Kurtz's compound, whose heads are going to be displayed on the pikes there?
HOWARD KURTZ: Well I don't have a sort of official Kurtz Hall of Shame. What I do is criticize behavior that I think is excessive, and so I have criticized, for example, the business press for over the years -- and we saw this most distressingly in Enron -- mindlessly repeating the recommendations and judgments of Wall Street analysts who basically have a financial incentive to be bullish on stocks. I have criticized newspapers and others that don't reveal the conflicts of interest they have when they cover industry issues -- for example, in the campaign finance reform bill there was a provision that didn't get a single word that I could find on broadcast television and hardly any mentions on cable of a provision that got knocked out that would have cut the rates for campaign ads at election time thereby depriving the networks of a fair amount of revenue. And sometimes I just criticize people who I think do dumb things.
BOB GARFIELD:Was there one story that you had to cover that was particularly painful for you because it involved colleagues or friends, portraying them in maybe unflattering terms?
HOWARD KURTZ: Gee, where do I start? One of the most difficult challenges I had was during the 1996 campaign when the Washington Post, just about everybody in political Washington seemed to know, had a story and was sitting on a story about Bob Dole who was criticizing Bill Clinton on sort of general character grounds. Then-Senator Dole had had an extra-marital affair some 30 years earlier. There was a great debate in the newsroom about whether that was relevant. Should it go in the paper or not? The Post ultimately decided not to print it and said the paper was scooped by the National Enquirer. After that I wanted to write about how this had happened. The paper was not crazy about that. I ultimately did get the story into the paper, but because it involved the judgments of top editors at the Washington Post, it was just a tough one! It was a tough assignment! There aren't very many people in very many industries who are in the situation of having to go to their bosses and say I want to talk to you about something you did that a lot of people think was wrong!
BOB GARFIELD:Are there time when Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post goes: Oh, no! and the Howard Kurtz of CNN's Reliable Sources goes: Oh, yeah!
HOWARD KURTZ: I can't think of one, because-- they -- these two people know each other very well and tend to have the same approach to things, so--there's not much that I -- anything that I would absolutely not do in the newspaper I probably wouldn't do on television.
BOB GARFIELD: You just said probably.
HOWARD KURTZ:Well if I say I would absolutely, definitely never do it then you'll go to the trash [...?...] and find some example where I did.
BOB GARFIELD:[LAUGHS] In a heartbeat, Howard. [LAUGHTER] In a heartbeat. Well, let's talk about structure in ethics for a moment. Now you work for the Washington Post and AOL/Time Warner. These are gargantuan media organizations. How often does that pose problems for you?
HOWARD KURTZ: With some regularity I find myself having to kick these organizations around. But what I try to do all the time is disclose, and I, I'm proud of the fact -- I think I've criticized the Washington Post more in print than anybody else who doesn't work for the paper. I've written about racial tensions, conflicts of interest, bias, plagiarism, and other problems at the Post. I've also written -- whenever I write about CNN there's always a disclosure line that I host a program on CNN. And I think that is so essential to the credibility of anybody who tries to do media criticism. If you just take the approach that you're going to lay off and you're not going to deal with the problems at home because you couldn't possibly be aggressive enough -- I think that's wrong. I think people see right through that. And I think one of the biggest problems in the business today is that maybe a half dozen daily newspapers have really aggressive media reporters as opposed to television critics which are easy. And I think the reason for that is not unrelated to the idea that newspaper editors don't particularly want to be criticized in print, and they know if they hire a real media reporter, inevitably their own conduct in that other paper is going to come under scrutiny.
BOB GARFIELD: Howard Kurtz, thank you very much.
HOWARD KURTZ: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Howard Kurtz is the host of Reliable Sources on CNN which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this week. [MUSIC]
"Roused About (beginning)"
by Branford Marsalis Trio