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Meet the (Meta)Press: Howard Kurtz

Who reports on the reporters?

By Jesse Oxfeld - June 24, 2003

There are many people who write about the press, but one name always towers over the rest. Howard Kurtz has been covering the media beat for The Washington Post since 1990, and he's fashioned himself into sort of the platonic ideal of a media reporter. He works hard, he's got great sources, and he regularly breaks news about the news biz. He's so prolific he not only writes several times a week for the Post; he has also written four books, and he does a daily column and a weekly live chat on the paper's website, a weekly show for CNN, and freelance magazine work for titles from the Columbia Journalism Review to Vanity Fair. Of course, all this work has its drawbacks: Kurtz is regularly taken to task for his apparent conflicts of interest, and—not insignificantly—the personal life can sometimes suffer. Yesterday morning, Kurtz took a break in the Post's busy newsroom to talk to mediabistro.com about his gig, his critics, and what happens when Rick Bragg is suspended while you're off getting married.

Birthdate: August 1953
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Now lives: Chevy Chase, Maryland
Reads for work: "Got a couple of hours?" Blogs and newspaper sites early in the morning, the Post on paper over breakfast, and 8 or 9 additional papers in the morning at work.
Reads for fun: Recently: Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis, showing "some of the same political problems going on 240 years ago that we have today." Currently: Foreign Affairs, by Alison Lurie, and Wall Street Meat, by Andy Kessler.
First section of the Sunday Post: A glance at the front page, then op-ed. "Although during the NBA playoffs I probably sneak a look at sports first."

You've been doing the media beat for over a decade now. Tell me the path that led you to that job.
Well, in my time at the Post, I covered a whole variety of Washington beats: Urban Affairs, Justice Department, Capitol Hill, and then I was the paper's New York bureau chief in the late eighties. When I was scheduled to come back to D.C., I didn't want to cover another building, and, because New York is such a tabloid town, I found myself writing more about the press and its impact on things. So I was just sort of instinctively attracted to the idea of taking on the media beat and had no clue that it would turn into a big industry for me. Media coverage then was more of a backwater than it is today, when everybody with a modem is a media critic.

You talk about how now everybody with a modem is a media critic, how has the beat changed in the decade-plus that you've been doing it?
It's changed to a remarkable degree, which is probably why I'm still fascinated with it. When I started covering the media, there was basically one cable news network, the internet was not really a factor, and talk radio had not yet become the major force it would become within a few years. So, in a nutshell, things have just speeded up to a remarkable degree, like the world is stuck on fast forward. Everything I do now, including my own online writing, moves at an incredibly faster pace than it did in what now seems like the leisurely world of 1990.

Also, I imagine, there's much more competition on the beat.
Yes and no. On one hand, you have websites devoted to the media and you have a lot of magazine and online commentators dissecting the press, some of them with ideological axes to grind, all of which I think is terrific and healthy. But if you look at major newspapers, there really are only about a half-dozen fulltime media reporters even today. There are lots of TV columnists who write about dramas and sitcoms and occasionally news, but there aren't that many who do what I do. I think there's still a prejudice among editors that this is somehow navel-gazing and the average reader therefore isn't interested, when nothing could be further from the truth. People are fascinated by how the media works, by understanding how mistakes are made, by just sort of shining a light on what journalists do for a living. And this is one of the reasons why I get so much reaction to what I do.

When we were setting this up last week, you emailed that you're working 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. these days. Are you always so busy?
Well, the online column has kind of taken what was already a crazy schedule and made it insane. I don't work those hours all the time, but because I have to get up early now and write for washingtonpost.com and then do my regular job during the day and also devote some hours to Reliable Sources [his CNN show], and I also do a weekly chat for washingtonpost.com, my schedule just has a way of spinning out of control. Often at 10 or 11 at night I'm looking online at the next day's papers, for what might make good fodder for the online "Media Notes." It's a pretty demanding schedule, but I'm not complaining about it in the slightest. I like to work, I have a fast metabolism, and it keeps me interested in what I'm doing. It's a fairly decent way to make a living.

Speaking of liking your work, Mickey Kaus had an aside a few weeks ago that you were reporting Raines stuff while allegedly on your honeymoon. True?
I plead guilty. As the person who broke the Jayson Blair story, I was very dedicated to following the saga to its conclusion. So I ended up having to file stories both on the weekend I got married and from London while my wife and I were on our honeymoon. She was incredibly understanding about all of this and kind of understands the special craziness that comes with being a journalist. But I've found myself having to reassure people that despite these extracurricular activities my marriage is still going strong after four weeks.

And mazel tov on that.
Thank you.

Does this happen often? Stories coming up when you're on vacation and so forth? I'm getting the feeling it might.
There have been other vacations when I've had to deal with work. I was so determined not to work on the weekend I got married that I didn't bring my laptop. Which turned out to be a small problem when Rick Bragg got suspended from the Times and also I got hold of the Jayson Blair book proposal. I ended up having to file one of those stories from an airplane at 30,000 feet, using the old-fashioned scribbling-on-a-pad approach [and then phoning the story in]. I learned how to do that back in the days when I worked for The Washington Star, which was an afternoon paper and where you often had to run to the phones and dictate a story on deadline. It's still a skill that comes in handy.

Do you ever consider, between the Post and the online stuff and the books and the CNN gig, giving up something?
Well, I haven't written a book in a couple of years, as part of my effort to have a more normal life. And, you know, some of these things come and go, but there's a certain synergy, to use that dreaded word, in what I do. Writing an online column helps give me ideas for articles for the Post, chatting with readers also generates ideas. Look, there are times when I take weekends off and go to the movies and hang around the house and live a relatively normal life, but I've got a demanding schedule because the bottom line is I love what I do.

About the CNN show: That's the big criticism of you, that you're conflicted to be covering the press for the Post while also working for one of the biggest players in the field. Do you at least acknowledge that this is a valid concern?
It's absolutely a fair question. It is also not exactly a secret that I am on television as well as writing for a newspaper. My view is that I've criticized CNN a lot over the years, and I've probably written more negative stories about The Washington Post than any reporter. So I like to think that I demonstrate that I am tough on my employers. Readers and viewers will have to make up their own minds about whether I'm pulling any punches. I am laying it out there, making full disclosure, and I'm very cognizant of the fact that I need to be tough on the Post and CNN when the occasion arises.

The other criticism is Eric Alterman's charge that you're almost a GOP partisan. Where do you think that comes from?
It comes from liberal ideologues who don't understand or care for a fair and non-political approach to media criticism. I mean I have to laugh when people suggest I'm some sort of closet conservative, because I also get waves of emails accusing me of being a communist pinko working for Pravda on the Potomac. The truth is I make it my business not to lean either way. I've written some nice profiles of very conservative journalists, and I've written some nice profiles of very liberal journalists.

What do you think is the biggest media story today?
The sad and continuing breakdown of the public's trust in the press, which in my view has been aggravated by a whole bunch of self-inflicted wounds. It's not just the occasional scandals involving fabrication and plagiarism, it's not just the perception and sometimes the reality of bias, it's a sense on the part of the public that people in this business are arrogant and don't play fair and live by a double standard in which they point fingers at everyone else and yet bristle when legitimate questions are raised about their behavior. The public's view of the press has continued to decline during the time I've been at this job and that is the damaging reality that journalists face today.

Is there a way to undo that?
I don't expect people to love us. Asking tough questions about politicians and businessmen, particularly in an era of war and terrorism, is not going to win you huge numbers of fans. I think we could repair some of the damage by being open to criticism, by not being so defensive, by doing a better job of explaining what we do and why we do it, and by quickly correcting mistakes in a prominent way when we make them.

About the recent Times scandals: Has this been one of the most exciting and interesting things you've covered? It seems to be so unprecedented in so many ways.
On one level it was simply a great detective story. I started this in late April, based on one Jayson Blair story that bore an uncanny resemblance to a piece in the San Antonio Express-News. From there I started calling people who had been quoted by Blair, who told me they had never spoken to the man. Even when it became clear that this guy was a serial fabricator, I had no idea that this would mushroom into the sort of mega-scandal that would ultimately bring down the two top editors of the paper. Contrary to what many people may think, I didn't particularly enjoy the spectacle. I am friendly with a lot of people at the Times; I felt bad for what they were going through. I felt the institution had been sort of unfairly tarnished by the actions of a few people, and I think ultimately all of us in the news business are hurt when The New York Times gets a black eye.

Was it as unheard of as it seemed for Times people to be leaking and talking outside the family quite so freely as they were in that period?
I was stunned by the level of anger and resentment that had been built up toward Howell Raines and the degree to which some people at The New York Times felt compelled to make that public. I think that Raines, who had great strength as an editor and in some ways was unfairly tarnished by this, created a vacuum—along with Gerald Boyd—by retreating into a bunker and refusing to give interviews and not explaining what was going on at the paper or defending the integrity of all the other reporters. This helped spark the explosion that ultimately forced Raines and Boyd to leave. Had Raines had a different management style, there's not a question in my mind he could have ridden out the scandal. But as one Times staffer sympathetic to Howell told me, in many ways he was his own worst enemy.

Who's your guess for the next editor?
Since I often criticize people who engage in uninformed speculation, I'm going to take a pass at that one. This is a decision to be made by one man—Arthur Sulzberger Jr.—and while I can tell you what the latest buzz is, I don't really know.

What's the latest buzz, then?
Well, I'm going to leave it at that.

Jesse Oxfeld is editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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