Howard Kurtz is indisputably the most important media critic in Washington and, arguably, in the country. It’s odd that among all this city’s reporters, scribblers, correspondents, underwear-models-cum-newsreaders, and fossils with important hair it could only support one marquee-name media critic. Regardless, this makes Kurtz a whale in a sea of small sharks and lesser phyla. This also makes him an obvious and inevitable target for criticism himself.
Enter my friend Frank Foer. Frank recently moved from US News and World Report to the faltering New Republic. Nothing in Frank’s work at US News — his reporting on the Presidential primaries was fine but fairly conventional — prepared me for his superb performance at The New Republic. His new beat, I guess, gives him more of an opportunity to shine. His writing, for example, on McCain and the neocons was intelligent and fresh; and his cover story on the New New Left (i.e., latté-drinking Sacco and Vanzettis) was one of the very few interesting things written on the topic.
In the current issue, Frank takes on Kurtz as well as other major media critics like Bernard Kalb and Steven Brill. The piece will surely generate buzz here in Washington and in the media communities in New York; Schadenfreude is the preeminent pastime among journalists. Already Mickey Kaus has said the piece “doesn’t kill Kurtz, but it’s a start.” (Scroll most of the way down the page. Look for “Kausfiles Piles On!” in sidebar.)Whether Foer or Kaus recalls the adage that one must never wound the king is unknown.
The essence of Frank’s criticism is that Kurtz is emblematic of media criticism’s focus on process rather than content. Compared to the famous critic A.J. Liebling, Kurtz “sounds like an East German figure-skating judge, docking reporters for technicalities.” Media criticism follows the assumptions of the New Left, which hold that “objectivity is an illusion” and that journalism is merely an expression of “hidden interests.” Journalists today are obsessed with their conflicts of interest and making sure that they offer full disclosure. “By focusing on the machinations behind the writing, [Kurtz] doesn’t take seriously the writing itself — as a vehicle either for ideas or for beauty.”
There are some obvious criticisms to be made of Foer’s arguments. But first, because his new paradigm is a long way off and the climate of full-disclosure-mongering is still regnant, I should point out a few things. First, I write a regular column for Brill’s Content, a magazine brimming with fatwahs against journalistic conflicts of interest. Second, two days ago I shared an elevator with Howard Kurtz. Third, the Editor of National Review, Richard Lowry, regularly appears on “Reliable Sources,” which is co-hosted by Howard Kurtz and Bernard Kalb. I have no relationship with Kalb, except once I did write (in Brill’s Content) that Kalb is “the wide-tied Church lady of press blue noses.”
Okay, so Foer is, of course, correct that all of this conflict of interest and full-disclosure stuff goes too far sometimes. But so what? Foer seems deeply upset that the public holds the press in low esteem; “close to pond scum,” according to a recent Pew poll, says Kurtz. Kurtz proudly defines his role as an investigative reporter. “The press should be held accountable, the same way they treat everybody else,” he likes to say.
Foer doesn’t even dispute that the media have become more powerful or that the there should be watchdogs and journalistic policemen. Foer says that Kurtz’s “true sins are ones of omission.” In other words, Foer doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mind the job Kurtz does. Instead, he is really upset that Kurtz can’t be all things to all people. This strikes me as a lackluster critique. If forced to choose between having a media reporter who exposes malfeasance and one who finds the hidden “beauty” in a Prime Time Live on dirty hotel linens, I’ll take the muckraker.
But what about these sins of omission? That’s where the interesting argument is.
Foer wants media criticism to go back to the good old days of A.J. Liebling’s “Wayward Press” column for the New Yorker. Liebling didn’t care about how the news got made, he cared about the quality of the final product. “In nearly every one of his columns,” Foer lovingly writes, “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.” Moreover, Foer writes, “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.” Liebling did “break stories.” Foer offers the example of an item Liebling picked up from a Times Picayune article in New Orleans.
Now, this is fascinating to me and I do feel bad that Frank Foer had to be the one to put it into words, but this is ridiculous. In fact, Foer offers the perfect distillation of liberal hubris and self-centered nostalgia.
The reason the media criticism of the major newspapers and magazines in this country focus on the sausage-making rather than the sausage is that there is so little ideological traction between the press and its critics. Of course Liebling was a great media critic. But he was also a very liberal one. Foer writes lovingly that Liebling “took swipes at the media’s anti-unionism and its reflexive anti-communism.”
Well, bully for Liebling. But the reason Foer can’t find any establishment critic who does that today is because he is looking in the wrong direction. The op-ed pages and conservative magazines virtually overflow with precisely the sort of criticism Foer craves. Whenever George Will or Charles Krauthammer writes about the media, all they do is poke holes in specious logic, zing sensationalism, and measure competing facts. Hell, it’s their schtick. Pick virtually any article in National Review, Reason, or The Weekly Standard that deals with the press and you will see Lieblingesque critiques. Liebling, according to Foer, deserves praise for scrutinizing the number of anti-Communist protesters at some rally. Well, wait until Million Mom March comes to town: What side of the political spectrum will you be able to count on for some serious debunking? The steady drumbeat of sensationalism pouring out of the media today — on environmentalism, “hate crimes,” gun-control mania, church burnings, etc — is regularly dissected by serious thinkers and writers on the Right. Andrew Ferguson, James Bowman, Dan Seligman, Paul Freund, Hilton Kramer, and of course the entire gang at National Review do this sort of criticism daily. I know Frank is a voracious media consumer so I am puzzled that he has never read any of it.
One of the reasons conservatives deal with the text rather than the subtext is that we don’t have much access to the sausage factory. But the primary reason is that we find plenty that’s wrong with the text. In fact, the text is quite often awful. Big-time media critics usually can’t express their ideological criticism of the content of the media because either a) they don’t disagree with what’s on the page in any major way or b) they themselves are to the Left of the mainstream media. I’m sure the earnest houseplant liberals at the Columbia Journalism Review or the red-diaper babies at The Nation would love to see the New York Times cover more transgender poets on the front page, but any critic who said so would ghettoize himself. By sticking to the process instead of the substance, he keeps alive the possibility that one day he will get a job at the Times.
Foer may applaud Liebling’s hilarious critique that the press was “reflexively anti-Communist” in the good old days, but the truth is that even in the good old days, the liberals ruled the roost. But at least back then they could claim with some legitimacy that they were mavericks or outsiders. Today, liberal journalism is as boring as 2% milk, precisely because it is the conventional wisdom. Today, much of the front of the book of The New Republic reads as if it had been poll-tested by the Gore campaign.
There was a brief harmonic convergence — which Foer discusses in his piece — when journalists could be not only openly biased and provocative in their liberalism and drinking buddies with powerful politicians, but famous to boot. These were the Walter Lippmann days. Lippmann was good buddies with many of the politicians he wrote about. Kurtz tells Foer, “I guess [Lippmann] 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?” After watching liberal journalists fawn all over Bill Clinton and his cronies last week at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Kurtz knows full well how journalists could still put themselves in that position. And I, for one, would love to see him write more, not less, about it.
But the point remains that at least Kurtz, for all his faults, does not suffer from nostalgia for the good old days. Foer seems determined to resurrect the days when being a crusading liberal journalist was not only cool, it was beyond reproach. Robert Nisbet, a man far more gifted than Liebling at poking holes in received wisdom, wrote that nostalgia is even at best a rust of memory. Foer’s piece shows signs of rust all over it.