Howard Kurtz should get over himself. For 20 years, Kurtz earned his bread tsk-tsking the excesses of the mainstream media for The Washington Post. His standard biography kept him at arm's length from the newsroom. As the "About the Author" section of his most recent book, Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War, put it: "Howard Kurtz is the media reporter for The Washington Post and also writes a weekly column for the newspaper and a daily blog for its Web site." His distance from the actual crafting of the news of the day gave him the breathing room for sanctimony. But, now, as Washington bureau chief of The Daily Beast, he's lost that privilege. No longer just a press critic, as editor Tina Brown announced, "In this new role, Kurtz will oversee the two-year-old site’s coverage of Washington and will report and write regularly on politics, media, and the intersection of the two."
The intersection sounds more like a perilous balancing act, demonstrated most clearly by Weinergate. Kurtz the media critic is simply aghast at the excesses of the political press corps. Kurtz the D.C. bureau chief is part of a web site that has covered every tiny incremental advancement of the Anthony Weiner story, including a running slideshow of Weiner's every shirtless and semi-nude photo and a story about the "pun-filled responses" titled "Weinergate's 9 Best Moments." It would seem something would have to give.
Asked about the tension, Kurtz first minimized his role. "I am not in charge of the site’s Weiner coverage," he wrote by email, adding, "but I wouldn’t deny for a second that The Daily Beast has aggressively jumped on this story." The problem, he said, is a sort of tragedy of the commons: "Each media outlet may be able to justify its own level of involvement, but the combined effect – television, print, online – becomes hugely out of proportion to the story’s importance."
But that sense that he's part of the machine (as is The Atlantic Wire) feasting on the page views generated by a guy's dumb mistakes hasn't come across in his recent television appearances. On Wednesday, Kurtz the media critic appeared on CNN's In the Arena with Eliot Spitzer (insert irony here) to assess the media's coverage of the "sexting" scandal engulfing Rep. Anthony Weiner. Predictably, he scolded the media: "The degree of piling on: the way it hijacks cable news, the way it hijacks the morning shows, the way it is all over the Internet says to me that we are more interested in covering salacious topics than matters of the economy, on matters of war and peace. It's not a novel statement on my part. But I've never seen it spin at this velocity and get this far out of control." Three days prior, Kurtz opened his own show CNN's Reliable Sources with a panel discussion on the appropriateness of covering the Weiner scandal. "Are journalists enjoying this tangle tale just a little too much?" he asked CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis and Gawker writer Maureen O'Connor. Yesterday he devoted nearly his entire broadcast to the same, navel-gazing media-on-media criticism. "It's on 10,000 Web sites in half an hour," he told Jane Hall, an associate professor of communications at American University. "It seems to me... that there aren't gatekeepers anymore... Is there a point where it just becomes excessive?"
Kurtz doesn't work at The Washington Post anymore. In those days, his employer adhered to a strict standard of editorial discretion and he always followed suit with an "above the fray" even-handedness that earned him the reputation of the country's "most influential media reporter." And as he told us, he was just as likely to point out the excess of his paper then. "That was also the case, by the way," he said, "when I would write about media frenzies while at The Washington Post."
Though he may not be running the Weiner coverage (and if not, one wonders if he ought to defend his territory as bureau chief), Kurtz has played a hand. He is on record saying he hunted down Kirsten Powers, Anthony Weiner's ex-girlfriend, to have her write a negative article on the embattled congressman, which he personally edited. "As the Washington bureau chief of The Daily Beast, I asked if you would write about this and you declined," he told the long-time Weiner friend and Fox News commentator on his show yesterday. Eventually, Kurtz convinced her to write it, adding more oxygen to the Weinergate tabloid frenzy. As the intro (written presumably by an editor and not Powers) described her piece:
Anthony Weiner’s former girlfriend, Kirsten Powers, defended him on TV to millions of people after he insisted to her that he didn’t send lewd photos on Twitter. Now she takes him to task for his rampant misogyny—and says he must resign immediately.
But in his television appearances, Kurtz the media critic makes it clear that media companies should be held responsible for their excesses (which is basically the whole point of his show, Reliable Sources). His quote again: "The way it is all over the Internet says to me that we are more interested in covering salacious topics than matters of the economy, on matters of war and peace." If that's the case, why doesn't Kurtz the bureau chief steer the Daily Beast's coverage away from Weinergate? Is his title as an editor meaningless? Even if he's just following Tina Brown's orders, one suspects he could at least steer his own coverage away from the scandal. Yet here he is in today's column explaining how hard he's worked the Weinergate beat: "On the afternoon that Anthony Weiner tearfully confessed to all manner of X-rated misadventures, I furiously scribbled notes and banged out a story for The Daily Beast—one of several on a seamy saga that, as they say, has nothing but readers." After giving similar coverage to John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominque Strauss-Kahn, he adds, "I can defend every one of these stories, which involve public officials and questionable-to-serious allegations," he wrote today.
But it's worth asking a larger point: If even Howard Kurtz the bureau chief can't live up to the standards of Howard Kurtz the media critic, what's the point in making the argument at all? The truth is, The Daily Beast, like The Atlantic Wire, aims to be smart and informative, while not leaving its readers in the dark about the stories carrying the day (yes, even if they tend toward the salacious side). And Kurtz contributes to The Daily Beast's mission. But when he continues to appear on TV bashing the media for covering a story he's gleefully partaking in, it is not just "not a novel statement," it's hypocritical.