Howard Kurtz and Relatively Reliable Sources

–Richard E. Vatz

For those of us interested in media criticism (and for those of us who have taught a course called “Media Criticism,” for, say, about 15 years), there is no better a consistent source than CNN’s “Reliable Sources” every Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. The show is intelligent, confronting serious (and some non-serious) media controversies of the week, and it very rarely misses critical issues, although it did this week, about which more below.

One of the problems in having the media criticize itself, as is the case on this show, is that many media sources claim media liberalism is understandable, since the watchdog press covers powerful institutions and interests, and such institutions and interests are more often conservative than liberal.

If that’s true, then one should expect media critics on a show about media criticism, say CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” would be more conservative than liberal, since the points at issue will more often than not concern the liberal bias of media. But such is not the case. More journalistic critics on the show are from the left.

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It should be noted that “Reliable Sources” has a moderator, THE WASHINGTON POST’s Howard Kurtz, who is fair and disinterested (a positive term, meaning something akin to unbiased). The multi-media-involved Kurtz (newspapers, television, books, blogs) is America’s most important figure in media criticism currently. The show’s guest commentators are more often liberal, but for each segment they are rarely all liberal. So while one may say that this is another network show which promotes news media liberalism, it is unusual to find such a show which at least allows the conservative perspective to be consistently articulated.

Every once in a while the segments are embarrassingly imbalanced in a pro-liberal way. Last year, in an analysis of the mainstream media treatment of Sarah Palin, the “Reliable Sources” guests were liberals Anne Kornblut (THE WASHINGTON POST), Julie Mason (HOUSTON CHRONICLE) and Frank Sesno (CNN), who all agreed that, for example, a highly controversial interview of Gov. Palin by ABC’s Charles Gibson in style and substance was beyond reproach and that disagreement with that view was laughable – and they literally laughed at the idea that the interview was biased.

On the other hand, many, and perhaps most, “Reliable Sources” shows have excellent conservative media critics, despite their being a minority presence, including at times the really exceptionally insightful Amy M. Holmes of CNN and someone like the always impressive and articulate’s Amanda Carpenter.

Today’s show was not bad, but was not one of its best. Two of the three guests were liberal in the first two segments, and the lonely conservative was a bit lacking in aggressiveness. In going over President Barack Obama’s major speech on the economy and war policy, that lonely conservative, Stephen F. Hayes of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, pointed out, but did not pursue much, the critical point of Obama’s policy debt to the success of “The Surge” in Iraq. Moreover, in a discussion of the end of the 18-year-old ban on news coverage and photographs of the return of deceased soldiers, no one discussed the effect on America’s ability to fight necessary wars in view of public revulsion at such pictures.

The guest journalists on Reliable Sources vary in quality from week to week, as does the liberal-conservative ratio of journalists from segment to segment. Still, the host is unusually fair, and it must be said that this show is must-see media criticism, often filled with trenchant, near-evenhanded analysis.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of political communication at Towson University

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