Howard Kurtz and Reliable Sources (Part Two)

–Richard E. Vatz

I continue to be fascinated by WASHINGTON POST scribe Howard Kurtz and his CNN show, “Reliable Sources” (RS).

The show is about media criticism, and I have taught a course entitled “Media Criticism” for over 15 years at Towson University.

The show deals with ideological bias and evaluation of print and electronic media excellence, including blogs as a prominent medium as well, but other media are not emphasized nearly as much, including books, films and podcasts. I gave Kurtz a “Vatzian Media Excellence Award” a couple of years ago on WBAL Radio.

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I like the show so much that it is a frequent object of analysis in my course. The show is an hour long and includes 6-8 segments, more or less. Much of RS shows deals with ideological bias.

As one might imagine, the segment have a range of value, but when there are strong liberal and conservative points of view well-represented, the show crackles. Some excellent conservative media spokespeople on RS have included Amy Holmes, Amanda Carpenter, Michael Medved, Tucker Carlson and Bill Bennett.

Now, in regard to bi-partisan representation, as I have indicated in this blog previously, RS and Kurtz often have both liberal and conservative points of view well-represented, but not always. In addition when there are 3 guests, as there are often, the divide is usually 2-1 liberal, and I simply do not recall seeing a 3-0 conservative advantage.

As just one example of imbalance, I have written about an RS show on media coverage of Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, whose nomination, parenthetically, I vigorously opposed on these pages and on electronic media from the start. RS sported the predictably liberal Anne Kornblut (THE WASHINGTON POST), Julie Mason (THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE) and Frank Sesno (CNN). None of them had the professional discipline to seriously consider conservative complaints concerning her (Palin’s) coverage by the mainstream media.

Ironically, today’s RS (May 24, 2009) had a segment on “Prime Time Partisans,” starting with the eminently debatable premise that CNN is balanced, whereas other networks are openly partisan. Let me say that a case could be made for the relative even-handedness of CNN, but on an absolute scale, CNN trends and has always trended liberal. When in news analysis segments they have a preponderance of liberal commentators and one or two conservatives, they flatter themselves that they are, again, “balanced.”

Also on the show today, historically liberal David Zurawik of his BALTIMORE SUN’s “Z on TV” blog was right down the middle but strong, clear, interesting and provocative on the danger of MSNBC and others’ empty, partisan, and overwrought political diatribes. His captivating contribution was, however, diluted by mostly bland and unfocused inanities of Lauren Ashburn, managing editor of “USA Today Live” and Matt Frie, anchor of BBC World News, especially the latter, who included a dose of psychobabble to support his muddled arguments.

What is the role and what is the political slant of the moderator? This is what makes RS unique: I simply do not know of another show involving political discussions in which I was not sure whether a principal was liberal or conservative. With Kurtz, although all liberals are sure he leans conservative and all conservatives are sure he leans liberal, I am just not sure.

Kurtz seems to me to be as fair as a proactive, opinionated moderator of a show on journalism excellence can be, although, to be honest, when he leans liberal, I feel more irritated than when he leans conservative.

What would I do to improve this show? I would weed out the occasional media-criticism-irrelevant topic (like the empty, near-worthless interview with blogger-actor Mariel Hemingway last week), and I would occasionally have a majority of conservatives as expert in a segment – are they so rare as to be unable to get two?

All told, “Reliable Sources” is a joy and is academically and politically responsible and extremely informative. Is the show perfectly down the middle? No, it has many more liberal guests, but in the land of the blind media, the one-eyed media criticism show is king.

Professor Vatz teaches an advanced course in Media Criticism

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