Defending Howard Kurtz: the Best Media Critic in American Journalism


–Richard E. Vatz

In a reversal of media consensus of over a decade, Howard Kurtz is under relentless attack for some allegedly critical errors, none of which serves a consistent agenda, political or personal.

According to Politico’s Dylan Byers and Katie Glueck, after being named in 2000 “the most important media reporter in America” by left-leaning The New Republic and later by right-leaning Fox’s Vice President Brian Lewis’s calling him a ‘”must read’ in our place,” in the last three years Kurtz has: 1. falsely claimed to have interviewed Rep. Darrell Issa (Kurtz said he was unaware the interviewee was just the Congressman’s aide); incorrectly attributed a quote to Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; inadvertently reversed Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren’s criticism of those who publicly doubted Hillary Clinton’s claim of testimony-nixing illness to say she (Van Susteren) was one of the critics; and, most recently, mistakenly claimed that self-outed gay professional basketball player Jason Collins had not stated that he had been engaged to a woman when he had in fact done so.
As could have been predicted, hungry, jealous media critics took this opportunity to say that not only were these mistakes outrageous, but that they represented a pattern and hinted that Kurtz had been over-rated for some time. The Daily Beast hinted that Kurtz’s leaving that blog was due to his ineptitude (never difficult to claim or for which to cherry-pick evidence), and others hinted that there was a sinister-but-unnamed motive for Kurtz’s over-attention to the relatively low-order news site, The Daily Download.

As one who has all of his career had paroxysms of workaholism, I can give you a few simple formulas: the more obligations one takes under his or her belt especially if he or she lacks oversight and/or editors, the more mistakes one will make; hence, the cliché of “spreading one’s self too thin.”
Too few competitors in the blogosphere have contemplative and fair reflexes: to most of them errors invariably show a pattern; mistakes are nefariously intentional; and any and all mistakes warrant an “aha!”

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Kurtz’s errors of recent (is three years indisputably “recent?”) vintage show no personal agenda being served. They show no pattern. They are dwarfed by the consistently fair and excellent critical productions of a perspicacious critic.
If he has made some judgment errors, particularly recently, they do not gainsay the excellent comprehensive, sophisticated media analysis that he has brought to his show and to his writing,  Reliable Sources, his reporting in /The Washington Post/ and his work elsewhere for years. Looking at his hourly Sunday show, it is not perfect – there are consistently more liberal participants than conservative — but I daresay I do not recall an issue on which the latter perspective was neglected. Almost always a full, multi-sided critique is provided by his guests, and, if not, then by Kurtz himself.
The hyper-reaction to some of Kurtz’s recent errors is simply over-the-top. His subjecting himself on Reliable Sources this past Sunday to a genuine public grilling by top critics (who gave no quarter), David Folkenflik and Dylan Byers, was unique; it should serve as a model of responsible interrogation and responses for those subjected to public criticism who want to be interviewed only by the popular-but-substantively-unfocused Barbara Walters types.
What the new media age lacks are fair, disinterested critics with perspective.
CNN is rumored to be reconsidering the fate of Kurtz’s Reliable Sources show.
Great: Cashier the best moderator of the best media criticism show anywhere because he has made some careless errors. CNN will deserve nothing but journalistic contempt if it yields to penny-wise, pound-foolish critics who ignore a distinguished career in favor of reacting to a few random unintended mistakes of an overworked, stellar journalist.


Professor Vatz has taught Media Criticism at Towson University for two decades and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion. (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013)

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