In Defense Of Howard Kurtz
Here is the thing: I learned to mock Howard Kurtz in large part from Howard Kurtz.
It was the nineties. The media was already irrelevant, but if you needed to reinvigorate your sense of contempt for it his 1,300-word "media notes" column was indisputably the most efficient method. Newt Gingrich abstained from taking a side in the polarizing boxers v. briefs debate. Tina Brown hired Roseanne Barr to guest-edit an issue of the New Yorker. Gennifer Flowers, the Lincoln bedroom, Paula Jones and James Riady, the White House Travel Office and Naomi Wolf were all trending topics, and O.J. became a kind of industry, rich with subplots such as Time's controversial photoshopping of his mugshot a few shades darker than it appeared in Newsweek. Gianni Versace was shot dead point blank in the face during a morning coffee run by a weird gay serial killer whose motives remain unclear.
The term "Nannygate" was first coined—no prizes for actually remembering the name of the lawyer whose attorney general nomination became its first victim—and "zeitgeist" was revived and deployed ad nauseum by editors in conference rooms of editors searching (boldly/savvily/edgily/endlessly) for the right meaningless consumer-friendly catchphrase to concisely convey the meaningless epoch. As Kurtz wrote in an item about the rise of blond engineer-hot "entrepreneur" Kim Polese (god it feels weird boldfacing that name!) ascent to Time's list of the 25 Most Influential People In America in 1995:
The cosmic import of this is…probably nothing.
Dutifully though, Kurtz persisted in tallying the casualties: 16 page cover spreads in both Time and Newsweek on Versace (while the aborted GOP coup against Newt Gingrich, which also happened that week, scored a combined three pages in both newsweeklies.) Twenty reporters and nine television cameramen showed up to Oliver North's first day on the job as a right wing talk radio host. JFK Jr. graced the covers of Newsweek, Esquire and New York in a single month in 1995, with Newsweek boasting the distinction of printing five separate bare-chested photos of the late dynasttante. And before its exhausting unending decline, the ascent of the "skybox" on the redesigned front pages of the daily newspaper format, which Kurtz dissected in a depressing 4673-word cover in 1993:
"Let's Go Barefoot!" says the "skybox" atop the Charlotte Observer logo. "Jammin' Jamaica — It's Reggae Time," says the Miami Herald's skybox. "A Star Trek Quiz," says the Hartford Courant's. "Baby Boomers Hit Midlife Crisis," says the Arizona Republic's. There are car columns, health columns, gossip columns, advice columns, lawyers' columns, computer columns, photography columns, gardening columns, men's columns, women's columns, fishing columns, finance columns. There are parenting tips, survival tips, pet tips, dining tips, shopping tips, travel tips. There are sections called Rumpus, You, Sunday Brunch, Almost the Weekend, High Style, Home, View, Scene, Tempo, KidNews, WomenWise, Living, Life, Yo, and Yo! Info!
The above paragraph is, in a literal sense, a display of "aggregation," and it was one of Kurtz's great strengths. Kurtz watched the hours leading up to the O.J. verdict/following Clinton's "mea culpa" speech/during the 1999 New Hampshire primaries/etc. etc. on three separate screens so you would not have to. He was a compulsive and almost insatiable hoarder of inadvertent everyday testimonials to the state of the industry's epidemic cognitive deterioration, and week after week he packed them into ten and fifteen-comma sentences which might have been maligned/hailed as indulgent/ literary had Kurtz been a slightly more vain/stylish writer. But Kurtz was too service-y for that. Week after week, he marshaled freshly culled evidence into new ways of proving one was better off turning off the television, avoiding the magazine rack and skipping the "yuppie features" and drab "bureaucratic news" about "the empty maneuverings of middle-aged guys in suits" his industry had "deluded ourselves into believing" readers cared about.
The purpose of all Kurtz's early endeavors in aggregation was generally diametrically opposed to that of what we now associate with the industry term: it meant to subtly train readers to become more discerning, discriminating, dismissive.
But it was his longer (which then meant 8,000-word) narrative deconstructions of how lazy journalism and opportunistic political point-scoring so often conspired to turn unsubstantiated spin into conventional wisdom, run-of-the-mill indiscretion into sensational scandal and naked propaganda into "reality" that were truly illuminating.
In one epic 1991 piece for the Sunday magazine, he contrasted a then-trending (and career ending) scandal over Bush chief of staff John Sununu's extravagant (but totally eyerollingly mundane) travel habits—he flew to Chicago on a defense contractor's corporate jet and attended a stamp auction in New York chartering a government limousine!—with an actually scandalous scandal from two years earlier over then Secretary of State James Baker's shares in a bank with billions of dollars of Third World debt whose terms he was directly involved in negotiating.
Why did Baker emerge from his brief ordeal virtually unscathed, while Sununu remains a national symbol of pigheaded arrogance?
Kurtz quickly answered this question—Baker was an entrenched master of spin control who knew where bodies were buried, "Air Sununu" erupted in the midst of a slow news month and private jets are a fuckload easier to explain to the viewing public than securities fraud and most importantly, politics; there's more "show" and less "tell" in Howie's version—before quickly establishing that it wasn't a very good question.
The better (albeit probably "naive") question, he pondered over the next 7,000 words, was why so many reporters persisted in flocking to "low interest loans, ethnic slurs, drinking problems" even as they allowed their eyes to glaze over in the face of vast conspiracies to defraud taxpayers of hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars. "The S&L story was such a huge story, with such large dimensions, that it didn't fit into the context of how people in your business cover news," was one explanation. The mindbogglingly outrageous malfeasance at the Department of Housing and Urban Development had been overlooked, Kurtz (who had covered the agency) opined, because "few editors or reporters cared about HUD, a backwater agency with the distinctly unfashionable mission of helping the poor; most were more interested in glamorous beats like the White House or the Pentagon." And the Pentagon contracting scandals—well, how was anyone supposed to know those could be potentially "sexy" before an ambitious summer intern named Barton Gellman actually bothered reading an inspector general report on the thing and found that priceless $640 toilet seat reference? ("What distinguishes this particular cap from any other lump of white nylon is that the Air Force paid its government supplier $ 1,118.26 for it," his first story explained, "which is roughly the cost of the plastic, plus $ 1,118.")
Kurtz began the conclusion to this studiously humble, folksy, mild-mannered version of journalistic tour de force:
So now we've outlined the basic rules of the Washington Scandal Game. Personalize scandal: Advance three spaces. Spice up scandal with sex angle or famous person: Advance five spaces. Pin scandal on someone who's bad at damage control: Win a free trip to Page 1. Unearth scandal in a slow news month: Collect 100 bylines. Discover scandal that fuels the political wars: Proceed directly to journalistic heaven.
Perhaps it's time to invent some new rules. Maybe, just maybe, we need a new definition of what is really scandalous.
Imagine the possibilities: Stories about massive waste in the Medicaid program instead of the flashy expose' about the Medicaid doctor with a yacht and a Mercedes. Stories examining the decline of public education instead of the quick hit about condoms in the schools. Stories about how high-priced lobbyists affect public decision-making every day instead of the inside dirt on the latest big name to spin through the revolving door.
Sound naive? Maybe so. But surely the press can do better than careen from one overheated scandal to the next. Our attention span is a joke; by the time anyone starts thinking seriously about fundamental reforms, we've all moved on to the next outrage. HUD is still a bureaucratic monstrosity, but who cares? Jack Kemp is said to be thinking about his next job. Read anything damning about defense procurement lately? We still have problems with cost overruns and weapons that don't work — not to mention a gargantuan budget deficit with no "peace dividend" in sight — but who wants to read about them after the slam-bam success of the Gulf War? And maybe the real story on John Sununu isn't how he gets to Aspen but why he hasn't helped his president fashion a domestic agenda more ambitious than threatening to veto Democratic bills.
I cannot find this story online but entreat anyone ethically bankrupt to be teaching journalism to whatever would-be Barton Gellmans that remain hanging on in this sick society to find it on Nexis and make it required reading. (Bonus "relevant" fact: it also mentions Robert Gates's involvement in Iran Contra!) Because its powerful indictment of media hackery is infinitely more searing for the fact that we have lived to see its author become what no one seems ashamed anymore to call a "brand." To devolve, after all, is only human, as he wrote in a 1993:
After writing a piece for this magazine about how television's ubiquitous experts often have more glibness than expertise, I was, of course, invited on television to pop off on the subject. Sometimes I hear myself spewing forth opinions I didn't know I had in an effort to provide a serviceable quote. At other times reporters try to nudge me in a certain direction, fishing for the comment that will match their preconceived notion of the story. You begin to understand why politicians choose their words so carefully. Still, I can babble on with the best of them, knowing full well that my penetrating insights will be reduced to a sentence or two through the miracle of journalistic condensation.