Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Song Remains the Same for Howard Kurtz

Last week, Howard Kurtz downplayed his pal Michelle Malkin's crazy and vicious smear campaign against twelve-year old Graeme Frost and his family, toddler Bethany Wilkerson and her family, and whoever else dared to challenge her blatant inaccuracies and complete lack of decency. This past Friday, in "CHIP On Their Shoulder," Howard Kurtz demonstrated both what's not so bad about him and what's infuriating and contemptible.

First, let's note what Kurtz does right in this online column. He covers the under-covered story that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's office had a hand in this smear campaign, and lied about it. Kurtz also links Greg Sargent, who asks, "When are the cable nets and the Capitol Hill press and the pundits going to dig into the role that GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell played in pushing the smear of the Frost family?" Kurtz also quotes Digby, one of the best writers on this whole debacle. All of that is to his credit, as is his general pro-blog bent.

Now to his faults. He leads with this:

On the left, commentators are really ticked off over what they view as the smearing of a 12-year-old boy.

On the right, pundits say they are raising legitimate questions about a family that the Democrats trotted out as a symbol of the child health insurance program.

The House, as expected, failed to override Bush's veto of a $35-billion expansion of the program yesterday. But the real emotion seems to surround Graeme Frost, the brain-damaged boy who delivered the Democratic radio address about the S-CHIP program.

You will not be surprised to learn that I am not in favor of beating up on young kids. But I also don't think it's unfair for opponents to question a family's income qualifications for a federal program after the other side has put the family forward as a symbol of why the program is needed.

The problem is that some of the early attacks on the Frost family (the parents have already chatted with Keith Olbermann) were misleading. Yes, the kid goes to a private school, but on scholarship. Yes, the father owns a home, but he bought it in 1990, in a rundown neighborhood, for $55,000.

Such hedging isn't that surprising from an entrenched media figure trying to do "straight" reporting without pissing anyone off, specifically the right-wing. Kurtz won't state that smearing actually occurred, but that it's 'viewed' that way. That's not too bad. But Kurtz glosses over that for those "misleading" attacks (notice the passive construction he uses), the right-wingers made no effort to fact-check them. Kurtz also glosses over the viciousness of those attacks, declining to show any examples. Keep in mind that he didn't write this in print, but in his online column, where he doesn't have a length requirement (the blog versions of his columns are often longer). I'd say this is gutless "he said-she said" coverage and whitewashing, but still not godawful.

Later on, he quotes Digby at some length (again, that's to his credit):

Journalists will say that using political 'oppo research' is a legitimate way to get tips, as long as they always check them out before they run with them. Fair enough. But what they fail to acknowledge is that this allows the best story-planters to set the agenda for coverage, and the best story-planters are those who know how to get the media interested.

And after watching them for the past two decades very closely, I think it's obvious that what interests the media more than anything is access and gossip and vicious little smears piled one atop the other. And why not? They are easy to report, require no mind numbing shuffling of financial reports or struggling through arcane policy papers. In fact, the press has made a virtue of the simple-mindedness by calling what used to be known as gossip, 'character issues', which are used to stand in for judgment about policy.

The press, therefore, will go to great lengths to protect the people who give them what they crave, most of whom happen to be Republicans since character smears are their very special talent. There was a reason why Rove and Libby used 'the wife sent him on a boondoggle' line. Stories about Edwards and his hair and Hillary and her cold, calculating cleavage are the coin of the realm. Why we see so little of the same kind of feeding frenzies on the other side isn't hard to fathom. Nobody is spoon-feeding them to the press with just the kind of cutesy meanness they prefer.

Kurtz' response in the next paragraph is:

I agree that leakers often get to set the story line, but I also know that Democrats are not unfamiliar with the practice. (Remember the Bush DUI leak just before the 2000 election?) And those who leaked information about domestic surveillance, Abu Ghraib and secret CIA prisons also had an impact.

Where to begin? I did a quick search and found that Paddy at Cliff Schecter's blog beat me to a response. As he writes:

I'm only going to say it once Howie, since I think any other attempt at explaining it to you would be wasted breath-

The first example is of rabid monkeys flinging poo at a wall trying to see what will stick and/or smear.

The second example is of reporters digging up truths that are harmful, whether to a nascent presidency or our country.

The fact that you can't tell the difference explains it all.

Digby also responded, taking on the DUI issue specifically, but first dissecting Kurtz' ridiculous paragraph:

Can everyone see what's wrong with that picture? I knew that you could.

It's hard to believe but Kurtz seems to be implying that those who leaked the illegal wiretapping, Abu Ghraib and secret CIA prisons stories were Democratic operatives who were feeding the press a deliciously, gossipy storyline for political gain. Maybe he knows something I don't know, but to compare the whistleblowers who blew the lid off of Abu Ghraib and the others with those smarmy little staffers in Mitch McConnel's office who trafficked in smears against the Frosts says a lot about how the Village views "leaks."

Glenn Greenwald also weighed in on the same paragraph, writing:

For the moment, leave aside the fact that Kurtz is so desperate to defend Republican operatives that he just recklessly asserts things as fact here even though he has no idea whether they are true. Kurtz has absolutely no idea who leaked the NSA story to Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau and whether they are "Democrats." The same is almost certainly true for Dana Priest's sources for her CIA "black site" story, whom Priest described as "U.S. and foreign officials" and "current and former intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents" -- not "Democrats."

Worse, the Abu Grahib whistleblower was U.S. Army Sgt. Joseph Darby, not a Democratic Party operative. And the Bush DUI story was uncovered by a local reporter in Maine through actual old-fashioned reporting -- pursuing a copy of the arrest record and interviewing the arresting officer. But Kurtz, like most Betlway journalists, has such a compulsion to assert equivalencies that he literally just invented facts -- Democrats leaked these stories -- in order to support his "balance" mantra. And this is CNN's and the Post's "media critic."

But far more significant than Kurtz's willingness to invent facts is that he sees no distinction between (a) revelations that the Bush administration is torturing detainees, holding them in secret prisons, and spying on Americans in violation of the law and (b) what Digby described as "stories about Edwards and his hair and Hillary and her cold, calculating cleavage." Digby's whole point was that Republicans dominate political press coverage because they feed vapid, slothful, tiny-minded "journalists" with vapid, tiny-minded, malicious gossip that reporters eat up and spew out in lieu of reporting on actual matters of substance. To rebut Digby's claim, Kurtz argued that Democrats do it, too -- and then cited the leaks about torture, secret prisons, and warrantless surveillance as his proof.

Of course, none of this is that surprising, considering that during his online chat on Monday, 10/15/07, Kurtz tried to equate The Baltimore Sun showing a photo of the Frost's home with Michelle Malkin publishing "their address and telephone number on her blog so more people could harass them" (also noted at FireDogLake). Kurtz handled this affair like a GOP hack, not an objective (and fearless) journalist.

I wanted to wait to finish this post until after Kurtz' online discussion today, to see if he fielded any questions or comments on the matter. I submitted the following two, although the chat was already underway and Kurtz may never have seen them:

Dear Howard, thanks for covering the Frost attacks and the role of McConnell's office in them. However, I felt you glossed over the character of those attacks. The initial Free Republic post that so many right-wing bloggers and McConnell passed around was full of inaccuracies, falsehoods and silliness (is this the idea of a scholarship to private school so inconceivable?). The Frosts would have been eligible under SCHIP even under Bush's version of the plan. Malkin, Reynolds and the gang and McConnell all rushed in without bothering to verify anything. Many of the attacks were vicious and personal, such as calling the Frost parents "spoiled brats" and wishing to see them 'destroyed' or 'hanged.' It would have been easy to say "we all feel sympathetic to the Frosts, but this is a bad program because…" They didn't. While you provided some good details and links, a reader would be unaware of the true venom of these attacks reading your piece alone. Thanks.


Howard, I've read your work for the past three-some years, and while I appreciated you covering the attacks on the Frosts, I was really dismayed to read this:

"I agree that leakers often get to set the story line, but I also know that Democrats are not unfamiliar with the practice. (Remember the Bush DUI leak just before the 2000 election?) And those who leaked information about domestic surveillance, Abu Ghraib and secret CIA prisons also had an impact."

Do you see the false equivalencies here? As far as we know, Democrats were not responsible for all of those leaks, if any. Shouldn't the standards for the newsworthiness of any "leak" be 1) it's true and b) it serves some public need? (Obviously you don't disclose troop movements, operational details, etc.) Warrantless eavesdropping violates the Constitution, Abu Ghraib violated our prohibitions against torture and standards for due process and fair treatment, as do secret CIA prisons. All of these have also severely hurt our image abroad. Exposing those should not be a matter of partisanship. How are those possibly comparable to, say, the swift-boating of Kerry, the attacks on the Wilsons, or the sliming of severely-injured, 12-year old Graeme Frost and his family? Sure, questions can be raised, but all of those attacks contained lies, inaccuracies and an extreme viciousness. As citizens, we depend on the media to fact-check and call BS. Passing on unverified and inaccurate oppo research may fill a column or air time, but it hardly serves the public. As I recall, you've made similar distinctions yourself before, and you were right to do so. Thanks.

Again, I can't fault Kurtz for not responding to my specific submissions, since he may not have even seen them. I dashed these off quickly, and the second one is quite long, although many WaPo online discussions will feature a few of that length. I just wanted to provide context to help avoid another glib dismissal. However, since I read his chats almost every week, I know that when the big liberal blogs raise some question about Kurtz' reporting, it almost always makes it to the chat in some fashion. I would be really surprised if no one offered a similar comment or question, but the chat didn't feature a single challenge on his handling of the story.

I've read virtually every piece Kurtz has written in the past three or more years (although I've only caught clips of his CNN show Reliable Sources). My take on Kurtz is that he leans conservative (his wife is "Republican consultant and commentator Sheri Annis") and does make some effort to be fair, but he's blind to many of his faults and biases. That's the most charitable take. I do give him credit for chatting with readers nearly every week, and often responding to some tough questions. At times he's even apologized for errors. Every so often he produces a splendid column, as when he took on the ridiculous Murdoch-driven Obama madrassa story, and actually did so ahead of the curve.

However, much of the time he's playing catch-up, and his starting frame of reference is almost always right-wing blogs and publications. He sometimes challenges right-wingers, but generally not that vigorously and has spread false claims by them unchallenged. He's run with BS stories spread by Malkin and others that were debunked by the major liberal blogs days before he posted his column. All in all, his blog isn't bad as a conservative reader's round-up, with a sprinkling of liberal pieces as well. He's a sampler more than a debunker, although he seems to have a double standard for what outrages him (no one who reads conservative blogs as regularly as he does could be ignorant of how violent rhetoric is commonplace and even encouraged by them in a way that is just not the case for the liberal blogosphere).

Kurtz's sporadic quality work has been enough to make me feel disappointed in him rather than completely writing him off. I would like to think he's redeemable, and with the chattering class, I generally like to give credit where deserved and condemnation where justified. (I also feel compelled to dissect bullshit.) Still, others such as Scott Horton have savaged Kurtz on several occasions, and with good reason. Kurtz has his moments, but he's shown a double standard several times now, as well as a stunning unwillingness to call bullshit on the right-wing. If he were a GOP operative, his rationalizations and false equivalencies might not be so maddening, but he's a supposedly objective media critic at one of the nation's best, most prestigious newspapers. Film critic Pauline Kael sagely observed that Hollywood confuses what people want with what they're willing to settle for. The same dynamic holds true for most politicians and certainly most pundits of "the Village." Given that moral vacuum, it's all the more important for bloggers and activists to keep up the pressure, especially with pundits too gutless to condemn sleazy attacks on a severely-injured seventh grade kid.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

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