Howard Kurtz may be the fastest-talking human being in all of television news. He may be the most glib, too. Compared to Kurtz, those of us who have sometimes been known to go 70 in a conversational 40-mph zone sound like Jimmy Stewart.
He was a natural for television despite looking like Barbra Streisand’s cousin, the butcher. (A fictional person, to be sure.) Kurtz’s lickety-split delivery and ability to race verbally through any conversational thicket has made for a decidedly odd counterpoint to his actual job in America, which is high-profile media critic, evaluating media problems and performances for a succession of media outlets beginning with the Washington Post.
Kurtz’s elevated profile didn’t exactly absolve him of all manner of worry about conflicts of interest when his hair-raising glibness first took him to CNN to host what is now “Reliable Sources,” an hourlong Sunday morning fixture on the network. Wouldn’t his dual employment as a media critic in two places cause him to go light on CNN in print? And to skate over Washington Post wrongdoing on the air?
Despite his employment migrations since, the questions have never been answered satisfactorily. I’ve never been able to expunge the inkling that his scrutiny of his employers, whoever they are, is considerably less vigorous and more diplomatic than his scrutiny of others.
On top of that, Kurtz, as critic, seems a tiny bit more given to cataloguing the journalistic felonies and misdemeanors of faulty individuals rather than those of the corporations and media grandees which were the frequent subjects of the greatest of all media critics, the legendary A.J. Liebling, writing for the New Yorker.
The freakishly glib Kurtz spent the fat opening chunk of his Sunday “Reliable Sources” in a bizarre display of contrition that was, by my lights, quite the damndest thing I’ve ever seen a journalist do in public. Kurtz, a University at Buffalo grad, had long since left his well-respected gig at the Post to join Tina Brown in her Daily Beast marriage to Newsweek, where Kurtz continued as media critic but added duties as a kind of Washington bureau chief, too.
If all of that sets off alarm bells about a fellow wearing so many hats that many of them hadn’t been properly sized to fit him anymore, advance your piece on the board 10 squares. Especially, when you find out that Kurtz has also been a major online supporter of a new player in the Internet Media Crit racket, Lauren Ashburn’s Daily Download, where Kurtz is a contributor along with a few other people familiar to watchers of his show (Jeff Jarvis, David Zurawik). He’s also a frequent presence there.
How many plates could that boy keep spinning in the air before we heard the unmistakable sound of crashing crockery?
We found out last week when one of the bigger news stories of the day caught Kurtz in the act of being so glib that he was flat-out wrong. And not just stupidly, carelessly wrong either, but suspiciously wrong which left more than a little room for ugly doubts about his motives.
The news story was journeyman NBA center Jason Collins’ announcement in a Sports Illustrated cover story that he is gay, thereby making himself the first athlete in any of the major professional team sports to so identify himself while remaining an active player. (He’s between teams at the moment, having just been with the Washington Wizards.)
Those who compared Collins’ admission to Jackie Robinson’s pioneering with the Dodgers in 1947 were more than a little daft, it seems to me. What Robinson did can’t be overstated, even now. The civil rights era was more than a decade away and President Truman, for pity’s sake, hadn’t even yet issued the executive order that fully integrated the United States military.
In contrast to that, we have in 2013 no fewer than nine states – including the District of Columbia – that recognize same-sex marriage. You have to be blind indeed to history not to know where this bus is heading, even if Collins’ ridership was, in its own way, a bit dramatic.
If comparing Collins to Robinson is ridiculous, what may come a little closer to Robinson’s pioneering will be the first major American male movie star to “come out” while still being cast in blockbuster starring roles. That’s a staggering unlikelihood even now because of the sums of money involved. The only element that might change it is some role taken by that actor that might make outing himself effective “publicity.” It’s always amazing what some will do for box office.
What Kurtz cast aspersions on, though, was Collins’ frankness about his previous life as a presumed heterosexual. It was immediately obvious that Kurtz wasn’t paying adequate attention to the original SI piece or to an interview Collins did with George Stephanopoulos.
There was hell to pay. He and the Daily Beast, in fact, parted company. (He told us Sunday the divorce was long in the works.) CNN, at first, announced greater scrutiny of that and other recent Kurtz mistakes indicating absurd overcommitment.
To say the obvious, mistakes are part of journalism. They always have been and always will be as long as it is practiced by fallible human beings and not automatons incapable of invention, adventure or insight (to name three obvious things). Everyone makes them. We all hate it when we do – and look for the earliest and best way to “get it right.”
It wasn’t just the mistake that looked bad for Kurtz, but what seemed to be the ungenerous spirit of it, wherein any doubts he might have had about Sports Illustrated’s exploitation of one athlete’s private life were extended to the athlete’s own candor and integrity. You don’t have to look far on the Internet to find charges of homophobia, which is more and more an oddity in this age.
It all led to Kurtz defending himself on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” while reporters from NPR and Politico grilled him like mini-Kurtzes on his own show. The ordinarily brash, fast-talking Kurtz lowered his voice and volume level and said things like “I’ll try very hard not to take on too much” in the exaggeratedly hushed tones of a little boy telling his mom that he won’t throw his football in the living room anymore and break any more of her antique lamps.
Anyone trying to pay attention to conflicts of interest had to stop 30 seconds into it because the whole thing soared into the stratosphere of bizarre public confession most famously inhabited by Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech. This is, to understate, not a good place for a media critic to be.
But then maybe Kurtz has taken the whole “media critic” gig into brave new territory.
What American sport, after all, can beat the act of contrition for public spectacle guaranteed to set off knee-jerk emotions? Maybe we need a new cable TV network – the All-Contrition Channel, on-the-air apologies played 24/7, full of panel shows where famous miscreants and actors who play miscreants evaluate contrite public appearances of the famous, the infamous and the unknown. Or maybe we need an all-troll Internet website where every self-proclaimed “media critic” can abuse the remaining members of the working press freely with all the misinformation they can muster.
Ever since some creative Chicagoans reminded the world how useful the ancient Romans found the human thumb as a leading indicator of human fate in what was – all things considered – the entertainment world’s first focus group, it has been a gladiator world and Christians vs. Lions out there.
To tell you the truth, I was too stunned by Kurtz’s act Sunday to know which way to stick my thumb. It isn’t as easy as it looks to be a barbarian.