Advice on Howard Kurtz’s Replacement

Time for a critic

The parlor game is already underway, with lists of potential replacements being drawn up for Howard Kurtz, who will be leaving his well-worn perch as The Washington Post’s chief media writer to become the D.C. bureau chief of The Daily Beast.

I’m calling Kurtz a media writer because he usually punts on the role of a media critic. At the title would imply, that job requires someone to make arguments and guide readers to conclusions about the strengths, faults, and impact of a given article, media figure, or outlet; to sound the alarm about disturbing trends and tendencies in and affecting the press; and to explain and challenge the culture, traditions, and delusions of journalism.

And those roles require someone who is willing to, as the case warrants, state opinions, poke fun, call sides, and make enemies. There are plenty of media writers who do that work exceedingly well—David Carr, Jack Shafer, Jason Linkins, the Chicago Reader’s Mike Miner. Suffice it to say, Kurtz’s traditional output of profiles and write-ups of the latest media scandal don’t put him in that group.

Now that the position is open, it’s time to ask what the next person will make of it. The job is an unusually prominent one, observing the media entities that, from day to day, shape, distort, redeem, and expose doings in the capital—especially given the clichéd but true observation that old media is being challenged and supplanted in new, revolutionary ways.

That makes this staffing decision, and the brief he gives to whomever takes the job, among the most important acts that have faced Marcus Brauchli since he became editor of The Washington Post in the summer of 2008. And his pick will say something about the wayfinding taking place under his still-maturing tenure.

In Scott Sherman’s recent CJR profile of Brauchli, the editor told him that the paper had settled on a journalistic and economic strategy: “to be the indispensable guide to Washington, really to be for and about Washington.”

There’s that word again—guide. A good Washington guide would tell you what sights are worth seeing, what restaurants you should skip, and what forces conspired to shape the city. Something like a critic.

The Post, like most other media outlets looking to keep their voice relevant and their readers’ attention, is struggling to find the line between appropriate and inappropriate comment. (See Weigel, Dave.)

This environment calls for more than sunny profiles, which means the new media writer will need not only the inclination to stand for something, but the support of the editorial brass to do so. Let’s see what the Post can do.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.