John Kerry: The Man Behind the Curtain

Howard Kurtz forgets the role that editors and reporters play in keeping a story front and center in the public mind.

In Howard Kurtz’ chat this morning with readers of the Washington Post, one questioner took the “news media” to task for hyping the Kerry BotchedJokeGate gaffe last week.

The reader fumed, “I’m really frustrated the way the news media at large played up the Kerry gaffe time and time again last week …Who decided to make this story as big as it was?”

Kurtz, channeling Kerry himself, tried to loosen things up with a bad joke, explaining that “The secret committee of biased journalists, a select and shadowy group” were the folks responsible for pushing the story. Nice try, Howie, but don’t quit your day job.

The real laugh line, however, was still to come — even though Kurtz was being serious. “Actually, as I noted a moment ago, it was John Kerry, by escalating his rhetoric after what he admits was a botched joke, who sent this story into the media stratosphere. The fact that several Democrats publicly criticized or distanced themselves from Kerry’s joke-gone-bad didn’t hurt.”

So, by Kurtz’ reckoning, Kerry “sent this story into the media stratosphere” all by his lonesome. Count us surprised. We had no idea that Kerry wielded so much influence over reporters and their editors, who sent the reporters out to run the story into the ground.

Kurtz’ failure to acknowledge the media’s role in driving this saturation coverage is typical of the establishment press. We are simply observers holding a mirror up to society, the deluded sentiment goes. (What we are, actually, is an insecure bunch of copycats who simply can’t lay off a story once it has been “legitimized,” i.e., published elsewhere.) There was a great example two weeks ago, when Virginia Senator George Allen’s aides “leaked” sexually explicit portions of his opponent James Webb’s novels to the Drudge Report. On October 28, two days after Drudge ran the story, the Washington Post weighed in front page with its own take on the passages, noting that “Allen’s aides” had been “trying to get other news organizations to write about the excerpts for weeks.” Left unsaid was that the Post’s editors presumably didn’t find the passages newsworthy enough to bother — until some other editors decided they were, that is.

Newspapers and television news operations aren’t run as democracies. Journalists and their bosses decide every day which stories to run — and for how long — and which ones to ignore. Kerry botched the joke, and after that it was essentially out of his hands, and in the hands of reporters and editors to decide how far to push the story.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.