behind the news

Howard Kurtz, Missing in Action

Fox vs. the White House: Where's Howie?
October 22, 2009

Howard Kurtz scored a coup on his CNN show “Reliable Sources” two Sundays ago when White House communications director Anita Dunn came on to knuckle-rap Fox News, saying that the network

often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party….That’s fine, but let’s not pretend they’re a news network the way CNN is.

Those remarks quickly ricocheted around the blogosphere, talk radio, and cable news.

Her claims would have seemed a perfect subject for one of Kurtz’s Washington Post columns. Were they accurate? Two days later, Kurtz did take up Dunn’s remarks, but not to assess their accuracy. Instead, he focused on the political angle:

Leaving aside the distinction between Fox reporters and the likes of O’Reilly, Hannity and Beck—Dunn admitted that Major Garrett is a fair journalist—does this sort of frontal attack make political sense? Could Obama score points with Fox’s audience by engaging, as he did by going on the “Factor” during the campaign? Or does the cable channel provide useful foil for a Democratic administration?

Plus, if you look at MSNBC’s lineup after 6 p.m., Fox isn’t the only network that goes heavy on opinionated hosts.

Kurtz went on to offer a grab-bag of comments on the issue from publications like The Nation and the Baltimore Sun. And that was it. This is increasingly what Kurtz does in his “Media Notes” columns, offering a roundup of media quotes spliced together with his own clever comments, with virtually no reporting or sustained analysis of his own.

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In a column the previous week, in fact, Kurtz breezily dismissed the idea of analyzing the claims made by people like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh:

My view is that they control no votes, no factions, no military units, but they do have powerful microphones. Whatever influence wielded by Beck and Hannity or Limbaugh (or by commentators on the other side) stems from their ideas and their talents as infotainers. If they peddle misinformation and exaggerations, that can be neutralized by others in the media marketplace. Nearly everyone dismissed Beck’s charge that the president is a racist, but the ACORN videos he and Hannity trumpeted on Fox proved to be a legitimate story.

Gee, Howard, I would have thought that the main job of a media reporter would be to expose the misinformation and exaggerations peddled by news organizations. Why cede the job to the “media marketplace” (whatever that is)? I would expect The Washington Post to be one place we could look to for a thoughtful, well-researched analysis of the performance of a network like Fox.

It’s true that Fox can break legitimate stories, as it did with ACORN. Yet, for every such story, it seems to push many that are not legitimate—that in fact seem lunatic. During last year’s presidential campaign last year, for instance, Sean Hannity ran an hour-long special, “Obama & Friends: History of Radicalism,” that offered a series of allegations and half-truths about Obama’s supposed ties to Louis Farrakhan, Muslim fundamentalists, black-power advocates, and Bill Ayers. In one especially egregious segment, a writer with a history of making anti-Semitic sentiments claimed that Obama, in deciding to work as a community organizer in Chicago after college, had probably been recruited for the job by Ayers, who was seeking to test his suitability for joining his radical political movement to bring about a “socialist revolution” in America. Since Obama has taken office, Hannity (having dispensed with the services of Alan Colmes, his long-time fig-leaf liberal sidekick) devotes virtually every minute of every show to bitter criticism of Obama and the Democrats. Glenn Beck has been even more unhinged, claiming that:

* Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people”;
* the White House’s support for “net neutrality” is an effort by Obama to control the Internet;
* the president’s back-to-school speech to students in September urging them to succeed and persist in their studies was an exercise in Mao-like indoctrination;
* Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein, Obama’s nominee to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—widely regarded as a centrist—is an anti-gun, anti-hunting, pro-animal-rights extremist;
* Obama’s use of “czars” is part of a determined effort to trample the American system of government;
* “Socialism is being shoved down our throats”;
* “We are really truly stepping beyond socialism and we’re starting to look at fascism.”

Not just fascism, but Nazism. Beck’s reasoning is so ludicrous that you have to read it to believe it:

Let me just explain what happened in Nazi Germany. Remember it was National Socialism. We’re talking about nationalizing the banks. We’re also putting in socialized programs. National. Socialism. At first in Nazi Germany, everybody was so panicked, they were so freaked, remember, Don’t take any time to think about it, we just have to do, do, do. First all the big companies and big capitalists in Germany said, Oh goodness, there’s a savior — we’ll do that, yes! It didn’t take too long before — like, here in America, Goldman Sachs — they started to see the writing on the wall and went, Whoa, whoa, whoa, you guys are getting out of control here — what are you doing? They couldn’t get out of it fast enough. Unfortunately for those in Germany, you could never go back. I don’t know if this is the system we’re headed towards or not, where they’re not gonna let you out. But let me tell you something, you don’t want to play this game — this is becoming extraordinarily dangerous.

For an appreciation of Beck’s sheer nuttiness, though, I urge people to watch this clip of Beck interviewing David Horowitz, the former left-wing-conspiracy-theorist turned right-wing-conspiracy-theorist. On it, Horowitz, with Beck’s prodding, describes the existence of a vast shadow party organized by George Soros and made up of billionaires, street radicals, radical unions with a Leninist perspective, John Podesta and the Center for American Progress, pro-Cuba activitists, former communists, and a host of other subversives and insurrectionists, all “seeking to overthrow this system and to create a socialist future.”

Beck: “Do you think the President of the United States Barack Obama has that agenda–“

Horowitz: “Absolutely. I have no doubt about it.”

These examples could be multiplied many times over. And let’s not forget Fox’s tireless promotion of the virulently anti-Obama tea parties last April.

Now, as Kurtz notes, Fox does have some straight-shooting journalists, such as Major Garrett, Chris Wallace, and Carl Cameron, and some of its daytime shows provide a relatively uninflected take on the news. But even here the bias is palpable. On Monday morning, for instance, I watched as Fox brought on Karl Rove to comment on Rahm Emanuel’s criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Afghanistan. In the course of five minutes he made a half-dozen preposterous claims about the brilliance of Bush’s policy and the failures of Obama’s, all of which went unchallenged. In the afternoon, I watched anchor Neil Cavuto join anti-global-warming documentary filmmaker Phelim McAleer in mercilessly mocking Al Gore and the environmental movement in general. On Tuesday afternoon, Cavuto went on endlessly about the closed door behind which senators are deliberating on the health care bill, speculating gleefully on whether it was locked or could be nailed shut, showing pictures of various types of doors, and airing excerpts from the Twilight Zone. By Wednesday, he was referring to the matter as “Doorgate,” and the network as a whole was comparing Obama’s criticism of Fox and the Chamber of Commerce to Nixon’s enemies list.

Watching all this, it seems clear to me that Fox is engaged in a calculated and determined campaign to destroy the Obama presidency—a campaign that also happens to be good for its ratings.

It’s true that, where Fox has a strong rightward tilt, MSNBC has a strong leftward one. Keith Olbermann seems to traffic in his own brand of Howard Beale-like bombast. (His “worst person in the world” segment is particularly obnoxious.) But the network just doesn’t seem to feature the conspiratorial looniness or corrosive fear-mongering that pervades Fox.

Some will no doubt disagree with my assessment, but Howard Kurtz doesn’t even think the issue is worth examining—the “media marketplace” will sort it out. He’s not alone. Despite the obvious influence of cable TV (and talk radio) in shaping the national political debate, our top newspapers have given up any pretense of acting as a monitor or referee of what appears on these shows. The New York Times, for instance, spends far more time dissecting reality TV than it does the political influence of TV news.

Into this vacuum has stepped Jon Stewart. Young people have embraced his show precisely because he’s willing to take on cable news in a way our top media reporters are not. And not just Fox. Last week, “The Daily Show” offered a brilliant expose of the superficiality and hollowness of the journalism practiced on CNN, showing how its anchors allow partisan spokesmen to make all kinds of ridiculous claims without challenge. “We’ll have to leave it there” was the stock response of CNN interviewers to the ludicrous talking points of their guests.

You’ll almost never see Howard Kurtz scrutinize CNN in that way. Of course, he’s employed by the network.

On Sunday, Kurtz was brought on to the NPR show “On the Media” to discuss Anita Dunn’s comments. (Alas, “On the Media” offered no analysis of its own, taking instead the lazy approach of a bland chat with Kurtz.) Kurtz observed that

in that original Time Magazine article where Anita Dunn took her first shot at FOX News, she also took shots at The New York Times and The Washington Post. They are frustrated and, frankly, I think it’s because they are not used to what is the typical aggressive and sometimes almost confrontational coverage from the media.

This is what we do. We’re not supposed to get along with these people. They’re not our friends. We’re supposed to hold them accountable. So FOX stands in the White House pantheon as the most aggressive and unfair, they would say, news outlet, but they’re not all that happy with the rest of us, either.

So there it is: Fox is no different from the Times or Post. They’re all just doing their job.

In fact, in not holding demagogues accountable, none of them is doing its job. That might be why the Obama administration felt compelled to engage the issue in the first place.

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.