Howie Kurtz, Shailagh Murray, and the vapid, petty Beltway media mind

The media critic for the Washington Post and CNN equates leaks of torture and lawbreaking with gossip over Edwards' hair and Hillary's outfits.

Published October 20, 2007 10:59AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

The job of Howard Kurtz as the "media critic" for The Washington Post and CNN is to shed light on how our media functions. Kurtz actually did a superb job of this in his column yesterday, although it was completely unintentional.

Kurtz responded to a post by Digby, in which Digby explained the perfect coordination between the right-wing gossip-mongers who feed the gossip-hungry press an endless supply of petty, vapid personal smears that dominate our political discourse -- all in lieu of any meaningful coverage of anything that actually matters. As Digby wrote, quoted by Kurtz:

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.

Kurtz simply can't have this. One of the Central Religious Principles of Beltway journalists is "equivalence" -- always to insist that everything is the same between the two sides regardless of whether it actually is. To fulfull this craving for "balance," this is how Kurtz "refuted" Digby's point:

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.

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.

There is a lot of hand-wringing going on over the fact that Michael Mukasey is explicitly defending indefinite detention, torture, and illegal surveillance. But that really isn't all that notable. These are the things that have become normalized. These views are now mainstream in our political culture. How can anyone expect the Senate to block Mukasey's confirmation based on policies that -- for years now -- it has known about, acquiesced to, and even legalized and endorsed?

Most of all, these policies have become mainstream because our elite media does not see anything noteworthy or significant about them, let alone alarming or radical. Rendition and warrantless eavesdropping and lawbreaking theories are just boring stories to pick at for political fodder when our media stars are forced -- between gossipy sessions over Hillary's coldness and Edwards' gayness and big house and the MoveOn ad -- to pay them any attention at all. That's why Kurtz views torture and NSA lawbreaking stories as the equivalent of what Digby calls "those delightfully bitchy tid-bits" fed to them by Right-wing dirt-mongers (Matt Drudge rules their world). It's because most "journalists" treat them the same, except that they're far more interested in the latter than the former.

That's what makes Kurtz's Post colleague, Shailagh Murray, such a valuable specimen. She helpfully packs every decadent, petty and rotted attribute of the Beltway journalist into one single reporter.

To Murray -- the National Political Reporter of The Washington Post -- the extraordinary decision by President Bush to save his top aide from going to prison after he was convicted of multiple federal felonies was merely "the Libby flap," meriting nothing more than a "YAAWWN." And her snide, jaded, and just outright snotty dismissal of Chris Dodd's stance against warrantless spying on Americans and amnesty for lawbreaking telecoms -- which triggered the passion and intense support of tens of thousands of politically engaged Americans hungry for leadership on these issues -- tells you all you need to know about our Beltway media culture.

They think that their jaded, petty, above-it-all, junior high coolness is a sign of their sophistication and insight. Conversely, they think that political passion and conviction is the province of the lowly, ignorant masses -- the overly serious nerds -- who have no role to play in our political system other than to keep quiet and allow the Serious, Beltway Officials and Experts -- who whisper gossip into Murray's ear and flatter her with access and attention -- to make the right, Serious decisions.

The snickering over Dodd's stand and the enthusiasm it has triggered is perfectly redolent of how they spent all of 2006 reporting on Russ Feingold's lonely attempt to impose some accountability on the Bush administration for its blatant lawbreaking in how it spied on our conversations. When Feingold endlessly protested the NSA lawbreaking, and then announced his intention to introduce a Resolution censuring Bush for breaking the law, the Beltway media in unison all chuckled oh-so-knowingly and dismissively.

Our very sophisticated media stars explained to us that this was all so obviously nothing more than a cheap political ploy by Feingold to pander to the Far Left in order to gain their support for his presidential campaign. That Feingold is actually from a decidedly un-liberal state and thus takes real political risks by pursuing these positions never gives them a moment's thought about whether he actually believes in what he is saying. Identically, when Feingold, a few months after announcing his Censure Resolution, revealed that he actually did not intend to run for President, and yet continued to pursue these positions with equal vigor, the idea that perhaps he believed in what he was saying all along -- that he actually believed that the President should not be able to break the law repeatedly with no consequences -- never occurred to them.

That realization can't occur to them. The idea that Feingold -- or Dodd -- actually believe in what they are saying and doing is something they're incapable of ever believing. Because these Beltway journalists are empty and self-absorbed and consumed with pettiness and believe in nothing, they assume that everyone else is as barren and vapid as they are -- so barren and vapid that they see no distinction between catty chatter about Edwards' haircuts and alerting Americans to how radical this government has become, except that the catty chatter is way more fun.

To the standard Washington journalist like Murray, Dodd's demand that the Fourth Amendment be adhered to and that the rule of law be applied to our nation's largest corporations is mere "breathlessness"; his vigorous objections to lawbreaking are nothing more than "hot rhetoric"; those who are inspired by his actions are naive losers; and it's all just a stunt to save his campaign. Concern over abuses of power by the Bush administration are so unserious and shrill. And, as Kurtz made clear, things like torture and lawbreaking and secret CIA black sites are no more significant than the endless giggly chirping about Hillary's laugh and the size of Edwards' house and his friend Michelle Malkin's inventory-taking of the Frost family's cars.

This is why we're about to casually confirm someone as Attorney General of the United States who openly admits he believes the President has the power to imprison American citizens with no charges, use torture and break the law at will. Those things are normal and mainstream now in the Beltway because our media stars -- most of our "political journalists" -- could not care less about any of that. It's all so boring and dreary and "breathless." YAAWWN.

UPDATE: After posting this, I see that Digby also noted the same response from Kurtz and she adds some additional points.

UPDATE II: At Harper's, Scott Horton examines a rather extraordinary incident revealing what one might call Kurtz's suspect integrity. This would be an excellent topic for an actual media critic to cover. Too bad neither the Post nor CNN has one.

The day before, Horton struggled with the truly vexing question of who has earned "the position of most pathetic by-lined opinion writer" at the Post. Horton's nominees: David Broder, David Ignatius and Howard Kurtz. As you might imagine, Horton had a very difficult time choosing the winner, but ultimately awarded the distinction to Kurtz by emphasizing what is probably the single most over-looked factor accounting for the wretched state of our poltiical press:

And finally we come to the man who surely claims the prize as WaPo's most pathetic shill, Howard Kurtz. He masquerades as a media critic; in fact, he's a media buffoon. But beyond that, Kurtz is one of the dumbest figures in print or on the airwaves. . . . In my mind it comes down to Broder, Ignatius, and Kurtz -- and I'm giving top honors to Howard: the man who's done the most to destroy WaPo's reputation in the arena of opinion.

I personally find myself avoiding this explanation for media malfeasance because it is difficult to write about it without seeming gratuitously personal, insulting and ad hominem. But it is just undeniably true that a significant reason why so many of our media stars seek to "cover" only the most vapid and shallow gossip and why they mindlessly recite pre-packaged government propaganda is because -- to phrase this as politely as possible -- they simply lack the faculties to do anything else, and are completely bereft of even a molecule of critical thought or the ability to subject what they are told -- particularly when it comes from their admired operatives and Serious Officials -- to any skpeticism at all.

This is a less satisfying explanation than the more political, cultural and economic factors which certainly influence the broken and corrupt state of our political press, but many of these media stars behave as they do because they just aren't capable of behaving any other way. And I defy anyone to watch Howard Kurtz on CNN as he spouts one platitude after the next and oozes admiration for the wisdom of Michelle Malkin and Glenn Reynolds and deny that this plays a vital role in what he is and what he does.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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