What Howard Kurtz means by "media scrutiny"

The media critic for CNN and the Washington Post demands more scrutiny of Obama and then lists the most scurrilous right-wing attacks as "issues" needing more attention.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published March 3, 2008 1:28PM (EST)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

CNN and Washington Post "media critic" Howard Kurtz -- who is a right-wing blogger disguised as a journalist -- has been beating the same drum for weeks and weeks now: the press hasn't been passing along right-wing attacks on Barack Obama with the viciousness and zeal that generally typifies press behavior. Kurtz devotes yet another column today to this theme, and here are some of the examples of anti-Obama "criticism" which Kurtz cites as ones that that the press has unfairly downplayed:

In his Times column, Bill Kristol picked up on Obama's comment in October that he views wearing a flag pin as a substitute for true patriotism. "Obama's unnecessary and imprudent statement impugns the sincerity or intelligence of those vulgar sorts who still choose to wear a flag pin," Kristol declared.

Erick Erickson, editor of the blog RedState, wrote that voters should be wary of "the liberal anti-gun former cokehead whose feminist wife hates America" . . . .

There was also little pickup when the Politico reported that a decade ago Obama visited Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers, the 1960s radicals whose Weather Underground group was involved in two dozen bombings. . . . Similarly, there was scant media mention of Louis Farrakhan's support for Obama until Tim Russert challenged the senator to repudiate that support at last week's MSNBC debate.

So according to Kurtz, the media has given "scant attention" to the Obama/Farrakhan matter even though Obama has never had anything to do with Farrakhan, and "little pickup" to the fact that Obama met once (ten years ago) with two Chicago law professors who were Weather Underground members 40 years ago. But the most beloved media figure in decades, John McCain, this week openly embraces one of the most extreme haters in the country, says how "honored" and "proud" he is to have his endorsement, and that still hasn't made Howie Kurtz's column.

It's absolutely true that Barack Obama, like any presidential candidate, ought to be subjected to rigorous media scrutiny. And it's not unreasonable to suggest that because Obama has thus far been the opponent of the media's most despised figure -- Hillary Clinton -- his policies, positions and legislative record have received less scrutiny than they ought to.

But as he made abundantly clear, scrutiny over substantive issues is not what Howard Kurtz is talking about. Those are the last things he's interested in. When vapid media figures like Kurtz complain that Barack Obama hasn't received the necessary "scrutiny," what they mean is that the real fun hasn't started yet -- they haven't been spewing all of the standard, entertaining, petty, personality-based smears from the right-wing sewers.

Mike Dukakis is an effete loser; Al Gore is a pompous, lying bore; John Kerry is an awkward, flip-flopping weakling; and Barack Obama is an America-hating, Terrorist-loving, angry radical racist coke-head. When Kurtz says he wants more "media scrutiny" of Obama, what he's really saying -- as today's column proves conclusively -- is: when are we going to start propagating the right-wing personality smears in earnest? What are we waiting for?

As Paul Krugman said today, quoting Bob Somerby: "Mr. Obama will be 'Dukakised': 'treated as an alien, unsettling presence." The same thing would happen to Hillary or any other Democratic candidate. It does in every national election. Kurtz and his colleagues are deeply impatient for this to begin. That's what they do best, what they love most.

On a weekly basis, Kurtz -- who, due to his deeply conflicted joint positions at both CNN and the Post, has significant influence on how political journalists behave -- makes his method for "media criticisms" clear. He scours the right-wing blogs, religiously consults Drudge, and listens to right-wing talk radio. He writes down all of the scurrilous filth he picks up there and copies it into his column (hence, his prominent, respectful featuring of Red State Erickson's "cokehead" commentary today). His most frequently cited sources are Bill Kristol, Michelle Malkin, and various far-right bloggers. And then he angrily demands to know why the media isn't passing along all the attacks and manufactured scandals he heard from Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin. That's Kurtz's formula for "media criticism."

And that's exactly what makes Kurtz such a representative figure for the industry he "criticizes." That, more than anything else, is the formula for how the political press functions. The right-wing noise machine churns out petty, vindictive, substance-free personality-attacks and the media feeds off of it, uncritically passes it along. Kurtz is confused, upset, and angry because he feels that his colleagues have been a little slow to do that with Obama, but now, he hopes, it's all starting. Here's the evidence he hopefully touts:

During a campaign stop in Ohio last week, ABC's Jake Tapper asked Barack Obama about what he called "an attempt by conservatives and Republicans to paint you as unpatriotic."

Tapper's litany: "That you didn't put your hand over your heart during the national anthem, that you no longer wear an American flag on your lapel pin, that you met with some former members of the Weather Underground, and now they are questioning your wife's comments when she said she hasn't been proud of the U.S. until just recently."

Obama dismissed the criticism as "nonsense." But did the exchange mark the end of a long period in which the media have gone easy on the man who could all but clinch the Democratic nomination in tomorrow's primaries? Are the media going to change the environment that prompted Kristen Wiig, playing a CNN anchor on "Saturday Night Live," to declare that she and her colleagues "are in the tank for Obama"?

That is what Kurtz is holding up as an example of what we need more of. The only type of "media scrutiny" our establishment press is capable of and interested in when it comes to Democratic candidates is: "Hey Barack, Rush Limbaugh says you hate America and Matt Drudge showed that you hate the flag and The Politico says you love Terrorists. Do you?" Howard Kurtz has spent weeks stomping his feet, demanding to know why there isn't more of this. Today, he optimistically suggests that these increasingly coordinated media/right-wing attacks mean -- finally -- that the media is doing its job when it comes to Obama.

UPDATE: The expanded version of Kurtz's column has now been posted, and on page 5 (of 5), after devoting his whole column to complaining about pro-Obama press coverage, he devotes a couple of paragraphs to the McCain/Hagee matter. That's a standard Kurtz tactic. Kurtz (who is married to former GOP strategist Sherri Annis) regularly devotes whole columns to scandals cooked up by right-wing blogs, only then to toss onto the end of a 5-page blog column a reference to a GOP scandal so that he can claim to have covered that, too.

UPDATE II: I want to clarify one point here. As I thought I made clear, I agree completely that Hillary Clinton has borne the far greater brunt of media hatred and hostility over the last year, and I wrote about that several times before (see here and here as examples). Like the attacks on Obama now, most of those attacks were exactly the sort of petty, personality-based, Drudge-rules-our-world trash that the establishment media specializes in -- her calculating cleavage and her wicked laugh and her evil 20-year plan to take over the world and her drowning ambition, etc. etc.

Now, when the Howard Kurtzs of the world start talking about how they have to subject Obama to "scrutiny," too, they don't mean that they're going to re-evaluate the trashy, vapid coverage they applied to Clinton and start examining his record, his positions, his views, etc. What they mean is that they're going to do now to Obama exactly what they did to Clinton: namely, take every right-wing gutter attack -- Obama is a Communist Radical Terrorist-sympethizing, American-hating cokehead -- and start chatting them up, asking Obama about them, inserting them prominently into the news narrative.

As Digby put it to me this morning via email:

It's a fact that Clinton has received much harsher treatment than Obama. But in typical stupid, puerile mediawhore fashion, instead of reevaluating their bias against Clinton and examining their sexism in general, they are now going to rectify matters by going after Obama on a bunch of irrelevant, superficial stuff to "make up" for their transgressions.

That's my point here. When Kurtz calls for "media scrutiny" of Obama, what he means is that he wants the parade of right-wing gutter attacks to flow freely. That's what they view their "job" to be.

UPDATE III: TPM's Greg Sargent, who has been quite critical of the media's extreme hostility towards the Clinton campaign, adds some interesting thoughts to this post and concludes:

Those who insist that Hillary deserves fair treatment from the media have been subjected to a tremendous amount of abuse by a tiny and unrepresentative minority of Obama supporters who see such a demand as nothing but Hillary shilling, or "Shillary," as they like to put it.

But as Greenwald and Digby both note, it's not hard to imagine that should Obama become the nominee, he may find himself subjected to the same sort of media treatment, if not quite in degree, that Obama supporters defended when it was directed at Hillary. If and when Obama supporters start griping about this, as they should, then the complaints directed at those insisting on fair treatment of Hillary will in retrospect look shortsighted indeed.

It was always inevitable that the anti-Hillary media bile would be seamlessly transferred to Obama if he became the nominee. The establishment media, by and large, reveres John McCain on numerous levels, and once Obama stopped being the anti-Hillary, and became the anti-McCain, he would become their target. Those who were defending Clinton from petty though vindictive media attacks weren't doing so because they were "shills" of the Clintons, but because that's the media behavior that infects our discourse and destroys our political process generally.

UPDATE IV: While the establishment press begins doing with Obama exactly what Kurtz wants, Digby examines some stories from Kurtz's Washington Post today on McCain to show how the press depicts him, including:

PAGE SPRINGS, Ariz., March 2 -- If he loses the presidency, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will have a career as a barbecue chef to fall back on.

At his weekend cabin just outside Sedona on Sunday afternoon, McCain took a break from campaigning and grilled ribs and chicken for three dozen reporters, some staff members and a few Republican friends from the Senate . . . .

McCain offered a tour of the property, which if he is elected will no doubt become the latest incarnation of the "Western White House," the equivalent of Ronald Reagan's Santa Barbara ranch, President Bush's place in Crawford or the first President Bush's Maine retreat. . .

McCain's aides said the three-hour gathering was intended as a "social event," not a glorified news conference. And by and large, reporters agreed to those rules, asking him substantive questions only a few times.

There's some real "scrutiny" for you.

Glenn Greenwald

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