Howard Kurtz: government and media need a "cease-fire" now and then

The "media critic" of The Washington Post and CNN actually believes that the press and politicians are deeply adversarial.


Glenn Greenwald
March 23, 2009 9:09PM (UTC)

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

Howard Kurtz makes an extremely funny joke today, showing why he is the "media critic" for both The Washington Post and CNN:

I know the [DC media/political] dinners may project an image that we're all just a bunch of cozy Washington insiders, but I don't think they're that big a deal. There's such a built-in adversarial relationship between the press and the pols that spending a couple of evenings in a kind of light-hearted cease-fire doesn't strike me as a terrible thing.

That is some very penetrating media criticism there.  The media and political leaders are at each other's throats so viciously, they have such sharply conflicting interests, that it's a wonder they can even be in the same room together without physical confrontation.  For instance, it was the same Howie Kurtz who, in 2004, wrote this about what happened at his own newspaper:

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Days before the Iraq war began, veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus put together a story questioning whether the Bush administration had proof that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

But he ran into resistance from the paper's editors, and his piece ran only after assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, who was researching a book about the drive toward war, "helped sell the story," Pincus recalled. "Without him, it would have had a tough time getting into the paper." Even so, the article was relegated to Page A17. . . .

An examination of the paper's coverage, and interviews with more than a dozen of the editors and reporters involved, shows that The Post published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page. Some reporters who were lobbying for greater prominence for stories that questioned the administration's evidence complained to senior editors who, in the view of those reporters, were unenthusiastic about such pieces. The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.

"The paper was not front-paging stuff," said Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. "Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?". . . .

Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials had no problem commanding prime real estate in the paper, even when their warnings were repetitive. "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power," [Post reporter Karen] DeYoung said. "If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said." And if contrary arguments are put "in the eighth paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people don't read that far.". . .

Such decisions coincided with The Post editorial page's strong support for the war, such as its declaration the day after Powell's presentation that "it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction."

Kurtz's own paper also reported Tim Russert's policy of refusing to report anything said by government officials unless explicitly authorized by them to do so and the view of Dick Cheney's communications aide that Meet the Press was the ideal format for Cheney to control the message.  The Post's Op-Ed page is overflowing with "journalists" demanding that there be no investigations of what the Bush administration did when torturing people and spying on Americans with no warrants; who condemned the prosecution of Bush officials for obstruction of justice and cheered on pardons for high-level government lawbreakers; and who insist upon immunity for surveillance lawbreakers and support the most extreme government assertions of power.  It was also The Washington Post that brought us the inspiring (and completely false) tale of Jessica Lynch engaged in a firefight-to-the-death with her evil Iraqi attackers, only to be rescued from the toxic clutches of Dr. Germ and Mrs. Anthrax by heroic Marine commandos who fought through Iraqi machine gun fire to carry her to safety from the mad-lab-germ-hospital where she was having her injuries treated by Iraqi doctors being imprisoned and abused.

Bush's own Press Secretary mocked the American media for being "too deferential" to the White House.  The practice of writing flattering hagiographies of government officials in order to win favor with them is so pervasive that journalists bestowed this sycophantic ritual with its own playful name ("beat-sweeteners") and defend it as natural and proper.  When Charlie Savage won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Bush's signing statements, his Boston Globe editor said that "what Charlie does and the reason he won this richly deserved Pulitzer is because he covered what the White House does, not just what it says" -- because most "political journalism" is so devoted to the latter that it actually becomes Pulitzer-worthy when, in those very rare cases, someone actually does the former.

Our largest media outlets pay people who receive their talking points from the Pentagon to pose as independent experts, and even once that's exposed, they continue to do it and -- as Howie Kurtz himself noted -- never mention any of it to their viewers.  Virtually every corporation that owns our largest media outlets are dependent upon, and intertwined with, government leaders in countless ways.  Ashleigh Banfield got demoted and then fired for pointing out that media coverage of American wars glorifies those wars and only shows the pro-Government side.  Phil Donahue was fired for relentlessly criticizing the war.  Katie Couric and Jessica Yellen, among others, both revealed that they were pressured by corporate executives to avoid coverage that was too critical of the Government.  And on and on and on.

But Howie Kurtz, as America's "media critic" with the furthest-reaching platforms, is here to assure us all that things like this are not at all bothersome even as symbols because the media and the political establishment are so inherently adversarial with one another -- in such a perpetual state of war with one another -- that a few nights of giggly revelry (what Kurtz actually calls a "light-hearted cease fire") won't cause any weakening of the relentless watchdog role played by our journalists.  He actually wrote this sentence with a straight face:  "there's such a built-in adversarial relationship between the press and the pols."

 

UPDATE:  As several commenters point out, Kurtz's self-glorifying view of his own profession -- shared by most of his colleagues -- is why so many of them were completely baffled (not angry, but baffled) by Stephen Colbert's speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner, as it included lines like this:

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But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The President makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type.  Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!

It wasn't that media stars didn't think Colbert was funny (though, in large part, that was true).  It's that they never understood what he was even talking about, that they were the prime objects of his mockery.  How could they?  How is it even possible for Kurtz-like media stars to understand what Colbert is talking about there given that -- as they see it, even after Iraq and the last eight years, to say nothing of Vietnam and everything in between -- "there's such a built-in adversarial relationship between the press and the pols"?  

As Digby recently wrote when pondering the mystery that most media stars fail to understand that they are the primary targets of mockery for both Colbert and Jon Stewart:

[Cramer] thought he would get one of those friendly interviews that John McCain usually gets.  After all, Stewart skewers politicians but treats them rather gently when he interviews them, right?  But that's a common misreading of Stewart.  He skewers a lot of different things, including politics and culture, but his primary object of derision and satire is the media and particularly the lying gasbags who populate the cable shows. It's the whole premise of his show.

For some reason the political media establishment just don't get this. Recall the bizarrely confused reaction from the villagers at that notorious Colbert White House correspondents dinner appearance. They honestly didn't understand that Stewart and Colbert have nothing but contempt for them. . .

I think this is one of the best illustrations of the media's insufferable insularity and self regard. It's not just nobody rubes like me, who watch these people with slack jawed incredulity that such amazing lack of self-awareness exists in ostensibly grown up humans. (We know they view us with a sort of anthropological curiosity like one of those lost tribes in the Amazon, even as they proclaim to be jess' folks.) But the people they admire and secretly think they are --- the cool, smart, sexy, funny guys --- also find them ridiculous and dangerous, just like the rest of us.  And these scribblers and gasbags clearly don't see it.

So, you see Cramer on The Daily Show, clearly a fan, thinking he's going to be part of some sort of good natured ribbing and he finds himself on the receiving end of a scathing critique right in his face. It had never occurred to him that Stewart really meant any of the things he was saying. After all, they're both cool guys, right? Playing the game. Winners!

He just doesn't get the joke. None of them do.

Exactly the same thing happened when Jon Stewart went on Crossfire in 2004 to chide Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson for their vapid and destructive emptiness.  Both of them clearly expected and were eager to be laughing with Stewart to validate their insider savviness and coolness, not to be mocked and criticized and held up as objects of Stewart's scorn.  Carlson remains deeply bitter about it to this day.  Media stars can't even begin to comprehend how anyone could look at them with anything other than deep respect and appreciation because -- in their minds, seriously -- "there's such a built-in adversarial relationship between the press and the pols."  They're intrepidly holding the powerful accountable on behalf of all of us even as they get to be close to them.  Who wouldn't admire that?

 

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UPDATE II:  Here are more super-intense adversarial relationships, from a 2004 email from Associated Press' Ron Fournier to Karl Rove (h/t John Cole):

The Lord creates men and women like this all over the world. But only the great and free countries allow them to flourish. Keep up the fight.

The opposition is really blinding -- so acrimonious that it's uncomfortable to witness.  Can't the media just get along a little bit with our political leaders, just set aside all the constant resistance and just enjoy a little light cease-fire now and then?

And from just this last weekend, here's a profoundly adversarial interview conducted by the very same Howard Kurtz of GOP Rep. Aaron Schock, that has to be seen to be believed.  The media and politicians really need to simmer down with their unbridled belligerence.

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 UPDATE III:  I recall, with no small amount of consternation, the ugly weekend riot that nearly erupted as a result of the intractable media/politician animosity captured so powerfully on this gritty video, from Megan McCain (warning:  the adversarial anger between journalists and politicians depicted here is quite upsetting and may be inappropriate for under-aged readers or those with heart conditions):

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UPDATE IV:  A Washington Post profile of former federal prosecutor Neil Barofsky, now the chief watchdog of bailout funds fighting valiantly for more oversight and transparency, contains this passage:

Barofsky had a simple message: The government should require any bank receiving taxpayer dollars to explain how it is spending the money.

The official, Neel Kashkari, disagreed. So Barofsky, the special inspector general for the program, said his office would do it instead.

"I don't think Treasury's done enough," he said. "Frankly, I'm not terribly concerned if anyone in Treasury actually thinks we're being too aggressive. That's our job."

The episode illustrates why lawmakers and watchdog groups say Barofsky is emerging as the primary check on waste and fraud in the six-month-old financial rescue effort. But Wall Street executives and Treasury officials criticize him as an overreaching zealot scaring banks from joining the financial rescue . . . .

Though Barofsky refuses to eat with senior administration officials in the building's executive dining room to maintain his independence, he says he has a cooperative working relationship with [bailout chief Neel] Kashkari.

That is the mentality of someone truly interested in independence and oversight -- the exact opposite of the cloying, desperate-to-be-close-to-power neediness of most of our major media stars.


Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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