Kurtz, the dean of media critics, is getting a bum rap -- mostly -- from the people who should understand his work the best. He has written a good old-fashioned page-turner about the rivalry among the big three TV news anchors, filled with revealing anecdotes. (I especially got a kick out of reading that Tom Brokaw, NBC's longtime anchor, had invited Jon Stewart, "the Mort Sahl of their era," to participate in the network's election coverage.)
As a Washington Post stalwart and the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" on Sunday mornings, Kurtz has become an easy target. Perhaps his peers suspect that he has gotten too big for his pinstripes.
Or maybe not. Maybe they're right, but I don't think so.
The Blum debacle
What struck me was the glee that some bloggers displayed when they ripped Kurtz and his book. The biggest flap occurred when Gawker's Maggie Shnayerson did some terrific fact-checking and revealed that Kurtz's work contained a passage that had originally appeared in David Blum's 2004 book on "60 Minutes." Naturally, Gawker made the most of it, and others jumped in.
But Kurtz, 54, isn't another example of corrupt journalism. He isn't Jack Kelley or Jayson Blair, two reporters who fabricated stories and tarnished journalism's reputation. Kurtz pointed out, "I'm the guy who exposed Jack Kelley and Jayson Blair."
Addressing the criticism over the Blum debacle, Kurtz said, "It's a complete and total bum rap." He said he is a "fanatic" about giving other journalists credit and would've given Blum a nod if he had known. I believe him. Considering Kurtz's status at The Washington Post, his television notoriety and future book contracts, I think he'd have too much to lose.
Still, if Shnayerson could find the mistake, you have to wonder how Kurtz, his Free Press editor and the fact-checkers missed it. Kurtz told me: "I have to take responsibility for what's in the book."
More pointedly, other critics argue with Kurtz's central theory: that evening-news anchors still matter. TV columnist Joanne Ostrow of The Denver Post raised the question of whether network anchors remain cultural touchstones. Even though they're comedians, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are more influential.
"That's a good debate," Kurtz conceded. "I still think it's a big enough media playground. I am surprised someone who follows TV would be so dismissive."
The declining ratings for evening-news shows are, however, a clear sign that America is losing interest in what the anchors have to say. So, the logic follows, do people want to read about them in Kurtz's 464-page book? (Of course, I immediately turned to page 409, where he quoted me referring to Katie Couric's CBS career as a "train wreck.")
Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson are interesting people and solid professionals, but Couric's descent from the queen of the breakfast hour on NBC's "Today" to the, well, train wreck of "CBS Evening News" remains a compelling story line.
Kurtz recounts that Couric and CBS "made a lot of mistakes early on, and not just in terms of alienating the core audience with too many changes." He believes Couric will fare better now that the show has become newsier.
He probably does his best work when writing about one of the mysteries of the evening news: how NBC's Williams can come across as a little stiff while doing his broadcast but can be devilishly witty at other times. .
Kurtz is an accomplished storyteller, and he has a flair for ferreting out interesting and revealing stories about these newsmakers. Ultimately, one point comes across in 64-point type.
"I'm a reporter," Kurtz says. "And this isa work of reporting."
MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you think NBC, ABC and CBS can do to boost the ratings of their evening-news anchors?
WEDNESDAY PET PEEVE: When journalists, who should know better, get their kicks from piling on story subjects.
READERS RESPOND to saying that Northwestern University shouldn't change the name of its Medill School of Journalism: "As a once-proud Medill grad (yes, it took about four months out of school to stop being so proud), I just wanted to say THANK YOU for your column. It's right on and I hope someone makes our dictator dean read it." Nina Mandell
"Loved your post on Medill. Some of us (like you) have the bully pulpit in the industry to make the dean take notice. So glad you wrote this!" Andrea James
"I just finished grad school at Medill this April, and I wanted to say fantastic column on the name change. It's a terrible idea -- something that could only have been dreamt up by someone in marketing. Thanks for publicizing this." Katherine Boyle
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By Jon Friedman