This is the first part of a two-part interview.
I know many who regularly flog Howard Kurtz but while I have my quibbles with some of his pieces he writes as The Washington Post’s media reporter I generally am interested and like what he writes. While the quality of his writing, specifically his choices of subjects and sources, has been much debated by bloggers, the quantity, the productivity, he produces has not. Indeed, if you judge a writer by his productivity than he’s a great writer – he writes several stories a week as well as hosting Reliable Sources on CNN. Maybe that’s why I like him more than some – I’m also known for a being bit prolific.
During the 17 years he has been the Washington Post media reporter he has also somehow found time to write several books, most recently this one. His book has received mostly positive book reviews. Marvin Kalb, a respected media critic in his own right, reviewed the book for the Washington Post and found it mostly good, though wanting in a few areas. (I’ll raise a few of Kalb’s criticisms with the book during the second part of the interview with Kurtz.)
Mr. Kurtz, thanks for agreeing to this interview. This first part of the interview will be about the book and you in general and the second part, after I finish the book, will be about more specifics in the book. Incidentally I was a newspaper reporter for 10 years before making a career change and I still do some media criticism so I can relate to one problem you inevitably encounter namely being both a media critic yet being part of the media itself. What did you hope to achieve with this book? Judging by reviews, flack from bloggers and reviewers (positive and negative) do you think you accomplished your goals with this book?
My goal was simple: to take readers behind the scenes so they could watch how network newscasts are put together and how the anchors make decisions. By doing that, I felt, readers would get to know them as people, to understand the pressures under which they operate, and to grasp the strengths and weaknesses of these broadcasts as they struggle to survive. I did not know when I started that Katie Couric would become the CBS anchor or that Charlie Gibson would succeed Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas. A real-time narrative is a roll of the dice, and as an author you have to exploit whatever unexpected events come your way.
What is your response to those questioning why you frame this book around the media starting to speak against the war as opposed to the media playing an important role in gaining popular support for the war?
That was not my goal at the outset. But Iraq was, without question, the overriding story in America during the two years covered by the narrative, strongly influencing the midterm elections and the presidential campaign as well. As I watched the anchors cope with how to cover the long-running war, and their own feelings about the war, and the way they responded to administration pressure about the war and even attended secret meetings with President Bush on the war, that emerged as a main element in the narrative. It also provided a clue to a running question in "Reality Show": Do these newscasts still matter? I believe they do, and the Iraq war was a classic example of how they used their sizable megaphone to move public opinion.
I saw you recently on The Daily Show and was curious: How do you think you did? Jon Stewart, in the interview and in the graphics shown preceding the interview, asked some tough but valid questions about the media.
I had a great time on The Daily Show. Jon Stewart is not only one of the funniest guys around, he's one of the sharpest media critics I've ever encountered. I knew this from off-air conversations and from the time that he was a guest on my show. He really cares about this stuff. What was interesting, when I went on, was that he passed up several opportunities to be funny. Jon was far more interested in having a good debate about what he sees as the media's shortcomings.
You seem to often be the target of criticism from bloggers. Why do you think that is? Is part of it that you're both part of the same media you're covering?
Much of the criticism comes from conservative bloggers who think I'm too liberal and liberal bloggers who think I'm too conservative. But I love bloggers and am glad they're able to add their voices to the mix. I get valuable information and insights from bloggers. And if it's a rough neighborhood, so be it.
You cover Dan Rather and his mistakes over the George Bush story. Did his lawsuit over that issue come out in between the book's completion and release date? What's your take on it? Your book seems to suggest Rather was at fault in that he pushed for broadcasting the story while others were telling him to wait and slow down, which would suggest his lawsuit will go no where.
The lawsuit was filed shortly after I finished the book, but having covered the National Guard debacle at the time and done more research for the book, I was not surprised by the depth of his continuing resentment toward CBS. I have consideration admiration for Dan Rather, but there's no question that he rushed to air with a badly flawed story based on documents that could not be authenticated, and paid a very high price for that. It was sad to see his CBS career end that way.
Why do you call this book the Last Great Television War?
By the time the next television news war rolls around in a decade or so, I doubt there will be the kind of interest there is in this one. It has the feel of one last great battle in the struggle for survival as more and more news migrates to the Net.
I'll send him more question – part 2 of 2 – in about two weeks. Thanks to Mr. Kurtz for this interview