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Howard Kurtz's wasted opportunity

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Howard Kurtz is almost certainly the nation's best-known and most influential media critic. With a regular Washington Post column, virtually unlimited space on the paper's web site, and his own television show on CNN, all dedicated to covering the media, Kurtz has an unrivaled platform from which he can opine about the Fourth Estate. Unfortunately -- though perhaps not coincidentally -- that opportunity is wasted on Kurtz.

Much has been written about Kurtz's (frequently undisclosed) conflicts of interest, his fondness for right-wingers like Michelle Malkin, and his tendency to give their critique of the media more credence than more substantive and factual critiques from progressives. I think it's clear that, whether or not Kurtz personally leans a bit to the right, his media criticism certainly does.

But that isn't why many of his readers and viewers find him so frustrating. What is really bothersome about Kurtz is that he so often gives the impression that he simply lacks the competence to critique the media. He frequently seems to overlook the obvious -- and when it is pointed out to him, it sails right over his head.

Kurtz's output this week is a perfect illustration. From Sunday through Wednesday, Kurtz hosted Reliable Sources on CNN, wrote one column for the print edition of the Post and three for the paper's website, and took reader questions for his "Media Backtalk" online discussion. (Kurtz also recorded an "Online Media Notes" video for the Post's website, which focused on the question of whether there has been too much coverage of Michael Jackson. His conclusion, as far as I can tell, was "Maybe.")

Let's start with Reliable Sources, where Kurtz hosted his Washington Post colleague Dana Milbank, Huffington Post reporter Nico Pitney, and conservative writer Amanda Carpenter.

Milbank had used his Post column to attack Pitney and the Obama White House for alleged coordination relating to a question Pitney asked the president during last week's press conference. Milbank, along with some other establishment media figures and a bunch of conservatives, were -- or pretended to be -- outraged that Obama apparently knew that Pitney was going to ask a question about Iran.

That is a strange complaint, given that reporters agree upon interview topics with subjects all the time. When reporters like Milbank or TV hosts like Kurtz want to interview an elected official, they discuss the topics they want to cover with the official's staff. Indeed, Kurtz had "coordinated" with his guest Dana Milbank when Milbank was booked to discuss Pitney's question on Reliable Sources. Somehow, though, it never occurred to Kurtz -- during a discussion about whether it is appropriate for a reporter and a subject to "coordinate" on the topic of a question -- to point out that he and the three people he was interviewing had "coordinated" on the topics he would ask about.

Or, to put it more simply: Kurtz knew that Milbank had just participated in precisely the same kind of "coordination" that he was denouncing -- because Milbank had "coordinated" with Kurtz! Yet Kurtz somehow missed this rather glaring hypocrisy.

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Even when it was spelled out for him, Kurtz showed no sign of grasping the absurdity of reporters attacking Pitney and Obama for things those same reporters do every day. Kurtz eventually acknowledged, via Twitter, that he agrees on topics in advance with guests -- "it's only fair," he says -- but still hasn't managed to make the connection to the complaints about Pitney and Obama. (For the record, while Obama had strong reason to believe Pitney would ask about Iran -- Pitney had drawn widespread praise for his coverage of that country's disputed election -- there is no indication that Pitney committed in advance to asking about that topic. And as pretty much everyone agrees, Pitney's question was a good and difficult one that Obama did not directly answer.)

On Monday Kurtz had a column in the print edition of the Post, an expanded version of which appeared on the Post's website, in which he wrote: "MSNBC is down to just five daytime hours of straight news, which once formed a counterpoint to its liberal evening programming." Kurtz didn't mention former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, who hosts a daily three-hour program on MSNBC, thus giving the false impression that MSNBC's "liberal evening programming" has no conservative "counterpoint."

This fits neatly into a pattern with Kurtz. He is convinced that MSNBC leans to the left. It's certainly his prerogative to think that -- and he is certainly not alone in that view. But Kurtz frequently places a thumb on the scale in order to make his case for MSNBC's liberalism. Sometimes, he fails to mention Scarborough's existence, as on Monday. Other times he acknowledges Scarborough, but goes to great lengths to suggest Scarborough's show isn't all that conservative, while omitting any such qualifiers for the "liberal" hosts he identifies.

And Kurtz points to Chris Matthews as evidence of MSNBC's liberalism, describing Matthews as "a former Democratic strategist who recently pondered running for the Senate from Pennsylvania as a Democrat" without noting that Matthews voted for George W. Bush, spent years gushing over Bush and ridiculing Democrats and liberals, waged war on both Clintons and Al Gore, and reportedly decided not to run for the Senate because he realized there wasn't anything he wanted to do as a senator -- not exactly signs of a reliably progressive person.

Surely, any halfway-competent media critic could recognize the problems with a news report that stacks and slants its case that egregiously. But Kurtz not only routinely does it, he appears to have no idea why it draws criticism.

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A few hours after that column appeared on Monday, Kurtz hosted his weekly online discussion, where the first question pointed out his omission of Scarborough:

Scarborough Country: You wrote today: "MSNBC is down to just five daytime hours of straight news, which once formed a counterpoint to its liberal evening programming."

Why do you keep pretending Joe Scarborough's three hours a day don't exist? It undermines your crediblity when you do this. Your case for MSNBC's liberalism must be pretty weak if you have to resort to burying counter-evidence.

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Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America, a Web-based, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. (more...)

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