Every once in a while, we like to get a tour of a real sewer—and the drama surrounding the publication of 'Washington Post' media critic Howard Kurtz's latest book offered an opportunity too filthy to miss. Central to this particular mess's question is: Does a reporter's fondness or contempt for another reporter disqualify them from criticizing their work in print? (And if so, are we fired?) So let's go deep into the morass and play our favorite game: Who Hates Whom?
"I've never been a fan of Howard Kurtz at all, I mean, you know, to me, he's sort of the epitome of insider journalism," Ken Silverstein told us. And though the Harper's Washington editor may be "not terribly fond" of Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, he reserves his real venom for liberal pundit Eric Alterman. "I really can't stand Eric," Silverstein said.
(Of course, Eric in turn is famous for his feuds—he hates, among others, Time's Ana Marie Cox, her husband, the New York Observer columnist Chris Lehmann, and The Nation's Katha Pollitt. Anyway!)
The Silverstein and Kurtz throwdown actually began way back in July: Silverstein wrote a piece about D.C. lobbyists, for which he flirted with entrapment, nailed his story and pissed off a lot of people. Predictably, the pious got their panties in knots, the bored were bored, and the crowd that secretly would kill for a White House Correspondents Association invite lashed out at the Beltway media elite in charge of doling them out.
Kurtz was indignant, and scolded Silverstein: "No matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects." Oh ho!
Silverstein responded in the LATimes, saying he found Kurtz's criticism "disappointing" but unsurprising, and pointed to two of our own favorite undercover press stings as reasons to continue pursuing the kind of reporting that has largely died out.
Since June, Silverstein has written at least seven items about Kurtz on the Harper's website.
One trashed Kurtz's new book. ("Seems like a pretty dreary read," Silverstein told us.)
One trashed Kurtz's blog. ("Really embarrassing... anyone who writes an item about getting caught in a rainstorm and titles it 'Wet and Wild'&mdash I mean, I'm almost sure it was 'Wet and Wild.'" (Yes. It was.)
Another trashed Kurtz's "hand-wringing, tut-tutting" clucking about the state of American journalism.
We asked why Silverstein hasn't yet disclosed the genesis for his Kurtz aversion on his blog.
"I had thought about putting up some sort of Surgeon General warning about how I'm not terribly fond of the guy&mdash or at least his writing, I don't know him personally," he said. "It just seemed to me there've been so many public references since the lobbying story, the undercover story, that anyone who would probably read an item about Howard Kurtz would probably know about you know, my general dispute with him."
Silverstein points out that it's not as if he's a flip-flopper. "I've always bitched about Kurtz, long before this thing," he said. (True that.)
"The only nice thing I'll say is, I don't question Kurtz's honesty at all in terms of his take on my piece, I mean, he genuinely found it distasteful, so I hope I haven't in any way suggested there was anything dishonest about his critique."
On the other side, Kurtz found a supporter in the temperate Huffington Post media critic Rachel Sklar.
Wouldn't you know it: Damn, did Harper's smack her for it. (They are a tight-knit defensive little group over there, no? Tread lightly!) A Sklar-Kurtz "love fest", cried Harper's contributor Scott Horton.
Then came the requisite conspiracy theory: "First, it seems, Rachel Sklar was invited to Kurtz's show as a guest, showing up in transcripts several times in the course of this past summer. Second, Howie wrote a piece about Sklar in his column at the Washington Post. It's an over-the-top puff piece filled with product placement."
Well, frankly, we too were inclined to think the love-fest might not be all that imaginary. (Although, um, we don't see Kurtz swinging the younger gal thing, but we digress, again. Also? Sorry.)
But! We asked Sklar about Horton's allegations that she'd stopped maligning Kurtz only after he invited her on his show, and she forwarded us her barely-restrained response email, which, Horton has posted today.
In it, she cites her criticisms of Kurtz—from running scintillating B-roll while mourning the loss of television dignity that said B-roll represents and calling previously-published material "exclusive" to pushing his own book on his show.
"So to imply a road-to-Damascus conversion that just happened to coincide with Kurtz giving me facetime is a pretty serious allegation that you might have invested some effort in actually backing up," Sklar.
Then she called him "a little 'sleazy and dishonest'" in return.
"If you are going to make allegations about what motivates a critic in her coverage, you'd best make damn sure that those allegations have some merit. I have no problem 'admitting' that I like Howard Kurtz—heck, I call him Howie—but that hardly means he or anyone else has me in his pocket," she wrote.
The "unusually sunny" Sklar's Kurtz-critical moments are typically balancing acts. Her point about his self-promotion was countered with noting that the publication of his book, "in all fairness, falls squarely within his mandate on 'Reliable Sources' and definitely merited exploration, and this seemed a nice way to handle it," and though she thought his CNN auto-interview was "hokey," she also called it "goofily endearing," which admittedly, sounds pretty familiar.
Unfortunately, her coverage of the controversy surrounding Kurtz's "exclusive" book material carries lines like this one: "We're going to spin this on the sunny side, since that's what we do here."
Is it? We think you'd better inform the other alligators about that!