If Howard Kurtz Is Down to Only One Job, Is He Still Howard Kurtz?

The Daily Beast stage, or fraction, of the career of Howie Kurtz ended with a perfectly apt string of Twitter messages from the media reporter/Washington bureau chief:

And away went the host of CNN's Reliable Sources, in a rustle of content-free managerial cliches. Great brands, both sides agreed, good night.

Why should the country's best-known media reporter give a clear report on a media event involving him? He never worried about the ethics of working for two corporations that were supposed to be reporting on each other. The inherent corruption of what he did was a simple background fact, like the background fact of his dullness and mediocrity. There was a time when he had a platform that allowed him to command attention by breaking stories, before platforms proliferated and news breaks sped up; the news of his departure was broken by Dylan Byers at Politico. Latter-day Kurtz was boring except when he was laughable, and for a long time, none of that harmed him in the slightest.

What did harm him, now, in the end? He had just bumbled his way through a weird correction-retraction of an almost inexplicably incorrect column about Jason Collins—but that, like his 2010 phantom interview for the Daily Beast with someone he wrongly believed was Rep. Darrell Issa, wasn't classic death-penalty journalistic malfeasance. Instead, it was a clownish screwup.

But it came right after the news that Kurtz was devoting copious time and energy (and a huge share of his Twitter feed) to moonlighting with a nearly unwatched enterprise called the Daily Download. It was suddenly possible to suspect that Kurtz was spreading himself too thin, a problem he had previously avoided by not allowing his work be noticeably thick.

And he was a holdover, too, from the brief period when Tina Brown had been able to operate the Daily Beast as a refuge for veteran "name" journalists who were becoming too expensive to survive the upheavals in old media. Now Brown is slashing budgets too, and her boss Barry Diller has called the Beast's acquisition of the doomed Newsweek "a mistake."

So instead of dwelling on today's overdetermined divorce, let's remember Howie Kurtz and the Daily Beast in the early days of their relationship, when Kurtz was the Washington Post's media reporter (and of course a CNN host) and the Daily Beast was a can-do startup powered by Tina Brown's zesty energy. As Kurtz described it in the lead, datelined NEW YORK:

Tina Brown has just been briefed on a series of potential stories when she asks her staff about another element of her new Web site.

"What are we doing on video? I want to put Condi playing the piano up," she says, referring to the secretary of state performing for Queen Elizabeth.

A staffer says a day-old clip of Britney Spears choking up on MTV is still popular. "Should we put it in the top box, or is that overkill?" Brown asks. And she loves the idea of poking fun at the new "Meet the Press" host with morning-show footage of a dancing David Gregory.

The woman who transformed Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, only to crash and burn with Talk magazine, is reinventing herself yet again. In launching the Daily Beast, the celebrity editor who once fussed over each headline and photo is trying to adapt to the relentless pace of the blabosphere.

Later in the story, Kurtz returned to that energetic office scene:

During a recent morning meeting, Brown's predilections are on display as a half-dozen staffers, most of them young, gather around her desk. Brown is marveling at the depth of the reader feedback on her Maddow piece. "I've become addicted to the comments," she says.

The talk turns to the latest hot topics. "Sarah Palin is crack cocaine to the Internet," Brown observes.

...

She constantly tosses out potential ideas, such as starting a feature on "newly relevant books. Because people keep saying, 'God, you should read X.' " Seconds later, Brown asks what "hot movies" are coming out. They run through which celebrities they want to pursue. "We can get Dustin Hoffman for a Buzz Board. I can ask him," she says.

According to a participant in that meeting, it was a fake, staged for Kurtz's benefit. Brown was not in the habit of showing up for story-brainstorming sessions, much less bringing staffers into her own office en masse to zing ideas around. Kurtz, the seasoned reporter, ate it up.

And Brown, after a suitable interval, hired him.