Howie Kurtz—the onetime toothless CNN and Washington Post media writer, who is now a tooth-gnashing Fox News media critic—might seem, at first, entirely worthless. But the crucial job of a media critic is to break the illusion of objective neutrality that surrounds the news, so that readers understand it as not a portion of reality but a contingent and particular construction.
Yesterday, to that end, the Media Buzz host tossed into the chum machine a piece based on his advance reading of a book by former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, under the headline “Former NY Times editor rips Trump coverage as biased.” Note that I described this as “based on his advance reading” rather than “based on the book.” It is important to be precise about the sources and limits of knowledge, and never more so than when those limits are the mental and professional limits of Howie Kurtz.
It may be, in fact, that Jill Abramson’s book attacks the Times for being unfair to Donald Trump. But there was no point in working up any sort of feelings about that possibility, as long as the information was being mediated by Kurtz and Fox. He quoted Abramson as writing that the Times’ “news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump” and that headlines and news analysis contained “raw opinion.”
That would be a foolish take by Abramson, if that’s what she said, in the context she said it. But Kurtz also wrote, “Abramson defends the Times in some ways but offers some harsh words for her successor, Dean Baquet.” In which ways did she defend the Times?
Abramson praised as “brave and right” Baquet’s decision to run this headline when Trump abandoned his birtherism attacks on Barack Obama: “Trump Gives Up a Lie But Refuses to Repent.”
Not all the anti-Trump headlines were bad, then? And the spiciest Abramson material in Kurtz’s column wasn’t even about the Times attacking Trump, but the opposite: Kurtz described her describing the back-channel defensiveness at the Times after the paper had bungled and downplayed the story of the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia—defensiveness which included an email from Baquet, according to Abramson, according to Kurtz, in which the executive editor told a reporter, “I hope your colleagues rip you a new a*****e.” Where, along the chain of custody, did the letters S-S-H-O-L get lost? Maybe each person removed one or two?
At least the word “asshole” was decipherable. The rest of the anecdote depended on an impenetrable series of cross-currents among Abramson (who lost her job to Baquet), Baquet (who undermined Abramson and took her job, and who was guilty of a string of catastrophically wrong news decisions down the stretch of the 2016 campaign), the former and final Times public editor Liz Spayd (who antagonized everyone in and outside the paper by being dull-witted and completely overmatched by her job), some number of disgruntled reporters, Howie Kurtz’s own agenda, and Howie Kurtz’s limited reading comprehension skills. Reading it was like playing Frogger across 10 lanes of bad faith, delusion, and idiocy.
And that was the most persuasive part of the piece. By this evening, Abramson had told the Associated Press that Kurtz had taken her work “totally out of context,” and Kurtz had responded that Abramson’s “sometimes harsh criticism of her former paper’s Trump coverage leaps off the page and is clearly the most newsworthy element in the book.”
The attentive reader might observe that “sometimes” is an unusual word choice from someone categorically defending their news judgment. Howie Kurtz isn’t writing for attentive readers.