2 September 1999
Our current howler (part IV): All in the family
Synopsis: CNN's Reliable Sources sometimes seems to offer PR for the press corps.
Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Bernard Kalb
Reliable Sources, CNN, 8/28/99, 8/7/99
This morning's lead editorial in the New York Times expresses
some shopworn conventional wisdom. The Times is discussing Janet
Reno's decision to seek an independent review of what happened
THE NEW YORK TIMES: This is the right thing to do, since it
would be an appalling conflict of interest to have the F.B.I.
and the Justice Department investigating themselves.
The press corps always lets out a squawk
when some public agency "investigates itself."
So when CNN sets up a show to probe the media, how does
it structure the program? Simple. It chooses two Washington journalistsHoward
Kurtz and Bernard Kalbto serve as the program's hosts. And, as
one of the program's basic formats, it has other Washington journalists
come in as panel, to conduct discussions of more Washington journalists.
The inbred format of Reliable Sources may be the show's
most striking characteristic. Again, it illustrates the press
corps' instinct for ignoring basic rules when it comes time to
take a look at itself.
We don't necessarily offer this as a criticism of the show's
co-hosts, Kurtz and Kalb. In fact, Kurtz remains one of our analysts'
favorites, as we'll discuss in a future report. But the chummy
format of Reliable Sources"where we turn a critical
lens on the media," Kurtz saysis reflected in its toothless
reporting. All too typically, the show offers pleasant interviews
with celebrity scribesand an instinct for avoiding real criticism.
Just take last week's opening segment in which Kurtz and Kalb
interviewed Matt Drudge. In his voice-over lead-in to the interview,
Kurtz described a bit of Drudge's recent history:
KURTZ (8/28): Drudge's efforts are hardly limited to the Internet.
He made his debut behind the mike earlier this summer with a new
syndicated show on the ABC radio network. He inked the deal despite
the vehement objections of ABC News president David Westin, who
raised questions about Drudge's credibility because of his reputation
as someone who reports rumors and doesn't always double-check
Kurtz was being polite in this last description; in several
past episodes, questions have been raised about whether Drudge
ever bothers to checks facts at all. Indeed, for anyone concerned
about press conduct and standards, Drudge should have provided
a fascinating interview. But Kurtz and Kalb barely raised any
issues of substance during the time they spent with Drudge, even
when Drudge described his celebrated posting of rumors that President
Clinton had fathered a "love child" with a prostitute.
(The rumors were later proven false, Drudge explained.) Drudge
defended the posting of the accuser's claim as an example of "giving
the voice to the voiceless." Neither Kurtz nor Kalb asked
any follow-up questions about the propriety of what Drudge had
done. Indeed, one is forced to say this about the Drudge segment:
there was little evidence of any specific preparation by the hosts
for what should have been an illuminating interview.
A show that can't even find problems with Drudge isn't likely
to challenge the mainstream press, and at times the program seems
to exist as a TV ad for the Washington press corps. An 8/7 interview
with Mike McCurry provided a comic example. At the outset, McCurry
was asked to comment on Talk magazine's then-current profile
of Hillary Clinton. McCurry said he'd been struck by the fact
that journalists calling him for comment on the article hadn't
actually read the Talk piece. One would think almost anyone
would see a problem when journalists interpret articles they haven't
even read. But Kurtz suggested that problems with the press corps'
work reactions to this piece were really the first lady's fault:
KURTZ (8/7): Whatever the nuances of the article and the interview,
and whatever the overreaction as you see it of the press, was
it less than smart politically for Mrs. Clinton, who's about to
run for the senate from New York, to talk about the word "abuse"
in the president's childhood? Didn't she ignite the story?
The show which "turns a critical lens on the media"
was more inclined to blame the hopeful than to examine alleged
"overreaction." Indeed, later in the show Kurtz again
showed a tendency to blame hopefuls for the coverage they get:
KURTZ: Vice President Gore has given a series of detailed policy
speeches, he's gotten some coverage, but overall I think you'd
have to say, the last couple of months, Gore's gotten terrible
coverage for his presidential campaign. Why do you think that
is? Is the Gore campaign to blame?
Again, we're not real sure what the answer is, but it struck
us odd, on a press-critique show, to see candidates blamed first
for bad coverage. But then, all throughout their McCurry interview,
Kurtz and Kalb seemed to be functioning as guild leaders for the
Washington press. When McCurry offered a mild observationthat
journalists sometimes rush into print with tales from unnamed
sourcesBernie had heard about enough:
KALB: I think that's too harsh an indictment. I think if you're
dealing with experienced reporters, there's a checking possibility,
there's a checking requirement, there's a checking obligation.
And it's interesting he said that, because a few minutes earlier,
Kalb himself had misreported the context of McCurry's famous quote
about "telling the truth slowly," as McCurry was forced
to point out. Indeed, by the end of the show, McCurry was asserting
the importance of traditional press values, while Kalb seemed
to be defending the press against any imaginable suggestion of
error. At one point, Kalb offered this critique of Lucinda Franks,
who reported the Talk piece:
KALB: It seems to me that if you had that kind of access that
Lucinda Franks had there were inevitably certain kinds of questions
that had to be asked in the same context. If she was explaining...the
president, it seems to me inconceivable that the word "vast
right-wing conspiracy"...was never asked. When she talked
about "scarred by abuse" by mother and grandmother,
it almost invited you to put the mother and the grandmother right
in the midst of the vast right-wing conspiracy. [Our emphasis]
McCurry didn't understand that last remark either. But his
valiant effort to demur politely provoked an intriguing response:
MCCURRY: Well, I, look, that again kind of connects dots that
are more than you can do
KALB: But reporters have to connect the dots. Otherwise
you get weather reports.
And that would be boring for scribes. Kalb seemed to function
as a cheerleading squad for any inclination the press corps might
have. By show's end, he seemed to be saying that it was OK to
focus on "personality and buzz" because the public has
shown that it likes that:
KALB: The fact remains, the media is obsessed with personality
and buzz and there's been a decision already, the verdict is in,
that George W has more of it than Mr. Gore. The consequence is,
there's a lot of media focus on that and that's not going to change.
MCCURRY: But who rendered that verdict? Has any American citizen
KALB: Yes, an American citizen has voted because that is the
preoccupation...You know what's on television, etc., where the audience
There's was almost nothing going on in the press that Kalb
didn't seem prepared to defendexcept, of course, for writing
an article sympathetic to Mrs. Clinton. On two occasions, he criticized
We'll have to postpone our review of the things we like about
Kurtz, our analysts' favorite. In our view, he's one of the only
print reporters who will even suggest there's something wrong
with the mainstream press corpsalthough one often must search his columns
for hints and signs, as Soviet citizens read tea leaves in Pravda.
But we're disappointed to have to tell you: Reliable Sources
routinely makes our point about the lack of press self-critique.
If this is the press corps' idea of a "critical lens,"
their lazy work is no longer a mystery.
Visit our incomparable archives: Do reporters check
out those sources as Kalb implied? In February, we asked Reliable
Sources to report on a four-month long slander about White
House aide Sidney Blumenthal. In this prolonged episode, assorted
press organs repeated a bruising story from Ken Starr's staff
which was plainly, demonstrably false. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/10/99.
For the record, our detailed letter went to Kurtz and to Kalb,
and to Reliable Sources producers as well. This was a remarkable
episode of prolonged press misconduct. Reliable Sources,
alas, took a pass.