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He is being cast by some supporters as an old champion of the First Amendment, defending the rights of ex-reporters everywhere to pontificate freely about matters of public concern on the front pages of one of America’s most respected daily papers.
“Even in middle school he was shooting his damn mouth off for no apparent reason,” says Kurtz’s ex-5th grade teacher, Danielle Fishbaum.
But to others, Howard Kurtz, the media critic for the Washington Post, is just a pompous windbag.
“On the one hand,” says Martin J. Squib, a Law Professor at the University of Houston Downtown and First Amendment expert, “Kurtz writes prolifically for the Washington Post and, through his writing, draws a salary. Seems like a journalist to me. On the other hand, though, it seems that most of what he writes is opinionated dreck. He doesn’t seem to employ basic reportorial skills very often, and when he needs a quote it looks like he just opens his Rolodex and calls one of his old drinking buddies from inside the beltway.”
Controversy also surrounds Kurtz’s online column for the Washingtonpost.com,“Media Notes” an endeavor on which he appears to spend an increasing amount of time.
“Best I can tell, he just sits around his house in his bathrobe and reads the blogs all day,” says one ex-colleague of Kurtz’s, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution from the powerful press pundocrat. “What’s even worse, his analysis of the ‘blogosphere’ is superficial, at best. There are 16-year old kids on Myspace who seem to be doing a better job.”
Kurtz is the latest in a spate of editorial columnists and opinion providers for large media outlets whose usefulness has been called into question following the growth of online, user-driven content creation. “Sure, doing actual reporting is a little hard and requires a basic set of skills, as well as a willingness to keep odd hours and be generally disliked by large segments of the population,” notes “Web 2.0” marketing guru and venture capitalist Jack Flashdance. “But punditry? Maureen Dowd? Brooks? Broder? Who reads these guys anymore? Especially when somebody who actually knows something about a particular subject can give me her opinion about it for free.”
The legitimacy of Kurtz’s weekly TV show, “Reliable Sources,” is also a matter of some dispute.
“I don’t know which is worse, yapping on TV for an hour about the news media after doing it all week in print, or inviting your reporter friends—people who claim on the other six days of the week that they are ‘objective”—to come on the show with you and get paid to foist their opinions on the pubic,” adds Flashdance.
No matter how what the 24-hr cable networks have dubbed the “Kurtz Kontroversy” is eventually resolved, Squib expects the larger disputes to continue for some time.
“It’s ironic that the folks in the mainstream media who most often talk about who is or who isn’t a journalist are the people who haven’t done real journalism in years,” he sighs ruefully “The people who have the most to fear from the Internet and from ‘citizens journalism’ aren’t the reporters. The Howie Kurtz’s of the world-- at least the ones who get paid-- well, they're an endangered species.”
For more on the Josh Wolf case, see the February 22 issue of The Indypendent.