UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Spring/Summer 1998
FeaturesAlumni ProfilesClassnotesCalendarThe MailFinal WordEditor's Choice
Howard Kurtz, B.A. '74

Ann Bisantz, M.S. '91 & B.S. '89

James Ailinger, D.D.S '25

Henry A. Panasci Jr., B.S. '52
A Mirror to the Media
The front-page, prime-time reflections of Howard Kurtz, '74

Talk about irony: Howard Kurtz's critiques have been sought out by those he's hit the hardest – the media. During the recent Clinton scandal, the Washington Post reporter has been expressing his views on a whole host of shows, from Nightline to 60 Minutes to the weekly CNN talk show Reliable Sources.

Howard Kurtz, in Washington, D.C., offers trenchant commentary about his own profession.

(Click to view larger image.)
Photo: William Lebovitch

During a recent phone interview from his office at the Post, Kurtz explained that he had just spent "two crazy weeks" writing a new introduction and epilogue for his book Spin Cycle, which documents the relationship between the media and the Clinton White House. The Monica Lewinsky splash had prompted the publisher to move up the publication date.

His first book, Media Circus: The Trouble With America's Newspapers, published in 1993, has become such a watchword on the state of print media that it has reached textbook status. His second book, Hot Air (1996), deflated talk-show hyperbole.

During its prepublishing stage in February, Rush Limbaugh quoted a few advance excerpts from Spin Cycle and called it "one of the most highly anticipated books" on his radio show.

So what makes Howard Kurtz such a media authority? He modestly thinks he has been chosen "because there's just a handful of people doing this." Actually, his trenchant comments on the media and its influence are both substantive and provocative.

He's a long way from his humble beginnings at the University at Buffalo, when the Brooklyn native admits that his main interests were basketball and girls. He came to UB, he says, because "it was at the farthest part of New York State [from home]," but also because of its reputation both for academics and as an activist school.

Although he always had a knack for writing, Kurtz never thought he could make a living at it. It wasn't until he was introduced to the third-floor Spectrum newsroom at the old Norton Hall student union during his first week of freshman year in 1970 that he pondered the possibilities.

"My four years on the Spectrum are what got me into journalism," he says. He remembers it as a time of antiwar rallies, cultural upheaval and the leveling of authority figures, including college administrators and faculty.

"By my senior year, when I was elected editor, it hardly seemed unusual to be criticizing the UB administration with the same fervor that I denounced the Nixon administration in all those Watergate editorials," Kurtz recalls. "We even put out an extra edition on the day that [Vice President] Spiro Agnew resigned."

Kurtz describes his UB years as a "formative experience," and thinks back to "terrific English and psychology classes . . . the bus ride to Ridge Lea classes . . . talking about politics at Goodyear Hall, where I lived, and at the Rathskellar . . . being interested in the close-knit texture of the community and the two Buffalo newspapers at the time. That gave me a real sense of what the media could affect. In fact, I was first published by the Buffalo News with an opinion piece talking about an academic dispute on campus."

Kurtz wanted to strike out for a big-city paper after graduation. He wound up at the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J., after getting his master's degree in journalism from Columbia. "I had trouble getting a job," he relates, "so my first job was working nights covering zoning board meetings. It was terrific training for a young reporter."

After a couple of years at the small-town paper, Kurtz wanted to head for Washington, D.C., so he signed on for two years with Jack Anderson to work as one of the legendary columnist's reporter-researchers. He learned a lot about investigative reporting in the process.

From there he jumped to what he describes as a scrappy afternoon paper, the Washington Star, the second newspaper in a two-newspaper town – a death knell in this day and age; three years later, the paper folded and Kurtz was suddenly unemployed.

The Post hired him in 1981 – "Apparently, I had beaten them on enough stories that they decided maybe they might want to pick me up," he jokes – and started him on the metro staff, working in the investigative unit, and then covering the urban affairs, Capitol Hill and Justice Department beats until the fall of 1990, when he broke new ground as the media reporter.

Kurtz finds it a fascinating beat. "It gets me into all different kinds of issues," he observes. "I think it's important that somebody hold up a mirror to the media."

In Media Circus, he detailed the 30-year decline in newspaper readership and seriously questioned the future of print media. He spoke of the blandness of newspapers today: "We're in an era now where we're afraid of offending people. If you say the wrong thing, you get a backlash, with people canceling their subscriptions. When you take it to that extent, then you sort of remove the newspaper's reason for being. If we're not going to delve into controversy, if we're not going to be in the front lines of investigative journalism, if we're not going to be on the cutting edge of tough stories, then what are we providing that's any different, that people can't get on television?"

"We're in an era now where we're afraid of offending people. If you say the wrong thing, you get a backlash, with people canceling their subscriptions. When you take it to that extent, then you sort of remove the newspaper's reason for being."

As a regular on CNN's Reliable Sources program, and with his guest appearances on various news commentary network shows, Kurtz admits that, to some extent, he may have become what he has spent his career zinging: "I do write that too many journalists have become celebrities. And, probably, now that I've done television, I can be included in that indictment. I do think, though, that our media culture now values shouting on talk shows more than a [thoughtful], 'Woodward and Bernstein' kind of journalism."

In Hot Air, Kurtz attacked those radio and TV talk shows that make no attempt to separate fact from fiction. He also took a sharp look at the seduction of journalists by the celebrity of talk showdom.

In Spin Cycle, Kurtz unreeled a pointed, behind-the-scenes narrative involving the spin doctoring of the Clinton White House and the impact of scandals involving Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky.

Although he wants to continue the media beat, Kurtz knows one beat he wants no part of – the White House. "It's the most glamorous beat in journalism, but also, I think, one of the most confining because of the control the White House often exercises over your movements and because of the way news is often spoon-fed and so forth. A lot of people really want to be a White House correspondent. That's not on my list of desires."

Instead, Kurtz continues to "second-guess the people who second-guess everybody else for a living," writing about the press and journalistic ethics and how the news is shaped and how journalists are used. "I'll probably do it until more than half the people in the business are no longer talking to me, by which time my effectiveness will be limited."

After work, he goes home to what he describes as "a house, two kids, two cats and a backyard" – and his wife, Mary Tallmer, a social worker who lived in Clement Hall during those years when Howard Kurtz was discovering that he could get paid for doing what he loves.

Through it all, he never forgets what he feels catapulted him into the media reporter job at the Post – his experience at the Spectrum. "Not a bad four years, I'd say," he muses, summarizing the influence of the university in his life.

Jim Bisco is a Buffalo-area writer.

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