By Jack Shafer
(Reuters) - After "Reliable Sources" host Howard Kurtz parted ways with CNN in June and announced the move of his Sunday morning TV act to Fox News Channel, he had a chance to retool the media-news-and-criticism formula he purveyed on the network for 15 years. Instead, he has dressed his old CNN show in Fox bunting. In the September 8 debut, he recruited members of the "Reliable Sources" stock company (David Zurawik, Nia-Malika Henderson, Lauren Ashburn, and Michelle Cottle) to chat with him about the week's news. The new show even appears in his old CNN time slot, 11 a.m. The only new thing about the show is its name, "MediaBuzz."
There's always hope that Kurtz and his Fox producers will rethink the show in coming weeks, but his initial reluctance to fiddle with the "Reliable Sources" format indicates that 1) he thinks the old show was perfect as it was, and/or 2) he has no new ideas on how to report on the state of the press on TV. My assessment of "MediaBuzz" is by no means universal - it engaged the Washington Post's Erik Wemple and attracted an audience nearly double that of the September 8 "Reliable Sources" - but I am certain it is correct.
If ever a franchise needed refreshing, "Reliable Sources" is it. With the exception of the show's modern graphics and its HD resolution, the tone and texture of "Reliable Sources" has changed very little since 1992, when it was launched with veteran reporter Bernard Kalb at the helm. Back then, the media looking at the media smacked of onanism, and I mean that as a good thing. But since the rise of Fox News Channel and MSNBC, so much of cable news has become bellyaching about the press, with Fox's people griping about the liberal press and MSNBC's knocking the conservative media. If the show was ever distinctive, it stopped being so in the late 1990s.
Ostensibly a critical look at the press and mass media, "Reliable Sources" long ago devolved into a talk show about the news. All of that cross-chat on "Reliable Sources," maestroed by an all-powerful anchor, has made "Reliable Sources" an echo of what the cable news networks air at other hours and days of the week. You can imagine most of the guests, topics, and questions appearing on any number of shows run from this eternal template: The host asks his guests about their views on the news. Quarreling and interruption follow, like an over-lit dinner party where no food is served but lots of booze is consumed on the sly. After eight or nine minutes, the host intones to a guest, "I'll give you the last word." Then he previews the next segment before yielding to four minutes of commercial pitches for expandable garden hoses and other mail-order novelties.
"Reliable Sources" and Kurtz could easily have done better. Compare, for example, its archives to those of NPR's "On the Media." Both shows are about the press. Both shows broadcast for an hour. Both have been around since the 1990s. Both address three or four topics per episode. And both shows rely heavily on interviews with journalists and other media authorities. But the similarities end there. Where "Reliable Sources" guests ramble, "On the Media" guests stay on point. It's not that "On the Media" hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are better wranglers than Kurtz - although their questions might be smarter and their sense of "media" a tad broader. It's that instead of depending on the live, or live-to-tape approach generally taken by "Reliable Sources," "On the Media" is tightly edited. The show's producers make no secret about their editing. In this "On the Media" segment from 2007, which they rerun now and again, the show's producers explain how its editors (and other NPR editors, for that matter) distill coherence into recorded interviews filled with false starts, stuttering, and many, many "ums" and "ahs" by the interviewees.
As someone who has appeared on both "Reliable Sources" and "On the Media," I can say that my IQ leaps 35 points when I appear on "On the Media" because of the expert way its editors razor out my low-info mutterings. It's not just me. Everybody sounds smarter on "On the Media." This is not to say that the editors of "On the Media" give their guests a free ride, making village idiots sound like Socrates. They don't. Nor do their edits distort the views of their interview subjects. The approach is very print-like, with editors deciding what to quote and what to cut.
"Reliable Sources" has achieved similar coherence only when devoting an interview to a single subject in the news, the best recent example being Kurtz's one-on-one with the voluble Glenn Greenwald. Of course, a head of lettuce could extract a good interview out of Greenwald, so let's not give Kurtz too much credit. But when a topic exudes conflict and Kurtz bears down, intelligence has happened on his show. Perhaps the most worthy "Reliable Sources" segment aired in the spring when Kurtz invited two outside journalists on to his show to quiz him about his boneheaded comments about Jason Collins's "I'm Out" Sports Illustrated cover story. The segment would have worked better had Kurtz not been allowed to frame the controversy. And assigning two interrogators to Kurtz rather than one diluted the interview. But whatever the flaws, the segment proves the superiority of a newsworthy interview over a TV roundtable gumming their opinions.
All of "Reliable Sources"'s deficiencies can't be blamed on Kurtz. None of the temporary hosts (David Folkenflik, Brian Stelter, Joanne Lipman, Eric Deggans, et al.) sitting in his chair have produced a distinguished episode, an indicator that "Reliable Sources"'s greatest problems are structural. Before the CNN bosses give anybody a dump-truck of soft clay from which to remold the show (and please, please, please, don't dump that clay in my yard!), the first agenda item should be to destroy the "Reliable Sources" set so it can't come back as a talk show about the news. Instead, remake it as a news show about the news. Reporting, not opinion, is the life's blood of journalism. Instead of phoning press critics to appear on the new show, fund a unit that would actually report on the press, on press ideology and practice, on the advertising business, on corporate media, on individual news stories, journals, and journalists. Detailed autopsies of rotten works of journalism and dissections of evil press barons (you know who you are) could break the ice-jam of dullness that passes for press coverage on TV today.
The new news show about the news could do worse than seek the journalism of Don Hollenbeck for inspiration. Hollenbeck was one of Edward R. Murrow's "boys" at CBS News (not that we should hold that against him), and hosted a 15-minute radio show titled "CBS Views the News" from 1947 to 1951. Hollenbeck's best shows, the transcripts of which were collected as a dandy book in 2008 by Loren Ghiglione, suggest the sort of music a full-throated press critic can produce if given a license to sing by broadcast executives. Hollenbeck was a liberal, and it showed. But his politics don't really detract from his critiques of William Randolph Hearst's newspapers, his profiles of journalistic notables, his policing of New York's dailies and ethnic press, his analysis of "scare" journalism, and his scrutiny of press controversies now too ancient and arcane to summarize between commas.
Instead of cloaking himself in the protective garb of "fairness," Hollenbeck labored to express a strong point of view in his commentaries. That Hollenbeck was fair is, of course, to his credit. But a perfectly honest work of press criticism is more likely to discover the truth than a perfectly fair one. I don't mean to oversell Hollenbeck, but if Kurtz and the inheritors of his CNN show seek a motto, they could do worse.
(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)