When Howard Kurtz moved his media-analysis show to Fox News Channel, there was some skepticism whether he would be allowed to operate as an independent voice on a network that imposes such rigid message discipline. The official answer seemed to come Sunday, when a promised piece on an unflattering biography of Kurtz’s boss, Roger Ailes, completely failed to materialize.
Kurtz’s “MediaBuzz” had already waited two weeks before tackling “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” Gabriel Sherman’s much-talked-about biography of Fox News CEO Ailes. As noted, for Kurtz and his old show, CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” handling the Sherman book came with parallel pitfalls, sure to trigger second-guessing about settling scores in either direction.
For Kurtz, though, addressing the book was perhaps even thornier. That’s because Ailes essentially rescued the former Washington Post columnist and CNN host by hiring him last June, after Kurtz’s errors had gotten him into hot water, leading to an extraordinary episode in which he was grilled about those failings on his own show.
For in-house media critics to have any credibility, they have to be willing to at least occasionally explore the shortcomings of their employers. And given all the coverage regarding Ailes’ concern regarding the book and his alleged campaign against the author, Kurtz looked caught between the proverbial rock and hard place — so much so that ignoring the book would have been preferable to creating the appearance of acting as Ailes’ surrogate.
Nevertheless, to promise coverage — as Kurtz did on air at the close of last week’s program — and then renege creates an impression of Kurtz as Ailes’ lap dog. And it’s not like there weren’t ways to approach Sherman’s biography in a skeptical manner, especially after New York Times critic Janet Maslin panned the book, providing some cover from one of the bastions of liberal media Fox News so regularly derides.
Either way, Kurtz appears seriously compromised, and looked even worse Sunday compared to CNN’s Brian Stelter, who gave his guests considerable latitude to second guess the volume of coverage his network devoted to Justin Bieber’s arrest.
If all this seems like much ado about very little, there are so few venues where major media outlets devote space to covering their own industry and inner workings that to see one introduced and discredited is something of a disappointment. Besides, the last thing Fox News needs is another Ailes sock puppet.
So while Stelter is still finding himself as a TV personality, Kurtz’s “MediaBuzz” has revealed itself to be particularly misnamed — lacking not only in buzz, but also bite.