Shows how the pundit corps works: Yesterday morning, Howard Kurtz hosted his final edition on CNN’s Reliable Sources, the program “where we turn a critical lens on the media.”
Or so Kurtz said, once again, as he always does.
Kurtz has hosted this program for the past fifteen years. Each Sunday, he has asked a group of mainstream pundits to come on TV and pretend to critique their own guild.
Now, he’s been hired away by Fox. Yesterday, as Kurtz signed off, he reminisced about four major stories he has covered at Reliable Sources.
We were struck by the stories he chose. We’ll run through them tomorrow.
But first, we were struck, for the ten millionth time, by the clownish way the pundit corps actually works, especially when it pretends to be critiquing itself.
We refer to the treatment by Kurtz’s panel of the Paula Deen flap. Remember: Reliable Sources is supposed to be the show where they “turn a critical lens” on the media—not on the various people the media have been flaying.
Whatever you think of Paula Deen, she isn’t part of “the media.” Rightly or wrongly, she has been a recent target of the media. In theory, that’s what this program’s august panel was assembled to discuss.
But how odd! Neither Kurtz, nor anyone else, had much to say about the media’s conduct! Instead, everyone seemed to turn a critical lens on Paula Deen herself!
Can we talk? In the past week, major news orgs have made ginormous misstatements about Deen. Deen directly said so in last week's interview with Matt Lauer, though she didn’t name names.
But how weird! On the program “where we turn a critical lens on the media,” nobody said a word about the press corps’ howling errors! Instead, Kurtz asked one question about Lauer’s performance, then invited his panel of pundits to comment on Deen herself.
Why did the New York Times and Slate, among many others, publish such groaning misstatements last week? Kurtz never mentioned the fact that they did—and neither did anyone else!
Below, you see what happens when upper-end pundits pretend to “turn a critical lens on the media.” As you watch the panel at play, go ahead and treat yourself to a good solid laugh!
After one question about Lauer’s performance, Kurtz turned to panelist Jane Hall, who we know (a bit) and like. Forget about the press corps, he said.
Let’s talk about Deen herself:
KURTZ (6/30/13): But let's turn to Paula Deen, an experienced television personality. She had been sitting atop this food cooking empire. Did she come across as sincere and sympathetic?Hall seemed to say that the press had paid too much attention to Deen at the extent of more consequential matters like the Voting Rights Act. But before she offered that critique, she criticized Deen, saying her conduct had been astonishing.
HALL: I think, you know, I was— When I heard that she has hired media consultants after this interview, I thought, “What is with celebrities who cannot apologize?”
You know, she seemed to turn it into “I am the victim,” which if you look back at a number of other instances with other celebrities who have said racist things, if she did say this, what she's accused of, it was astonishing to me that she had this video apology and then the Today show apology.
The other thing that’s astonishing is why do we get so focused on this—and back to the Voting Rights Act. We focused on Paula Deen and whether she said the N-word. It’s so strange to me.
Other panelists didn’t even pretend to be critiquing the press. As the conversation continued, this is the way Terence Smith and Steve Roberts “turned a critical lens on the media:”
KURTZ (continuing directly): Well, you say a victim, but it seems to me, she's entitled to defend herself. And let me just mentioned that, even after that Today show interview, Wal-Mart dropped her as a corporate spokeswoman, a couple of other companies did and Random House ending a five-book deal with Paula Deen. So she's still struggling to salvage what remains of her career.None of that had a thing to do with the conduct of the media. As the session ended, Kurtz and Smith behaved in familiar ways:
SMITH: I mean, it was the worst mea culpa ever. Ever, ever, ever. Give her credit where credit is due.
SMITH: It was counterproductive. She didn't come across as in any way contrite or apologetic. And I found the whole thing made her situation worse, not better.
ROBERTS: She portrayed herself as the victim of this whole situation. You know, I was prepared to be sympathetic to her before I re-listened to the interview, because I think it's very important we not use the word "racist" easily. We don't use anti-Semitism easily. It's got to be—it's a profoundly important idea that should be used very sparingly.
But I was totally unconvinced by that interview. I was far less sympathetic after I listened to it than I was before. If you listen to it carefully, one of the things she kept saying is, I never purposely offended anybody.
Without grappling with the fact that her instincts were so much a part of what she was, that she offended people and as Matt Lauer pointed out, don't you understand how offensive that word is? She said, I never did anything on purpose. But she did a lot of things to offend a lot of people, maybe not on purpose.
KURTZ: I don't want to be overly sympathetic to her. I think with her past words and actions, she's made herself as toxic as some of her deep fried recipes.Kurtz wanted everyone to know he was voting with the guild. Smith, who is no sylph himself, played the ultimate card. Her customers are too fat!
But it occurs to me in a country where, you know, Martha Stewart went to jail, Michael Vick dealt with dog fighting and they were allowed to have comebacks. And now, everybody—it seems to me there's a lot of people who made a lot of money on Paula Deen who are running the other direction.
SMITH: I thought the most devastating criticism of Paula Deen was that photograph in the Washington Post of the—her supporters and fans lined up outside her restaurant in Savannah. You took a look at them and there wasn't one under 200 pounds. It was devastating.
KURTZ: They must eat a lot of those dishes. Let's take a break right now.
So typical! Instead of turning a critical lens on their own colleagues, the pundits did what they typically do—they turned a critical lens on the guild’s latest target.
They were killing the pig themselves! Who cares about the press?
Different people will have different views of Deen herself. But that’s not who we’re talking about in this post.
We are talking about the pundits who sat on Kurtz’s final panel. The people who pretended to “turn a critical lens on the media”—that is to say, on their own guild.
These people are lazy, dishonest, false. Sunday, they faked one for the Gipper, sending Kurtz off in style.
Tomorrow: Kurtz recalls his top stories
The failure to prepare: Nor did it seem that Kurtz's panel performed a great deal of background work. Hall didn’t seem to understand that Deen had acknowledged saying certain things—the things Hall said she was “accused of.”
In turn, Roberts misrepresented what Deen said in her session with Lauer.
Reading through the transcript of Deen’s interview with Lauer, we find her saying that she never purposely offended anybody—but we find her saying it once.
According to Roberts, Deen made this statement so many times that he lost sympathy for her situation. But then, when has Roberts even bothered with accuracy during these ritual slaughters?
Reliable Sources has always been an exercise in High Potemkin. Every week, major pundits pretend to turn a critical lens on themselves, their colleagues and friends.
Year after year, this has been a big con. This panel sent Kurtz off in style.