Alex Constantine - September 26, 2010
Washington Post media critic avoids controversy, again
By Zachary Roth
Columbia Journalism Review | September 22, 2010
Earlier this summer, when Helen Thomas said Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and return to Germany, among other places, The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz appeared to share the widespread outrage. The nation’s most prominent media writer noted Thomas’s history of “spewing bias and bile,” and asked, “why wasn’t she reined in earlier?”
So you might have expected that Kurtz would again have been on the case when Martin Peretz, the editor in chief and long-time owner of The New Republic, blogged earlier this month that “Muslim life is cheap.” Peretz added: “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”
After all, with the country awash in ugly anti-Muslim sentiment, calling out this kind of bigotry is more important now than ever. And yesterday, Peretz, a former Harvard professor, was removed from the list of speakers at an upcoming university event. But, as far as we can tell, Kurtz hasn’t said a word about Peretz’s comments.
Like Thomas, Peretz has a history. “I couldn’t imagine any venture requiring trust with Arabs turning out especially well,” he wrote earlier this year. When The Guardian yesterday asked Kurtz why he thought the media had consistently given Peretz a pass on what seems to be a pattern of anti-Muslim prejudice, Kurtz begged off. “I’m afraid I just haven’t focused on the subject,” said our top media critic.
OK. As CJR knows well, there are a lot of media stories out there, and one man can’t get to all of them. Still, a clear pattern of racism on the part of the editor of a major political opinion magazine would seem to be an important issue for America’s best-known media critic to address, so yesterday CJR gave Kurtz another bite at the apple. We asked whether he’d now had a chance to focus on the question, or even whether he’d like to comment more narrowly on the appropriateness of Peretz’s most recent anti-Muslim diatribe. Kurtz hasn’t responded.
Of course, Kurtz isn’t alone here. His reticence on this story mirrors the reticence of the establishment press as a whole, which has long looked the other way at Peretz’s sometimes overt racism. (Whether that’s because Peretz’s money and social connections make people wary of alienating him, or because anti-Muslim bigotry is still considered less disqualifying than anti-Semitism, or for some other reason entirely, it’s hard to say.) But Kurtz is one of the few people whose job is explicitly supposed to involve taking some kind of stance on these things, so perhaps we hold him to a higher standard.
Taking a stance isn’t something Kurtz likes to do, though. Over the years, both in his print pieces and on his CNN program, Reliable Sources, Kurtz has made an art form of avoiding saying anything too harsh about anyone with any kind of power in the world of journalism. Even Kurtz’s criticism of the eighty-nine-year-old Thomas—hardly a powerful media figure—was made only after she’d safely resigned.
Here’s the real shame: At this particular moment in the history of journalism and politics, we could really use a respected, national, non-partisan voice who could help keep our fractious, over-heated public discourse sane, level-headed, and free from prejudice. But to do that, you’d need to be willing to render judgments on powerful people and institutions, and let the chips fall where they may. And that’s not something that Howard Kurtz seems to be cut out for.