September 8, 2013

Fox News host Howard Kurtz launched his debut edition of “Media Buzz” with a promise — to cover the media in a “fair, aggressive and unbiased way.” An evaluation of the show’s compliance with that pledge will have to wait months, but this much is clear: Kurtz, who anchored CNN’s “Reliable Sources” for 15 years, has imported that show’s formula to a new network with some modifications, and the result shows a fair bit of promise.

Sunday’s opening segment, for instance, had the look of a “Reliable Sources” simulacrum: Kurtz sitting with three guests to chat about the media topic of the week, in this case media coverage of the Syria situation. Too, the lineup — Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik, The Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson and Lauren Ashburn, all reliable “Reliable Sources” guests — looked as if it had walked right on over from an old CNN episode. Whenever four people sit around a TV set nerding out on media stuff, boredom threatens to storm the set.

Didn’t happen here. Thanks in large part to Zurawik — who hammered President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for lacking “moral authority” in this case — the Syria talk was explosive and very nearly enlightening. Some sparks flew after Zurawik slighted MSNBC contributors Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod for being “loyalists” to the Obama White House in their work as commentators. Both of them, along with others including “Crossfire” co-host Stephanie Cutter, were reported to have attended a White House strategy session on Syria. “White House getting advice on Syria from former Obama campaign advisers,” read a headline on FoxNews.com.

Zurawik saw something objectionable in MSNBC contributors mixing it up with White House officials, as did Kurtz. Henderson and Ashburn responded, essentially, that these folks were hired to express pro-Obama opinions. What’s the big deal?

The Erik Wemple Blog settles this one in favor of Zurawik-Kurtz. Attending a White House strategy session is a corrupting engagement, even for someone who specializes in cable opining. Sure, MSNBC hires guys like Axelrod and Gibbs to offer their opinions, which will generally elide with those of the Obama folks. Everyone knows that.

What’s valuable to viewers, however, is to sample those instances in which the ex-Obamaites might just dare to take issue with the old party line, rare though such instances may be. If the old team is meeting for strategy sessions with cable contributors, there’s less chance that viewers will be treated to such fare. It’s not only bad ethics, but bad TV as well.

Other panels on Kurtz’s first “Media Buzz” hummed along just fine, with the high point coming when Kurtz and Ashburn debated coverage of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. There was some genuine thinking in it. The only dud in the lineup focused on coverage of the New York mayoral race. In a chat with two guests, Kurtz spent a segment scolding the national media for fixating on Anthony Weiner while there are actually candidates worth covering in this campaign. The net result of the session was more fixation on Anthony Weiner. That’s the trouble with media criticism that laments media overcoverage.

The main bummer of “Media Buzz” is that Kurtz didn’t use his media-TV-host interregnum to bust the format. A media quiz or a history lesson or a breakdown of a media-related Twitter spat or… something other than more talk segments would have branded “Media Buzz” as something really new and buzzworthy. That said, the show moved nicely and benefits from the much-talked-about television production talents of Fox News.

CNN hasn’t yet announced who’ll succeed Kurtz on his old program, which is competing in the same time slot. Once it does settle on a successor, it might want to consider some format-busting of its own, lest it find itself attempting to out-Howie Kurtz Howie Kurtz.

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Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.