Reality Show (By Howard Kurtz)
Inside the Last Great Television News War
By Howard Kurtz
Free Press. 464 pp. $26
Howard Kurtz, I am now certain, has a secret. Either he no longer sleeps, or he has found a way to expand the 24-hour day. How else can one explain his exceptional output?
For the past 17 years, Kurtz has been the media reporter for The Washington Post, writing a column every Monday and covering breaking news many other days. Enough? Not for Kurtz. He also writes a long, sometimes numbingly long, media blog for the paper's Web site, a basket for every item that doesn't make his column. On weekends, he anchors CNN's "Reliable Sources," the longest-running weekly media criticism show on television. On radio, he is heard regularly offering his opinions on the media and politics. And in his "spare time," he has written five books, including the 1998 bestseller Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine. In the Soviet Union, he'd have been praised as a "Stakhanovite" journalist, fulfilling and then overfulfilling his quota.
His newest book, Reality Show, takes you inside the minds and the newsrooms of the three major evening news anchors -- a 464-page, sound-bite-by-sound-bite report on ABC's Charles Gibson, CBS's Katie Couric and NBC's Brian Williams during a time of political crisis at home and war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a period of "daunting transition," Kurtz writes, not only because these anchors replaced the Tom-Peter-and-Dan troika that dominated the airwaves for a quarter of a century but also because they are battling technological and economic challenges that are transforming the industry. It is a fascinating, richly detailed story -- little of it new, however, if you have read Kurtz's newspaper reports. But if you haven't read them, I suspect you will benefit greatly from this tale of three remarkable reporters, who have the capacity every evening to influence 25 million viewers who still watch their presentation of the news. Granted, a few decades ago as many as 40 to 50 million watched the evening newscasts, but 25 million still represents the single biggest town hall in America, certainly worthy of a book.
Clearly, Kurtz knows the players -- the anchors, the producers, the network presidents. And they know him and appreciate the power he wields. When Howie calls, they answer the phone. "I enjoyed an extraordinary degree of access to journalists and executives at all levels," he says. And he takes full advantage of his access by quoting them extensively, even in private conversations between a husband and a wife, and enriching his narrative with intimate insights and little-known facts about this secret negotiation or that meeting between anchor and president.
But, interestingly, Kurtz never directly sources any quote, any thought. His "Notes," or footnotes, run only four pages, a slender addition to a fat book, and nowhere does he refer to any of his earlier stories or books. Following in Bob Woodward's footsteps, Kurtz assumes the reader will understand that if he is quoting Couric, he talked to her; if he is quoting Williams, he talked to him; and if he is quoting the intricacies of a confidential contract negotiation, he spoke to "one or more of the participants." This approach also allows Kurtz to describe the thinking, feelings and emotions of his characters, something often impossible even for therapists to achieve.
The reader has to take Kurtz at his word. Though Reality Show in places has the feel of a novel, it is nonfiction written by a trusted reporter, who has earned his stripes in this craft now so widely distrusted. (But even a trusted reporter can make a mistake: Tzipi Livni is not Israel's defense minister, as he states on p. 277. She's foreign minister.)
What Kurtz covers in this book, he has already covered in his dispatches -- Rather's humiliation after his controversial 2004 story about President Bush's National Guard service; Schieffer's role as interim savior of "The CBS Evening News"; the endless transition from Brokaw to Williams on NBC while Williams flirted seriously with CBS; Gibson's relentless quest for Jennings's anchor spot at ABC; and the delicate courtship of Couric away from her perch atop NBC's Today show to the Cronkite chair on CBS. And, through it all, every Tuesday morning in each newsroom, the arrival of the huge 800-pound gorilla, honored and sneered upon at the same time: the ratings for the previous week, the determinant of success or failure in the TV universe.
These are all absorbing tales because each anchor is, in his or her own way, an interesting and important person, operating in the public eye, with clout and criticism as constant companions. But what especially attracted my attention while reading Kurtz's well-written report were two aspects of television news -- one dealing with the anchor's awkward relationship to the White House and the president, which Kurtz covers in intriguing detail, and the other dealing with the economic and technological underpinning of the TV industry, which he addresses only tangentially.