Reviewed by Marvin Kalb
Sunday, October 21, 2007
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.
Theoretically, in a nation that prides itself on the separation of church and state, of the media and the ruling administration, there would be no question about keeping the anchor and the president in separate rooms. The more distance between them, the better. Not so, apparently. Kurtz writes about how the White House skillfully manipulates their competitive juices and outsized egos by rationing access to the president, thus buying favor, or at least understanding.
Even though Williams sharply criticized the administration's botched handling of the New Orleans disaster, he had become "the president's favorite anchor." Whenever they met, Bush peppered him with questions. According to Dan Bartlett, a former presidential adviser, Bush said, "I can do business with him." The president and the anchor discussed their reading habits, among other things -- Bush, believe it or not, telling the anchor that he had been reading Camus' The Stranger, and Williams recommending that he read a new LBJ biography.
Couric had raised a few feathers at the Bush White House by once asking the first lady about a woman's right to an abortion (what's wrong with that?); but when Couric became the "CBS Evening News" anchor, she needed Bush, and in a way he needed her. Bartlett, the fixer and doorkeeper, arranged an "exclusive interview" with the president on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Couric was "respectfully challenging," but Bush was "stiff, . . . his lips often pursed in a quizzical expression," and the interview made little news. No matter. CBS hailed it as an "exclusive."
Gibson, admitted to the inner sanctum of Bush's office, did not seem fazed and certainly was not fawning. The oldest and most experienced of the three anchors, he spoke to Bush "almost as an equal." In one interview, Gibson admitted that when he thought about 9/11, "I find myself crying. Does that happen to you?" Bush responded, "Yeah. Of course, generally, it's triggered when I meet someone who lost a loved one." In this way, unintentionally, Gibson made headlines.
These exchanges help soften the rough edges and natural antagonism in any anchor-president encounter. The anchor wants hard news, a bulletin -- "The president disclosed today. . . . " The president wants support and understanding, if evasion fails to carry the day. The relationship is such that each needs the other, and for this reason, especially in the fuzzy patriotism of war and presidential politics, they are much closer than anyone quite realizes.
Kurtz obviously decided to focus on the problems and personalities of the anchors rather than on the basic changes now transforming the industry, and this is a shame. Few journalists know the industry better, and he could have spent lots more time on the financial underpinnings and technological revolution that truly define what has happened to television news. Kurtz mentions these basic problems -- how could he not? -- but only in passing, leaving the impression that they are not really as important as Katie, Charlie and Brian. Yet in the final analysis they are more important than the anchors, and maybe in his next book Kurtz will decide that he can make economics and technology as compelling as his story of the new anchors.
But he had better hurry. The anchors and their half-hour newscasts are quickly facing what Kurtz gravely terms "irrelevance." They are "just barely good enough" to hold their own against Jon Stewart, podcasts and the other competing wonders of cable TV and the Internet. But "just good enough" is clearly not good enough. What is obvious is that all of journalism, not just the evening newscasts, is undergoing revolutionary change with an outcome now impossible to forecast. *
Marvin Kalb, Murrow Professor Emeritus at Harvard, was an anchor and diplomatic correspondent at CBS and NBC for 30 years.