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Just the Messenger
Mediaite.com Focuses on Celebrity of Journalism

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009

Few would quarrel with the notion of Oprah Winfrey as the most influential television host, with Bill O'Reilly coming in second.

But Elisabeth Hasselbeck at No. 4 and Jon Stewart at No. 15 -- ahead of Bob Schieffer (37), Chris Matthews (40) and David Gregory (50)? Kelly Ripa (20) and Mary Hart (22) trouncing Wolf Blitzer (70), Joe Scarborough (89) and Charlie Gibson (117)?

If this kind of thing gets your pulse racing, Mediaite.com, which launches today, is your kind of place. Described by its managing editor as "Huffington Post meets Gawker," the Web site, created by NBC legal analyst Dan Abrams, was stirring controversy well before its debut.

"Part of what we're doing is appreciating the celebrity of the media," Abrams says. The site "plays into the vanity of these individuals," says Managing Editor Colby Hall, a former producer for MTV and VH1, but is "not over-snarky or mean and nasty."

The rankings are not a journalistic assessment, but rely heavily on online buzz. The TV hosts and anchors are graded on their number of viewers, Google hits and Twitter followers. (And, hey, I came in 78th, behind Ellen DeGeneres but creaming Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien.)

In other Mediaite rankings, No. 1 finishers include Newt Gingrich (pundits), Rupert Murdoch (media moguls), Jeff Zucker (TV titans), Chuck Todd (TV reporters), Glenn Beck (radio hosts), Paul Krugman (columnists), Bill Keller (newspaper/online editors) and Jon Meacham (magazine editors). All that seems like a lot of bandwidth for something so gimmicky, but Abrams says a more substantive approach would be dismissed as purely subjective.

Mediaite paints with a colorful palette, even if its hues will appeal mainly to journalists and those who obsess over them. By hiring bloggers who worked for Mediabistro and the Huffington Post, Abrams has put together a sassy critique of media missteps and foibles, an overall take not driven mainly by ideology.

"It's fun to take some jabs at people in the media, calling out hypocrisy and gaffes," says Abrams, who reveled in doing a "Beat the Press" segment when he was an MSNBC host.

With separate pages for TV, print and online, the site aggregates plenty of content, like other media-focused portals, while also offering opinionated takes on scandal coverage, journalistic feuds, ethical questions and sundry embarrassments. There is a "Confront the Critics" feature -- an artist gets to talk back to a negative reviewer -- and a "Sex Watch," as in, who's exploiting titillating images for page views?

Some headlines, from an exclusive peek at last week's trial run: "Where Will Sanford Sell His 'Love Story' on TV?" "CBS and CNN and Michael Jackson Coverage -- Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." "Which MSNBC Colleagues Did Joe Scarborough Call Out This Morning?" "Vibe Folds: Death Knell for All Music Mags?"

Editor at Large Rachel Sklar has assembled an eclectic mix of paid columnists and contributors, including Bonnie Fuller, the former editor of Us Weekly, and Jim Impoco, a former top editor at the New York Times and the now-defunct Portfolio magazine. (No unabashed conservative has been hired, but Sklar says some will be coming on board.) Abrams hopes other journalists will write purely for the exposure, as most of Arianna Huffington's contributors do.

The business model -- even with a lean, five-person staff -- is not entirely clear. The financing, for the moment, comes entirely from Abrams's pocket. One feature certain to generate traffic is a jobs marketplace for journalists looking for both media and non-media vacancies, as well as for employers with openings. But for now, there is no charge for the service.

HBO will be the "launch advertiser," touting its shows "Hung" and "Entourage," but that seems little different than a newspaper with a major advertiser.

The main complication is that Abrams, a lawyer and former MSNBC general manager, launched a media strategy firm in November. He has not disclosed its clients, but the company says they include Fortune 1,000 corporations, chief executives, financial services concerns and public relations outfits.

For example, Abrams Research's Web site says: "A Fortune 500 business believes the financial media has focused unfairly on a small change in accounting practices rather than significant increases in revenues. Abrams Research can bring together top financial journalists to advise that business on how to best convey its message." Journalists? Advising corporations?

Abrams says he doesn't use full-time journalists whose presence would create a conflict of interest. Instead, he says he has hired freelancers and former journalists. While he runs Mediaite's business side and will write a column, Abrams says he will have no control over editorial content. That, he says, is meant to neutralize questions about his role at NBC and Abrams Research.

But blogger Jeff Jarvis, a consultant who runs the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York, ripped Mediaite after being solicited as a contributor. He wrote that Abrams launching the site while running "a PR company offering access to media people makes it stink. . . . I'm sorry but this smells."

Says Abrams: "It does seem I'm being held to a higher standard than anyone else in the history of the consulting world. That's okay. . . . What some of the purists say is that if you're engaged in journalism at all, you should not be able to work with business, ever."

There is no shortage of media criticism on journalism sites, gossip sites, partisan sites and just about every other kind of site. All this bird-dogging is a welcome development for a business long insulated from scrutiny -- now everyone gets to take a shot -- but has also made it hard to break through the cacophony. How much can even a news junkie read about the tribulations of self-absorbed journalists?

Sklar calls the venture "my dream media site" because it will take a "super-fun" approach to "issues I think are important about where journalism is going, where the media are going."

Oh, and about those rankings: Mediaite rates 284 print and online reporters, topped by New York Times technology columnist David Pogue. Bob Woodward didn't make the list. Not enough "buzz," apparently.

Outside Assistance

Anyone reading The Washington Post the past two weeks could be forgiven for wondering whether the paper has subcontracted out its investigative reporting.

Three front-page stories in five days were done in conjunction with ProPublica, the nonprofit newsroom that began reporting one year ago.

On June 27, Dafna Linzer, a former Post staff writer, reported that the White House was crafting an executive order to allow for the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects. June 29, Jeff Gerth, a former investigative star at the New York Times, reported on a loophole in the bank bailout bill that has benefited General Electric. On July 1, Paul Kiel, a former blogger for the liberal site Talking Points Memo, reported on Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye contacting federal regulators who provided $135 million in aid to a home-state bank that the Democrat helped establish. A Post reporter collaborated on each piece.

ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Paul Steiger calls it "a lucky week." But some of his 30 journalists have produced front-page stories for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and USA Today, as well as contributed to such programs as "60 Minutes" and "20/20."

"It's hard to say whether they've warmed to us or we've gotten better at figuring out what works," says Steiger, a former Wall Street Journal managing editor. "The more difficult times in the news business has made almost everybody more willing to consider things they wouldn't have considered just a few years ago."

Post-Michelle Reaction

My piece on Michelle Obama's press coverage last week prompted an objection from Rachel Swarns of the New York Times, who says she shouldn't have been lumped in with Newsweek's Allison Samuels, whose pieces mix reporting with first-person observations.

"As a journalist with 20 years in the business, I am very disappointed that you chose to conflate her work with the work of those of us who are beat reporters, who write news and features without including personal commentary," Swarns says.

I understand her concern, but everyone covers the subject differently, and both the first lady's office and Newsweek consider Samuels to be the beat writer.

At True/Slant.com, meanwhile, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen challenges what she calls my "implication, careful and nuanced as it is, that their work ought to be specially inspected for bias." While saying I made sure to include the reporters' qualifications and their comments, Cullen fears their work "will be doubted because of their race and gender."

I don't believe they're biased, and I noted that no one, after all, questions white journalists covering white politicians. Michelle Obama hasn't done much to warrant criticism. But the African American women covering her are breaking new and interesting ground as much as the first lady.

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