Howard Kurtz: When Journalism Is A “Blood Sport,” Everyone Gets Hurt


Anyone who has gone to J-school can recall countless lessons on unbiased reporting and avoiding conflicts of interest. Yet these ideas almost seem archaic when looking at the state of journalism — and least in this country — today. Or so argues Howard Kurtz in today’s Washington Post column.

Citing a nastiness index, Kurtz bluntly states that while the media once reported the partisan spats, they now find themselves much more involved, often being targets of attacks. And sometimes even making them. Exhibit A…and B…and C…and well, you get the point:

In just the last few weeks, Salon Editor in Chief Joan Walsh and CNBC contributor Howard Dean have accused Fox News of racism; conservative crusader Andrew Breitbart has delighted in pushing a maliciously edited video smearing Shirley Sherrod and refused to apologize; Fox hosts have denounced mainstream organizations as Obama lap dogs for downplaying a case involving the New Black Panther Party; e-mails from an off-the-record discussion group showed one liberal pundit wishing for Rush Limbaugh‘s death and another suggesting that conservatives such as Fred Barnes be tarred as racist; Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings was accused of betraying journalistic ethics with the story that torpedoed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Hastings’s critics were ripped as lackeys of the military establishment.

Kurtz states the bottom line quite well: it’s “journalism as a blood sport, performed for the masses.” The polarization in politics has without a doubt bled into a polarization in the media. There seems to be a constant need to vilify someone, whether it’s a news organization, media personality, politician or the BP/Goldman Sachs-of-the-moment.

More significantly, politics and journalism are increasingly intertwined:

The rise of highly opinionated hosts at Fox and MSNBC helped fuel the trend, as has the invasion of pols-turned-pundits — Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, James Carville, Eliot Spitzer — who have blurred the distinction between us (the journalists) and them (those we cover).

There is a reason why editorial and columns get only a few pages in newspapers. But on television, opinion thrives — and when facts are ignored in the crossfire, viewers are left with skewed perceptions of current events.

“Responsible people in power and in the mainstream media are only beginning to grapple with this new environment — in which facts hardly matter except as they can be used as weapon or shield in a nonstop ideological war,” Politico editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei write in a provocative essay.

But isn’t journalism, first and foremost — whether it’s straight news or an editorial — supposed to sit on a foundation of facts? The media now find themselves in a strange position, where they sometimes enable the “deterioration of political discourse,” but are also sometimes a target.

New York Times columnist David Brooks put it this way on “Meet the Press”: “A different sort of media, squabble culture, has come up on the left and the right. . . . They build audience by destroying other people.”

And sometimes they destroy themselves.

That last part refers to cases like Helen Thomasremarks on Israel and Dave Weigel‘s off-the-record JournoList emails. Kurtz goes on to point out how recent incidents like the Shirley Sherrod debacle only exemplify how toxic the atmosphere has become.

It is towards the end that Kurtz makes an especially important point:

The news business, aloof from criticism for far too long, should absolutely be held accountable. These days, though, the constant swirl of accusations, the charges of bias and personal perfidy, have tarred even those who are working hard to be fair.

…Instead, the toxic atmosphere that many media outlets tolerate, and sometimes foster, is slowly poisoning the discourse, for us and, yes, for you.

As necessary as accountability is, it often seems to be becoming increasingly rare. In the fight for ratings and higher numbers, it’s easier to just keep playing the game. Frankly, it works. People love sensationalism. But there’s also danger in having such a polarized media climate. Consumers can easily pick and choose their news, getting a very one-sided, incomplete — and often inaccurate — picture of what’s happening in the world around them. The gladiator blood bath between opposing sides of the media may benefit ratings and web hits, but it isn’t helping the audience. Journalism is intended to inform citizens and serve as an antidote to ignorance. So, the next time we talk about the woes of ignorance in a democratic society, we should realize we may have a larger problem to deal with.

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