Journalism

Kurtz to leave CNN for Fox: Egads. Another crack in his credibility?

Did he fall or was he pushed?

Howard Kurtz, host of the media-criticism program Reliable Sources since 1998, has set sail from the turbulent seas of CNN for the turgid waters of Fox News Channel.

Fox said today Kurtz will anchor a new weekend version of its own media-criticism program, Fox News Watch. In a release, Kurtz said, “I’m excited to be bringing my independent brand of media criticism to Fox News.”

A continual question hovering over Kurtz for years has been this: How “independent” is he? Critics of his program have argued for years that Kurtz has been loathe to bite the hands that feed him, both CNN and his former employer, The Washington Post. Guess we’ll find out as he sees Fox News from the inside. (Wouldn’t you love to read his contract to see what reins, if any, Fox head Roger Ailes imposed?)

Kurtz has erred on a grand scale of late, and I’ve wondered if he would survive in CNN impresario Jeff Zucker’s “New Day” vision of the basic cable channel.

After Kurtz’s elaborate “my bad” appearance on his own show to apologize for maligning a gay athlete, media critic Jon Friedman asked the appropriate question, as did I:

Does Kurtz still have a future on TV?

Should he?

Perhaps his astonishing lack of professionalism and class in dealing with the Collins story is enough to prompt CNN to remove him as the host of Reliable Sources. Can viewers still trust Kurtz’s opinions? Is he too much damaged goods now to be taken as a credible voice? Will they watch him on CNN and think immediately that he was the one who messed up the Collins saga?

These are serious questions. They become more nuanced and complex as Kurtz enters Faux News headquarters. It doesn’t help his credibility that Kurtz had already left one job at the Daily Beast prior to the Fox announcement.

But, frankly, even if Kurtz had walked on water without error, Zucker’s arrival as CNN’s overseer left Kurtz with a short future at the channel. Earlier this month, AdWeek’s Maura McGowan wrote:

Trouble is, it’s getting increasingly more difficult to get the 18-24 set to plug into linear TV. And as robust as CNN’s digital portfolio is, the real money remains tied up in the boob tube. “The television platform… [is] where the highest advertising rates are and the highest CPMs,” Zucker said.

Since becoming president in January, Zucker has made a series of changes designed to win the hearts and minds of a younger audience that is increasingly disinterested in, and even disdainful of, cable news.

In doing so, the network seems to be eliminating the vestiges of shoe-leather journalism, shuttering foreign bureaus and embracing more entertainment-leaning programming.

Kurtz has failings, but he has a history of being a first-rate “shoe-leather” reporter. Unfortunately, the issues he raises on Reliable Sources have little cachet for Zucker’s target younger audience. (That’s not Kurtz’s fault; that blame lies in great measure with that audience.)

I’ll follow Howie to Fox for a while to see how he does, and how he addresses both old and new concerns about his independence and tendency to pull punches when his employers are involved. I encourage others to follow him to Fox: Give him a fair shot at this (say, a few months).

I hope he survives and prospers. I hope his brand of criticism revives itself and refreshes debates about media and journalism. Fingers crossed … but skepticism fully engaged.

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