How Fox News Is Trolling Us By Hiring Howard Kurtz As A Media Analyst–And How It Could Work Out

Credit: Fox News

When the news broke yesterday that Howard Kurtz, the former Washington Post media reporter who defenestrated himself from CNN and the Daily Beast earlier this year with a wildly erroneous column criticizing Jason Collins, the first publicly out professional athlete in American sports (as well as an odd devotion of time to a side project called the Daily Download), was headed to Fox News, the collective conclusion seemed to be “Of course.” It was an easy conclusion to reach: Fox News, bastion of badness, was picking up another reject of the mainstream media. But I wonder if something more complicated might be at work here.

Media Matters’ Simon Maloy, who subjects himself to much more Fox News than most of us, argues in a perceptive post that the show that Kurtz is taking over could hardly be worse, and judging by Kurtz’s performance as a guest on it in the past, it might actually get better under Kurtz’s leadership:

More than anything else, Fox News Watch became a propaganda tool for the network. Any time Fox News or its parent company, News Corp., found itself in the headlines for ethical lapses or bad media practices, Fox News Watch would ignore the story. In 2011, when the scandal over phone hacking at News Corp.’s News Of The World was blowing up, Jon Scott and his Fox News Watch panelists were filmed discussing how they were purposefully not talking about it. When it was revealed that News Corp. had donated millions of dollars to pro-Republican political groups ahead of the 2010 election, Fox News Watch didn’t say a word. In late 2012, after national security journalist Tom Ricks caused a huge stir by saying on Fox News that the network was “operating as a wing of the Republican Party” with regard to its Benghazi coverage, Fox News Watch ignored the story — a fact that’s even more remarkable when you consider that the person interviewing Ricks when he made that comment was… Jon Scott.

Conversely, whenever Fox News wanted to highlight positive coverage of the network, Fox News Watch would oblige. Journalist Zev Chafets’ biography of Fox News president Roger Ailes, released earlier this year, drew fire from critics who questioned Chafets’ objectivity. Fox News Watch covered the biography’s release by re-airing a fawning interview Chafets had with the hosts of Fox & Friends earlier that week. Scott closed the segment by saying of Ailes: “He did build Fox News channel into number one. Tough being on top, everyone’s always aiming at you trying to bring you down.”

Given that point, I wonder if there’s something else at work here. Fox has a habit of hiring analysts with a certain eye towards irony, and what will make Fox-watchers twitch. Mark Fuhrman, the racist cop from the O.J. Simpson trial isn’t working as a “forensic and crime scene” expert for Fox News because Fox News has terrible taste in talent, but because Fox knows precisely how irritating it is to careful observers that Fuhrman is on their roster. Ditto with Judith Miller, who disgraced herself with her reporting on the leadup to the war in Iraq in the New York Times. The folks at Fox aren’t stupid: they’re crazy like their namesakes, and they know precisely what sorts of sharp sticks they can poke in their critics’ ribs.

Hiring Kurtz looks like a similar move to annoy the small community of people who are obsessed by media scandals (and judging by the ratings for Kurtz’s apology, that community is quite small), but I wonder if there’s something else at work here. Recently, Fox has feasted on mostly-overblown scandal coverage, but the network in recent years has also made some moves that suggest it recognizes the limits of the profits available on the fringe. Glenn Beck is long gone. Dick Armey’s contract was allowed to expire. Sarah Palin is back as a contributor after a hiatus, but it’s clear that she’ll be appearing as a commentator, and that the network’s plans to treat her as the center of a potential franchise are basically dead. And Megyn Kelly will be taking over Greta Van Susteren’s evening time slot on the network this year, a move that might allow her to rely less on flogging conspiracy theories about the New Black Panthers and more to focus on the news, where she often does quite well.

None of this is to say that Fox News has turned over an entirely new leaf, apologized for the damage it’s done to the American media environment, and gone all public broadcasting on us. Roger Ailes has too much fun trolling for that to be true. But Howard Kurtz, if he wants to redeem himself rather than tumble down the path to Judy Millerdom, which seems like an unappealing place to land, has a lot of hustling to do. If NewsCorp, which is in the process of dividing itself into two companies, wants to make some improvements at the edge of Fox News, its media analysis show seems like a place where the product could be redesigned to appear less blatantly corrupted without blowing up a brand too many fans have come to rely on without giving them time to adjust. As much as it’s easy to mock Fox for hiring Kurtz, that combination of needs could produce a show with actual ambition. Rather than laughing the hire off, it’ll be worth watching to see what happens.