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Daily Howler: Howard Kurtz knows how to fluff Tim Russert's well-coiffed trophy wife
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HIS OWN PRIVATE BUFFALO! Howard Kurtz knows how to fluff Tim Russert’s well-coiffed trophy wife: // link // print // previous // next //

GRUESOME KORNBLUT: Which Democrat would be most likely to win the White House? Which of the hopefuls would make the best president? For ourselves, we simply don’t know; we have reservations about all the contenders. But we do know pure propaganda when we see it. We’ve seen it on Hardball for more than a month—and we see it from gruesome Anne Kornblut today. Today, as yesterday, Kornblut offers pure propaganda about what vile Clinton has done. This is just consummate nonsense:

KORNBLUT (12/4/07): Clinton's response has been to turn aggressive. For the second day in a row, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in national polls sharply attacked her leading rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, using some of the harshest language of the campaign. Arguing that her campaign is in a "very strong position," Clinton hammered Obama for offering "false hopes" rather than action. She predicted that voters will want, in her words, "a doer, not a talker."

Wow! That’s amazingly harsh language, all right! But there’s another term for this sort of work. You know that term: pure propaganda.

In today’s Times, even Patrick Healy plays it fair, noting the merely obvious. “Mr. Obama went personal first,” he notes, “saying that Mrs. Clinton was not being truthful about her plans as president and calling her ‘disingenuous.’” But Kornblut can’t bring herself to do such a thing. She presents a ludicrous claim about the campaign’s “harshest language”—supported by stunningly mild examples. Yesterday, she pimped propaganda too, gaping at the way Clinton was “raising direct questions about [Obama’s] character, challenging his integrity.” But even as she marveled at Clinton’s conduct, Kornblut forgot to explain what questions Clinton had raised. How had she questioned Obama’s “reputation for honesty?” Kornblut forgot to tell.

But Kornblut has always been one step beyond. In June 1999, RNC chairman Jim Nicholson distributed a baldly dishonest press release about Candidate Gore’s deeply troubling background. Nicholson’s goal? He hoped that the nation’s reporters would say that Gore had grown up in a fancy hotel; he dreamed that one or two might even say that Gore had grown up at the Ritz Carlton. Very few of the nation’s reporters were willing to misstate the facts that baldly. But Kornblut, in the Boston Globe, was one of that pitiful handful.

Fool or tool? No way to tell—then. This week, bad faith is apparent.

Her work today is pure propaganda, the kind spewed on Hardball for the past month. These people think they get to help pick your nominee. Do you like the way their helpful conduct worked out in Campaign 2000?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: At the New York Times, James Dao played this same stupid game against Gore. To learn about Gore’s “cascade of attacks” against poor noble Bush, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/06.

Kornblut agreed to put on the Ritz; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/8/02. Nicholson dreamed that someone would say it. Kornblut complied. Tool or fool?

Special report: Confecting Brian!

OVERVIEW: Today, we start a four-part report about Howard Kurtz’s unfortunate Reality Show. In particular, we review the way Brian Williams is profiled in the new book. Some reports will be fairly long. Part 2 appears Thursday or Friday.

PART 1—HIS OWN PRIVATE BUFFALO: Howard Kurtz seems to know how Brian likes it. “Brian,” of course, would be Brian Williams. He’s the anchor of NBC Nightly News, Tim Russert’s “perfectly coiffed” trophy wife.

Consider the way Kurtz begins Reality Show, his cosmically fawning new book about “the last great television news war.” Kurtz starts with “[t]he courting of Brian Williams”—a courtship which occurs in the spring of 2002, shortly before NBC News announced that Williams would succeed Tom Brokaw as the net’s nightly anchor.

Uh-oh! In the spring of 2002, CBS News was offering Williams the keys to the kingdom, Kurtz says. Les Moonves, CBS president, was telling Williams that he could have Dan Rather’s job as CBS evening anchor! As Reality Show begins, Kurtz describes the scene at which this offer was made—and he begins the scripted presentation of Williams which will prevail all through his book. Kurtz knows how Williams likes to be spun. To our ear, his own “courting of Brian Williams” begins in his book’s second paragraph:

KURTZ (page 1): The courting of Brian Williams unfolded amid the stately splendor of the second floor fo the Harvard Club.

Seated around an alcove in front of a window of the nineteenth-century building on Manhattan’s West 44th Street, near a library packed floor to ceiling with twenty-five thousand books, the former volunteer fireman from New Jersey was listening to an offer that once would have seemed unimaginable.

In Kurtz’s second paragraph, we’re told that Williams is a “former volunteer fireman.” As is clear from endless profiles of Williams, that’s the way Williams prefers to be fluffed when he’s being displayed to the public. In Reality Show, Kurtz wastes no time displaying his willingness to serve.

Indeed, Kurtz confects Williams in this manner all through this embarrassing book. For the record, Williams is just one of eight or nine anchors profiled by Kurtz in Reality Show; the bulk of the book is about other people. But Williams is first among equals here, and Kurtz is endlessly framing Williams in the way he clearly prefers. Indeed, we’re told that Williams is a “former volunteer fireman” on page 1—and on page 31, and on page 265. We’re told that he’s a “NASCAR fanatic” on pages 38-39—and on page 134, and on page 265. On page 38, we’re told he shops at Target; on page 265, we’re told he shops at Price Club. And we’re endlessly told about the way poor Williams “knocked around in local news” before he “finally” got his big break. (Reportedly, NBC was paying Williams $2 million per year when he was just 34.) More globally, we’re endlessly told, in various ways, that Williams is just an average Joe, like me and thee—just “a suburban dad.” On page 38, we get the full treatment. In the following passage, Kurtz describes Williams in late 2004, just as he’s about to take over as full-time NBC anchor:

KURTZ (pages 38-39): Williams brought a very different background and sensibility to the job. He was forty-five years old with a wife, two teenage children, a dog and a rabbit. He lived in the Connecticut farmhouse in New Canaan where Jane [his wife] had grown up. He was a big NASCAR racing buff who took his son to the Speedway on Saturday nights and drove on a dirt track during vacations in Montana, where he owned a half-interest in a local team...

Williams was determined to infuse the broadcast with the values that reflected his life experience. As a guy who went shopping with his family at Target, he wanted more coverage of small-town America and the problems facing parents in everyday life.

But then, no one knows “everyday life” quite like Williams! In this passage, we’re told that Williams “brought a very different background and sensibility to the job” of NBC anchor. (Very different from what? We aren’t told.) But Williams doesn’t just love NASCAR; why, he even lives in the farmhouse where his wife grew up! More, though, on that farmhouse tomorrow. It may end up seeming somewhat different from what its placement in this passage might seem to suggest.

But let’s gets back to that opening scene, on page one of Reality Show, where Williams, the former volunteer fireman, is gulping hard (back in 2002) as he “listen[s] to an offer that once would have seemed unimaginable.” Already having fluffed Williams one way, Kurtz starts to fluff him another:

KURTZ (continuing directly from above): It was a cold winter day in 2002 and Williams, perfectly coiffed and impeccably dressed as always, had been a correspondent and substitute anchor for NBC News for nine years. But his heart had always been with CBS. He had grown up watching Walter Cronkite, had so idolized the man that when he was hired by the local CBS station in New York, he had asked a colleague to show him what he considered a shrine: the newsroom wall that had formed the backdrop for Cronkite’s spare, black and white broadcast. It was just a faded wall in a sad little back office now, but it symbolized the reverence with which Williams held the storied network.

In the weird manner of press-on-press pander, Kurtz starts acting out a minor man-crush in this, his book’s third paragraph. The handsome anchor was “perfectly coiffed and impeccably dressed” when he went to that meeting, Kurtz says. There’s no way Kurtz could know this, of course—except the former fireman is “always” that way, we’re quickly assured. And we’ll say this much: Williams is always that way in this comical book; when Kurtz returns to the modest fellow on page 34, he once again describes his “perfectly coiffed brown hair”—along with his “chiseled features, winsome smile, Brooks Brothers suits.” And by the way: As befits his modest background, it seems that Williams always has to be “lured” to meetings like the one at which CBS did its courting. Once again, let’s return to page one. Thinking back, Kurtz explains how Williams came to work for NBC in the first place:

KURTZ (continuing directly from above): He had been lured from WCBS to the massive art deco tower at 30 Rockefeller Plaza by Tom Brokaw himself, with enticing words about the possibility of one day inheriting his NBC anchor chair. Williams was perpetually described in the press as being groomed for the job. Enough with the grooming! He was beginning to feel like a prize poodle. Williams was just impatient enough, just ambitious enough, that he had agreed to this secret meeting with his competitors, to consider the tantalizing possibility of defection.

Way back in 1993, Williams had been “lured” to NBC, by Brokaw himself. And now, nine years later, because he’d begun to feel like a poodle, Williams is “just ambitious enough” to “agree to this secret meeting with his competitors, to consider the tantalizing possibility of defection.” For whatever reason, it’s a frequent part of the Williams myth, and a constant part of the Kurtz book: People have always had to “lure” the unassuming fellow into celebrity and massive wealth; Williams never seems to play an active role in his own advancement. Indeed: Two pages later, Kurtz panders harder as he carefully shapes the way this CBS meeting turned out. As we resume the story, Williams has been offered the CBS job—and Brokaw has (somehow) caught wind of it. Get ready to see some real pandering:

KURTZ (page 3): When Tom Brokaw caught wind of the offer, he called Williams at home.

“You’re not really going to do this?” Brokaw asked in his rich, deep baritone voice. If loyalty means anything to you . . . These last few years have been about one thing: the passing of the baton to a new generation.”

Williams was mush in his hands. As he hung up the phone, he wondered: What were you thinking? He felt ... dirty. How could he have considered life outside the family?

When Brokaw had mentioned loyalty, it struck a nerve. Williams’ father had that quality in spades, had been married to the same woman for fifty years. Maybe he was turning into his dad. Brokaw had done an enormous amount for his career, and Williams owed it to him to stick with NBC.

Williams is so noble here, so deeply old-school! In fact, he’s very much like his admirable dad, a man who was driven by loyalty! You may note, of course, that Kurtz never quite happens to say how Brokaw “caught wind” of the CBS offer; this keeps us from wondering about Williams’ real motives when we reach the end of this well-crafted tale. Isn’t it weird? According to Kurtz, Williams “felt dirty” for attending the CBS meeting. But as a result of that secret meeting, Williams soon let himself prosper:

KURTZ (continuing directly): There was already a clause in his contract requiring NBC to pay him a huge amount of money [$10 million, we later learn] if he didn’t succeed Brokaw. But Williams had been around the business long enough to understand that no deal was final until the ink was dry. His flirtation with CBS, however fleeting, persuaded his bosses that time was of the essence. Brokaw had already been in talks about stepping down, but the process took on a new urgency. The handoff clearly had to be speeded up. On May 28, 2002, network executives took the unusual step of announcing that Brian Williams would succeed Tom Brokaw as the anchor of NBC Nightly News...

Weird! If Williams “felt dirty” about his lack of loyalty, you’d almost think he’d have told NBC to leave things just as they were before. In fact, Williams gained from that “flirtation” with CBS—from the meeting that made him feel dirty. Somehow, Brokaw found out about it. And somehow, Williams’ bosses came to think that Williams’ ascent had to be speeded up. All this happened despite the fact that Williams was just like his loyal old dad. All this happened despite the fact that the meeting had made him feel dirty.

Yes, this story is already hazy—hazy in a way which lets Kurtz tell this story the way Brian likes it. But uh-oh! What actually happened in the spring of 2002, as NBC News moved to name Williams anchor? A bit later (on page 36), we’re given a set of additional facts. As it turns out, Williams also met with ABC during this period—and Kurtz reports that ABC offered him Ted Koppel’s job at Nightline! This seems to have happened after the chat with Brokaw which made Williams feel so dirty, although Kurtz accidentally keeps that obscure. Of course, if you understand the science of press-on-press fluffing, you’ll understand why Kurtz didn’t mention this second meeting back on page 3, where it was obviously relevant:

You see, all through this embarrassing book, Kurtz agrees to present Brian Williams as a modest man of the people, a man just like his store manager dad—a man who would never seek advantage, a man who would never try to squeeze extra millions, or a speedier upgrade, out of the people who had already made him famous and amazingly wealthy. There’s nothing wrong with doing such things, of course—people do such things all the time—but all through Reality Show (all through his press profiles), Williams finds himself being “lured” into meetings which advance his own interest. (Or tumbling into jobs he hasn’t sought.) His loyalty is so powerful that he feels “dirty” when these things happen—but they seem to happen rather frequently. But wait a minute! If Williams felt “dirty” about meeting CBS, why did he meet ABC after that? And why did Kurtz wait thirty pages to tell us about it? Presumably, Kurtz realized that news of this second meeting would kill his aw-shucks opening tale—and so he delayed our knowledge of it. But so it goes when our biggest “media reporters” agree to play stooge-to-the-stars.

In fact, it’s fairly obvious what happened to Williams in the spring of 2002. According to other reporting, Brokaw was now extending his tenure past the point when he’d once said he would likely retire; Williams, beginning to feel like a poodle, decided to meet with the competition. And by some miracle, NBC learned that he’d gotten that offer from CBS, and they decided to make it official—he’d become Brokaw’s successor in 2004. (According to Kurtz, Brokaw wanted to anchor one more election.) There’s nothing wrong with any of that, unless you want the world to think that you’re just an unassuming suburban dad who shops at Target and has a rabbit—a person who still lives in the house his wife grew up in! Fairly clearly, that’s what Williams likes people to think—and Kurtz is endlessly prepared to help the story along. For example, note the way he describes Williams’ satisfaction with his new NBC contract. Good God! There are no words:

KURTZ (page 37): In the final negotiations Williams signed a seven-year contract that was worth more than $20 million, although the press reported a figure about half that amount. The length of the deal was important to him because he had grown up listening to his father talk about job security.

There are no words. Even as he reports that Williams is being paid at least $3 million a year, Kurtz seems to know that he must relate this event to the concerns about job security once felt by Williams’ middle-class dad. But then, this book breaks its back, again and again, to portray this man as an average Joe. Almost nothing happens here without being shaped to this narrative.

For the record, that account of Williams’ salary doesn’t entirely jibe with a later part of this book. On page 167, Williams is shown in 2006, grumbling about the way his salary is being reported in the press. “Everyone kept reporting that he was making $4 million a year,” Kurtz writes. “In fact, Williams was earning considerably more.” But however much Williams might be earning, Kurtz always knows how to portray him. Poor Williams! Here’s one of many silly passages in which we learn about his everydayness. Again, the year is 2006. Williams is musing about the new anchors with whom he will have to compete:

KURTZ (page 265): If Gibson managed to beat him, so be it. Charlie was a newsman’s newsman, Williams felt, an older version of himself. There was no shame in losing to Charlie. But he felt very differently about Katie Couric.

It wasn’t that Williams was jealous of her fame, her huge salary, of the enormous wave of publicity surrounding her ascension. But Williams and others at NBC believed that Katie was in something of a bubble, living a wealthy celebrity lifestyle that set her apart from her viewers.

Hiss! Hiss-spit! Hiss-spit! Mee-ow! Williams thinks Couric is living a wealthy lifestyle—unlike his own modest ways! But you just have to laugh when you’re told, by Kurtz, that Williams, then earning a reported $10 million per year, wasn’t jealous of Couric’s “huge salary.” But then, on every page of Reality Show, Williams is too big a man for that sort of thing. Indeed, to help us see how Williams does live, Kurtz keeps showing us unscripted moments. Unscripted moments like this one:

KURTZ (continuing directly): What was central to Williams’ conception of himself was that he was the down-to-earth journalist, the NASCAR fan, the onetime volunteer fireman, the guy who shopped at Price Club and watched American Idol. One recent Sunday his in-laws’ basement in Connecticut flooded and he spent four hours cleaning the gunk out of their sump pump. He was not above grunt work, either at home or in the newsroom...

Good man! But then, Kurtz is constantly throwing Williams’ grunt work in his readers’ faces. Poor Williams! On page 33, he is “up to his ass in water” on a 1993 assignment when NBC calls to “lure” him away from his spot at WCBS. (As is so typical, Williams can barely bother speaking to the executive who is about to make him wealthy.) Later, we catch him in another unscripted moment just after a trip to Iraq:

KURTZ (page 396): Williams needed to decompress after the intensity of Iraq, and he got to spend a rare week at the beach with his family. When they returned home to Connecticut, he went to the laundry room to do a bleach load. He yelled at Jane for having turned off the water before they left. For all the globe-trotting, an anchor’s life was rarely as glamorous as it seemed from the outside.

Poor guy! But then, in Reality Show, Williams’ life is never glamorous. Thanks to Kurtz, we are constantly catching the big lug in everyday moments. When President Clinton calls, for example:

KURTZ (page 34): Williams also learned that he could antagonize critics in high places. One night, with his glasses fogged as he was draining pasta at his Washington home, his daughter handed him the phone. It was Bill Clinton, yelling at him, as he had never heard a person yell.

Poor guy! But then, all through this book, Williams is shown draining pasta, cleaning sump pumps and doing bleach loads. Or he’s “out of breath” from “dragg[ing] the suitcases up the stairs” (page 208), something he has just accomplished when he gets the telephone call which tells him that Peter Jennings has died. (Even respect for Jennings’ death doesn’t stop the confecting of Brian.) On the job, if he isn’t up to his ass in water, he’s “utterly exhausted every night,” unable even to “pick up toiletries at CVS” due to his work load. Indeed: “Every night,” he’s “lugging home stacks of printouts...that most network anchors would have left for their staff” (page 300). And omigod! In yet another unscripted moment, Kurtz is somehow able to catch Williams “working so hard that lunch was often a slice of takeout pizza at his desk” (page 124). Why was Kurtz able to get these scoops? On that same page, we find out why. It’s because “Williams was not going to pretend to be someone he wasn’t. He was a mild-mannered suburban dad who never touched a drop of alcohol.”

Does Williams refuse to pretend? Or do Williams and his willing profiler concoct that pretense all through this book? To us, Reality Show’s profiles of Williams read like pure, unrelenting PR, right from the opening scene in which he feels dirty about what he’s done—then proceeds to do it again (thirty pages later), gaining big bucks in the process. To our ear, this PR often verges on the comical, as in this second passage where we’re told that Williams, earning $10 million a year, isn’t jealous about Couric’s salary:

KURTZ (page 167-168): He wasn’t especially worried that Couric was...making a far bigger salary. He had married a modest woman, and they couldn’t believe how much money they already had. He had stopped his last negotiation with NBC when he felt that his compensation was more than adequate. In private, Williams made a bold prediction. He told friends that Bob Schieffer’s core audience, the hard-core fans devoted to hard news, wouldn’t dig Katie Couric.

Hiss! Hiss-spit! Hiss-spit! Meee-ow! At any rate, you just have to laugh, if a bit mordantly, as Kurtz presents this latest insult to your intelligence. Williams “had married a modest woman,” we’re told. For that reason, by hook or by crook, he’d get by on his ten million dollars.

Remember, the bulk of this book is not about Williams; Reality Show profiles eight or nine anchors. But to our ear, Kurtz plays the fool for Williams all through this embarrassing book. To state the obvious, there’s nothing wrong with being what Williams is—an absurdly fortunate, semi-talented fellow from an apparently admirable family who is being paid $10 million a year because he looks good on TV, fits a few other molds, and has a good sense of humor. (“I think you're very attractive in a Republican sort of way,” Cher once told him, on the Tonight show.) And, perhaps, a guy who may have gotten some early help from highly connected in-laws. (You know? The ones who apparently owned that farmhouse? Not that Kurtz ever describes them—or mentions that contact Williams gained from them.) But there almost surely is something wrong when people like Williams play the public for fools, and enlist fluffers to help them. In fact, that “farmhouse” and the rest of these well-scripted tales strike us as part of Williams’ own private Buffalo, a charade the handsome anchor employs to make himself a man of the people, much as Russert flies to Nantucket to write books about the deep snows which blow into his life from Lake Erie. Not to be indelicate here, but all though this unfortunate book, Kurtz seems to fluff Russert’s trophy wife—prepares him for viewing by the rube public, dresses him and his rabbit and his bleach loads pretty much as Williams has always (almost always) wanted such things to be seen. (Almost always, we have to say. There is that one early profile.)

None of this would matter too much if Williams did unobjectionable work. But when we see a $10 million man taking cheap shots at major Dems, we wonder if the public shouldn’t perhaps be told the truth about his real manner of living. (Not that there’s anything wrong with it!) For ourselves, we recall the days when this well coiffed man seemed to openly lie about Candidate Gore—about those polls; about those op-eds—when he had his endless nervous breakdown about Gore’s vile polo shirts. (Did this make his owners proud—the ones who barely appear in Kurtz’s book?) We recall the way he handled this year’s first Democratic debate (a debate for which he wins praise from Kurtz). And we recall the way he worked with Russert in October’s mugging of Candidate Clinton—a two-hour gang-bang unlike any other debate in American history. (Not that Dems knew enough to complain.) Like that famous Warren Zevon character, Brian Williams’ hair is perfect—but his work has been a good deal less so. Because we recall his bald misconduct, we wonder if the rabbit and the rest of the blue-collar shtick isn’t all part of an ongoing fraud—doesn’t add up to his own private Buffalo. And we wonder what became of the old Howard Kurtz when we see him confecting this way.

THURSDAY OR FRIDAY—PART 2: Brian’s seen rivers! (The lean years.)