After “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz parted ways with CNN in June and announced the move of his Sunday morning TV act to Fox News Channel, he had a chance to retool the media-news-and-criticism formula he purveyed on the network for 15 years. Instead, he has dressed his old CNN show in Fox bunting. In the Sept. 8 debut, he recruited members of the “Reliable Sources” stock company (David Zurawik, Nia-Malika Henderson, Lauren Ashburn, and Michelle Cottle) to chat with him about the week’s news. The new show even appears in his old CNN time slot, 11 a.m. The only new thing about the show is its name, “MediaBuzz.”
There’s always hope that Kurtz and his Fox producers will rethink the show in coming weeks, but his initial reluctance to fiddle with the “Reliable Sources” format indicates that 1) he thinks the old show was perfect as it was, and/or 2) he has no new ideas on how to report on the state of the press on TV. My assessment of “MediaBuzz” is by no means universal — it engaged the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple and attracted an audience nearly double that of the Sept. 8 “Reliable Sources” – but I am certain it is correct.
If ever a franchise needed refreshing, “Reliable Sources” is it. With the exception of the show’s modern graphics and its HD resolution, the tone and texture of “Reliable Sources” has changed very little since 1992, when it was launched with veteran reporter Bernard Kalb at the helm. Back then, the media looking at the media smacked of onanism, and I mean that as a good thing. But since the rise of Fox News Channel and MSNBC, so much of cable news has become bellyaching about the press, with Fox’s people griping about the liberal press and MSNBC’s knocking the conservative media. If the show was ever distinctive, it stopped being so in the late 1990s.
Ostensibly a critical look at the press and mass media, “Reliable Sources” long ago devolved into a talk show about the news. All of that cross-chat on “Reliable Sources,” maestroed by an all-powerful anchor, has made “Reliable Sources” an echo of what the cable news networks air at other hours and days of the week. You can imagine most of the guests, topics, and questions appearing on any number of shows run from this eternal template: The host asks his guests about their views on the news. Quarreling and interruption follow, like an over-lit dinner party where no food is served but lots of booze is consumed on the sly. After eight or nine minutes, the host intones to a guest, “I’ll give you the last word.” Then he previews the next segment before yielding to four minutes of commercial pitches for expandable garden hoses and other mail-order novelties.
“Reliable Sources” and Kurtz could easily have done better. Compare, for example, its archives to those of NPR’s “On the Media.” Both shows are about the press. Both shows broadcast for an hour. Both have been around since the 1990s. Both address three or four topics per episode. And both shows rely heavily on interviews with journalists and other media authorities. But the similarities end there. Where “Reliable Sources” guests ramble, “On the Media” guests stay on point. It’s not that “On the Media” hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are better wranglers than Kurtz — although their questions might be smarter and their sense of “media” a tad broader. It’s that instead of depending on the live, or live-to-tape approach generally taken by “Reliable Sources,” “On the Media” is tightly edited. The show’s producers make no secret about their editing. In this “On the Media” segment from 2007, which they rerun now and again, the show’s producers explain how its editors (and other NPR editors, for that matter) distill coherence into recorded interviews filled with false starts, stuttering, and many, many “ums” and “ahs” by the interviewees.