Howard Kurtz has created a name for himself in and around Washington covering the media beat for the Washington Post, and he is a frequent contributor to magazines like the Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Monthly, and The New Republic. Although the fly leaf of Media Circus goes a little overboard, describing Kurtz variously as a "scrupulous reporter," a "dogged investigator," a "lucid writer," and "one of the handful of reporters who gets any respect these days," he is without doubt one of the more incisive journalists in the business today.
Media Circus is his attempt to examine what has gone wrong with the newspaper business, written from a vantage point inside the newsroom. He chronicles a number of stories "that the press has fumbled, bumbled, or otherwise botched in recent years."
The trouble with America's newspapers, he contends, is that publishers, editors, and reporters are desperately out of touch with their readers. Unable to curb the tide of newspaper closings and dwindling circulation figures, today's editors have become "focus-group groupies" vainly studying their readers habits as if they were some exotic species. Meanwhile, their product has become increasingly boring, superficial and irrelevant. Detroit auto companies are not the only industry to have misjudged their customers, he muses. Newspaper readers, like car buyers, are rejecting the product and tuning out.
In the final analysis, journalists themselves have to shoulder the burden for what has happened to newspapers, according to Kurtz. "We are the architects of our own misfortune," he says, and "we need to spend more time thinking about our shortcomings rather than chasing after the next fire truck."
This is essentially a work of journalism trying to pass itself off as a critical analysis, and as such it has a few shortcomings. But it is an energetic and well-written book, rich with insights and compelling examples.
This review appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of Antioch Review.
Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.