Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Thursday, June 24, 2004

I've been wanting to do a Howard Kurtz entry for a long time. Kurtz is probably the worst media critic in the history of the business. It's not because he's antoganistic to liberals and goes easy on conservatives - in my opinion, media critics are not obligated to be objective - it's because he spends so much of his time defending the media, the opposite of his job.

The reason I've been waiting to criticize Howard is that I was waiting for a moment when he was actually saying something I completely agree with, as he does in today's Blaming the Press in Iraq. This way, my argument doesn't get muddied by the fact that I disagree fundamentally with the content of the piece.

In this case, Kurtz is exactly right, and in fact, could go a lot farther in criticizing the blatant and altogether nauseating hypocrisy of Paul Wolfowitz - who has not been leading a lot of walking tours through downtown Najaf recently, to my knowledge. Many, many journalists have been killed in Iraq, several of them shot down by coalition forces, and Wolfowitz has the nerve to criticize them for not putting it on the line.

So for once, I have no quarrel with the substance of what Howard Kurtz is saying. But in the last two weeks, two major dailies and an important center-left periodical, along with numerous individual columnists, have printed articles admitting to having dropped the ball to one degree or another during the run-up to the Iraq war. Even the most cursory analysis of this development could easily consume hundreds of pages. Yet Kurtz uses his page, once again, to defend the media he is supposed to be crtiticizing. Pathetic.

I also feel the need to point out that Kurtz's criticism of Michael Moore makes no logical sense, and borders on the willfully dishonest. I plan to write an article on Michael Moore and "liberalism" generally, but I'm going to wait until after I've seen F911, which I'm going to do this Friday. Suffice it to say that while I like Moore's movies more than a lot of people, I am not a Michael Moore groupie.

However, to say that Great Britain's libel laws are "stringent" and that by threatening to bring legal action under U.S. libel laws, Moore is "advocating" UK-style laws is ridiculous beyond the borders of its clothing. Most of Kurtz's readers probably do not know anything about the UK's libel and slander laws, but Kurtz does, and that's what makes the charge so shameful.

In the UK, if a libel claim is brough against you by a public figure, the burden of proof is on you, the DEFENDANT, to show that what is charged in the questionable piece is accurate. In the U.S., the PLAINTIFF is required to show a number of things, including that the printed charge in question was false, and that the defendant knew that it was false or acted with a blatant disregard for the truth.

Now I, unlike 95% of the U.S. public, am a serious first-amendment hawk. I would probably argue in a debate that libel laws are an unnecessary infringement on free speech, and that at most the government has a responsibility to make sure that there is sufficient access to the media that someone accused of something in print or on the air can defend herself with the truth. As a journalist (using the term loosely) I would never bring a libel suit against anyone, for the reasons Kurtz outlines in addition to my philosophical objections to the statutes as well.

But it is easy for anyone with an ounce of common sense to see how UK-style libel laws act as an extreme chilling agent on the public discourse, while U.S. laws are much more restrained, and mostly prevent people from blatantly lying. If, for example, a major paper prints an article alleging that Moore's film says something which it does not say, and refuses to print a correction, a libel suit is certainly a legitimate recourse.

Of course, this is all overlooking the real, underlying reason that media apologists like Kurtz hate Michael Moore - it's because they see in Michael Moore what they should themselves be, and would be if they didn't care so much about maintaining their popularity among the people and institutions they are supposed to be restraining. Michael Moore is a muckraking, abrasive and reckless critic of the media - which is what being a media critic is supposed to be all about.

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