Howard Kurtz’s Twitter problem

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It shouldn’t be surprising that, in the wake of Mother Jones’s reporting that Fox News host Bill O’Reilly exaggerated and embellished his war reporting stories over the years, O’Reilly would give more interview time to Howard Kurtz than any other journalist. Kurtz is, after all, a Fox News employee and host of Media Buzz, a Sunday show that covers the media. Kurtz first interviewed him on Friday and then again on Sunday when O’Reilly called into his show. On both occasions, Kurtz was directly bombarded on Twitter by critics who felt he’d given softball interviews and let O’Reilly get away with sidestepping specific accusations made by Mother Jones. One of those critics was David Corn himself, the editor who co-bylined the Mother Jones story. “@oreillyfactor says NYT says Argentine troops ‘fired into the crowd.’ No, it said shots were fired over the crowd? C’mon, @HowardKurtz,” he wrote Sunday. That same day: “Hey, @HowardKurtz issue is whether @oreillyfactor was correct when he said troops gunned down and killed many, not that there was rioting.”

But despite receiving several tweets from sources directly involved in the controversy, Kurtz refrained from engaging or responding. In fact, during the entire month of February, I could only find one instance where Kurtz responded to a critic. The rest of his tweets are promotions for his show and the occasional retweet of someone praising him.

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Why does this matter? To understand this, let’s compare him to two other prominent media reporters: Erik Wemple, who replaced Kurtz at the Washington Post, and Margaret Sullivan, the public editor for the New York Times. Both regularly use Twitter not just to promote their own content, but to engage with their readers and sometimes challenge their own assumptions. For instance, when someone disagreed with Wemple about why O’Reilly’s career would survive this controversy, he tweeted back “Disagree about the opinion stuff. Facts should always be facts.” A few days ago, Sullivan got into a long back-and-forth with a Twitter user who disagreed with her assessment of New York Times reporter James Risen’s angry tweets directed at the White House.

Sullivan and Wemple recognize that Twitter, though not as popular as Facebook, disproportionately caters to the journalism industry, and that to ignore it is to ignore some of the most important discussions occurring within the media. Yet Kurtz gives little indication that he’s monitoring these discussions, much less engaging in them. This might be forgivable if he had a different beat — say, foreign policy (though only slightly forgivable). But how can you be a 21st century media reporter and not engage on Twitter, arguably the primary water cooler around which every prominent media figure gathers?

Yes, there’s a lot of noise on Twitter, and when you work for a prominent TV outlet it takes some work to weed through your @ mentions to find meaningful conversation. But if Brian Stelter, who replaced Kurtz at CNN and has a much larger Twitter presence, can take the time to respond to viewer questions, then Kurtz can too. Not only does he owe it to his viewers, but it will make him a better media critic in the process.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.