In an age when just about anyone can be a media critic, one fish is still the biggest in the pond. It's why Howard Kurtz got a voice mail on May 26, 2003, saying, "This is Rick Bragg. I'm ready to talk."
Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times writer, had been watching his star career unravel amid charges that he'd violated the Times's reporting standards. Now he'd been suspended for two weeks. He'd called around and asked one media heavyweight after another: "Who should I talk to?" The answer: Howie Kurtz.
The message came just as Kurtz and his new bride–his second–were flying home from California the day after their wedding. He'd already spent a day before the wedding on a pay-by-the-hour computer at Kinko's writing not one but two articles while his soon-to-be-wife finished last-minute preparations. Then he reported on the Jayson Blair scandal from the wedding reception. Bride Sheri Annis might have been the new love of Kurtz's life, but he'd been wed to reporting for much longer.
Kurtz returned the Bragg call from the airport lounge. Bragg, in his thick drawl, unloaded on the "poisonous atmosphere" of the Times newsroom while Kurtz scribbled on whatever paper scraps he could find before darting onto the plane just before the door closed. On the plane Kurtz wrote the story out longhand and called the Post newsroom on the in-seat airphone to dictate it.
The final bill for the phone call from 30,000 feet would come in around $400. The Post didn't mind. Kurtz had gotten the story–again. For her patience, Sheri received a bouquet from Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr.
For nearly 30 years Kurtz has gotten the story. As the nation's preeminent media reporter for the last 15 years, he's attracted more fire and criticism than just about any Post reporter and created a byline as respected and controversial as any in journalism. He's written four books, hosts a television show on CNN, writes an online column each weekday–and still finds time to churn out more bylined articles than just about anyone else.
Born August 1, 1953, Howard Alan Kurtz grew up in a modest apartment on Batchelder Street in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay neighborhood. His father, Leonard, sold clothing for a living, and his mother, Marcia, reared "Howie" and his younger sister, Barbara. By his own account, he had an unremarkable childhood in the unremarkable postwar Brooklyn neighborhood named after a large fish that many previous residents earned a living by catching.
Growing up, he spent Saturdays visiting one grandmother or the other, both of whom lived nearby. His school days were spent earning straight A's in academics but bad marks for conduct. His teachers thought he talked too much.
At an early age Kurtz's writing energies shone through. In fourth grade he wrote and starred in a play, and five years later won the ninth-grade spelling bee. A fan of the Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Spider-Man, he drew his own comic books, some of which involved classmates and teachers, not all of whom came out looking so good.
In high school he was voted most likely to succeed–a campaign he won with signs showing a sultry model and reading "Boys! If you vote for Howie Kurtz, I'll want to thank each and every one of you personally." He also played electric organ in a rock band–he says he did a helluva rendition of "Light My Fire"–and worked odd jobs at a Baskin-Robbins, a movie theater, and as a telephone polltaker. His main interests, though, were basketball and girls–not necessarily in that order.
A half-century later, his parents still live in the same apartment they did when Kurtz was born. His sister has moved a borough over to Staten Island. Kurtz has gone further. The combination of the rough world of Brooklyn street basketball and his father's work ethic and salesmanship instilled in Kurtz a fire to perform–to always play and work harder than the next person.
Kurtz's career journey began at the State University of New York at Buffalo, a college he picked because it was the farthest he could get from home and still be in New York state. He won a scholarship that knocked $50 a year off the $400 tuition.
The campus was little different from any other in the early 1970s–student emotions ran high. The spring before Kurtz arrived, riots and disturbances rocked the campus. He joined the Spectrum, a thrice-weekly independent student paper with offices in the student union. Like many college papers at the time, it had a skeptical, anti-administration bent.
With no journalism department at Buffalo, the Spectrum served as a boot camp where 20-year-olds taught 18-year-olds how to write and report. Gary Cohn, a fellow Spectrum staffer now at the Los Angeles Times, says Kurtz "had high standards. He wanted the paper to be good and fair. I never saw anyone who could write so many stories, and good stories. I've worked with a lot of people who were fast and never seen anything like it since."
"My four years on the Spectrum is what got me into journalism–period, paragraph, end of story," Kurtz once told the SUNY-Buffalo alumni magazine. Usually attired in a T-shirt, he poured heart and soul into the paper, becoming editor his senior year.
It was a heady time to be getting into journalism: Vietnam was still roiling the country, and Watergate was beginning to unfold thanks to two Post reporters known thereafter simply as Woodward and Bernstein. As Spectrum editor, Kurtz's editorials assailed the college administration with the same fervor that they went after the Nixon administration. When Spiro Agnew resigned on October 10, 1973, Kurtz rushed an extra edition onto campus.
Perhaps the transformative moment of his college experience was when muckraking columnist Jack Anderson came to speak on campus, and Kurtz grilled the trailblazing reporter. Anderson had just won a Pulitzer Prize for the type of investigative reporting that soon would be commonplace in American journalism but at the time seemed a radical break with the establishment.
A month or so later Anderson's cowriter, Les Whitten, called and offered Kurtz an unpaid summer internship, bringing him to Washington for the summer of 1974–when Watergate boiled over and a humbled President Nixon resigned. Kurtz's magnum opus of the summer was a tough profile of White House press secretary Ron Zeigler, scheduled to appear in Anderson's column but never published because Nixon resigned.
After Anderson, Kurtz headed to Columbia Journalism School for a year and landed a job at the Bergen Record at a "princely" salary of $10,000 a year. The Record's enterprising editor, Bill McIlwain, hired young reporters–many, like Kurtz, fresh out of Columbia–assigned them a couple of Bergen County's 70 towns, and made them report the hell out of the communities, covering everything from crime to planning meetings and writing features and profiles.
McIlwain's crew of young and ambitious reporters included such names as New York Times columnist John Tierney and Washington Post London bureau chief Glenn Frankel.
Like most young reporters, Kurtz worked the night shift–5 PM to 1 AM–covering the communities of Glen Rock and Ridgewood. The newsroom of the Record, whose circulation was around 150,000, could be a strange place. Mac Borg, the paper's owner, had bought a Balao-class World War II submarine, the USS Ling, which he kept docked on the river in front of the paper's headquarters, and drove a car with a special horn that went "aaaoooooooga," just like a submarine alarm.
"Howie was among the most talented and aggressive reporters to come through there," colleague Marc Kaufman recalls.
But Kurtz's summer in Washington had given him a case of Potomac fever, and when a full-time offer came from Anderson, he happily took a pay cut to come back to Washington.
Jack Anderson's shop was a collection of journalism wunderkinds drawn to work for perhaps the nation's greatest investigative journalist, who–in addition to writing a nationally syndicated column second only in reach to Ann Landers–had a daily TV segment on Good Morning America, made regular radio appearances, and spoke around the country. During those peak years, Fox News's Brit Hume, the New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson, Gary Cohn–who won a Pulitzer for the Baltimore Sun–and the Boston Globe's Michael Kranish were among the column's reporters.
The dozen or so reporters and interns who did the grunt work for the column worked alongside Anderson and Whitten on the top two floors of a Victorian mansion on 16th Street in Northwest DC. They were a crew of half-shaven cub reporters in secondhand sport coats and casual shirts gathering dirt on the nation's powerful people and institutions, making calls over the clattering of a dozen typewriters, and running off to meet sources under suspicious circumstances.
Once Kurtz was dispatched to a street corner in Queens as part of an Anderson investigation into a counterfeiting ring. The source was to identify Kurtz by the red umbrella he was to carry, which Kurtz borrowed from his mother.
Even in an ambitious group, Kurtz stood out by producing story after story, scoop after scoop. His colleagues remember Kurtz always pressing his sources for more. He'd talk a mile a minute, finishing conversations in his rapid-fire speaking style: "Is that all you got for me? You don't have anything else?"
Although he dabbled on the side writing for the Washington Monthly and the New Republic, Kurtz says he missed writing under his own byline and left Anderson's crew to work for Washington's afternoon newspaper.
The Washington Star, headquartered in a rundown building in Southeast DC near Capitol Hill, had a hot, smoky newsroom where some veterans still kept liquor in their bottom drawers. The paper–legendary for both its tenacity and its ability to lose money–had been bought by Time Inc., which made a five-year commitment to turning the paper around. It would come as a shock when Time shuttered the paper after barely half that period. A reporter for the always-understaffed paper often found himself competing against three Post reporters for the same story. What the Star staff–including Maureen Dowd, Michael Isikoff, Gloria Borger, Lisa Myers, Jules Witcover, Jack Germond, and Mary McGrory–lacked in numbers, it made up in talent and scrappiness.
Zofia Smardz, who worked alongside Kurtz at the Star, recalls that he stood out. "He was not interested so much in climbing the ladder," she says. "He was interested in getting his name in the paper. . . . The desk would turn to him when they needed a story quickly. They knew he'd do it, and he'd get stories wherever he went."
He was a ball of energy, pumping out stories at a pace that would exhaust any two other reporters. He did everything fast–walking, talking, writing, interviewing, and reporting. "Howie already had a reputation for being a tenacious and hard-working investigative reporter," recalls Kaufman, who followed Kurtz from the Record to the Star.
Even in those days, friends would catch glimpses of Howie the Brooklyn city boy. In an article on a burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Kaufman noted that the dogwoods were in bloom. The next day, Kurtz approached him and asked, "How'd you know those were dogwoods?"
Washington became a one-newspaper town on August 7, 1981. The nation's future premier media writer was told of the demise of his own paper by a television crew that tried to interview Kurtz outside the building on his way into work. While the Star's closing cast numerous journalism careers into the gutter, Kurtz was one of eight or so Star metro writers hired by the Post's then-Metro editor, Bob Woodward.
The Post represented a more mature atmosphere–gone were the lean, sometimes sophomoric days of the Star and the unshaven counter-establishment days of Jack Anderson. One sign of the change: Kurtz's byline–previously "Howie Kurtz"–now at the suggestion of Post editors became the more respectable "Howard."
After distinguishing himself on the Metro desk, Kurtz became part of the paper's investigative-unit "SWAT team" before being traded by Woodward to then-National editor Len Downie. Over the ensuing years on the National desk, Kurtz developed a specialty in urban affairs, then turned to Capitol Hill, the Justice Department, and investigative reporting. While he occasionally felt the tug of a foreign assignment, he says he was never interested in the White House beat–too confining.
In 1987, as Kurtz wrapped up a stint covering Ed Meese's Justice Department, he applied for the post of New York bureau chief. His move to the Big Apple occasioned a shift in the Post's coverage of New York. He replaced Margot Hornblower, a Harvard-bred Roosevelt who represented–and covered–a different stratum of society than Kurtz, who, with his roots in Brooklyn and his house in Queens, lived a life apart from the Manhattan elite.
Colleagues and friends say that despite the influential niche Kurtz has today, he was never better than he was in New York. He seemed to take energy from the place, feeding off the city's glitz, glamour, and grit–using the city's verve to fuel his already high metabolism and pouring it back into the best writing of his career.
Day after day Kurtz sat in his small office, a seemingly endless supply of pizza and greasy food on his desk, working the phones and trying to make it out of the office in time for his commute back to Queens, where he lived with his first wife, Mary, and their two young daughters.
"Howard works more efficiently and energetically than any other reporter I've ever worked with," says former Post managing editor Steve Coll, who worked with Kurtz in the New York bureau. "It's almost weird. What he demonstrates is that all of the rest of us, without ever being aware of it, waste a lot of time over the course of the day."
Kurtz's tenure as New York correspondent coincided with one of the city's most raucous periods. It was the end of the old era, before the turnaround that was to come. New York was suffering the beginnings of a hangover from a decade of excess: Donald Trump was rising and falling (for the first time); the "Queen of Mean," Leona Helmsley, was making tabloid headlines; Ed Koch was having his last hurrah; and a feisty US attorney named Rudolph Giuliani was subpoenaing people left and right. Kurtz dashed around the city covering racial unrest, the soaring murder rate, plane crashes, and a string of celebrity, mob, and financial trials that kept both him and Coll busy.
In New York, Kurtz wrote a series of stories that tried to give Washingtonians a ground-eye view of life in the Big Apple: riding the subways, the deteriorating Coney Island, embattled teachers–once he returned to his native Sheepshead Bay to document its evolving character. Everywhere he looked he could find a story.
Kurtz says covering New York "may have been the most fun I've ever had in this business. . . . New York has this larger-than-life quality, where it contains all of the country's problems writ large with an extra layer of weirdness. I felt that I was in a unique position to understand New York because I'd grown up there, but I had to push myself journalistically to peel back the layers of this municipal onion."
As 1990 rolled around and Kurtz's three-year New York tour ended, he noted with interest the departure of the Post's first-ever media reporter, Eleanor Randolph. After covering New York's tabloid-driven society, the beat beckoned.
Now in his 15th year on the beat, Kurtz has built himself a powerful franchise–including not just his near-daily stories in the Post's National and Style sections but also a weekly television show on CNN and a weekday online column.
"I certainly didn't expect to stay on one beat for so long," he says. "The beat keeps changing, and I keep reinventing it in ways that keep it fresh and interesting for me."
Back in 1990, the media beat barely existed at most newspapers. The opinion of Gene Roberts, the legendary Philadelphia Inquirer editor who decried media reporting as navel-gazing, was typical. The New York Times, one of the few other papers with a media writer, focused mostly on the business side, and the Los Angeles Times's David Shaw was best known for exhaustive three-part series. Kurtz is largely credited with establishing the media as a regular day-in and day-out beat and inspiring similar reporters around the country.
Writing about "the media," loosely defined, has allowed Kurtz to tackle just about anything hot in the country–from celebrity scandals to political campaigns. The beat has carried him from the early rise of talk radio and the proliferation of cable news to the scandal-hungry press of the mid-1990s, the Clinton impeachment, the Iraq War, and the Internet and blogging revolution as well as the ongoing struggles of newspapers buffeted by sagging circulation and plagiarism charges.
Says Lloyd Grove, a former Post reporter who now writes a gossip column for the New York Daily News, "He's very much an agenda setter. . . . Everyone in the media reads Howie and cares what he writes about in terms of being in the business. From my perspective in New York, Howie's read very carefully and faithfully."
Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy who won a Pulitzer in 1987 as the New York Times' media writer, calls Kurtz the nation's "most influential media reporter. . . . I don't think anyone does what Howard Kurtz does, certainly not with the energy, zest, and passion."
Kurtz's rise came as "the media" became an ever-larger part of American life. Everyone from George W. Bush and Karl Rove to Jon Stewart and countless bloggers like Atrios and Instapundit now critique the media. This focus means Kurtz's reporting now faces a high bar–and that he faces criticism when he is perceived to fall short.
"Howie," as his friends know him, is no A.J. Liebling, the eloquent and incisive godfather of American press criticism who lorded over journalism from the perch of the Wayward Press column in the New Yorker from 1945 to 1963. In an age of punditry, Kurtz rarely pontificates; his "just the facts" writing style means few of his articles would make an anthology of creative newspaper writing.
But Kurtz has never tried to be a Liebling, and, well, Liebling was no Howard Kurtz. Over nearly two decades, Liebling wrote only 82 columns of press criticism. Including the online column he's authored for the last five years, Kurtz had more than five times as many bylines in the Post last year alone.
"I see myself as just an old-fashioned beat reporter who works the phones, calls up sources, and digs around for everything from breaking news to profiles to reported columns to behind-the-scenes reconstructions," Kurtz says.
Franklin Foer, a senior editor at the New Republic who in 2000 authored a cover story attacking Kurtz's style, says that Kurtz embodies a post-Liebling school focused less on "big think" ideas and more on ethics, reporting standards, conflicts of interest, and what Foer calls a "tedious obsession with the flow charts of big media."
"Of course Kurtz is no A.J. Liebling," counters Slate media critic Jack Shafer, "in the same way that the beat reporter is not Roger Angell writing on baseball. Roger Angell gets to write about the World Series four months after it happened, and Liebling got to pick his stories and write at length about them. Kurtz is in the trenches, like an ink-stained wretch–writing every other day, breaking stories, and adding string to stories."
As a media writer, Kurtz daily endures the truth of Edward R. Murrow's quip: "The press does not have a thick skin. It has no skin."
"The plain fact is that most journalists love asking questions and hate answering them," Kurtz says. "Many would call and complain about minor details in a story without seeming to realize that they were merely on the receiving end of a process that they inflict on others every day."
The conflict Kurtz faces in covering the media is evident from where he sits in the belly of the media beast. Kurtz's desk, in the center of the Post's fifth-floor newsroom, looks like it would qualify for federal disaster aid: Papers, newspapers, and magazines cover every surface, and a small TV brings him the latest cable news.
"When bad things happen in journalism," he says, "it's good for my beat . . . but in another way it kind of eats away at me because it's bad for this profession that I love. During the time I've done this, I've had to watch the business plummet in public esteem–which is bad for anyone in journalism–largely, in my view, because of a seemingly endless series of self-inflicted wounds."
Over the last 15 years, many journalists with unraveling careers have heard his rapid-fire greeting when they answered the phone. The list of casualties is long: Jack Kelley and Tom Squitieri of USA Today, Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg of the New York Times, Stephen Glass of the New Republic, Barbara Stewart from the Boston Globe, and others.
Some of Kurtz's stories are now the stuff of legend. In 1994, CBS reprimanded Mike Wallace in response to Kurtz's inquiry about the 60 Minutes correspondent's using a hidden camera to tape a conversation with a journalist who had come to his office. In 1997, Kurtz broke the story that blogger Matt Drudge had falsely accused then-White House aide Sidney Blumenthal of beating his wife and that Blumenthal planned to sue the online journalist. Speaking to Kurtz, Drudge retracted the story. In 2000, Kurtz touched off a flap by reporting that ABC News had sent Leonardo DiCaprio to interview President Clinton.
Over the last 15 years, Kurtz has written four books examining the media industry. His first, 1993's Media Circus: The Trouble With America's Newspapers, is still assigned reading in many journalism classes, and his two latest have seemed curiously topical: His tome on the Clinton administration and the press, Spin Cycle, was turned in ten days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, and his latest, 2000's The Fortune Tellers, which looked at the world of high-stakes finance and financial reporting, ended up coming to a conclusion just as the Internet boom collapsed. He wrote all four books without taking leave from his Post duties.
Colleagues and observers say that through his online column, Kurtz has made himself a model for multimedia reporting–demonstrating that working on the Web is not a zero-sum game where any effort there takes away from reporting. He's used his online column to open up a conversation with hundreds of bloggers, aggressively inserting himself into a still-young medium where few reporters have trod.
For his part, Kurtz says that the rise of millions of bloggers–many of whom delight in kicking him and others in the media around–is healthy. "One of the reasons I think there's so much resentment toward the mainstream press is that people think that we're arrogant, remote, and reluctant to admit mistakes, and there's a lot of truth in that. To the extent to which bloggers and others have helped fill the vacuum, it's taken the mainstream press down a peg, and I don't think that's a bad thing."
Despite his multimedia agenda-setting power, Kurtz has remained something of an enigma. He's never been extensively profiled or, except by Foer, extensively critiqued by other mainstream journalists. That's not to say that he has escaped controversy. He's one of the most controversial reporters working in America today.
Fellow journalists will criticize Kurtz over a cocktail at a reception or complain about him in an e-mail, but few will go on the record with comments about what they see as his conflicts of interest at CNN and the Post or their gripes about unfair treatment in one story or another. Steven Brill, the former editor of Brill's Content, a magazine that focused on the media, explains: "The mainstream press never criticizes the mainstream press." With the recent rise of blogging, though, some critics have grown less circumspect.
Kurtz's critics on both the right and the left regularly accuse him of bias–the charges differing according to which party is in power. Conservatives harangued him for being "soft" on the Clinton administration, while liberal bloggers today attack what they argue is a rightward tilt–as partial evidence, they point out that his new wife, Sheri, worked in Republican politics. (To limit charges of conflict, she gave up all partisan activities when she married Kurtz.) Eric Alterman's 2003 book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, devotes nearly ten pages to exposing what he says is Kurtz's conservative bias.
Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, says he believes that people project ideological points of view onto Kurtz because he provides so little to go on. Colleagues who have worked alongside him for decades say they can't discern Kurtz's political leanings.
"What I'm not, and this seems to disappoint people on both the left and the right, is a super-opinionated ideologue who is going to tear down news organizations because they don't see the world as I do," Kurtz says. "I think that most people appreciate that I try as best I can to do my job straight down the middle, not lean to any ideological side or another, and while I'm not perfect, I make an honest attempt to hold journalists accountable."
The approach is both Kurtz's strength and his weakness. "To the degree that he's a press critic," Slate's Shafer says, "I think he reflects the standard norms of our profession–don't plagiarize, don't make things up, be accurate, be fair, concede error, don't be in the tank for anybody."
Kurtz's greatest cross to bear is the conflict that the Post's media writer is also a paid commentator for CNN. Since 1998 he has hosted CNN's weekly media-affairs show, Reliable Sources, where he and a slate of guests chew over the media stories of the moment–from the 2000 election debacle to the Iraq War to Jon Stewart's evisceration of CNN's own Crossfire.
Kurtz's work ethic carries over to television, where he's had a perfect attendance record, hosting all 52 shows a year. When his latest child was born on a Friday, he was in the anchor chair on Sunday. People who work with him at CNN say he's involved in every aspect of the show, from booking guests to writing scripts. The show displays some of the lack of polish that makes Kurtz a newspaperman: He reads notes off a clipboard and fiddles with his earpiece.
Critics say that Kurtz's dual roles at CNN and the Washington Post compromise his integrity. How can he cover CNN for the Post while the network pays him and also critique the Post, his full-time employer, on TV? "It's an ethical scandal that he's allowed to work that beat," Alterman says.
Kurtz's backers argue that he fully discloses both roles–including a disclaimer in his Post articles that deal with CNN. "Any media reporter is going to be different from all other reporters in that they work for a media organization, so whether or not he's working for CNN, he's already working for the Washington Post. You're going to have to cover someone who pays you," says Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. "Howie has demonstrated in the way that he covers this newspaper that he has no conflict covering an employer. . . . When we agreed to let him go work for CNN, I expected that he'd be able to treat that employer as a reporter in the same way that he treats the Washington Post–and he has."
Other defenders note that Kurtz has not hesitated on his CNN show to air the cable network's dirty laundry, including the Tailwind report, an inaccurate story about nerve gas in Vietnam that the network was forced to retract, and the controversy surrounding CNN executive Eason Jordan's comments about the military's targeting journalists in Iraq.
As in the Jordan incident, Kurtz is often the first to report on a burgeoning scandal, but his in-the-trenches style of reporting, heavy on quotes and context, means his articles lack the condemnation desired by people calling for someone's head on a platter. Mickey Kaus, whose blog on Slate has been highly critical of Kurtz, says that Kurtz is often able to provide cover for CNN or the Post by jumping on stories as they break and allowing his reporting to serve as a type of neutral damage control.
It's not that he's easy on fallen journalists, his supporters say–he just strives to be fair. "You can always deal with Kurtz, because you know you're not going to get sand-bagged," says former hedge-fund manager and CNBC host Jim Cramer, who was one of the key players in Kurtz's book The Fortune Tellers. "He's not trying to make his career by destroying you. He doesn't abuse you. . . . That's not how he views journalism–he views it as trying to get the story out."
Media critic Brill says that although he's never seen evidence of bias in Kurtz's reporting, the arrangement just doesn't pass the smell test. "It's an impossible conflict for him to have outside income–and perhaps the bulk of his outside income–come from CNN at the same time that he covers CNN for the Washington Post. I don't know why the Washington Post would allow that any more than they would allow someone covering the automobile industry to work for GM." Both Kurtz and CNN declined to release salary information.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who overlapped with Kurtz in Anderson's shop, says that whatever appearance of conflict might exist, Kurtz's track record is solid. "There's an inherent appearance of conflict when you cover the industry, and the way to overcome it is the proof is in the pudding. . . . I don't think anyone has credibly leveled the charge that he's pulled a punch on either CNN or at the Post."
Beyond CNN, a more complicated issue of disclosure arises from the double-edged sword of Kurtz's record tenure in the beat. Few other media writers or ombudsmen in the country are granted lifetime tenure as the industry's internal-affairs bureaus–both because few want to spend that long writing about their colleagues and because most newspapers like to rotate their posts to keep the reporting fresh and conflict-free. For Kurtz, as much as it has made him an institution in media circles, his long tenure has also meant that he has developed a history with those he covers.
In the small circles of the nation's elite media, rare is the journalist to whom Kurtz doesn't have extensive, complicated ties, from his boss, Downie–who rejected Kurtz the first time he applied to work at the paper in the mid-1970s and later brought Kurtz to the National staff in the early 1980s–to Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, who came under fire in May after the magazine retracted an item he wrote about prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Isikoff worked alongside Kurtz at the Washington Star before being hired by the Post in 1981 in the same wave as Kurtz.
Thus on the same day Kurtz the media reporter wrote his second large story on the Newsweek retraction, he was described in the New York Times as a "friend" of Isikoff's and quoted about him. Kurtz objected to the characterization, and the Times writer privately apologized, saying that he was just trying to convey that the two have shared a quarter century of Washington journalism. The incident, though, illustrated the thin line between reporter/colleague and friend/critic that Kurtz walks on a daily basis.
In a similarly incestuous article, for reaction to May's revelation of the identity of Deep Throat, Kurtz quoted Rosenstiel (his old Anderson colleague), Bob Woodward (who hired Kurtz at the Post in 1981), former executive editor Ben Bradlee (Kurtz's former boss), and Downie (Kurtz's current boss). In classic Kurtz fashion, he was on vacation in California when the story broke; he wrote two articles and an online column, hosted a chat from Malibu, and did five live shots on CNN from Sunset Boulevard.
Kurtz has managed to stay ahead of his detractors in part by being prolific. He writes so often on so many topics that he can't ever be accused of ignoring a story. His work ethic is so legendary that when Coll became the Post's managing editor, he discussed Kurtz's time-management techniques in roundtables at the paper.
Kurtz attributes his work ethic to his upbringing. "I got where I am through hard work. When you grow up playing basketball on the streets of Brooklyn and your father is a hard-working clothing salesman . . . the only way to climb that ladder is to start on the bottom rung and try to outclimb everyone else. I probably feel that working hard is part of my core identity, and one of the reasons I've managed to stay in the game."
To the extent that he has a life outside of work, Kurtz's revolves around his family. He has come a long way from his $10,000-a-year salary at the Bergen Record. His salaries at the Post and CNN and royalties from his books probably afford him a nicer lifestyle than he pursues. After remarrying in 2003, Kurtz bought a comfortable but hardly grand house for $785,000 in Chevy Chase, where he and Sheri entertain friends with barbecues and dinner. Friends say he dresses much better now thanks to his years on television but note that, even when he's dressed up for Reliable Sources, Kurtz still manages to look slightly disheveled.
His wife is an outgoing and athletic Californian who friends say has reenergized Kurtz and even enticed him to show up at a few parties. Of his two daughters from his first marriage, Bonnie, 19, will be a sophomore at McGill University, and Judy, 21, looks to be following in her father's footsteps: She's majoring in journalism at NYU and interning here this summer for WRC Channel 4. Kurtz says his youngest daughter, Abby, born in November, has less interest in the media: The one time she watched her dad's show, she fell asleep.
Following an angioplasty in 1997, Kurtz has cleaned up his life. Gone are the days of New York pizzas; in their place is a giant bottle of water and lots of heart-healthy salmon. Never beefy, he lost weight and has retained his rail-thin physique ever since. His metabolism, though, has never slowed. He still walks, talks, and writes fast. Colleagues joke that most mornings his online column–written from home–is posted by the time they are eating breakfast, and he's always one of the earliest at his desk.
For all his scoops and years on the beat, even people who have known him for decades have trouble recalling stories about Kurtz. "Howie's not someone to whom 'anecdote' naturally attaches itself," says Lloyd Grove. "He's not colorful; he doesn't drink; he doesn't have any unique characteristics other than a very incisive and short attention span. He's all about getting his work done."
"Don't tell anyone I work for," Kurtz says, "but I'd probably do it for free. I love to write, and I like to get people to tell me things. I like storytelling. It seems to be part of my DNA."