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When Critics Are Really Pumpkins


Manus manum lavat. It means, roughly, “one hand washes the other.” The phrase appeared for the first time in a play by Seneca in which he ridiculed the culture of corruption that had settled in during the reign of Gaius Claudius Caesar. Seneca called the play Apocolocyntosis, which could be rendered into English as Turning into a Pumpkin. His point was simple: the integrity of things and people is essential. We shouldn’t hold ourselves out to be one thing and really be something else. For Seneca the phrase manus manum lavat explained “the way the world works,” but there’s something a little sleazy and dishonest about it—a lack of integrity, or honesty to one’s beliefs, a sort of minor moral compromise.

A critic sells the world his honest assessment of things, so a critic should be outside of the morals of the marketplace, the world of “one hand washes the other.” But of course there are true critics, and then there are those who bill and peddle themselves as critics without really observing the professional detachment and distance that the ethics of this calling command.

After watching Howard Kurtz appear on the Daily Show on Thursday evening, I started looking about for reviews to try to get a better take on what his book was about. I do watch Kurtz on CNN and read his Washington Post column from time to time, so I have a pretty good sense of what to expect.

And then I stumbled across something pretty strange. I found Rachel Sklar’s “Ringside at the Reality Show” over at the Huffington Post. Sklar’s piece is a drooling, fawning blurb-like emission. In fact, had it been authored by Kurtz’s own PR agent, I can’t imagine he’d have changed a comma. Of course, Sklar hasn’t really read Kurtz’s book (other than the first 7500 words, she says), but her praise couldn’t be stronger:

it looks to be a thoroughly engrossing, engaging and more than occasionally juicy read.

Sklar then gives us a plate filled with “juicy bites” from the book she hasn’t read. And it closes with a hard push to close the sale:

There’s more—and apparently it’s already available at your bookstore! So go buy it, or don’t and wait for the juicy bits to leak out on your favorite blog.

But wait a minute, I thought, this couldn’t be the same Rachel Sklar who ferociously trashed Howard Kurtz and the key ideas in his book back last year? Could there be two Rachel Sklars, both writing for Huffington Post? Am I hallucinating? So I went back and pulled up the writing of evil-twin-Rachel Sklar. And there it was, just as I remember it. Sklar describes an episode of Kurtz’s CNN show which, as it turns out, provides the core thesis of his new book:

It was an emotionally charged show, discussing last week’s awful attack on a CBS news team in Iraq which killed cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan and critically wounded correspondent Kimberly Dozier. NBC correspondent Richard Engel talked graphically about witnessing the horrors of war, getting used to hearing about atrocities: “[J]ust today I was reading reports that eight Iraqi heads were found severed in fruit baskets in Baquba… When I heard it, I’ve heard so many reports like this, I didn’t even bat an eye.” The program also discussed the Haditha massacre, unrest and violence in Afghanistan, and the fact that Bush flat-out lied about soon-to-be-departing Treasury Secretary John Snow. This is “Reliable Sources” for Sunday, June 4, 2006.

Which is why my mouth literally dropped open when halfway through the program, Kurtz came out with this:

“Coming up in the next half hour of “Reliable Sources”: with rising casualties in Iraq and sinking poll numbers, is the president having a terrible year, or are the media just making it seem that way?”

Excuse me? Is this dude on drugs? The framing of this question is so biased, so skewed, and such a blatant, scapegoating stretch that I genuinely can’t believe Kurtz had the audacity to say it on the air in a show with the word “reliable” in it. This is even worse blame-the-media-mongering than his recent adoption of the journalists-are-ignoring-good-news-from-Iraq argument, for which he got a well-deserved smackdown from CBS’ Lara Logan. Why? Because it’s actually the SAME blame-the-media-mongering that he’s been pushing, except now instead of being blamed for bad news in Iraq Kurtz is blaming his fellow journalists for bad news about the Bush administration. After the break he goes on to frame the issue:

”Day after day the news from Iraq is consistently negative. Car bombs, roadside explosions and now disturbing allegations about the role of U.S. troops in the death of Iraqi civilians. President Bush’s popularity is inextricably linked to developments in Iraq. His poll numbers have been low for months. Some Republicans are criticizing him on other issues, such as immigration, and the press seems to be constantly beating him up. Are the media accurately reflecting an administration that’s lost its way or just piling on an embattled president?”

Notice that he frames the issue in terms of Iraq, throwing a few general comments in there providing no other context or even a shred of evidence that the coverage amounts to “piling on” rather than, you know, “coverage.” Despite lipservice to “other issues” if you read the transcript you’ll see that the terms of the discussion deal exclusively with events in Iraq, with spin courtesy of former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke and The Nation’s Katrina Vanden Heuvel pointing out that, you know, this stuff is actually happening.

Sometime between last June and the first week of October, “is this dude on drugs” turned into “exciting,” “juicy” and “wonderful.” Now that’s a remarkable odyssey.

What might have happened? Well, cruising through the records of Kurtz’s program and his column, I found something interesting. First, it seems, Rachel Sklar was invited to Kurtz’s show as a guest, showing up in transcripts several times in the course of this past summer. Second, Howie wrote a piece about Sklar in his column at the Washington Post. It’s an over-the-top puff piece filled with product placement, which makes clear that Kurtz paid a call on Sklar in her office in New York:

In the high-ceilinged SoHo offices that once housed an art gallery, Rachel Sklar is juggling a slew of stories destined for the virtual pages of the Huffington Post.

There’s her interview with author Gay Talese, an analysis of the Obama Girl video spoof, a look at all the iPhone hype and an assessment of Us Weekly’s bold publication of a Paris Hilton-free issue. Sklar’s provocative writing has drawn the attention of New York’s gossip blogs (which keep obsessing on her bosom). “Everyone’s amused by the attention I get,” says Sklar, who edits the Eat the Press section. “I’m 34. If it’s going to immortalize me as an ingenue, that’s fine.”

But Kurtz’s headline tells it all: “A Blog That Made It Big.” Of course, the blog features everything that Kurtz loves: hard left politics, anti-war rhetoric, feminist perspectives, and acid criticism of Howard Kurtz . . . or it did. Is it cynical to be suspicious of the dealings that produced a love-fest between Rachel Sklar and Howard Kurtz? Or perhaps it’s just an unreasonable expectation–namely, critics who are actually critical.

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