Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Media meanness: When the nastiness goes too far

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
November 28, 2012 -- Updated 2059 GMT (0459 HKT)
The media's treatment of Paula Broadwell, pictured with David Petraeus, took on a nasty tone, says Howard Kurtz.
The media's treatment of Paula Broadwell, pictured with David Petraeus, took on a nasty tone, says Howard Kurtz.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: NY Times' slash-and-burn review of restaurant fed appetite for meanness
  • He says media, politicians take advantage of public's interest in nasty attacks
  • Kurtz: Public figures from Donald Trump to members of Congress revel in nastiness
  • He says media players such as Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Ed Schultz take part

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- About halfway through The New York Times review of TV chef Guy Fieri's Manhattan restaurant, I realized that the author was wielding a meat cleaver.

Maybe it was Pete Wells' description of the chicken tenders as containing a "shiny tissue of breading that exudes grease onto the plate." Or the "ghostly nubs of unblackened, unspiced white meat" in the Cajun Chicken Alfredo. Or the comparison of Fieri to the writer Calvin Trillin -- if Trillin "bleached his hair, drove a Camaro and drank Boozy Creamsicles."

It was at once delicious and stomach-churning -- a perfect reflection of our rip-their-lungs-out culture.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Let's face it: Media meanness sells. Why slice someone with a surgical precision when you can whack him upside the head with a 2-by-4?

Watch: Why Matt Lauer Is getting a bum rap from mean folks on Twitter

We've all enjoyed the guilty pleasure of seeing some author, actor or filmmaker eviscerated for the sheer sport of it. Good reviews are fine, but what really stirs the water-cooler talk is when the critic draws blood.

But has this trend gone too far in an age when anyone can instantaneously diss anyone else with a single mouse click? Does it amount to pandering to our collective mean gene?

Some public figures revel in the insult wars. Donald Trump has called Rosie O'Donnell "a big fat pig," among other choice phrases, and she's said he keeps returning "like a raging herpes rash." It's a cheap way of getting attention. And the thing is, it works.

Watch: Is it time for Chelsea Clinton, gay marriage activist, to leave NBC?

The most popular pundits on television tend to be pugilists who draw cheers from their partisans for punching out the other guy's lights. When Bill O'Reilly denounces pinheads and loons, his fans eat it up.

Rush Limbaugh caused a furor by calling Sandra Fluke a slut; he later apologized. Ed Schultz called Laura Ingraham a right-wing slut and did the same. Glenn Beck dubbed Barack Obama a racist and his ratings kept climbing. Nice guys don't necessarily finish first.

The virus long ago spread to the political realm.

Watch: Why Rupert Murdoch and other cranky CEOs tweet garbage

Republican Congressman Joe Wilson yelled "you lie!" during President Barack Obama's September 2009 speech to Congress on health care and then used the incident for fundraising. Another congressman, Democrat Alan Grayson, said the Republican health plan was to hope that sick people "die quickly"; he lost the next election but just won his seat back. Yet another congressman, Allen West, called his Florida colleague Debbie Wasserman Schultz "vile" and "not a lady"; he lost his seat during a recount.

Watch: Sex and Sesame Street -- are the media exploiting the Elmo tragedy?

The media, without question, reward incendiary soundbites and intemperate language. That's what keeps the bookers calling, and the resulting visibility can prompt donors to keep writing checks.

Maybe Twitter has played a role in fostering succinct snarkiness. Everyone tries to break through the static and get retweeted.

The new nastiness is evident in scandal coverage as well.

While former CIA director David Petraeus has largely been portrayed as a flawed hero who made a tragic mistake, many in the media have cast Paula Broadwell as a harlot, using lust to achieve her ambition by bringing down a great man. Broadwell, a former senior Army captain, did some dumb things, such as sending harassing e-mails anonymously but doesn't it take two to tango?

The same goes for Jill Kelley, the Tampa socialite who engaged in voluminous e-mail correspondence with Gen. John Allen. Kelley, who volunteered for military causes, is being dismissed in media accounts as a ditzy social climber and worse.

Watch: Lasting leak -- Why Romney's 'gifts' comments diminish him

Meanness wouldn't sell unless there was a market for it. Maybe watching others get sliced and diced makes us feel better about ourselves. Maybe it's just today's version of bread and circuses. And it's a game anyone can play. Ever peruse the comments section on major websites? Readers often start ripping each other as morons and dupes within minutes after a story is posted.

It would be nice if folks with access to the biggest megaphones didn't cater to the lowest common denominator. But that's not the world in which we live.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2311 GMT (0711 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT