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
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT