“Some of what I found out really works in the context of a larger narrative,” said Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, “rather than wrenching it out and slamming it into a newspaper column.”
On Oct. 9, Mr. Kurtz was on the phone with The Observer, speaking about Reality Show, his 464-page tome chronicling the “last great television news war,” which hit bookstores that morning.
The book had started generating buzz two days earlier, thanks to the Drudge Report, which focused on a particular scoop that never found its way into the pages of The Post: Dan Rather, former CBS News anchor, threatened leaking the now-disputed National Guard memos to The New York Times if the 60 Minutes segment did not air.
How, then, had Mr. Kurtz been able to sit on that scoop, and others, for so long?
(Editor’s Note: It may not have been such a great scoop after all. Read about the Dan Rather story here.)
“The only way I was able to get these behind-the-scenes details, and candid conversations, was to tell people at the networks that this was a long-term project, and what they were telling me was not for the daily paper,” Mr Kurtz explained. “Had I not done that, I would have gotten the same spin everyone gets when you’re on deadline,”
“It wouldn’t have been bad in the column,” Post executive editor Leonard Downie told The Observer, “but I don’t mind having some things saved for the book.” Mr. Downie, an author himself, said he encourages Post reporters to write long-form books, and that it “makes people fuller journalists.”
For the past two years—and without taking any writing sabbatical—Mr. Kurtz has continued reporting breaking media stories for the paper while simultaneously conducting interviews with more than 125 people, on the condition that their words end up in the book, not the column.
“We had a shot at it anyway,” Mr. Downie said, of the Rather item, explaining that The Post was provided the opportunity to publish an excerpt for the Style section just prior to the pub date.
On Oct. 8, The Post ran a nearly 3,000-word Style piece by Mr. Kurtz, focusing on how the big three anchors—Charles Gibson, Brian Williams and Katie Couric—dealt with a seemingly endless war.
Indeed, Mr. Kurtz told The Observer that the “growing national division over the Iraq war provided a terrific plot line to measure what kind of influence these 6:30 newscasts still have.”
In addition, there’s been no shortage of network drama these past two years.
“My original thought was that all the network news divisions were going through this wrenching transformation, after two decades of Dan, Tom and Peter,” Mr. Kurtz said.
He continued: “It’s only after I began that Bob Woodruff was injured, Elizabeth Vargas got pregnant and Les Moonves hired Katie Couric. If you were casting a movie, you’d want those plot elements. But I didn’t know this going in.”
The last time Mr. Kurtz was similarly fortunate, he said, was when Spin Cycle, his book on the Clinton White House, was released shortly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. (Could Matt Drudge be a lucky charm?)
Throughout the project, Mr. Kurtz said, he “worked overtime” for his newspaper—both in print and online.
That’s in contrast to Mr. Kurtz’s Post colleague (and best-selling author) Bob Woodward, who maintains his title of assistant managing editor but doesn’t have to trifle much with looming deadlines at the newspaper.
When asked about the difference, Mr. Kurtz chuckled, “I need Woodward’s book contract.”