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Media meanness: When the nastiness goes too far

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 3:59 PM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
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.

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

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