The Years Before Howie: When Easy Money Began to Change Journalism

By Jack Limpert

Howie Kurtz, once a great reporter for the Jack Anderson column, the Washington Star, and the Washington Post, is now drifting from CNN over to Fox News in an attempt to stay high-paid and visible. For a long time, some of his friends and admirers in DC have worried that he was spreading himself too thin, looking for the trouble that comes when a journalist stops investing enough time in real reporting.

Back in the early 1980s I got a good look at how the spreading-too-thin trend started. In the 1970s, it was easy to get newspaper reporters to do freelance pieces for The Washingtonian. If a DC reporter had an idea that wasn’t right for his newspaper and wanted to make extra money and get added visibility in the nation’s capital, The Washingtonian was happy to help. The newspaper names who wrote for us included Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, R.W. “Johnny” Apple of the New York Times, Jack Germond of Gannett, Ernest B. “Pat” Furgurson of the Baltimore Sun, Simon Winchester of the Guardian, Charley McDowell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and many others.

It was Charley who sent the message. He was one of DC’s best and wittiest writers and in the 70s became a regular on PBS’s “Washington Week in Review,” a thoughtful and popular Friday night show. In about 1981, I called him with a story idea that was right up his alley but this time didn’t get the usual enthusiastic response. The piece was going to be about 2,000 words and he asked, “How much?” I think I told him $1,500, a good freelance payment back then. His response as I recall it: “Jack, I now get at least $1,500 when I give a speech. I’m not going to work two weeks on a piece for you when I can make that much in less than a day giving a speech on a college campus.”

Print reporter gets regular TV appearances, gets lecture bookings, mostly on college campuses or trade association meetings, makes a lot of easy money, and sometimes spreads himself too thin.

In August 1983, we captured the change in a Washingtonian piece written by the great British journalist Henry Fairlie: “How Journalists Get Rich: And Why That Money Is So Corrupting.” (See note below re the Fairlie piece.) Also well-worth reading on the same subject: “The Buckrakers,” a piece by Jacob Weisberg in the January 27, 1986 New Republic.

Postscript: In re-reading this post, it seems to suggest that Charley McDowell was an early example of what has led to Howie Kurtz’s troubles. In fact, Charley stayed a terrific reporter and writer. He showed that a journalist could do a lot of talking and not lose what made him a great journalist. And as a talker, nobody did it better than Charley.

Note: The Washingtonian’s digital archives don’t go back to 1983, but here are several grafs from the Fairlie piece:

“The growth of the media has had two effects on the city.

“First, the primary activity of Washington is no longer the  government of the country through its political institutions; it now the sustaining of the illusion of  government through the media and its obedience to the media’s needs and demands.

“Second, the most certain avenue to celebrity and considerable wealth is not now in the institutions of government along Pennsylvania Avenue. It is through the intricate networks of the media.

“The people in the media dictate the terms. The people in the media make the killing. Even more than the three A’s—attorneys, accountants, and associations—that feed off the federal government, rapacious members of the media feed off every political activity. Abusing, if not manipulating, the protections of the First Amendment, prattling about the ‘public’s right to know,’ they use this city to enhance their reputations and push their incomes, first to six, and then even to seven figures.

For more on Henry Fairlie, here’s an appreciation of his life written for The New Republic in 2009 by Jeremy McCarter.



  1. Tom Shales says

    So money is corrupting to journalists? Well, that makes me one of the purest in town. I’m so uncorrupted I should change my name to Jesus H. Christ…

  2. Funny, Tom. I daresay I have managed to steer clear of the pitfalls of extreme wealth also. On Kurtz, though, he is all over the map politically and now will be heading up Fox News Watch, I heard. I used to enjoy that show, except for Judy Miller gazing around grinning. Everything changes.

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