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Think Again: The Neverending Scandal of Howard Kurtz and The Washington Post

SOURCE: AP/Kathy Willens

Howard Kurtz, left, shakes hands with Bob Schieffer as they arrive for Walter Cronkite's funeral on July 23, 2009. Kurtz is employed by The Washington Post and CNN, but has frequently failed to disclose this.

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Back in mid-September, I received an e-mail from The Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander asking me to give him a call about some of the issues I’ve been raising here and elsewhere about Howard Kurtz’s myriad conflicts of interest for a column Alexander planned to write. When I returned his call, however, he had already changed his mind—as is his right, of course—and decided to criticize his newspaper for not paying more attention to the kinds of issues raised by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, particularly the ACORN story.

Alexander and I did not end up speaking but he did decide to address himself to Kurtz last week. He did so in the context of first raising another alleged conflict of interest—the fact that Post reporter Juliet Eilperin covers climate change while being married to a part-time Center for American Progress Senior Fellow who also works on the issue. Alexander did not point to any actual examples where her coverage might have been compromised. He just wondered if the marriage of a reporter and a part-time CAP Senior Fellow, interested in the same things, is a conflict all by itself. (Disclosure: I do not recall ever having met either party involved, and I take no position on whether or not it constitutes a conflict.)

What I found most interesting about this context for a discussion of Kurtz, however, is the fact that Alexander never mentions that Kurtz is a married spouse with political, financial, and ideological interests in his wife’s work. I mean this literally. Kurtz is married to former Republican political consultant, Sheri Annis. He frequently writes about her former and potential clients. And yet one rarely if ever sees any disclosure. (On one occasion, on CNN, Kurtz when so far as to interview and plug an author as a “remarkable woman” who was actually paying his wife—through a cutout—to promote the author’s book. He added, “I should mention that my wife has done some promotion work for Kim Dozier’s book.”)

Alexander devotes himself instead to the fact Kurtz’s job as the paid host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” “presents an inescapable conflict that is at odds with Post rules. They state that a reporter or editor ‘cannot accept payment from any person, company, or organization that he or she covers.’ There can be exceptions for some groups, such as broadcast organizations, ‘unless the reporter or editor is involved in coverage of them.’”

Kurtz operates on the basis of a waver given to him by previous Post Executive Editor Len Downie, which allows him to ignore this explicit rule. I asked Downie about this once, and he took refuge in the argument that all media reporters are engaged in various conflicts of interest, and the best one could hope for is full disclosure. Kurtz defends himself by claiming to be a tough-minded, no-nonsense reporter who has nothing to hide. Alexander quotes him saying “My track record makes clear that I’ve been as aggressive toward CNN—and The Washington Post, for that matter—as I would be if I didn’t host a weekly program there.” The ombudsman adds that Kurtz discloses his CNN affiliation at the end of his columns and relevant news stories for The Post. And he’s identified with The Post on “Reliable Sources.” Alexander decides just to leave it at that.

While I sadly admire Alexander’s work sometimes—and sometimes not—I can’t help but feel that he purposely punted this time, deciding for some reason to allow Kurtz’s defense to stand even though he knows it to be false.

Leave aside the many, many examples of Kurtz’s conflict corrupting his coverage pointed out by Slate’s Mickey Kaus here, here, here, here, and here, or by Bill Wyman here and here, let’s just discuss those that have occurred since June 17 of this year, when Alexander cited a letter I wrote him in a blog item noting that Kurtz had failed to mention his paycheck from CNN when offering up a rather shocking defense of CNN’s noncoverage of the Iranian elections.

Then, as always, Kurtz called it an oversight and promised not to let it happen again. But of course it did, many times over. I wrote that up here and here. And more significantly, just a couple of weeks after Kurtz promised his ombudsman to try to do better, the Media Matters blog County Fair noted the following:

“Kurtz was slow to address what was a raging media story; when he finally did, he omitted any mention of CNN president Jonathan Klein’s endorsement of Dobbs’ Birther conspiracy theories. To this day, Kurtz has still never mentioned Klein’s defense of Dobbs—a defense which is not only inconsistent with Kurtz’s own criticism of the Birther nonsense, but is inaccurate, as well.

"That’s a huge, glaring, undeniable conflict of interest, and one well worth the attention of the Post ombudsman. But here’s something else: When Kurtz has written about Dobbs and CNN in recent weeks, he has failed to disclose his ties to CNN.

"In a July 22 Media Notes column, Kurtz mentioned Dobbs in a section on birthers—but Kurtz didn’t disclose his financial relationship with CNN.

"In an August 3 Media Notes column, Kurtz mentioned Dobbs in a section on birthers—but Kurtz didn’t disclose his financial relationship with CNN.

"In an August 3 ‘Media Backtalk’ online discussion, Kurtz answered two questions that referenced CNN and three that referenced Dobbs. But Kurtz never disclosed his financial relationship with CNN."

And just recently a correspondent sent me a note pointing out that Kurtz had actually changed his identification on one Post column, after it was printed, to remove the word “paid” before the words “contributor to CNN” to perhaps imply that there is no conflict at all. After all, if no money is changing hands, then what’s the big deal?

What’s more, the problem is much larger than simply Kurtz’s dishonesty about his relationship with CNN (and his lack of disclosure in the Post). As the journalism professor Edward Wasserman writes in The Miami Herald in a column critical of Kurtz, “What makes conflicts of interest so insidious is that their effect may be impossible to catalogue. They make themselves felt not in clear-cut favoritism but through impaired judgment: The stories that are skipped, or the elements of stories that are done that are omitted or downplayed.”

In recent weeks, Columbia Journalism Review critic Michael Massing has noted, in a recent column called “Howard Kurtz: Missing in Action?” that Kurtz cannot bring himself to criticize the outrageous lies told by Fox News anchors in their war with the White House—indeed, cannot even accept the notion that there is anything funny going on at Fox at all.

Kurtz’s view, he says, “is that they control no votes, no factions, no military units, but they do have powerful microphones. Whatever influence wielded by Beck and Hannity or Limbaugh (or by commentators on the other side) stems from their ideas and their talents as infotainers. If they peddle misinformation and exaggerations, that can be neutralized by others in the media marketplace.”

But Massing quite properly retorts: “Gee, Howard, I would have thought that the main job of a media reporter would be to expose the misinformation and exaggerations peddled by news organizations. Why cede the job to the ‘media marketplace’ (whatever that is)? I would expect The Washington Post to be one place we could look to for a thoughtful, well-researched analysis of the performance of a network like Fox.” Massing then goes on to praise the comedian Jon Stewart for giving CNN’s competitors and CNN itself the kind of coverage that is literally unimaginable from this tough-talking reporter.

And if you think that’s an isolated incident, what about this one recently discussed in a blog post by Media Matters’ Jamison Foser:

“Kurtz spent a good chunk of the summer writing about media coverage of the right-wing birther conspiracy theories, of which he was critical. The most prominent media figure who regularly hyped those conspiracy theories was CNN’s Lou Dobbs. To his credit, Kurtz occasionally criticized Dobbs. And when CNN president Jonathan Klein appeared to rebuke Dobbs, sending out a memo to CNN staff saying the story was dead, Kurtz mentioned that on his CNN program. But when Klein changed his mind and defended Dobbs’ coverage as ‘legitimate’ and slammed Dobbs’ critics as ‘partisans,’ Kurtz kept quiet.

"Kurtz, remember, was one of those Dobbs critics; but he never said a word about Klein’s flip. He didn’t even report Klein’s comments. For several weeks over the summer, the birther conspiracy theories were the biggest media story out there. And the president of the nation’s oldest cable news channel was defending a star anchor’s relentless hyping of those conspiracy theories. And Howard Kurtz thought that anchor’s coverage was “ludicrous.”

"But Kurtz kept his mouth shut about Klein. Didn’t say anything, didn’t write anything. Klein, of course, signs Kurtz’s CNN paychecks.

"Even more incredibly, Kurtz slammed CNN competitors like MSNBC for supposedly keeping the story alive. The MSNBC reporters to whom Kurtz was referring were debunking the birther nonsense. Kurtz’s boss at CNN was defending Lou Dobbs’ promotion of those theories as “legitimate.” And yet Kurtz criticized CNN rival MSNBC, while giving Klein a pass. (More here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

"Is it even possible not to think that the fact Klein is Kurtz’s boss had a little something to do with that?"

The fact is Howard Kurtz is compromised by his CNN paycheck every time he mentions either the network or one of its competitors, and often times when he does not. Cable coverage in this country is a scandal and the most powerful and influential media critic in the business does not think it’s worth examining.

The Washington Post’s credibility as an organization is currently at low ebb. Not only did its relatively new and inexperienced publisher, Katherine Weymouth, try to trade on the good name of its reporters by selling access to fat cats through a series of proposed sponsored salons—costing between $25,000 and $250,000 a pop—but its new and extremely experienced executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, misled reporters when he claimed that he did not know that these salons were to be off the record. (Kurtz was beaten on this story by Politico and on the false claim by Brauchli by The New York Times.) It employs a media critic whose every word is compromised by the paycheck he received from CNN and who refuses to disclose that relationship when he finds it inconvenient. And it now has an ombudsman who would prefer not to look too deeply into that conflict for reasons he, too, did not explain.

Is it any wonder that mainstream media institutions like The Washington Post continue to lose not only the dollars but also the trust of their readers? If we can’t trust them to be honest about themselves, then why should we trust them about our president? And does anyone at the Post care enough about its reputation to finally address this situation and restore some confidence in the paper’s willingness to stand by its own rules of ethics?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. He does not recall ever having met Howard Kurtz, though they may have talked on the phone.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

For more from the same column, click here