Howard Kurtz’s Bogus Conflict-of-Interest Defense

Jamison Foser

By Jamison Foser

In his Sunday column, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander addressed what he described as Post media critic Howard Kurtz’s "inescapable conflict" of interest "that is at odds with Post rules" — Kurtz’s side job as host of Reliable Sources on CNN, one of the media companies he is assigned to cover for the Post. Kurtz’s conflicts of interest are, indeed, inescapable. Worse, it often seems Kurtz doesn’t even try to escape them.

Alexander concluded his passage about Kurtz’s conflicts by rhetorically asking: "[W]ould The Post allow a reporter who covers energy to be paid on the side by a big oil company?" Presumably, the answer is clear — but that just raises another question: Why doesn’t Kurtz have to follow the rules his Post colleagues are bound by?

The biggest problem with Kurtz’s conflict of interest is not simply that it exists as a theoretical matter; it is that it clearly affects his actual reporting, despite his assertions to the contrary. Alexander quoted Kurtz defending himself: "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." Alexander added 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.’ "

It’s a shame Alexander didn’t have more space to address Kurtz’s conflict, because that defense is laugh-out-loud funny.

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?

Howard Kurtz, by the way, refuses to answer questions about this. I’ve submitted questions about Kurtz’s kid-glove treatment of Klein to more than a half-dozen of Kurtz’s weekly online Q&A sessions. He’s never taken a single one.

Note, by the way, that Kurtz went out of his way to tell Alexander that he’s as tough on the Post as he would be if he didn’t work there.

Oh, really?

Just a couple of weeks ago, news broke that Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli apparently misled The New York Times over the summer about his knowledge of the Post‘s marketing of controversial (and since abandoned) dinner parties at which corporations would pay for access to Post reporters. In his defense, Brauchli claimed he hadn’t misled the Times; the Times reporter had misunderstood him.

But then, the Politico‘s Michael Calderone revealed that Brauchli had told him the same thing he told the Times, and that Calderone had interpreted it the same way the Times had. That’s quite a blow to Brauchli’s defense — it seems improbable that two different reporters at two different news organizations misinterpreted two different Brauchli statements in precisely the same way.

Calderone tried to reach Brauchli for comment, but Brauchli wouldn’t talk to him. Brauchli did, however, give Kurtz an interview. In the article Kurtz wrote for the Post, he noted Brauchli’s assertion that the Times had misunderstood him. But Kurtz didn’t mention Calderone’s revelation that Brauchli had told him the same thing the Times said Brauchli told them.

That’s a key fact, and one that does a great deal to undermine Brauchli’s defense. But Kurtz left it out of his article. Brauchli, of course, decides whether Kurtz continues to stay on the Post‘s payroll. And now Kurtz insists that he doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to the Post. Yeah, right.

Incidentally, Kurtz won’t answer questions about his treatment of Brauchli, either. And Brauchli won’t answer questions about Calderone, or about why he would only talk to Kurtz.

Finally, Alexander noted that Kurtz "discloses his CNN affiliation at the end of his columns and relevant news stories for The Post."

But Kurtz’s disclosure is intermittent at best. In June, Alexander wrote on his blog that Kurtz had failed to disclose his relationship with CNN during an online chat in which he defended the cable channel, and that he should have done so. Kurtz "readily agreed," according to Alexander, who quoted Kurtz saying: "That was an oversight and won’t be repeated."

But Kurtz repeated the oversight almost immediately, as I noted in an August blog post:

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.

Remember: On June 17, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote that Kurtz should have disclosed his CNN connection when writing about the cable channel. He quoted Kurtz agreeing, and assuring him the "oversight" would not be repeated.

And then Kurtz went right out and did it again. And again. And again. It’s almost as though he’s thumbing his nose at Alexander.


Kurtz devotes nearly all of today’s "Media Notes" column to a profile of AOL’s Politics Daily site. AOL is owned by Time Warner, which also owns CNN, which employs Howard Kurtz. Did Kurtz disclose his financial relationship with AOL’s parent company? No, he did not.

That’s Howard Kurtz in a nutshell: Glaring financial conflicts of interest that clearly affect his reporting, which he regularly fails to disclose.

(By the way: Even if Kurtz was consistent in doing so, disclosure is inadequate. The way Kurtz’s conflict with regard to Klein’s defense of Dobbs manifested itself was in Kurtz’s failure to cover Klein. When, exactly, is Kurtz going to disclose the conflict when the issue is that he isn’t writing about Klein? And even if he did somehow disclose his employment by CNN in such a situation, how would Post readers know from that fig-leaf disclosure that Kurtz was ignoring a story that made his CNN bosses look bad?)

Apparently, when Kurtz says he’s as tough on CNN and The Washington Post as he would be if he didn’t work there, he means he’s as tough on rank-and-file reporters at CNN and the Post as he would be otherwise. But the executives at CNN and the Post who play key roles in deciding whether and how much Howard Kurtz gets paid — they’re another story entirely. Kurtz treats them like fine china: very carefully.

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.