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Why it matters that media critic Howard Kurtz apologized for Jason Collins mistake on CNN today

Media writers Dylan Byers (left) and David Folkenflik (center) question host Howard Kurtz about his recent mistakes on CNN's Reliable Sources this morning.

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Media writers Dylan Byers (left) and David Folkenflik (center) question host Howard Kurtz about his recent mistakes on CNN's Reliable Sources this morning.

In today’s super-competitive media environment, when big media outlets or news stars make a mistake, we’re used to seeing a carefully-crafted statement released expressing sorrow and apology and little else to provide context or detail.

That’s why it was so striking this morning to see media critic Howard Kurtz face two fellow media reporters on his CNN show Reliable Sources, answering questions in a 15-minute segment about the circumstances which led him to make a hugely embarrassing mistake just he was ousted from his job on Thursday as Washington bureau chief at the Daily Beast/Newsweek websites.

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For civilians – folks who don’t work in media or don’t spend great gobs of time reading up on the ins and outs of big news outlets – it might seem baffling that this is considered big news.

After all, major media outlets have misreported the identity of the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary, misreported how many people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing and misreported the appearance and arrest of the brothers suspected of carrying out the bombing.

But Kurtz’s mistakes – erroneously saying an NBA player didn’t mention he had once been engaged to a woman in an essay admitting his homosexuality and developing an unclear relationship with a new website called the Daily Download – strike at the heart of the challenges and temptations facing every journalist in the modern age.

As media fragments more and profits get tighter, media stars wind up working for a wider variety of news outlets to maximize their earnings and career potential.

But when, like Kurtz, you’re balancing a TV show, videos and columns for two different websites and work leading the Washington bureau of a major online newsmagazine, questions about workload and interest conflicts are bound to surface – especially when big mistakes happen.

“This time, the media mistake was mine,” Kurtz admitted at the show’s start. “(It was) a big mistake; more than one, in fact.”

Kurtz began the show apologizing for mistakenly saying and writing that NBA player Jason Collins didn’t disclose he was engaged to a woman in a first-person essay revealing his homosexuality. Kurtz suggested Collins hadn’t been entirely honest with the public, when the player had mentioned his former fiancée in both his essay and an interview with ABC News.

The error, made in a Wednesday Daily Beast column and a video for Daily Download, sparked a frenzy on Twitter and online media. But it might have remained a footnote if the Daily Beast hadn’t also announced Thursday that it was cutting ties with Kurtz, who had been hired there as Washington bureau chief in 2010 after 29 years at the Washington Post.

Though Kurtz immediately denied on Twitter that his departure was related to the mistake, other news outlets said he had been “fired” amid growing friction with the website’s managers. This morning’s segment was the first time the media critic had spoken publicly at length about what happened. 

He blamed his mistake on reading over Collins’ essay too fast, admitting he’d erred by: a) not giving Collins a chance to respond to his criticism, b) joking about the issue during a video he recorded, and c) offering an initial correction which didn’t fully admit just how wrong he was about it all.

“For all those reasons, I apologize, to reader, to viewers and to Jason Collins and his ex-fiancee,” Kurtz said.

Then he did something quite remarkable in media. He tuned over the questioning to two other reporters, David Folkenflik from NPR and Dylan Byers from POLITICO, allowing them to ask pointed questions about the Collins mistake and Kurtz’s relationship to The Daily Download. 

Byers noted that Kurtz had committed several high profile mistakes in the past. He’d written a Daily Beast article filled with quotes attributed to U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, only to learn he had actually talked to Issa’s aide; Newsweek retracted a quote he attributed to Nancy Pelosi in a different story and he’d edited a quote into a story making it seem Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren had made fun of Hillary Clinton’s health problems when she hadn’t.

“If you didn’t learn from the issue with Congressman Issa and you didn’t learn from the issue with Pelosi and you didn’t learn from the issue with Van Susteren, why should we believe that you will learn from this issue?” Byers asked.

“I would say we’re talking about a small minority of cases,” he said at one point in the interview. A little later  he said: “I have worked very hard over the course of three decades to establish credibility. People are going to have to make their own judgments about weighing the occasional mistakes versus what I have done.”

Kurtz is considered the nation’s highest profile media critic, hosting a weekly show on CNN, writing five books on media and delivering big scoops such as the discovery of the widespread plagiarism committed by New York Times reporter Jayson Blair 10 years ago.

But critics also have taken on Kurtz in the past for conflicts of interest, noting he wrote stories at the Washington Post and Daily Beast/Newsweek involving CNN while getting a paycheck from them as a host and media analyst. (he regularly discloses his relationships at the end of his stories and on his online platforms.)

He’s also been criticized for giving too-sympathetic interviews to big newsmakers at the center of controversy, allowing them to rehabilitate their images -- including Today show anchor Matt Lauer, Fox News Channel founder Roger Ailes and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley.

And Huffington Post correspondent Michael Calderone has written several tough pieces looking at Kurtz’s relationship with the Daily Download, questioning why the media critic has spent so much time promoting and contributing to a website where he insists he only serves as a freelance contributor with no profit-sharing or partner status.

That story presented a criticism from unnamed Daily Beast colleagues which surfaced elsewhere – that Kurtz has simply stretched himself too thin, trying to work too many different jobs at once.

“I’ll leave it to others to judge whether I’ve taken on too much,” Kurtz said at one point this morning.

These are the forest of challenges every journalist – especially media critics and media reporters – face. Given the pace of today’s news cycle, we often write commentaries without contacting people at the center of stories, either because they aren’t commenting or because there isn’t time to reach them. Is that fair?

Today’s media stars are usually balancing several responsibilities, sometimes across different companies. How do you ensure work on every platform is at the required level of quality? What should happen when there is a mistake?

Media stars also get lots of opportunities to work on other media platforms. But when your job is covering media, should you take advantage of them? Can you do the jobs without facing serious ethical conflicts?

(Here comes my disclosures: I have contributed material as a freelancer to The Daily Download and appeared regularly as a guest on Reliable Sources. I also contribute to many different platforms in addition to the Tampa Bay Times newspaper and website, working regularly with NPR as a freelance contributor.)

Byers and Folkenflik asked several great questions. But they were clearly uncomfortable and not used to handing such an unusual subject on television – at times, it felt too many of the questions were about the details of Kurtz’s specific mistakes, rather than connecting those incidents to larger, more important questions.

For example, it seems several people in the media industry mistakenly got the impression Kurtz was a partner in the Daily Download, which improved its status and may have even helped it get a grant from the Knight Foundation. Though Folkenflik asked a question which referenced the issue, no one pressed Kurtz enough for a clear answer on whether he helped create that misimpression or if the site’s founder, Lauren Ashburn, unfairly capitalized on it. (an earlier version of this post said neither Byers nor Folkenflik asked Kurtz about the issue)

They also allowed Kurtz to shrug off the question of whether he was spread too thin with the “I’ll leave it to others to judge” statement. But no one can judge his workload and the impact of it on his work quality like he can. If the Daily Beast cut ties with him over concerns about this issue, it seems serious enough to deserve a bit more explanation.  

Kurtz himself touched on one larger issue most effectively, admitting that he might not have been diligent as he could have been when working on columns written quickly for online platforms. “Sometimes there is a tendency, when you do something quick, when you just hit the button (to publish), you don’t check as carefully,” he said, promising to do better in the future.

Still, I can’t recall the last time a major journalism figure faced up to his mistakes in such a straightforward fashion – devoting the first 15 minutes of his show to a grilling by two other reporters. (The New York Post, by contrast, was resistant enough to expressing regret for errors in its Boston Marathon coverage that a prankster inserted a fake apology from its editor into some copies of the newspaper.)

Here’s hoping this brings better reporting from Kurtz and more accountability from journalists in general, as we recognize any one of us has the potential to make a big mistake at the wrong time.

As social media and the online world have made our errors more visible than ever, such directness just might make the difference in gaining and maintaining the public’s trust for the future.



[Last modified: Monday, May 6, 2013 9:49am]

    

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