Phony Pose, "Oh, We Disclose," Hurts Kaiser, Kurtz Adviser!

Political commentary and more.
June 18 2000 7:38 PM

Phony Pose, "Oh, We Disclose," Hurts Kaiser, Kurtz Adviser!

Charles Kaiser, in a letter to the New Republic, makes a point that TNR's Franklin Foer left out of his recent attack on Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. (In case you missed it, Foer's cover story blasted Kurtz for being an "East German figure skating judge, docking reporters for technicalities," especially minor conflicts of interest.)

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Charles Kaiser's point? Kurtz himself has large, non-technical conflicts of interest, since he free-lances and takes money "from the people he writes about, from Time Warner to Conde Nast and even Brill's Content." The most obvious conflict is that Kurtz co-hosts CNN's Reliable Sources, a gig that rewards him with not only money but national renown. Kaiser writes: "It is inconceivable that The Washington Post would allow this kind of conflict of interest for anyone covering any other beat. Can you imagine the Detroit correspondent becoming a consultant for General Motors?"

Kaiser's brother, Robert--associate editor of the Post--had a letter defending Kurtz in the same TNR issue. The dueling-Kaiser angle proved irresistible to the New York Times, which ran an item on the two letters. This gave Robert Kaiser a chance to defend Kurtz in the Times against the conflict-of interest charge--which he did as follows:

I know that Charles and others have those qualms about Howie's multiple employers. ... Howie always discloses his relationships when he writes about any of them. The Post has accepted that arrangement. I think it's O.K. [Emphasis added.]

That sounds reasonable. But there's at least one problem with it--it's not true. Kurtz doesn't "always disclose his relationships" when he writes about any of his "multiple employers."

A quick search of a popular electronic database--never lie to a man with NEXIS!--turned up the following, just within the past year :

  • On Dec. 20, 1999, Kurtz wrote about networks, in particular CNN, that lock up "exclusive national rights" to debates between presidential candidates and then shut out competing reporters. Frank Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief, was quoted defending the practice. There was no disclosure of Kurtz's CNN connection.

  • On Nov. 18, 1999, Kurtz wrote about an alliance between one of his employers, the Washington Post, and MSNBC, one of CNN's competitors. Kurtz noted that MSNBC "has been struggling," its ratings having "dropped 20 percent." Kurtz also noted, "By comparison, CNN's ratings dropped 33 percent." (So why wasn't CNN "struggling" too?) No mention of Kurtz's CNN connection.

  • On Oct. 11. 1999, Kurtz wrote an item about CNN rejecting a commercial from Salon.com. No disclosure.

  • On Sept. 7, 1999, Kurtz wrote a profile of Rupert Murdoch that touched on the feud between Murdoch and CNN founder Ted Turner, a man who could presumably end Kurtz's CNN career with one well-placed phone call. No disclosure.

  • On Oct. 18, 1999, Kurtz wrote about Turner's attempts to lure a Wall Street Journal editor to CNNfn to replace Lou Dobbs. Nope.

That's just what I found within the past year. I didn't even check what Kurtz might have written about all the other parts of Time Warner, which owns CNN. I did notice that when the Time Warner empire merged with AOL early this year, Kurtz wrote an item affectionately tweaking Time magazine for being very tough on its corporate parent in its coverage. There was no disclosure that Kurtz also works for Time Warner.

It's true that when Kurtz has written a really big piece focusing on Time Warner or CNN, the Post has typically included a tag line saying, "Howard Kurtz appears on CNN's weekly media program." If Robert Kaiser wants to believe that this adequately alerts readers to Kurtz's myriad conflicts, fine. But he's deceiving either himself or his audience when he says Kurtz "always" discloses.

P.S.: I'm not arguing that Kurtz is soft on CNN or Time Warner. I think he's an honest reporter and generally he's been quite critical of both organizations. But the Post doesn't let its other, equally honest, reporters cover institutions that employ them. If Charles Kaiser's General Motors example doesn't grab you, consider whether the Post would let a paid staffer for the Bush campaign cover Bush (or Gore, for that matter). Disclosure wouldn't be deemed sufficient to cure the conflict-of-interest problem. Maybe it should--I'd argue newspapers would be livelier and more informative if they let more people with blatant-but-disclosed conflicts write about the institutions they know about. Until then, I suggest that the following boilerplate disclosure be appended to all Kurtz's media reporting:

Howard Kurtz works for a variety of press institutions, including CNN, which is part of the Time Warner/AOL empire, which is either an employer or competitor of just about everyone he might write about. We have suspended our traditional conflict-of-interest rules in his case because ... well, we pretty much trust him, and he's a star.

P.P.S.: My own disclosure. In his (wildly hypocritical) capacity as conflict-of-interest scold, Kurtz recently zinged kausfiles.com for providing a link to Amazon for a book kausfiles favorablyreviewed--a link, similar to those provided by Slateand other Web sites, that paid me Amazon's standard 5 percent commission, in this case $1.92 [one dollar and ninety-two cents], and which Kurtz knew about only because in a misguided fit of ethical zeal I fully disclosed it all at the time in a run-on paragraph not unlike this one. Kurtz got a key fact ($1.92) wrong, then printed a correction that he also screwed up, then wrote me an e-mail saying "You're entitled to be pissed off." Am I pissed off? Yes! Being pissed off, in this case, serves to neutralize the natural reporter's impulse to go easy on Kurtz because he's a genial guy, and because he's powerful and may write about any one of us someday.