Howard Kurtz and the Daily Download: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 3 2013 3:26 PM

Howard Kurtz and the Daily Download: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

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Howard Kurtz and Tina Brown

Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages

As long as I'm ignoring my book and getting into pointless Internet spats about media, let me compliment Andrew Kaczynski for doing what literally no one else in America thought to do in months: clicking on he Daily Download to see if Howard Kurtz's mini-Spruce Moose still existed. It didn't, but that's not the fun bit. The media analysis site/source of badly filmed Kurtz vlogs, which got virtually no attention until the Huffington Post's Michael Calderone asked why it existed, also had a board of "advisers" who didn't know they were advisers.

Sharon Waxman, the editor-in-chief of the website The Wrap and Teagan Goddard who runs the political site Political Wire did not seem to understand why they were listed as advisers to the website.
“Amusing. I’ve never had anything to do with Daily Download,” Waxman told BuzzFeed. “Howie was a longtime friend of mine and asked me to advise them,” she later added when asked if she was clear she was listed as an adviser.
“I have no idea what happened to the site,” Goddard said. “It’s probably not appropriate to call me ‘an adviser.’ I had lunch with Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz once and spoke to them on the phone once.”
“Not a clue. My role was only to give Lauren and Howie some informal advice at the start,” said Jim Brady the editor-in-chief of Digital First Media.
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What elevates this from farce to scandal (OK, a very small scandal) is the appearance, in every adviser's story, of Howard Kurtz. Way back in May, when he still hosted CNN's Reliable Sources, Kurtz daringly devoted an entire episode to self-criticism. Media reporters David Folkenflik and Dylan Byers grilled Kurtz about his factual errors at the Daily Beast and his involvement with the Daily Download. I'll just copy the exchange about the latter site:

FOLKENFLIK: Has the effort that you've expended on that venture distracted you from what were already the duties of two full-time jobs at "Daily Beast" and here at CNN?

KURTZ: Well, I have always had, despite all my prolific tweeting, as a way of promoting this new site, I've always had a -- it's always been a limited venture for me. I'm a contributor to "Daily Download" and paid on a freelance basis. I don't have any equity in the site. I don't have any role in the company that owns it. And my basic job was to make online videos...

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. I just want -- 

KURTZ: And it's on my Twitter page. 

FOLKENFLIK: Of course. And I just want to drill down on that. You have mentioned on this show that you've been a contributor. First, I want to make sure, you are an unpaid adviser and paid as a freelance contributor to "Daily Download" as other people are.

KURTZ: Yes.
FOLKENFLIK: Has that always been the case that you never had any other financial involvement with the firm, or any stake whatsoever in it?

KURTZ: I've never had any other financial involvement or stake whatsoever. I am a freelancer. My friend and colleague, Lauren Ashburn, who started the site and whose company owns it, asked me to make online videos....

FOLKENFLIK: The reason I asked this, I was told by two separate people in the last 48 hours that from your mouth, you had said that you were a founder in this venture in trying to help Lauren attract grants and trying to help Lauren establish this as a go-to site in a way that, you know, has been trying to do. Was that an unfair way for you to describe that? Or are we now hearing a slightly different version? 

KURTZ: No, I -- 

FOLKENFLIK: Why did you say that at the time?

KURTZ: I am not a founder and I have only tried to help promote the site. And I see it as not being very much different than my previous employers asking me to maybe sit next to advertisers at a dinner or a breakfast or have a talk with the board of directors.

The ellipses just remove some repetitive lines from Kurtz about how his day job was not affected by TDD, and how Lauren Ashburn is really terrific. You can read the transcript here. But you probably can't square the explanation Kurtz told the audience of his TV show—that "my basic job was to make online videos" and that "I have only tried to help promote the site"—with Sharon Waxman and Taegan Goddard recalling the times Kurtz appealed to them to join the board.

"I was under the impression that Kurtz and Ashburn jointly ran the site," Goddard told me today. "Kurtz invited me to lunch and paid the bill."

Right, and anyone who noticed the Daily Download's existence wouldn't have been surprised. Kurtz was the star who attracted its investments. Why'd he ever imply otherwise? (Disclosure: Kurtz was very fair and thorough with me when I resigned from the Washington Post in 2010, and I gained a sturdy respect for his journalistic integrity.) Why, in 2012 and 2013, was he going to the mat for a sort of rinky-dink site founded by—let's be honest—a pretty bland pundit with no real profile in D.C., Lauren Ashburn? Why, when confronted about his role promoting the site, did he dissemble? Why, when he moved to Fox this year, did he give a semi-co-hosting role to Ashburn, who has almost nothing to say about anything? (Watch any segment of the new show. It's a cable news Quaalude.)

You know the saddest part of this? Kurtz has tumbled so far down the pyramid of D.C. "newsmakers" that no one's really interested in answering these questions. Occam's Razor suggests a reason why Kurtz might sacrifice his old jobs for Ashburn, but surely there are more interesting media stories to waste time on.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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