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From AJR,   April/May 2013  issue

Memo to Howard Kurtz: Go the Full Disclosure Route   

Here’s hoping the high-profile media writer is candid about the controversies that have engulfed him when he addresses them Sunday on “Reliable Sources.”Fri., May 3, 2013.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

CNN says that embattled media writer Howard Kurtz will remain at the helm of his "Reliable Sources" program and will address the controversies swirling around him on this Sunday's installment.

Let's hope he opts for transparency and goes the full disclosure route. Because there is a lot of murkiness to the situation.

On Thursday, Tina Brown, editor in chief of The Daily Beast/Newsweek, said in a statement to Politico's Dylan Byers that the organization and Kurtz, its Washington bureau chief, were "parting company."

The breakup came after Kurtz, who is in the business of unearthing and dissecting the journalism gaffes of others, made a high-profile blunder of his own. In a Daily Beast blog post, he chided NBA player Jason Collins, who on Monday revealed that he was gay, for failing to announce in his Sports Illustrated article that he had at one point been engaged to a woman. Trouble was, Collins had done so. When he was called on it, Kurtz modified the piece to say Collins had "downplayed" the engagement. On Thursday, The Daily Beast retracted the post.

The error came in the wake of a number of other high-profile miscues by Kurtz over the last several years.

At the same time, Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post raised questions Wednesday about Kurtz's involvement with an obscure Web site called Daily Download. Calderone reported that Kurtz was posting frequently on the site and promoting it heavily on Twitter. The site's founder, Lauren Ashburn, appears often on "Reliable Sources," Kurtz's media criticism show.

His involvement seemed awfully extensive for someone with a fulltime job. Told that people at The Daily Beast were raising questions about how he could be spending so much time at another site, Kurtz responded to Calderone that he worked "a zillion hours a week."

Brown gave no reason for Kurtz's departure, although she went out of her way to praise the work of the Beast's other Washington players.

Kurtz weighed in with a couple of tweets, neither of which shed much light on the matter.

The first: "I've enjoyed my time at the Daily Beast but as we began to move in different directions, both sides agreed it was best to part company." (That's the moral equivalent of "to spend more time with my family.")

The second: "This was in the works for some time, but want to wish all my colleagues continued success with a terrific website."

So why is Kurtz gone from the Daily Beast? Was he fired? Over the mistake, coming in the wake of the ones that came before it?? Over all of the work for Daily Download, on top of his commitments to "Reliable Sources"? Did the presumably hefty salary he received to leave his longtime perch as media writer at the Washington Post play a role? Or was it really mutual? And what exactly is the deal with the Download?

Kurtz told Calderone he was a "paid contributor" to the site and a member of its advisory board. But the writer quoted sources as saying Kurtz had portrayed himself as having a much larger role.

There's no doubt that there is a lot of inside baseball in all of this. So why is it important for Kurtz to be completely candid when he talks about it on Sunday? Because as a media writer and commentator, he would insist on full disclosure from someone in a similar situation. It would be the height of hypocrisy for him to play rope-a-dope. And he's not just any media writer. For years, particularly during his high-flying Washington Post tenure and before the explosion of media commentary on the Internet, he was arguably the preeminent one.

And since CNN says there has been no "status change" with Kurtz, he will continue to host a show on which he will be raising questions about the behavior and ethics of other journalists. Under such circumstances, as humorist Calvin Trillin would put it, he has to be "above Caesar's wife."

Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple says Kurtz should have another journalist grill him on Sunday about the furor. Not a bad idea.

It's likely that the end of the Beast/Kurtz relationship was due to a combination of factors. BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins tweeted Thursday, "As someone who worked at the Beast for a while, I can say that rumors of Howard Kurtz's departure have been flying for at least 2 years."

Kurtz's Beast incarnation didn't seem nearly as high-impact as his previous work. Put that together with the big salary, the occasional sloppiness and all of that extracurricular activity, a divorce seemed like just a matter of time. The Collins stumble on top of the Download entanglement pushed the ball over the goal line.

I was a colleague of Kurtz's years ago at the Post, and I have admired his work ethic and his reporting chops. I hope he puts it all out there on Sunday.