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From AJR,   April/May 2013  issue

Howard Kurtz's Mea Culpa   

The media reporter owns up to his transgressions and vows that he's learned from them. Sun., May 5, 2013.


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

Well, that was awkward.

Embattled media reporter Howard Kurtz turned the beginning of his "Reliable Sources" program on CNN Sunday over to two fellow journalists, who interrogated him over the controversies that have exploded around him.

Kurtz, who began the show with an apology for his misdeeds, looked absolutely miserable as he found himself on the other end of the questions.

But he did what he absolutely had to do if he was going to dig himself out of his predicament and preserve any credibility as a media commentator.

Kurtz admitted he was wrong when he accused NBA player Jason Collins of failing to mention that he had once been engaged to a woman in his Sports Illustrated article revealing he was gay. Collins had in fact done so.

He admitted he had flunked the transparency test in his first stab at correcting his error. Rather than admitting he was flat-out wrong and fully apologizing, Kurtz rewrote the story to say that Collins had downplayed the engagement.

He admitted he had been wrong to even raise the issue. In the context of Collins' dramatic announcement--he is the first professional athlete in a major sport to make such a disclosure--why was the engagement such a big deal to Kurtz? Why was it a gotcha moment?

He admitted that he had been wrong to mock Collins in a video.

He was somewhat less absolute in taking full responsibility when he was asked about three previous high-profile errors, but he did own up to the mistakes.

Kurtz absolutely had to do this. He questions people about journalism gaffes for a living. His own record of transparency had come under question. Nothing less than a full-throated apology would have worked. As Kurtz himself said, he is and should be held to a higher standard.

As for a couple of other Kurtz-related issues, the show shed no new light. Kurtz reiterated that his departure as The Daily Beast/Newsweek Washington bureau chief last Thursday was mutual and had been in the works for awhile. The fact that it came the same day that the Beast retracted his Collins post was coincidental, he said.

As for his involvement with the Web site Daily Download, Kurtz said that he had no financial interest in the site but was simply a paid freelancer and unpaid adviser. Left unclear is why he has spent so much time working for and promoting the site, whose founder, Lauren Ashburn,is a frequent guest on "Reliable Sources."

It should be said that the questioners, media reporters David Folkenflik of NPR and Dylan Byers of Politico, did a good job of pressing Kurtz.

When anyone gets into trouble like this, the key questions are what have they learned and how will they behave in the future? While he has made major mistakes in the past, Kurtz said this time will be different. He said he was "determined to learn from this episode."

And the peripatetic reporter also said he'd be careful not to become oversubscribed in the future. Having too much on the plate can help lead to careless work. (See Zakaria, Fareed.) It's safe to say that people will be watching closely to see how fully those lessons have been learned.

CNN said Friday that Kurtz's status at "Reliable Sources" remains unchanged. But who knows for how long? New boss Jeff Zucker is moving aggressively to reshape the ratings-challenged cable news pioneer.

But in a remarkable piece of television, Kurtz at least gave himself some breathing room.