Monday, November 21, 2005
PROFILE: Media critic Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post
The New York Times Business
New York Times
Journalist, Cover Thyself
Tireless media critic Howard Kurtz writes for The Washington Post and broadcasts on CNN, raising conflict questions.
November 21, 2005
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
The New York Times
Here's something you do not see every day: a newspaper reporter
interrogating his own boss - on live television yet.
Howard Kurtz, the media writer for The Washington Post, posed tough
questions yesterday for nearly eight minutes to Leonard Downie Jr., The
Post's executive editor, on a program where Mr. Kurtz is host, CNN's
"Reliable Sources." The subject was the revelation last week that Bob
Woodward, The Post's investigative reporter, had not disclosed the fact
that a senior official in the Bush administration leaked the name of a
C.I.A. operative to him more than two years ago.
Mr. Kurtz's program then featured a discussion with three panelists, one
of whom assailed Mr. Woodward. (Mr. Kurtz had invited him to be on the
program, but Mr. Woodward booked himself instead on CNN's "Larry King
You've heard of reality television? This might be reality newspaper. It is
"The Washington Post Live," and it is playing out on CNN, thanks in part
to Mr. Kurtz and his highly unusual double role as media writer for The
Post and media referee for the cable network.
In the last few years, with the rise of blogs and a rich supply of
scandals at news organizations, including The New York Times, the media
have come under intense scrutiny. And many news outlets have turned a
critical eye on themselves - a tricky matter rife with conflict that
raises the question of whether anyone can report fully and fairly on his
or her own employer, particularly for public consumption.
Few have lived in the cross-hairs of these conflicts more visibly than Mr.
Kurtz, who has owned the media beat at The Post since 1990 and been host
of "Reliable Sources" since 1998.
He draws salaries from two of the most important media companies in the
country: CNN, which is owned by Time Warner, and The Post, which is owned
by The Washington Post Company. Such arrangements do not violate Post
policy. In fact, The Post has quite liberal rules regarding
extracurricular work by its reporters and editors.
As Mr. Downie put it in an online chat last week on the newspaper's Web
site, "We think there is value in having our best journalism reach as many
people as possible through our newspaper, this Web site, television and
radio appearances and books."
He may never have imagined that one person might do all those jobs at
once. But Mr. Kurtz, 52, does - redefining the term cottage industry and
raising questions about potential conflicts of interest.
"It's very odd to look at," said Jack Shafer, media critic for Slate.com.
"This is the duck-billed platypus of journalism, an egg-laying mammal with
fur - it's just something very bizarre."
Mr. Downie said in an interview that he was comfortable with Mr. Kurtz's
dual roles because they were disclosed in a tag line in The Post and on
the screen on CNN.
David Bohrman, vice president of CNN and Washington bureau chief, said
that Mr. Kurtz was "as tough as anybody" on the network, adding that his
dual roles at The Post and CNN served as a useful "check and balance,"
because if he were "throttled or stifled at one place, he has another
platform to get it out."
Mickey Kaus, who is a blogger on Slate.com and a frequent critic of Mr.
Kurtz, says that he has been an honest reporter and is equally tough on
The Post and CNN, but that his dual positions create an inherent
institutional conflict that exists regardless of how fair he may be and
how much he discloses his various roles.
"The conflict is that he works for one of the giant corporations that he
covers - CNN - and that corporation has made his career," Mr. Kaus said.
If he makes CNN mad, he said, it could hurt that career. "Len Downie is in
denial about it," Mr. Kaus added.
Mr. Kurtz brushes off charges of conflict of interest and says the proof
of his independence is evident in his work.
"The biggest conflict I face," he said, "is writing about The Washington
Post, which I do periodically and, I think, rather aggressively. I don't
think you can find a media writer in the country who has taken on his own
organization as many times and on as many difficult issues as I have. And
when I write about CNN, which I have also not hesitated to criticize, we
disclose that at the paper."
If Mr. Kurtz is in the lead in the cross-platform era, he is also one of
this era's most prolific production machines. His schedule raises the
simple human question of how one person (newly remarried with a year-old
baby) finds the time and energy to manage it all.
He produces enterprise articles and breaking news for The Post, in
addition to his column for the paper every Monday. He answers questions in
an hourlong, online chat with Post readers on Mondays. He writes on a blog
for The Post every Monday through Friday. On Sunday, he is host of the
hourlong "Reliable Sources." He frequently appears as a media expert on
CNN and other television channels. He is a guest on radio. He has written
four books. And he is now writing a roman à clef about the news business.
"I'm fooling around at the moment with a satiric novel about the news
business and having fun, for once, by not having to check my facts," he
said in one of a series of interviews last week between his multiple
There was no clearer display of the cross-currents of Mr. Kurtz's varied
interests than yesterday's appearance by Mr. Downie on "Reliable Sources."
In a surreal moment, Mr. Kurtz and Mr. Downie discussed whether Mr.
Woodward "gets to play by a different set of rules" because he works in
The Post's newsroom while also writing books - in the same breath
acknowledging that they, too, work in the newsroom and write books.
After being interviewed by Mr. Kurtz, Mr. Downie said that the paper's
critic "doesn't cut me any breaks," though he also said that the questions
posed on the program were similar to those Mr. Kurtz had asked him at the
paper when the news story broke last week.
Mr. Kurtz did come under fire from his colleagues recently, not for
bashing The Post, but for what they felt was a breach of trust. In a
column last month about the paper's confidential in-house critique system,
he quoted the written comments of some colleagues without asking them
first if he could use their names.
Mr. Kurtz, while not apologetic, acknowledged that he should have
contacted everyone quoted before using their names. "I do think it's only
fair to warn people in advance that their comments are going to be used,"
he said, "and if they had not been showing up on lots of other Web sites,
I probably would have treated them with more confidentiality."
Since he began covering the news media at The Post, he has used his bully
pulpit at the expense of his employers. In 1992, he questioned whether The
Post's seven-part series on former Vice President Dan Quayle (part of it
written by Mr. Woodward) had been too soft. Last year, Mr. Kurtz undertook
an examination of his paper's coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. And
he pointed to his coverage of Mr. Woodward last week, with uniformly
negative reaction from critics, as the latest evidence "that I don't pull
punches even when the most famous member of the staff is involved."
"I think it adds to The Post's credibility that I'm given the leeway to
report and write on the paper as I see fit," Mr. Kurtz said.
Mr. Downie suggested that Mr. Kurtz might have sometimes crossed the line
by letting his own opinions creep into the paper or on CNN, something that
violates Post rules for reporters.
"We try to hold him to analysis and not pure personal opinion," Mr. Downie
said. "If we think he's slid over the line, we can edit it out, and on TV
we can remind him. But it has to be managed, and we manage it by looking
over his shoulder."
On Sept. 30, for example, after Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter
who had spent 85 days in jail, was released, Mr. Kurtz was interviewed on
"Whether you agree with Judy Miller or not," he said in an assertion many
of her detractors would dispute, "she did a courageous thing by going to
jail for three months for a principle that she believed in."
But, he added flatly, in an assertion that Ms. Miller would dispute, "She
basically could have had this deal three months ago."
Moments later, he showed the lengths to which a media reporter who is also
a commentator can go to try to avoid sounding opinionated.
"She is a very controversial figure within journalism," he said of Ms.
Miller. "On the other hand, she's won a Pulitzer Prize, and she's clearly
a very tenacious reporter. On the other hand, you described her as a hero
or a heroine. Not to a lot of people, even in the business, because of her
background, as she engenders a lot of animosity. On the other hand, she
also has gotten a lot of admiration for taking this difficult stand."
Critics generally agree that Mr. Kurtz has reported aggressively on The
Post, and while some say he has been softer on CNN, he has not spared the
network when it becomes newsworthy.
He was the first of the mainstream print reporters, for example, to write
about Eason Jordan, a former CNN news chief, who was forced to quit after
bloggers stirred up a ruckus over comments he made about American
soldiers' killing journalists in Iraq.
"I haven't seen a piece in which he's in the tank for CNN," Mr. Shafer
said. "But he obviously knows a lot more about the inner workings of CNN
than anybody else covering the television news business, and I don't think
his coverage reflects that."
Eric Wemple, editor of Washington's City Paper, an alternative weekly,
said that Mr. Kurtz's reporting was "fair, fair, fair." If Mr. Kurtz had a
bias, Mr. Wemple said, "it's to move on too quickly to the next story."
"What drives him is volume and scoops, not attitude, not edge," Mr. Wemple
said. "It's just volume and clips and ubiquity. He is a franchise."
Is he spread too thin?
Mr. Kurtz, a speed talker from Brooklyn who works from 7 a.m. until
midnight, with "a few hours" off at dinnertime, said, "I'm pretty careful
not to put my name on anything that I don't feel I've had sufficient time
to work on."
If being a franchise demands a lot of time, it also gives him enormous
influence in regard to fellow reporters.
Eric Alterman, a press critic and columnist for The Nation magazine, wrote
in his 2003 book, "What Liberal Media?" that the rest of the news media
had shied away from criticizing Mr. Kurtz, "owing to the power of the real
estate he controls."
But Mr. Wemple, for one, said that was not the case.
"I don't think people are afraid of him," he said. "I think they are
afraid of making a mistake and having Kurtz figure it out."
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