What Howard Kurtz Didn't Disclose
In an online chat Monday, Post media columnist Howard Kurtz responded to a reader’s concern that cable news networks had offered too little weekend coverage of the upheaval in Iran.
“I know Twitter folks have been all over CNN for not providing more coverage on Saturday,” Kurtz said. “I’m sure CNN could have done more, rather than run some taped programming, perhaps by taking the CNN International feed in the U.S. But it seemed to me that CNN did more than the other cable networks, with regular reports by Christiane Amanpour from Tehran, and especially on Sunday, when it ran many hours of live coverage.”
Eric Alterman, a well-known New York-based journalism professor, columnist and author, was struck by what Kurtz didn’t say and e-mailed me with a complaint.
“Howard Kurtz, who draws a regular paycheck from CNN, but is described in this chat exclusively as a ‘Washington Post staff writer and columnist,’ offers the lamest possible defense of CNN,” he wrote. “(B)ut nowhere in the chat does he bother to inform readers that he is in the pay of the network whose dereliction of duty he sees fit to defend.”
“This is not ‘the appearance of a conflict of interest,’” he continued. “This is an actual conflict of interest.”
He is correct that Kurtz should have disclosed his CNN connection. When I queried Kurtz, he readily agreed.
“When I took a couple of questions about CNN’s Iran coverage in this week’s chat, I didn’t mention it in my haste to answer the questions,” he said. “That was an oversight and won’t be repeated.”
Kurtz works part-time for CNN as a paid contributor and for a decade has hosted its weekly “Reliable Sources” show that examines how the press covers major news stories.
An archival examination of his writings for The Post shows that when CNN has received a significant mention in his columns or stories, they typically end with this disclosure: “Howard Kurtz hosts’s CNN’s weekly media program, ‘Reliable Sources.’”
“In the online chats, we often discuss my CNN role week after week, as readers ask about, and sometimes criticize, my program,” he said. “So my impression is that the connection is well known.”
I didn’t find his online comments about CNN to be especially defensive. In another response to a reader, he noted: “Clearly many people felt let down by the cable networks. They are not at their best on weekends, when staffs are smaller and a lot of taped programming is scheduled, since it is usually a slow news period and a chance to hold down costs,” he said. “But when there’s an extraordinary event, such as what happened in Iran, they need to step it up. As I said, CNN had a lot of coverage on Sunday but not as much as people were demanding.”
Alterman writes frequently on the media. He has authored several books, including "What Liberal Media?," which challenges the assertion that liberals control the press. (Full disclosure: I wrote a favorable review of the book after it appeared in 2003.) In his e-mail to me, he asked: "Does your newspaper have any conflict-of-interest guidelines at all?"
It does. Unfortunately, The Post will not publicly disclose them – something I find unwise and short-sighted. Readers such as Alterman are entitled to know the standards to which The Post holds itself. In a column several months ago, I wrote:
“The Post keeps its journalistic policies largely hidden, making it virtually impossible for readers to know the paper's ethical and journalistic standards. The public should be able to easily access them online. It's not merely right but also smart to be transparent at a time when The Post is trying to hold on to readers.”
The column also noted that The Post urgently needs to update its ethical guidelines to accommodate the new age of online journalism. Kurtz’ failure to disclose his CNN ties in an online chat, while hardly a major transgression, underscores that.
New standards must be written to cover not only conflict of interest disclosures online, but everything from how corrections should be handled on the Web, to verification of reader-generated content, to authentication of links, to ethical rules governing the content that Post employees may submit to social networking sites.
That task has fallen to Milton Coleman, the longtime Post deputy managing editor who is taking the most recent buyout but will remain on contract as a senior editor. He’ll be in charge of a full examination of Post standards and ethics. It’s a big job. And the review is long overdue.
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