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What Howard Kurtz Didn't Disclose

By Andy Alexander

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.

By Andy Alexander  | June 17, 2009; 4:09 PM ET
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As a "transparency" enthusiast, and a not (at all)-infrequent critic of Mr Kurtz (though how anyone could be as prolific as he and not hit what some perceive as sour notes on occasion is beyond me); AND just as big--if not bigger--Alterman fan, I disagree with Mr A's POV on this one. From what I've seen over many years, 95-percent-plus of Kurtz chat followers are also devoted Kurtz/WaPo column followers and Kurtz/CNN followers. Redundant disclosure does less good than too little disclosure: it becomes background noise. I believe Mr Alterman should have eschewed the temptation to parachute-in and comment on the particular community in the instant matter.

Posted by: hongdb | June 18, 2009 7:58 AM | Report abuse

this question about kurtz' glaring conflict-of-interest concerning his working for and also reporting on cnn is nothing new.

the question has been raied mny times before. so why is it STILL being raised?

why doesn't howie just note the facts, the relationship EVERY SINGLE TIME he even just MENTIONS cnn in a commentary or report?

Posted by: jtfloore | June 18, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Dear WaPo - Dan Froomkin fired? Did he expose the fact that WaPo doesn't really employ journalists but hacks these days? Was his writing too insightful, not enough partisanship, maybe a bit too pointed? Tweet this WaPo - you're fired.

Posted by: cymric | June 18, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Dear WaPo - Dan Froomkin fired? He was the only reason I had faith in your paper. Now, I will go away him. Good luck. -DanJ from NoVA

Posted by: danwesjac | June 18, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

If it is true that the Post has ceased its relationship with contributing blogger Dan Froomkin, the Post, its readership, and the American public are the poorer for it. This is an extremely poor editorial decision made on the part of the Post. I predict significantly fewer hits on the Post's web edition going forward (due to Froomkin's absence).

Posted by: Buster3 | June 18, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Inside Cable News: Howard Kurtz non-disclosure flap…

Posted by: StewartIII | June 18, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Please search the Ombudsman archives for the phrase:
“That was an oversight and won’t be repeated.” & Howard Kurtz
This is a familiar refrain from Mr Kurtz (& other Wash Post writers), every time they are caught violating Wash Post guidelines they trot out “That was an oversight and won’t be repeated.” Is there ANY accountability?
Making matters worse, Kurtz's show on CNN is titled "Reliable Sources" and is (ostensibly) about media accountability. Writers for the Wash Post CANNOT serve two "masters", a clear policy regarding outside appearances/writing must be enforced by the Wash Post.
The credibility of the Was Post (already severely damaged) is being compromised.

Posted by: d_j_garcia | June 19, 2009 6:34 AM | Report abuse

Obviously, the way to punish Kurtz is to fire Dan Froomkin. That's WaPo neocon logic for you!

Honestly, even if Kurtz were not such a worthless hack, he is the husband of GOP media strategist Sheri Annis -- a conflict of interest that is never discussed but shows clearly in his every column.

Posted by: nleibowitz | June 19, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Dan Froomkin is gone.

Good luck, Dan, and nuts to the Post!

Posted by: ACounter | June 19, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

you guys fire froomkin and give nonsensical reasons for doing so, while keeping krauthammer? the krauthammer who manipulates and distorts information to underscore his personal hatred of the current president? if watergate was to happen today, the post wouldn't have a clue. it was woodward and bernstein who had the courage then to rightly call the president a liar, and it's a legacy that should have been your first priority. it's not that the post management is stupid, it's far worse. it's that you have no guts and no ethics. shame shame shame...

Posted by: wijid | June 19, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

"Dan Froomkin fired? Did he expose the fact that WaPo doesn't really employ journalists but hacks these days? Was his writing too insightful, not enough partisanship, maybe a bit too pointed?"


What a cosmic joke the WaPo has become. Fold up now, you clowns, and save yourself further embarrassment.

Posted by: SGlover910 | June 20, 2009 12:37 AM | Report abuse

Disappointed that Froomkin is parting ways with WP.

Disappointed that Mr Kurtz's economic ties are not just routinely revealed as part of his work

Posted by: Mill_in_Mn | June 20, 2009 2:41 AM | Report abuse

What's the big deal? I wasn't aware that anyone cared what Howard Kurtz had to say on either CNN or in the WashingtonPost. Howard Kurtz is another of the Post's stable of non-consequential journalists repeating inside the beltway conventional wisdom. Is it true that the post fired one of its brightest stars, Froomkin, but has room for Kurtz? Makes sense to me?

Posted by: rlrobertsmdphd | June 20, 2009 10:23 PM | Report abuse

No surprise. Howard Kurtz is not exactly the epitome of journalism, unless you measure by contemporary standards, or more correctly, the lack thereof.
The glaring omissions in his regular Sunday talk show are the real news.

Posted by: gord_metcalfe | June 22, 2009 11:03 PM | Report abuse

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