Howard Kurtz screwed up, yes, but he also just showed an admirable example of accountability in apologizing on his CNN show Reliable Sources — saying that as a media critic he should be held to a higher standard of media trust — and then submitting to grilling by David Folkenflik of NPR and Dylan Byers of Politico. The video is here.
Our first mistake in journalism is to pretend that we don’t make mistakes. That hubris has gone before many a fall. Now, of course, our imperfection is no excuse, no cover to make mistakes. But knowing they will be made, the real question is what we do about them. That is when credibility is truly tested. Kurtz and CNN just set a new example for what to do.
Imagine if Dan Rather of CBS or Judith Miller of The New York Times had submitted to being interviewed by outside journalists not after some stupid remark but after reporting that was called into serious question.
The grilling of Kurtz started to verge on S&M. He admitted that he screwed up with his remarks about the NBA’s Jason Collins and apologized and then was made to admit it again and to admit prior screw-ups. I’m not looking for the hairshirt to become the new uniform of the journalist. Just getting beaten up won’t get us anywhere.
Such sessions could accomplish a few things. They can teach lessons; Kurtz said he wanted to learn from this episode and I don’t doubt he will be more careful before he makes another offhand remark. These sessions can also examine facts and try to get the fuller story.
The part of this story that’s still a bit baffling is Kurtz’ involvement in The Daily Download, mainly because — as Jay Rosen has been saying on Twitter — the site itself is baffling. I’m not sure what it wants to be. I’m not sure what the Knight Foundation expected it to accomplish with the substantial funding it was given. I’m not sure why Kurtz was involved in it on top of what for anyone else would be two full-time jobs and whether this played a role in his departure from the Daily Beast. If Kurtz was just helping a friend in Daily Download founder Lauren Ashburn, he was using his good offices at CNN — by having her on the air often and by calling on others for help — to do that. None of that might matter much. But if I were an editor reviewing reporting on the Kurtz story, these are questions I’d say are still unanswered. That’s not to say there is anything suspicious. Just unanswered.
In the post below, I disclose my relationship — or really my lack of one — with the Daily Download. I am no longer listed as a member of its board of advisers simply because that reflects reality. (I am still listed as such on the About page, but I’m sure that will be updated soon.)
My bottom line at this moment: I like and respect Kurtz and his work, and today I have another reason to respect him. I hope he continues on Reliable Sources because I think media need coverage on a mass media outlet.
Much more coverage of this Kurtz episode would be navel-gazing — or perhaps navel-piercing — for a very small corner of the media wonk world. What I hope this story becomes is not more whither-Howie wondering but instead an examination of how to handle the mistakes we will make.