Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has long denounced journalistic conflicts of interest, and warned of the pernicious effects of reporters selling out to the “big bucks” of television. But Kurtz's generous treatment of CNN during the ongoing controversy over Lou Dobbs' embrace of birther conspiracy theories is a reminder that the biggest conflict of interest in contemporary journalism is Kurtz's own dual roles at the Post and CNN.
Howard Kurtz, the nation's most prominent media critic, has spent more than a decade cataloguing the conflicts of interest, real and perceived, of his fellow reporters.
In his 1996 book Hot Air, Kurtz devoted a chapter to chronicling the conflicts of interest of journalists, a chapter he summarized in an adaptation for The Washington Post: “Celebrity Journalists take big bucks from corporations and interest groups, while claiming that they couldn't possibly be influenced. Is it any wonder the public sees them as part of the corrupt insider class?”
Kurtz's “Talking for Dollars” chapter concluded:
Clearly, for journalists and self-appointed experts alike, television is the key to big-bucks success. ... [T]he essence of journalism, even for the fiercest opinion-mongers, is professional detachment. The public has a right to expect that those who pontificate for a living are not in financial cahoots with the industries and lobbies they analyze on the air. Too many reporters and pundits simply have a blind spot on this issue. They have been seduced by the affluence and adulation that comes with television success. They are engaging in drive-by journalism, rushing from television studio to lecture hall with their palms outstretched. ... The talk show culture has made them rich but, in a very real sense, left them bankrupt.
In a 2000 New Republic piece, Franklin Foer argued that in his anti-conflict zealousness Kurtz pounces on small, disclosed, perceived conflicts, with little attention paid to whether they actually affected the reporting in question:
Kurtz's exposes often seem rather picayune. He's railed against the Christmas freebies high-tech companies give the reporters who cover them. ...
[H]e sounds like an East German figure-skating judge, docking reporters for technicalities. His columns are filled with small (if not banal) complaints cast as large insinuations. ... Even when reporters acknowledge their potential conflicts of interest, it's usually not enough to satisfy Kurtz. In his March 27 'Media Notes,' he reported that '60 Minutes' followed an upbeat piece on iVillage.com with the disclosure that the segment's producer had gone on to a job at the e-business. They disclosed it. So why did Kurtz need to disclose it again?
Indeed, a quick perusal of Kurtz' work for The Washington Post reveals numerous examples of him blowing the conflict-of-interest whistle on his peers -- even when he can't find an example of an actual news report that was affected by the conflict, or an actual payment the reporter received from the subject of a news report.
In 2007, for example, Kurtz wrote that there were “questions about how close [CNBC reporter Maria] Bartiromo has gotten to some companies she covers,” noting Bartiromo's ties to a Citigroup executive -- though Kurtz did not indicate that Bartiromo personally profited from the Citigroup ties. Nor did Kurtz refer, even indirectly, to a single Bartiromo news report that may have been influenced by her closeness to the “companies she covers.”
So journalistic conflicts of interest, and the pernicious effects of television-based riches on print reporters, have long been targets of Howard Kurtz's media criticism. And through it all, Kurtz himself has had a glaring conflict of interest of the highest magnitude: Kurtz's job is to critique the media, but he draws a paycheck from two of the largest and most influential media companies in the world. Can Kurtz really be objective in covering CNN for The Washington Post when he draws a paycheck from CNN, too -- and when “television is the key to big-bucks success” ?
Eric Alterman doesn't think so, and explains that Kurtz's dual roles undermine not only his reporting on CNN and the Post, but their competitors as well:
Kurtz's ongoing relationship with CNN -- which obviously infects not only his reporting on CNN for the Post, but also his reporting on the Post for CNN, as well as his reporting on CNN's competitors Fox, Fox Business, MSNBC, CNBC, etc. for the Post, and The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, etc, for CNN -- is perhaps the most egregious ongoing conflict in all elite journalism.
Likewise, Charles Kaiser has stated, “It is inconceivable that The Washington Post would allow this kind of conflict of interest for anyone covering any other beat. Can you imagine the Detroit correspondent becoming a consultant for General Motors?”
Kurtz clearly falls far short of the standards he sets for other reporters. But he and the Post have long waved aside concerns over his dual role, arguing that the conflict doesn't show up in his reporting.
That cannot be said for Kurtz's recent work.
For the past two weeks, the false conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in America, and thus is not eligible to be president, has been one of the biggest news stories in the country. The most prominent promoter of the point of view that Obama has yet to produce a valid birth certificate has been Lou Dobbs, who hosts an hour-long show on CNN each weeknight, in addition to a daily radio program. And CNN president Jonathan Klein has defended Dobbs' “birther” theorizing as “legitimate,” while dismissing Dobbs' critics as “partisans.”
Howard Kurtz, meanwhile, has spent the past two weeks ducking the story, blaming the journalists who have debunked the conspiracy theory -- rather than his CNN colleague who promotes it -- for keeping it alive, and giving Klein a complete pass.
During his July 15 radio program, Dobbs repeatedly insisted that Obama needs to “produce a birth certificate,” echoing the conspiracy theorists' false claim that Obama's citizenship has not been established. Dobbs pushed the topic again on his television show that evening, despite the fact that countless entities, from the state of Hawaii and its Republican governor to FactCheck.org, to his own CNN colleagues, had already debunked the phony claims that Obama's birthplace is in doubt.
On July 17, CNN reporter Kitty Pilgrim, guest hosting Lou Dobbs Tonight, used Dobbs' own television show to make clear that the birther theories are bunk. Three days later, Dobbs was back at it, insisting on CNN that questions about Obama's birth certificate “won't go away.” And again the next day, when he claimed on television that “no one” knows “the reality” of the certificate -- and took to the radio to denounce the “national liberal media” for debunking the birther nonsense.
Other media, meanwhile, began aggressively pushing back on the conspiracy theories. MSNBC's Chris Matthews, for example, accused a Republican congressman of “appeasing the nutcases.” MSNBC's Rachel Maddow did a segment on Dobbs' advancement of the theories. Dobbs' CNN colleague Roland Martin said “nut jobs” were promoting the “loony” story. And CNN's Rick Sanchez held up a copy of Obama's birth certificate, noting that the theories about Obama not being born in America are “more conspiratorial than factual.”
On July 22, a Los Angeles Times article quoted FactCheck.org's Brooks Jackson -- a former CNN reporter -- saying of Dobbs' comments, “CNN should be ashamed of itself for putting some of that stuff on the air.” The same article, by media writer James Rainey, noted that “one CNN employee reminded me several times that Dobbs' most pointed assertions were made on his radio program, which is unconnected to CNN.”
By this time, the story had made the jump from cable news and the people who write about it to popular culture. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart noted that Dobbs was pushing the birther conspiracy theories even after his own colleagues had debunked them, asking, “Do you even watch CNN?”
And even prominent conservatives were lining up to dismiss the crackpot theories as ... well, crackpot theories. Joe Scarborough, Michelle Malkin, David Horowitz, Michael Medved, John Avlon, several right-wing blogs, and others made clear that the theories were crazy and irresponsible. Even The American Spectator.
But Howard Kurtz had not yet weighed in, and his silence about such a big story was conspicuous. On July 23, I noted that, despite having plenty of opportunities -- the television show he hosts, the daily column he writes for the Post, the weekly online discussion he does for the paper, and a widely read Twitter feed -- Kurtz had not yet criticized Dobbs. He had made only passing mention of the topic: "Lou Dobbs has also raised questions about Obama's birth certificate." Kurtz neither criticized Dobbs, nor made clear that Obama is, in fact, a U.S. citizen.
In a July 23 email to Lou Dobbs Tonight staff, CNN president Jonathan Klein weighed in, declaring the story “dead” and pointing to evidence debunking the conspiracy theories. But on that night's broadcast, Dobbs continued to argue that Obama should produce a valid birth certificate.
Then something extraordinary happened: On July 24, Klein capitulated to his star host, telling The Washington Post's Greg Sargent that CNN would allow Dobbs to continue airing the conspiracy theories. And Klein suggested Dobbs' critics were “people with a partisan point of view from one extreme.” (Note that Sargent scored the interview with Klein while his colleague Howard Kurtz, who hosts a show on Klein's cable channel, was still ducking the topic.)
The next day, July 25, the Los Angeles Times reported that Klein said Dobbs' coverage was “legitimate.”
On the Sunday, July 26, broadcast of his Reliable Sources program -- 11 days into Dobbs' birtherism -- Howard Kurtz finally criticized his colleague. But, as I noted that day, Klein's endorsement of Dobbs' reporting was now the bigger issue -- and Kurtz didn't say a word about Klein.
All this week, the story raged on, with Dobbs lashing out at critics more and more as he continued to push his nutty theories -- and Klein facing increasing questions about what Dobbs was doing to the cable channel's credibility.
But those questions didn't come from Howard Kurtz, the nation's most famous media critic.
On Monday, Kurtz's Media Notes column ran more than 2,500 words -- none of them about Klein's endorsement of Dobbs' birther theorizing. During his online discussion that day, Kurtz didn't take any questions about the topic.
On Tuesday, Kurtz did address the birther theories in his Media Notes column, asking if the fact that the state of Hawaii had once again confirmed that Obama was born there would “quiet the 'birthers' -- or the people who keep putting them on TV?” Kurtz left unmentioned the fact that the leader of the birther brigade is Lou Dobbs -- and left unmentioned the fact that Klein keeps putting him on TV.
Later that day, Kurtz was a guest on right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt's show, where he said: “I don't understand why this has gotten so much prominence, particularly on cable television in the first place if we make a judgment as journalists that this is basically a lot of garbage, then why do we have to spend a lot of time flogging this horse? The guy who has been flogging this the most, it seems to me, is Chris Matthews on MSNBC.”
Think about that: Howard Kurtz, who is a paid employee of CNN, blamed Chris Matthews, who hosts a show for CNN's competitor, for giving the birther nonsense attention. This despite the fact that Matthews has been debunking the theories. And Kurtz didn't say a word about Lou Dobbs, the person who has been pushing this garbage.
On Wednesday, Kurtz again addressed the birthers, devoting 491 words to the topic, leading with this observation:
The folks who have been pushing the ludicrous claim that Barack Obama wasn't born in the US of A -- a fringe of a fringe -- have gotten way too much media attention. But it's been fascinating to watch how people on the right have handled this embarrassment.
Incredibly -- unbelievably -- Kurtz didn't mention Lou Dobbs, Jonathan Klein, or CNN. The most prominent person making the ludicrous claim that Barack Obama still hasn't proven he was born in America is Lou Dobbs; everyone else is lining up to denounce the theories -- except Jonathan Klein. And Howard Kurtz gave them both a pass.
For two weeks, Kurtz has ducked the biggest controversy in the news media, pulling his punches when it comes to Dobbs. He has blamed CNN's primary competitor -- which is debunking the birtherism -- for promoting it, rather than blaming Dobbs, who actually does promote it. He has remained completely silent about Klein's endorsement of Dobbs, even as Klein misrepresents Dobbs' reporting in order to defend him.
And Kurtz has done this all while drawing a paycheck from CNN -- the “key to big-bucks success,” as he once described television work.
It's as clear a conflict of interest as you'll ever see. The only remaining questions are whether The Washington Post cares enough to do something about it -- and whether, after the Post got caught trying to sell access to its reporters and to lawmakers, anyone at the paper thinks they have the moral authority to criticize Kurtz.
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.