Howard Kurtz opened his CNN show Reliable Sources Sunday morning with an elaborate mea culpa after the most forgettable week of his long career as a media critic.
Earlier in the week, Kurtz showed an incredible lack of professionalism and sensitivity when he wrote a piece for his then-employer the online Daily Beast. He accused basketball player Jason Collins of failing to note that he had been engaged to a woman when he came out in public. Collins took the brave step of writing a cover story for Sports Illustrated to celebrate and explain his identity as a gay athlete, in which he pointed out that he had had a female fiancee. Even if Kurtz had been right, so what? Why harp on a relatively insignificant part of the Collins bombshell? Kurtz looked like a bully.
More damaging, though, Kurtz simply didn’t know what he was talking about. The next thing we knew, the Daily Beast pulled Kurtz”s story and he was parting ways with the publication. Coincidence? Who knows.
On May 5, Reliable Sources asked media critics Dylan Byers of Politico and David Folkenflik of NPR to interview Kurtz on the show. They both handled themselves well in an uncomfortable situation. When the reputation of a prominent journalist like Howie Kurtz crumbles for all to see, trust me, I know what journalists everywhere are (or should be) secretly thinking: There but for the grace of spellcheck or a smart, thoughtful editor go I.
Folkenflik assumed the role of the good cop, showing appropriate sympathy for Kurtz’s plight, while asking pertinent questions. Byers played the bad cop and he very sensibly buttonholed Kurtz to find out how this mistake — and many others that had preceded it — could have happened to someone who was the face of media criticism for many years.
Kurtz was originally the Washington Post’s chief media writer, giving him ample high-profile opportunities to rip wrongdoers and chastise journalists who had either screwed up in an unfortunate way or made massive mistakes that had far-reaching consequences for themselves, their employers and the profession of journalism.
A few years ago, Kurtz left the beleaguered Post and joined the up and coming Daily Beast, reportedly getting what passes for a huge salary in the U.S. print-media world, and joined the Internet side with Tina Brown’s intriguing Daily Beast and its fellow publication Newsweek.
No doubt, Brown, who has always had an eye for talent and an eagerness to be surrounded by stars, correctly figured that Kurtz could give the Daily Beast and Newsweek heat when he publicly shed light as a CNN show host. It was fame by association.
When I heard that Kurtz was leaving the Daily Beast/Newsweek entity, I concluded that Brown had decided he had lived out his usefulness. Perhaps Brown has deduced that Kurtz’s days are numbered on Reliable Sources and CNN. If Kurtz would lack a TV presence, much of his command and appeal would be diluted, too, in print and Internet journalism.
This is really now the key question: Does Kurtz still have a future on TV?
Perhaps his astonishing lack of professionalism and class in dealing with the Collins story is enough to prompt CNN to remove him as the host of Reliable Sources. Can viewers still trust Kurtz’s opinions? Is he too much damaged goods now to be taken as a credible voice? Will they watch him on CNN and think immediately that he was the one who messed up the Collins saga?
Brown probably used the Kurtz error as an excuse to get rid of him and that very large salary he is pulling down (No, we’re not talking about Alex Rodriguez money, but it’s substantial for the journalism trade, whatever it may be). Today, employers in the media look at employees as necessary evils in a lot of cases. The workers simply make too much money to justify their contributions, whether in terms of boosting print circulations or TV ratings or helping to sell ads or increasing online page-view counts.
CNN may conclude that Kurtz makes too much money for the job and, since he is already carrying a lot of baggage, it can find a new (young) face and install him or her as the host of Reliable Sources. Or CNN is fretting that if it dumps Kurtz, he might get scooped up by the Fox News Channel or MSNBC, where he could open a fresh chapter and possibly boost TV ratings.
Kurtz made a full confession on the Reliable Sources show on May 5. Kurtz has lambasted journalists over the years and now it was his turn to say he was sorry. Was he sincere? Yes. Was he contrite? Hard to say. That’s a matter of personal opinion. (Let’s just say I wasn’t moved to tears.). Sticking to facts, he tried hard to justify his relevance by reminding the viewers that he has been doing this job for a long time and has, more often than not, brought honor, not shame, to his reputation and his employers.
But Kurtz overlooked the most basic rule of journalism for a reporter: You’re only as good as your last story. Kurtz’s last story, obviously, was one to forget. Will there be a next story for him?
It will be intriguing to see whether Kurtz will keep his job on CNN.