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Monday, May 06, 2013

Criticizing A Media Critic

It's not often a media critic opens himself up to criticism on his own show, but that's exactly what happened Sunday morning in a mea culpa by Howard Kurtz on his CNN show, "Reliable Sources," and it made for remarkable TV.

Kurtz spent the first 90 seconds apologizing for major mistakes he'd made in blogging about Jason Collins' coming out announcement last week in a Sports Illustrated cover story. In a column he wrote for The Daily Beast and in a video he did for The Daily Download (both of which have been removed from the respective websites), Kurtz got some facts wrong about Collins' story. That may or may not have led to his departure from The Daily Beast (Kurtz says it didn't), but CNN stuck by him -- at least long enough for him to host his show Sunday morning.

Here's how he began the show:

On Monday, I read the Sports Illustrated article by Jason Collins, the first pro-male team athlete to come out as publicly gay. I read it too fast and carelesly missed that Jason Collins said he was engaged previously to a woman and then wrote and commented that he was wrong to keep that from readers, when I was in fact the one who was wrong. My logic about what happened between Jason Collins and his former fiancee and what was and wasn't disclosed, in hindsight, well I was wrong to even raise that and showed a lack of sensitivity to the issue.

Also, I didn't give him a chance to respond to my account before I wrote it and in addition my first correction was not as complete and as full as it should have been. In a video where I discussed the issue, I wrongly jokingly referred to something I shouldn't have joked about. I apologize to readers and viewers and most importantly to Jason Collins and to his ex-fiancee. I hope this very candid response will earn your trust back over time. It is something that I am committed to doing.
When Kurtz says he read the Collins piece "too fast," he has put his finger on the problem. Not only did he not read the article thoroughly, but Kurtz also liked to crank out a lot of material every day. The demand of having to create lots of fresh content, often several times a day, caused Kurtz to become careless -- and as The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief, with a two-decade reputation, he didn't have an editor checking what he wrote before it was published online.

There's nothing wrong with a content provider being his own gatekeeper. When I do my radio shows, I don't run things by anyone else before I turn on the microphone and start talking. That's why I deserve both credit and blame for every syllable I utter on the air (and on this site), because with that freedom to publish/broadcast/blog comes a responsibility for accuracy.

Following Kurtz's apology, the tables were turned, as two media critics (Politico’s Dylan Byers and NPR's David Folkenflik) grilled Kurtz -- fairly but forcefully -- about these errors and some previous mistakes, and questioning whether he was trying to do too much, too fast, while forgetting the importance of fact-checking...

Afterward, Jeff Jarvis wrote on
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.
Like Jarvis, I hope CNN keeps Kurtz and "Reliable Sources" on the air. It is often the only time anyone in broadcasting turns a critical eye on the media business and the people inside it. However, many other journalists have been fired for similar (and fewer) transgressions -- which Kurtz knows and will no doubt take to heart as he tries to reassemble his shredded credibility.