Tuned In

Reliable Sources Answers: Who Shall Critique the Media Critic?

More interesting than the individual elements of the Howard Kurtz controversy was seeing a TV host answer for them on his own show.

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I spent a good five minutes last week trying to explain to a friend, someone who follows news and the media fairly closely, why the controversy around Howard Kurtz was news. I confess I didn’t do a fairly good job. Individually, the elements of the scandal, involving perhaps the highest-profile media critic in the country (depending if you count Jon Stewart), are, while embarrassing for Kurtz, not stunning for the media profession.

First, you had a well-known journalist making a boneheaded mistake. Kurtz wrote a column and recorded a video rather snidely criticizing NBA player Jason Collins, who had publicly come out as gay, for supposedly not revealing that he had been engaged to a woman, and criticizing the media for ignoring this part of the story. For starters, Kurtz was just wrong: Collins had discussed the engagement, as even cursory attention to his story would have shown.

Second, Kurtz’s argument would have been ridiculous even if his facts were right. Collins had been engaged, which proved… what, exactly? That he was straight and faking gayness because of its obvious benefits in professional sports? That he had gone beyond the pale by living a lie? Has Kurtz ever known anyone who came out of the closet, or hell, even read about it?

But again, pundit giving embarrassingly clueless opinion: not exactly a rarity. Nor was the apparent explanation: that Kurtz, who hosts Reliable Sources for CNN and wrote for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and freelanced videos for the fledgling online startup The Daily Download, was overextended and thus making sloppy mistakes. Kurtz and The Daily Beast parted ways last week—depending who you ask, he was either fired flat-out, or his already-planned departure was accelerated by the embarrassment.

(The amount of time Kurtz was devoting to The Daily Download was an unusual twist–he promoted the site heavily on Twitter and had its founder on Reliable Sources frequently, though he said he had no stake in the company. Still, even within the limited circle of extreme media-watchers, The Daily Download is obscure; I’d guess that most mediaphiles know it, if at all, mainly through links in Kurtz’s Twitter feed rather than from watching its videos firsthand.)

No, the most surprising thing was that Kurtz suffered consequences at all. And the most striking part came this weekend, when Kurtz not only gave a dramatic mea culpa on Reliable Sources Sunday morning but invited two media reporters–Politico’s Dylan Byers and NPR’s David Folkenflik–to grill him on the news.

The interview itself was mostly a standoff: Kurtz again denied an equity interest in The Daily Download (and thus any conflict in promiting it), apologized to Collins, and said that the balance of his very long career should still give him credibility. Still, the very idea that a cable network should have one of its hosts subject himself to questioning on its air for a screw-up was something. (CNN, I should disclose, is like TIME part of Time Warner, though TIME’s publisher is in the process of being spun off from the company.)

As Alex Pareene pointed out in Salon, this is something that rarely happens with pundits at Kurtz’s level; the advantage of having a TV show is that you generally have a bigger platform than your critics. I wouldn’t say Kurtz’s interrogation redeems him—it didn’t really further answer what went wrong or why, and barely touched the larger question of whether a media critic with multiple gigs can do his job without conflict. As in all such controversies, that’s the difference between coming clean and doing damage control.

But it would be nice to see other cable news pundits get interviewed on their air sometimes—a kind of TV version of Question Time for the British Prime Minister. Whether the Kurtz story holds your attention or not, that would be interesting.