behind the news

Howard Kurtz, Piñata

How real is Howard Kurtz's conflict of interest between his roles at CNN and the Washington Post?
November 22, 2005

There’s little the media likes more than a good, old-fashioned pile-on. In the ongoing and increasingly frustrating MillerPlameCooperLibbyNovakFitzgeraldWoodward story, we seem to have found another object of interest: Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz.

While Kurtz has taken his lumps over years from the likes of Mickey Kaus and Eric Alterman over his dual — and possibly conflicting — roles as Post media critic and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Katharine Q. Seelye’s piece in the New York Times yesterday has kick-started the debate anew: Is it really a conflict of interest for Kurtz to hold both positions, which may put him in an uncomfortable spot when the situation calls for him to criticize or interview one or the other of his employers?

Seelye takes it pretty easy on Kurtz, writing that “He draws salaries from two of the most important media companies in the country: CNN, which is owned by Time Warner, and the Post, which is owned by The Washington Post Company. Such arrangements do not violate Post policy. In fact, the Post has quite liberal rules regarding extracurricular work by its reporters and editors.”

Kaus jumped all over the piece, complaining that “most WaPo reporters who moonlight for, say, Vanity Fair, don’t report on Vanity Fair as part of their regular beats. Is Seelye really right that it’s not a violation of ‘Post policy’ to draw a salary from a company you cover? Those are some liberal rules!”

Indeed they are, and they’ve dogged Kurtz for years. As Alterman wrote back in February, 2003, “[A]ll media writers, including myself, walk a difficult line with regard to conflicts of interest. As a reporter and a wide-ranging talk-show host, Kurtz, unlike a columnist, cannot choose simply to ignore news. What’s more, the newspaper for which he writes cannot help but cover CNN, the network on which he appears, and vice versa, as they both constitute 800-pound gorillas in the media jungle.”

Other criticisms, like Kaus’ (and a litany of right-wing bloggers’) takedown of Kurtz over his failure to report the Eason Jordan scandal at CNN last February to their satisfaction, often look more like bloggy partisan sniping than anything really substantial.

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As for the latest round hammering the same old theme, Kaus wrote yesterday, “Every reporter who’s paid has a conflict with whatever institution pays him. That’s unavoidable. Kurtz’s problem is that he has a second, gratuitous conflict with the giant conglomerate the Post pays him to cover.” Fact is, there is a conflict here, but despite his critics’ best efforts, none of Kurtz’s alleged transgressions have produced enough heat to cause him any damage. Some claim this is because Kurtz is such a presence in the media world that most critics are afraid to really go after him — but that’s hard to believe, and that claim ascribes to Kurtz power he just doesn’t have.

Kurtz’s conflict appears to be more theoretical than actual. Critics’ charges have generally fallen into the category of disagreements (often ideological) with his reporting, rather than a concerted effort on Kurtz’s part to play up to one of his employers.

Perhaps one day Kurtz will cross a line that makes him a journalistic pariah. But until that day comes, or freelancing becomes a crime, his critics will just have to deal with it.

Paul McLeary is a former CJR staff writer. Since 2008, he has covered the Pentagon for Foreign Policy, Defense News, Breaking Defense, and other outlets. He is currently a defense reporter for Politico.