Attentive readers of Howard Kurtz's washingtonpost.com weekday media column may have noticed that on the fifth and final page of his 3,000-word December 6 post, Kurtz finally addressed the media controversy that erupted when Salon.com blogger Glenn Greenwald highlighted an egregious error made by Time magazine columnist Joe Klein. Klein had mocked a supposed Democratic legislative maneuver in Congress for being "well beyond stupid" and stressed how Democrats remain soft on the war on terror.
Greenwald's original fact-checking quickly set off an embarrassing chain of events in which Klein at first refused to forthrightly acknowledge his error, confused the issue further with additional updates online, and then threw up his hands and declared, "I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right." Meanwhile, as the story unfolded online, a Time magazine editor rudely hung up on a blogger who called to ask about errors in the column. And when Time eventually published a timid, misleading correction, Democratic members of Congress took the unusual step of publicly complaining about the column and demanding a chance to rebut Klein's false and malicious claim that Democrats weren't serous about fighting terrorism; that they wanted to give suspected terrorists the same legal protections as everyday Americans.
The story, which raged online for more than two weeks and was commented upon by virtually every major liberal blogger, unfolded at the intersection between politics and media -- the same intersection that Kurtz writes about for a living as perhaps the most-read media writer in the country. Yet for weeks Kurtz remained silent about the Klein story; nothing in the Post, nothing in his online daily column, and nothing on CNN's Reliable Sources, the weekly media program that he hosts.
The deafening silence was baffling. As Greenwald noted in an email to me, "The story involved the most-read political journal in the country and one of the best-known pundits. It entailed numerous key media issues which Kurtz is assigned to cover, including the corrupt use of anonymous sources, uncritical reliance by reporters on partisan spin, and a media outlet's refusal to correct its errors honestly and clearly."
Independent journalism observers agreed the controversy was noteworthy. The Center for Citizen Media -- jointly affiliated with the University of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University Law School -- condemned Klein's "flagrantly inaccurate and misguided Time magazine column," labeled it "[o]ne of the most amazing episodes in modern American journalism," and concluded that Klein's "work in this case may become Exhibit A for what's wrong with the craft today."
Yet for two weeks, not a word from the Post, which covers these types of media controversies more than any other newspaper in the country. There wasn't even a mention of it during Kurtz's weekly online chat with readers at washingtonpost.com. That, despite the fact that scores of Greenwald's readers say they submitted questions about the Klein story for the December 4 chat, and specifically questions about why Kurtz had remained silent about the story. Still, none of the submitted questions for the forum were addressed.
The controversy first broke on November 21. But it took Kurtz more than two weeks to address it. And even then he didn't write about it in the Post and he didn't address it on CNN's Reliable Sources. Instead, Kurtz simply included it as a footnote at the very end of a lengthy, five-page column. (Kurtz's coverage was so well hidden that Greenwald told me he originally missed it, "even though I was actively looking for it.")
Kurtz admits he was late to the Klein story. "Beyond taking a few days off at the time, I am spending most of my time covering the coverage of the presidential campaign, which includes the time-consuming task of critiquing the candidates' ads," he told me in an email. "Every four years at this time I am stretched somewhat thin because of the campaign. I work many, many hours and cannot cover everything."
But it wasn't just the tardiness that raised eyebrows. Kurtz's late coverage did not include a single link to any of Greenwald's detailed dissections of Klein's blatant miscue and Time's dishonest handling of the error. Second, Kurtz contacted Klein but never pressed him on a single fact. Instead, Kurtz simply relayed Klein's quote: "I made a mistake, I corrected it and it's over." (Trust me, Klein did not "correct" his mistake.) Third, even though Kurtz contacted Klein for a quote, he did not contact Greenwald. And fourth, Kurtz claimed it was "the liberal blogosphere" that was still upset about the Klein gaffe, when it fact it was members of Congress who, at that point, were making the most noise about Klein's column.
So Kurtz badly missed a big media story, what's the big deal, right? Truth is the episode mirrors a long pattern, which is why more and more prominent players on the left no longer consider Kurtz to be an honest broker -- because he remains chronically oblivious to breaking stories that have a strong progressive media angle. Yet simultaneously, Kurtz shows a chronic over-eagerness to amplify any minor media story being advanced by conservatives. Earlier this year I wrote that The Washington Post had a "crush" on right-wing bloggers; that love -- though perhaps unrequited -- remains strong today.
"There's much concern about his ideological biases intruding into his work," Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos, told me in an email. Noting Kurtz's tardiness to the Klein column, Moulitsas said "any 'media critic' ignoring that story -- and it was a long-percolating one over the span of several weeks, giving multiple avenues of entry for critics -- is certainly a 'media critic' not doing his or her job."
Kurtz denies the charge: "I'm a down-the-middle reporter who doesn't consider ideology in covering this beat. Unlike some of my critics, I don't have an agenda."
But consider just two recent media controversies (both initiated by Media Matters) that the usually prolific Kurtz also ignored at the Post.
The first was Fox News talker Bill O'Reilly telling his radio listeners that when visiting a famous soul food restaurant in Harlem that he "couldn't get over the fact" that the black-owned establishment was just like restaurants owned by whites. He also noted approvingly that "black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves."
The second was right-winger Rush Limbaugh characterizing members of the U.S. military who oppose the war in Iraq as "phony soldiers." When the controversy broke, Limbaugh then edited transcripts of his program before posting them online to try to obfuscate the context.
Combined, those two stories garnered nearly 900 mainstream media mentions, according to Nexis. Yet not once did Kurtz, the most high-profile media writer in the country, write about them in The Washington Post. Not once. Kurtz could have also covered the stories through his daily online column, where he links to prominent news and media news stories. But again, according to a search of Nexis, Kurtz never linked to a single story about the O'Reilly or Limbaugh controversies as they raged in real time.
For instance, from September 21 to October 1, Kurtz's column included 136 links. None were in reference to O'Reilly's controversial comments about the Harlem restaurant. Then from September 28 to October 5, Kurtz's column contained 85 links. None were about Limbaugh's "phony soldiers" slam.
For Kurtz and his work at The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com, those stories simply did not exist.
FYI, Greenwald first drew attention to Klein's erroneous assertion in his Time column in a November 21 post at Salon.com. Kurtz finally acknowledged that the media controversy existed on December 6. In between, Kurtz posted nearly 200 links in his online "Media Notes" column. None of the links was about the Klein controversy.
This simply continues Kurtz's distressing habit of blatantly ignoring media stories that emerge from the liberal blogosphere. For example, last winter the liberal blog community at Firedoglake offered up historic live-blogging from the Scooter Libby trial. The overachieving bloggers racked up much-deserved media mentions in the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report, Court TV, NPR, C-SPAN, CNN, and the BBC, among others, while The New York Times featured the team in a Page 1 piece. At the Post however, Kurtz didn't cover Firedoglake's accomplishments.
Then there was the March cancellation of the Nevada debate featuring Democratic candidates for president, which was set to be sponsored by Fox News. Bloggers and activists, led in part by Matt Stoller, Chris Bowers, and Robert Greenwald, raised objections about Fox News' role, claiming it was not a legitimate news channel and that Fox News didn't deserve to host the Democratic event. Candidates quickly withdrew and the plug was pulled. Kurtz never wrote about the story, despite its obvious media angle.
Then on April 1, Matt Drudge trumpeted an exclusive about how CNN Baghdad reporter Michael Ware had "heckled" Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during an Iraq press conference. Right-wing bloggers quickly echoed the allegations, claiming that the treasonous Ware was not fit to report and that CNN had to fire him. Video from the press conference though, quickly proved that the claims of heckling were completely false. (Ware never even spoke during the McCain briefing.) Kurtz though, remained mum about the wild attack on the press.
Again, Kurtz told me that he doesn't play favorites: "Liberal advocates are free to compile lists of stories I'm ignoring or playing down; I'm sure that conservatives have their own lists."
To get a sense of Kurtz's tilted perspective for media news, just take a look at CNN's Reliable Sources telecast from December 2 and note which topics were covered, how they were covered, and which topics were ignored.
Did Reliable Sources devote a lot of time to covering the right-wing cries of indignation following CNN's YouTube debate when it was discovered some Democrats, including one associated with the Hillary Clinton campaign, were allowed to ask the GOP candidates questions? Yes. Did it invite a partisan, opinionated conservative media critic to appear opposite two mainstream journalists to debate the controversy? Yes. Did it post on-air a quote from blogger and Hillary Clinton-hater Ann Althouse, who belittled the senator's actions when a hostage crisis broke out at her Rochester, New Hampshire, campaign office? Yes. Did it address the Politico's scoop that while having an affair as mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani may have tried to hide security expenses, but only do it in the context of whether the accurate Politico story was a "hit job" on the Republican? Yes. Did it elevate a pointless conservative media complaint about an MSNBC reporter who jokingly referred to President Bush as a "monkey" when he appeared in a photo between two other people (i.e. he was the monkey in the middle)? Yes. (Kurtz himself agreed the quote was "stupid" and "not a serious attack on the president." So why cover it?)
Meanwhile, did Reliable Sources ignore Greenwald's diligent take-down of Klein's Time column? Yes.
What's unfair is that while Kurtz routinely ignores important media stories and critiques raised by the left, he dashes off to cover similar episodes initiated by the right. For instance, during the summer and fall, right-wing press critics hounded The New Republic for publishing the then-anonymous work of Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp. Dubbed the Baghdad Diarist, Beauchamp often painted unflattering portraits of his fellow soldiers, claiming casual cruelty by some. Critics claimed his stories were fictional. Kurtz immediately pounced on the story.
According to Nexis, first came this:
"Army Private Discloses He Is New Republic's Baghdad Diarist"
The Washington Post, July 27, 2007 Friday, STYLE; Pg. C07, 669 words, Howard Kurtz; Washington Post Staff Writer
"Editors Confirm Soldier's Claims"
The Washington Post, August 3, 2007 Friday, STYLE; Pg. C02, 462 words, Howard Kurtz; Washington Post Staff Writer
"Army Concludes Baghdad Diarist Accounts Untrue"
The Washington Post, August 8, 2007 Wednesday, STYLE; Pg. C01, 759 words, Howard Kurtz; Washington Post Staff Writer
"Baghdad Diarist Was On Guard When Questioned by Editors"
The Washington Post, October 25, 2007 Thursday, STYLE; Pg. C01, 643 words, Howard Kurtz; Washington Post Staff Writer
And then finally, this:
"New Republic Disavows Iraq Diarist's Reports"
The Washington Post, December 4, 2007 Tuesday, STYLE; Pg. C01, 809 words, Howard Kurtz; Washington Post Staff Writer
Kurtz also prominently highlighted the Beauchamp story twice in his online column. In the end, Kurtz devoted more than 3,000 words to detailing the story about the TNR Baghdad Diarist, and then posted even more words online.
By Kurtz's own standards, the story of a military diarist fabricating reporting overseas was imperative and required the Post's on-going attention. Except, apparently, when the person doing the fabricating online is a conservative. Because late last month National Review Online, which attacked the Beauchamp story for months, conceded it could not verify some of the fantastic claims from the Middle East that former Marine W. Thomas Smith, Jr., had made in his blog, The Tank, which is published by NRO. In fact, editors at NRO ignored detailed complaints about Smith's work when they were lodged in October by a respected journalist stationed in the Middle East.
But how many stand-alone news stories in the Post has Kurtz written about that controversy? Zero.
Back in February, I wondered out loud how long it would take for the Post to publish a profile of a prominent liberal blogger, the way the Post has published profiles of right-wing bloggers in the past. At the time I suggested that we "start the clock ticking and see how long it takes (if ever) for the Post to invite Glenn Greenwald out to lunch in order to write up a flattering profile of the rising progressive blogger."
It's been nearly 40 weeks, and despite the laundry list of media accomplishments liberal bloggers have accumulated in 2007, Kurtz and the Post have maintained their editorial boycott. But now, in the wake of the Post's botched coverage of the Klein and Time magazine story, what better way for Kurtz and the newspaper to prove there is no double-standard -- that the newspaper does not have an ax to grind against liberal bloggers -- than finally getting around to writing that profile of Greenwald, the liberal blogger who just eviscerated Time.