CNN aired an entertaining reversal this past Sunday morning. Where Howard Kurtz, host of “Reliable Sources,” generally grills his guests on the media topics of the day, this time his guests were doing that to Kurtz.

NPR’s David Folkenflik and Politico’s Dylan Byers had a great deal to play with. In a Beltway-captivating event, Kurtz screwed up a post about the coming-out of NBA player Jason Collins, and then found that he’d lost his (other) job as the Washington bureau chief for the Daily Beast. At least one outlet called it a firing. Beast leaders were reportedly irked that Kurtz had spent too much time in a third quasi-job — doing videos and otherwise promoting the Daily Download, a media-covering site founded by Lauren Ashburn, a former managing editor at USA Today’s now-defunct television arm.

To underscore Kurtz’s dedication to the Daily Download, the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone analyzed his Twitter productivity: “In April, Kurtz tweeted over 120 links to Daily Download, around 20 links to The Daily Beast and even fewer to CNN’s ‘Reliable Sources,’ the weekly media criticism show he’s hosted since 1998.”

Such disparities suggest a heavy Kurtzian stake in the Daily Download, a notion that he dismissed in response to a question on Sunday: “It’s always been a limited venture for me. I’m a contributor to ‘Daily Download’ and paid on a freelance basis. I don’t have any equity in the site. I don’t have any role in the company that owns it. And my basic job was to make online videos.”

And give the Daily Download PR! What regular CNN viewer hasn’t heard of the Daily Download by now? The site launched in February 2012, though Kurtz has said that his involvement with the venture “started long before the site went public.

So did Kurtz’s recruitment of Daily Download founder Ashburn to appear as a guest on “Reliable Sources.” A Nexis search for CNN guests reveals that Ashburn has made more than 80 appearances on the network since summer 2009. She started out on “Reliable Sources,” tallying more than a dozen appearances from July 2009 through the end of 2011. Over the past 17 months, her presence on the network quickly escalated: She has scored numerous appearances not only on “Reliable Sources,” but also on “The Situation Room,” “Starting Point” and “CNN Newsroom.”

Of the 80-odd appearances cited by Nexis, all but about 13 featured co-appearances with Kurtz.

Take “Starting Point,” the soon-to-be-extinct morning show with Soledad O’Brien. Starting last fall, Kurtz and Ashburn have turned up on numerous occasions as a media-commentating duo, with each iteration providing helpful publicity for Daily Download. On Nov. 16, for instance, “Starting Point” host Soledad O’Brien introduced them as follows: “Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN’s ‘Reliable Sources’ and Washington bureau chief for ‘Newsweek’ and the ‘Daily Beast.’ Lauren Ashburn is contributor to the ‘Daily Beast’ and editor-in-chief of the ‘Daily Download.’ It’s nice to have both of you back.” Then they proceeded to discuss the media’s treatment of the David Petraeus affair. (Outside of CNN, the two have also appeared a number of times on PBS’s NewsHour).

There are a number of possibilities as to how and why this partnership unfolded on CNN’s air:

1) Kurtz was seeking new professional skills. This was the explanation he offered to Folkenflik and Byers: “Now, she’s a very experienced television executive. She ran the television division of ‘USA Today.’ She’s a top official at Gannett Broadcasting. She’s a former anchor. I thought it would be a valuable learning experience,” said Kurtz on Sunday. With upwards of 65 joint appearances on CNN with Ashburn plus many joint Daily Download videos — well, that’s a lot of learning.

2) Ashburn blew away CNN. Given her background, Ashburn clearly has had some media training. Perhaps her agility in front of the camera helped her catch on with CNN programs outside of “Reliable Sources.” MSNBC, too, has booked her for more than a dozen guest appearances so far this year.

3) Kurtz bootstrapped a business contact into CNN’s regular guest rotation. The selection of guests is a key component of a TV news operation’s identity and integrity, much like story selection, sourcing, hiring and the like. Was Kurtz’s decision to pull in Ashburn frequently on “Reliable Sources” and then partner with her on “Starting Point” warped by whatever allegiances he may have had to the Daily Download? If it was, and if I were a CNN editorial executive, I’d be pissed.

When asked about how intersecting allegiances may have affected the network’s booking practices, a CNN source replied: “Clearly, if shows booked them together they weren’t violating any rules. It may be that shows actually preferred the two of them together to Howie alone. But at the end of the day, Ashburn was a guest like anyone else. Again, it seems clear that shows were okay booking her or editorial producers wouldn’t have scheduled her. Out of more than 300 total guests appearances on Reliable Sources in 2012, Lauren had 11 appearances. I believe she’s been on 3 times this year.” (Ashburn declined to comment)

“Howard has a stable of regulars on the weekly program — as you know — which includes [Eric] Deggans, [Gail] Shister, [Sharon] Waxman, and you…,” noted the CNN source. “You,” here means the Erik Wemple Blog. Full disclosure, in other words.

Whatever the confusing ins and outs of this interesting collaboration, one point is clear: The Daily Download owes Howard Kurtz great thanks for what he has done on its behalf, all for some measly freelance payments. Or gigantic freelance payments, as the case may be — though the site doesn’t have the profile of a money-making enterprise. A yeoman’s unraveling of this inside-media-biz mystery may just require a peek at Kurtz’s tax returns. We’re unlikely to get them, judging from his response to inquiries for this piece: No response. So much for that “higher standard.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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