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CNN’s Howard Kurtz and a ‘higher standard’

If only Howard Kurtz got in trouble every week.

On a riveting edition of his CNN show “Reliable Sources” yesterday, Kurtz wasn’t asking the questions; he was answering them, as NPR’s David Folkenflik and Politico’s Dylan Byers brought him to the CNN grill to discuss the host’s mistaken Jason Collins reporting and his subsequent “parting of ways” with the Daily Beast, where he worked as Washington bureau chief.

The host kicked things off with this contrite statement:

I’m Howard Kurtz and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
The show has also been about turning a critical lens on the media. This time, the media mistake was mine, a big mistake, more than one, in fact. Here is what happened and here is why I did what I did and why it was clearly, wrongly handled by me.
On Monday, I read the “Sports Illustrated” article by Jason Collins, the first pro male team athlete to come out publicly as gay. I read it too fast and carelessly 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, in fact, I was the one who was wrong.
My logic about what happened between Jason Collins and his former fiancee and was and wasn’t disclosed, in hindsight, well, I was wrong even to raise that and it 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 to story was not as complete and as full as it should have been.
A video where I discussed the issue, I wrongly jokingly referred to something that shouldn’t have been joked about.
For all those reasons, I apologize to readers, to viewers and most importantly to Jason Collins and to his ex-fiancee. I hope that this very candid response may earn back your trust over time. It is something that I am committed to doing.

Yet Kurtz’s interrogators weren’t going to allow Kurtz’s official position to go unchallenged. Folkenflik set out to “unpack” the situation, pressing the host to explain why he didn’t respond more expeditiously to the Collins situation. The exchange:

FOLKENFLIK: Initially, you didn’t really fully apologize. You sent out a tweet in which you ripped him anew — you said Collins didn’t tell the whole story.
You’re being very honest with us now, Howie. Why didn’t you have the decency to apologize to him at that time when you knew what you had written was wrong?
KURTZ: What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking very clearly because he had played down the part about his former fiancee and she had been making the television rounds, I thought was an interesting fact to comment on.
But I somehow convinced myself, I guess I got it — I handled it wrong and convinced myself that I could [go] soft on the wording and partially apologized. That was wrong. I should have retracted it immediately. I acknowledged that was wrong.

The reason that Kurtz didn’t apologize right away is that he’s stubborn, arrogant and desperate — precisely like most journalists in the same situation. The behavior here is as inexcusable as it is common: Journalists don’t like to be accountabilitized; once they’ve written something, they don’t want to un-write it; they’ll commit atrocities of logic to defend their work; they’ll grovel to downgrade a retraction to a correction to a clarification to nothing; and they’ll do it all with righteous conviction. That’s why they need editors.

In coming clean on his own CNN program, Kurtz said that his role as a media critic means he should be held to a “higher standard.” It’s just such lofty principles that get forgotten when a journalist is first confronted with error.