Inside the CNN Howie Kurtz Showdown

In an unprecedented move, on Sunday CNN put “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz in a time out and made him answer for his mistakes. To his credit, Kurtz didn’t try to fight the internal decision, despite its horrible awkwardness.

The longtime media critic’s most recent blunder involved Jason Collins, an NBA player who announced that he’s gay. But Kurtz was also forced to answer for other mistakes he has made, including writing that he’d spoken to a congressman when he had spoken to his aide. Even when he learned the truth, he waited months to divulge his error. Another instance involved attributing a quote to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi that had her criticizing President Obama‘s messaging. Only problem was it wasn’t hers. As for Collins, Kurtz insisted in a story last week for The Daily Beast that the NBA player had not mentioned that he had once been engaged to a woman, even though he had told Sports Illustrated as much. Kurtz downplayed his error. Worse, he cracked jokes about Collins in a video with Daily Download Editor-in-Chief Lauren Ashburn. As bad luck would have it, the mistake happened on the day before Newsweek-Daily Beast‘s Tina Brown canned him as Washington Bureau Chief, which Kurtz explained was unfortunate timing. In his own defense, he said the “amicable divorce” had been in the works.

But more unfortunate for Kurtz was the fact that 15 minutes of his own Sunday show would be devoted to NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik (below right) and Politico media blogger Dylan Byers (below left) firebombing him with questions about his mistakes. It was the equivalent of parents siding with the teacher, who, in this case, were right to do so.

And still, it was tough to watch. As we witnessed Folkenflik and Byers gnaw away at Kurtz’s bony corpse, we wondered, how do they feel being cast in the roles of media police and how do they think Kurtz did? Up close, did he appear sincerely remorseful? Are they satisfied with his responses?

“He certainly appeared to me to be visibly contrite,” Folkenflik told FishbowlDC in a phone interview Monday. “I think his audience will have to reasonably think about what they saw and heard and figure out how to absorb what they’ve learned, to incorporate what seemed to be a contrite presentation and evaluate what they think about him going forward.

“It was a very human and humbled moment for him. It’s very difficult to have been in the room with him and asking him these very direct questions without getting the feeling that he was genuinely contrite about the circumstances that created that exchange.”

Byers, no less sharp-tongued than Folkenflik in his questioning of Kurtz, was far less forthcoming about his thoughts about the interview, but we may learn more from him at a later date. Still, we’re eternally grateful he came up with this bold and admirable quote. “CNN made a bold and admirable decision by inviting reporters from outside the network to interview Howie on his own show, and I’m grateful to Howie for allowing that to happen,” he told FBDC.

Meanwhile, NPR’s forthcoming and frank Folkenflik told us he noticed…there were stories that Kurtz was more forthcoming about and others he showed reluctance to elaborate on. “Some of those things, I think media critics are aware that mistakes are part of the daily and hourly journalist, and we all have to be pretty humble and cognizant of that,” he said.

But the concerns raised about Kurtz’s reporting appeared to be more than garden variety issues. “They were foundational to his writing,” Folkenflik asserted. “We all make mistakes. You have to correct them and move on. This [Jason Collins story and video] was a quick hit he did without doing the reporting necessary to do that.”

In Preparation…Folkenflik said he and Byers “talked through” possible questions for Kurtz. “We wanted to listen to what he had to say,” he explained. “We had talked through both the general areas we wanted to cover, framed in a way that would allow him to answer what we thought were valid criticisms and, at the same time, allow viewers to evaluate what he had to say.”

Folkenflik said for the viewing public at large this story “is pretty  in the weeds” and swiftly instituted a baseball analogy: “It’s as though the infield fly rule had an infield fly rule,” he said, noting that the importance of the unusual interview was “for people who are viewers of his show, for people who care about the intersection of politics and media and how we call balls and strikes.”

He said a number of important issues were touched upon, such as 1. principles of journalism 2. fairness 3. the accelerating nature of the news cycle, and 4. the personal brand created by journalists. “People have to be more careful about guarding their own reputations,” he said. “By all visible accounts, it’s hard not to conclude that he was involved with three, not two, news organizations.”

Rules of engagement…“We were told we could ask him anything,” Folkenflik said. “I’m not sure we would have taken the assignment otherwise. They offered logistical support. You can’t just show up and run a segment. So they helped us format the logistics. One of the things they did, which made it more of a challenge, is it was live television. But even if they tried to walk us through, we could have thrown a curve ball in there anytime.”

Off camera…“Look, there is definitely a human element to this,” Folkenflik said. “He can be a buoyant and peppy guy when the red light comes on each Sunday [but] his demeanor was more subdued. This was not a happy occasion for him.”

Asked if, after watching Kurtz spell out a pretty elaborate mea culpa at the beginning of the program, if he ever felt his questions bordered on kicking a dog that was down, Folkenflik replied: “Howard Kurtz has been doing this a long time, in print, on air, he has certainly asked a lot of hard questions and doled out a lot of tough medicine. He knew he was going to have to answer questions to continue. I was there because I thought it was worth seeing what answers emerged. I think CNN wanted him to answer real questions and not interfere with what those questions were.”

Interacting with Kurtz…“We shook hands,” Folkenflik recalled. “We talked for a moment or two. It was perfectly cordial given the circumstances. It wasn’t hostile at all.” But, the reporter added, it also wasn’t clubby.