Howie Kurtz: An Unreliable Source

On October 3, 2010, Howie Kurtz–former media reporter for The Washington Post and the host of CNN’s media analysis show “Reliable Sources”–aired a show examining Rick’s comments, career and firing.  The guests on the show included Jamie McIntyre, who was put out to pasture by CNN, and Carole Simpson, formerly of ABC News.

The show was a biased piece of commentary.  Kurtz, who holds court weekly as the arbiter of what’s fair and honest in news reporting, was anything but fair and honest himself.  And worst of all, no one has held him accountable for the errors he made on the air and his hatchet job of Rick. 

There’s no easy way to disassemble the constructed attack on Rick, so we’ll just list the errors and instances of bias by comparing it to another of Kurtz’s shows covering a similar incident: NPR’s firing of Juan Williams.  As you may recall, Williams was fired for remarks he made on FOX News regarding Muslims.  You can find more information on this incident here.

1.  The Opening: A Double Standard in the Premise of Each Show.  Despite the similar subject matter of the two shows–both Rick and Juan Williams were fired for comments that people found offensive–Kurtz opened each show very differently and with very different premises.  Kurtz presented Rick’s firing with a completely different tone and approach to the way he framed Juan Williams’ firing.  The technique employed was a subtle one, evident only if someone viewed both shows and looked for bias.  And if one looked for bias, they found it.  Kurtz had a clear point of view and perhaps even an agenda since Rick was fired from CNN,  Kurtz’s employer, while Kurtz has no conflict when it comes to Williams’ former employer, NPR. 

Kurtz’s show regarding Rick’s firing opened by asking his guests, “Should Sanchez have been suspended or even tased?” By contrast, his show on Juan Williams’ firing was framed with the following question to his panel: “Did National Public Radio make a huge blunder in firing him [Juan Williams]?” 

From the start, one can see there’s a difference in how two similar stories are presented to viewers and even to the talking heads called in to comment.  The show regarding Rick begins with a cheap shot, a jab, at Rick’s story about the use of tasers and the now-infamous clip of him being tased, a clip many have used to make fun of Rick. Kurtz abandons objectivity for the sake of making a poor attempt at being humorous/funny.  In contrast, Kurtz’s show on Juan Williams begins with the “suggestion” that Juan Williams may be a victim and that NPR may have made a mistake in firing the broadcaster. 

Despite the fact that both Rick and Juan Williams were fired for similar offenses, Kurtz decided that Rick should be made fun of and presented dismissively (if not negatively), while Juan Williams should be presented in a positive light and perhaps in a way that would elicit sympathy.  Why the difference?  We’re not sure.  It would be great if Kurtz would answer that question.  Howie?

2. The Set-Up: Framing the Panel Discussions with Background Information.  Kurtz framed the discussion on Rick by playing clips of his gaffes over the years, including Rick’s story on the use of tasers by corrections officers.  Kurtz did not play the entire clip, but just a snippet of Rick being tased and saying it hurts.

By contrast, Kurtz takes a decidedly pro-Williams stance when presenting background on the incident leading to Williams’ firing.  With Williams, Kurtz not only shows the clip that got Williams fired, but also juxtaposes it with other clips from the same interview so that viewers could see what Kurtz wanted them to see: Williams’ words in the context of his entire interview with Bill O’Reilly.

To give Kurtz the benefit of the doubt, let’s not call this “pro-Williams.”  Let’s call it fair, honest and balanced.  Fine.  If we do so, then we must also recognize that Rick didn’t get the same treatment, making Kurtz’s portrayal of Rick unfair, dishonest and anything but balanced.  Had Kurtz wanted to be fair and afford Rick the same type of coverage that he gave Williams, Kurtz–instead of playing a reel of Rick’s gaffes–would have played other clips from Rick’s hour-long interview, which gave context for what Rick had been discussing and the message he was trying to convey before making the controversial comments.

No, Kurtz didn’t do that.  He just played the controversial portion.

But then, not content with providing context, Kurtz decided to take things one step further.  After playing the clip where Rick attempts to make the point that Jews don’t face the same challenges as Hispanics and are not underrepresented in media as Hispanics are, Kurtz adds, “In other words, the Jews control the media and the banks too.”  [emphasis added]

Let’s put aside the portion regarding Jewish “control” of the media, since many believe Rick said it (he didn’t) or that he implied it.  Let’s put that aside and assume that portion is a fair interpretation though there is no context.

The problem is that Rick never said Jews controlled the banks.  Rick never even mentioned banks. 

So why did Kurtz say this? Where did he even get it?  Kurtz either intentionally lied or he failed to do even basic research by listening to the entirety of the interview.  Kurtz got his facts wrong.  He attributed false statements to Rick.  Yet despite this, Kurtz has yet to issue a correction, and no one–including CNN–have held him responsible for this error.

3. The Panel Discussion: A Deck Stacked Against Rick.  Kurtz brought together a panel to discuss Juan Williams’ firing that included a self-friend of Williams: Clarence Page.  To no one’s surprise, Page defended his friend.  In other words, Kurtz brought on an ally of Juan Williams and at least ensured there was going to be some fairness in the discussion, that there was balance.  In contrast, the panel put together to discuss Rick didn’t include any of Rick’s friends. It didn’t even include any Hispanics who could speak to Rick’s remarks in the other parts of the interview where he said he felt prejudice and discrimination.  Instead, Kurtz brought together three panelists who all were not only critical of Rick, but ripped him to shreds. 

Let’s again put aside the inherent conflict that exists when people appearing on a CNN show are being asked to comment on CNN’s actions.  It’s not a stretch to think that if any of them were critical of CNN, they likely wouldn’t be guests on any CNN show in the near (or even long) term.

The three panelists brought together to discuss Rick were all in agreement with Kurtz’s leading softball questions. They affirmed what Kurtz wanted to establish from the very outset of the show: Rick is nothing more than a funny taser clip.  The guests said Rick was a, “blow-hard,” that he had no business being on the network in the first place and said Rick’s suggestion that, “he felt uncomfortable at CNN because he was a Hispanic was delusional.”

Can someone imagine that being said of any other minority group?  Could someone so easily dismiss another person’s claim that they felt uncomfortable or felt prejudice?  Would anyone tolerate someone saying that an African-American were delusional for saying that he or she was uncomfortable as one of the only African-Americans doing a particular job?  Would we be so dismissive if a woman said that about the workplace?  It’s ironic that Carole Simpson, also on the panel, has written a book detailing her experiences as an African-American in the news business and says that she faced discrimination–on the basis of both her race and her gender.  Is she delusional in claiming this?  Should we have a panel consisting of no African-Americans opine on her experiences and dismiss them out of hand?

The bias is overwhelming.

If this were done to anyone other than Rick Sanchez, someone who was disrespected on the air by other network anchors, it wouldn’t be tolerated. 

Howie Kurtz, if you have even one shred of decency or fairness, if you care about objectivity in the media, if you care to hold yourself to the standard you hold others to, step up and take responsibility.  Any of it.  Even if we write everything off except your erroneous claim that Rick talked about banks, then come forward and admit that you made a mistake.  Don’t be a hypocrite every Sunday.