Sometimes it really is like shooting fish in a barrel, especially when it has to do with Howard Kurtz, who after years of working for the Washington Post, now writes for the Daily Beast.
Howard is tut-tutting today over the egregious hypocrisy of Keith Olbemann:
So is Keith Olbermann now the Worst Person in the World? No, but he made a really dumb mistake.
By donating to three Democratic candidates while covering the midterms on MSNBC, Olbermann crossed a bright journalistic line—even for a commentator whose partisan sympathies are no secret.
The network had no choice but to suspend him, even though he's the biggest draw on NBC's cable channel. "Mindful of NBC News policy and standards," MSNBC President Phil Griffin said in a statement, "I have suspended him indefinitely without pay."
"No choice." No choice at all.
The real forehead-slapper here is that Olbermann donated the legal maximum, $2,400, to Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva on Oct. 28—the same day he interviewed the congressman for Countdown. Viewers, of course, had no way of knowing.
As first reported by Politico, Olbermann also donated the maximum to Arizona Rep. Gabriella Giffords and to Jack Conway, the Kentucky Republican who lost his Senate race to Rand Paul.
It's hard to fathom what Olbermann was thinking, because he must have realized that the donations would show up in federal election records and eventually be made public.
What's more, Olbermann has used the issue of political donations to rip his arch-enemies at Fox News. He pounced on Rupert Murdoch when News Corp., Fox's parent, gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association and another million bucks to the GOP-backing Chamber of Commerce.
Now Olbermann, who's not shy about caustic criticism, faces the inevitable charge of hypocrisy.
Oh, Howard. You really want to go there? You really want to pluck out the splinter in Keith's eye instead of the log in your own?
His mistake is not in the same league as what some Fox contributors have done. Karl Rove raised about $50 million in recent months for an independent group supporting Republican candidates. Dick Morris has raised money, spoken on behalf of candidates and refers to Republicans as "we." Sarah Palin barnstormed the country on behalf of her favored candidates, often of the Tea Party variety.
And one full-time Fox News host, Sean Hannity, has attended GOP fundraisers. Fox allows such activity for talk-show hosts and contributors, whom the network doesn't consider journalists. I've written about this from time to time; few people seem to care.
At CNN, where I host a weekly media program, James Carville and Paul Begala are contributors who also sign fundraising letters for the Democratic Party. If it were up to me, I wouldn't allow any of that.
That's because Howard Kurtz's personal standards are so high. How high are they?
They're so high that he interviewed his publicist wife's friend and client to push her new book.
They're so high that, while working as the Washington Post's media critic, he also worked at CNN and was supposed to report on them.
Oh, and his wife, Sheri Annis? She was a prominent Republican consultant for a very long time. Kurtz often interviewed her clients and never disclosed that conflict. Eric Alterman wrote a year ago:
And just recently a correspondent sent me a note pointing out that Kurtz had actually changed his identification on one Post column, after it was printed, to remove the word “paid” before the words “contributor to CNN” to perhaps imply that there is no conflict at all. After all, if no money is changing hands, then what’s the big deal?
What’s more, the problem is much larger than simply Kurtz’s dishonesty about his relationship with CNN (and his lack of disclosure in the Post). As the journalism professor Edward Wasserman writes in The Miami Herald in a column critical of Kurtz, “What makes conflicts of interest so insidious is that their effect may be impossible to catalogue. They make themselves felt not in clear-cut favoritism but through impaired judgment: The stories that are skipped, or the elements of stories that are done that are omitted or downplayed.”
In recent weeks, Columbia Journalism Review critic Michael Massing has noted, in a recent column called “Howard Kurtz: Missing in Action?” that Kurtz cannot bring himself to criticize the outrageous lies told by Fox News anchors in their war with the White House—indeed, cannot even accept the notion that there is anything funny going on at Fox at all.
Kurtz’s view, he says, “is that they control no votes, no factions, no military units, but they do have powerful microphones. Whatever influence wielded by Beck and Hannity or Limbaugh (or by commentators on the other side) stems from their ideas and their talents as infotainers. If they peddle misinformation and exaggerations, that can be neutralized by others in the media marketplace.”
But Massing quite properly retorts: “Gee, Howard, I would have thought that the main job of a media reporter would be to expose the misinformation and exaggerations peddled by news organizations. Why cede the job to the ‘media marketplace’ (whatever that is)? I would expect The Washington Post to be one place we could look to for a thoughtful, well-researched analysis of the performance of a network like Fox.” Massing then goes on to praise the comedian Jon Stewart for giving CNN’s competitors and CNN itself the kind of coverage that is literally unimaginable from this tough-talking reporter.
As a former journalist myself, the conflict-of-interest web is very tricky to navigate, even when you follow the letter of the law on ethics guidelines, but Kurtz's biggest conflict was uncomplicated and impossible to miss.
There's a famous saying in the newspaper business: "We don't care if you f*** the elephants, as long as you're not covering the circus." Howard Kurtz has a very long history of doing that very thing. He might not be the best person to be lecturing Keith Olbermann.