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How Howard Kurtz Came to be Interrogated on His Own CNN Show

Howard Kurtzmea culpa on his own “Reliable Sources” yesterday made for an extraordinary 15 minutes of live television. (Full disclosure: I am an occasional guest on the show.)

Kurtz’ apology for his most recent journalistic transgression – his “inexcusable” erroneous report last week about openly-gay NBA player Jason Collins — extended from his personal statement of contrition to a bracing interrogation by two excellent media reporters.

NPR’s David Folkenflik and Politico’s Dylan Byers grilled Kurtz about Collins as well as other mistakes from the past that Kurtz admitted he had sometimes waited too long to correct. It was riveting, powerful, and frequently uncomfortable to watch.

The backstory: In a Sports Illustrated piece that broke April 29, Collins became the first active male pro athlete from a major U.S. sport to come out. Kurtz wrote in his Daily Beast blog that Collins had not disclosed he had been engaged to a woman, and chastised him for it. He repeated the assertions in a video on The Daily Download, where he is a paid contributor.

In fact, Collins had written of the engagement. Kurtz had missed it, he said yesterday, because he had read the piece “too fast” and “carelessly.” On May 2, Kurtz left the Daily Beast. He said it was by mutual agreement; HuffingtonPost, among others, said he was fired.

The live interrogation on CNN was not Kurtz’ idea. He made that clear in his opening statement when he said the network had invited the questioners.

Folkenflik confirmed this in an interview with TVNewser. (Byers declined an interview because he said he was writing his own blog about the show). Folkenflik was pitched by a CNN executive “who doesn’t directly oversee the show,” he said, not naming names. “He’s a respected figure within CNN.”

Folkenflik said he and Byers had collaborated about what questions should be asked. Both were denied access to Kurtz beforehand. CNN offered “logistical help and some formatting,” according to Folkenflik, but no restrictions on questions. “At any point, we could have thrown in a wild card,” he said.

To Folkenflik, the experience was “an exquisite challenge to question somebody on his own network, in his own studio, on his own show. It was an intriguing enterprise. The story was of immense interest in the world of journalism.”

Kurtz “was clearly humbled and shaken by the moment,” in Folkenflik’s view.

“He was offering an apology that certainly sounded sincere. Whether everyone watching it… will find it sufficient is another question.”

Here’s my take: For decades, Kurtz has kept several plates spinning. Some breakage was inevitable. This time, however, the breakage was extensive. No one, not even the indefatigable Kurtz, can handle that much juggling without cracking.

As a media reporter, Kurtz has been virtually unparalleled. As Washington bureau chief for the Daily Beast, his political writing lacked that depth of authority. As a Daily Download contributor, well, the less said, the better.

Some expected CNN boss Jeff Zucker to cut Kurtz loose after the Collins imbroglio, but thus far he’s backing him, at least publicly. I hope he continues to do so.

Now that Kurtz has ‘only’ one full-time job, perhaps he’ll slow down enough to enjoy it.

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