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Howard Kurtz’ On-Air Mea Culpa Clouds His Future at CNN

Howard Kurtz referred to his own work as “sloppy and inexcusable,” and acknowledged that as a media critic, he should be held to a higher standard. So was his on-air mea culpa an act of refreshing transparency, or a fatal blow to his credibility?

In short, is Kurtz – formerly with the Washington Post, having recently cut ties to the Daily Beast/Newsweek – too unreliable to host something called “Reliable Sources?”

CNN and Kurtz do deserve considerable credit for addressing the latest issue head-on, inviting two other journalists, NPR’s David Folkenflik and Politico’s Dylan Byers, to grill the host involving a piece Kurtz did about Jason Collins coming out as the first gay U.S. athlete in a major team sport. Kurtz admitted he hadn’t fully read the Sports Illustrated article or watched an ABC interview in its entirety before mischaracterizing part of Collins’ account, and then being slow to correct the record.

Yet they did Kurtz no favors by not just focusing on the current misstep, but rehashing a number of other conspicuous errors he has been forced to acknowledge in the past, perhaps the most damaging involving Rep. Darrell Issa in 2011.

After those opening 15 minutes, it was sort of tough watching Kurtz step back into the host role, serving as the maestro of media ethics.

Now, to be fair, Kurtz is right when he says all journalists make mistakes, and I’ll acknowledge a personal screw-up years ago very similar to the incomplete-facts snafu involving Collins. Having read that a cow had its neck slit so contestants could drink the blood on CBS’ “Survivor,” I mentioned the cow having been “slaughtered.” But the cow wasn’t killed, and I was absolutely wrong for referring to the episode without having actually seen it.

As Kurtz noted, amid thousands of stories and millions of words, a few do not a career make. He apologized, and essentially pleaded for what amounts to another chance.

It’s equally true that news outlets — especially television — are bad about publicly correcting errors, which is why devoting time to Kurtz’s own shortcomings felt so bracing, although I’m sure to much of the world, it probably looked like an unnecessary level of navel-gazing.

That said, Kurtz isn’t just any journalist. And Folkenflik and Byers hammered him on a handful of stories, each of which was embarrassing enough at the time it’s hard to imagine repeating an error of that magnitude. (Since the aforementioned “Survivor” slip, I make it a point not to criticize a reality show without actually having watched it.)

“Sloppy?” Absolutely. “Inexcusable?” Ultimately, that part’s going to be up to CNN.

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