News outlets publish corrections every day, but Howard Kurtz’s recent correction to a Daily Beast story has gotten a lot of attention because he knew of the error for more than six weeks without filling a correction.
Kurtz apparently thought he was interviewing Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), but he actually interviewed Issa’s spokesperson.
What is interesting about this correction isn’t so much the error made but the lack of corrective action taken. Gawker called the correction a “fairly major, embarrassing” one. It is even more of a whopper because Howard Kurtz has been, for 30 years, the media columnist for the Washington Post. As such, he has regularly called out journalists for far more innocuous miscues than his own error.
“The real issue at play is why Kurtz waited a month and a half to let his readers know of the mistake.”
Kurtz also wrote a note explaining the correction. In it, Kurtz explained the sequence of events: he requested an interview with Issa via his spokesperson Kurt Bardella.
“That afternoon my phone rang, I heard the words ‘Darrell Issa’ and I thanked the congressman for calling. I asked why ‘you’ made various statements about the president and congressional oversight, and he responded. I called him ‘Congressman’ several times during our discussion. I later emailed Bardella, on Nov. 24, and said: ‘Hey, thanks for getting me the congressman so quickly. He mentioned the minority having sent 46 letters to the chairman or subcommittee chairmen and getting only six responses. Would you have some or all of the ones that drew no response? Thanks.’
Bardella did send Kurtz those letters, and on the day of publication of Kurtz’s story, he heard from Bardella that he had interviewed Bardella — not Issa. He said:
“On Nov. 29, after my story ran on The Daily Beast, I got a note from Bardella saying there had been ‘a little confusion’ and ‘it wasn’t the congressman you spoke with, it was me speaking in his capacity as his spokesman.'”
Kurtz claimed that Bardella never identified himself as the spokesperson and not the congressman throughout the interview. “There was one reference to ‘Darrell Issa’ that I attributed to lawmakers sometimes speaking of themselves in the third person,” Kurtz wrote.
However, Kurtz stated:
“To my best understanding, none of the opinions ascribed to Rep. Issa are inaccurate. But it’s now clear the attribution should have been to his spokesman, and I erred in not dealing with this matter immediately.”
In an interview with Politico, Kurtz explained why he waited more than a month to correct his story. “I screwed up,” Kurtz is quoted as saying, noting that he was “puzzled” when Bardella wrote him to say that Bardella was interviewed — not Issa. Kurtz also said that Bardella didn’t request a correction, and that Kurtz “got busy” and “let it slip.”
“I was so puzzled by the note that Bardella sent – about my not having talked to the man I repeatedly called congressman, and who identified himself as Darrell Issa – that I wasn’t sure how serious he was.”
He also said he didn’t understand why Bardella didn’t correct him during the interview or follow-up e-mails until after the story was published. Bardella reportedly explained to Politico that he “just assumed he reached the congressman somehow, and I wasn’t aware of it.” Because Issa has “a press staff of six people,” Bardella said he doesn’t know about every interview, and that he “did not recall Kurtz” referring to him as the congressman.
“If I had had any indication at the time that he thought he was talking to Darrell Issa, I would have corrected him right then,” Bardella is quoted as saying. “I identify myself as, ‘Hi this is Kurt with Darrell Issa’ every time I talk to a reporter…I don’t go around masquerading as Darrell Issa.”
Kurtz also reportedly said that he should have talked to his editors about it sooner and that he should have addressed the issue when it first came up because the New Yorker heard about the story.
“What made me realize that I should have dealt with this at the time, and I am kicking myself over that, was a call from Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker who had apparently gotten wind of the ‘confusion’ from Bardella,” Kurtz is quoted as saying. “And then I did what I should have done immediately, which was just lay it all out.”
Kurtz’s correction reads:
“When I conducted the telephone interview for my Nov. 27 article on California Rep. Darrell Issa, my unambiguous understanding was that I was speaking with Rep. Issa. I subsequently learned that I was speaking to his chief spokesman, Kurt Bardella. None of the views ascribed to Issa are inaccurate, but the attribution throughout the story should have been to his spokesman, not to the congressman. We have since corrected the article. The earlier version also mentioned Darrell Issa’s “tendency to refer to himself in the third person.” In fact, that usage was appropriate because the interview was with his spokesman.”
Fishbowl DC commented that Issa and Bardella sound “absolutely nothing” alike.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics advises that journalists “admit mistakes and correct them promptly.”