Media critic Howard Kurtz. (Photo credit: David Shankbone)
For nearly a quarter century, Howard Kurtz has served as hall monitor for Washington's conventional wisdom, handing out demerits to independent-minded journalists who don't abide by the mainstream rules. So, there is some understandable pleasure seeing Kurtz face some accountability in his ouster as bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
However, the more salient point is that Kurtz, who continues to host CNN's "Reliable Sources" show, should never have achieved the level of influence in journalism that he did. Throughout his career, he has consistently -- and unfairly -- punished journalists who had the courage to ask tough questions and pursue truly important stories.
Kurtz faulted Collins for supposedly not revealing that he had once been engaged to a woman, but Collins had mentioned those marriage plans. Twitter exploded with comments about Kurtz's sloppy error. On Thursday, The Daily Beast retracted the post, and the Website's editor-in-chief Tina Brown announced that Kurtz would be departing.
However, Kurtz has committed far more serious offenses during his years destroying the careers of journalists who dared make life a bit uncomfortable for Official Washington's powerful elites. For instance, Kurtz played a key role in the destruction of investigative reporter Gary Webb, who had the courage to revive the long-suppressed Contra-cocaine story in the mid-1990s.
Working at the San Jose Mercury-News, Webb produced a multi-part series in 1996 revealing how cocaine that was smuggled into the United States by operatives connected to the Nicaraguan Contra war of the 1980s had contributed to the "crack cocaine" epidemic that ravaged U.S. cities. Webb's articles put the major U.S. news media on the spot because most mainstream outlets had dismissed the Contra-cocaine allegations when they first surfaced in the mid-1980s.
My Associated Press colleague Brian Barger and I wrote the first story about the Contra-cocaine scandal in 1985 and our work was met with a mix of condescension and contempt from the New York Times and the Washington Post, where Kurtz worked for many years. Even after an investigation by Sen. John Kerry confirmed -- and expanded upon -- our work, the big newspapers continued to dismiss and downplay the stories.
It didn't matter how much evidence was developed on the Contra-cocaine smuggling or on the Reagan administration's role covering up the crimes; the conventional wisdom was that the scandal must be a "conspiracy theory." Journalists or government investigators who did their job, looking at the problem objectively, risked losing their jobs.
Journalistic up-and-comers, such as Michael Isikoff (then at the Washington Post), advanced their careers by focusing on minor flaws in Kerry's investigation rather than on major disclosures of high-level government complicity with drug trafficking. Newsweek's "conventional wisdom watch" mocked Kerry as "a randy conspiracy buff."
So, when Gary Webb revived the Contra-cocaine scandal in 1996 by pointing out its real-world impact on the emergence of crack cocaine that ravaged inner cities across the United States in the 1980s, his stories were most unwelcome.
At first, the mainstream news media tried to ignore Webb's work, but African-American lawmakers demanded investigations into the scandal. That prompted a backlash from the major news organizations. Webb's articles were dissected looking for tiny flaws that could be exploited to again discredit the whole issue.
On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb's series, although acknowledging that some Contra operatives indeed did help the cocaine cartels.
The Post's approach was twofold: first, the Post presented the Contra-cocaine allegations as old news -- "even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers," the Post sniffed -- and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one Contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted in his series, saying that it had not "played a major role in the emergence of crack." A Post sidebar dismissed African-Americans as prone to "conspiracy fears."
Next, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times weighed in with lengthy articles castigating Webb and his "Dark Alliance" series. The big newspapers made much of the CIA's internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 -- almost a decade earlier -- that supposedly had cleared the spy agency of any role in Contra-cocaine smuggling.
But the CIA's cover-up began to unravel on Oct. 24, 1996, when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz conceded before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the first CIA probe had lasted only 12 days, and the second only three days. He promised a more thorough review.
Sealing Webb's Fate