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Jodie Foster, Anderson Cooper, Howard Kurtz... And Me

Kurtz told Politico something I said about him was "offensive and absurd." But it was still true.

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After Jodie Foster's speech during Sunday night's Golden Globes, I wrote about it — her very public, very fraught coming out. Needless to say, Foster had stolen the show, and it was a big deal.

Tom McGeveran of Capital New York asked me if we could email about the issues surrounding Foster's speech: what she said, as well as the media's active involvement in both coming out and privacy (the two issues Foster hit the cores of).

In my exchange with McGeveran, which you can read in full here, I mentioned a relevant anecdote that happened to me when I worked at The Daily Beast. It involved Howard Kurtz, who focuses on media and politics — at The Daily Beast, he does both, and on CNN, he has a show about media called Reliable Sources.

(The eventually-killed story was a think piece about outing and the media pegged to a remark Rachel Maddow had made to the Guardian about how gay news anchors have a "responsibility to come out," which many people took to be about the not-yet-out Anderson Cooper. Our article, written by Tricia Romano, also would have mentioned Fox News' Shepard Smith; Romano interviewed documentarian Kirby Dick, who had included Smith in his movie about right-wing politicians who promote anti-gay legislation, Outrage. You will see what I wrote to McGeveran below; I'm not trying to be mysterious, I'm trying not to be repetitive!)

Since McGeveran, a respected journalist, was interviewing me, it would have been up to him to contact Kurtz — whom I've never met in person, by the way — if he had felt that Kurtz needed to verify the story or respond.

Apparently, McGeveran did not (and I wouldn't have thought it necessary were I in his shoes, either). But Dylan Byers of Politco picked up that part of the piece and wrote a story with the headline "Howie Kurtz accused of killing story to protect Anderson Cooper's sexuality". (He has since changed the headline.)

Byers contacted Kurtz, and characterized what I had told McGeveran as accusing Kurtz of "pressuring an editor at the Daily Beast, where he is a columnist, to kill a story that would have outed CNN's Anderson Cooper as gay." I wouldn't agree with that description; again, you will see what I said happened. Kurtz responded by telling Byers, "These suggestions are offensive and absurd."

But then Kurtz confirmed what I said: "Kurtz said he had no influence over The Daily Beast's editorial decisions, but acknowledged sending the email." In the rest of the Byers story, Kurtz also confirms that he does not believe in writing about gay people's sexuality unless they have explicitly come out of the closet.

Kurtz doesn't think it's a conflict for him to have anything to do with Daily Beast coverage of CNN, his other job; I disagree. But I'm writing this now because he used words like "offensive and absurd." That was in public: In an email to my boss Ben Smith, he wrote: "The story about me and Anderson Cooper is wrong in many respects. I'm surprised I wasn't given a chance to respond and had to hear about this from Politico." In a subsequent email, he wrote, "your staffer was really irresponsible."

Even though he confirmed that my story was true? This saga has gone beyond the lizard eating its own tail; it's the lizard with the tail in its mouth saying, "I would like five more tails to eat, thank you."

But being called "irresponsible," and having something you wrote that is right being called "wrong," "offensive," and "absurd" is not fun. So I emailed Kurtz. Our exchange is below. You will see he doesn't retract anything he said or wrote about me. And I continue to disagree with him entirely.

My Email

Hi, Howie --

Ben forwarded me this email. Since you have called what I wrote "offensive and absurd," I'm writing to you; I might publish something about this, so we're on the record.

Here's exactly what I wrote to Tom McGeveran, as it is quoted in the piece:

"The story was coming along, and somehow Howard Kurtz, a colleague, got wind of it, and sent an email to a top editor who was nervous about the story, saying "I hope this isn't about AC." Like he couldn't even write out his name. Howard Kurtz, media reporter, CNN employee: He interfered with a story about a then-closeted anchor at the network that pays him at the other place that pays him! There should be a "Reliable Sources" segment about it. Eventually, the story became such a pain in the ass, and this particular editor was so nervous about it, that we had to kill it. People just get crazy about the HIDEOUS possibility that you might call a gay person gay."

You acknowledged to Dylan Byers that you sent the email. Whether or not you acknowledge that's a conflict for you, I would say that when you're calling people "irresponsible," you might add to that list that weighing in at one job influencing coverage about your other job.... that's not even an ethical dilemma, that's a disaster. And if you were simply "expressing my view," then fine: You of all people should know that when you have two jobs, you give up that right. The effect was you made a nervous editor more nervous, and the story became such a watered-down drag that *I* killed it. I never implied otherwise, and Dylan's interpretation was incorrect; I told him so on Twitter.

On a personal note. As for your opinion that writing about gay people as gay people is "gossip," you and people who feel that way are the reason Jodie Foster has to come out one billion times. We are supposed to observe things and make logical judgments in journalism; that can apply to gay people with full lives as well as it does to straight people. Having to make these loud, public declarations is half of the problem. It wouldn't have to be that way if the media weren't complicit in keeping people in the closet.



Kurtz's Response

You have every right to disagree with me. But to take a single e-mail and blow it up into some kind of conflict is just absurd. I criticize CNN all the time, including on CNN. Did the same thing to the Washington Post in the pages of the Post for two decades. It's ludicrous to suggest I was somehow protecting Anderson Cooper when this was the world's worst-kept secret. My CNN affiliation is at the bottom of every Daily Beast story I write. I was simply offering the same view on closeted public figures that I have publicly proclaimed for a long, long time. I also don't like dragging the personal lives of straight people into the spotlight unless there's a legitimate reason. My approach is to ask people for comment before taking shots at them. To me, that's basic fairness.

NOTE: This story has been updated to better characterize the original Daily Beast story that was killed.