Congratulations to Howard Kurtz on His New Job

Here's a story. In 2004, I was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covering television. In January of that year, I began looking into a story about political donations made by reporters, editors, anchors, executives and other employees at media companies.

This is, of course, an evergreen story. All the information you need is available online at databases of Federal Election Commission records. Just plug "Fox News," or "NBC," or "Tribune Company" into the Employer field, and you get a list of names of employees of those firms who've donated to various candidates or political committees. Scan the list for names of editorial employees—as opposed to, say, an advertising sales staffer—and you have yourself a story about reporters crossing lines into political advocacy. Any reporter with an internet connection can do it at any time.

So I was doing it. And I came up with a few names, including someone called Bert Solivan, who described himself on FEC records as a vice president for news information at Fox News Channel and general manager of Foxnews.com. Solivan had made two $240 donations to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. (Fox News' Neil Cavuto and Griff Jenkins, who was Oliver North's producer at the time, had also donated to Republicans. There were names from a bunch of other outlets, as well.)

I called Bert Solivan to ask him why, as someone who appeared to exercise editorial control over the "news information" that Fox News purveyed, he felt it was appropriate to throw in with the Republican Party in the run-up to a presidential election campaign. The call was returned by Irena Briganti, a Fox News flack who can be exceedingly unpleasant when she wants to. She often wants to.

Briganti insisted to me, emphatically, that Solivan was not an editorial employee. His job, she said, was entirely technical in nature. He ran information systems. He had zero impact on Fox News' newsgathering. He was free to donate as he pleased, she said, and it would be unfair to criticize him, or Fox News, for his political affiliations. In the course of our conversation, in order to rebut Briganti's accusation that I was singling out Fox News for criticism, I told her about the various other editorial employees at other news outlets that I had identified as donors.

I argued with Briganti for quite a while about Solivan. My position, as I recall it, was that irrespective of her claims about his actual duties, the fact that someone with the title of "vice president for news information" at a cable news outlet was donating to political campaigns was a story—or part of a larger one about donations from news staffers—and that I intended to write it. As for Jenkins and Cavuto, I didn't really care. They were obviously partisan Republicans on the air and off.

So I continued to reach out to people at the other news outlets I had turned up. A few days later—in my recollection it was two days after my conversation with Briganti, but this is a while ago—I saw this headline on a story by the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz: "Journalists Not Loath to Donate To Politicians; Media Companies' Policies Vary Widely".

More than 100 journalists and executives at major media companies, from NBC's top executive to a Fox News anchor to reporters or editors for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, CBS and ABC, have made political contributions in recent years.

Like I said, the story was available to any reporter with an internet connection. There was no particular time peg for it. Maybe Kurtz just had the same idea at precisely the same time that I did. Or maybe someone gave him the idea. I don't know.

There was one curious thing about Kurtz's story, though: The name Bert Solivan didn't appear in it. Cavuto did, as did Jenkins. The last sentence of the story—which is preserved online here—read, "Many of the other media employees in the FEC records worked in business or technical jobs or are no longer employed by those outlets." Kurtz must have concluded that Solivan's was, as Briganti surely told him, a "technical job."

I dropped my story. I didn't see much of a point in replicating Kurtz's piece with the addition of one employee that Fox claimed worked in a technical capacity. About a year-and-a-half later, Bert Solivan got a promotion at Fox News. The press release announcing it said this about his previous duties as vice president for news information: "Solivan’s other responsibilities included overseeing FOX News’ 24-hour news research department and its on-air fact writing operations." That was, of course, directly at odds with Briganti's claims to me. "On-air fact writing" included, I was later told, the news ticker or "crawl" at the bottom of the screen, as well as information presented in graphics and captions. (I wrote about it at the time on my blog.)

So as it turns out, I had been preparing a story indicating that the man responsible for the factual information in all of Fox News' graphics and news ticker was a GOP donor. I had called Briganti about it, and in doing so relayed to her the names of several other reporters who had made similar donations. Briganti had demonstrated a strong desire to keep Solivan's name out of my story. Roughly two days later, the Washington Post published a story by Howard Kurtz featuring all of the names I had relayed to Briganti—but no Bert Solivan.

A few months after his story about political donations, Kurtz wrote a negative review of Robert Greenwald's anti-Roger Ailes film Outfoxed. He also wrote a related item, quoting Briganti, accusing the New York Times Magazine of "ambushing" Fox News in a feature about the movie. More recently, Ailes turned to Kurtz for an exclusive interview in June 2011 after two damaging stories in Rolling Stone and New York magazine portrayed him as a paranoid lunatic. A few months after that, Kurtz wrote an influential story claiming that Fox News had become more "moderate" under Ailes' strategic guidance. Several months after that, a "senior Fox News executive" turned to Kurtz to express "regret" after (the now moderate!) Ailes called the New York Times "lying scum." Kurtz transmitted the apology, as well as Ailes' "respect" for Times editor Jill Abramson, but did not note that Ailes had called her "lying scum" in the course of telling a bald-faced lie himself.

Anyway, Fox News just hired Howard Kurtz to host a Sunday morning show about the media.

[Photo via Getty]