Fox News anchor Howard Kurtz has repeatedly claimed, most famously during a live interrogation on CNN, that his relationship with Fox News contributor Lauren Ashburn amounted to a “limited venture” for which the MediaBuzz host was compensated on a piecemeal “freelance basis.” Confidential documents obtained by Gawker, however, tell a dramatically different story.
Kurtz and Ashburn’s relationship centered on The Daily Download, a puzzling tech website owned by Ashburn (and funded by The Knight Foundation) that culminated, in May 2013, with a video of Kurtz and Ashburn smearing NBA player Jason Collins for coming out as gay. Kurtz was later fired from The Daily Beast and abruptly departed CNN after denying any substantial involvement with the Daily Download.
Yet in a grant proposal submitted by Maryland Public Television to the Knight Foundation on December 10, 2010, Kurtz is listed, along with Ashburn, as a salaried “co-host” of the Daily Download’s 60-second “digital reviews,” which aired on public television, and a “daily blogger” at the Download’s website. One year after that submission, Knight awarded Maryland Public Television $230,000, the majority of which went to Ashburn’s own media company, which helped pay for Kurtz’s extracurricular position.
Kurtz’s precise salary is difficult to pin down, but the proposal and other documents indicate he received a substantial income that certainly appears to be classified as a salary.
The initial proposal’s budget allocated $100,000 each for two Daily Download “hosts,” who in an accompanying “budget narrative” are specifically identified as Kurtz and Ashburn. The same section indicates the pair planned to donate an unspecified portion of their salaries back to Maryland Public Television. (Earlier in the proposal, Kurtz’s donation is described as an in-kind contribution worth $50,000; Ashburn’s donation is not detailed.)
However, a revised budget submitted by Ashburn on November 16, 2011—a year later, and one week after Knight accepted the proposal—indicates that one “host/executive editor” would receive $160,000, and that the other “host” would receive $135,000—a significant increase in each case. (How or whether Kurtz’s “donation” still factored into his compensation is left unspecified.)
There is little doubt that the “hosts” are Kurtz and Ashburn. Throughout these internal documents and in the Knight Foundation’s March 2012 press release, they are the only individuals ever designated as hosts of the Daily Download.
The Knight Foundation, which funds journalism ventures, doesn’t just give away six-figure incomes, though. According to the revised budget and a business contract signed by Ashburn and an MPT official on January 9, 2012, the foundation contributed only $35,000 to the salaries of each Daily Download host.
The sizable difference, according to the 2010 proposal, came from a dozen other outside donors, including a Washington, D.C. production company, which supplied $300,000 worth of studio equipment, and a Canadian small-business foundation called Leadership Grants, which provided $100,000 in capital. In total, the Daily Download received $600,000 in grants and equipment.
The documents blatantly contradict everything Kurtz has ever said about his business ties to Ashburn.
Last May, Kurtz told Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post that “I’m a contributor at Daily Download and receive some freelance compensation,” and that his seat on the site’s “advisory board” was “an unpaid honorary position with no oversight.” Days later, he repeated these lines on his old CNN show, Reliable Sources.
[There was a video here]
David Folkenflik interviews Howard Kurtz on the May 5, 2013 episode of Reliable Sources
Specifically, Kurtz told NPR’s David Folkenflik:
I’ve always had, despite all of my prolific tweeting as a way of promoting [The Daily Download], I’ve always had a—it’s always been a limited venture for me. I’m a contributor, I’m paid on a freelance basis, I don’t have any equity in the site, I don’t have any role in the company that owns it, my basic job was to make online videos.
Kurtz was put in the position of explaining all of this because he had (falsely) accused Jason Collins, the NBA player, of omitting the existence of an ex-fiancée from a Sports Illustrated story about his sexuality. And Folkenflik, like other media reporters, wondered whether Kurtz’s Daily Download duties had undermined his professional ones at the Daily Beast, where he served as Washington bureau chief, and at CNN, where he anchored Reliable Sources.
Embedded in that question, of course, was a much trickier one. Namely: Was there a conflict of interest in having Ashburn, with whom Kurtz was deeply entangled as a business partner, come on his show and act as a neutral observer? And how close were Kurtz and Ashburn in the first place?
In the same segment, Folkenflik, who had been tasked with grilling Kurtz over his Collins error, immediately pushed back. “Has that always been the case?” he asked Kurtz. “Have you never had any financial involvement with [The Daily Download], or any stake whatsoever in it?”
Shaking his head, Kurtz responded: “I’ve never had any other financial involvement or stake in it whatsoever, I am a freelancer.” He later added, “I’ve only tried to promote the site.”
But as the documents discussed above make plain, Kurtz was financially involved in at least two ways, as a salaried host and as a significant donor.
Of course, there’s some small chance that the Daily Download’s actual budget wildly differed from the official spreadsheets prepared by Maryland Public Television and Ashburn herself. Ashburn, who oversaw the project’s funding, wouldn’t tell us. But it’s manifestly obvious that Kurtz filled an integral role—the opposite of what he’s been saying all along.
There is no apparent explanation for why Kurtz, once one of the most powerful media critics in the United States, would conceal these details, especially during a segment intended to demonstrate his transparency on the matter.
The $600,000 Website
Gawker acquired copies of the contract and the Knight proposal through an open-records request with the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission, which oversees the state’s public television programming. The records, most of which are emails, shed new light on—and, in other ways, deepen the mystery of—the Daily Download’s initial development and its untimely demise.
After Ashburn abruptly shut down the website in late November, for instance, officials at Maryland Public Television issued several panicked emails about the importance of staying in the Knight Foundation’s good graces. BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, who first noticed the Daily Download’s closure, inspired a separate flurry of emails.
The site never reappeared.
Ashburn later told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon that “our grant from Maryland Public Television and the Knight Foundation ended” and that “operating an advertising-based niche website without additional funding is tough going in this economy.” But, again, the site did have additional funding, $600,000’s worth, according to Ashburn’s revised budget.
It is not clear how the supplementary funds were spent if, as Ashburn suggests, they were not used to maintain the Daily Download’s website. Nor is it obvious why she never acknowledged the other funds.
“MPT has no knowledge of the compensation or other financial arrangements within Ashburn Media,” a lawyer for Maryland Public Television told Gawker.
A Double-edged Sword
The one thing that is clear is the Daily Download’s ultimate purpose: Lauren Ashburn’s television career. After becoming a regular guest of Kurtz’s on Reliable Sources and other CNN shows—ostensibly to promote the Daily Download—she followed him to Fox News, where she now appears almost every day. She has, by any measure, fully arrived.
But if that’s the case, why would Kurtz dissemble about his actual duties, and Ashburn conceal the amount of money the project received? After all, in the larger scheme of dumb media controversies, running an unsuccessful website is pretty small beer. Lying about it on your own media ethics show, however, is not.
Ashburn might have anticipated the intrigue she would later inspire. The desire for fame—and its fleeting satisfaction—was the subject of her first script idea for the Daily Download, an imagined dialogue between her and “Howie” about the implications of Facebook allowing Google to index public posts.
“So what?” Kurtz asks Ashburn in the dialogue’s final lines. “It gives you a little bit of fame, like having your own printing press.”
“Well, Howie, fame can be a double-edged sword,” Ashburn replies. “And in cyberspace, everyone may not be your friend.”
Kurtz and Ashburn declined repeated requests for comment.