Media Ethics Journalist Howie Kurtz Should Be Ashamed of Himself: New Low in American Journalism


Last Sunday I got an email from one Kevin Kalwary, a Tampa-based private investigator who knows Jill Kelley, the woman at the heart of the Petraeus scandal. Kalwary and a legal team had advised Kelley on a building she’d invested in, in downtown Tampa around 2007 and had helped her sort out the legal messes involved. [There was a tenant to be evicted and Kelley’s investment became worthless]. He’s a nice guy — and had long thought Kelley should speak up for herself.

His email read: “Vicky,

I think I have convinced Jill Kelly to speak with you if you are still interested? Let me know.”

I called Kalwary. I had got to know him and a great many people who know the Kelleys when I spent a week just before Thanksgiving in Tampa researching a 5,000 word piece on Jill Kelley, her sister, Natalie Khawam and her husband Scott, all embroiled in the saga of David Petraues’ resignation as director of the CIA

(For that piece, you will have to wait a couple of weeks for the next issue of Town and Country. By the time you’ve read it I hope there will be a new national catchphrase: “Only in Tampa… only in Tampa”…).

But back to last Sunday afternoon. I called Kevin immediately. I told him I’d fly to Tampa at once but how did I know Jill would not pull out — and what had happened to her Praetorian guard of a publicist, Judy Smith? She who had inspired ABC’s Scandal — and gotten a front page article in the New York Times Style section out of the whole debacle?

Well, Smith had been fired, Kalwary told me. Jill was fed up. She wanted to speak. (I did wonder if she thought it was her turn to be on the front page of the New York Times Style section and then I reprimanded myself for being uncharitable…). “Ok,” I said, I would get on a plane immediately. He went back to Kelley and then phoned me back.

“This woman is just impossible,” he said with a sigh. “She wants the promise of a cover and an assurance that the interview will be favorable.”

I laughed.

“Kevin,” I said “We both know that anyone who promises that is either low-rent or lying.”

He agreed — and we left it at that.

Until today, I saw, to my astonishment, that Jill Kelley appeared to have got her conditions — not in People magazine (she had told Kalwary that’s where she was headed), or the National Enquirer or Us Weekly — but The Daily Beast.

The Daily Beast??

And what’s more the “journalist” who penned the simpering interview that was mind-boggling in one aspect only — its lack of finding any real answers from the interviewee — is Howie Kurtz. Howie Kurtz?

Howie Kurtz has set himself up for years as the watchdog of “media bias” in his various platforms: The Washington Post until 2010; CNN’s Reliable Sources (which he hosts) and the Daily Beast — where he is paid a reported $600,000… hopefully not for puff pieces like the one he put out today…

Among the books he has authored is Media Circus: The Trouble with America’s Newspapers.

On Wikipedia this 1993 book apparently “identifies a host of problems afflicting U.S. newspapers and also offers some suggestions. Among the troubles identified by Kurtz are: timid leadership, a spreading “tabloid” approach to news with a growing focus on celebrities and personal scandal, poor coverage of racial issues and the Persian Gulf war, increasing bureaucracy and a “pasteurization” of the news.”

Well, what does Howie think of this interview — headlined “Jill Kelley Says Paul Broadwell Tried to ‘Blackmail’ Her”? Well, he thinks it’s fantastic. He emailed me this morning. “There were absolutely no conditions for my interview with Jill Kelley. And I don’t agree that the piece was favorable — it was an opportunity for a woman who has been thrust into the vortex of a scandal to tell her side for the first time.”

Kevin Kalwary does not believe this. “I don’t believe there were no conditions,” he wrote me.

Kelley’s publicist has gone mute and is not returning my calls.

OK: I’m not a judge. Howie, like Kalwary, seems like a nice guy. Let’s say there were no “conditions” for this piece, what do we think of it as an interview? Has Kurtz made the most of this amazing “opportunity”?

Let’s take it from the top.

The headline? “BLACKMAIL?”

Bizarrely, nowhere — nowhere — in the piece does Kelley explain how Broadwell tried to blackmail her; she won’t show Kurtz Broadwell’s alleged emails to her and in fact “someone close to Kelley” says the emails were “threatening, without being explicit.” Is this blackmail? I dunno. Apparently the U.S. Justice Department doesn’t think so. It looked into Broadwell’s emails and decided not to press charges. So, I repeat, where’s the blackmail? Am I missing something? Or was the inclusion of that word in the headline just the thought bubble of Tina Brown, Howie’s editirix, of whom I am enormously fond, trying to come up with something punchy to awaken people after a sleepy Inauguration Day? Experience tells me, yes, probably.

Then to the body of Kurtz’s poem of praise — I mean — interview with Jill Kelley: What she won’t say is a lot. In fact it’s a great deal more than what she will say. She won’t say how many emails she and General John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan — a matter still under investigation — traded. She won’t talk in detail about her friendship with Gen. Petraeus and how she, a civilian, came to be so close to the former head of the CIA.

But here’s what she will say: She says she was shocked — shocked — to have her daughter’s birthday party ruined by paparazzi — and yet the story had already broken before the party — and she went ahead with it anyway. Half of Tampa knew the paparazzi was coming — and she didn’t? Now that is odd — but I note Howie doesn’t dwell on it.

She is upset there are errors on her Wikipedia page (and why, exactly, does she have a Wikipedia page at all?). She does not find it unusual that Generals Petraeus and Allen wrote on behalf of her sister Natalie in her child custody case with her ex-husband even though the judge, Judge Neal E. Kravitz ruled that Natalie was “a psychologically unstable person” with “an unsteady moral and ethical compass.” The judge reported that a court-appointed psychiatrist had found that Natalie’s allegations against her ex-husband — which included his putting a gun to her head — were “part of an ever-expanding set of sensational accusations … so numerous, so extraordinary and so distorted that they defy any common-sense view of reality.” (Natalie is appealing the verdict). Yet Howie accepts Jill’s explanation that Natalie was just her sister — and she, Jill, is nothing more than much-wronged housewife. Howie prattles on about “ordinary people pushed into the media vortex”… but he does not address the apparent contradiction that if she’s so “ordinary” why is she worried about her Wikipedia page?

It’s baffling stuff…

Kevin Kalwary emailed me “My God what an awful story. I can’t believe any true journalist would go with that story.”

The comments at the bottom of Kurtz’s article seem, mostly, to echo that thinking.

For the real story on the Kelleys, you’ll need to wait two weeks. Meanwhile, I am sorry Howie, but today is not a good one for American journalism. This really is a “Media Circus.” Time for a new book? V