Howard Kurtz and the royal Kagans

Kurtz, burdened by his own multiple conflicts of interest, finds nothing wrong with Robert Kagan's praise in the Washington Post of his own brother's "surge" plan.


Glenn Greenwald
March 12, 2007 10:21PM (UTC)

It should surprise nobody that -- as The Cato Institute's Christopher Preble reports -- The White House this morning proudly disseminated by e-mail the propagandistic Op-Ed by Robert Kagan in yesterday's Washington Post , which proclaimed that the Glorious Surge is "succeeding." According to Preble, "the White House helpfully e-mailed the column to me this morning as part of their 'Iraq Update: IN CASE YOU MISSED IT' series (ALL CAPS in the original)."

As noted yesterday, E&P criticized the Post for failing to disclose that the "surge" which Robert Kagan was declaring a success was designed by his own brother, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. Andrew Sullivan previously noted that The Weekly Standard has been using this same tactic, employing Fred Kagan's wife, Kimberly, to write about all the great things happening with the "surge" without disclosing that her husband is its principal sponsor:

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I vouched for Kimberly Kagan's academic credentials in linking to her assessment of the progress of the "surge" for the Weekly Standard. I should have disclosed that Kagan is the wife of Frederick Kagan, the principal author of the surge; and his brother is Bob Kagan, another pro-surge advocate and editor at the Weekly Standard, and they're both sons of Donald Kagan, who is also a neoconservative intellectual.

More to the point: Kimberly Kagan is listed as one of the participants in her husband's research team that came up with the surge in the first place. So when the Weekly Standard decided to compile a regular report on the surge's progress, they picked the wife of the main author and one of the plan's original architects. And they never disclosed these relevant facts. So allow me.

Apparently, the Kagan family has locked up a "surge" monopoly: Fred designed it, they sold it to the President, and the whole familiy is now held up by our media outlets -- such as The Washington Post and Weekly Standard -- as the experts to whom we should turn in order to learn if the "surge" is or isn't working. They'll be honest and tell us. As Matt Ygelsias put it today: "Maybe someday we can get Donald Kagan's take on all this. If only the whole world were made up of members of the Kagan family, then maybe George W. Bush would be a really popular president."

In his weekly chat today, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz was asked about the undisclosed conflict of having Robert Kagan assess the progress of his own brother's "surge" without disclosing that relationship to its readers. Needless to say, Kurtz -- who is supposed to be the "media critic" for the Post even though he receives a paycheck from CNN (and vice-versa) and thus has a personal history of downplaying such conflicts -- finds absolutely nothing wrong with any of this:

New York, N.Y.: Frederick Kagan is one of the primary architects of the so called surge in Iraq. His brother, Robert Kagan, wrote an op-ed in yesterday's Post about how great the surge is working and how the media is covering that up. The Post never informed its readers about the relationship between the two Kagans. This is incredibly dishonest.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know -- Robert Kagan has been such a strong supporter of the war on his own that I don't think there's any doubt where he is coming from on this issue.

That is just nonsensical on multiple levels. Even if most Post readers know who Robert Kagan is and know that he is a war cheerleader (highly precarious assumptions), that does not remotely address the conflict that he has in purporting to tell Post readers whether or not the surge is really working. One can be in favor of the war and honestly conclude that the "surge" is a failure.

Here, though, there is an obvious incentive which Robert Kagan has for praising the surge even if it's failing -- namely, it is his own brother who is most publicly associated with having designed that very surge. That Robert Kagan is a well-known war proponent is a total nonsequitur, but as usual, Kurtz's only concern is in defending right-wing talking points (speaking of which, these days, no Kurtz appearance is complete without some gushing praise for his newfound heroine, Michelle Malkin, and he once again delivers the goods today: "Malkin seems to infuriate people on the left as much as Coulter, but it's worth noting that she quickly and strongly denounced Coulter's anti-gay slur").

A reader pressed Kurtz further on this issue:

Washington:"Robert Kagan has been such a strong supporter of the war on his own that I don't think there's any doubt where he is coming from on this issue."

And here we have one of the primary problems with the MSM. The assumption that the general public (i.e., me) knows more than we actually do. I had never heard of Mr. Kagan, and his connection to the other Mr. Kagan would have certainly given his opinion some much-needed context.

Howard Kurtz: I have to think about that. I don't know if it's fair to hold someone responsible for a brother or sister's views. Bill Bennett (Reagan Cabinet member and talk show host) and Bob Bennett (Clinton's impeachment lawyer) don't agree on many things. It would be different if Fred Kagan were a Bush administration official, but he works at the American Enterprise Institute and as far as I know was informally consulted by the administration on Iraq.

Yes, it's theoretically possible that Robert Kagan would have a different view than his brother, but that is not the standard of disclosure. It is always "possible" -- even in the most classic cases of conflicts of interest -- that someone can opt for the truth over the interest they have which conflicts with their objectivity. It is "possible," for instance, that a CEO of a company might be willing to speak poorly of proposed legislation even if his company is a chief sponsor of that legislation and it financially benefits his company. But that does not mean that if that CEO writes an Op-Ed about that legislation, it's permissible to conceal the interest he has in praising the legislation. That's just basic.

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Readers are entitled to know of any relationship between the writer and the subject which would lead a reasonable person to question the objectivity of the writer. If there is a relationship between the writer and the subject which has a substantial potential to influence the writer's opinions, the reader is entitled to know, and concealing such relationships is misleading and irresponsible.

Fred Kagan met with the President of the United States to present his "surge" plan. By all news accounts, that is the plan the President adopted. Fred Kagan became the leading advocate of the surge. Its success will redound to his career and reputational benefit. Its failure will (at least in theory) have the opposite effect. It is just blatantly obvious that his brother is incentivized to praise the "surge" and argue that it is a success.

What is really going on here is that our media and political elite have deemed a small circle of ideologues as our "foreign policy experts." Those are the ones to whom the media turns when they want to present "expert opinion" about this war. The panel of media-designated "experts" always has been, and still is, almost uniformly composed of war advocates. And the expert panel has not changed at all, despite being exposed as the authors and cheerleaders of the greatest strategic disaster in our country's history.

Robert and all the other Kagans, along with their close comrades like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, are at the very epicenter of that incestuous expert clatch. It is imperative to the establishment-protectors like the Howie Kurtzs that their objectivity and credibility and trustworthiness remain beyond reproach.

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The very idea that something might be impairing the objectivity of Expert Robert Kagan is just intrinsically wrong, just unnecessary. When we want to know what is going on in the Middle East, we ask Robert Kagan and his family and friends. That's just how it is and how it will continue to be, and there is no need ever to suggest that there is any reason why we might want to question the credibility of what we are hearing. So let's have the White House continue to send around Robert Kagan's pro-surge Op-Eds, and have warriors like Hugh Hewitt continue to cite it as proof that the war is going Great, and let's just all blithely pretend that what we are getting is unbiased, objective expert opinion. So says that Arbiter of Media Propriety, Howard Kurtz.

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CANCELLED: I will be on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman tomorrow morning, beginning at 9:05 a.m. EST, to discuss the purge of U.S. attorneys as well as the revelations concerning NSLs. You can find local listings or listen to the show live, here.


Glenn Greenwald

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