NEW YORK -- New York Observer Editor Ken Kurson read and provided input on a draft of Donald Trump’s speech last month to a pro-Israel lobbying group, a role that raises questions of conflict of interest given that he also oversees election coverage.
On the afternoon of March 21, Trump told reporters that his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a real estate developer, owner of the New York Observer and Orthodox Jew, had helped prepare his speech to be given that night at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference. The Observer’s report on the speech included the Republican presidential candidate's comments about Kushner’s role, but didn’t mention any involvement on the part of Kurson.
Commentary editor John Podhoretz suspected Kurson, a former speechwriter, had a role in writing the AIPAC address. But Kurson's involvement wasn’t revealed until Sunday night, when a New York magazine cover story noted the editor gave Kushner “input” during the preparation of the speech.
Kurson said in an email to The Huffington Post that he read a draft of Trump’s speech, but did not specifically address a question about whether he wrote or edited any of the speech. He balked at any suggestion that such "input" was a breach of journalistic ethics or protocol.
“Input: I looked at a draft,” Kurson wrote when asked to clarify his role. “Jared and I have been discussing politics since 2004. It’s been a shared passion since well before I worked for him. We talk every day about all kinds of things. It’s not unusual for an editor to talk politics with his publisher. What’s unusual is that a publisher’s father-in-law runs for president.”
“A week ago, a friend who’s working for Ted Cruz asked me for Ray Kelly’s phone number and I gave it to him,” he continued. “Until recently I was dating a Democrat operative who works for high-profile candidates. It’s a complicated world and I don’t intend to let the eleven people who have appointed themselves the journalist police tell me, at age 47, how to behave or to whom I’m allowed to speak.”
The New York Observer has closely covered Manhattan’s power elite since the late 1980s, especially in politics, media, real estate and high society. Trump has traversed all those worlds, making him a recurring character for a weekly paper that historically punctured the city’s biggest egos. (This reporter, who worked at the paper from 2004 to 2007, interviewed Trump on a few occasions.)
But the Observer’s relationship with Trump grew more complicated when Kushner, who bought the paper in 2006, married daughter Ivanka Trump three years later.
The Observer came under scrutiny in 2014 after publishing a highly critical article on New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who brought a $40 million suit against Trump University over alleged fraud. A writer originally given the assignment told The New York Times he believed Kurson wanted a “smear piece.” (Kurson has defended the Schneiderman story, writing last summer that “not a single fact in that 7,000-word story was ever meaningfully challenged.”)
Things got even more complicated last year on June 16, when Trump announced he was running for president and was immediately thrust to the center of the national media spotlight. A month after that declaration at Trump Tower, Kurson told HuffPost there was "no good way to cover Trump’s candidacy from an opinion perspective,” such as publishing editorials for or against his policies.
As for news coverage, Kurson said he'd "been seeking advice on this from journalists I respect and will formulate a clearer policy as the campaign season unfolds." The following day, Kurson wrote that “in news stories, we should continue to play it straight, always.”
Kurson has long pledged to play it straight in overseeing the Observer’s news coverage, despite having worked in Republican politics.
Kushner tapped Kurson, a family friend, for the top newsroom job after running through five editors in seven years. Kurson came to the position with experience as a journalist, having written for magazines such as Esquire. But he also had worked for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and co-wrote his 2005 book, Leadership. He joined Giuliani’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign, and just prior to arriving at the Observer, had worked at Jamestown Associates, a Republican political consulting firm.
“People will think what they want,” Kurson told The Times upon taking the job in 2013. “I will have to earn their trust. I have had a long and honorable journalistic career, calling it like I see it and being a straight shooter.”
UPDATE: 3:45 p.m. -- Observer senior politics editor Jill Jorgensen said in a statement that the paper's editorial staffers, including Kurson, would not be permitted going forward to provide any input for the benefit of the Trump campaign. Jorgensen also said Observer journalists should be able to cover Trump "in the same way they cover every other candidate in the presidential race."
Her full statement reads:
A recent report about Observer Editor Ken Kurson's input on a speech delivered by Donald Trump before AIPAC has resulted in new scrutiny of our newspaper's relationship with Mr. Trump, who is the father-in-law of our publisher, Jared Kushner. Going forward, there will be no input whatsoever on the campaign from Mr. Kurson or anyone on the editorial side of the Observer.
Further, we are re-visiting our policy on covering Mr. Trump's presidential campaign—something that has been a matter of frequent discussion and debate at the Observer since Mr. Trump announced his candidacy. The policy has evolved from our original plans to simply not cover Mr. Trump to covering him when he intersected with New York politics to more recently covering his campaign with mainly straight news stories, with an effort to avoid the opinion and analysis pieces of which other candidates have been the subject.
That policy has become less tenable as the field of candidates has shrunk. In the interest of covering the race as fairly as possible despite the unavoidable conflict of interest created by our ownership—a conflict we disclose on each story about Mr. Trump—and in response to concerns raised by staffers at the paper, Observer writers will now be able to cover Mr. Trump in the same way they cover every other candidate in the presidential race.