The line between politics and journalism has almost
by Deborah Potter
The line between journalism and politics has been fuzzy for a long
time. So many people have crossed it, some of them more than once,
that it's obvious there is nothing like a firewall between the two
professions. At the very most, there's been a revolving door in
the wall, through which politicians and journalists have passed
on occasion, changing roles as they moved from side to side. This
year, however, the door was blown off its hinges and in the process
the news media's already shaky credibility took yet another hit.
It can be argued that there's nothing inherently wrong with a journalist
having some background in politics. A reporter who understands the
inner workings of campaigns and policymaking may be better able
to explain it all to the public. Some prominent network journalists
bring that advantage to work every day. NBC's Tim Russert, Washington
bureau chief and moderator of "Meet the Press," cut his
teeth as chief of staff for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan,
a New York Democrat. Diane Sawyer started out doing the weather
on local TV and then served as an aide in the Nixon White House
before going to work as a journalist, first for CBS and later ABC.
The undisputed champion of the revolving door olympics is David
Gergen, who's worked for four presidents, two networks and a newsmagazine
during a 35-year career.
Now comes the case of James Carville and Paul Begala, cohosts of
CNN's "Crossfire" and former aides to President Clinton.
In the heat of this year's election campaign, both men signed on
as advisers to Democratic candidate John Kerry--and kept right on
drawing a paycheck from CNN.
Can you spell "conflict of interest"? Apparently, no
one at CNN could. "Their involvement in the Kerry campaign
is no reason to point to a conflict of interest in our eyes,"
CNN spokesman Matthew Furman told Washingtonian magazine. "They
are not working for the campaign; they are unpaid, informal advisers."
When politicians use that kind of tortured logic, journalists rightly
call them on it. Let's face it: Anyone who advises a campaign while
hosting a TV program has competing loyalties. This isn't just a
matter of perception. It's pretty clear you wouldn't go on the air
with some embarrassing tidbit you learned while wearing your campaign
hat--unless, of course, it's about the other candidate. And there's
certainly no guarantee that what you learn while wearing your network
hat won't be shared with the campaign, especially if it could benefit
your candidate. By definition, that's a conflict of interest.
CNN would argue that Carville and Begala are known quantities with
a long history of supporting Democratic candidates and causes, and
that viewers are well aware of their backgrounds. True enough. But
keeping them on as cohosts while they're also advising a campaign
is indefensible. And despite its public what-me-worry position,
CNN's actions suggest there may have been some internal discomfort
about the decision, since the network didn't formally disclose the
two men's affiliation to viewers.
The Carville-Begala case may be blatant, but it's only one example
of the increasingly intimate relationship between politics and the
news media. At the Democratic convention in July, Ron Reagan--son
of the late president-- was a featured speaker, pleading for stem
cell research. Cable news network MSNBC was one of the channels
that carried his speech live. Just a few hours later, Reagan was
back on MSNBC as host of its special "Convention After Hours"
program. No big deal, MSNBC Vice President Phil Griffin told the
Boston Globe. "We've hired Ron as a contributor to our network
that talks about issues and takes a stand on issues that he's interested
Reagan's cohost that night, former Florida Republican Rep. Joe
Scarborough, was on the network's air again a few days later, this
time during its coverage of a Republican political rally in Florida.
Scarborough sat on the podium just behind President Bush, applauding
his comments. Once more, MSNBC saw no problem, according to the
New York Times, because it has different rules for news anchors
and what it calls "opinion anchors."
Here's the problem with that kind of distinction, dubious as it
is: The public doesn't see it. Encouraging anchors on what is ostensibly
a news network to take political positions only feeds a growing
public perception that journalists--especially in television--have
become partisans. The effect on credibility is undeniable. A Gallup
poll this fall, conducted in the midst of the CBS memo debacle regarding
Bush's National Guard service, found the public's trust in the news
media at a 30-year low, with only 9 percent of those surveyed saying
they had a "great deal" of confidence that the news was
reported fully, accurately and fairly.
It's past time to worry. It's time to act. Let anchors be anchors.
Let partisans be guests.
This article was originally
published by American Journalism Review,
December 2004/January 2005.
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