Conflicts of Interest
The revolving door between politics and journalism is spinning out of control.
By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.
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 in."
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.