AJR  Columns :     FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   March 2003

Both Sides of the Street   

Cokie Roberts signs on for government service.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

It seems clear-cut: You don't go to work for someone you cover.

And that's true whether you're reporting on the mayor, the cops, the local sports team--or the federal government.

But apparently not if you're Cokie Roberts.

Roberts, the ABC News correspondent, is a newly minted member of President Bush's Council on Service and Civic Participation, an outfit designed to promote the cause of volunteerism.

A fine cause, to be sure. And it's not like Roberts is going to be formulating Iraq policy, drafting the budget or lining up judicial nominees. It's not even a paid position.

So what's the problem?

The problem is that journalists are supposed to be independent outsiders. They are supposed to provide straightforward, straight-down-the-middle reporting. They are supposed to serve a watchdog role for the citizenry, to keep a close eye on institutions to make sure they are delivering the goods.

But when journalists become part of whatever they're covering, they blur the boundaries, big time. That aura of independence is compromised. The dual role creates both an apparent, and a real, conflict of interest. And that's a powerful blow to credibility.

In the Roberts case, there's also a very practical matter, as Poynter ethics guru Bob Steele has pointed out. What happens when Roberts learns something significant through her new role, something that the council would just as soon keep private? Does Roberts act like a journalist and report the hell out of it? Or does she act like a Bush appointee and stay mum?

Astonishingly, ABC News says it has no problem with the gig, proclaiming its confidence that Roberts could and would be fair and objective, her link to the Bush administration notwithstanding.

The Roberts appointment spotlights what has become a serious problem for journalism, particularly, but not only, in Washington. A-list journalists have become part of the power elite, players as well as scribes, a phenomenon showcased at cozy events like the White House Correspondents Dinner. Inevitably, this contributes to public skepticism about members of the news media, who often seem hopelessly intertwined with the people they're supposed to cover.

A corollary to all of this is the revolving-door syndrome, in which Washington figures go back and forth between government and politics on the one hand and journalism on the other. There's no doubt this has brought some highly talented people into the Fourth Estate--William Safire and Tim Russert come to mind, not to mention George Stephanopoulos. But the overall effect is a further muddying of the moat that should separate two important yet distinct entities.

As for Roberts, she's no stranger to controversy. In the mid-1990s she became a central focus of the debate over the propriety of journalists' raking in huge fees for giving speeches to trade associations and the like.

Critics viewed with alarm the possibility of undue influence, or the appearance of undue influence, inherent in the practice. And they recoiled at the sheer size of the fees. Beneficiaries argued that they were well within their rights as private citizens to take in as much largesse as they could in exchange for their wisdom.

For a June 1995 piece in AJR, writer Alicia C. Shepard traveled to Florida to hear Roberts give an hour-long speech (plus 20 minutes for questions) to the Junior League of Greater Fort Lauderdale. Her recompense for the heavy lifting? A cool $35,000, paid by a large Toyota distributor.

When Shepard sought Roberts' comments, an ABC spokeswoman replied primly that Roberts "feels strongly that it's not something that in any way, shape or form should be discussed in public."

A year before, Roberts caused a stir when she spoke--for a reported $20,000--to the Group Health Association of America, at a time when Congress was considering President Bill Clinton's massive, ill-fated health reform legislation.

Roberts was so active on the hustings that the Chicago Tribune's James Warren kept a regular "Cokie Watch," chronicling her lucrative speechifying.

It's unfortunate that Roberts, a smart, knowledgeable, sophisticated journalist, has again placed herself in an untenable position. As the daughter of members of Congress, as the sister of a D.C. powerhouse lobbyist, you would think that she'd bend over backward to underscore her independence from the power structure.

Instead, she remains a vivid symbol of one of the ills of Washington journalism.