AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

No Experience Necessary?   

Many political talk shows are hosted by non-journalists. Is there a problem with that? Mon., March 26, 2012.

By Alexa Kravitz
Alexa Kravitz (akravitz@ajr.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Should journalism experience be a requirement for hosting a political talk show?

MSNBC President Phil Griffin certainly doesn't think so. His hires on the liberal-leaning network include non-journalists Rachel Madow, Lawrence O'Donnell, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Melissa Harris-Perry. His rival Fox features such non-journalist mainstays as Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren.

Griffin isn't shy about vocalizing his strong opinions on the issue. "I'm sorry, I don't care about journalists,"he said in an interview with Tampa Bay Times media writer Eric Deggans. "I want fair minded, smart people who understand the world, who can interpret it and if they're journalists, great. This notion that somehow you have to have done something to earn so-called journalist credentials? Stop."

But critics fear that the proliferation of hosts with no grounding in journalistic ethics and traditions comes with a steep price. Count Deggans firmly in that camp.

"I am seeing non-journalists and people who move further and further away from being journalists" hosting the shows, he said in an interview. "Who are they going to hire next, and are we going to wind up with a prime time that's filled with people that don't necessarily have a strong connection to the ethical handle?"

Even though many of the cable political talkfests focus on opinion rather than reporting, Deggans says there's value in having journalists at the helm. "I think if you are a trained journalist, part of that training involves being taught a process that will allow you to minimize the impact of your bias even if you are an opinion person," he says. "When I make my arguments, I try to be fair to the other side and to present the information as accurately as I can, without leaving out information about the opposing argument."

But many experienced journalists don't see any reason to worry about the trend.

"The idea that somebody comes out of other fields to be given privileged perches in journalism is not on its face upsetting," says David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR. In his mind, there is a place for experts to apply their knowledge to specialized areas of journalism.

Jerome Groopman, for one, is a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and an author who doubles as a staff writer for The New Yorker. Although not inherently a journalist, his medical knowledge gives value to his contributions.

"Journalism is a profession, an avocation, in which nobody gets to license you; the government doesn't get to say you get to be a journalist and you don't, and that's a good thing," Folkenflik says. "That's part of our tradition of freedom of the press and the openness of the field to those who seek it out."

TV Newser columnist Gail Shister makes a distinction between the opinion-fueled shows that dominate cable news channels during prime time and old-school straight news programs such as the traditional nightly network newscasts. As long as the non-journalists stay away from the latter, she's cool with the trend.

"Journalists don't have the monopoly on talk show hosts skills," adds Shister, formerly the Philadelphia Inquirer's TV critic. "Sometimes, the best talk show hosts are not journalists."

To longtime broadcaster Marvin Kalb, though, it's the prominence of opinion in today's political programming that poses a problem. "Argument on cable TV is now the bread and butter of the media," he says. "You have someone from the left arguing with someone from the right, and everyone's happy. But they are not in a classic sense reporting the news; they are moderating or even instigating an exchange of opinion about the issue at hand."

It would be difficult to find anyone more upset about the prevalent cable news strategy than Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik. He's particularly bothered by hosts and commentators with backgrounds in politics, warning viewers about relying on the validity of "political news from political operatives."

"It's really a joke that these people are trying to wrap themselves in the mantle of journalism when real journalists are risking their lives in places like Syria to bring people real trustworthy information," he says. "It demeans the press and undermines our credibility."

Of course, sometimes these political operatives have transformed into widely acclaimed journalists. George Stephanopoulos, the widely respected host of both ABC's "This Week" and "Good Morning America," came to television after years as a high-profile aide to President Bill Clinton. And Tim Russert, who died in 2008, worked for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan before becoming NBC's Washington bureau chief and the highly regarded, longest serving host of "Meet the Press." (Kalb calls these two "the exceptions.")

While there is no shortage of non-journalists whose careers have flourished on television, there have been some high-profile flops. Remember Susan Molinari? Probably not. Back in 1997, someone at CBS thought it would be a good idea to make the three-term Republican congresswoman the host of CBS' "Saturday Morning" show. But the critics were brutal, the viewers stayed away and in nine months Molinari was gone.

More recently, scandal-ridden former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer had a brief, unsuccessful run as a host on CNN.

Some say since the cable shoutfests are so different from actual journalism, there's no problem if non-journalists preside over them. Veteran broadcast journalist Ed Fouhy isn't buying it.

"I don't agree with the premise that viewers know that these are entertainment shows," he says.

Zurawik agrees. "No, people don't know that these are opinion shows during prime time," he says. "And one of the reasons they don't is because cable executives are lying their butts off and putting out ads trying to present these people as journalists. There isn't a clear line between the two."

Folkenflik says that the lack of clarity is unintentional. "They're not trying to fool you into who's doing what. I think they are being up front about it. But it's not always clear to the public that there's a difference."

The problem for MSNBC is the blurred distinction between opinion shows and news programming. You see opinion hosts anchoring some political coverage on major campaign nights. In the 2008 election, for example, the definitively liberal Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews were put on to co-anchor the network's news coverage.

"It's one of the things that helps confuse the public about what journalists do but, even worse, makes parts of the public think of journalists as frauds, phonies, biased, players in this sort of media game of cable TV news," Zurawik says.

Fouhy agrees the lack of distinction between the two professions confuses viewers. "For people who tune in and see these kinds of people who are essentially opinion folks, they might assume they are journalists. They are not journalists at all, but they play journalists on TV, and I suppose some people are misled by that."

A telling 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that viewers chose Comedy Central host Jon Stewart among the most admired journalists.

From this research "you can see people's idea of what a journalist is stretched and morphed, and it includes all these people that do their jobs in ways that don't include journalism ethics," Deggans says. "I think they are downplaying and underestimating the cost of putting non-journalists on TV."