AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1997

The Revolving Door   

As politicians like Susan Molinari go into journalism, and as journalists bounce back and forth between government jobs and the Fourth Estate, the line between the two gets awfully blurry. Critics warn that this phenomenon poses a serious threat to the press.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

CBS NEWS PRESIDENT ANDREW HEYWARD strode to the microphone at a New York City press conference May 28 to announce his most recent hire as an anchor for a new program. It wasn't someone who had worked her way up from any of the network's more than 200 affiliates. Nor was it one of the network's seasoned on-air journalists, or a TV veteran recruited from another network.

The newest CBS anchor will be Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, a rising star in the Republican Party. She is the fifth highest-ranking member of the House GOP leadership and was picked last summer to deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention. Molinari, 39, who plans to leave the House in August, won't be a commentator, but she will offer news analysis on a two-hour Saturday morning news show set to premier in September. (See Susan Molinari's comments on her new role.)

At the press conference called to disclose her new role, many questioned her ability to switch from making news to reporting it. ``How can you make Susan Molinari a quote-unquote CBS anchorperson when in fact she hasn't put any time into the news business, when she's absolutely an amateur?" challenged Penny Crone, a Fox News correspondent.

Other reporters asked how Molinari could be expected to make the transition from Republican loyalist to objective, unbiased journalist. What would happen when her equally prominent husband, Republican Congressman Bill Paxon, makes news? The scene, says Crone, a news veteran, was anything but a welcoming of Molinari to the journalistic fold (see ``The View From the Trenches,'').

Heyward, who declined to be interviewed for this article, rejected the criticism, telling reporters that things had changed in journalism and that it would be ``wrong to be bound by the traditional definitions of what makes a CBS News anchor.''

These days it would be wrong for anyone to think there even is such a thing as an accurate definition of a journalist. Decades ago, the line of demarcation between journalists and politicians was as sharply defined as the one between cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. Politicians represented a political party or an ideology; journalists were supposed to report objectively without pushing any point of view. Crossing the line was taboo.

Not anymore. Today, two types of travelers pass through the revolving door, and both are raising concern: politicians like Molinari who go into journalism without any experience in the field, and journalists who jump to politics and return to journalism, often repeatedly.

``As a general rule, I don't like news people going into politics and then coming back, and I'm very suspicious of people coming out of politics into the news business,'' says Jack Germond, a syndicated columnist for the Baltimore Sun. ``I'd never do it. It's really an us-and-them situation.''

But is it? Today the phenomenon of elected politician morphing into network anchor is part of the continued meshing of journalists and politicos. These days mere name recognition seems to convey instant journalistic credentials.

In April, CBS hired former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey as a contributor to CBS News. He will ``explore the lives of Americans today and the events that affect them,'' primarily for the network's weekend editions, according to a press release.

A year ago, senior presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos was on ABC's ``This Week with David Brinkley'' heatedly condemning a book claiming President Clinton had made covert trips out of the White House for romantic trysts. Six months later Stephanopoulos was on the same show, this time as an ABC news analyst. Given his obvious allegiance to President Clinton, Stephanopoulos is referred to by some as a White House flack on ABC's payroll.

Tony Blankley, press secretary to Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich for seven years, also recently left partisan politics for journalism, becoming editor at large for George magazine and providing commentary for CNN. ``One day they are calling journalists to spin them to write favorably about their prominent political patrons and the next minute they are sitting at the table with journalists and indistinguishable from the journalists,'' says David S. Broder, a political reporter and columnist for the Washington Post and an outspoken critic of the revolving door.

It's not just celebrity politicians who effortlessly slide into journalism. Journalists also manage to spin from news to politics and back.

In late May, ABC News announced that Jim Williams, press secretary to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley for nearly five years, would become a correspondent in its Midwest bureau. Williams was going full circle: He'd been a political correspondent for Chicago's WGN-TV before working for the mayor.

Dorrance Smith is now in his second tour of duty as executive producer of ABC's ``This Week'' after a two-year stint as an assistant to President Bush. Miranda S. Spivack, who had covered the Defense Department for the Hartford Courant, worked for the Pentagon for nine months during the first Clinton administration, leaving in 1994 to be deputy editor of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by the Washington Post Co. Tara Sonenshine went from being an editorial producer for ABC's ``Nightline'' to deputy communications director of the National Security Council to covering national security for Newsweek and then back to the NSC; she's now on maternity leave, considering her next move.

Over the years scores of reporters have tried their hand at government, toiling as press spokesmen and policy advisers, but many forgo the return trip and move on to public relations or the corporate world. Jumping back and forth, however, hurts journalism's credibility, a commodity already in tatters. Some people, of course, have made stellar transitions from politics to journalism, earning widespread respect for their work in their new field. But it's the cumulative effect that's considered pernicious. Journalism suffers because the public can't always sort out whether the ``revolvers'' are government officials or members of the press, or where their loyalties lie.

``Who are these people who haven't gone through the tests and are wearing the robes?'' asks Lewis Wolfson, a professor of communication at American University who researched the revolving-door phenomenon while spending a year at Harvard University. Whose interests, for example, is George Stephanopoulos representing when he's opining on ABC? Those of the Clintons or those of ABC's viewers?

One of the best examples of such confusion is Pat Buchanan, the onetime St. Louis Globe-Democrat editorial writer who went to work for Richard Nixon and for the last decade has been no stranger to the revolving door. Twice he's left CNN's political food fight, ``Crossfire,'' to unsuccessfully seek the Republican presidential nomination, then seamlessly return to his TV duties.

Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, says the practice already has affected journalism adversely. ``One reason people have less respect for the media is the revolving door,'' he says. ``People aren't stupid. They realize that people who go back and forth are just out for themselves. They are neither journalist nor public servant.''

And the practice may also mean bad news for the future. Journalists like to believe that if they perform well, they will move into better jobs with more prestigious news organizations. ``Then along comes CBS News and it gives a plum job to someone with no journalism experience, Susan Molinari,'' says Jonathan Salant, a reporter in the Associated Press' Washington bureau. ``And along comes NBC News and [it] rewards Pete Williams, who spent four years in the Bush administration stonewalling the press, by giving him a top reporting job. What message are we sending young journalists? And why should the public trust us when it seems that we are part of the same political power structure that we were given tools--through the First Amendment--to watch over?''

To many, traveling through the revolving door is yet another way journalists take care of themselves at the expense of the profession, akin to accepting mammoth speaking fees (see ``Take the Money and Talk,'' June 1995) and saying outrageous things on television chat shows that they wouldn't dare include in their newspaper or magazine copy or on their newscasts (see ``The Pundit Explosion,'' September 1995).

Some journalists who have spun through the door and landed back in the newsroom say the experience makes them better reporters. Not many journalists, argues Washington Monthly Editor in Chief Charles Peters, really understand how government, particularly the executive branch, works.

``It would last you a lifetime as a journalist to go into government while you are young,'' says Peters, who worked for the Peace Corps before starting the Monthly. ``You would have a sense of where the bodies are buried, where the story probably really lies, who to call. The terrifying thing is journalists have no feeling for the inside pressures.''

FINDING OUT EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENS on the other side is a prime motivator for many journalists who go to work in government or politics.

Over and over reporters who've worked in government assert they are or would be better journalists for the experience. Kenneth H. Bacon spent 25 years reporting for the Wall Street Journal before becoming chief Pentagon spokesman under Clinton.

He now is one of ``them.'' Although he's not sure whether he will return to journalism, Bacon says, ``I'd be a much better reporter if I went back to reporting. I would be more nuanced and could write with better understanding and clarity.''

Former Hartford Courant Washington correspondent Miranda Spivack, who worked for the late Defense Secretary Les Aspin, says she thought of her government tour of duty as just another journalism experience. ``I learned a lot and saw a lot of things I wouldn't have seen otherwise,'' says Spivack, now deputy editor of Gazette newspapers, a Washington Post Co.-owned chain of 22 weeklies in Maryland. ``And it also confirmed my suspicions that there is a lot of deliberate steering reporters off of stories.... There is less than candid dealings with the press. But that's no surprise.''

The Washington Monthly's Peters advocates that reporters and editors in their late 20s and early 30s get several years of government experience, then venture back to news. ``I want them to go early in their careers to get this experience,'' Peters says, ``when they've learned enough about what they don't know as a journalist. It would just be great at the lower and middle stages to get that experience in government.''

NBC's Pete Williams says his seven years as an aide to Dick Cheney, first when Cheney was a Republican Congressman from Wyoming and later as his press spokesman at the Pentagon, added immeasurably to his understanding of how government functions. ``I think having watched the federal government at work from the inside gives you a little extra perspective on how things work and a finer sense of how it works behind the scenes,'' says Williams, who became an NBC correspondent in 1993 and now covers the Justice Department.

But Bernard Kalb, who became assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Reagan administration after covering the State Department for CBS and NBC, thinks this argument may be overstated. He says reporters know more about internal government operations than they think. ``There are insights to be derived...,'' says Kalb, now moderator of CNN's ``Reliable Sources.'' But, he adds, ``by and large, journalists do have the melody already of all the great events taking place behind the scenes.''

Williams, who worked for 11 years in TV in Wyoming, says there's another advantage for the journalist who revolves through government and comes back. ``That experience of having been under the magnifying glass only sensitizes you to the need to be fair,'' says Williams, ``so you are always reminding yourself to treat your subject the way you yourself would want to be covered.''

He doesn't quite get the ``handwringing'' over going back and forth. ``I've always been troubled by this notion that journalists have entered the priesthood,'' says Williams, ``that somehow going to government is too tempting and it warps your brain and you can never be objective again. I don't understand why there's this continuing question about whether you've polluted yourself if you work as a public servant but it's not suspect to be openly partisan as a journalist in public, like those who are on the chat shows.''

Wolfson, author of ``Through the Revolving Door: Blurring the Line Between the Press and Government,'' says he understands the benefits cited by those who have passed through the door, but feels they are outweighed by the damage done to an independent press. He interviewed over 60 people who have done so, and says many of them rationalize their decision.

``Pete Williams is a good example of how you develop your own notion of what's acceptable,'' Wolfson says. ``There's a kind of exasperation that people who do this have: `I got this all worked out and the questioning of this is unnecessary.' But they do become part of political networks once in government.''

Williams challenges anyone to find bias in his reporting. But that, say many, isn't the point. It's an appearance problem: Williams used to stand before Pentagon reporters and put the best Republican spin on the news.

``It seems to me if you are trying to establish yourself as unbiased and attempting to report honestly or fairly, you can't join one of the sides and come back and say, `Now, I've taken a shower and I'm clean again,' '' Witcover says. ``It either casts some doubt on your credibility or is confusing to the public.''

The critics find fault more with news executives than they do with the journalists and politicians who switch roles. ``I don't blame the people who pull it off,'' says Witcover. ``My gripe is with publishers and editors and television executives who bring politicians into our craft without serving any apprenticeship.''

Broder sees value in working on ``the other side'' and looks favorably on government internships for journalists. The American Political Science Association, for example, runs a congressional fellowship program with slots for a half-dozen journalists to spend a year on Capitol Hill.

But fellowships or no fellowships, it's unlikely the revolving door will ever slam shut, or even slow down anytime soon. Journalists will continue to jump back and forth, and big names with no journalism experience will continue to be recruited for high-profile jobs in news.

``It's really like pissing in the wind to complain about it,'' says Broder. ``The solution lies in the hands of the people who hire.''