Resolving The Revolving Door Argument? Don't Bet On It
It appears, according to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux, that Fox News host Tony Snow is about to accept an offer to be the next White House press secretary. Time magazine reported this week that bringing in Snow is part of a five-point plan to rehabilitate the administration and that new White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten "believes the White House can work more astutely with journalists to make its case to the public."
Reactions to speculation surrounding Snow have been largely positive but the prevailing opinion seems to be the White House will only be successful in repairing relations with the press if those in charge (i.e. President Bush) are willing to really try. As former presidential adviser David Gergen put it on this weekend's "Reliable Sources": "It's all up to the president. Tony Snow will only be effective if the president himself wants to change the practices and how secretive they are, how non-informative they are."
Then there is the "revolving door" issue – the political operatives who enter journalism or vice-verse. It's a path some very well-known journalists have followed – NBC's Tim Russert, ABC's George Stephanopoulos are but two journalists with prominent political roots. Snow, of course, is a former speechwriter for the first President Bush as well as a conservative columnist and radio host. He also hosted "Fox News Sunday" for several years, a traditional Sunday morning public affairs program.
Disclosure time here – I worked as an associate producer for "Fox News Sunday" for a couple of years, helping prepare research and material for Snow. Despite being known primarily as a conservative commentator, I found his approach to hosting the Sunday show to be fair – more focused on making news than making a point. Still, his bread-and-butter has always been in the ideological arena and that makes any move to the White House understandable.
One potential problem for Snow could be his paper-trail. As an opinionated commentator there are going to be instances where the positions he would advocate from the podium might not match up with those he's held in his writings or on the air. Now, that could be a positive – showing a willingness on part of the White House to bring in someone who does not agree with them across the board. But it could also result in a lot of "gotcha" questions from the press corps – "you wrote last year …"
Of course, the political pasts of high-profile journalists are brought up all the time as arguments about bias. Stephanopoulos was a high-level aide to President Clinton, how can he be fair as the host of "This Week?" The answer, in most cases, is that the proof is in the product. Even if the issue never goes away completely, their work can be judged over time.
Still, this revolving door business is troubling to some who believe that the line between political operative and newsperson is one that can't be crossed. I'm not so sure about that. Don't we want our reporters to have an expert grip on the topic they cover? Other professions – medicine and business for example – cross over to journalism all the time with little of the hand-wringing that accompanies the political crossover. Sure, they bring some ideological baggage but, as the saying goes, at least we know where they're coming from. And what is so wrong with the White House looking to someone with at least some journalistic credentials to communicate to the press?
I started kicking this issue around with Dick Meyer, Editorial Director of CBSNews.com and he had a much different take:
Vaughn is making something simple complicated.
The "revolving door" is always bad for journalism. Always. If I were king of the forest, no one who worked as a partisan after the age of 25 would ever be allowed to cover politics, elections or any branch of government (state, local or federal) in journalism except to give color commentary. And then they should be properly labeled.
Contrary to Vaughn's argument, the proof is not in the product. I don't care if Vaughn thinks Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos have good Sunday morning shows. I don't like to watch them because I think because they both spent many years working as extremely partisan operators they are, in their hearts and souls, on a team. Same for Tony Snow, Joe Scarborough, Bill Moyers or anyone else you want to name.
There are not many things a journalist can do to enforce the discipline of nonattachment to everyday work. Every featherless biped on the planet has biases, viewpoints, blindspots, prejudices and habits of though – journalists emphatically included. The trick in conventional hard news reporting is to not be attached to any team, party, faction or ideology. The second trick is to work with people who you violently disagree with on nearly everything. Like Vaughn and I.
Nonattachment for people who used to be formally attached is not possible.
And even if it were, readers, clickers and viewers may understandable see your attachments and have doubts. Again, there are very few ways journalists can help audiences trust their nonattachment. That's why we as a profession should expressly forbid hiring ex-partisans as staright news workers.
Now the bloggy, new age response to this is that anyone can and should be a journalist and simply always reveal their bias, attachments and perspectives. But that's flat out impossible in hard news reporting.
It would be a whole lot better for the news business to keep the party boys and girls out. Period.