When journalists go into politics

January 19, 2009

Chris Matthews, MSNBC political reporter and anchor, was testing the waters last month for a run for the U.S. Senate. CNN says its chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta is being considered for surgeon general, the country’s top public health job. Ex-comic Al Franken, a founding news commentator on Air America radio, seems to have finally won the Senate seat from Minnesota.

That’s hardly a trend and those three aren’t garden-variety reporters, but with the news business in full shakeout and the public sector in a perpetual hiring mode, it’s worth looking at the prickly questions raised when journalists cast their gaze onto the political sphere.

Media figures have been moving, or trying to move, into public office for a long time: Sonny Bono, Pat Murphy, Shirley Temple, Clint Eastwood, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan. It makes sense. The two worlds appeal to much the same vanities, insecurities and cravings for deference, and reward many of the same talents of showmanship and charm. Plus, aspirants can cash in on whatever public affection they’ve built up.

Generally it has been people from the entertainment side of the media who parlay their prominence and audience appeal into electoral capital. There, they invariably have to face down the same objection, which is that they’re not serious people, that there’s something fundamentally frivolous about their media careers and, paradoxically, that the very same public renown that tees them up as celebrities makes them unsuited for serious public responsibility.

Journalists are a different story, which makes these recent cases interesting. It’s rare to see journalists seeking public office. When they do get into the political world it’s as press aides, where they bring directly applicable skills and networks of contacts. But examples of successful politicians who started out in newsrooms are hard to come by – the only ones who come to mind are ex-vice presidents Dan Quayle and Al Gore..

Why that should be isn’t immediately clear. Why does a career as, say, a corporate lawyer seem a natural preparation for public service, while a background covering matters of contemporary importance for a public audience an oddity?

A practical reason is that most elected offices offer badly paid, part-time work, with few benefits and no job security. Only if your business associates tolerate – and might benefit from – your public sector involvements, and your job is waiting for you if get turned out of office, can you take the plunge. That may be fine for lawyers (and show biz personalities), but it isn’t for most lines of work, including news.

But the equally compelling reason, and one that makes it unlikely that journalists will ever be warmly welcomed as political aspirants, has to do with the adversarialism that journalism is premised on. I don’t want to go overboard here. To be successful, reporters, like anybody else, must play well with others. They reach accommodations with sources, they sometimes allow themselves to be used, they don’t always report everything they know.

But fundamentally, to do their jobs right, they sign on to the idea they’re a check on power, an organ of accountability, working on behalf of the public and, when appropriate, working to expose or frustrate the stratagems, policies and privileges of office-holders in business and government.

Undoubtedly, under that banner journalists produce a lot of cynical, unduly corrosive work that leaves honest citizens in despair of their political system and suspicious of even trustworthy politicians. Making somebody look bad is easier than demonstrating that they are bad.

But because it’s often done poorly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done at all. The journalist’s cause is still a good one. And it demands motivations and goals that are irreconcilable with those that drive aspiring politicos. You can’t critique the emperor’s wardrobe if you long to strip off your own clothes and march alongside him in a procession of the admired and the deluded.

A record of distinction in the newsroom is unlikely to win anyone a welcome among politicians, and it’s understandable that journalists move so rarely into public office. On balance, that’s a good thing. Ambition can be a motivator, but it can also be powerful distraction. If you’re handling your current duties with an eye mainly to endearing yourself to your next boss, you probably don’t deserve either job.

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