News media and politics in the age of Obama have grown uncomfortably close. So many journalists have found employment in the Obama administration that the phenomenon has become a story itself, with a dozen news organizations tracking the cross-pollination between the two and speculating on the implications. The current count of press turncoats varies from a low of 15 reported by The Daily Beast to a high of 24 as reported by The Atlantic.
“I’m often surprised when I hear about colleagues leaving journalism for government or government relations. I can’t imagine doing anything else, although I understand how the news business can turn sour for some people,” said veteran newsman Mark Knoller, White House correspondent for CBS News.
“My experience in dealing with former journalists now serving as government spokespersons or officials is mixed. Some of them understand the information I’m seeking and why — and are most helpful,” he said. “But some others strike me as having turned to the dark side and seem more interested in denying information than providing it.”
For conservative critics of President Obama and the mainstream media, the traffic between the two suggests a bigger problem.
“If one has a propensity to start out at a left-wing publication and then become an objective reporter, or one is readily willing to leave being an objective reporter to be a mouthpiece for one side or the other, it reveals their world view,” Erick Erickson, founder and editor of RedState.com, told The Washington Times.
He recently rattled the media landscape with a detailed account of the revolving door between the press and “left-wing politics,” sparked by Richard Stengel’s recent decision to leave his managing editor post at Time magazine and become undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
Mr. Erickson’s list included former Time correspondent Jay Carney, now Mr. Obama’s top spokesman; ABC News’ Linda Douglass, who joined the White House push to pass Obamacare and returned to journalism at The Atlantic; the Chicago Tribune’s Jill Zuckman, a political correspondent who became spokeswoman for Ray LaHood, transportation secretary in Mr. Obama’s first term; Jim Sciutto, who left ABC News to work for U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, before returning to a media job at CNN; and The Washington Post’s Shailagh Murray, Douglas Frantz and Stephen Barr, all of whom took posts in the Obama administration.
Mr. Erickson’s overarching point is that conservatives ultimately get short shrift to have their side of the story heard.
“It is damnably hard to get a fair shake when the reporter’s presuppositions going into a report is that life begins when the parents take the child home from the hospital, Ronald Reagan left America poor and destitute, or anyone who opposes gay marriage, no matter how sincerely their religious views, is a bigot,” Mr. Erickson said.
His account sparked counterarguments among those convinced that conservatives also were guilty of moving between serving in government and reporting on the government.
“If about an equal number left journalism for Republican administrations as Democratic ones, you could argue it all evens out. But the ratio is 5-to-1 or more in favor of joining Democratic administrations, with a big spurt when Obama took office,” said Brent Baker, vice president for research and publications at the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group.
“It just shows how much ideological overlap there is between the Washington press corps and liberal politicians, which can’t help but further journalistic promotion of the liberal policies they may well soon be formulating themselves as an administration official,” Mr. Baker added. “And more than a few may very well be using their reporting to demonstrate their compatibility with administration goals.”
Narrative-driven journalists would seem like good fits as representatives, policy promoters and public affairs liaisons. They know intimately how the editorial selection process works and know the people doing the selecting.
The news media serve as “a minor league team for a major league Obama administration,” conservative commentator Cal Thomas said in his own analysis, adding that the practice “does great damage to an already damaged industry.”
When former political operatives turn up as newscasters and hosts, the public gets confused, Mr. Thomas said.
Journalists reinventing themselves as public officials with insider status is nothing new. Such is the case, perhaps, of one John Nicolay, personal secretary to none other than Abraham Lincoln.
“Nicolay was a former journalist with the Pike County Sucker and Pittsfield Free Press and a clerk to the Illinois Secretary of State (where he was in charge of the election records) at the time of Lincoln’s nomination for president,” notes a historical account from the Lincoln Institute, a research organization. “He served as a one-man transition committee for the Lincolns’ move into the White House. Signing his appointment was President Lincoln’s first official act after inauguration.”