Not Necessarily the News

By Brian Montopoli

In his capacity as Newsweek columnist, Jonathan Alter crafts nuanced arguments that, while compelling, rarely push far beyond the conventional wisdom. On Al Franken’s radio show Tuesday, however, he showed a disdain for the Bush administration that he usually only hints at in print. Alter complained that the American people still see members of the administration as “solid citizens” despite the fact that “the level of incompetence here is so staggering.” Later he said that “the only way you can sort of start to let the public know is to say, no, they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re clowns.”

One might expect liberals to respond to such comments with enthusiasm, but Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly (where Alter is a contributing editor) met them with disappointment. “My problem is that Alter presumably sees the Bush administration up close on a daily basis and is paid to express his opinion about them, but he’s not really doing it [in Newsweek],” wrote Drum. So why is Alter surprised, he wonders, that people see members of the administration as solid citizens? “After all,” wrote Drum, “he’s the guy with both inside access and a big megaphone, and if he doesn’t say it, who will?”

Alter disputes the notion that he’s too restrained in print. “If I just attacked Bush with a sledgehammer every week in Newsweek it would get pretty predictable, so I vary my pitches,” he says. “But lately I’ve been whacking him pretty good. I haven’t done it that explicitly, but I’ve certainly done it and expect to do it some more.” He acknowledges, however, that different media force journalists to play different roles — and that he takes a different approach in Newsweek than he does on a liberal radio show.

In the last few years, the boundaries between the roles of prominent print journalists like Alter, who appear regularly on television and radio and write in multiple formats, have become increasingly blurry. There was a time when media outlets went to great lengths to maintain the distinction between reporters, columnists, and pundits: The brass at the Associated Press were so concerned with maintaining their reporters’ objectivity, for example, that they wouldn’t allow them to submit questions for the Nixon/Kennedy debates. The Wall Street Journal also held the line until about 25 years ago, refusing in the vast majority of cases to let its reporters go on television. (According to one oft-repeted story, Karen Elliott House, now the Journal’s publisher, threw a glass of wine at then-managing editor Norman Pearlstine in 1986 during an argument over House’s appearance on a raucous episode of “The McLaughlin Group.”)

The Washington Post ‘s David Broder, who has appeared on “Meet The Press” for decades, says the definition of what a journalist is has changed over the years, a trend exacerbated by cable news. “It’s a niche market for people who call themselves journalists and go on and argue with each other like politicians,” he says. “These people become the personalities that represent what journalism is. On a show like ‘Crossfire,’ there’s only one real journalist. The public doesn’t understand that the other three are not what we would consider journalists.”

Further muddying the waters for news consumers, newspaper writing itself has changed. Broder, who works simultaneously as a columnist and reporter, says that it isn’t always easy to differentiate between news and analysis, even within the same publication. “There’s a blurring of lines on the print side because we realize today it’s rare that we bring people their first intimation of a news development,” he says. “There’s much more context reporting — more getting into analysis in what we think of as news stories.”

At least in print some effort is made to let the reader know what is meant to be opinion and what should be seen as straight reporting. On television, where some shows seem designed to blur the line between opinion and objectivity, all bets are off. “The key point about TV is that all subtlety is lost,” says Newsweek’s Howard Fineman. “Your tie, glasses and hair are more important than what you have to say.” All of the print journalists we spoke to said they try to resist making grand pronouncements or prognostications on the air, but their roles aren’t always clear. An anchor might ask an education reporter to assess the No Child Left Behind Act, for example, something a “reporter” is expected to do objectively. (Making value judgments about the quality of the program traditionally falls to the “pundits,” though news consumers often have a hard time telling the difference.) If an anchor asks a campaign reporter — someone who has spent a fair amount of time with a candidate — to assess the candidate’s character, for example, he’s in a nearly impossible position: He must try to straddle the line between making a moral judgment and an objective one, to not cross the invisible and undefined barrier between journalist and pundit.

Anchors don’t make it any easier. “You’re constantly being pushed as a guest to ratchet up your opinions and try to predict the future,” says Howard Kurtz, who writes news and analysis pieces for the Washington Post while also serving as a media critic for CNN. He says his rule is to try to avoid anything on television that he wouldn’t say in an analysis in the paper. But cable feeds on conflict; after all, jokes Fineman, there’s a reason that wrestling shows are so popular. And the pressure for conflict sometimes pushes print journalists into statements they regret. “TV requires compression — you run the danger of oversimplification,” says Kurtz. “Some print journalists take more provocative positions on the air than they ever would in print.”

The Wall Street Journal used to downplay the role of individual reporters — when it became a national paper, only stories on the front page contained bylines. Now, however, the paper has an arrangement with CNBC in which their star reporters appear regularly on the network. Journal deputy managing editor Barnie Calame says the paper is careful about who it lets appear, however: Only reporters able to parry aggressive questioning, he says, make it onto the air. “We don’t think TV creates an exemption for our reporters to render opinions — even though they’re pressed to do so,” says Calame. “You sometimes have anchors saying things like, ‘Isn’t Kerry’s education policy a mess?’ Our guys have to be smart enough to finesse questions like that. They need to say, well, ‘the key to understanding that is,’ or ‘the two most important factors are.’ We make sure the people who go on the shows have the knowledge, poise and maturity to deal with brash anchors.” Even the most seasoned reporters sometimes say things they regret when facing fast paced, reductive questioning, however — and they can’t rely on the backspace button to make things right.

Television, in short, tends to make otherwise nuanced reporters act like the politicians they’re covering: They’re encouraged to reduce complex issues to simple sound bites, make prognostications based on hunches instead of fact, and describe positions from partisan points of view. “When you try to explain a public official’s thinking, you come off as trying to justify it,” says Fineman. But as the line between news and punditry blurs, it’s news consumers who are left wondering: Is that a reporter talking, or is he just playing one on TV?

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.