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.”

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.