Drawing Lines

Why do we let political operatives act like journalists?

Nicholas Kristof and William Kristol both write regular columns about politics and policy for the New York Times op-ed page. But one is a journalist (Kristof) and the other is a political operative who last summer was listed by a Council on Foreign Relations report as an informal part of John McCain’s foreign-policy brain trust (Kristol). The latter, writing once a week since January, has had five published corrections for errors of fact in his column; the former, writing twice a week in that same period, has had no published corrections but did take the extraordinary step of using an entire column to apologize to Steven J. Hatfill, the scientist who was named (and recently exonerated) by the government as the leading suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks; in 2002, Kristof had written columns urging closer scrutiny of the then-anonymous “person of interest” who turned out to be Hatfill.

Our point is that journalists have a fundamentally different relationship to facts than that of most political operatives. Facts are the foundation of what journalists do—get them wrong and your credibility suffers; get them wrong often enough and you’ll be out of a job. For creatures of politics, facts are malleable—weapons to be used as necessary to produce victory at the polls and in the policy-making arena. Journalists are taught to check facts and assemble them without regard for whether they like the picture that emerges; political operatives only have use for those facts that enhance the picture they want to project.

But the larger issue here is that too many news consumers don’t make this distinction between Kristof and Kristol—both are simply members of the vast, undifferentiated Media. In recent years, news outlets have increasingly encouraged this lack of discrimination. There has always been some crossover between the worlds of politics and journalism (see Gergen, David), but the blurring accelerated with the rise of cable news. Today, it has become so common that we may never be able to tease it apart in any meaningful way. Michael Gerson, a former adviser to President Bush, writes a column for The Washington Post; Joe Scarborough, a former congressman, hosts a news show on MSNBC; Newt Gingrich, Dick Morris, and Karl Rove are analysts on Fox News; CNN’s Best Political Team on Television has Donna Brazile, Bill Bennett, Ed Gibson, Paul Begala, et al, sitting cheek-by-jowl with actual journalists like John King and Campbell Brown. How can we expect viewers to not lump us all together?

Such willful blurring of the line between journalists and political partisans has consequences. One is the shock—even outrage—that results when a journalist has the temerity to behave like one. Recall the uproar when CNN’s Brown challenged Tucker Bounds, McCain’s spokesman, to provide an example of a decision Sarah Palin had made in her role as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard. The McCain camp had held up this experience as evidence of her readiness for the vice presidency, and when Brown asked Bounds to back up that claim, he either could not or would not—and Brown wouldn’t let it go. Bounds cried foul, suggesting she was somehow out of line. Hmmm. Tenacity and an adversarial tone. That does seem suspicious. In the days following that exchange, there was far too much serious discussion of Bounds’s ridiculous charge.

The Brown-Bounds dustup was an early salvo in the McCain campaign’s full-throated deployment of the well-worn media-bashing strategy—a strategy that benefits when everyone (from Nick Kristof to Bill Kristol to the anonymous blogger on the partisan site Daily Kos who spread a rumor that Palin’s newborn son actually belonged to Palin’s seventeen-year-old daughter Bristol) is mashed together under the banner of The Media. Serious news outlets do themselves—and the rest of us—no favors by encouraging this distorted understanding of what they do and why. 

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.