Journalism and Politics Makes for Some Uncomfortable Pillow Talk

Are promises of "disclosure" enough to remove the taint of association between some journalists and their politically-connected spouses? We're skeptical.

James Rainey has an interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times this morning that runs through a partial list of big-name journalists who are married to advisers to 2008 presidential candidates.

Rainey singles out the Los Angeles Times’ political reporter Ronald Brownstein, who is married to Sen. John McCain’s spokeswoman; Matt Cooper, a former Time writer and current Washington editor for the still-not-launched Portfolio magazine, who is married to a strategist for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign; Nina Easton, Fortune’s Washington bureau chief and Fox News analyst, who is married to a McCain media strategist; and NBC’s Campbell Brown, who is hitched to Republican flack Dan Senor, who recently turned down a job with the Mitt Romney campaign, to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

This is a pretty important issue, and one that we’re sure will draw plenty of commentary in the blogosphere over the next 20 months (20 months!) of the campaign. All of the reporters Rainey spoke to for the piece said, of course, that they would include disclaimers in pieces that touch on subjects dealing with their spouses’ employers, but we wonder if that’s really enough.

As Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, told Rainey, “You have the right to marry anyone you want, but you don’t have the right to cover any beat you want.” That seems to pretty much hit the nail on the head, and raises some tough questions. For example, while Cooper and Brownstein have both proven their mettle in the world of political journalism, it would be na├»ve to think that their views won’t in some way be colored by their association.

To be absolutely clear: we are in no way suggesting that they are going to consciously take it easy on their wives’ bosses, but the issue will be lurking somewhere in their minds as they write their stories. Husband and wife is as intimate a relationship as there is, and it is impossible for a husband to be neutral about what his wife does, what she says, what she believes…and vice versa.

There is no easy solution to the problem, and disclaimers at the bottom of an article can only do so much. For his part, Cooper says that he will write about Clinton and will “acknowledge my wife works for Hillary…at least on Hillary-centric stories.”

Somehow, that just doesn’t sit right. We fully expect Cooper to be fair, but that still doesn’t change the fact that his family has a stake in the race — in a way that the vast majority of other reporters don’t — and that’s not a problem that simple disclosure note can solve. That’s a problem Portfolio will have to find a way to solve, and we fully expect a blogswarm or two to hit the magazine once Cooper publishes his first Hillary piece that isn’t unrealistically critical of the candidate.

The Los Angeles Times faces a similar problem in the Brownstein case. Originally, then-editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Douglas Frantz banished Brownstein from covering the 2008 presidential race, and Brownstein instead focused on covering Congress and the White House. Not bad beats. But last month, Times Publisher David Hiller told Brownstein that he was tasking him with writing a weekly political column as well as pieces for the paper’s op-ed pages. In other words, he’ll be writing, at least in part, about his wife’s boss, putting him in a position similar to Cooper’s.

It’s a position no reporter, or publication, wants to be in. And as we’ve all seen, once the righteous fire of the blogworld starts burning on this front, it’s going to be tough to extinguish. Then, and only then, will we see how the news organizations respond.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.