The Old Revolving Door Question Revolves Around Again

Is it problematic when a partisan political operative takes a job as a reporter, or vice versa? Not necessarily.

There was a bit of an intra-squad scrimmage over at the CBS’s Public Eye blog yesterday between editor Vaughn Ververs and Editorial Director Dick Meyer. The issue is the announcement that bombastic Fox News host Tony Snow has accepted an offer to be White House press secretary.

Ververs takes stock of the “revolving door” argument — that it’s problematic when a partisan political operative takes a job as a reporter, or vice versa — and dismisses it. “Don’t we want our reporters to have an expert grip on the topic they cover?” he asks. “Sure, they bring some ideological baggage but, as the saying goes, at least we know where they’re coming from. And what is so wrong with the White House looking to someone with at least some journalistic credentials to communicate to the press?”

The way we see it, nothing, and Snow looks particularly well-placed to do so. After all, he’s worked as a political analyst for the Fox News Channel since 1996 and has a lengthy pedigree as an opinion writer and editor, having been a nationally syndicated columnist for the Detroit News from 1993 to 2001 and a USA Today columnist from 1994 to 2000.

In addition to this, he also served as an editorial writer at the Virginian-Pilot; editorial page editor of the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia; deputy editorial page editor of the Detroit News and editorial page editor of the Washington Times. Plus, he’s been host of The Tony Snow Show on radio and Weekend Live with Tony Snow on Fox News Channel. The guy is also familiar with the inner workings of the White House, having worked as a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

In short, Snow has trafficked in the realm of opinion journalism throughout his career, which is a different world than that of the straight news reporter. If nothing else, he has been a paid provocateur.

Meyer, a purist through and through, sees things differently. The “revolving door,” he says, “is always bad for journalism.” If he had his way, Meyer says that “no one who worked as a partisan after the age of 25 would ever be allowed to cover politics, elections or any branch of government (state, local or federal) in journalism except to give color commentary. And then they should be properly labeled.”

In his rush to ban people from participating in journalism, Meyer fails to distinguish between the day-to-day straight reporting practiced by the vast majority of journalists and the opinionated editorials and op-eds that someone like Snow has spent his career producing. What’s more, Meyer, much like Hugh Hewitt, stands firm on the premise that a person can never overcome a prior association with a partisan group, writing, “Nonattachment for people who used to be formally attached is not possible.”

Meyer feels so strongly about this that he claims he doesn’t watch Tim Russert or George Stephanopoulos on Sunday mornings because they once worked in politics and are “on a team.” It’s here that he finally makes a distinction, after a fashion, between straight news reporting and other, opinion-based writing. “The trick,” he says, “in conventional hard news reporting is to not be attached to any team, party, faction or ideology.”

But as much as that would be the best of all theoretical worlds, it just isn’t possible. A reporter can (and probably should) abstain from joining a political party or giving money to politicians or political groups, but he or she cannot reasonably be expected to refrain from forming political views. Reporters aren’t automatons, bereft of the obligations of citizenship. As Hewitt has noted, they bleed when cut, and they vote when someone holds an election.

The trick is not to avoid being attached to a “party, faction or ideology,” but to be fair to those ideologies with which one might not agree. That seems to us to be the true solution.

And, what with legions of bloggers and media critics smacking their chops waiting for a reporter to slip up, those who fail that test will undoubtedly be called on it.

Correction: The above has been changed to delete a reference to Public Eye editor Vaughn Ververs being older than 25 when he worked on a political campaign. Ververs was indeed under 25 years old when he worked for conservative idealogue Pat Buchanan, which allows Ververs, according to Dick Meyer’s reasoning, to become a journalist after all.

We still, however, cannot take Meyer’s “under 25” absolution seriously. If 24-year-old political operatives get off of Meyer’s hook, then why not 26-year-old political operatives — or 72-year-old political operatives?

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