The Media Today

When members of the media run for office 

September 9, 2021

It may still be seven months away, but the French presidential election is already heating up, with pundits and pollsters taking the measure of confirmed candidates (Emmanuel Macron, the president; Marine Le Pen, his far-right rival from the last election) as well as those still toying with a run. Among the latter group, Eric Zemmour, who is even further to the right than Le Pen, has attracted more media buzz than perhaps anyone else—buzz that Zemmour, who has a new book out, has seemed only too happy to encourage. He has long spoken in apocalyptic terms of the decline of French civilization (he titled an earlier book The French Suicide) and endorsed the “great replacement” theory, or the idea that elites are conspiring to replace the population with immigrants. He has been convicted of inciting hatred several times, including for stating that most drug dealers are “Blacks and Arabs” and for referring to Muslim immigrants as “colonizers”; just yesterday, a court overturned the latter verdict, though he now faces a fresh charge after calling unaccompanied migrant children “thieves, killers, rapists.” He once told Hapsatou Sy, a journalist of Senegalese descent, that her first name is “an insult” to France. Multiple women have accused him of sexual assault and harassment (which he denies.)

Zemmour is also a journalist—depending on how you define the term, at least. He began his career as a political reporter, first at the (now defunct) Quotidien de Paris and then at Le Figaro, a right-leaning national paper, before becoming a columnist and TV pundit. Starting in 2006, he appeared as a guest on a weekend talk show that would prove an influential platform—as Elisabeth Zerofsky reported in a 2019 profile of Zemmour for the New York Times Magazine, critics have blamed the show’s host, Laurent Ruquier, for “creating” Zemmour. (Ruquier has said, in self-defense, that he “didn’t think the monster was going to appear.”) RTL, a radio station, stopped working with Zemmour in 2019, following his “colonizer” comments, though he has continued to write regularly for Le Figaro and appear nightly on CNews, a TV channel that has lurched to the right under the ownership of Vincent Bolloré, a French billionaire, and, thanks in no small part to Zemmour, juiced its ratings. Obligatorily, English-language outlets have often compared Bolloré to Rupert Murdoch, CNews to Fox, and Zemmour to Tucker Carlson.

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In Europe, there is nothing particularly unusual about members of the media using their platform as a launch pad for a political career. Boris Johnson, now the British prime minister, was a reporter, columnist, and editor for conservative publications before becoming leader of the Conservative Party; Johnson’s brother Jo worked for the Financial Times before himself becoming a Conservative lawmaker, and their sister, Rachel, tried to become a European lawmaker for a rival party following her own editing career. Journalists entering politics have often been opinionators, but not always. In 2019, Dmytro Gnap, an investigative reporter, ran for the presidency of Ukraine, telling CJR that he was “really tired from this absolutely crazy situation where we are exposing dozens of corrupted officials and nothing happens.” Gnap ultimately withdrew; the winner of the election—Volodymyr Zelensky, of Trump-impeachment fame—was not a journalist, but did play a fictional president in a satirical TV show

In the US, too, the boundaries between entertainment, political media, and politics are increasingly blurry, as Trump proved. Larry Elder, a conservative talk-radio host, could plausibly be the next governor of California. Capital-J Journalists running for office is less common in America, but it’s hardly unheard of. Recently, Nicholas Kristof, a respected liberal columnist at the New York Times, has made waves by flirting openly with a bid for governor of Oregon, his home state. He told Willamette Week in July that the flirtation had been driven mostly by friends who think the state needs “new leadership from outside the broken political system”; he has since contacted possible campaign staff and worked to prove that he meets a residency requirement. According to Politico, he is expected to make a final decision sometime soon.

The idea of serious journalists running for office is generally frowned upon in the US—the Society of Professional Journalists discourages it, and major newsrooms’ ethics rules forbid it. Unsurprisingly, Kristof’s possible candidacy has met with a negative reaction in some quarters. “Writers like Kristof, who has spent a lifetime bossing paragraphs around, can be excellent philosopher kings,” Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote recently. “Some even have the stuff to serve as the ruler of a tiny principality. But I wouldn’t trust one to be my governor.” Helen Lewis, a British-based writer at The Atlantic, warned Americans, with reference to Johnson, not to import the “quintessentially British” gift of journalist politicians. Johnson and Kristof, she acknowledged, aren’t the same, but “journalists make dangerous politicians because they can talk their way out of trouble, have an eye for an arresting phrase and an appealing narrative, and know how to win over a crowd.” Indulging Kristof, Lewis added, could end with President Tucker Carlson.

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There’s a lot to unpack here. The idea of, say, a statehouse wire reporter running for governor, losing, then heading back to their old beat feels obviously problematic—and Lewis is right to note that the boundaries between straight news and opinion journalism are traditionally much more porous in the UK than in the US. (Lewis invokes the recent debate around journalistic objectivity as proof that the gap is narrowing, though to my mind, it isn’t really relevant here.) Kristof, though, is an opinion journalist, even if his work has often incorporated ambitious reporting—and SPJ’s guidelines specifically advise against office-seeking for journalists “who want to be perceived as impartial,” which hardly covers all journalists. The idea that journalists’ professional attributes make them unfit for office is, similarly, a generalization that can easily be flipped on its head: arresting phrases and appealing narratives are not the exclusive preserve of snake-oil salesmen, but can be deployed to tell important truths about the world; many journalists have strong instincts around democracy and good governance, a broad knowledge of public policy, and a better understanding of regular people than many lawyers and corporate executives. It is, ultimately, impossible to generalize here: every journalist is different, and the wisdom—and basic professional appropriateness—of their seeking office will thus differ from case to case. In the end, what matters most, as is true of any candidate, is their views. Zemmour isn’t dangerous because he’s a pundit, even if that status has made him more so.

This isn’t to say that there are no important differences between journalists, as a broad category, and candidates from other backgrounds—but those which concern me the most relate to fairness in elections, more than fairness in journalism. Prominent opinion journalists, in particular, often have huge platforms that are endowed by major news organizations, even if the masthead disclaims the writer’s views. Such platforms can, of course, be a double-edged sword, in terms of the ease they bring to opposition research—but the journalists who run for office tend to be proud of, or at least resolutely unashamed by, their old work. (See Johnson.)

In the US, the undoubtedly messy period between a journalist being a journalist and deciding to run for office is regulated by an honor system; Kristof has stepped back from his Times perch while he weighs his bid. Elsewhere, the regulations are external. Zemmour stepped back from Le Figaro but not from CNews, effectively using the ambiguity around his candidacy to circumvent French broadcast rules that aim to allocate airtime fairly among parties and candidates. Yesterday, France’s broadcast regulator stepped in, ruling that Zemmour is behaving like a candidate and should thus be subject to the same restrictions. Even for France, this was an unusual step; in justifying it, the regulator said that Zemmour is an “actor in the national political debate.” Its action was reasonable in context, but its words describe journalism as much as politics. There are no clean lines between the two.

Below, more on journalists and politics:

  • “Switching sides”: In 2018, Ross Barkan, a journalist in New York, ran unsuccessfully to become a state senator. He subsequently wrote about the experience for CJR. After his loss, “I began to think more about how my two selves, the politician and the journalist, blended, and what each had to teach the other,” Barkan wrote. “In a sense, a candidate performs the partial work of a journalist. True, you aren’t outside, gathering quotes for a story, and you aren’t holding power to account in the same way. You are, ultimately, selling yourself. But you are also talking to people.”
  • “The limits of journalism”: In 2019, as Johnson ran to become Britain’s prime minister, I profiled him for CJR, through the lens of his long media career. “Boris Johnson the writer is Boris Johnson the public figure,” I wrote: “a spinner of irresistible, but often flimsy stories that have but one aim—the furtherment of Boris Johnson.” Stephen Glover, a columnist who worked with Johnson, recalled someone telling him that “column-writing was not a good preparation for being a serious politician, because the nature of a column is that a columnist writes to put the world straight, and makes an argument which is bound to be superficial to a large degree.” Johnson, Glover added, might be especially susceptible to such an argument since he generally “wants to entertain his readers.”
  • More on Zemmour: In her 2019 profile, Zerofsky explained Zemmour’s rising appeal in the context of the French media ecosystem—the country’s “media establishment, besieged by exclusionary and violent rhetoric, finds itself increasingly pressured to take sides even as doing so seems to exacerbate public distrust,” Zerofsky wrote. Vincent Martigny, a political scientist in Paris, told Zerofsky, “People are fed up with being lectured all the time. They feel that the media is the epitome of these elites giving lectures to the world, and all the while they’re just having a good time.”
  • Follow the money: Heidi Legg, a researcher at Harvard, worked with students from Harvard and Tufts universities to track political donations made by the owners of ninety top US news organizations; they were surprised to find that only “60 people in media leadership had donated more than $2,000 to a political candidate since 2019,” but Legg doubts that this is the full story, citing, in part, a lack of transparency around super PAC spending. “We need radical transparency from media and social media platforms on which politicians, super PACs and lobbyists they fund,” Legg writes. “Without it, journalists and society don’t stand a chance to hold them accountable when the coverage is of disrepute.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.