When, in 1980, George Will was discovered to be coaching Ronald Reagan on debating tactics one minute and pronouncing him a "thoroughbred performer" the next, journalists professed to be shocked and angered by Will's ethical transgression. But when Crossfire host Mary Matalin is reported to be a regular, albeit unpaid, adviser to the Bush campaign, we hear not a peep from the guardians of journalism's professional ethics. What's the difference?
Recall the Will flap: Will insisted that all he had done was ask Reagan "a recondite question bristling with references to Resolution 242 and 'the green line,'" regarding the Arab-Israeli peace process. With his answer, Will felt compelled to add, the soon-to-be President "did not distinguish himself." Dumped by the New York Daily News and widely attacked elsewhere, Will responded that as a "columnist" rather than a "journalist" he had done nothing that Walter Lippmann, Joseph Alsop and others would not have done. Ben Bradlee, Washington Post executive editor at the time, later told me that if it had been up to him, "I would have canned him on the spot," but his colleague on the editorial page, Meg Greenfield, did not agree. The flap quickly died down, and the Daily News quietly reinstated him. Will emerged an even bigger bigfoot than before.
Will's legacy appears to be that pundits are so inured to conflicts of interest that even working as an unpaid operative for a candidate does not disqualify you from hosting a pundit chat show. When the Washington Post revealed that the Crossfire host had been working with the Bush campaign "for months," the story appeared to cause little outrage anywhere. This surprised Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, one of the authors of the article and the host of CNN's media-watch program, Reliable Sources. Kurtz says Matalin's role "creates a real problem for Crossfire that at the very least should require Mary to disclose her role whenever she discusses the Bush campaign." CNN president Richard Kaplan responded that Matalin will do this whenever appropriate but does not agree that it's a "problem." "Nobody hired Mary to be impartial," Kaplan told me when I cornered him at a media event. Still, he says, he would not use Matalin to comment after a debate the way ABC used Will. "She is the host of Crossfire, period, and she will reveal her role whenever appropriate."
Alas, Matalin was hosting Crossfire and working for Bush "for months" before anybody revealed anything. Kaplan recuses himself on this point; he says he did not hire Matalin and was not aware of the situation when she was hired. He directed me to Gail Evans, a CNN executive vice president who oversees all talk shows. But Evans ignored my call, as did Matalin herself.
So what have we learned here? Pundits are not journalists when it comes to standards of impartiality, and no nonmonetary conflict of interest is so great that it disqualifies you from hosting a pundit chat show. These are valuable lessons. And if Matalin had taken the personal disclosure issue a bit more seriously, we would actually have reached a situation that is a bit more honest and open than the charade under which so many pundits now operate. Does Paul Begala of MSNBC's Equal Time know a few secrets about the Gore campaign he's not revealing? Did Sidney Blumenthal tell us every last unflattering truth about the Clinton Administration when he worked at The New Yorker? And what of all the free and secret advice offered on the side? Most of these guys are more politicians than journalists, but they retain the convenient fiction because it pays better. Wouldn't it be nice if they admitted these connections without the Washington Post having to report them first?
For all the egocentricity and navel-gazing among journalists, it is odd how shy they are about revealing the decision-making process that goes into, as Herbert Gans phrased it, "deciding what's news." Well, thanks to the Pew Research Center, we can no longer avoid a key ingredient: corporate-inspired self-censorship. According to the Pew study of nearly 300 journalists and news executives commissioned by the Columbia Journalism Review, nearly 25 percent "of the local and national journalists say they have purposely avoided newsworthy stories, while nearly as many acknowledge they have softened the tone of stories to benefit the interests of their news organizations." Forty-one percent "admit they have engaged in either or both of these practices." [Emphasis in original.] A key category of the unreported included "stories that could damage the news organization's parent company, advertisers or friends." Just as the Soviet Union could repress free speech without resorting to purges and mass murder after a while as citizens began to internalize the system, corporations can educate their journalistic properties to kill stories before they ever reach the level of corporate censorship. As more and more journalistic institutions fall under multiple corporate owners... Well, do the math.
Liberal Media Hides
National Journal recently published what, at first glance, looks to be somewhat scientific evidence for liberal bias among journalists. Through the miracle of Lexis/Nexis, the author, Eron Shosteck, notes that the phrases "extreme right" and "far right" appear more often in the news than "extreme left" or "far left." Sounds convincing until you remember that there's a political reality out there being described, and its names are Tom DeLay, Bill Archer, Steve Forbes, Ralph Reed, Bob Barr, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson and Jesse Helms. Last I looked, Noam Chomsky was not exactly chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But what can we expect from a magazine edited by well-known extreme-rightist Michael Kelly?