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.