Politicans Turned Into Journalists

In 1997, the attractive former Republican Congresswoman Susan Molinari was paid considerably more than her Congressional salary to host CBS News Saturday Morning. The chattering classes were twisted into a pretzel of confusion, consternation, and indignation. Here was a clearly partisan person, a Republican no less, who would be co-hosting a news-entertainment show. How could she be credible? How could she be fair? Would we be getting the GOP news? Would she have to recuse herself from every serious discussion?

Of course, the faux fury evidenced a double standard. A number of Democratic operatives had already jumped across the fairly narrow divide between political advocacy and journalism with nary a peep of protest. One of the better known and most respected people who has successfully made the transition is Tim Russert. Russert served on the Senate staff of Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and has been host of NBC’s Meet the Press since 1991. Russert has earned a reputation as a tough, but fair interviewer.

Molinari never attracted enough viewers to last long on CBS, but that has not stopped others from transitioning from politics to journalism. The notion that a partisan cannot be a good journalist rests on the false assumption that conventional journalists are apolitical.

No serious person can cover politics as a journalist and not develop opinions and perspectives. These views cannot help but inform journalistic coverage. The best one can hope for is that journalists are sufficiently introspective to try to be balanced in their reporting. The one advantage of having a known partisan as a journalist is that at least the perspective from which that person reports is apparent. News consumers are thus free to weigh this potential bias with the information presented.

Another partisan that seemed to have made a successful transition from partisanship to journalism is George Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos was the White House Communications Director for President Clinton and is now the host of ABC’s This Week.

Recently, Stephanopoulos interviewed his old boss, one-on-one. One might have thought that ABC would blush, at least a little, in embarrassment to have a former president being interviewed by his former chief Communications Director, the person hired to handle the press, in a straight news interview. The lineup has the outward credibility of a political infomercial.

Stephanopoulos has generally been earnest and sincerely attempts to be balanced. This is what makes his performance when interviewing former President Bill Clinton so disappointing. We have come to expect that Clinton would violate the polite and respectful convention of not commenting on a successor President’s policies. It is no surprise that Clinton dissembles and deliberately misleads in conspicuous ways. However, one would have hoped that Stephanopoulos would have called Clinton on a few of his more outrageous remarks.

In the September 18, 2005 interview with Stephanopoulos, Clinton criticized President Bush’s Iraq policy while at the same time rewriting history by claiming, that prior to the liberation of Iraq, there was “no evidence that there were any weapons of mass destruction.” The variance of this statement now with statements he and his Administration made in the past are almost too numerous to list.

In 1998, Clinton said, “The community of nations may see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists. If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow.”

William Cohen, Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, was “absolutely convinced that there are weapons…” He went on to say, “I saw evidence back in 1998 when we would see the inspectors being barred from gaining entry into a warehouse for three hours with trucks rolling up and then moving those trucks out.”

Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright told the country that “Saddam’s goal … is to achieve the lifting of UN sanctions while retaining and enhancing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs.”

Hussein never complied with weapon’s inspectors and never accounted for stockpiles of anthrax his government originally conceded having. The present assertion by Clinton that there was “no evidence” then of weapons of mass destruction is disingenuous at best. Clinton’s fidelity to the truth is a measure of his character and he rarely fails to disappoint. From Stephanopoulos we had expected more. Perhaps Stephanopoulos was too awed to challenge his former boss to reconcile his present statement with previous ones. Perhaps Stephanopoulos was too respectful to confront the former president’s contradictory statements. In any case, the journalist in Stephanopoulos failed and tarnished whatever respect he has been able to earn.

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