Political pundits far from non-partisan

The day may come when the "news" is an all-out battle of competing political factions, each trying to insinuate its position into the mind of the populace by using the media as a giant host, just as viruses use the human body.

The day may come when the "news" is an all-out battle of competing political factions, each trying to insinuate its position into the mind of the populace by using the media as a giant host, just as viruses use the human body.

Who are we kidding? That day came long ago. But the media does not seem to be in a hurry to discourage the transition.

Its most visible manifestation is the blurring of the lines concerning what constitutes a journalist and the question of what type of content media outlets should use to fill pages.

It seems major networks, magazines, and papers can't line up fast enough to employ career political operatives ready to trade the openly partisan aspects of DC for the slightly less openly partisan life of an expert political "commentator, "correspondent," or "analyst."

The practice cuts across both sides of the aisle. Last week, ABC News hired former Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd as a contributor; other Bush administration operatives presently ensconced in media jobs include Karl Rove at Newsweek, former communications director Nicolle Wallace at CBS News, and former speechwriter Michael Gerson, a columnist at The Washington Post.

For "balance," former Democratic operatives include high-profile TV news personalities like George Stephanopoulos, Chris Matthews, and Tim Russert.

Viewed at the micro level, this permeable membrane between politics and journalism does not seem to be the type of problem that would have ethics professors pounding the table. As long as standard disclosure rules are followed, it would seem grossly unfair to ban anyone who previously worked in politics from ever working in the media.

Even Glenn Greenwald, a Salon. com blogger who frequently criticizes the media's political coverage, seems unperturbed.

"I don't actually think there's anything wrong at all with former political operatives serving as commentators as long as there is full disclosure," Greenwald says.

"In some sense, it's more honest than 'journalists' who masquerade as neutral observers while expressing highly biased and politicized 'analysis,'" he adds.

Likewise, ABC News SVP Jeffrey Schneider says, "These types of consultants, who we hire from both sides, bring the unique perspective of their experience to us."

He rejects the argument that every dollar spent on an ex-politico is one that is not spent on more fundamental tasks like investigative reporting.

"We obviously think that there's an extremely good return on the investment that we're making," Schneider says.

Still, the fact remains that the practice, on a macro level, is an unhealthy one. First, the more it happens, the more the public will associate news outlets with condoning partisanship.

Second, because in this era of nearly universal newsroom layoffs, the money could be better spent on real reporting.

And finally, because no amount of public assurances can guarantee that a "contributor" - particularly one who comes directly from a political communications operation - will ever do anything but spout talking points designed to reinforce their own political party.

If a news outlet wants spokespeople in a story, it does not have to hire them; its reporters can simply interview them, saving a dollar and avoiding a formal association with political partisanship.

"People don't work for political leaders for years and then suddenly switch off their loyalty when they leave for the private sector," says Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's journalism school and president of The American Journalism Review.

"Readers and viewers can reasonably wonder if these news organizations aren't essentially employing advocates for the people they are supposed to cover."

Kunkel is also quick to point out the inherent latitude that comes with commentary positions - they are, after all, opinions, regardless of their origin.

He notes the value of the inside knowledge gained while working on the inside, rather than reporting from the outside. But he concludes that "as a practice, it is not one I would commend."

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