JF terHorst, President Gerald Ford's first presidential press secretary, died on Wednesday. He might have had the shortest tenure of any press secretary ever because he resigned a short month after being appointed, citing his objection to the pardon of President Richard Nixon.
“I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon former President Nixon even before he has been charged with the commission of any crime,” terHorst wrote in his resignation letter, quoted in The New York Times.
“As your spokesman, I do not know how I could credibly defend that action in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience, and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes — and imprisoned — stemming from the same Watergate situation.”
According to the Times, he also believed his credibility was undermined by being kept in the dark about the decision. One could debate his real reasons, and the validity of those reasons, forever.
But what makes terHorst's professional story interesting to me is the route he took to the White House, not away from it. He was the Washington Bureau Chief for the Detroit News and a member or the White House press corps for years before ever moving to the other side of the briefing room. terHorst covered Ford during his first congressional race in 1948, which is when they became acquainted.
It is not unusual for journalists to go into PR, and in fact it provides a great pathway for professionals and an asset for organizations. PRWeek itself has lost several great reporters to the industry we spend all our time covering. The transition can be jarring, though, and not everyone can acclimate to the new pressures of public relations as well as others.
Sure, the White House is a special case, but the concerns of the average journalist moving to an average PR role are not dissimilar. Journalists who spend their entire careers rooting out facts and wresting sometimes unwanted stories out of sources often think that a move to PR means a transition to the inside of the story. Exclusion without the journalistic license to combat it is frustrating and counterproductive. It also prevents the opportunity to comprehend, and ultimately communicate, the broader context of an action, and that is a missed opportunity.
Journalists are hired, in part, because they know a good story when they hear one. So they should be part of the story, not merely the delivery device for it once it's fully formed.