TV's Revolving Political Door : Has Newsroom Become a Platform for Some Office-Seekers?

KABC-TV's conservative commentator Bruce Herschensohn ran for the Republican nomination to the Senate in 1986, lost, and is now back on the air. His liberal counterpart, Bill Press, quit Channel 7 last November to run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. And just this month, the station hired Rose Bird, former chief justice of the California Supreme Court, to replace Press.

Lisa Specht, the station's legal reporter, ran--unsuccessfully--for Los Angeles city attorney in 1985. Another KABC commentator, John Tunney, is a former Democratic U.S. senator. And former U.S. Rep. Bobbi Fiedler, a Republican, also served a short term as a KABC commentator.

With once-and-future candidates regularly coming and going, KABC has stirred controversy about the ethics of allowing a television newsroom to become a haven for "TV politicians" on their way to somewhere else.

Some political observers have questioned the propriety of allowing potential candidates to get an early jump on their opponents with TV appearances as they test the electoral waters. Some TV journalists contend that allowing former politicians to drift in and out with the prevailing political wind taints the integrity of the station's newscasts. And critics from politics and journalism believe that TV commentators are simply not qualified to run for the Senate.

"There's this old disease in reporting where reporters begin to think they know things no one else does," says Bill Stout, reporter and commentator at KCBS-TV Channel 2 for 23 years and a TV journalist who says he has no aspirations of ever running for public office. "Reporters love to sit around in reporters' salons and talk to each other. And it seems to me the same crazy thing infects some commentators."

But KABC executives say there is nothing in the law that prohibits them from employing former politicians as long as they are not officially declared candidates, nor that prevents their employees from deciding to seek political office as any other citizen might.

Just as some television executives believe it makes sense for retired athletes to try their hand at sports broadcasting, some say it makes sense for former politicians to provide political commentary on TV news. Bill Moyers, Hodding Carter III and Pierre Salinger, all former executive branch officials in Washington, have led highly regarded careers in television news following their stints in government.

Both Herschensohn and Press worked in government before arriving at Channel 7--Press was a lobbyist and an aide to Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., Herschensohn an aide to then-President Richard Nixon. But some observers jest that a vote for either of them would be like endorsing Chick Hearn's subbing for Magic Johnson during a crucial moment of a Lakers playoff game; neither the NBA nor the U.S. government is a place for beginners.

Press disagrees, arguing that it is this country's "outdated, good-old-boy" political system, where politicians work their way up thepower structure by obeying the wishes of the party elite, that has produced all of the "bad policies" he's determined to change.

"It's experience that got us Star Wars. It's experience that got us aid to the Contras and it's experience that got us a Santa Monica Bay that you can't swim in today," Press says.

"Experience is overrated. I think my lack of experience in elected office is a real asset. I don't have any institutional baggage, political baggage or built-in need to compromise."

Herschensohn, who says he's undecided about seeking Alan Cranston's Senate seat again in 1992, argues that no profession should be exempted from running for political office. He points to President Reagan, who never held an elective office before becoming governor of California, and to Baxter Ward, a former Los Angeles County supervisor who also started as a television newsman, as examples of political outsiders who made good in the political arena.

Being on television, Herschensohn insists, should not disqualify anyone from seeking public office.

"I think (TV commentators) are as qualified as anyone else to run for office," says Joe Cerrell, a local democratic political consultant. "But they should work their way up the ladder, not start at the top. You don't learn the political process that way, and I think you really need that grooming in local or state office first."

Press, 47--a gray-haired, bespectacled ex-seminarian--says he grew up immersed in politics, his father and grandfather each serving terms as mayor of his hometown, Delaware City, Del. He says that he was impelled to run for the Senate by a trip he made on assignment for KABC to Costa Rica and Nicaragua in the fall of 1986. While taping material for his reports on Channel 7, Press was outraged by what he calls "the lies that my government had been telling the American people" and "the brutality and human suffering" that he witnessed firsthand.

"And I came back convinced that I was not going to be content simply talking about issues on television anymore. I needed to do more."

While continuing to express his views on the Central American situation to his KABC audience, Press began "testing the waters"--commissioning polls, raising campaign funds, hiring a staff. Then, last November, he said goodby as a commentator to his television audience and hello as a full-time political candidate to try to woo that same audience's votes.

(Federal regulations require that television stations take a candidate off the air only after he or she files formal papers to run for office.)

Some political watchdog organizations such as California Common Cause and campaign aides to Press' opponent, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, have protested that it is unfair to allow TV personalities who are obviously planning to run for office to remain on the air. Herschensohn, for example, waited until January, 1986, to quit his television job to run in the June primary. He announced his candidacy on the air.

Walter Zelman, executive director of California Common Cause, has claimed that staying on the air while organizing a campaign on the side gives the television personality an inequitable advantage over other candidates who must pay to express their views on television.

At the root of the controversy is the tremendous amount of free exposure that any person on TV enjoys. In 1986, Herschensohn won in the areas where KABC is broadcast--Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties--and lost every other county in the state. The nomination went to Ed Zschau, then a well-financed Republican congressman from Los Altos.

Press concedes that being on television in the state's largest market is an immeasurable asset, but it is far outweighed, he says, by the advantages enjoyed by an incumbent office holder. Politicians such as McCarthy, Zschau or Republican Sen. Pete Wilson automatically have lists of contributors from their previous campaigns to call on.

And for all the added exposure Herschensohn enjoyed by staying on the air until five months before the election, both Press and Herschensohn believe that remaining at KABC too long probably hurt his chances.

"It's important that people see you as a candidate," Press says. "You can tell potential contributors how serious you are, but as long as you are running over to Channel 7 every afternoon, getting back in the womb, there's a question mark in people's minds."

But the big question in some journalists' minds is what the candidacies of these television news personalities say about the state of television journalism. Erik Sorenson, news director at KCBS-TV, believes that it is wrong to employ a person with strong political affiliations within a newscast. He contends that news viewers deserve an overall picture of any particular issue. And though he or she may eventually advocate one side or the other, Sorenson insists that the commentator ought to be someone with the ability to see and argue both sides.

"What KABC does are mini-editorials in the middle of its newscasts," Sorenson says. "When a person is running for office, he doesn't have any objectivity, and I don't think that is right for the viewers. It's not news. Editorials (run outside the newscast) are a more appropriate position for these people. That's where politicians belong."

Tom Capra, news director at KNBC-TV, says that if he discovered that a Channel 4 news employee was considering a run for political office, he would immediately take that person off the air.

"When they put on the cloak of a legitimate employee, I do think it tarnishes their newscast," Capra says. "The most precious thing we have is our air time and I don't think we should give it to them for free."

Herschensohn, who was rehired at Channel 7 and at KABC Talk Radio after losing his bid for the Senate, insists that his political aspirations do not taint the station's newscasts because "I am not a journalist, I'm a commentator," and therefore, by definition, not bound to any traditional journalistic standards of objectivity.

Terry Crofoot, Channel 7's news director, has said that the station has always stayed within FCC regulations concerning politicians and he sees nothing unethical about hiring politicians to provide commentary as long as it's clear that these people are giving opinions and not covering the news.

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