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Fuzzy Lines Blur Face of TV, Politics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mayor of New York? Vice President of the United States? How about network anchorwoman?

When Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) announced this week that she was going to step through the media looking glass to join CBS News, she sent shock waves through the worlds of politics and journalism.

The 39-year-old Republican was widely viewed as one of her party’s faces of the future, a possible candidate for state or national office who gained fame as keynote speaker at last summer’s GOP national convention.

Hardly anyone, however, had seen her as a candidate for a job in front of the network cameras--as co-anchor of “CBS News Saturday Morning,” which will debut this fall.

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A telegenic politician with no experience in journalism, Molinari is the most striking example of a growing trend in TV news. From former GOP presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, the co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire,” to former White House advisor George Stephanopoulos, an ABC News analyst, the most visible TV news organizations in the country are making anchors and commentators out of politicians and other political operatives who remain very much in the political game.

Buchanan, for instance, is considered likely to seek the presidency again in 2000, and both Stephanopoulos and Molinari will not rule out future runs for office. Nor will former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who also has been hired by CBS to contribute essays and interviews. CNN talk-show host Jesse Jackson has said he may consider making another bid for the White House in two years.

This new breed of politico/journalist is blurring the line that separates the fields, raising questions about the definition of a journalist, of conflicts of interest and of whether their TV jobs offer an unfair advantage over other potential candidates by giving them a national forum to express their views.

TV news executives argue that former politicians can provide viewers with valuable insights into the way government and politics really work.

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“I genuinely believe that those who have served in government understand the issues--the price you pay for public office, the difficulties in trying to move the government,” CNN President Tom Johnson said. “As Lyndon Johnson once said [about the group of Ivy League academics in his Cabinet], ‘It would help if one of you had been elected sheriff.’ ”

Filling prominent news jobs with people who have no journalism experience does not necessarily trouble executives like CBS News President Andrew Heyward. He said he finds “nothing inherently problematic” in hiring former politicos. “There are many ways one can prepare for a successful career in television, and I think we need to watch being hidebound by tradition,” he said in an interview. He said he approached Molinari and offered her the job because of her “intelligence, her charisma and her breadth of experience in government and as a working mom.”

Observers See a Danger to the Public

Critics contend that the public has more to lose than to gain.

“This is all part of the triumph of celebrity, in journalism and politics,” said James Carey, who teaches an ethics course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“It’s circular: With the weakening of the old political-party organizations, a political candidate has to become a celebrity through on-air exposure. Pat Buchanan is appealing to CNN because he’s a celebrity, which they helped make. They keep him alive as a candidate--and the cult of celebrity crowds out all sorts of other voices that might be heard.”

Several prominent TV journalists--Bill Moyers, ABC-TV’s Diane Sawyer, NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert--have worked in politics before coming to television. But in their cases, the revolving door has swung one way. What has changed since Buchanan first left “Crossfire” to launch his 1992 presidential campaign is the possibility of going back and forth, with little criticism and few distinctions made among analysts, operatives and journalists.

“The revolving door between politics and media today is spinning so fast, it has gone off its hinges,” said Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington.

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He finds the trend troubling, for both politics and journalism. “Susan Molinari will go from being a respected House member and keynote speaker to a nationally known TV anchor, increasing her options exponentially if she should decide to return to politics,” he said.

“But when she’s on the air, will she be able to do a tough interview with [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich--and will they have her husband Bill Paxon [a New York Republican congressman] on the show?

“For those of us who are old-fashioned enough to believe TV anchors should be experienced reporters, this trend is disturbing. Having politicians deliver information to the public undermines the notion that TV journalists should be objective and nonpartisan, and that’s a slippery slope in terms of credibility with viewers.”

Molinari says that if potential conflicts of interest arise on “CBS News Saturday Morning,” “I won’t do the interview.” And Heyward notes that while she will participate in on-air discussions about the political process, “she’s not going to be doing political commentary.”

The potential for conflict can be more complex than that, however. Stephanopoulos, for example, offers his opinions in friendly banter with correspondents Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts on ABC’s influential Sunday morning show “This Week.” But in his former role as senior advisor on policy and strategy to President Clinton, he has been subpoenaed to turn over documents to a congressional committee investigating possible illegal campaign contributions by both Republicans and Democrats during the last presidential campaign; he may be called to testify at hearings.

“Here you have an unfolding scandal about illegal foreign campaign contributions,” Lewis said, “and one of the people closest to Bill Clinton is defending him on the air as an analyst for ABC News.”

Stephanopoulos dismisses the congressional subpoena as “partisan harassment” and says he has found no documents related to the committee’s request. The former White House official says he feels no awkwardness in his TV role.

“My job is to give my opinions, informed by my experience,” he said. “I don’t take offense at being described as a ‘Clinton loyalist,’ but I’ve said when I disagreed with the president--on our policy toward China and human rights, for example.”

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Network executives say they try to make very clear the distinction between reporter and commentator.

“We draw a clear line between commentary on our shows and reporting on our network,” CNN’s Johnson said. “Our talk shows are structured so that opposing views [to the hosts’] are always presented. I have no problem with former government officials, including some recently employed, coming in as analysts/commentators, so long as opposing sides are represented.”

But critics charge that TV exposure in any form gives these people a forum to build another political campaign.

Buchanan took two leaves of absence from “Crossfire” to run for president, in 1992 and 1996. The second time, he announced his decision on “Crossfire.” His co-host “on the left,” Michael Kinsley, jokingly held up a sign with Buchanan’s campaign phone number.

“There’s no doubt that journalism keeps you in the limelight,” Buchanan acknowledged. “But I consider myself a journalist first. I’m a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and I was a newspaper editorial writer before Richard Nixon hired me to write speeches.”

Critics Fear Ongoing Political Campaigns

Indeed, Buchanan, who co-hosted “Crossfire” from 1982 to 1985 before leaving to become communications director for President Reagan, jokes that he has crossed the line between journalism and politics “more times than Henry Kissinger flew back and forth between Israel and Egypt.” And if Buchanan does decide to run in 2000, Johnson said, “the moment he announces, he’s no longer on the show.”

But, says one media critic, such leaves of absences do not solve the problem. “CNN let Buchanan stay on the air too long before he announced his candidacy,” said Jeff Cohen, executive director of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal media watchdog group.

“The public has the right to know whether someone’s a bona fide commentator, or someone who’s about to announce for public office,” Cohen added. “At this point, Buchanan’s basically running a permanent political campaign.”

CBS’ Heyward said that when he hired Bill Bradley, he did not ask whether Bradley intends to run for president.

“I suppose that being on CBS will raise his profile,” Heyward said. “But, strictly speaking, that’s not my concern. I hired Bill Bradley because he’s a thoughtful observer with a rich and eclectic background, and I think he can help elucidate the issues of the day. I want to add a few new voices to the journalistic mix. The fact that Bill Bradley might someday go back into politics, when he has not declared that he will, does not make me say, ‘Forget it--he can’t be on the air.’ ”

“I’m not going to close off wide segments of my life because I may go back into politics,” said Bradley, a Rhodes scholar, former New York Knicks basketball player and author. "[Working for CBS] is part of my new associations,” including serving as the Distinguished Leadership Scholar at the University of Maryland. “Running for president in the year 2000 is not where my head is now, although I haven’t ruled anything out.”

Bradley’s reports, scheduled to begin this summer on the “CBS Evening News” and other programs, will focus, he says, “on people who are making the best of their lives.”

Heyward says he does not believe that having Bradley do reporting will breach a barrier between politics and journalism.

“We’re trying to carve out some new territory here that is reflective of Bradley’s interests, and our interest in him,” Heyward said. “I think the fundamental issue is, are you straight with people? Everybody knows who Bill Bradley is.”

But other network executives disagreed. “I don’t think that [reporting] pieces from politicians should be permitted,” CNN’s Johnson said. “That comes very close to giving over air time.”

“We wouldn’t have a committed political partisan do reporting,” said ABC News Vice President Dick Wald. “I’m sure there are areas of reporting where Bill Bradley would be as neutral as anyone else. But he’s lived his life making decisions about partisan politics and the way the world should operate. The idea behind reporting is that the reporter comes at the story without a lot of preconceived ideas.”

In the case of Stephanopoulos, Wald said ABC had not foreseen the campaign finance investigation when he was hired. “It does point up the problem of hiring guys who have left government service,” Wald said. [Stephanopoulos] could be an innocent bystander at an accident--or one of the wounded.”

Wald said the network will decide in coming weeks whether it is too awkward for Stephanopoulos to be commenting on campaign finance, Whitewater or other issues.

“If there’s a real problem, we’ll address it,” Wald said. “But you can’t say of a person that he’s beyond the pale [as an analyst] because someone has said to him, ‘I want to know what you know about this.’ ”

Some Push for One Trip Through Door

One way to avoid potential conflicts of interest between politics and media would be to insist that the door swing only one way.

“Journalism is not such a pure field that people can’t come to it from other occupations,” said Tom Goldstein, incoming dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. “But I do think you’re allowed one time through the door.”

NBC’s Russert agrees. He worked as an aide to then-New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) before joining the network. “My experience in government was invaluable preparation” for interviewing politicians on ‘Meet the Press,’ ” Russert said. “But it’s 15 years later now, and I’m still working full time in journalism. You have to choose between the two worlds--you can’t do both.”

That may be a good standard. But in today’s merged media environment, with Bob Dole doing commercials for MasterCard and former governors Cuomo and Ann Richards of Texas doing a Super Bowl ad for Doritos, it’s unlikely to be enforced. More people--not fewer--are coming through the revolving door.

“We’re a TV culture, and politicians today exist in our lives only on television,” maintains Alex Castellanos, a Republican media strategist who has advised candidates including Dole, George Bush and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). “We’re in an era of reduced government--television is the way you lead in this country. I think Susan Molinari is just cutting out the middleman. She’s eliminating the unnecessary step of running for office and heading straight for TV.”


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