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

February 23, 1988|STEVE WEINSTEIN

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.

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