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Fuzzy Lines Blur Face of TV, Politics

Networks are hiring more politicians as analysts, commentators--and now anchors. Critics worry about conflicts created by a revolving door that 'is spinning so fast, it has gone off its hinges.'

May 30, 1997|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — 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.

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.

"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.

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."

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