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Modern Journalistic Integrity Debated

By Victor Chen

Four people who have been both journalists and politicians discussed the implications of the increasing tendency to cross between the two professions during a discussion last night at the Kennedy School of Government's Arco Forum.

"Like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass, the world where journalists become policy makers and policy makers become journalists can become disconcerting, if not for the actors, then for the audience," said Nieman Foundation Director Bill Kovach, who moderated the panel discussion.

About 90 people attended the panel, entitled "Through the Revolving Door: Journalism and Politics in the Age of Spin."

The panelists were: Mickey Edwards, Kennedy School of Government lecturer and a former U.S. representative; Leslie Gelb president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former New York Times columnist; Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a former U.S. representative and former NBC correspondent; and John Mashek, an official in the Department of Justice during Robert Kennedy's administration who now works as political correspondent for The Boston Globe and is an IOP fellow.

Kovach began by speaking about the great numbers of former politicians who have turned to journalism, and vice versa, in the last few years.

"In about 10 minutes I came up with about 28 names [of those] who have passed through the revolving door," Kovach said.

Kovach cited people such as George Will, a former advisor to Ronald Reagan who writes a syndicated column, and John Sununu, former chief of staff for George Bush who now is a frequent commentator on CNN.

Kovach asked the panelists if they thought the "revolving door" between politics and the government was beneficial to the public.

Edwards said that there is "some benefit." Reporters who never worked in government often approach it with unwarranted cynicism, he said, while politicians-turned-journalists "understand the process. They don't think there are secret deals behind every door."

Gelb said he agreed. "People in journalism don't understand what goes on in government. [The Two] are different cultures," he said.

"The politician has different points of view, and mushes them together. The journalist deconstructs the mush," Gelb added.

Gelb said he didn't think that the revolving door was as much a problem for journalistic objectivity as the tendency of some journalists to befriend the people they cover.

"It's makes it very difficult for you as a journalist to report on them," he ,said. "Either you're too hard, overcompensating or you're too soft, you don't want tospoil a 20-year friendship."

But Mashek said that the objectivity of theseborn-again reporters was questionable. He said aformer editor at the Globe had a steadfast rule:"Once you left, you weren't coming back."

"The public may be really unaware if Les Gelbwas in policy or not, but the people you work forknow that, [and it's a ] real debilitatingfactor," Mashek said.

Margolies-Mezvinsky said that she couldn't goback to journalism now having left it forpolitics.

"I clearly am one with too much baggage now,"she said. "I think it would be very wrong for meto go back and do what I used to do."

The panelists also discussed whether the publicwas taking opinion to be objective news,reporting.

"Today I write newspaper columns," Edwardssaid. "Clearly they are opinion pieces. And thepeople know it's opinion...The public is able todraw a line between [opinion purveyors and newspurveyors]."

But Margolies-Mezvinsky said that the publichas been weaned on opinion purported to be fact.

"I think we have created an electorate thatdoesn't much understand the difference [betweenspin doctors and journalists]," she said. "We tellthem what they want to hear rather than what needto know.

But Mashek said that the objectivity of theseborn-again reporters was questionable. He said aformer editor at the Globe had a steadfast rule:"Once you left, you weren't coming back."

"The public may be really unaware if Les Gelbwas in policy or not, but the people you work forknow that, [and it's a ] real debilitatingfactor," Mashek said.

Margolies-Mezvinsky said that she couldn't goback to journalism now having left it forpolitics.

"I clearly am one with too much baggage now,"she said. "I think it would be very wrong for meto go back and do what I used to do."

The panelists also discussed whether the publicwas taking opinion to be objective news,reporting.

"Today I write newspaper columns," Edwardssaid. "Clearly they are opinion pieces. And thepeople know it's opinion...The public is able todraw a line between [opinion purveyors and newspurveyors]."

But Margolies-Mezvinsky said that the publichas been weaned on opinion purported to be fact.

"I think we have created an electorate thatdoesn't much understand the difference [betweenspin doctors and journalists]," she said. "We tellthem what they want to hear rather than what needto know.

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