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Where Have all the Reporters Gone

June 18, 2008

The sudden loss of NBC’s "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert last week shocked everyone. He was a successful political talk show host and was respected by his colleagues and co-workers. His passion for politics was evident.

NBC is now faced with the decision of finding a replacement host for its largest viewed public affairs program. Recently there’s been a growing trend of networks looking to political operatives to fill these positions instead of hiring established "journalists."

The national broadcast talent once came from the ranks of local newspaper, radio, and television reporters. This brought us Lawrence Spivak, original host of "Meet the Press"; David Brinkley, original host of "This Week with David Brinkley; and other familiar names such as Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and the late Peter Jennings.

These men were established reporters who came up through the ranks – toiling for years in near obscurity in out of the way places in Texas, North Carolina, Missouri. They learned the news business from the bottom up and didn’t cozy up to the politicians.

Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are recent examples of reporters who got their start at suburban weekly newspapers - not the Washington Post. It was at these papers a young reporter would dutifully take on all assignments big and small and could learn the news business under the watchful eye of seasoned editors.

In Woodward and Bernstein’s case these early learned skills would later be put to good use to ferret out the facts in the Watergate investigation. The reporters’ tenacity in following news leads was instinctively learned early in their careers. They didn’t wait for the news to come to them - they literally went house-to-house to speak with low-level Nixon campaign workers to uncover the facts from inside the Nixon campaign.

We find even today cub reporters starting at the bottom and quietly developing their innate ability to separate fact from fiction. These reporters learn to "cover their beat" – something that cannot be taught but only learned through experience.

Television networks, however, continue to look to the Washington political scene when filling news spots for its public affairs programming. Former political operatives such as Mr. Russert, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, and Chris Matthews of MSNBC come to mind. The networks also hire political consultants as well as former members of Congress to provide expert opinion about the current political campaign. It’s lucrative work and keeps these operatives in the public eye.

All well and good as far as it goes – but what about the past political associations of these politicos – do they set aside their bias when reporting the news? This is a fair question. Much of what they do is unquantifiable. It’s difficult to know what question isn’t asked or what follow-up question doesn’t get posed.

There’s also the matter of access – it is logical to understand that networks need access to politicians, and if the questions get too tough on certain officials the guests simply won’t appear next time around.

Mr. Russert worked for a number of Democrats including New York Senator Patrick Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo. Mr. Stephanopoulos worked for a string of congressional Democrats before hitching on with Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and Mr. Matthews, ran for Congress himself and later worked for Democrats Senator Ed Muskie and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.

Political consultants bring a rolodex of contacts with them - but it’s mostly a list of people like themselves so the input they receive isn’t too different from their own point of view. Politics is a "yes" business – a kiss-up world where no one wants to be disliked . This is contrary to the news business where a reporter must follow the facts regardless of where they might lead. Thus reporters are almost always out of favor.

For better or worse, national news organizations see advantages in hiring these former political operatives to present the political news.

Let’s hope somewhere along the way these "journalists" learn the basics of news reporting – including the five pyramids of journalism - who, what, when, where, and why – and ignore the old adage "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

That may make for great entertainment, but it’s not news.