The revolving door between the newsroom and the Connecticut statehouse is spinning once again. On July 22, NBC Connecticut’s political reporter Max Reiss will become Gov. Ned Lamont’s new communications director.
No one can begrudge him for taking on an exciting new role outside TV. But he and other journalists are doing the profession a disservice by going from being trusted and impartial reporters one day, to being partisan political spokespeople the next.
Moves like this hurt the image of an unbiased press, and confirm the suspicion of many on the right that mainstream journalists are left-leaning and inject liberal biases into their reporting. It becomes a self-inflicted wound on the industry at a time when many people, from the president on down, view the profession with suspicion and derision.
Take, for example, Reiss’ Sunday morning talk show, called “Face the Facts.” When it debuted in October 2018, NBC Connecticut claimed the show would cut through “the political talk to help you understand the week’s news and to hold the powerful accountable.” But now, Reiss is becoming the face and voice of the partisan political talk that he had been decrying.
Becoming a political spokesperson also puts his past reporting into question among viewers looking for “liberal bias” on TV. While there’s no indication there’s a connection, some viewers will wonder if Reiss’ interview with Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz on the June 30 broadcast was somehow connected to his new position, since his job in the governor’s office was announced less than two weeks later.
Reiss, however, is hardly alone in moving from reporting on Connecticut politicians to speaking on their behalf. Others include former WTNH reporter Jason Newton, who became a spokesperson for Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, former “Face the State” producer Chris Collibee who joined former Gov. Dannel Malloy’s press office, former Hartford Courant reporter Samaia Hernandez who left journalism to become former governor Malloy’s press secretary, only to return to reporting at WTNH, and former NBC Connecticut reporter Derek Slap who became a communications aide to former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, and is now a Democratic state senator.
The fact that moves like these are frequently towards Democratic administrations also helps fuel the impression that reporters, as some conservatives say, are just “Democratic operatives with bylines.” You can see this divide in a 2018 Pew Research Center study, that found 86 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats think “news organizations tend to favor one side” of political or social issues.
But perhaps more troubling, only 12 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Democrats say information from national news organizations is “very trustworthy.” No matter what political side you favor, numbers like these are bad news for an profession that needs to be seen as trustworthy and non-partisan, in order to fulfill its mission of informing the public.
So how can journalists try to restore the public’s trust in unbiased reporting? Reporters need to realize that ,by choosing to enter the profession, they’re giving up the ability to be political. A good place to begin is with the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code, which says to avoid “political activities.” To make sure there’s no confusion, the SPJ’s Ethics Committee goes onto say, rather bluntly, “Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself.”
Those guidelines aren’t meant to be mean or restrictive for the sake of being mean or restrictive. Instead, they’re meant to remind journalists that any action, even on their own time or on “personal” social media accounts, can lead to their past, present or future stories being called into question.
Obviously, the SPJ’s guidelines don’t apply to newly minted “ex-journalists.” But they should take care not to exploit the credibility and respect they earned in the newsroom, by using it to advance a partisan viewpoint. When that happens, we’re left with a more polarized electorate that sees reporters as merely occupying a compartment in the revolving door between journalism and politics, instead of being unbiased, non-partisan reporters of facts and truth.
Ben Bogardus is an assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University’s School of Communications.
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