The audience for news is very small relative to the general population, but it can be easily defined by the number of people who hold newspaper print and digital subscriptions, the number of people who watch television news, and the number of people who visit news websites or other digital platforms. It is my contention that in recent years, the news audience has grown very sophisticated in its ability to discern bias, talking points, spin, and other forms of misinformation fed into the news ecosystem.
This ability to tell the difference between real information and spin in part explains the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election. Voters were attracted to both men, not necessarily because they believed in everything the candidates stood for, but because their supporters had the sense both were speaking the truth from their perspective, regardless of how seasoned political operatives might prefer to present their policies to the general public. The audience understood that Trump and Sanders were often peddling falsehoods or simplistic solutions, but the raw honesty of the language they used is what attracted support.
If you accept this premise, it becomes easy to dismiss the concerns raised by Ben Bogardus in his opinion piece on the revolving door between the news media and government (Stop the News-room to Government Revolving Door – July 21, 2019). Even if you don’t accept my observation about the sophistication of the news audience, Mr. Bogardus’ premise is wrong and overlooks at least one obvious benefit of journalists entering government to serve as spokespeople for politicians and agencies.
The list of journalists who have walked through this open barn door is long here in Connecticut and at the national level. There is also an impressive list of former political operatives who have entered journalism mid-career with no previous reporting experience. The list includes, but is not limited to: William Safire, Diane Sawyer, Tim Russert, Chris Matthews and even the sainted Edward R. Murrow, who joined the Kennedy administration near the end of his life.
Bogardus warns that when reporters like Max Reiss (formerly of NBC CT and now of the Lamont administration) take jobs in government it hurts “the image of an unbiased press.” He further argues that it is especially harmful when a reporter joins the team of a politician on the political left because it tends to confirm the existence of a liberal bias in the news media. This is an issue no one should lose sleep over.
One benefit of the proliferation of news over the internet is a growing awareness among a larger portion of news consumers about the need to consider the source and to judge all information on the merits. As a public relations practitioner for the last two decades, I feel confident in saying traditional spin is dead, for the most part.
Cell phone cameras, hidden microphones, countless people practicing amateur journalism through blogs and social media channels make it unwise to try to control the narrative of a story with old fashioned spin. The audience sees through it. Sooner rather than later the truth emerges in today’s information environment. Max Reiss was judged by his audience at NBC CT based on the merits of his reporting and that is how he will be judged as a spokesman for the governor: Is he telling the truth? The switch from news to government is no different than the switch of a lawyer from the prosecutor’s office to the defense bar. The audience is the judge and jury.
There are no unbiased reporters, because there are no unbiased human beings. For the sake of argument, if we assume Max Reiss leans Democrat (since he is joining the Lamont administration) is he being more honest with his audience now — as a publicly identified advocate for the governor — or was it more honest to be hiding his political leanings behind the false curtain of unbiased reporting?
There is another point worth considering. As a former journalist who entered the field of public relations through government, I can say I ran into two types of people serving in communications roles in politics. Those who at one point worked as journalists and those who somehow fell into a communications role by working on political campaigns.
When it comes to moments of crises that require honest advice and an argument for transparency, former journalists always rise to the occasion, even if their advice is ignored by the politician or government agency they serve. This is because they understand how the news media works and that you can not fool the press or the people with spin. Political operatives on the other hand are wired to win the argument with less deference for the facts. So if it is transparency you seek from government you should be in favor of filling as many communications roles as possible with former journalists.
Finally, a decision to become a journalist early in one’s career does not carry with it a lifelong commitment to political abstinence. Journalists who cover government and politics actually know more about the process than many of the candidates you will find on the ballot each fall. If a reporter is moved to get involved because they think they can make a difference they should be encouraged to do so. The audience and the voters should be trusted to judge them either way.
Dean Pagani worked as a journalist in Connecticut for 12 years, served as a gubernatorial spokesman for eight years, served as a press secretary for a U.S. Senator and has practiced public relations on behalf of private sector clients for more than ten years.