Friends in High Places

CAL THOMAS

March 25, 1992|By CAL THOMAS

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- A former columnist, Pat Buchanan, is running for president. A former president, Mikhail Gorbachev, is writing a column. Is there a message here?

The message is that the wall between journalism and the government it is supposed to cover is continuing to disappear.

It is not so much a revolving door between government and journalism. It is as if the door, like the Berlin Wall, has been completely removed, allowing for a free flow between the two.

The beneficiaries are those pseudo-leaders who use a government position to establish name recognition and then jump into journalism, especially television, where they can earn big fees. Many are no better than the officials who leave government to become lobbyists.

The public is the loser. It deserves better from both institutions.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a Time magazine editor, Strobe Talbott, one of Bill Clinton's Rhodes-scholar classmates at Oxford University, ''talked to reporters about Mr. Clinton's passionate opposition to the Vietnam War and his anguish over his draft status.'' Mr. Talbott sought to persuade his press colleagues that Mr. Clinton's claims are legitimate.

Isn't Mr. Talbott confusing his role as journalist with that of campaign adviser? If Mr. Talbott wants to advise Mr. Clinton, he should resign from Time and join Mr. Clinton's presidential campaign. Even though Mr. Talbott says he discloses his friendship with the candidate when he discusses politics, to write about him is a conflict of interest.

Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, says that Governor Clinton is being treated pretty well by the press because ''most of them are rooting for Clinton.'' Rooting for Mr. Clinton? The only ''rooting'' journalists should be doing is for stories that deal with his positions, background and character so that the voters can judge his fitness to be president.

Mr. Peters writes of the press' view of Mr. Clinton and vice versa. ''They like him. They know he likes them and enjoys the give-and-take of interviews and press conferences. They also see him as a man who can beat George Bush. And since most of them are Democrats, that's important.''

Most but not all. The former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu is now Mr. Buchanan's ''Crossfire'' replacement on CNN.

No wonder much of the public sees the press as self-serving and having its own agenda. It is wrong when people who work in government and journalism see these institutions as equally useful tools that can be used to advance their own policy goals.

This raging affair between the press and its favorite politicians leads to more than a serious loss of credibility for the press. It also leads to a laziness that may cause it to overlook big stories or come to them late, as it did in the House check-kiting scandal, which was broken by the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper often maligned by the mainline media.

As the political reporter David Broder writes in the March issue of The Quill magazine, ''We've become so accustomed to taking our cues from the officials, the insiders and the activists we find on our beats that we have, I'm afraid, ignored the basic idea that in a republic like ours, the people are supposed to have some say in their government.'' And why shouldn't the press take its cues from insiders if insiders they have become?

ABC's Jeff Greenfield once commented that journalists ought to be allowed one trip into government or some other endeavor, but frequent round trips between journalism and another world, particularly a world that they must cover, diminishes their effectiveness and weakens public confidence in their objectivity and fairness.

The Quill lists only a small number of what it calls ''line crossers.'' In addition to Mr. Buchanan (who is making his third trip across the line after serving in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations), there is Kenneth Adelman, now a syndicated columnist, who was President Reagan's Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director and held U.N. and Defense Department posts in the Reagan and Carter administrations; Jodie Allen, editor of the Washington Post's ''Outlook'' section, who was a policy planning and research analyst in various posts in the Carter, Nixon and Johnson administrations; William Beecher, Washington Bureau chief of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who worked for Presidents Nixon and Ford, as well as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Brent Bozell continues to write a column while serving as Pat Buchanan's campaign finance chief.

The list of switch hitters is almost endless, and includes such better known names as Richard Burt, Hodding Carter, James Fallows, Leslie Gelb, David Gergen, Jack Rosenthal, Tim Russert, Bob Zelnick and Pierre Salinger.

The former Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship worries that too many journalists have lost their edge and their vision.

In a column for Editor & Publisher magazine, Mr. Winship calls on reporters to spend less time interviewing each other in bars and dining rooms and more time interviewing voters.

Even better, journalists need to decide what they want to be when they grow up and stop shuttling between between government and journalism, thinking they can maintain their effectiveness as reporters after being policy advocates in the government.

This leads to ''friendships'' like the one between Strobe Talbott and Bill Clinton. Journalists would be better off making fewer friends in government. As a result, they may serve their %o profession better -- and, in the process, readers and viewers too.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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