To and fro of 'journalists' leaves voters feeling dizzy



WASHINGTON -- Republican public-relations man David Gergen taking a job in the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton is like the geography teacher applying for a job who, when asked his views on the shape of the world, replied that he could "teach it round or flat."

Having participated in the selling of the Ronald Reagan policies of tax cuts and runaway deficits in that Republican administration, Gergen is now signed on with the gang that is pledged to roll back those policies, presumably in the role of public explainer as well as private adviser.

This should be an easy task for Gergen, who successfully transformed himself from propagandist not only for Reagan but also for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George Bush, into a "journalist," taking to the printed word and the television screen wrapped in the trappings of what is supposed to pass for objectivity in journalism these days.

In the process, he managed most times to convey sweet reasonableness, while nearly always tilting in favor of his old party. Presumably, after his new stint at the Clinton White House, he will be able to return to "journalism" with true objectivity -- having functioned as a spin doctor for presidents of both parties, teaching it round or flat.

The spectacle of Gergen using journalism as a way station between government jobs in which his function importantly involves shaping and, yes, manipulating the news media and public opinion is one of increasing familiarity these days, and especially in television.

Politicians almost routinely jump in and out of government and journalism as opportunity presents itself, and never mind whether the average voter can no longer tell the difference between practitioners of the two. As Gergen himself put it in a CNN interview last weekend, "The lines between politics and journalism sometimes get a little blurred," and he said he had to ask himself, regarding journalism and friendship, "Where does one start and the other stop?"

The current Republican national chairman, Haley Barbour, rented himself out between political jobs as a television elections analyst, sometimes teaming up with Democrat Bob Beckel, who has yo-yoed between running and advising on campaigns and playing the television pundit about them.

A veritable revolving door spins between the two worlds, with voters left to figure out for themselves when they are being peddled a party line.

We in this country used to laugh when some Soviet Union or other Eastern bloc "journalist" would come forward to express his or her views. It was well known that they were on their government's payroll and under its discipline, and hence always spoke with an ax to grind. But our own journalism these days is rife with ax-grinders who leapfrog from government to the news media and back again, with no apparent great loss in their credibility.

It being a free country, Gergen and other political switch-hitters like him have every right to do whatever they can manage, including talking editors and television producers into giving them voices with which to put forward their partisan views in nonpartisan, journalistic settings.

Some of these folks who go through the revolving door argue that government experience better prepares them to be good journalists, for having a peek under the tent of how government really works. This may be so, but when they keep going back for another peek and another, you have to wonder whether their sabbaticals into journalism aren't just ways to increase their visibility and celebrity, to cash in better, in terms of power, the next time under the tent.

Heaven knows that the news media have a hard enough time maintaining some credibility in their own right, what with frequent lapses of performance and politicians forever blaming every bad message on the messenger. Having political opportunists blurring the line between the legitimate practice of journalism and the peddling of partisan politics only makes the task harder. There was a simpler time when politicians functioned as politicians and journalists did their thing, which was to report on what politicians did, and you could tell one from the other without a score card.

But life is no longer so simple, any more than the world is flat.

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