“War,” the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “is politics by other means.” So is journalism. Quinnipiac University journalism professor Ben Bogardus laments this in an essay published the other day by the Connecticut Mirror, “Stop the Newsroom-to-Government Revolving Door.”
But the revolving door can’t be stopped, since politics and journalism are both constitutional rights. Besides, their interchangeability is as old as American history.
Bogardus’ lament was provoked by the recent appointment of Max Reiss, political reporter for WVIT-TV30 in West Hartford, as Gov. Ned Lamont’s communications director. Many journalists in Connecticut, Bogardus notes, have transferred between journalism and politics over the years.
“Moves like this,” Bogardus writes, “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.”
But most journalists today are left-leaning, and the image of an unbiased press has been false since the invention of movable type. For American newspapers originated as frankly political organs and many great figures in history were both journalists and politicians.
Alexander Hamilton, Gen. George Washington’s top aide during the Revolution, founded the New York Post, was a member of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, a member of the New York state legislature, and then Washington’s treasury secretary.
The New York Times was founded by Henry J. Raymond with legal advertising placed in the newspaper as political patronage by Raymond’s friends in the New York legislature. Raymond became a congressman and Republican national chairman.
Abraham Lincoln wrote editorials for the Illinois State Journal, a Republican paper, while his rival in the 1858 U.S. Senate and 1860 presidential elections, Stephen A. Douglas, wrote them for the Illinois State Register, a Democratic paper.
Horace Greeley gained such renown as editor of the New York Tribune that the Democratic Party nominated him for president in 1872.
William Jennings Bryan was editor of the Omaha World-Herald before getting elected to Congress and being nominated three times for president by the Democrats.
Warren G. Harding was editor and publisher of the Marion (Ohio) Star before his election to the U.S. Senate and the presidency as a Republican.
William Randolph Hearst, founder of the Hearst newspaper chain, was elected to Congress and ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York and mayor of New York City.
Here in Connecticut Gideon Welles was founding editor of The Hartford Times and Hartford Evening Press and a Democratic state representative from Glastonbury before becoming a Republican and Lincoln’s secretary of the Navy. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and former U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, both Democrats, worked as newspaper reporters before going into politics.
The man who saved Western Civilization itself, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was a journalist for most of his time in Parliament.
As the American press consolidated and began to think that more money could be made with less partisanship, it moderated its politics. But that politics didn’t disappear; it just became more subtle.
“Reporters,” Bogardus writes, “need to realize that, by choosing to enter the profession, they’re giving up the ability to be political.” Nonsense — for the selection and placement of every news story are political acts, if only in the broadest sense, since news isn’t arithmetic but a human judgment of what reporters and editors consider worth reporting. While Bogardus argues that journalists should be “unbiased,” nobody in journalism is, since everyone brings his life experience and political inclinations to his work. The best journalists can do is to try to be fair and report all sides of an issue.
Maintaining that journalists aren’t political is only public relations, not ethics as journalists like to pretend.
Journalism, Bogardus argues, “needs to be seen as trustworthy and nonpartisan.” But these days the public itself is increasingly untrustworthy and partisan since many people want to read and hear only what they already believe, and many news organizations are obliging. Nobody watches MSNBC for praise of Trump or Fox News for criticism of him. Nobody reads the Hartford Courant for criticism of political correctness or the Waterbury Republican-American for praise of it.
While Bogardus wants journalism to be trusted, journalism is not a monolith but innumerable daily acts, so it is not to be trusted any more than anything else human is to be. Evaluating journalism is the work of citizenship, requiring attention to an array of sources of information where no one ever has the last word.