Jack Shafer: Being a Scoundrel Isn’t Disqualifying For a Journalism Job

From a Jack Shafer Fourth Estate column on politico.com headlined “What Mick Mulvaney Had in Common with Tim Russert and Chris Matthews”:

CBS News employees stripped their gardens’ tomato vines of fruit this week and hurled them at their bosses to protest the hiring of former Trump administration stalwart Mick Mulvaney as an on-air pundit. The hiring of such a renowned press-basher “embarrassed” the newsroom, a source told the Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr. When serving as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, Mulvaney had provocatively said the press was using its Covid coverage “to bring down the president.”

Additional tomatoes splatted on Mulvaney’s face in the original version of the Post article, cited by the watchdogs at the liberal Media Matters for America. “Everyone is baffled,” one employee told Barr. “It makes no sense to hire a guy whose entire job was to lie to us on behalf of Trump.” MSNBC.com contributor Hayes Brown said Mulvaney is “a partisan hack devoid of any sense of ethics who lacks the authority to offer credible analysis on his own breakfast,” he wrote. “Malpractice,” Kurt Bardella opined in the Los Angeles Times.

One-sided food fights like this erupt every time a news organization reaches outside the ranks of professional journalists to hire a politician or political operative to spice up their coverage, as press scholar Michael Socolow and others have recorded. Although the newsies hire both Republicans and Democrats, there has been a demonstrable addition of MAGA voices to news operations recently, especially at places like CNN, which at one time was almost overstocked with MAGA fish.

CBS News co-president Neeraj Khemlani had previously defended the logic of hiring Republicans in a talk to his morning-show staffers. “If you look at some of the people that we’ve been hiring on a contributor basis, being able to make sure that we are getting access to both sides of the aisle is a priority because we know the Republicans are going to take over, most likely, in the midterms,” he said, according to the Washington Post.

The reliance of some news organizations on politicians, especially Republican politicians, demonstrates that for many outlets, Republicans, those who lean Republican, and even those who speak Republican represent the political “other.” Although you can find Republicans in mainstream Washington and New York newsrooms, sometimes you need a magnifying glass. A 2014 surveyfound that only 7 percent of all journalists identified as Republican compared with 28 percent Democratic, with 50 percent calling themselves independent.

If it’s safe to estimate that among political journalists, the Republican-Democratic divide only widens, then affirmative action to acquire the political expertise needed to cover Republicans and speak credibly to Republican readers and viewers seems warranted. I have neither the time nor the patience to explain the lower representation of Republicans in newsrooms. Do they lack initiative? Are newsrooms prejudiced against them? Is it a matter of self-selection? But what’s evident from an informal census of TV newsrooms is that an abundance of Democrats who have limited journalism experience can be found. George Stephanopoulos, the late Tim Russert, Bill Moyers, Bill Bradley, Jesse Jackson, Jennifer Granholm, Jen Psaki (soon to be a MSNBCer), Chris Matthews, Dee Dee Myers, Donna Brazile, and others have crossed from politics to political journalism without suffering much criticism.

Granted, Mick Mulvaney is no Tim Russert. For one thing, his powers of prognostication suck. “If He Loses, Trump Will Concede Gracefully,” reads the headline in an op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. For another, he also appeared to defend a quid pro quo for military aid to Ukraine: “We do that all the time with foreign policy.” For yet another, if we can blame Bill Moyers for the bad things that happened while he was acting chief of staff for Lyndon Johnson, we can probably blame Mulvaney for badness that went down over the 15 months (2019-20) he was Trump’s chief of staff.

But being a scoundrel isn’t disqualifying for a journalism job. If reporters and editors had to be pure to serve, newsrooms would be populated with kittens and bunnies instead of a bunch of flawed mortals pounding keyboards….If the co-president of CBS News thinks a man of such low repute will help him capture some scoops, well, that’s journalism.

What grates some reporters the hardest about the Mulvaney appointment in specific and the hiring of other nonjournalists for journalism jobs, in general, is that it corrodes the idea that in order to be a journalist, one must have experience in the field, or at least a journalism credential, in order to succeed. This, of course, is wrong, even though it might hurt some reporters’ feelings. CBS News’ desperation to improve its conservative and Republican sourcing by hiring a tarnished Trump toady does not speak well of its recruitment practices and its editorial development programs. There’s a vibrant conservative news establishment, with respectable magazines, sturdy websites and Substacky blogs from which deeply sourced and wildly intelligent journalists could be hired. If you think you need conservatives, get off your duff, CBS!

CBS and Neeraj Khemlani might be wrong about Mulvaney’s ability to help them locate and report news. It also might be a mistake to “reward” Mulvaney’s service to Trump with a prestigious, powerful job. But if that’s the case, it’s CBS News’ mistake to make.

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