When journalists join government

JAMES Q. Wilson, the political scientist, once noted that organizations come to resemble the organizations they are in conflict with. In Washington, for example, the burgeoning bureaucracy of the legislature has begun to look like the burgeoned bureaucracy of the executive branch. It is rather like a football team adopting the formations of the opposition. Much of this sort of analysis fits the news media and the government: two institutions in conflict, increasingly resembling each other.

The most obvious resemblance is in personnel. The denizens of government's executive suites and the Washington bureaus of the major news organizations are becoming interchangeable. In socioeconomic terms -- schools attended, income, spouses' backgrounds, neighborhoods -- they look alike; in personal terms, some of them are the same people. At least 11 journalists, for example, have served in both the New York Times bureau and in some recent presidential administration. While once reporters took jobs in government primarily as press secretaries or spokesmen, ex-reporters are now moving into policy positions.

The coming together of national journalists and those they report about is the byproduct of a forced march to professionalism and specialization in both trades.

Forty percent of Washington reporters consider themselves specialists. The definition of specialization in journalism is somewhat looser than in other professions: A tax lawyer would not consider an experienced reporter covering the IRS (perhaps with an MA in economics) to be a specialist in his field. Still, 40 percent is a remarkable statistic. Historically, journalism has been the last refuge of the generalist. Furthermore, a majority of those interviewed see specialization as the wave of the future.

They are right. The news business is profitable and ownership is becoming more concentrated, creating larger Washington bureaus. Specialization follows growth.

The movement toward a new journalism of the professional specialist (PS) is not caused by news organizations trying to operate on the cheap or for base motives.

PS journalists are different from those who work in the traditional generalist mode. They demand more autonomy, which means that control of the end product will gradually drift from the news-processors (editors or producers) to the news-gatherers (reporters).

One of the fallouts of increased specialization in any profession is that it carries with it its own language. Given the purpose of the mass media, a press corps of jargonists would be a disaster. In early June 1982, President Reagan went to Europe to attend an economic summit conference at Versailles, escorted by a 747 filled with White House, diplomatic, and economics reporters. ``The blending of three press corps was fascinating,'' Lou Cannon of the Washington Post later told me. ``Each asked questions in its own jargon. For example, questions about `confidence-building mechanisms' always came from State Department reporters.''

As the journalist and the source increasingly look like the same person -- performing different tasks -- more stories will slip into print that are absolutely fascinating to the players and equally irrelevant or uninteresting to those who make their living in other ways.

Overkill is another danger. The present ombudsman of the Washington Post, Sam Zagoria, reminded readers in January that his paper had published 12 series between Thanksgiving and New Year's week, amounting to more than 5,000 inches of type. Among the subjects covered were ``Africa: The Hungry Continent,'' ``Riding the Red Line: Four More Stations'' (about Washington's subway), and ``The Roots of Biotechnology.'' Zagoria asks, ``How many of you read even one complete segment of any one of the series from beginning to end?''

Managing editor Leonard Downie Jr. was not dismayed by the lengthy pieces. ``I don't really expect a series to be read word for word,'' he says. ``They serve different publics.''

But the debate between Zagoria and Downie is really about the coming of PS journalism, whose hallmark will be a great deal of in-depth coverage -- on topics that interest the professional specialists.

Richard E. Neustadt, I believe, was the first to write about ``inners and outers,'' that select group who always seem to show up in high appointed office when their party captures the White House, and who then return to careers in such professions as law, banking, and academics until the next opportunity for public service. Only in recent years have the inner-outers included journalists.

Journalism -- unlike academe -- still isn't sure how to deal with its inner-outers. On the one hand, their experiences in government usually add a richness to their reportage. On the other hand, how sure can a news employer be that the inner-outer reporter doesn't have a hidden agenda, a list of policies that he means to promote through their outlet?

Leslie Gelb argues that there should be a presumption against news organizations hiring reporters who have held policy or advocacy positions in government. There is no problem, however, with those former government officials -- such as columnists George Will, William Safire, Carl Rowan -- whose writings are clearly labeled as opinion.

Still, Gelb obviously feels -- and proves by his example -- that there should be some way to make exceptions in exceptional cases. A litmus test that will measure the intensity of one's ideology? The strength of one's convictions? Eileen Shanahan contends that reentry into journalism can only be based on an evaluation of the official's past record in the news business, particularly on the individual's commitment to the rules of balance and fairness that govern mainstream journalism.

Moreover, to date the PS in journalism is a journalist, then a specialist. Those with law degrees, for example, went to law school after they had worked for a news organization. Frederick Taylor, executive editor of the Wall Street Journal, explaining the practice of his newspaper, told me, ``It's easier to make a reporter into an economist than an economist into a reporter.'' When in conflict -- between the profession of journalism and the profession of the reporter's beat -- journalism (with its emphasis on controversy) will always win. It's like the game of paper covers rock.

The city of Washington was created solely for the purpose of being the seat of government. The absence of commerce and industry, as well as other nongovernmental pursuits, helps to create a hermetically sealed quality to the concerns of the capital. Perhaps the Founding Fathers made a mistake in not locating the federal government in a place where attention would have to be shared with other interests.

Can people outside Washington be Washington insiders? Of course not. Washington insiders are different. That government workers and news workers choose to live in Washington implies that they are uniquely interested in politics, diplomacy, and public policy. (On the other hand, those who choose not to come to Washington, I think, are increasingly finding government of minor interest at best, and, more often, a major irritant in their lives.) The best that journalists can do is to accurately explain this world to them. The new-style specialists have the potential to do this better than ever before -- if they can avoid the dark side of professionalism.

From remarks by Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, at the Donald S. MacNaughton Symposium, Syracuse University.

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