Explaining the journalist's urge to run for office.

Media criticism.
April 2 2010 6:38 PM

When Journalists Repackage Themselves as Politicians

Explaining the reporter's urge to run for office.

(Continued from Page 1)

On this point, not everybody agrees, even my fellow realist (and friend) Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard. A couple of years ago he wrote that "Journalism is a character defect. ... It is a life lived at a safe remove: standing off to one side of the parade as it passes, noting its flaws, offering glib and unworkable suggestions for its improvement." Ferguson, no lover of government, sympathizes with those who leave the peanut gallery for the peanut-butter factory and actually do something.

The problem with taking a job in the peanut-butter factory, as the journalist-turned-politician quickly learns, is that he's turned into a tiny cog in a gigantic machine. How this must have rankled Hearst, who was a god at his newspaper but just one of 476 votes on Capitol Hill. Just getting a new piece of legislation considered by a congressional committee has always been a heroic act. Small wonder that journalists, possessing attention spans honed by daily or weekly deadlines, rarely adapt to the groaning pace of government.

Which brings me back to the Kaus-for-Senate campaign. The subversive thing about Mickey's candidacy is that he abandons his Slate audience, which could number 200,000 nationally for an especially provocative piece, for an audience provided by various California media entities—talk shows, broadcast news, newspapers, magazines, Web sites—and political clubs that will be interviewing and grilling him. This new audience, culled from a population of almost 37 million, could be potentially larger than his old audience if the press is attentive. Hell, it may even be more influential if it causes the incumbent, Barbara Boxer, to shift positions.

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The worst thing that could happen to Mickey would be to win the primary and general elections, for the same reason William Randolph Hearst's election to the House frustrated him. From the outside, it looks like elected officials are doing something. But mostly they're having something done to them.

I suspect that Mickey, like Hearst, will return to journalism after his political interlude for the same reason Sarah Palin has ensconced herself at Fox News Channel, why Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart would never leave their shows for a place in government, and why Rush Limbaugh stays put in radio. A high-profile journalist—or even a practitioner of the parajournalism of Palin, Beck, Stewart, and Limbaugh—occupies commanding heights compared with a legislator if their goal is to spread a message, straighten the record—or, god forbid, make the world a better place.

If you don't believe that Glenn Beck has it over Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., just to pick a lowly legislator's name from a hat, ask yourself this: Which has more political resonance these days, Fox News talking points or Republican Party talking points? No less a Washington insider than Joe Scarborough recently called Fox News President Roger Ailes "the head of the Republican Party." As David Frum put it to ABC News last month, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox."

So lift your heads, ink-stained wretches. If you're dying to kiss babies, make speeches, eat rubber chicken, and raise campaign funds, don't let me stop you. But if you really want to be where it's at, stay right where you are.

******

As long as we're talking politicians who've crossed over into the media, we must include Oliver North, who after losing a Senate raceembarked on his radio and TV career. He just didn't fit into the mix. Also, I wanted to find a place for Michael Bloomberg, but except for his autobiography, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, which was written with "invaluable help from Matthew Winkler" (the boss of Bloomberg News), I can't recall him having ever written anything. Thanks to Graham Vyse and Hillary Busis for research help. Does anybody want to argue with the tabulation of 476 votes on the Hill in 1904? There were 386 members of the House and 90 Senators. If you dispute that, send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. For a cheap thrill, monitor my Twitter feed. It's twice as influential as Cynthia Lummis' Twitter feed, much more active, and has about five times as many followers! (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the letters Stead in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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