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.

When Slate stalwart Mickey Kaus filed successfully last month to run for the U.S. Senate from California, he joined a fat list of accomplished American journalists who ditched their pens and microphones to storm the political arena. In recent decades such pressies as Patrick Buchanan, Ron Klink, Scott L. Klug, Ralph Nader, Phil Keisling, Gore Vidal, Steve Forbes, Laura Miller, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, Lionel Van Deerlin, Al Gore, Al Franken, William F. Buckley, Sarah Palin, and Norman Mailer have become candidates for office, taking their political complaints and policy prescriptions to the hustings seeking a place on the ballot box for voter approval.

Illustration by Robert Donnelly. Click image to expand.

A few of these campaigns—notably those of Mailer, Buckley, Vidal, Nader, and now Kaus—weren't conceived of as practical runs for office. They were political stunts, designed to season the cold, canned lima beans of American politics with new ideas, raucous debate, and pleasing spectacle. Superficially, at least, the jobs of journalist and politician overlap—both are in the business of extracting and publicizing information, of explaining, of leading, and of persuading.

But even the journalist who runs to advance the conversation is driven by the same impulse as the journalist who runs to win: He believes that a government of journalists is superior to the government made up of lawyers, political hacks, and sons and daughters of legislators. Perhaps the greatest migration of journalists to local politics came in 2002, when a half-dozen Hawaiian TV journalists appeared on the ballot.

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The egomania of journalists who think they can be better politicians than the politicians is matched by a slew of former elected officials who believe they can do journalism (especially TV journalism) better than journalists: Mike Huckabee, Joe Scarborough, John Kasich, Jerry Springer, Susan Molinari,and Slate's own Eliot Spitzer. Radio talk shows have become a place for many out-of-office politicians to park their ambition between elections (Maryland's Robert Ehrlich), after stints in the pokey (Ohio's James Traficant and Chicago's Jim Laski), or after felony convictions (San Diego's Roger Hedgecock and Boston's Tom Finneran).

In Arizona, sportscaster-turned-member-of-Congress-turned-sports-anchor-turned-talk-show-host J.D. Hayworth has crossed over so many times, he can't figure out which team he wants to play on. He's currently challenging John McCain in the state's Republican primary for a Senate seat.

William Thomas Stead (1849-1912), English journalist.
William Thomas Stead (1849-1912), English journalist

The tradition—if you can call it that—of American journalists directly mucking around in politics goes back more than 100 years, when newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst adopted the views of British editor William Thomas Stead. Stead, a near-worshipper of the Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell, believed in "government by journalism." Stead formulated his views in an 1885 essay, in which he proclaimed the "natural and inevitable emergence of the journalist as the ultimate depository of power in modern democracy." As press scholar W. Joseph Campbell writes:

Central to Stead's vision was the editor's ability to frame and shape public opinion, which he called "the greatest force of politics." Editors, he wrote, "decide what their readers shall know, or what they shall not know. ... He can excite interest, or allay it; he can provoke public impatience, or convince people that no one need worry themselves about the matter." In essence, Stead asserted, an editor, by applying "either a stimulant or a narcotic to the minds of his readers," could bring to bear decisive influence on the important matters of the day.

Where Stead mostly preached governance by the press, Hearst and his New York Journal practiced it. The Journal sought injunctions to block the awarding of municipal public service contracts that Hearst thought were crooked, Campbell writes. They provided disaster relief in Galveston, Texas, after the 1900 hurricane. The Journal staged a jailbreak in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and distributed welfare for the downtrodden in New York. "While Others Talk, the Journal Acts," read the Journal motto. In an 1898 Journal editorial, Hearst wrote:

The force of the newspaper is the greatest force in civilization. Under republican government, newspapers form and express opinion. They suggest and control legislation. They declare wars. They punish criminals, especially the powerful. They reward with approving publicity the good deeds of citizens everywhere. The newspapers control the nation because THEY REPRESENT THE PEOPLE.

When Hearst discovered to his dismay that the Fourth Estate didn't trump the other three, he ran repeatedly for office, winning two terms in the House of Representatives but losing in bids for president of the United States, New York governor, and mayor of New York City. But there's a good chance that running for office on the back of his newspapers was Hearst's plan from the beginning. (His millionaire father, George Hearst, enjoyed a political career of his own.)

One explanation for the political tendencies of journalists is that they, like politicians, are animated by a desire to change the world for the better. I've heard a lot about this idealism in both newsrooms and in caucus rooms but rarely seen it demonstrated. Mostly, journalists want to make a better world—but for themselves. They want recognition for their work, they want prizes, they want a raise, they want to appear in a better venue, they want higher status. Mostly, politicians want to make a better world—but for the constituents that can return them to office in the next election so they acquire more power, exercise it, and increase their status. Sometimes all this jockeying makes the world a better place. Sometimes it doesn't. But lip service to the ideal is never absent.

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.

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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