Politicians and journalists

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(Host) Commentator Madeleine Kunin reflects on the tenuous relationship between journalists and politicians.

(Kunin) The relationship between politicians and journalists is a wary one. And yet many politicians, including Al Gore, were once journalists, as was I.

I recall when I was first elected to the House of Representatives I attended a briefing session for new legislators and the dean of the press corps, Mavis Doyle, told us “Now you are all fair game.” I felt a little shiver run down my spine. Clearly my previous reporting experience would not give me a leg up in my new political role. I was now on the other side of the table, answering questions instead of asking them.

When I announced that I would not seek a fourth term for governor sixteen years later, a reporter came up to me and said, “Now you are one of us again.” It was as if I had been cleansed of the taint of politics.

What do journalists and politicians have in common? They need each other. One cannot exist without the other in this symbiotic relationship. Both politicians and journalists like to ride the crest of the wave, be where the action is. Usually they are both generalists, not specialists. They like to feast on life as if it were a banquet, instead of a meeting of weight watchers. The result is they feel very much alive and occasionally useful.

The disadvantage is that they float on the surface of life, there is little time to dig deeper, in the rush for the next story, the next roll call vote. That’s why both journalists and politicians like to write books to tell their side of the story in greater depth.

Now, it may come as a surprise but there is an intellectual side to both professions. The challenge is asking the right question, giving the right answer, solving the right problems. Many journalists and politicians feel for the moment that they are achieving immortality. A certain amount of hubris goes with that assumption, even amongst shy people.

Politicians certainly like to see their name in print. That is the only way they can communicate with the public and stay alive, until the next election. But journalists are not much more modest than politicians. They fawn over the beauty of the byline or the talking head on television.

Both journalists and politicians have to edit their agenda. What stories to write, what bills to sponsor makes a huge difference in what happens around the world. Each of these players has a responsibility to seek out not only those who rise to public attention because of their notoriety, but also those who suffer in silence.

With some exception, both groups, at their best, share some idealism. They want to have some impact on the course of events. I was struck when Daniel Pearl’s widow was interviewed by Jim Lehrer. She said he was a journalist because “he wanted to change the world.”

At the risk of sounding naive, I wish that both journalists and politicians could moderate their spinning wars and concentrate on what they do best. That is explaining and changing the world.

Madeleine Kunin is a former reporter and a former governor of Vermont.

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