by Jules Witcover

Viewers of the television political talk shows may have noticed a phenomenon in the afterbirth of the last presidential election. High-powered consultants from both campaigns have invaded the studios as panelists, chewing over the political events of the day beside career reporters and analysts who had recently been covering them.

From the winning Obama team, chief campaign strategists David Axelrod and David Plouffe and deputy Stephanie Cutter have signed with such shows, as have Kevin Madden of the Romney campaign and other Republicans. Thus has the pool of commentators been broadened to include special pleaders, on sabbatical until the next campaign.

Unlike the medical and legal professions, which require their practitioners to have a degree and certification, anybody with or without a sane thought in his or her head can be a "journalist." It raises a legitimate question of who is one today and indeed what is journalism.

There was a time when a practitioner, under the commonplace identity as reporter, had the minimum requirement of examining a politician or a campaign from as neutral a stance as possible before presenting the conclusions thereby reached to the reader or viewer.

In the glory days of radio and early television, a jewel of the airwaves was the periodic gathering of network reporters deeply grounded in political and foreign affairs before a microphone or camera to spread their reasonably unbiased knowledge. The old CBS roundups chaired by Edward R. Murrow easily come to mind.

Today, the reportorial successors or reasonable facsimiles thereof sit elbow-to-elbow with political guns for hire in what too often is watered down to another sales job for one or the other party, with the reporters reduced to spear carriers in the scene.

Not only that. With the advent of the Internet, the art of the blog has been born and has flourished, the moniker being an abbreviation of "web log," meaning logging onto the web. A blogger has an unlicensed license to offer all manner of views, speculations, rumors or just plain fantasies to a receptive audience with or without forethought.

The same goes for the addict of Twitter, which requires the product to be squeezed into 140 characters no matter how complex the matter to be discussed may be. All this seems to come under the rubric of today's journalism when much of it is the functional equivalent of radio static on an old Philco crystal set.

In an era in which the Supreme Court declares that corporations are people for the sake of exercising free speech, paid political consultants and propagandists certainly share the same rights as anyone else, no less than folks who earn their living reporting and commenting on events of the day for newspapers, radio and television.

But the growing trend of mixing consultants and spokesmen for politicians and political parties with working stiffs of the news business into a bouillabaisse of chatter almost inevitably tilts the discussion into a scramble for partisan advantage.

Undoubtedly, the presence of practicing politicians, elected or otherwise, adds star power to the television talk shows, endlessly in battles for higher viewer ratings. Repeated appearances of the most prominent consultants similarly don't hurt their own primary businesses, and nobody expects them to leave their political commitments and convictions outside the studio.

But their participation around the panelists' table risks diverting what could have been substantive discussion into a defense of one's clients or party or an attack on the opposition.

Meanwhile, the participating reporters, with less of a partisan ax to grind, often are moved to a bit of showboating to hold their own in the verbal tussles that result. Newspaper reporters hoping to be hired by network television have been known to lobby for spots on such panels.

Of course, laments of this sort from old-time newsies can be dismissed as sour grapes about the decline of the old ways of journalism. So be it. But as Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of his nightly show, that's the way it is.


Article: ©right; 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

"The Dilution of Journalism"