New York Times takes heat for hiring intern who worked in Democratic politics

News organizations typically try to avoid conflicts of interest lest they lead readers and viewers to perceive bias in their reporting.

But the New York Times has given a pass to a fledgling political reporter, whose résumé includes brief stints working for Democratic politicians, including for President Obama’s reelection campaign.

The reporter, intern Teddy Schleifer, caused a minor ripple in conservative circles Monday after he wrote a Times story about the Mississippi Republican Senate primary race. One pundit, Charles Johnson, described the story as “a hit piece.” The commentary quickly morphed into criticism of the Times for Schliefer’s involvement with Democrats.

“The incestuous relationship between the mainstream media and Democratic Party has headed down to Mississippi,” Erick Erickson wrote on Redstate.com. He added, “Schiefer [sic] . . . is also quite proud of [an earlier] hit piece on then Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels [written for his college newspaper]. He seems like he’ll be a good liberal reporter. Obama connections and the New York Times tend to go hand in hand these days.”

Schliefer declined to comment, referring questions to Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the Times. In an e-mail exchange, Corbett said Schliefer disclosed his work for Democrats “in detail” to Corbett and his editors in Washington before beginning his internship.

“We are confident that his work for us is solid, accurate and fair, and that we can avoid any potential conflicts of interest,” Corbett said.

Asked if readers would feel the same way if they were aware of Schliefer’s background, Corbett replied: “I hope and expect that fair-minded readers will perceive our coverage as fair and accurate. As I said, we are comfortable with Teddy’s work and his assignments.”

Schliefer’s résumé, posted on his Web site, says he was a speechwriting intern for Obama during the 2012 campaign. His duties included drafting “talking points and speeches for surrogates, including a dozen introductions of the president that grassroots supporters used to introduce him at campaign rallies,” according to the document.

Schliefer, who graduated from Princeton University in June, also was a speechwriting intern in the summer of 2011 for the Department of Education, during which he “authored 20 speeches, talking points, and scripts for Secretary Arne Duncan and surrogates, including a major speech on teacher professionalism and a commencement address. Communicated with policy, research and press staffs to coordinate messaging and language,” according to the document.

He was also a summer speechwriting intern for Delaware Gov. Jack Martell (D) in 2009, a job he describes this way: “As the only high school intern in the office, drafted speeches and talking points for the Governor, serving beneath his Chief Strategist, and wrote press releases under the supervision of his Communications Director.”

A background working in politics can be a plus for a columnist or a TV pundit, who principally offers opinions. The Times hired William Safire as a political columnist after he had worked as a speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew; Safire won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1978. Similarly, Post columnist Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough is a former Republican congressman.

Although news organizations typically shy away from hiring reporters who have backgrounds in partisan politics to avoid conflicts, the line has been crossed before.

Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, leading anchors at ABC News, are former White House operatives. NBC News reporter Pete Williams was press secretary for then-Rep. Richard B. Cheney (R-Wyo.) and became Pentagon spokesman under President George H.W. Bush. NBC News also employs presidential daughters Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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