Jill Zuckman, who was a seasoned political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, says she joined Team Obama (as head of public affairs at the Transportation Department) in February 2009 primarily because a Republican, Rep. Ray LaHood (Ill.), had been appointed to run it.
“I probably would not have done it without a professional relationship with Ray LaHood,” says Zuckman, who had covered LaHood when he was a congressional staff member in the early 1990s. “He was one of my favorite members of Congress. I thought he was smart, frank and plugged in. I thought I could help him” in his new job.
Zuckman, who left Transportation in 2011 to join a communications firm run by Democrats Anita Dunn and Hillary Rosen, denies any tilt for Obama or Democrats while she was a journalist. “I was a straightforward reporter,” she said. “I had good relationships with Republicans as well as Democrats.”
Carney makes no secret of his loyalties to Obama now but defends his objectivity and professionalism as a journalist when he covered candidate Obama and Washington generally. “I was definitely excited by and privately supported Obama in 2008,” he said. “But I think any reading of my coverage as a reporter would show that I was not an ideologue. [Time columnist] Joe Klein said he thought I was a Republican” when Carney joined Biden’s staff.
What’s more, the news business’s financial troubles have played a significant role in driving journalists onto the job market. The Obama administration came in as the Great Recession worsened what already had been a bad slump for traditional media outlets. Since then, mainstream news organizations have shed thousands of jobs.
“The news business was going south,” says Thomson, who accepted a buyout from The Post in 2008 after 25 years at the paper. “We are at a time when reinvention is the new black. And in 2008, that’s what was in front of me, to reinvent.”
(Thomson and Frantz are among the cadre of former Post journalists who have found second careers in federal Washington. Others include former city editor Bill Miller, now a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Washington, and former political reporter Shailagh Murray, who replaced Carney as Biden’s communications czar in 2011.)
Peter Gosselin, an economics reporter at the Los Angeles Times, became Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner’s chief speechwriter in 2009, just a few weeks after the Times’s parent, Tribune Co., filed for bankruptcy-court protection. “I couldn’t trust that I’d be able to support two kids through school, and in a few years going to college, on the chance that [newspapers] were not going to collapse,” Gosselin said.
Journalists who became Obama operatives speak highly of the experience. Although they say the office “culture” is wholly different — more collaborative, less geared to a newsroom’s individual star system — the job can be no less rewarding.
“I’m liking it a great deal,” said Thomson. “From the State Department’s point of view, the world is the ultimate canvas and the U.S. role in the world is as big a subject as it gets. . . . You go from outsider to insider, but that doesn’t mean you stop using the skills you applied to journalism.”
Zuckman, who oversaw the Transportation Department’s communications efforts during Toyota’s massive recalls of vehicles to fix a problem with sudden acceleration, said her stint at the agency gave her an appreciation for the hard, fast and complicated work that government employees do. Working for the agency, she said, “turned out to be one of the great experiences of my life.”
But Gosselin advised those who are considering such a switch to think twice.
“What astounded me was what a sleek, well-oiled, 21st-century machine a newsroom looks like compared to the way it works inside government,” he said. “The cultures are really, really different, particularly at high levels,” he added, citing the “messy” government decision-making process in which dozens of people get a say.
After working for Geithner and as a special adviser for health reform at the Department of Health and Human Services, Gosselin is now a senior health-care policy analyst for Bloomberg Government, a news and information source. Which makes him part of an even smaller fraternity: those who’ve made a full revolution through the revolving door between reporting and government.