When former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. mentioned in an online chat in 2004 that he no longer voted, some observers rolled their eyes.
Wasn’t this taking impartiality a little too far?
But Downie had his reasons. He decided to stop voting, he said, when he became “the ultimate gatekeeper” for what the newspaper published, a job he held from 1991 to 2008.
“I wanted to keep a completely open mind about everything we covered,” he said, “and not make a decision, even in my own mind or the privacy of the voting booth, about who should be president or mayor, for example.”
We could use some of that scrupulous thinking right now, as the lines between journalism and politics — never all that clear to begin with — get blurrier by the day.
●Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg — who founded Bloomberg News, a global news operation — is showing every sign of running for president. If he became president, he said in a radio interview, he’d either sell the news organization or put it in a blind trust.
But until then, his crack cadre of political reporters might have to just ignore his campaign.
“Quite honestly, I don’t want all the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me,” Bloomberg joked.
Another possibility would be to “not cover politics at all,” and using wire service copy instead.
As BuzzFeed News’s Steven Perlberg reported, this sent a certain chill down the spine of the editorial staff, with one source describing the atmosphere as “semi- but not acutely anxious.”
●CNN’s chief executive, Jeff Zucker, recently said that he still sees the possibility of a run for office in his future.
“I still harbor somewhere in my gut that I’m still very interested in politics,” Zucker said in a podcast interview with David Axelrod of CNN. Axelrod, a onetime reporter, helped run Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and later held a White House post.
He didn’t say exactly what he had in mind, but some have speculated that his aspirations are to be the mayor of New York City (a post once held by Bloomberg).
And then, of course, there’s the relationship between Fox News and the White House, two entities as intertwined as conjoined twins.
The most recent example: President Trump plans to nominate a former Fox News host — Heather Nauert, the chief State Department spokeswoman — to become his next ambassador to the United Nations.
Within hours, former top Trump aide Hope Hicks, now in charge of public relations at Fox (the news outlet’s parent company), issued her first news release in that role. It endorsed a criminal-justice restructuring act supported by Trump.
Now add to the mix the unethical appearances by Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro at a Trump campaign rally in Missouri last month. That event featured a happy high-five between Hannity and former Fox executive Bill Shine, now Trump’s communications czar.
Granted, there’s always been a revolving door from politics to punditry. Decades ago, as just one example, William Safire, a former Richard Nixon aide, became a New York Times columnist.
And sometimes it spins the other way, with journalists tapped to become political spokespeople.
But this new round is more extreme. The connection between Fox News and the White House is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
And the idea that major media figures — with huge influence over coverage decisions — are pondering political posts brings real questions.
Will the estimable political reporters at CNN or Bloomberg, and their editors, find themselves tiptoeing around some issues, or engaged in self-censorship?
Given their bosses’ aspirations, is their journalism potentially compromised?
There is, after all, a good reason that news and politics should maintain an appropriate distance from each other: The former is supposed to hold the latter accountable.
These campaigns may never come to pass, of course — although Bloomberg certainly seems serious about a 2020 presidential run.
Zucker’s idea, by contrast, may be little more than a passing fancy. In the same interview, the native Floridian also tossed out that he’d like to own a certain NFL team: “If the Miami Dolphins call, that’s where I’ll be.”
Still, no employee wants to risk ticking off the big boss.
And, at the same time, no journalist wants to pull her punches.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know that their news organization’s “ultimate gatekeeper” — like Downie — would never dream of putting them in that position?
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan.