Isn’t It Romantic?

by Michael Walsh

Hard to know where to start with this Washington Post story by Paul Farhi about the sad plight of the new power couples — you know, the ones where partner A is in the government while partner B is in the media — but a good place to start might be the headline: 

Media, administration deal with conflicts

And just what sort of “conflicts” might those be?

The list of prominent news people with close White House relations includes ABC News President Ben Sherwood, who is the brother of Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a top national-security adviser to President Obama. His counterpart at CBS, news division president David Rhodes, is the brother of Benjamin Rhodes, a key foreign-policy specialist. CNN’s deputy Washington bureau chief, Virginia Moseley, is married to Tom Nides, who until earlier this year was deputy secretary of state under Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Further, White House press secretary Jay Carney’s wife is Claire Shipman, a veteran reporter for ABC. And NPR’s White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro, is married to a lawyer, Michael Gottlieb, who joined the White House counsel’s office in April.

Conservatives have suggested that these relationships may play a role in how the media cover Obama, specifically in their supposedly timid approach to reporting on the White House’s handling of the terrorist attacks last year on American facilities in Benghazi, Libya.The National Review Online recently claimed that such ties amount to professional incest: “The inbreeding among Obama’s court and its press corps is more like one of those ‘I’m my own grandpaw’ deals,” wrote NRO’s Mark Steyn in a posting titled “Band of Brothers.”

Such insinuations make media types bristle. They take exception to the notion that complicated judgments about the news — often made by others within an organization — have anything to do with personal favoritism or familial relationships. The critics, they say, can’t point to any direct evidence that such relationships have affected the amount or tone of their news coverage.

Conflict of interest? Feds-Fourth Estate backscratching (and more!)? The kind of relationship that in the old days would get you reassigned or fired if you were on the journalistic side of the snuggle blanket? Perish the thought: Besides, you can’t prove it:

“There is zero evidence, zero, that [Sherwood’s relationship] has had any impact on our coverage,” says Jeffrey Schneider, ABC News’s chief spokesman. Schneider points out that ABC was the first mainstream news organization to report last month that administration officials had altered the White House’s talking points about Benghazi 12 times after the attack.

There is no favoritism because we say there is no favoritism, and hey we actually covered a news story at least once, so there. 

The marriage of journalism and politics has been a Regressive’s dream for years, and now it’s finally happening. As Walter Lippmann wrote in his influential book, Public Opinion (1921):

My conclusion is that public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today. This organization I conceive to be in the first instance the task of a political science that has won its proper place as formulator, in advance of real decision, instead of apologist, critic, or reporter after the decision has been made.

Part of the problem on the journalistic side was the elevation of the Washington bureaus to top-of-the-heap status. At Time magazine, for example, correspondents were rotated frequently among the foreign bureaus, with two- or three-year tours the norm, lest the reporters switch sides and go native. But once they got to D.C., they never came back. And, like rock stars and supermodels who tend to intermarry because they never meet anybody else, the reporters’ coziness with their sources sometimes turns to . . . love. How quickly we’ve forgotten Abe Rosenthal and his parable of the elephants

Old paradigm: watchdogs. New paradigm: lapdogs. Easier that way. More romantic, too.

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