If it seems like there’s a revolving door between 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and the newsrooms of media organizations across the country, it’s because there is—sort of.
Mick Mulvaney, chief of staff for former President Donald Trump, is joining CBS News as a political commentator, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is reportedly leaving her post this spring to join MSNBC as a paid pundit.
But the beeline from government service to media commentary, while not at all uncommon today, can hurt the legitimacy of news organizations if they make a poor hiring choice, says Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy. Elevating figures such as Mulvaney—whose reputation has been tainted from statements at the onset the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as his role in Trump’s attempted extortion of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy—may ultimately serve to undermine the network’s credibility, Kennedy says.
In justifying the decision to hire Mulvaney, CBS said it was looking to feature Republican voices in a bid for more balance.
“CBS News is continuing to build up its roster of contributors on both sides of the aisle ahead of the midterms and the 2024 election,” a company spokesperson said last week, according to the Washington Post.
But, in an emailed explanation to staff, obtained by the Post, the co-president of the network’s news division said the move is part of an effort to gain even more access to the Republican Party, in anticipation of a GOP takeover of Congress come November.
That problem, Kennedy contends, is what networks sacrifice in order to gain more insider access.
“If your goal is to hire a Republican commentator, OK fine, but you’ve got to find one who is not tied up in all of these scandals,” Kennedy says.
Instead, news organizations should look to hire those working in journalism—such as opinion journalists, whose objective fact-finding training underpins their partisan takes—and scale back on ex-government contributors for what have become highly coveted TV punditry roles, Kennedy says.
“If you look at any of the major newspaper’s op-ed sections, you’ll see that they have opinion journalists,” he says. “I would like to see these [broadcast] news operations hire more opinion journalists, not partisan players.”
Psaki’s continued service as President Joe Biden’s press secretary, after she’s already accepted a job from MSNBC, is problematic, Kennedy says.
“What I’m not crazy about with Jen Psaki is that she is continuing to perform her duties as White House press secretary, while we all know she is about to make the jump to MSNBC,” Kennedy says. “The best thing to do, if you’ve decided that you want to step down, and you want a job in the media—in a perfect world, you would step down and leave the administration before you engage in any negotiations with your next employer, and obviously she hasn’t done that.”
It’s more often the case that White House communication staffers negotiate TV jobs after their government service has ended in order to avoid potential conflicts. Psaki has repeatedly said that she would not stay in her role for Biden’s full term, and offered assurances, when asked by reporters, that the talks about her next job were done in accordance with ethical requirements. Federal government guidelines lay out extensive rules governing the ethics of how government employees can pursue private-sector opportunities while in office.
“There are a range of stringent ethical and legal requirements that are imposed on everybody in this administration, and many administrations past, about any conversations you’re having with future employers,” Psaki said, according to People magazine.
Psaki will reportedly anchor a new show for MSNBC on the streaming platform Peacock.
But neither Psaki nor Mulvaney would be able to credibly step into strictly news—or so-called straight news—roles at their respective networks, as it takes years for ex-government officials to build credibility and overcome their partisan roots, Kennedy says.
“George Stephanopoulos and Tim Russert went from government jobs, working for elected officials, into the media,” Kennedy says. “But they worked in non-partisan straight news roles. It took them years to become credible in those roles because” of their government ties.
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