Let them scratch and howl. Don’t take that as an endorsement of Jen Psaki, but the idea that she or anyone else, including Mick Mulvaney, has to, on this late date, wave a big journalistic wallet at the door to accept a television work is disallowed. Newscasts have long supplemented their newsroom nuclei with paid legal commentatorspaid, paid military and intelligence commentators political commentators and more. They may look like strikebreakers for the grassroots reporting the news, but in many cases they can add value to a news outlet’s reporting. The idea that hiring Psaki at MSNBC, a network known for its opinion, will tarnish NBC’s image, or slant coverage more in the direction of Joe Biden, doesn’t scan. Isn’t MSNBC expected to hire supporters?
Yet how quickly the revolving door can turn a political operative, whose job is often to avoid making the news, into someone who is supposed to break the news, may surprise anyone. For example, Symone Sander, who worked for Bernie Sanders and Biden, now works at both MSNBC and Peacock. You can complain all you want about the instantaneous transformation of agents into newsroom authorities, but that bird was shattered decades ago. Government officials who got into journalism include Bill Moyers, George Stephanopoulos, the late Tim Russert, Bill Bradley, Chris Matthews, Dee Dee Myers, Donna Brazile, Diane Sawyer, Sarah Isgur, Alyssa Farah Griffin, Susan Molinari and more. Not all of them distinguished themselves, but many of them did not vandalize the institution either.
Perhaps the biggest politician-turned-journalist brawl of all time came when New York Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger gave President Richard Nixon speechwriter William Safire an opinion column in 1973 — and did it without even telling the editor of the editorial page that he was doing it! Safire, who had just refused a similar offer from the Washington Post, was reviled by the press. “He’s a paid manipulator,” said David Halberstam, a former Times star, expressing the feelings of the press room. “It’s a lousy column and it’s a dishonest column.” the Washington Postby Nicholas von Hoffman spoke for much of the press when he wrote“The Times could have saved about $50,000 a year if they had just sent a desk boy to the White House to pick up the press releases. You would have thought Sulzberger had given a column to a butcher, even though Safire had worked as a journalist in the 1950s before turning to public relations and politics. Despite the outrage, Safire survived to become something of a Washington institution, even though its best stuff was never so good as his fans thought.
Although PSAKI has worked almost exclusively in political press relations, she has not join CNN as a contributor in February 2017 and worked there until Biden’s transition hired him in November 2020. (Sanders also worked as a CNN contributor.) If you can’t remember anything Psaki said on CNN, don’t. don’t want. During her on-air appearances, she only filed the most innocuous comments, either because she had nothing to say or because she anticipated that the revolving door would one day bring her back into politics and that she didn’t want to offend her future bosses. Based on her work on CNN, she could be a wonderful MSNBC or Peacock host or a miserable one. It sounds like an easy job, but it’s not. In 1997, CBS News recruited and trained Rep. Susan Molinari, RN.Y., for an anchor position. She cratered in nine months and left the network.
As with the Mulvaney hoo-ha, the rage over the potential hiring of Psaki gives us an MRI examination of journalists’ insecurities. They imagine themselves to be “professionals” doing “professional” if not credentialed work and resent anyone who enters their profession without advanced degrees or years of experience. Hiring Psaki has become a crime against journalism in the eyes of journalists because it puts someone they consider an amateur (or even an anti-journalist) in a place that should go to a professional. But perhaps the greatest thing about journalism is its respect for an open door. Anyone who wants to pick up a pen or a camera and wants to do an act of journalism can be as much of a journalist as the guy or girl who covered town hall for 40 years. Journalism’s openness to new voices and new approaches sets it apart from other professions, many of which discourage the entry of new competitors through licensing, titles or other means. The only thing you need to do to qualify as a journalist is get the story.
So welcome to the press room, Jen Psaki, and good luck. Never mind your screaming detractors, who better update their tetanus shots. It’s now up to you whether you succeed or fall, like Molinari, on your face.
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