Magazine article Editor & Publisher

They Moved from Politics to Punditry

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

They Moved from Politics to Punditry

Article excerpt

It may not be an issue in the presidential campaign, but it is an issue in the syndicate world. Especially as pundit-turned-politician Pat Buchanan continues his long-shot run for the White House.

The issue involves columnists who are past, present or future political players. Do they belong on op-ed pages? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a political rather than journalistic background? How many columnists are in this category, anyway?

At least 20 - including a current first lady (Hillary Rodham Clinton), an ex-president (Jimmy Carter), an ex-vice president (Dan Quayle), an ex-secretary of state (James Baker), a former presidential candidate (Jesse Jackson) and a former presidential assistant (William Safire), to name a few.

Does having government experience help these columnists? Some say yes.

"It gives you a better sense of how the game is played," said self-syndicated political satirist Rick Horowitz, a former Capitol Hill assistant now based in Shorewood, Wisc. "You know some of the players. And even when the players change, the game remains the same."

"They've been able to observe the workings of government as an insider," added managing editor Mark Mathes of Tribune Media Services, Buchanan's former and possibly future syndicate. "It's rare for a journalist to have behind-the-scenes access like that."

"People with service in politics bring a unique and valuable voice to op-ed pages," said vice president/general manager Steve Christensen of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, which distributes Baker, Jackson, Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

"Columnists such as Pat Buchanan, Dan Quayle and Hillary Rodham Clinton all have large constituencies, and they are also known for getting the opposition riled up," said Creators Syndicate president Rick Newcombe, whose company distributes Quayle and Clinton. "It's important for newspapers to generate controversy That kind of thing is too often missing in editorial pages."

But Alan Shearer, editorial director/general manager of the Washington Post Writers Group, reported that WPWG has turned down every politician inquiring about syndication. A prime reason? "They may have an agenda," he said.

Of course, many op-ed pundits with journalism backgrounds also have agendas -- or at least strong opinions. That's what they're paid for. But the difference, according to some interviewees, is that a political figure may use a column to stay in the public eye and then run for office again.

Jeff Cohen, executive director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, said "it's fine" for someone like Safire to start out in politics and then become a longtime columnist.

"But when they come and go, like Pat Buchanan, then you have a problem," added Cohen, who formerly co-wrote the "Media Beat" column that Norman Solomon now does solo for Creators. He said these "revolving door" pundits may be campaigning on the op-ed page without readers realizing it.

"They get three years of free publicity to set up their next run," added Horowitz.

Some op-ed editors refuse to buy columnists who may have a self-serving electoral agenda. Others detect no campaigning in these columns -- or expect it to be there and don't mind.

"We didn't hear complaints from editors that Pat Buchanan was using his column as a platform for another run for office," said Mathes.

While some op-ed editors don't care if a columnist enters the next election race, others do. "After Dan Quayle announced he wasn't running for president in 1996, he picked up some papers," reported Newcombe.

Of course, some columnists pondering another try for office may pull their punches to avoid antagonizing potential voters.

"They don't want their words thrown back in their face," said Newcombe.

Cohen did emphasize that Buchanan has never been one of these cautious pundits. "I disagree with almost everything he stands for, but he's always willing to offend the majority," he said. …

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