Let them scratch and howl. Don’t take this as an endorsement of Jen Psaki, but the idea that she or anybody else, including Mick Mulvaney, must, at this late date, wave a fat journalistic portfolio at the gate to take a TV job is dismissible. Television news has long supplemented its newsroom cores with paid legal commentators, paid military and intelligence commentators, paid political commentators and more. They might look like strikebreakers to the rank and file who report the news, but in many instances, they can bring value to an outlet’s reporting. The idea that Psaki’s hiring at MSNBC, a network known for opinion, will tarnish the image of hard-news NBC, or that she will tilt coverage further Joe Biden’s way, doesn’t scan. Don’t we expect MSNBC to hire partisans?
Still, the speed with which the revolving door can turn a political operative, whose job is often to avoid making news, into someone who is supposed to break news, can startle anybody. For instance, Symone Sanders, who has worked for Bernie Sanders and Biden, now works at both MSNBC and Peacock. You can complain all you want about the instant transformation of operatives into newsroom authorities, but that bird flew the coop decades ago. Government officials stepping 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 neither did many of them vandalize the institution.
Perhaps the greatest pol-turned-journalist kerfuffle of all time came when New York Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger gave President Richard Nixon speechwriter William Safire an op-ed column in 1973 — and did so without even telling the editorial page editor he was doing it! Safire, who had just turned down a similar offer from the Washington Post, was vilified by the press. “He is a paid manipulator,” said David Halberstam, a former Times star, speaking the sentiments of the newsroom. “It’s a lousy column and it’s a dishonest one.” The Washington Post’s Nicholas von Hoffman spoke for much of the press corps when he wrote, “The Times could have saved themselves about 50 grand a year if they just sent an office boy over to the White House to pick up the press releases.” You would have thought Sulzberger had given a butcher a column, even though Safire had worked as a journalist in the 1950s before switching to public relations and politics. Despite the outrage, Safire survived to become something of a Washington institution, even though his best stuff was never as good as his fans believed it was.
Although Psaki has worked almost exclusively in political press relations, she did join CNN as a contributor in February 2017 and worked there until the Biden transition hired her in November 2020. (Sanders has also worked as a CNN contributor.) If you can’t remember anything Psaki said on CNN, don’t blame yourself. In her on-air appearances, she filed only the most anodyne comments, either because she had nothing to say or because she anticipated that the revolving door would sweep her back into politics someday and she didn’t want to offend her future bosses. Based on her CNN work, she could be a wonderful MSNBC or Peacock host or a wretched one. It looks like an easy job, but it’s not. Back in 1997, CBS News recruited and groomed Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., for an anchor position. She cratered in nine months and left the network.
As with the Mulvaney hoo-ha, the rage over the prospective hiring of Psaki gives us an MRI scan of journalist insecurities. They imagine themselves “professionals” doing a “professional” if not credentialed job and resent anybody who enters their profession without advanced degrees or years of experience. Psaki’s hiring has become a crime against journalism in the eyes of journalists because it places somebody they consider to be 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 observance of an open door. Anybody who wants to pick up a pen or a camera and wants to perform an act of journalism can be as much of a journo as the guy or gal who has covered city hall for 40 years. Journalism’s openness to new voices and new approaches distinguishes it from other professions, many of which discourage the entry of new competitors through licensing, credentialing, or other means. The only thing you must do to qualify as a journalist is to get the story.
So, welcome to the newsroom, Jen Psaki, and best of luck. Never mind your screeching detractors, who had better update their tetanus shots. It’s now up to you whether you succeed or fall, Molinari-like, on your face.
I have reserved some extra cortisone cream in my medicine cabinet for the hive-bound at NBC News. Send email requests to [email protected]. My email alerts belong to an email cartel. My Twitter feed wants a show on OAN. My RSS feed follows Old Scratch.