Jonathan Allen’s Brief Political Career
posted at 8:36 am on February 23, 2010 by Danny Glover
The revolving door between journalism and politics in establishment Washington has never spun as quickly as it did when Jonathan Allen ran through it — twice. The superstar journalist spent 40 days wandering in the political wilderness as a Democratic flack before being welcomed back to Politico with open arms.
Allen told the story of his short, unhappy life in politics to Politico readers:
From the outset, I felt like I was a reporter just masquerading as a political operative.
Now, as I leave my job at [Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s] political action committee to make the transition back to journalism at Politico, there will be some who wonder whether I am a political operative just masquerading as a reporter.
It’s a fair question for the Republicans who may now view me with a skeptical eye, for the 300-plus congressional Democrats for whom I did not work and, above all, for Politico’s readers.
As a conservative who, like Allen, left journalism for political activism after a disillusioning layoff, I empathized with Allen’s predicament, yet my first instinct was to scoff at both his career flip-flopping and at Politico’s outside-the-media-box decision to rehire him.
Will Republicans ever answer a question from Allen without thinking twice about how he might use their answers? Will Democrats demand fluff because he is one of them? And what of Politico? Would John Harris, Jim VandeHei and company have given a second thought to rehiring a conservative under the same circumstances — or would they hire any openly conservative journalist, for that matter?
The timing of Allen’s return also was ironic in light of the stink that VandeHei and other journalists made earlier this month when Bill Sammon of Fox News dared to state the obvious — that “the mainstream media hates the tea party movement.” VandeHei had the chutzpah to go on Fox News to scold Sammon but then hired a Democratic operative as a reporter.
Those were my first thoughts. Then I remembered the unconventional approach to political journalism I have advocated since my college days in the 1980s: Media companies should force political journalists to reveal their philosophical leanings; to the extent possible, they should assign them to cover “the other side” because journalists are at their best when they are skeptical; and then readers can decide, in a transparent environment, whether the political news they are consuming is reliable and fair.
In Allen’s case, that is precisely what happened. Allen told Politico readers who he is, how he votes and how he approaches his job. “I should lay my cards on the table,” he wrote — and he did, including the disclosure that he donated money to a sitting senator in a tight re-election race, Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.
Editor-in-chief Harris also explained his decision to rehire Allen and described the internal debate that ensued when Allen came calling after his brief political stint.
“In the end,” Harris said, “those of us with misgivings either overcame or swallowed them. In my case, it came down to what we noticed during Allen’s first week last fall: He is a great and fair reporter who was made to work at this place. I care more about reality than perception.”
As a reader, so do I. And because both Allen and Harris broached the subject openly, I am in a much better position now to judge the fairness of Allen’s journalism than I was when he was a secretly Democratic-leaning reporter working at Politico last fall.
Back then, I could only guess at Allen’s political bent based on how he covered the news or assume that he, like most journalists, leans left. Now I will be able to study his coverage with a more critical eye for bias. His editors will be able to do the same and slash any slanted copy.
The next step is for Harris and his entire team — and all political journalists — to be honest about their political leanings with their audiences. We journalists (yes, I still am one, though now outed as a conservative) rightly preach transparency to the political world; it’s time we start practicing what we preach.
Then and only then will Americans be able to judge the objectivity of our work.