You Can’t Be a Journalist and an Elected Official

State Rep. Matt Eidson file photo

On the podcast today state Rep. Matt Eidson told me he’s going to do his best to do a good job both as an elected member of North Dakota’s legislature and a working journalist for the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Public.

I’m not convinced he can do it.

I say that not to besmirch Eidson’s character or work ethic. By all accounts he’s a nice dude and an earnest public servant. I’m not even that worried about the issue of bias. If anything, Eidson is more transparent about his political leanings because of his position in elected office than most journalists are. “One advantage I can bring to the table is you know where I’m coming from,” he told me.

He’s right. I’ve always thought the posture of neutrality journalists adopt was silly. They’re human beings. They have biases just like the rest of us. They should be honest about them, and then strive to be fair anyway. Pretending as though that bias doesn’t exist is one of the many things which have undermined the credibility of the press.

…what if Eidson is sitting in a Democratic party meeting and hears or sees something newsworthy his fellow Democrats would rather not have in the newspapers. Where does his loyalty lay? With the party, or with his job as reporter?

Besides, as a Democrat, Eidson’s biases aren’t going to be out of place in the journalism industry where most reporters lean left in their politics.

What troubles me about this is that Eidson’s two jobs, as elected official and reporter, are in near complete contradiction.

As a for instance, what if Eidson is sitting in a Democratic party meeting and hears or sees something newsworthy his fellow Democrats would rather not have in the newspapers. Where does his loyalty lay? With the party, or with his job as reporter?

On the other side of that coin, will Eidson’s ability to be effective as a lawmaker be compromised by the fact that he’s also a member of the media? Will others in politics be willing to have candid conversations with him about policy questions if they know those details might make their way to a news editor?

Again, I think Eidson has good intentions, but I’m not sure how he can go about reconciling the realities of these two roles.

I can tell you that I wouldn’t attempt it. I am not a straight news reporter. I am a commentator. I wear my biases on my sleeve, and make no pretense of neutrality.

Even so, I haven’t made a political donation in more than a decade, and while some over the years have flattered me by suggesting I run for public office, if I chose that route (which is deeply unlikely) I would choose a new career.

Because I don’t think I could do a good job writing about government and politics if I’m also in government and politics.

Eidson’s gig is temporary. “It’s just for the summer,” he told me. So maybe that’s ok.

But I’m not sure Eidson, or the news outlets who hired him, have done themselves any favors.

This is a fair point though:

They weren’t exactly boot-on-the-ground reporters, though. They owned and published their papers. And they were much smaller publications without the regional impact of those Eidson now works for.

Perhaps a distinction without a difference. Perhaps all the same criticisms of Eidson apply to them as well.

(Full disclosure, the Herald is owned by Forum Communications Company which also employs me.)

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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