Linda Douglass's Decision: Beginning A Debate

I've worked with Linda Douglass here at the Atlantic Media empire and at ABC News, and it would be unfair for you -- and for me -- to avoid sharing my impression of her. Linda Douglass has always struck me as an eminently fair journalist, idealistic, yes, but tough-minded and careful.

That said, the news her departure, in the catalytic phase of a presidential election, to the campaign of one of the two major candidates, is a story worth exploring. It certainly took the McCain and Obama campaigns by surprise, as it did Douglass's colleagues here at the Watergate.

Suzanne Clark, the National Journal Group president, called Douglass a "first rate talent" who has "made significant contributions to the National Journal Group. We are sad to see her go." Douglass recently wrote a well-received cover story for National Journal about a pivot point in McCain's life -- his decision to run for Congress, and has interviewed for her National Journal radio program virtually every top decision maker in McCain's campaign.

"It's been terrific working with Linda and we wish her nothing but the best," said Charles Green, National Journal's editor.

To conservative media critics, the divide between the press corps and modern political liberalism is fairly narrow, and easy to jump over, and Douglass's decision will reconfirm their sense that bias pervades newsrooms. Liberals who support Hillary Clinton will scour Douglass's work -- and the output of the National Journal -- to see whether she betrayed any pro-Obama tint. Both the Clinton and McCain campaigns have complained that the media is in the tank for Sen. Obama. One Clinton campaign adviser, upon learning of Douglass's decision, e-mailed: "This is scandalous and further undermines the media’s ability to claim independence overall."

Mark Salter, a senior strategist for John McCain who has known Douglass for years, said in an e-mail,"I like Linda very much. [[I] [w]ish her every happiness, but no success in November."

Douglass's choice can be accepted at face value, but it will give media critics plenty of ammunition to attack the press, but, then again, the media and its critics are in a perpetual state of war these days.

Byron York wrote on National Review's The Corner that Douglass "sometimes found it difficult to draw the line between reporter and source" in 1998, when he profiled her for the American Spectator.

But Todd Harris, a Republican who has worked for John McCain and Fred Thompson, said that Douglass was "a true pro in every sense of the word. She was a tough reporter for sure, but as far as I was concerned, always fair and even-handed. And I would wager money that Senator McCain would say the same thing."

Kevin Madden, formerly the chief spokesman for Mitt Romney and a Republican whom Douglass tangled with when Madden flacked for Tom Delay, called her "one of the smartest folks working in the politcal arena."

"The national press corps respects her and she always brings her "A game" to anything she does. She will be a worthy foe from a communications perspective during this campaign," he said.

One outside Obama adviser said that it was "smart" of the campaign to appoint a woman to a such a high-profile role because most of the Obama campaign's upper echelon are white men.

Two weeks ago, she interviewed her soon-to-be boss, David Plouffe; her first question was about Obama's problems with working class whites. In March, Douglass asked Obama adviser Gregory Craig how Obama's foreign policy experience "possibly stand up to hers," meaning Hillary Clinton's. But in early May, appearing on MSNBC's Hardball, she seemed to accept the argument that if Hillary Clinton were the nominee, African American voters "might sit on their hands."

Douglass's husband, attorney John Phillips, is a major Obama campaign fundraiser. It is unclear when she began to discuss the possibility of a position with the Obama campaign, although she told me this morning that the offer and her acceptance happened "very recently."

Douglass is the latest in a string of prominent journalists to jump over the news/subject barrier.

Some switches are well known, and they mostly involve Democrats: Tim Russert, Chris Matthews and George Stephanopoulos all worked for prominent Democratic politicians before taking journalism jobs. David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, was a well regarded reporter at the Chicago Tribune before he turned to politics.

More recently, Jonathan Martin, a senior political writer at the Politico, jumped from Congress, where he served as a Republican press secretary, to National Journal's Hotline; then to National Review, then to the Politico, where he covers Republican candidates. Geoff Morell, a former ABC News correspondent, joined the Pentagon as a spokesman; Dorrance Smith moved easily from the first Bush administration to ABC News, where he served as executive producer of This Week, to the Pentagon during the second Bush administration.

Beatwriters, too, have taken the plunge. Leigh Strope, who covered labor issues for the Associated Press, left several years ago to join the Teamsters' union as a spokesperson. Ed Chen covered the White House for the Los Angeles Times and now covers politics for Bloomberg. Between those jobs, he worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A Clinton spokesperson also declined to comment. Obama aides said they would have more to say about Douglass when the primary season ended.

More disclosures: I write regularly for National Journal, have worked on stories with Linda Douglass and appeared on her radio program, and have been edited by Joyce Murdoch.