New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman sparked a discussion about the revolving door between the White House and the Washington press corps Friday with his scoop on who else Vice President Joe Biden was considering for his next communications director. According to Sherman, Biden's top three candidates were all working journalists: Slate's chief political correspondent John Dickerson, CBS News' White House correspondent Chip Reid and the Washington Post's congressional reporter Shailagh Murray. The position needed filling because Biden's then-communications director Jay Carney (Time's former Washington bureau chief) was being promoted to White House press secretary. In the end, Biden hired Murray for the position after Reid and Dickerson declined.
All that talk of the White House courting journalists for PR jobs ruffled some feathers in the right-wing blogosphere. "Is the mainstream media the Obama administration's farm team?" asked Daniel Halper at The Weekly Standard. Conservative blogger Robert Stacy McCain was similarly miffed.
In some cases, it's not unfair to ask non-partisan newspapers about their policies regarding journalists switching teams and working for the White House. Are journalists required to notify their editors when they're seeking a political position? If so, are they prohibited from covering certain stories if there's a conflict of interest? We asked The Washington Post when Shailagh Murray was hired to be Biden's chief PR flack since Murray was covering the White House a mere two weeks before she was hired by the White House. Given the background checks and political vetting involved in completing a White House hire, it seemed like there could be some overlap. Murray declined to comment to The Atlantic Wire. The Post did as well. Asked if the newspaper had any policy with regards to conflict of interest, Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton said, "I find nothing in the handbook that addresses this directly or indirectly."
In Murray's Post days, she--like many political reporters--mixed easily with the people she covered. In 2009, David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel celebrated Murray's birthday with her at a party in D.C.'s Chinatown. Since she's a fan of baseball, the two gave her a ball signed by President Obama. In June of last year, Murray also attended a beach party for journalists at Biden's house. She can be seen laughing next to Rahm Emanuel as he fires off a squirt gun in the video below.
For observers of journalism, that kind of coziness is troubling. "It's absolutely essential that journalists tell their editors if they are seeking employment with those they cover, and essential that they then be removed from the beat immediately," said Geneva Overholser, director of USC Annenberg's School of Journalism. "No reader could feel confident in coverage in which the reporter and source are so clearly experiencing conflicting interests."
Eko Lyombe, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, agreed. "Murray’s actions make a mockery of the concept of the Fourth Estate," he said. "Murray changed from being a watchdog to being an image and impression manager. There is nothing unprecedented or illegal about her move. What is troubling, however, is that her move further breaks the wall of separation that should exist between journalists and the powers-that-be. It also gives off a whiff of impropriety, ethically speaking."