A journalist is not a spokesman, and a spokesman is not a journalist, but on the CBS Evening News Tuesday night, the twain did indeed meet – and it was the same person. Awkward. It was just the latest example of the revolving door between network news operations and political flacks, an unfortunate and incestuous tradition that goes back decades now.
After leading with a report on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s scathing report on CIA torture – and then airing an old interview with then-CIA director George Tenet – anchor Scott Pelley sat down with Michael Morell, CBS’ Senior Security Contributor, to discuss the matter.
But Morell, a former CIA deputy director and acting director, wasn’t there to offer unbiased and expert perspective on the torture report. He was there to defend it.
In fact, he wasn’t even there as CBS’ Senior Security Contributor at all, despite his network role, but as the man who oversaw the CIA’s written rebuttal to the Senate report. He was there as a CIA spokesman. The decision to put him in the interview chair had Pelley doing journalistic back-flips explaining just which hat Morell was wearing during the conversation.
“One of the people who worked for George Tenet is Michael Morell, who later rose to become acting director of the CIA,” Pelley told the viewers. “Mr. Morell is our CBS News Senior Security Contributor. But tonight, in this context, we want to be clear that Mr. Morell is speaking in defense of the CIA. He oversaw preparation of the CIA rebuttal of the Senate report.”
And tomorrow, or the day after, or sometime next week, Morell will return to the air as the CBS News Senior Security Contributor. And when he does, CBS should just as carefully inform its viewers that he’s once again wearing his CBS hat and not just there to spin the news for the benefit of the CIA.
Of course, the revolving door between newsrooms and political backrooms is nothing new. Here are just a few examples of spinmeisters and their spinning doors that’s been going on for decades:
- James Hagerty was a New York Times reporter before becoming President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s press secretary. He later became ABC’s vice president of news.
- Pierre Salinger was a San Francisco Chronicle reporter before becoming press secretary to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Later he would go back to journalism, as ABC News’ Paris bureau chief.
- Bill Moyers was a Texas print, radio and TV reporter and editor before becoming LBJ’s press secretary. He later joined CBS as a senior analyst and commentator, followed by several stints as a PBS news commentator and anchor.
- Diane Sawyer was a local TV reporter in Louisville before joining President Richard Nixon’s press office. She later became anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight.
- George Stephanopoulos was a key campaign aide and then White House Communications Director for President Bill Clinton. He is currently anchor of ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos.
- Karl Rove, a senior advisor to President George W. Bush, is now a political contributor to Fox News.
- Most recently, Jay Carney was Time’s Washington bureau chief before becoming President Barack Obama’s press secretary. He’s now a regular contributor to This Week with George Stephanopoulos.
Even the great Edward R. Murrow bolted through the revolving door at one point, leaving CBS to head the United States Information Agency, which provides the official views of the American government to foreign viewers.
But Morell’s hops and flops are new. He went from acting director of the CIA, to CBS News Senior Security Contributor, and then back to CIA spokesman, and then back again as Senior Security Contributor. It further blurs the already woozy line between network news and government spin. It all leaves me just a bit dizzy, and that can’t be a good thing.