Does it matter if journalists don't get the top jobs at cable newschannels?
When I talked to MSNBC president Phil Griffin about his channel's recent habit of hiring anchors of color who are not journalists for high profile jobs, he took issue with a central notion:
That journalism credentials are necessary for top anchor jobs at his cable newschannel.
"This whole concept of journalist has to be rethought," he said. "I sorry, I don't care about journalists...I want fair minded, smart people who understand the world, who can interpret it and if they're journalists, great. This notion that somehow you have to have done something to earn so-called journalist credentials? Stop. Stop...I think it's unfair."
Certainly, Griffin's got a point. Look at the people filling top anchor jobs on his channel and elsewhere -- Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren -- and none of them came from journalism to their big jobs. Griffin and I were talking, in part, because the channel had announced a weekend show for Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry.
Still, I think there is something odd about the notion that the biggest jobs at an institution which calls itself a cable newschannel would go to people who are not journalists.
It's not about keeping up some hallowed fraternity. And certainly, there are journalists on TV and elsewhere who are not particularly smart or capable, made no better for the fact that they come from a journalistic tradition.
But there is a sense that journalists, even those of us who deal in opinion, have been trained in how to fairly handle information and arguments. And just as importantly, by calling ourselves journalists, we have agreed to observe a code of behavior in which we are fair in how we handle arguments, accurate in how we report facts and transparent in how we do our work, avoiding conflicts of interests which may influence us in ways the reader (or viewer) is not aware -- even if we're also delivering opinions.
"That's my job...to make sure (anchors) are fair and smart and come from a position, even if they have a sensibility and point of view, that is based in fact and reality," countered Griffin, who also took time to praise journalists such as Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell, hosts of shows airing earlier on MSNBC, when the channels is less focused on featuring anchors' opinions. "The definition of these channels, the information channels, may have to change a little bit. I don't think its fair for people to hide behind the idea that 'I'm a journalist.' When honestly, they may not do the homework."
At a time when cable viewers have indicated they seem to want the kind of sharp, partisan opinions in prime time journalists hesitate to provide, it may seem quaint to worry about what is being lost in the transition. Especially since these anchors are backed by producers and contributors who, presumably, are schooled in and following journalistic traditions.
Still, it seems the further cable newschannels shrug off the mantle of journalism, the more they come to resemble political campaigns, focused on victory for a particular ideology in a way which may test viewers' trust.