Is it unethical for journalists to be or to become friends with the people they write about?

Is it okay for reporters and columnists who write about politicians to have dinner with them? Play touch football with them? Give them advice? Write their speeches?

The answer has changed through the years. In the nineteenth century, reporters covering Washington routinely served as clerks of congressional committees, drawing income from one or more news organizations and the US Congress at the same time. This was standard practice. More rarely, but still widely known at the time, some of the clerk/reporters made additional money selling secrets to fellow journalists.

Lest we imagine that this intimacy between reporters and their sources disappeared as we moved from the bad nineteenth century to the good, more professional twentieth century, consider the behavior of one of Washington's consummate insiders, the syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop. Alsop (1910-1989) was a prominent journalist who, as it happens, was Eleanor Roosevelt's cousin. At one point, in 1939, working on a piece for the Saturday Evening Post on American foreign policy, he contacted Eleanor to arrange an interview with President Roosevelt. He assured her that he approved of FDR's foreign policy, that he would submit a draft to the president for approval before sending anything to the magazine, and that he would conceal the president's help on the story. In the end the Post rejected the long piece, but Alsop published it all as a book.

Like Alsop, Walter Lippmann was an insider, a confidant of the rich and powerful. In 1940 he gave political advice to Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate for president running against FDR. In 1945, Lippmann, along with New York Times reporter James Reston, met with Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg (Michigan) and advised him to abandon his isolationism if he had serious presidential aspirations (which he did). The two journalists teamed up to write a speech for Vandenberg that he delivered in the Senate to great acclaim—and some of that acclaim came from Lippmann in his syndicated newspaper column and from Reston, reporting in the Times that that the speech was "wise" and "statesmanlike."

Alsop, Lippmann, and some others achieved, or assumed, a priestly stature in American journalism—above the fray of politics, at least in their own minds, but eager participants in it. They were not objective reporters, but do priestly journalists serve the public good, too? And commentators and critics—whether of music or theater or politics? And even jesters? Think of the role that newspaper columnist and radio commentator Will Rogers played in the in the 1920s and 1930s or the public role of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert since Stewart began hosting Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" in 1999. Just as there are quite different styles of doctoring or of teaching, and not just one way to brilliantly practice medicine or to instruct and inspire as a teacher, there is not just one acceptable model of how journalists should serve the public in journalism.

At the same time, American journalists have grown hostile to insider journalism when it blurs the line between reporting politics and doing politics or between reporting in the interest of public understanding and participating in the formation of public policy. Writing editorials, writing "opinion" pieces like regular columnists on the "op-ed" page, writing in-depth news analysis, and writing daily breaking news stories are all different but legitimate forms of journalism. Writing a politician's speeches is not journalism; writing a news story or an opinion column about a candidate's speech that you have written without acknowledging that you wrote it violates an implicit public trust that journalism depends on.

 
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