WASHINGTON -- There was a time when the lines between the practices of politics and journalism were clear-cut. Professional politicians did their thing, which was getting elected and getting others elected. Professional journalists did theirs, writing and telling how the politicians did what they did. Seldom did the two meet in public opinion forums
Today, political operatives are regular commentators and analysts on radio, television and the Internet, and journalists of all political persuasions run for public office, sometimes getting elected. Increasingly, now, they join on talk shows to dissect and argue over the state of the nation's politics, usually for both fame and profit.
The latest prominent partisan political operatives to enter into this mix are two key architects of Barack Obama's 2008 election team. Chief strategist and later White House political adviser David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, President Obama's first press secretary, have signed up as political analysts for MSNBC, vowing to call 'em and they see 'em without favor to their old boss.
Their new employment corresponds to the much earlier alliance between George W. Bush's chief political guru, Karl Rove, and the Fox News, a cable network that proclaims itself "fair and balanced" and which is itself the creation of veteran political consultant Roger Ailes.
From the other professional direction, a small army of newspaper, magazine and Internet reporters, bloggers and assorted other real or professed journalists have also signed on. They usually go on radio and television outlets that are showcases for one ideological side of the political debate or another, recruited to offer their allegedly unbiased wisdom.
As a result, it has become more difficult for the average listener or viewer to tell whether a given personality is a politician or journalist or a combination thereof as they dispense their assorted views, alleged statements of fact or simple partisan propaganda.
Each ideological side on cable television offers a heavy dose of mouthpieces for its preferred viewpoint, Fox News showcasing the conservative brand and MSNBC doubling down on liberal megaphones. Inevitably, prominent members of Congress and party bigwigs are invited and accept invitations to appear on the electronic outlets widely recognized as favorable to their own political persuasions. Occasionally, an elected official of the opposite allegiance is thrown in, as a gesture of balance, fooling no one.
Into this mix a wary, relatively objective news reporter such as the Washington Post's Dan Balz, the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny or the National Journal's Ron Brownstein will be induced to join the Sunday morning talkfests, providing a dollop of nonpartisanship into the discussion. But card-carrying reporters often serve as spear-carriers in presentations that are shaped more as entertainment than serious news analysis. It gets harder and harder to tell who's the politician and who's the journalist without a scorecard.
All of this is far cry from the earlier days of radio and television when the old networks would gather their most seasoned correspondents from around the country and the world to sit down and discuss their own observations the state of the nation and the world. Political pitchmanship was at a minimum as these analysts spoke with no personal or partisan ax to grind.
But the days of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and other reporters have been replaced by Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow and other assorted ideologues preaching to their particular choirs. Having partisan political consultants of either side as unpaid guests is one thing. Hiring them hardly adds needed credibility to these favorite exercises of political junkies.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)