It came as a surprise to this long-time reporter and columnist when my friend, Washington Post political columnist Dana Milbank, called on fellow columnists and commentators at various news outlets earlier this month to declare a moratorium on mentioning Sarah Palin in their writings or TV analyses during the month of February.
The jolt is not so much that he singled out Palin for shunning, but that as a journalist, he would want to shun anyone or any topic at all. Journalists are taught that we provide information without fear or favor.
As a wise professor, the late Wesley Clark, dean of the Newhouse School at Syracuse University told his journalism students many years ago:
“You are in the information business first. Give people good information and they will figure out what to do with it. And the more information you give them, the better.”
In that same vein, veteran newsman Bob Dubill, retired USA Today executive editor, always said, "If you've got information, don’t sit on it, get it out there."
But Milbank wants us to sit on it when it comes to Palin.
Holding back information is the antithesis of what journalism is all about. Declaring a blanket moratorium on mentioning a certain newsmaker falls under the definition of censorship.
In Dean Clark parlance, let the ideas -- all ideas -- compete freely and openly. The best ones will eventually win. But singling out someone for non-coverage because we don’t like them or don’t agree with their views violates that basic tenet, whether it is conservative Palin or some outspoken figures on the liberal left such as Michael Moore or Al Sharpton.
As far as I know, no one in the news business has called for a moratorium on mentioning Moore and Sharpton, nor should anyone. We are bound to report and comment on the news as we find it, not as we would like it.
Similarly, no one is calling for a moratorium on reporting on overexposed Hollywood celebs such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, even though much of what they do has little real news value. But some people are interested, so we give it to them. It’s part of an old news adage – find a balance between what people need and what people want.
News editors and columnists have what we call a gatekeeper function. We decide what is news and what is not; what to cover and what to ignore. But we should not be guided in those decisions by whom our own personal tastes. Nor should we summarily decide to shut someone out. We go wherever the news is.
“Palin clearly isn't going away,” Milbank wrote in his Post column. “But if we treat her a little less like a major political figure…… it won't matter.”
But Palin is “a major political figure.” She is a former governor of Alaska, that state’s first woman chief executive. She ran for vice president on the Republican ticket with John McCain in 2008. That ticket got 58.3 million votes. If that doesn’t qualify her as “a major political figure,” what does?
Something says this “moratorium” is little more than a stunt – a pledge any columnist or commentator who subscribes will find difficult to keep. For example, if Palin declared in February that she was running for president, or not running for president, would they still not mention her? Of course not - it would be news, and they could not ignore it.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism in The Fund For American Studies program at Georgetown University.