SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference • Sept. 12-13, 2020



Journalists go from writing about policy to trying to implement change

By Billy O'Keefe

ARELIS HERNANDEZ / The Working Press
There is one item Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin may wish to delete from her resume: television sportscaster.
In her Wednesday night speech, the Alaska governor played to her conservative base, lashing back against the same news organizations where she was once employed.
“I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment,” Palin said. “And I’ve learned quickly these past few days that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.”
Palin, like the late Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and former vice-president Al Gore, is a member of an exclusive group of public mutants — journalists
turned politicians.
At all levels of government, journalists leave the Fourth Estate to transfer their membership to the third, leaving behind deadlines to make headlines.
Palin follows the same journey Al Gore traversed more than a decade ago when he first walked into the West Wing. Gore, a former military journalist in Vietnam and investigative reporter for the Tennessean, decided creating policy is more fulfilling than writing about it.
In Bradenton, Fla., Wayne Poston, a former executive editor of the Bradenton Herald, left his job for a successful run for mayor. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is also a
former journalist.
Politics is a natural progression for some journalists, who have gone on to seek elected office, said former Georgia senator and one-time television reporter Steen Miles.
Miles said the stories she covered — domestic violence, senior abuse and teen pregnancy — convinced her that a life in public service could help change the wrong she witnessed.
One story in particular shook Miles during her 30-year stint in television.
“Two twin babies were left in a crack house by their crack-addicted mother and they were so hungry they ate feces from their diapers,” Miles said.
Miles, who has been active in parent-teacher associations and the Salvation Army, said her experiences in the media made her feel like she could make
a difference.
As a general assignment reporter in Illinois, Miles was part of a team that won awards for an investigative piece about local diary farmer selling stale milk to grocery stores.
“Shortly after, the Illinois legislature passed regulation for freshness dates on milk,” Miles said, who first ran for DeKalb County, Ga., chief executive officer in 2000 and lost.
“In one you are telling stories that will hopefully make an impact,” Miles said. “As a public servant you are making policy that will make an impact.”
Becoming an agent for change also spurred television reporter Dale Cardwell toward a career change. Working at the ABC affiliate in Atlanta, Cardwell spent his time trying to help Georgians save money and expose political corruption. But it wasn’t enough.
“As an investigative reporter who was motivated by changing things for the better, I thought my craft was becoming an infotainer” Cardwell said.
In February 2007, Cardwell started consulting political experts to measure his chances of winning a U.S. Senate seat. Like others before him, advisers told him an outsider could win the public’s confidence.
“The model was very much like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura or even Paul Simon, who was an editor, “ Cardwell said. “People realize that politics as usual is not going to work. An outsider with good credibility who is viewed as a reformer can
win.”
Cardwell lost his bid for the U.S. Senate from Georgia, but he hasn’t lost his faith that journalists can make good
politicians.
Three characteristics, he said, qualify reporters for the job: they can explain complicated issues in layman’s terms; they can objectively assess both sides of a story, and finally — “most journalists have a track record of integrity.
“A trait,” he said, “(that’s) particularly useful on Capitol Hill.”




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