In Alaska, Journalist and Political Flack Often Interchangeable

Late last week the Alaska State Senate Majority hired Michaela Goertzen as their new Communications Director, just in time for the special session. Ms. Goertzen comes to the legislature after a tenure at the Alaska Dispatch News where she served as a marketing manager, however in a recent interview she said her duties were partially marketing and partially writing for  special sections and sponsored content. Goertzen said she had worked briefly for KTUU, been a stringer for The Anchorage Press, and did some speechwriting for former Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell.  She liked the work she was doing at the ADN “I enjoyed working in the newsroom.” So why leave?  She said it’s because she wanted to be where the actions was. She wanted to “Be in the center of the news cycle.”     

Goertzen’s hiring by all accounts is a quality addition to the Majority’s staff. It does, however highlight an interesting and accelerating trend in Alaska. Politicians are putting more and more former news and media reporters–those charged with covering them with journalistic integrity–on their own payroll. Republicans, who love to rail about liberal-bias in the media, are the ones most aggressively hiring those who are supposedly ideologically opposed to them. Interestingly, they don’t seem to be having any trouble finding members of the media willing to work for the GOP.  

A little jogging of the memory and some quick google work produces this a quick roll call of those who had been charged with reporting the news who were subsequently employed by Republicans, just in the last 5 years:Republcian Employed Journalists

That is quite a list. In fact, one could hardly blame KTVA if they sent Senator Lisa Murkowski a bill for training most of her communications staff.  

To be fair, Democrats aren’t immune from hiring reporters, they’ve just done it less often recently. That may be because until recently Republicans held the Governor’s office, Anchorage Mayor’s office, majorities in both state legislative bodies, and two-thirds of Alaska’s congressional delegation. That means in the last five-years there were fewer communications jobs for Democrats to dole out. None-the-less, here is the same list for Democrats:Democrat Employed Journalists

Then there is the Governor, who is an Independant, but was a Republican, but got elected primarily by Democrats, so put him in whatever column you’d like. He chose former KTUU and KTVA anchor/reporter Grace Jang as his Communication Director.

Journalists have crossed the line into politics since, well forever. Here in Alaska we could go back a little further and see former KTUU anchor Jason Moore working for Fran Ulmer’s gubernatorial campaign or ADN columnist Mike Doogan serving as Press Secretary for legislative Democrats. Former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, Democratic Party Executive Director Kay Brown, Rep. Dan Saddler, and former Begich Chief-of-Staff David Ramseur also cut their teeth as reporters eons ago. As the list above shows, it’s no longer an anomaly when it happens, it has become the norm.

From Flack To Reporter
Several sources I spoke with had gone from political flack to reporter, including Goertzen, Treadwell, and Craig Medred and highlighted the merits of such a move. They all said working inside politics provides a journalist with unique insights and a nose for the story those who have never worked in that world likely wouldn’t have. Treadwell told me about how as a young Anchorage Times reporter he worked on an award winning story uncovering political corruption but said “If I hadn’t worked on a political campaign, I never would have paid attention to that stuff.”

So politicos moving from politics to journalism would seem to have merits to the public. That move is seen far less often, however, than journalists becoming political operatives.

From Reporter To Flack
One reason reporters move so readily from their chosen journalism profession to political work is simple home economics. Working as a communications director or press secretary for a politician pays quite well. Michaela Goertzen, the State Senate Majority’s new Communications Director reportedly will make $88,000, her predecessor Carolyn Kuckertz made $93,000, Governor Parnell’s Press Secretary Sharon Leighow made $124,000 and Jang makes $130,000, There is no public data available for what any of these folks made working the media, but there is no way they made anywhere near those salaries.

Many people will look at those salaries with knee-jerk negativity. That would be wrong. These are stressful, 24-hour a day jobs and the professionals who come to them from the media have paid their dues and built their skills while enduring years with little pay. The issue is that newspapers, tv, and radio stations pay so little it creates a massive disparity that drives journalists into these jobs.  

Reporters in Alaska face three options:

  1. Continue a career in journalism with little pay
  2. Take a communications job with one of the political or corporate institutions they cover
  3. Move out of state

This dynamic and the sheer volume of reporters now being hired by politicians begs the questions “Can Alaska reporters unflinchingly report on the very politicians and institutions they know they will be asking for a job in the not too distant future?” and “Is it good for democracy to have those who the public counts on for information to be dependent on those they cover?”

State law currently recognizes several similar potential relationships are bad for a well-functioning democracy:  

First, the State of Alaska bars state workers from immediately lobbying after leaving state service because doing so would create the possibility or perception that a state employee was doing the bidding of their new lobbying clients while still on the state’s payroll. For that reason state employees have to wait 1 year after they leave public service before they can lobby.

Second, a similar impropriety or perception could be created if a state legislator is allowed to be hired by the executive branch immediately after leaving office. That legislator’s constituents could easily be left to wonder if it was their interests or the interest of the Governor who was being represented.  As a result, legislators are barred from accepting executive branch work for jobs created while they were in office for the same 1 year period after they leave office.

Doesn’t the relationship between the media and elected officials create exactly the same impropriety or perception if a reporter covering an official or candidate goes to work for that official at a substantial salary increase?

Take for instance the case of the Murkowski-Miller race in 2010. KTVA was caught on tape engaging in inappropriate planning of a story against conservative Joe Miller that cost two producers their jobs. One of those producers, Carolyn Kuckertz was then offered a highly paid job working for the moderate Bipartisan Senate Majority and newly victorious Murkowski hired KTVA reporters Matt Felling and Andrea Gusty.  

Then, there is the case of former ADN reporter and blogger Amanda Coyne. In the US Senate race that featured a primary between Mead Treadwell, Joe Miller, and Dan Sullivan, and general election between Dan Sullivan and Mark Begich the Treadwell and Begich camps both complained that Coyne’s reporting seemed slanted towards Sullivan. Immediately after being elected one of Sullivan’s first acts was to hire Coyne to his communications staff.

There is no evidence in either case that an explicit job offer or the hope of an offer caused any of the reporters or producers to slant their coverage, but both cases, fairly or unfairly, are marinated in that perception.

Food For Thought
If the tight relationships between legislators and the executive, and state workers turned lobbyists can create impropriety, or at least the perception to the point they should be barred, shouldn’t journalists face the same prohibition in order to preserve the integrity of our elections and the news we receive?

I know this is an idea that will wrangle many and cause journalists to crawl into their favorite sanctuary, the First Amendment, but how about a law that says an employee of an FCC licensed station or any news outlet credentialed by the state legislature or governor’s office is ineligible to be hired into a politically appointed position for 1 year after they leave that employment. If it works for lobbyists, state employees, and legislators, why not for those we depend on for our news?

Postscript
To be clear, no one is being accused of individual impropriety. Neither the State Senate Majority nor the Governor, nor any of the folks they hired appear to have done anything unethical and haven’t violated any laws, rules, or regulations. This piece is simply intended to shed light on a trend in news and politics and explore its implications.

4 Comments on "In Alaska, Journalist and Political Flack Often Interchangeable"

  1. You forgot Bill McAllister. He was one of the first.

    • Casey Reynolds | November 20, 2015 at 2:45 pm | Reply

      ya, there were several left out. Like I said in the article it was a quick scan the memory and quick google search to come up with a representative list. It is by no means exhaustive.

  2. To be fair, ten years elapsed between my tenure at KTUU and going to work for Mayor Dan. But the journalist-turned-PR trend is real and likely will remain so for the reasons you state.

  3. Harriet Anagnostis Drummond | November 18, 2015 at 8:13 pm | Reply

    Who wrote this piece? Certainly not anyone that knows how to proofread their own stuff. Or even re-read it at a later time and then correct the errors.

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