Government as Reporters’ Parachute

During the handful of interactions I had with Connie Grosch at the State House, last session, she was friendly and very helpful. Moreover, she did her job taking photographs for the Providence Journal well.

So, I was sorry to see her name added to the list of personnel cuts that the paper has made in recent years, and I’m glad that she’s landed on her feet. But the way she’s done so worries me.

Grosch has taken a job (perhaps “has been offered and accepted a job” would be better put) as Congressman David Cicilline’s press secretary.  At Governor Lincoln Chafee’s State of the State address, her former media colleagues highlighted her attendance in that capacity.

In the past year, I’ve also had a few introductory lunches with folks in the Rhode Island media, and a number of them have declined my offer to pick up the bill for their sandwiches.  For some, it’s apparently company policy.  As a matter of risking the credibility of reportage, how a couple of slices of bread with meat between them compares with, say, Providence Journal reporters’ largely undisclosed membership in the RI AFL-CIO, I’m not sure.

How it compares with a politician’s saving a late-career journalist from unemployment, I’m a little more confident.  No doubt the message has been received loud and clear in the ranks of the Rhode Island press corps.  Having friendly relationships with powerful people — much of whose individual power derives from the ability to hand out jobs — can be a helpful hedge as technology threatens the financial health of journalists’ employers.

It is only human to survey the landscape with a different eye when one’s career path may eventually meander over it.

And it was with a different eye that I read a front-page, above-the-fold article in Monday’s Providence Journal titled, “Cicilline has aim to repair Congress.”  Paul Davis’s story is about Cicilline’s involvement with a bipartisan “Problem Solvers” group in Congress that claims an intention to break the gridlock in the national legislature.

The article mentions that Cicilline’s Republican challenger in the last election, Brendan Doherty “mocked” the Congressman’s prior attempts at a bipartisan social club.  (“Mocked,” by the way, is Cicilline’s word.)  But it doesn’t even hint at the extremely partisan rhetoric that Cicilline deployed over the course of the election.

If I’m recalling his statement correctly, during a radio debate on WPRO, Cicilline said in an ominous voice, “I’ve seen these Republicans up close.”  They’re scary and want to hurt people.  (I’m just shy of sure that I could accurately put quotation marks around the word, “scary.”)  The comment capped months of Cicilline’s warning of the “extreme Republican agenda.”

Yet, down the memory hole goes Cicilline, the far-left, partisan-demagogue candidate; on the front page goes Cicilline, the practical, reasonable, cross-the-aisle-reaching Congressman.

The critical role that news media plays in our civic system is to give voters, who are busy keeping the society and the economy going, an accurate view of how government is working, and how politicians are behaving.  If reporters are on the roundabout treadmill that one sees with government hires and lobbyists, the public should fear that what we’re reading, hearing, and seeing is less an accurate record and more a constructed narrative that won’t upset potential future employers.

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