The Write Stuff
From Rick Stengel to David Axelrod, All of the President’s Journalists
Rick Stengel is only the latest member of the media to go to work at the Obama White House.
These days, journalists don’t retire, they just join the Obama administration.
As Capital New York reported on Thursday, Time managing editor Rick Stengel is leaving the venerable newsweekly to become under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. This is not the first foray into politics for Stengel, who has been the top editor at Time since 2006. He spent a year as a speechwriter on Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign in 1999–2000.
But it is the latest example in a growing trend of the White House reaching out to hire journalists. According to one count, at least 15 journalists have joined the Obama administration since 2009.
Here are six of the most notable journalists who have taken roles with the Obama administration, as well as one of their predecessors on the road from ink-stained wretch to White House flack.
White House press secretary Jay Carney spent nearly 20 years at Time, rising to Washington bureau chief before becoming Joe Biden’s spokesman in 2008. After two years with the vice president, Carney took over from Robert Gibbs at the podium in the Briefing Room on January 27, 2011, becoming the first person in decades to go from being a White House reporter to White House press secretary.
Linda Douglass was a career journalist who worked in television for CBS and ABC and then in print for the National Journal before joining the Obama campaign in May 2008. Her decision surprised many at the time and was cited by Ben Smith, then at Politico, as “a home run of a data point for anyone who thinks the press is in the tank for Obama.” Douglass later went on to be the top spokesperson for the administration in its effort to pass and promote the Affordable Care Act before returning to the National Journal in 2010.
Until this year, Glen Johnson was the dean of Massachusetts political reporters. He had spent nearly 20 years covering politics in the Bay State, alternating between the Associated Press and the Boston Globe. In January, Johnson joined the State Department as a senior adviser to John Kerry, with a focus on strategic communications. As he told the Globe at the time, “This is an unexpected opportunity. All I’ve ever wanted to do since junior high school—and have done professionally—is be a news reporter. But this chance to serve the country and Secretary Kerry at such a tumultuous time, as well as work in foreign affairs and travel the world, was too compelling an opportunity to pass up.”
It must be hard to walk the halls in Foggy Bottom these days without running into an ex-journalist. In addition to Johnson and Stengel, the State Department also now has former Washington Post national-security editor Douglas Frantz on staff. It’s Frantz’s second stint working for John Kerry, having spent two years as an investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the Democrat was its chairman. However, Frantz has spent most of his career as an investigative reporter for publications like The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
When Jay Carney left Joe Biden’s office, he didn’t leave the voluble vice president without any former journalists on staff. Shailagh Murray, a veteran congressional reporter for the Washington Post, quickly replaced Carney as Biden’s communications director. The hiring of Murray, who had previously been a politics reporter for The Wall Street Journal, came under scrutiny as she apparently continued covering politics while interviewing with Biden’s office, which theoretically could have been a conflict of interest. However, even with Biden, Murray has continued to stay in practice as a reporter, playing ABC’s Martha Raddatz when Biden prepped for the vice-presidential debate in 2012.
The godfather of ex-journalists in the White House orbit: David Axelrod. The political consultant who served as a senior adviser to Obama in between stints on both presidential campaigns, started in politics as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. While at the Tribune, Axelrod rose to city hall bureau chief, covering the rough-and-tumble politics of the Windy City. However, in 1984, Axelrod left journalism to work for Paul Simon’s campaign and never looked back, building a successful career as a Democratic political consultant before finally arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with Obama in 2009.
Yet hiring journalists isn’t an Obama innovation. Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, John Nicolay, had been editor of the Pike County Free Press in Pittsfield, Illinois. Even George W. Bush’s administration hired former journalists. Tony Snow, the third of Bush’s four White House press secretaries, was a longtime editorial writer, columnist, and talk-radio personality as well as the first host of Fox News Sunday before he joined the Bush administration in 2006. Snow, fighting cancer, left the White House in September 2007 and passed away in July 2008.