The news that Sarah Palin will be joining Fox News Channel as a contributor is the latest indication that the line between news analysis and outright politicking is under attack.
To be sure, Palin is hardly the first politician to pose as a newsman: Mike Huckabee has his own (terrible) weekly program on Fox News, and Newt Gingrich and Harold Ford, Jr. are contributors on Fox News and MSNBC, respectively. Meanwhile, the networks are chock-full of media personalities with known political ambitions: MSNBC host Chris Matthews recently considered running for Senate from Pennsylvania; former CNN host Lou Dobbs is considering a presidential run; and MSNBC's Ed Schultz is contemplating a Senate run from North Dakota. Throw in regular columns by Rick Santorum in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Eliot Spitzer in Slate, and the distinction between the soapbox and news desk becomes even fuzzier.
This trend should be deeply worrisome to anyone who believes in the importance of a free press to a functioning democracy. After all, the press' key democratic function is to serve as a check on our leaders: to ask them hard questions, expose their scandals, and keep the public informed on their successes and failures. The media's ability to perform these tasks becomes seriously constrained when actual or prospective politicians join its ranks. Indeed, it becomes impossible to know whether a story is being run on The Ed Show because it is newsworthy, or because it is useful to Ed Schultz's political prospects. Similarly, it will be hard to know whether Sarah Palin's Fox News commentary represents her actual political insights, or whether she has tempered those insights so as to undermine potential challengers or curry favor with supporters.
Still, the worst consequence of this marriage between news production and politicking could occur off-camera: it would seem that networks are less likely to report critically on the politicians that they hire. In turn, it becomes fair to question the integrity of Fox News' coverage of the forthcoming presidential elections, since at least three potential Republican nominees are now on its payroll.