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One of the highest compliments people will muster when you are an opinion journalist is telling you to run for office. Many of my conversations about politics and my work — usually with friends and family who feel an obligation to vote but don’t like their options — have concluded with some variation of: “Well, I’d vote for you.”
New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof’s friends apparently pay him the same compliment, and he’s decided to take them up on the offer. The Oregon native is exploring a run for governor in his home state, telling a local paper he has “friends trying to convince me that here in Oregon, we need new leadership from outside the broken political system.” Perhaps that new leadership will be Kristof himself, who is now on leave from the Times to determine whether he’ll proceed with the campaign.
If I had Kristof’s ear, I’d advise him not to do it — but also that the damage may already be done.
My advice isn’t so much about his political chances, though my instinct is to say they’re not great. I don’t know much about Oregon politics, but it sounds like this will be a crowded race. Beyond the details of this campaign, though, the tricky thing for opinion journalists running in the internet era is that, frankly, we have too many opinions, and we have aired them in detail and at length on easily accessible parts of the internet. Winning involves not actively repulsing a majority of voters. The more opinions you’ve shared, the more likely it is you’ve said something somewhere, sometime to repulse just about everyone.
Yet beyond that strategic consideration are the ethics of the thing. Seeking political office is fundamentally different from journalism, and this is true whether you win or lose. Once you’ve pointed to a public office and said, “I want that,” your relation to the office has changed. Your relationship to power has changed. If you try to return to journalism after that shift, there are open questions that may never entirely fade: Is he just saying that because he wants to run again? Is this journalism or campaigning? Is he writing this criticism because it helps an ally or because it needs to be said?
I don’t mean to suggest the Fourth Estate is a consistently valiant skeptic of the government — that I’m blindly faithful to my industry’s self-mythology. We fail often enough. But a free press, one not under sway of state control or politicians’ aspirations, is the modern ideal for good reason.
A 2018 study in Italy found journalist-candidates produced a populist backlash, as citizens were “attached to the idea that journalists should strive to remain independent from politicians rather than aim to become politicians themselves.” They were basically right to be thus attached. There’s room for debate about how buddy-buddy members of press and state can be before the ethics get weird, but running for office strikes me as a line that grows ever brighter in proportion to the power of the desired office. Journalists can try campaigning if they like, but they can’t go back to journalism afterwards in quite the same way.
Comparing journalists in politics to two other professions might shed a bit more light here. One useful comparison is pastors (and maybe other faith leaders, but I’ll limit myself to the faith I know). Just as there’s an inherent delineation between the roles of press and state, so there is one between church and state, not least that the church is commanded to love her enemies while the state wields the sword. Even for Christians who want a lot less distance between the two institutions than I do, it remains the case that a pastor’s duty to her congregation differs from a politician’s duty to her constituents and political allies. These roles don’t lend themselves to combination, particularly in a bitterly partisan time like ours, and the pastoral duties will tend to suffer if the two are mashed together.
By contrast, I see no counterindication in an entertainer running for political office — not for the entertainment side of things, that is. That includes political entertainers like the much-rumored-but-still-denying-it 2024 presidential contender, Fox News host Tucker Carlson. He could run into the same strategic obstacle of having too many public opinions, but candidate Carlson wouldn’t have a journalist’s ethical dilemmas. After all, as his network’s lawyers infamously argued while defending Carlson in a defamation suit, the “general tenor” of his show is such that viewers should realize their host is engaging in “exaggeration” and “non-literal commentary” rather than “stating actual facts.” In other words, it’s primarily entertainment. Making politics an entertainment venue is awful for politics, but the professional conflict of interests for the entertainer aren’t the same as for the journalist.
As for me, the compliments from friends are very kind, but I don’t think I’d ever follow Kristof into a run for office. If I did, it would be at most a municipal race, and if my ambitions ever wander higher, I welcome oppo researchers to dig up this very piece. Put on your best growly voice and record a commercial: “Bonnie Kristian said she’d never run for office. Now she’s doing exactly that. If she’s lying here, where else is she lying to you?” I’d like to stay a journalist, so go ahead and shut down my whole campaign.