Clinton-Friendly Reporter Argues: Test of Fairness 'Is the Work Itself'

Former Washington Post reporter John Harris, now editor-in-chief of the political newspaper The Politico, engaged in an interesting blog debate yesterday with his Politico colleagues Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei about whether or not journalists lose their impartiality by voting. Harris insisted that having opinions or voting “does not compromise me as a journalist,” and that the key requirement is “self-discipline in the public expression of those opinions so as not to give sources and readers cause to question someone’s commitment to fairness.”

“As to whether I and other reporters and editors really are fair, the only test of that is the work itself,” Harris insisted.

Over the years, MRC has caught numerous instances in which Harris has seemingly tilted in ways pleasing to either Bill or Hillary Clinton. Back in February 1999, Harris suggested the Wall Street Journal was behaving as a partisan in reporting the on-the-record charges of a woman who said Bill Clinton raped her two decades earlier. “I think we need to be highly skeptical of the story,” Harris announced on PBS’s Washington Week in Review. The next day, Harris’s Washington Post joined the Journal in reporting Broaddrick’s story.

A couple of years later, Harris profiled Hillary Clinton for the Washington Post magazine. The theme of the piece was captured in its subtitle: “For Sen. Clinton, life is almost perfect. If only they weren’t still out to get her.” In case you wondered, “they” referred to the conservatives.

Then in 2005, Harris theorized that it was Republicans’ small-minded pursuit of the Lewinsky scandal that left the nation vulnerable on 9/11: “I think that’s the great tragedy of Bill Clinton’s record on terrorism, that he understood the threat of Islamic terrorism generally, Osama bin Laden specifically, and yet he was not able to infuse his own government or the country at large with that sense of urgency.”

Here’s how Harris defined a reporters’ burden to be objective in his Tuesday evening blog item:
I did not vote in either of Virginia’s primaries today, though I have been following both the Republican and Democratic contests closely and the Old Dominion’s open primary laws would have allowed me to vote in either primary with no obligation to register by party.

But my reasons had nothing to do with staying monkishly detached from the election or pretending to myself or others that I have no opinion about the candidates. I have plenty of opinions (though by temperament I tend to wear them pretty loosely).

The reason I did not vote is that if I did my name would be on public record showing which primary I voted in. I don’t need the hassle of giving people reasons to question or make assumptions about my views or the motives informing my work.

I will certainly be voting in the general election, as I have in every presidential race since 1984. I like politics, and I like the feeling of participation as a citizen that voting provides.

What’s more, coming to a conclusion about whom I support and expressing that in the voting booth does not compromise me as a journalist.

My belief is that being a journalist for an ideologically neutral publication like Politico, or the Washington Post, where I used to work, does not mean having no opinions. It means exercising self-discipline in the public expression of those opinions so as not to give sources and readers cause to question someone’s commitment to fairness.

As to whether I and other reporters and editors really are fair, the only test of that is the work itself....
Now, a few of the Notable Quotables that the MRC has collected from Harris over the years, complete with their original headlines:
This Story Stinks (Right, Boss?)

Moderator Ken Bode: "[Did] the White House say anything about this [accusations Bill Clinton raped Juanita Broaddrick] today?"
Washington Post reporter John Harris: "They said it comes — consider the source. It comes from a very partisan source, the Wall Street Journal editorial page. I think we have to say, in fairness, there have been lots of stories over many years about President Clinton and his personal background. This does not fit the pattern or seem to be consistent with that behavior in any way. So I think we need to be highly skeptical of the story."
-- Washington Post reporter John Harris, February 19, 1999 Washington Week in Review. The next morning the Post put its own story about Broaddrick on its front page.

Kind Sir, Why Are You So Hated?

"Two and a half years ago in your inaugural, you said you wanted to help the nation ‘repair the breach’ and this morning, you called again for greater cooperation in Washington. But it seems apparent that for many people you personally remain a polarizing and divisive figure in national politics. I was wondering if you’ve ever reflected on why, as Mrs. Clinton I think has sometimes noted, throughout your career you’ve always seemed to generate such antagonism in your opponents and do you assign any responsibility to yourself for what this morning you described as the rancorous mood in Washington today?"
-- Washington Post White House reporter John Harris to President Clinton at a June 25, 1999 press conference.

Ruining Hillary’s Magic Moment

"A supportive spouse, surprisingly accepting colleagues, and a mandate to legislate. For Sen. Clinton, life is almost perfect. If only they weren’t still out to get her."
– Subhead of Washington Post reporter John Harris’s profile, "The Liberation of Hillary," the cover story for the Post’s Sunday magazine, January 27, 2002. "They" referred to Clinton’s conservative critics.

Let’s Blame Ken Starr for 9/11

Host Bob Schieffer: “I have always wondered: Do you think that had it not been for Monica Lewinsky and the scandal that was swirling around Bill Clinton, that we as Americans would have recognized earlier what a threat that Osama bin Laden posed? Because every time that Clinton would take action, when he’d fire the missiles at what was supposed to be the terror training camp, people asked, ‘Is this wagging the dog? Is this something to divert us from talking about Monica Lewinsky?’”
Washington Post reporter John Harris: “I think that’s the great tragedy of Bill Clinton’s record on terrorism, that he understood the threat of Islamic terrorism generally, Osama bin Laden specifically, and yet he was not able to infuse his own government or the country at large with that sense of urgency.”
— Exchange on CBS’s Face the Nation June 12, 2005, where Harris was promoting his new biography of Bill Clinton.
Rich Noyes
Rich Noyes
Rich Noyes is the Senior Editor for Newsbusters