Socializing between reporters and the people they cover is part of the D.C. landscape. But when they actually tie the knot, are journalists in an ethical bind? We asked Fortune’s Washington Bureau Chief Nina Easton,
wife of John McCain’s media advisor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. It's spring in Washington, and that means two things – cherry blossoms and press banquets. Here's President Bush entertaining the Radio and Television Correspondents' Dinner. PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Press is a lot tougher the second term. It's reached the point I sometimes call on Helen Thomas just to hear a friendly voice. [LAUGHTER] BOB GARFIELD: Journalists laughed, the politicos laughed, elbow to elbow and unadversarial, at least for one night – or longer. In 2003, at a similar black-tie affair, The Boston Globe's deputy Washington bureau chief Nina Easton hit it off with Republic strategist Russell Schriefer. Now, Easton is Washington bureau chief for Fortune magazine and an analyst on Fox News, and Schriefer, a media advisor to the John McCain campaign, is her husband.
Their union was one of several highlighted in a Los Angeles Times piece last week about marriages between Washington journalists and campaign staffers. Marriage, of course, is potentially the ultimate conflict of interest, but Easton says romantic entanglements between the coverers and the covered are just a fact of life in Washington, D.C. NINA EASTON: Andrea Mitchell is married to Alan Greenspan. You've got, you know, top newscasters married to campaign people. You have also, particularly on the Democratic side, there's reporters who are very close friends with Democratic strategists, who vacation with them, who, you know, have dinner parties with them, whose spouses go on carpools together. But I think all of us in Washington who do this - we have our reputations to protect. BOB GARFIELD: So tell me how you and your editors at Fortune decided to proceed here. Clearly there is the possibility for at least the perception of conflict of interest. How are you dealing with it? NINA EASTON: You know, I write about politics and economics, and we decided that I would not cover anything related to McCain. My other venue is Fox News. Those tend to be more freewheeling panels, and so sometimes a subject that's directly McCain-related will come my way. And in that case, Brit Hume and I decided that when it does come up and it is appropriate, it would be best to disclose it. And I think disclosure's the great disinfectant. BOB GARFIELD: I want to pull back here a little bit. According to your wedding announcement in The New York Times, you and your husband met at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. And a lot of people, me included, believe me, have criticized that event for the coziness that, I think it's fair to say, it celebrates between political reporters and the people they cover in government.
What are your feelings – I mean, apart from the fact [LAUGHS] that you met your beloved there – what are your feelings about the event and just the larger issue of coziness? NINA EASTON: You know, it's interesting. I mean, I think a lot of navel-gazing media analysts like to worry about this coziness issue. I think the reporters who cover a lot of the sources who turn up at the White House Correspondents' Dinner are, you know, quite tough on them afterwards. And a lot of, let's say, Bush officials have been at that event, and I don't think the press has been particularly easy on the Bush White House. So, you know, I think you kind of overestimate what those kinds of events do.
What they do, do is enable people to see each other as human beings, which I think in this town doesn't always happen. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] I'm sorry. [LAUGHS] I was gazing at my navel. I lost the thread of what [LAUGHS] you were saying. Obviously, reporters – many of them – you know, are people, too [LAUGHS], and they have relationships and they fall in love and they get married, you know, just like other people do.
On the other hand, the public has shown again and again that its trust for journalists is diminishing over the years, and they're very suspicious of hidden agendas and so on. NINA EASTON: When you say suspicion about the media, you know, it's not just, you know, reporters are cozy with sources and everything. A lot of the suspicion comes from people who feel unfairly covered. A lot of people feel like the press is unfair.
And I would say it's actually a bonus for me to watch somebody in my house go through the experience of having a candidate covered and see where it's fair and where it's not fair. You start looking at coverage through the eyes of people who are being covered. And, if anything, I think a combination of that, you know, seeing what it's like to be covered day in and day out, A, and, B, a sense that I have to be extra careful – I have to bend over backwards to be fair – I think it continues to train me to be more fair and to be more careful about the people that I'm covering. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Nina, thank you so very much for joining us. NINA EASTON: You're welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Nina Easton is Washington bureau chief for Fortune magazine and an analyst for Fox News.