When former newsman Robbie Sherwood started a new career on Rep. Harry Mitchell’s staff last week, he was able to carry most of his business tools to the office suite in a single cardboard box.
Some political observers, though, bristled about what other baggage Sherwood brought to the job.
They saw a former newspaper reporter who wrote thousands of articles about political figures for the East Valley Tribune and The Arizona Republic taking a high-profile job in partisan politics. Specifically, a job with a Democrat.
Certain talk radio commentators, bloggers and political insiders proclaimed that Sherwood had finally revealed his true colors, and they wondered whether his purportedly objective news coverage had been similarly colored for all those years as well.
“The average news consumer should be very troubled by it,” political blogger Greg Patterson told the Tribune.
Sherwood said he is well aware of such commentary. In fact, he first started hearing it about two weeks earlier when his position as Mitchell’s new state director was announced in a news release written by Mitchell’s press spokesman Seth Scott, another former Arizona Republic reporter.
Sherwood is just the latest in a long list of local newspaper, radio and television reporters who have transitioned into local partisan politics. Some have moved straight from news to partisan politics.
Others, like Sherwood, have moved from news, to something different, and then to partisan politics.
A quick sampling:
• Arizona Democratic Party spokeswoman Emily Bittner.
• Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano’s spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer.
• Former state Democratic Party spokesman Bart Graves.
• Former Republican U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
• State House Republican caucus spokesman Barret Marson.
• Republican Arizona Corporation Commission member and former Napolitano spokeswoman Kris Mayes.
• Former Republican Gov. Jane Hull’s spokeswoman Francie Noyes.
• Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor’s press secretary Maura Saavedra.
• Former state Senate Republican senior policy adviser Mark Swenson.
• Democratic U.S. House candidate Mary Kim Titla.
• Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard’s communications director Steve Wilson.
There are plenty of others.
Sherwood said he never considered himself to be a partisan person when he covered the Legislature, and even now, as Mitchell’s stand-in when the congressman is in Washington, he still doesn’t consider himself to be a partisan person.
“This job was offered to me sort of as a surprise,” Sherwood said. “I considered it and thought, 'Yeah, I think I would like to do that.’ I have a great respect for Harry Mitchell. I thought he conducted himself in a terrific way as a lawmaker and as a mayor and in his first year in Congress.”
Sherwood noted that after he left the Arizona Republic, he worked for nearly a year with Rose & Allyn, a Scottsdale-based public relations firm, whose clients include presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, both Republicans.
“I defend my journalism record. It stands on its own,” Sherwood said. “I don’t think I took any partisan shots at anybody. I didn’t get a lot of complaints about any sort of overt bias or partisanship when I reported, Greg Patterson, maybe, notwithstanding,” Sherwood said.
Patterson, author of the Republican-leaning blog Espresso Pundit, said he’s troubled by the migration of news reporters and, in particular, political reporters into the political realm.
Reporters’ transitions, whether into jobs with Democrats or Republicans, reveal they had leanings and biases all along, he said. Furthermore, reporters who are planning switches could use their current news jobs to groom themselves for potential new political jobs.
“To avoid that perception, I would simply say you have to take a year off. I don’t know if you could do that, enforce that or not,” said Patterson, a former state representative.
“You would say, 'Look, if you work for the Republic and you covered politics, you better wait at least a year before you actually work in politics.’ And potentially, you should be barred from working for somebody who you at one point covered,” Patterson said.
And to Patterson’s count, most reporters slide into the blue-hued Democratic side of the political spectrum.
Sherwood said he believes he only covered the 2006 Mitchell-Hayworth race twice — first when Mitchell announced he was running and Sherwood was the only reporter available that day to cover the story; and second, after the race ended when Republicans speculated that ousted Rep. Hayworth would find a new career in radio.
Hayworth, who has discussed the topic on his new radio program on KFYI (550 AM), did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Marson, a former Tribune and Arizona Daily Star political reporter who now serves as the spokesman for the state House Republicans, said he understands the appeal and intrigue of speculating about media bias. He just doesn’t believe it.
“Reporters are living human beings and have opinions, but for the most part, the reporters I’ve known or worked with kept their opinions out of stories,” he said.
“And I don’t know that you ever could have looked at my body of work and said, 'He’s a liberal,’ or 'He’s a conservative.’ For some of the others who have moved on, I don’t know if you could say it either,” said Marson, who writes the political blog Capitol Ideas.
Arizona State University journalism professor John Craft said political figures hire reporters because of their media expertise, not their political views.
“The whole political world now revolves around the media. You can’t be a politician if you don’t have good media skills,” he said.
Politicians without good media skills hire people who do have them. “Those persons who have been in the media can bring their knowledge of how to — I hate to use the word 'manipulate’ — but how to use the media effectively,” he said.
Former reporters know which types of stories are likely to get ink or air time. They know how to deal with media deadlines. They know how to reach media contacts.
“It’s only natural that reporters are sought out by politicians to make their message more effective,” Craft said.
Conversely, most reporters are idealists at heart, or at least they started out that way, so moving on to partisan politics makes sense.
“How long can you be a reporter?” Craft asked. “Some do go on for many, many years. Others don’t. You become burned out. Maybe this has more relevance to a TV news reporter — you can only cover so many flashing red and blue lights before you begin to think, 'There must be more to the world.’”