The Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk blog uses Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter’s comments on the Al Franken radio show to examine the role of journalists as pundits.

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly started the discussion when he expressed disappointment that Alter’s harsh view of the Bush administration (“They’re clowns”) is not reflected in his Newsweek columns.

Alter told the Campaign Desk that “If I just attacked Bush with a sledgehammer every week in Newsweek it would get pretty predictable, so I vary my pitches.”

The rest of the post talks about the conflict inherent in reporters also appearing on TV as pundits.

But I think there’s a larger issue: Knowing TV is ephemeral in a sense and a lot harder to retrieve for the average guy and that print is easily accessible, reporters go easier on politicians, especially the ruling class, for fear of loss of access. The Bush administration especially would revoke a reporter’s White House pass or tell their people not to talk to a certain reporter if they don’t like the coverage. That is especially true of TV reporters whose ability to get pictures of the president is in the control of the White House press barons.

TV news/talk shows are different: Outrageous opinion and bombastic performances are coveted. They make good TV. Reporting isn’t valued as much as analysis and entertainment. But newspapers and magazines must rely on facts and inside information to write pieces that cover much more ground than TV reports or talk shows.

That makes newspaper reporters write “he said, she said” pieces and go for balance instead of objectivity, which is the unbiased reporting of facts. That should include the debunking of purported facts as mouthed by lying politicians. I’ve mentioned The Washington Post’s Jim Vandehei as one reporter who occasionally does just that. But even columnists often tone down their opinions, figuring that people don’t want to hear, say, that their president clearly lacks the intellect to do the job.