I've been following the "political journalism vs. political science" debate in the blogosphere, though I did not go to APSA. I have to say that I find the debate a bit confused and also not well attuned to comparative politics (was there a comparativist there?). In particular, "being relevant to journalists" and "being relevant to policy makers" are often conflated, but they are very different. So Robert Farley writes:
The question of subfield prominence also bears more attention. By and large, IR and comparative haven’t had the same impact on the journalist community in either their quantitative or qualitative forms. I think that several major concepts/grand theories from both comparative and IR have found their way into the general policy conversation (deterrence theory, for example) but it’s more difficult to find uses of clear, sound political science research.
Matthew Yglesias accepts this at face value without even questioning it, and barely even mentions comparative politics. But it is exaggerated. I am not even that high up on the academic food chain, but I get calls from reporters, both from small and large outlets, who are interested in figuring out ideological swings in Latin America, Chilean politics, dynamics of immigration, etc. That is not the same as having reporters discuss specific hypotheses from comparative politics, but anytime a professor talks to a reporter, he or she is using their own research and reading to inform the discussion.
At the same time, I do agree with Kindred Winecoff that reporters really should read major academic works on the topics they're investigating. But I am not entirely upset if they take the effort to call people in academia who know what they're talking about.
I would also add that getting into the "general policy conversation" is separate from journalism. Arturo Valenzuela, who is the Obama administration's key policy maker for Latin America, and was also in that position for Bill Clinton, is a widely known and influential comparativist (though, interestingly, he co-wrote a very good book about Chile with a reporter for a non-specialist audience, and obviously was not punished for it). Frank Mora, who holds a high-level position on Latin America at the Defense Department, is also a comparative/IR scholar. My colleague up the road at Davidson College, Russell Crandall, is also working for the Obama administration on Latin America. They are intensely involved in the policy discussion, and bring an academic background to policy making.
As for writing to a non-specialist audience being punished in academia, I think you cannot generalize so much. Some departments do so, but my feeling is that they are the minority. A more precise argument would be that you are punished if you write only for a non-specialist audience without doing more rigorous academic work at the same time. Yet even more precise is that the "punishment" is mostly relevant for junior professors without tenure, because that could mean losing their job.
This debate often gets whiny, but it is a good one to have. It is useful to think about what impact we have, or want to have, beyond academia.