Widespread outrage erupted in late June over CNN’s hiring of Corey Lewandowski, just four days after he was fired as Donald Trump’s chief of staff. Lewandowski is a controversial figure, and not merely because he was heading up a campaign fueled by bigotry and fear. In March he was charged with simple battery for making physical contact with a reporter (though these charges were later dropped). Moreover, his utility as a CNN contributor is clearly limited — if not worthless — since he is reported to have signed a non-disclosure agreement that bars him from saying anything disparaging about Trump or discussing anything he did during the campaign.
CNN staffers were said to be enraged — but within a week, CNN’s newest contributor was on television using his soapbox to explain away another one of Trump’s very public and obvious appeals to bigotry. That CNN felt it needed to hire an election commentator who can’t say anything critical about Trump may seem strange, but it corresponds with CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker’s stated desire to push CNN to the right. Even Fox News has taken the moral “high ground” in this situation: It has blasted CNN and the decision at least twice.
But hiring Lewandowski is not an anomaly — it is business as usual for CNN and other cable news networks. When covering elections, CNN and its competitors rely largely on former political hacks as paid contributors. They also commonly employ active lobbyists with inherent conflicts of interest that are rarely disclosed.
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What we are dealing with is a Revolving Door of Political Hackery between campaigns, the media and lobbyists. As we enter the final stretch of the 2016 election season, this revolving door has been spinning rapidly, especially with GOP staffers heading to CNN. This reliance on beltway insiders and industry surrogates is among the many reasons why campaign coverage is so often woefully lacking in substance.
The Revolving Door of Political Hackery does a disservice to the public as it further compromises the dominant media, which is already failing the public with its numerous institutional biases. This method of staffing a news organization during the presidential election contributes to a near-constant focus on horse-race politics, rarely offering any discussion of how policies impact human beings (let alone the environment). It allows paid contributors to shill for their friends and former bosses, or worse, it lets active lobbyists do the same for their current employers, usually without disclosure.
Further, it adds to the media’s already jarring lack of diversity by limiting the discussion to those in the DC bubble, while organizers, activists and even academics are left out. In this sense, the Lewandowski hiring is entirely predictable.
The Lewandoski Backlash
Lewandowski’s hiring was understandably troublesome to many. In addition to his battery charge — for which Trump defended him vigorously — he was the political leader of the most openly bigoted campaign America has seen in half a century. He was a “fierce defender of Mr. Trump’s idiosyncratic approach to the presidential race,” wrote the New York Times, “at a time when many in the party have pressed Mr. Trump to soften his message and build a more conventional political operation.”
What news value does CNN derive from hiring an angry Trump staffer who is contractually unable to criticize the candidate, nor speak about his time working for him? Effectively, he will just be a pro-Trump mouthpiece, as he was when he worked for Trump, but now he will be getting paid by CNN to do it (while also getting severance checks from Trump). “I have never heard of a bigger conflict of interest in media history!” Cenk Uygur said on the Young Turks.
For all the antipathy toward Lewandoski from the left, the controversial figure was also disliked by those on the other side of the ideological spectrum. “Mr. Trump had faced increasing concerns from allies and donors, as well as his children, over whether Mr. Lewandowski, who had never before worked on a national race, was able to direct a battle against Mrs. Clinton,” the Times reported on June 20. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, was among these critics and told the presumptive nominee that “relations between his committee and Mr. Lewandowski had become increasingly strained, and that a change would be welcome.”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Lewandowski’s firing was supported by the DC establishment and his subsequent hiring by CNN drew so much negative attention. A USA Today article called the hire “horrendous,” while Slate described him as a “pundit/goon.” And, as noted above, two Fox News anchors attacked the hiring. Howard Kurtz called the hiring “sad,” and Megyn Kelly noted that he was “the same guy who has threatened more than one journalist” and said “very ugly things” about women. It is rare that the Young Turks and Fox News anchors find themselves in agreement, but CNN made it possible in this case.
Seeking Fired GOP Hacks and Militant Trump Apologists
While the hiring of Lewandoski is shameful, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. As CNN seeks to move right, it has been snatching up recently fired GOP campaign staffers and other single-minded enthusiasts for particular right-wing candidates at a dizzying pace.
Consider the case of Amanda Carpenter, who left her job as Ted Cruz’s communications director in July 2015. About two months later she would be hired as a paid contributor by CNN. Her job, for all practical purposes, was to advocate for Ted Cruz during the duration of his time in the campaign. Sure enough, at every turn Carpenter was there to talk up Cruz and deflect criticism toward him after every debate.
Carpenter’s unceasing advocacy for Cruz has since been outmatched. On July 6, just a couple of weeks after the Lewandowski controversy, CNN invited Scottie Nell Hughes to join the fray. Hughes’s public efforts to defend Trump — no matter how indefensible his behavior — were so cartoonish she became the subject of mockery in a Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit. While she never officially worked on the Trump campaign staff, she might as well have. She was a one-trick pony as a frequent guest on cable, defending Trump in virtually every appearance and even telling Wolf Blitzer that riots at the Republican National Convention “aren’t necessarily a bad thing.”
Months after the SNL skit had cemented Hughes’ reputation as a sheepish Trump apologist, she continued to live up to the reputation. On July 3, she appeared on CNN as a guest defending Trump’s use of an anti-Semitic symbol on Twitter. Her efforts were so lacking in sense that the exasperated anchor who interviewed Hughes, Brianna Keilar, could not manage to hide her contempt.
The interview, described by the Washington Post’s Eric Wemple as “painful to behold,” was mocked endlessly. So how did CNN handle the aftermath of these embarrassing interviews? They hired her a day later. “CNN’s management is determined to torture its anchors,” quipped Wemple. That Hughes announced her hire in a (since-deleted) tweet saying, “YUGE anncm 4 me today,” only adds to the mystery of this personnel decision.
CNN’s Attempts to Trump Fox News
Why is CNN going so hard after conservative campaign staff, and especially militant Trump supporters? It is not as though there were a shortage of such contributors. Before the most recent additions, CNN already employed vocal Trump supporters, such as contributors Kayleigh McEnany and Jeffrey Lord.
McEnany has been praising the candidate on the air and in writing at CNN.com. Lord, who recently published a book advocating for a Trump presidency, is even more extreme in his defenses of the candidate. One of his colleagues told the Post that his job was “to carry Donald Trump’s decidedly fetid water every day.” Lord’s controversial defense of Trump’s refusal to distance himself from David Duke and the KKK drew plenty of controversy and was covered by the New York Times. Lord, according to the Daily Beast, has publicly said that Trump had requested CNN to rely more on him for election coverage.
Nonetheless, CNN continues to hire more Trump supporters. But if you consider Zucker’s public comments about his goals at the network, things become clearer. In early May, Zucker told the Wall Street Journal that it “was a legitimate criticism of CNN that it was a little too liberal,” and that the network has added “many more middle-of-the-road conservative voices.”
Whether Zucker actually believes that CNN has a leftist bias — a dubious claim, to be sure — there is a clear financial incentive for him to move right. “CNN craves Fox News’ Conservative Viewers,” observed the Post. Indeed, while studies have repeatedly shown Fox News viewers to be far less informed than the rest of the country, there is no doubting its aging viewership watches the channel in droves. For years, Fox News has tended to dominate the ratings battle vs. CNN and MSNBC. And data from a Pew Research Center study in 2014 showed conservatives were “somewhat underrepresented” within CNN’s audience.
This helps explain the hires of Lewandowski, Hughes, Carpenter and many other conservative pundits. CNN’s concerted attempt at an ideological shift has been noticeable in the debates it has hosted. As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) observed, CNN has invited movement conservative Hugh Hewitt to debates to question Republicans from the right. It was an interesting approach. Yet, when the Democratic debate was scheduled, the presence of an “unabashed progressive advocate” was “glaringly missing.”
It is also fascinating that as CNN moves right in an effort to grab Fox viewers, it is relying on an excessive number of pro-Trump voices. This could be a shrewd play for Fox News viewers. Fox News is indeed a conservative network, but it has faced a lot of conflict with the GOP nominee, most notably due to his disgusting remarks about anchor Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle and his decision to skip out on a Fox News debate. Given how loyal Fox News’ audience has been over the years, CNN’s attempt to appeal to conservative Trump fans is a clever way to differentiate itself from its rival network. “I will say CNN treats me better than Fox News,” said Trump in a Fox News interview.
CNN did not respond by press time to Truthout’s request for comment.
MSNBC’s Own Revolving Door
While CNN has been subjected to a great deal of criticism for hiring Lewandowski, it is not often mentioned that MSNBC also strongly considered hiring the Trump staffer. The network even met with him after he left the Trump campaign. So, CNN’s egregious hiring practices notwithstanding, other networks should not be left off the hook. Obviously, Fox News has a long history of being a GOP mouthpiece, but MSNBC is not immune to the revolving door phenomenon, either.
For instance, while CNN waited about three days to hire Trump’s fired chief of staff, MSNBC worked with similar haste to hire a Ted Cruz staffer who lost his job. Four days after Cruz asked for the resignation of his national spokesman Rick Tyler, MSNBC hired him. Tyler had been let go for allegedly promoting a false rumor about Marco Rubio, causing a controversy. This didn’t stop MSNBC from rushing to employ him. Tyler proceeded to spend his airtime criticizing Trump and suggesting Rubio drop out of the race.
Tyler is not MSNBC’s first hire to come through the revolving door of political hackery, and he won’t be the last. Karen Finney is a good example. Finney served as Hillary Clinton’s press secretary when she was First Lady and worked in various other roles in Washington politics in between. After all those years as a partisan Democratic Party staffer and a Clinton loyalist, she became a long-time MSNBC contributor and eventually even got her own (short-lived) show. During her five-year tenure at MSNBC she regularly defended Clinton, whom she had worked for before, and would soon work for again. (She is now a key figure in the 2016 Clinton campaign.) Could Finney possibly have served as an objective voice when Clinton’s name came up in the news?
As of this writing the home page for Finney’s old show, Disrupt, features excerpts from a Clinton book and features a video of Finney defending Clinton against GOP attacks. Surely, Finney was often right to critique some of the most dubious GOP attacks on Clinton, but it can hardly be surprising that conservatives took notice of her conflict of interest. Conservative groups are quick to point out that at least 30 people have gone from the Obama administration to MSNBC or vice versa — that tendency should trouble anyone who cares about journalism, whether the revolving door at hand is propelling conservatives into CNN, or Democrats into MSNBC.
Since her days at MSNBC, Finney has gone from attacking Republicans as a talk-show host to disparaging the Sanders campaign as a Clinton staffer. Imagine, if in a year, she returns to MSNBC. How could any progressive trust her ability to objectively cover Clinton (whether she is president or not) or Sen. Sanders?
Lessons Learned and Lost: The Lobbying-Media Complex Persists
Howard Dean is another Clinton supporter who has been frequently featured on MSNBC in the last year or so. When he goes on the air he has always been introduced as a “Clinton supporter,” a proper disclosure from MSNBC. The problem is that Dean is also currently a paid health care lobbyist for the law firm Dentons, a fact that is rarely disclosed. This fact was, significantly, not acknowledged when Dean went on the air to attack single-payer health care — a policy he supported just a few years earlier — on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
MSNBC is no stranger to such practices. In 2009, former Newsweek reporter Richard Wolffe was a frequent contributor and guest host on MSNBC and gave his opinion on a wide variety of issues. The problem: he was concurrently working for the lobbying group Public Strategies, which has worked with Lockheed Martin and the US Chamber of Commerce. Gallingly, Public Strategies even touted Wolffe’s access to MSNBC in his bio on its website. MSNBC did not disclose this conflict of interest until it was critiqued by several journalists and activists. Among these journalists was Glenn Greenwald who said MSNBC was effectively “turning over an hour every night to a corporate lobbyist” and portraying “paid corporate hacks” as objective commentators.
Eventually, MSNBC admitted its error and while it didn’t stop using Wolffe as a contributor, it did begin disclosing his job at Public Strategies. In 2012, he was hired full-time as an editor for MSNBC.com, although his Twitter account indicates he has since moved on. Meanwhile, Howard Dean and MSNBC are still effectively engaging in the same appalling dance, as if the Wolffe incident had never occurred. Of course, Dean and MSNBC are not alone in this practice. As FAIR documented in 2013, the problem is still widespread, across networks and political parties. NBC’s Mike Murphy, CNN’s Stephanie Cutter, David Axelrod (currently at CNN, formerly of MSNBC) and Robert Gibbs (who was at MSNBC until 2015, when he left for a job with McDonalds) are just a handful of names FAIR reported as having recently worked as lobbyists while also appearing (without disclosure) as media commentators.
MSNBC did not respond by press time to Truthout’s request for comment.
This problem with lobbyists has been rampant for years. In 2010, the Nation published the results of an investigation called “The Media-Lobbying Complex.” It concluded that in less than three years, “at least seventy-five registered lobbyists, public relations representatives and corporate officials — people paid by companies and trade groups to manage their public image and promote their financial and political interests — have appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Network with no disclosure of the corporate interests that had paid them.”
The Nation investigation found such complicity occurring at virtually all of the cable networks, demonstrating that the revolving door is not merely between political hacks and the media, but between corporate hacks and the media as well.
Why the Revolving Door Keeps Spinning
The revolving door metaphor is typically used to describe how politicians so often go from public service to corporate lobbying. This has always been a problem. But for the media to become another stop in this revolving door complicates the picture even further. Americans are supposed to be able to depend on members of the media to vigorously investigate corporate lobbyists and politicians. But now all three of these sectors, like George Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm, have become, in some ways, indistinguishable from one another.
And so the revolving door continues to spin. As a result, broadcast media — from which most Americans still get their news — is a haven for privileged voices with personal, political and corporate agendas. This is a byproduct of most of the media being owned just a few multi-national conglomerates and shows why media reform should be a big priority for advocates of social justice and democracy.