In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, news outlets poured resources into examining the role that platforms like Facebook and YouTube played in Trump’s win. That strategy produced a wealth of valuable reporting. But it also allowed those same outlets to avoid looking in the mirror and examining their own journalism — journalism that, as researchers from Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center put it, “failed the voters.”
Like major newspapers and broadcast news outlets, cable news networks received some scrutiny for their flawed, both-sides-are-equally-bad coverage of the 2016 election.
But it wasn’t enough to force a reckoning, and cable news leaders — whose decisions help shape the contours of election coverage — are making some of the same sorts of mistakes they made last time.
Last week, for example, we learned that Sarah Isgur Flores, a GOP operative who has never worked as a journalist, will be joining CNN as one of the network’s political editors. The exact contours of Isgur’s role remain unclear ― in part because of CNN’s lack of transparency in discussing her position ― but it appears she will be helping to shape the political coverage of an outlet whose agenda-setting power plays a part in determining which stories receive national attention and how they are covered.
The arguments against CNN’s bizarre move are legion: Isgur is a longtime Republican political operative who most recently served as a spokesperson for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a position she gained after personally pledging her loyalty to the president. She has no experience in journalism, yet her job will now be helping to guide its production, and she previously denounced the network as the “Clinton News Network.” In her role at the Justice Department, she defended the administration’s war on leakers — and now will be working with reporters who have confidential government sources; her variety of conflicts of interest have forced CNN to silo her off from vast swaths of political news.
For CNN, though, the appeal is simple: It “strongly suggests that the network’s big thinkers — including head honcho Jeff Zucker — are aiming for a kind of false fairness: a defensive, both-sides-are-equal kind of political coverage that inevitably fails to serve the voting public,” The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote last week.
“CNN has consistently failed to grapple with its unique vulnerability to this form of false balance. The coverage favors stories about optics, scandal and the political horse race over policy.”
CNN has consistently failed to grapple with its unique vulnerability to this form of false balance. Cable news networks traditionally hire a coterie of partisan contributors and turn them loose to discuss the issues of the day. This leaves viewers confused about where the truth may lie as a representative from one party denounces a person or policy while the other excuses it. The coverage favors stories about optics, scandal and the political horse race over policy. When someone like Trump enters the fray, bringing with him unrestrained mendacity and bigotry, the system breaks down as his adherents defend the indefensible and their segments devolve into shoutfests.
This has been a particular problem for CNN, whose executives have spent the last decade defining the network against its competitors as they try to find the space between Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left.
At its best, this mentality may inspire the network’s many capable journalists to be “pro-truth” even if “it comes off as anti-Trump,” as Zucker put it during an interview in December with Democratic strategist David Axelrod.
But far more frequently, the network’s coverage fails to match that vision, instead devolving into the ethos Zucker described in a separate interview as “home to both those points of view” on the right and the left, even if “some of these folks are not very good with the facts.” He added: “But that’s O.K. in the sense that it’s our job then to call them out.”
The results of this frame of mind have been grim. CNN has stocked its green rooms with Trump surrogates, paying a motley assortment of shills, grifters and extremists to lie to its audience under the guise of providing “balance.” Many of these hires are ethically dubious, handpicked by the president himself or subject to nondisparagement agreements contractually forbidding them from criticizing him on air. In perhaps the most embarrassing case, the network hired (and repeatedly defended the hiring of) former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to comment on the election even though he was bound by an NDA and was still on the Trump campaign payroll. The network wants to look like it is being “fair” to Trump, and so it continues to shove these people in front of its cameras.
At worst, the results are disastrous, with the network forced to fire the contributors when they expose their bigotry. Pro-Trump paid commentator Jeffrey Lord, for instance, was fired after directing a Nazi victory salute at my boss, Media Matters for America president Angelo Carusone. The network removed Ed Martin after he referred to fellow CNN panelists as “black racists.” CNN’s executives don’t seem to learn any lessons about the type of people they are hiring; the network simply brings in a new wave of Trump supporters to replace those lost along the way.
“At worst, the results are disastrous, with the network forced to fire the contributors when they expose their bigotry.”
Ideally — for CNN, not its viewers — the network is able to leverage extreme comments from employees like former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) into a day-long flurry of stories that it controls. But most of the time, the result is simply a nightmare, with hosts and other panelists struggling to try to force the paid Trump shills to accurately describe reality.
CNN doesn’t solely rely on its paid Trumpers to give his side of any story. Another common mode of CNN segment features a host going into battle against a White House staffer, trying in vain to get the administration official to admit that the president has flaws and that his past statements aren’t true. The network is well aware that efforts to get factual statements out of the likes of presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway are futile — as host Chris Cuomo put it, “I have to check her everywhere, because what she’ll do otherwise is flood the zone. She’ll say three things in a row that need a correction.” Viewers learn nothing from the fireworks. Cuomo’s takeaway is that Conway is “really, really good.”
CNN seems to agree. This style of coverage continues, there always seems to be a new Trump supporter joining the team, and the network is reportedly reaping record profits. And that’s the picture that Isgur’s hire solidifies: a network unwilling to stand up for the truth, choosing instead to bow to a contemptuous administration to maintain a reputation for being open to “both those points of view” and keep the money flowing.