Blurring the lines on TV news
Donna Brazile has been a powerful force in Democratic politics for years. She worked on the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, Walter Mondale and Richard Gephardt, and she ran Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. She’s a partisan, a strategist, an operative — a political hack to some, a party loyalist to others. What she’s not is an independent, dispassionate analyst of the news.
She’s been playing one on TV, however — as a talking head for CNN. She was omnipresent in the early campaign coverage (before taking a leave), where she was routinely identified merely as a “CNN commentator.” Then, this week, the network severed ties with her after learning from hacked emails posted on WikiLeaks that she had surreptitiously fed debate questions to the Clinton campaign during the Democratic primaries. On Tuesday, CNN chief Jeff Zucker called Brazile’s actions “unethical” and “disgusting.”
But really, what did he expect? Isn’t it obvious that if you employ “commentators” who are already committed partisans on one side or the other, they’re going to be hard-pressed to live up to the traditional ethical standards of even-handed journalism? Paying political operatives to act as journalists inevitably creates dual loyalties and encourages situations like this one.
Brazile unquestionably behaved in a duplicitous manner, and CNN was right to be upset. But the bigger problem, arguably, is that she and a raft of other political operatives from both major parties had contracts with CNN in the first place. These are examples of the cozy relationship between the network and the people it covers (the same can be said for Fox and its stable of political insiders doubling as pundits) that undercut journalistic credibility, and make it difficult for the public to find trustworthy analysis on the talking-head cable TV shows.
Instead of offering insight, they often engage in outrageously illogical contortions to buff up whichever candidate they support, or try to dent whomever they oppose.
And why wouldn’t they? Who would expect Mary Matalin, say, to acknowledge the flaws of a Republican candidate? Why would Paul Begala say anything to undermine his friends in the Democratic party?
A recent low point: Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord’s bizarre assertion on CNN during the primaries that the 19th century Ku Klux Klan was “a liberal leftist terrorist organization” and formed “the military arm, the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party,” which (and this part is true) supported slavery in the lead up to the Civil War. Other partisans similarly defy credulity, particularly former Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who collected severance checks and advised the Trump campaign, with whom he had signed nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements, while under contract with CNN.
The persistent presence of these spin doctors on news programs not only confuses voters, it can compromise journalistic efforts to bring clarity to what the candidates are saying and doing. Given Trump’s inability to tell the truth or stick to a lie, it doesn’t help when his surrogates, appearing as paid commentators, take to the air to persuade voters that their candidate didn’t just say what everyone clearly heard him say.
The cable news networks are entitled to hire whomever they want, of course. But they might want to do some soul-searching after election day about the nature of political analysis and the benefit of keeping some distance between the news and the political campaigns they are putatively covering.
This editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 2.